Writing better content

Writing better content

Over the past few months a lot of free courses have been offered on the internet, so I’ve been madly signing up for things that interest me. These are mainly around writing and using social media, so I’ve got a thousand ideas about things I could do, but of course I’m still nervous about doing anything in case it fails and I look like an idiot.

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t really matter if things don’t work out, but if you’ve spent a whole lifetime trying to make things perfect (or at least pretty good), then it’s hard to really adopt the idea of sharing a minimum viable product. It doesn’t come easily to put something out there until you’ve double and tripled checked that it looks good and doesn’t have any errors.

But the reality is that even when you check everything carefully, you still make mistakes. It can be incredibly hard to see your own errors, even though it’s pretty easy to spot mistakes in other people’s work. Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed family who are quick to let me know if I’ve made any major blunders, or even just repeated words which I have a habit of doing.

A few weeks ago I watched an interesting webinar on content writing, so I thought I would share some of my key take-aways in case they are relevant to you and your writing,

  1. Manage your time. Try to draft your work quickly so that you can spend the bulk of your time on editing and polishing. You can’t edit your words until you’ve got something on the page to work with.
  2. Edit your work but don’t keep polishing it endlessly. Focus on getting it finished. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You can spend a lot of time and energy fiddling around with the wrong thing, for example drafting and re-drafting the first sentence, only to chop it off before you hit send.
  3. Don’t try to impress people with your writing. Instead focus on what your post/email/report is trying to say. You should have a clear message, so put your energy into working out what that message is.
  4. Write in your natural voice. I find it very odd when people write in a stuffy, overly wordy way, when this is not the way they usually talk. Write as simply as possible. I promise you that no-one will complain.
  5. Bounce back quickly from mistakes. Make a checklist of your frequent errors and check your work before you publish. Examples might be using one particular word too often. Keep a sticky note on your desk to remind you how to spell any words that you commonly misspell.
  6. Ask someone else to read your draft. As I mentioned earlier, it can be almost impossible to see your own errors. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to check your work.
  7. Try leaving your work to marinate overnight. Sometimes the right words just jump into your brain when you stop thinking so hard. If possible, leave your work as a draft and come back to it the next day. You will usually be able spot any errors or fluffy bits straight away.

Thank you for reading my blog. If you like it, please share this post with a friend or colleague.

And if you see any errors, please let me know.

It’s time to retire

It’s time to retire

I was supposed to go back to work in late September, but I’ve decided to retire while I still have the energy to do the things that I want to do. I told a few of my friends about my decision and most of them said, “I knew you wouldn’t go back”, which is odd because I didn’t really know myself until a few weeks ago.

Lots of people tell me that they would retire tomorrow if they had the money, but for me the decision about how and when to retire has resulted in many sleepless nights and long circular conversations with my friends and family. I’m grateful to have had those listening ears, and thought I’d share a few thoughts in case you are also contemplating retirement.

I have always liked working and wasn’t even thinking about retiring until last year when I was lucky enough to go to New York with my youngest daughter. When she announced that she was going to book some flights, I think I kind of invited myself along, or maybe she asked if I would go with her. Anyway, I jumped at the chance and we had the most fabulous holiday. I’m so glad I went as I doubt that I’ll ever get back there again.

Woman eating hot dog in New York

While I was in New York it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be around for ever and perhaps I should start making the most of my time. It would be awful to be given some kind of diagnosis that cut short your life and to have spent all your time at work when you could have been having fun. I’m not expecting anything awful to happen to me, but you just never know how long you’ve got on this earth.

Even so, I still struggled with the idea of being a retired person. My sense of identity has always been strongly connected to my working life and I was a bit worried that I’d feel a bit unmoored when I left work. I also worried that my natural inclination to futz about all day would lead to me being very unproductive or doing nothing at all. Fortunately, neither of these has eventuated during my long service leave. Whilst it’s true that I spend more time doing household tasks – it’s hard to ignore the washing up when you’re at home all day – there’s also more time for reading, writing, and learning new skills.

When I talk to people about retiring, the conversation usually revolves around the question of having enough money, so one of the things I’ve been doing over the last 12 months is tracking my spending. I know that the Covid 19 has reduced most people’s outgoings, but I honestly don’t think I need a huge salary. I have pretty simple tastes and apart from the household spending, it’s seems like the most common things I buy are wine and coffee. Even though I’m an avid reader, most of my books come from the local library or from friends, and I’ve only filled up my car with petrol once in the last three months.

We aren’t planning any renovations and we aren’t allowed to travel, so the main thing to spend money on is the garden and that doesn’t cost much, especially if you grow things from seed.

It’s true that I will miss my friends at work, but they aren’t physically at work, so the social aspects of being in an office no longer exist. I’ll miss chatting in the kitchen and people randomly asking me how to spell things. I’ll miss contributing ideas and working in a team. I won’t miss the endless re-writing of reports that no-one reads, the long interminable meetings where no decisions are made. Work is not always productive or meaningful, sometimes it’s a sheer waste of time that would be better spent weeding the garden, writing or reading a book. These are by far my favourite activities and I’m looking forward to exploring new horizons. So whilst I’m sad to be leaving my job, I’m pretty excited about the future.

If you read this blog and you’ve been part of my working life, thank you for your companionship and your enthusiasm and do keep in touch. I’m planning to write here more regularly so please keep reading and chime in with your thoughts if you’d like to.

Cheerio for now

Marg

August update

August update

I’ve been on leave for five months so I thought I’d provide a bit of an update on my progress. I always have big plans but I’m not always good at executing them, so this is really an accountability exercise as much as anything. Also, people keep asking me what I’ve been doing, so here’s a potted summary.

I’ve made a bit of progress with my “to do” list. Several cupboards have been cleaned out and quite a few books and clothes have found their way to the charity shop which have now re-opened. I’m sure they are drowning in a sea of things that people have decided they don’t want any more. I gave away all my old linen and then realised that I could have used them as drop-sheets when I was painting.

I haven’t tackled the photos. I was going to sort through the ones I have in hard copy from the olden days and digitise them, but I haven’t even opened the boxes. There are literally hundreds of them, if not thousands. It’s my least favourite task (too emotional) so I’ll probably put that off until I’m well and truly retired.

I’ve painted the spare-room and just need to buy a new blind for it to be completely finished. I was going to buy some new carpet but decided to save some money and have the existing carpet cleaned. It looks better than it did before. Some of the painting is a bit dodgy, especially around the skirting boards. I threw out the old mattress and then spent hours reading mattress reviews so that I could purchase the perfect replacement. The last two mattresses I bought have been too hard, so I was determined to choose well this time around. I’m not sure I have as it’s a little bit high. Just as well no tiny people are likely to be sleeping in that bed or they will need a ladder to get in and out.

The garden hasn’t had much attention because I hurt my back moving some furniture. It also meant that the painting was undertaken at the speed of a snail, if not slower. I’ve had a few trips to the physiotherapist so I just need to be patient and do my exercises so that I can attack the weeds which are growing profusely after some decent rain.

I’ve been writing a fair bit. I’ve done two short courses in non-fiction writing which have both been interesting. I wrote a few intros to a book about retiring and then my enthusiasm just petered out. It’s not that I don’t think I can write a book, but perhaps that’s too much to tackle as a writing project. An article I read recently suggested that it was foolish for people to plan to write a book when they haven’t even written any short stories. I think that there’s some truth in that. I probably should try writing some essays or articles first.

I’ve been looking at the structure of non-fiction books with a much more critical eye. I’m interested in seeing how the contents are organised and I’ve learnt quite a lot by just observing the conventions of the form.

I’ve had a lot more time for reading but my TBR (to be read) list is growing by the day. The more time you spend reading about books, the more books you find that you absolutely MUST read. I’m not bothered by this; I would probably choose to read a book before doing anything else.

I’ve been doing lots of cooking and eating and made some particularly nice marmalade this week. Hubby has continued with his bread-making so we’ve always got some nice bread at hand.

Most of all, I’ve been having fun and trying not to watch the news. I hope you are all doing well and making some progress towards your goals, big or small.

Things I miss about being at work

Things I miss about being at work

I’m on a six-month sabbatical from work. This seems like a strange thing to say as we rarely use the term ‘sabbatical’ in Australia unless you are an academic or other high-flying type.

Most people in Australia would say they are taking long service leave, or they are having a long break (known here as leave without pay). There are very generous leave provisions for public servants in Australia and I’m grateful for that and the many other benefits of living in this sunny and clean environment, but I don’t want to sound too smug.

I thought I’d better check whether sabbatical was the right word to use and found that Dr Google describes it as…

“A break from work” during which employees can pursue their interests, like traveling, writing, research, volunteering or other activities (or even rest). During that time, the employee is still employed at their organisation, but they don’t need to perform their normal job duties or report to work.*

So yes, I’m taking the opportunity to pursue my interests (writing and research) and getting plenty of rest, but I’m not currently doing any travelling unless you count going to Kmart to buy some new slippers.

Many people have asked me if I wanted to cancel my leave given the Covid situation, but to be honest, I was grateful not to have to think about work when the whole pandemic thing started. I was too busy panicking and trying to figure out if we would survive (so far so good) and I was finding it extremely difficult to concentrate, so I was glad when my holidays started.

But now that things have settled down a bit and restrictions are easing; I’m starting to feel guilty about my lack of writing progress and general inability to start working on any of my lofty goals (making a podcast, writing a book, starting a newsletter).

I’m struggling with not being at work.

As well as missing my co-workers (who are very nice), I miss the tasks coming into my inbox – please read this report, please write a briefing note, please review these survey questions. At work you don’t have decide how to spend your day, the work comes thick and fast. Sometimes it’s something you enjoy doing and sometimes it’s tedious, but there’s always lots of it. My favourite tasks are the ones which involve editing other people’s words to make sure they make sense. I think I would have loved to have been a book editor. Maybe in my next life…

Being at home with lots of time on your hands means that you have to be very deliberate about your choices. I think this is what is trendily known as being intentional. It strikes me that living an intentional life requires a lot of effort and is intellectually demanding. You have to choose between activities that help you make progress and those that are just using up the hours until you’re allowed to have a glass of wine or watch that new show on Netflix.

You have to avoid going down rabbit holes like reading reviews of every mattress-in-a-box that’s currently on the market and downloading sample chapters of every new bestseller that’s being released in May, many of which you have no desire to read.

It means actually reading the books you were planning to read when you had the time. Yes, that time is now folks, so get reading, but it also means taking the time to rest and reflect on what to do for the rest of your life which is very tiring, I can tell you.

If you are working from home or retired, on leave, or between jobs, I hope you are doing well. Maybe you are trying some new things or just trying to survive as best you can. Whatever your situation, stay safe.

*The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita, which is related to agriculture. According to Leviticus 25, Jews in the Land of Israel must take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years. A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatical

How do you spell that again?

The ability to spot spelling and grammatical errors is both a blessing and a curse. It’s helpful at work when you are asked to proof someone’s report but it can drive your partner crazy. My husband is still annoyed at me for correcting his spelling in a poem that he wrote for me forty years ago and I’m still sorry that I didn’t restrain myself. It was a stupid and unnecessary thing to do and I still regret it.

I have managed to stop myself from correcting the shopping list as there’s really no point and it doesn’t really matter.

IMG_0554
Shopping list

I share this skill/curse with other members of my family, all of whom find it difficult not to comment on errors on signs in public places, for example on menus and the like.

Sign with spelling error

But no-one really appreciates being corrected, and who want to be a grammar nazi? Not me.

On the other hand, spelling can matter a lot in a professional environment. This week I signed up to become an member of an organisation for evaluation professionals and I was surprised to see quite an obvious error in their sign-up form.

It made me pause and think about whether I wanted to join an organisation that could let such an obvious mistake slip through until I realised that the people running the organisation probably never see their sign-up form because they are already members.

If you’re thinking that I should just discreetly get in touch with them so that they can fix it, you are right and I probably will, but it did make me think about how much we judge people by their writing skills.

I’m currently working with a very nice person who has English as his second language. He often asks me to double check that his syntax is correct and that any colloquialisms have been used correctly. I commented the other day that his writing sometimes contains some linguistic oddities which I find charming, but he said that some people don’t find it charming, they just see it as wrong. I guess he’s right, but in reality his writing is almost perfect. Better than most of the things that come across my desk.

Another thing I try to keep in mind is that everyone makes mistakes and that includes me. I was reading a note I wrote for my mother’s funeral the other day and I realised that I had misspelt my sister’s name. Sorry about that Beverley.

It’s never a good idea to be too high and mighty about these things, lest you be hoist on your own petard (thank you Mr Shakespeare for that lovely saying). And God bless whoever (or should that be whomever?) invented spell check.

 

Instructions for life

 

Like many people, I am a bit of a sucker for reading ‘Instructions for life’. You know the kind of thing I am talking about. They usually include things like being kind to yourself, trying new things and being kind to others. The other day I read a list which included having some lemony water every morning before breakfast. I’m not sure exactly what that does to your body, but I’m guessing it wakes up your mouth.

 

Instructions are very appealing. Just being called ‘instructions’ gives them a level of importance and authority. They are much more impressive than mere suggestions . The underlying message is that you just need to do exactly as you are told and all will be well.

 

So I was quite puzzled by the instructions printed on a new garment I purchased today, which read “Think climate cold wash and line dry”.  I misinterpreted this to mean that in a cold climate, one should wash and line dry the item, when of course it was actually an instruction to use cold water and a washing line instead of using hot water and a dryer.

 

I know that not many people would have misread this instruction, but it did make me laugh when I realised my mistake. I also know that a simple hyphen would probably have helped.

 

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Using plain English

I have lots of conversations with people at work about using plain English. It seems as though everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but people are less sure how to go about it, and even more importantly, how to get other people to use plain English instead of ‘government speak’. I work in a government organisation, so we see plenty of examples of long wordy documents filled with jargon and buzzwords.

It’s worthwhile thinking about why people don’t use plain English. Apart from people wanting to hide their true purpose, many people think that they need to write in a stuffy convoluted way in order to sound ‘professional’. This is far from true. Being professional is about being clear and writing clearly can be hard work.

As Woody Guthrie said… “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make something simple.”

So next time you start writing something, think about how you make yourself as clear as possible. If you’re writing an important document or email, get someone else to read it before you send it. Be open to feedback about how you can improve your writing and practice as much as you can.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Writing at work

Have you ever been in the situation where you just suddenly forgot whether you should use affect or effect or how to spell accommodation? This happens to me quite a lot, especially at work, and I find it really helpful to have a few good writing books and blogs to refer to when the need arises.

As I may have mentioned before, one of my favourites is Writing at Work  by Neil James from the Plain English Foundation. It’s an excellent reference book and sits on my desk within easy reach, next to the dictionary.

My favourite blog is Grammar Girl (Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing) which can answer just about any grammar question you may have, and also has a list of the top mistakes that people make. It’s really useful, easy to understand and often funny.

Future Perfect is the website of a company which offers writing services but also has a heap of free resources including grammar quizzes (don’t we just love quizzes) and good advice about writing, punctuation and proofreading.

These are three of my favourites. Check them out and start improving your writing today. Let me know what you think and if you have any personal favourites.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Finding focus

I’m guessing that most of us have spent at least a little bit of time recently deciding what we will focus on, and what skills or interests we want to develop in 2013.

I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest problems is that I am interested in way too many things, to the point where I flit from topic to topic always hungry for new and interesting ideas but not really digesting or absorbing very much. And while this is very entertaining, it results in knowing a little bit about a lot of subjects, but not being an expert on anything in particular. This is not a good thing in the world of business (so they say), which favours those with marketable expertise.

So this year I am going to focus on being more focussed.

This means finishing one book before starting another. (Well maybe I can have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go, but not five at once).

Attention
Attention (Photo credit: aforgrave)

It also means spending more time writing about practical ways that you can craft your material so that your messages are clear.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll only talk about one thing. As far as I am concerned, there are many elements to clarity. Regardless of whether you are writing a report, creating a presentation or designing a website the principles and elements are the same.

You need:

  • Clear concise writing that makes sense to the reader
  • Consistent and logical ordering of your content
  • Plenty of white space so that your text is legible and doesn’t overwhelm people
  • Graphs, charts and illustrations that help people to understand your message
  • An understanding of how people learn and how they make sense of information

But above all, you need to KNOW what it is you are trying to say. Working this out is by far the most important thing you need to do and is the place where you should start.

So my plan for the coming year is to focus on writing helpful, inspiring and practical blog posts. What are you going to focus on? Are there skills that you want to develop and can I help you?

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Are you a lazy writer?

Thermometer-lazy-1
Thermometer-lazy-1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I see a lot of poorly written and badly designed information in the course of my travels. I suppose that sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not so much that they are badly written, they are just sloppily put together.
For example, the other day someone gave me a big long memo about a meeting they had been to. It was kind of them to take the trouble to make some notes, but they had really just poured out their thoughts onto a page without any consideration of which order the content should be presented in so that it made logical sense to the reader. This resulted in some of the key points about why we should go down a particular path being in mixed in with very detailed points about how this should happen (process notes). They had gone to the trouble of typing up their notes but they hadn’t taken that one extra step of organising them so that they made sense. Just a few extra minutes would have made the whole thing make more sense and have been more persuasive as well.
This is often the case with emails as well. People just write down whatever pops into their minds without thinking about what the reader needs to know first. I don’t think this is intentional but it would certainly help if writers did a little editing. By all means write down whatever comes to mind, but feel free to move it around so that it makes sense. Put it in a logical order. Your readers will thank you.