To think or not to think?

Silly question, I know. But one that people have been debating in response to a post about whether writers should start with a detailed outline or just let the words flow. The author, Larry Brooks, opted for a compromise he called story architecture. One commenter called it Outline Light.

Although I don’t write fiction, I do tell true stories in much of my corporate writing. Unlike mystery novelists, I don’t need to chart the plot twists. But I do not need to decide how to build the narrative and which details to select from the wealth reality presents.

With fact-based writing, I outline too, figuring out how I’m going to present the argument or information, then summarizing it in the first paragraph.

I understand why people enjoy what Larry calls “organic” writing. Nothing beats the charge that zaps the right words from brain to keyboard or the focus that forces out time, space and other distractions.

Some corporate writers get by with little feel for organic writing. But I don’t know any organic writers of merit who do not complement the rush of spontaneity with the discipline of at least partly thinking things through before writing begins and later fixing the inevitable mistakes and misconceptions that inevitably slip into the spontaneous flow.

Of course, writers should avoid the analysis paralysis that comes from outlines that are too controlling and inflexible. But they cannot sacrifice thinking. Whether you place your ideas in a detailed outline or let them swirl around your head, it’s still thinking.

As I pointed out in my post on planning, you need to think before you start to write.

The longer and more complex the subject, the greater the need to think and outline. The less thought at the front end, as in outlining, the more thought you’ll likely have to put into the back end, revising.

So, while I would choose a simpler word than architecture, I agree with Larry’s insistence of some outlining. And I would remind those who prefer the thrill of organic writing that their creativity will improve if they think, as long as they don’t over-think.

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Great writing comes from rewriting: 10 tips

How often have you hit Send or Publish, only to realize you’ve missed an embarrassing typo, left yourself open to misunderstanding or gone on for way too long?

The masters understand the importance of reviewing and revising. In fact, Ernest Hemingway is said to have rewritten A Farewell to Arms 39 times.

Although rewriting may seem to add time spent writing a blog, email or other communication, it actually saves time by eliminating the hours you may to have to spend clarifying, apologizing or regretting lost opportunities.

What’s more, rewriting makes the difference between good and great, snooze and use or delete and click.

To make revising easier, here are the 10 questions you need to answer.

1. Will your readers, and the search bots, understand the most important point you are trying to make, even those who will read only the first couple of lines?

2. Will someone be insulted? What sounds good in your head can often be received badly, so review your content from a hypothetical sensitive reader’s point of view.

3. Will your writing makes sense to people not as close to the issue as you? Again, try to respond to your writing from a reader’s point of view.

4. Does your writing use bolding, subheads, charts or other devices that help readers understand and remember?

5. Have you made grammatical errors? Don’t worry about irrelevant rules, such as dangling prepositions, if they sound right. Do avoid the errors that make you look stupid or more difficult to understand. If you’re not sure, ask someone knowledgeable or check with grammar sites such as http://www.askoxford.com or http://www.grammar.quickanddirtytips.com.

6. Have you chosen words that your readers will understand or have you clouded your meaning with professional or corporate terms? Translating your specialized words into plain language requires thinking. The well-worn acronym KISS should mean Keep it Simple, Smarty, not Stupid.

7. Do you have typos? Remember spell check can’t tell the difference between from and form. Read your content out loud or in print. Better still, ask a literate friend to proof it.

8. Have you mixed up sound-alike words? This is a big risk if you proof only by reading out loud. Check the dictionary if you are not absolutely certain. Be especially wary of confusing possessives and contractions, e.g. its (possessive) and it’s (contract of it is), the number one mistake people make.

9. Did you check all your facts, name spellings and other information? Often people don’t check as they write because it disrupts their flow. That’s fine, as long as you fill in the blanks or verify when you rewrite.

10. Can you cut the length? You can probably shorten your writing by at least a third, resulting in a focused message that is actually read right through. Start by eliminating redundant thoughts and words, then take aim at adjectives, adverbs and other frills that don’t have to be there.

Although you may not reach the literary heights of Hemingway, I guarantee that rewriting will improve your writing and results.

Unplugged and inspired

Before I left for vacation, I was grappling with the question: what’s the difference between writing to persuade and writing to inspire?

Maybe it was the mountain air, the time away from the computer and telephone or the decline in data for my little brain to process, but the answer suddenly seemed so clear.

Writing to persuade is based on pointing out specific benefits. Very self-centered, usually focusing on immediate, concrete rewards. It’s all about me.

Writing to inspire transcends the individual, appealing to a greater cause or higher values. It’s all about us.

This distinction explains why Barack Obama can be so successful at inspiring, but have difficulty persuading many American to support health care reform.

Trust me, not Kathy

When I was in journalism school, I was shocked to learn that the advice columnist at the local newspaper was actually a chain-smoking, rumpled man, not the well-groomed woman in the photo.

Sure, I knew the people in the television commercials were actors, but somehow I thought that sort of thing wouldn’t sully a trusted newspaper, unless it was preceded by the word Advertising.

Today I suspect many rumpled people are writing blogs. Especially Kathy from Toronto, who is selling a teeth whitener that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. She’s a mom who just happened to come up with a magical combination that will make me like younger. As if.

Sounds like the same home-spun wisdom of Sarah Palin’s Joe the plumber, though the rumpled chain smokers behind Kathy should have realized that in Toronto we’re wise to unlicensed, tax-evading plumbers like Joe, unless our toilet is overflowing and he will fix it right away, cheap, for cash. Even so, we would never look to Joe for advice on anything beyond basic plumbing.

Neither would we buy Kathy’s secrets for looking young. Okay, maybe a few people would. But on the whole we’re pretty media savvy. Our kids even take media literacy in school. They would have not been shocked by the rumpled chain smoker in the newsroom.

In addition to being annoyed with how Kathy keeps showing up with those ugly teeth photos on Facebook, Bloglines and other sites, I am upset with how Kathy, if that’s really her name, is posing as a blogger.

Aren’t blogs supposed to be built on authenticity and trust?

In my last two posts, I discussed how writers have to appeal to hearts and brains if they want to persuade readers. But these tips will work only if people trust them.

At least I knew from all the TV coverage that Joe the plumber is real. Kathy, I suspect, is not. And I’m betting that her ads are appearing in other places too. But of course in Pittsburgh, she’s a mom from Pittsburgh. I wonder if they change her name for Shanghai.

Trust is not built by rumpled chain smokers masquerading as mommy bloggers. In fact, it’s an insult to us mothers to think we can be fooled so easily. We have years of experience in determining when our children are lying. It comes in handy.

Let me disclose that I am sometimes a ghost writer. But it’s not a fraud. I talk to people, usually on the telephone, and key what they say, shortening and tidying so it’s easier to understand or more compelling. But the writing is their thoughts and mostly their words. I don’t make them up. Which is why I can’t understand why so many people are against ghost-written blogs. Affiliate marketers, on the other hand, are walking a fine line between the authentic and the commercial…

But back to Kathy and the point I’m trying to make.

Unlike Kathy from Toronto, Ann Landers and Dear Abby were popular newspaper advice columnists for so many years because they not only offered honest, sensible advice, but also from the fact they were real. Twin sisters, actually. They weren’t persuading us to buy beauty secrets, but they were persuading us to read and trust their advice.

So, in addition to following the advice in my last two posts on touching hearts and brains, people writing to persuade need to understand the importance of building trust. That requires being a real person. And telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time, as I tell my kids.

How to explain almost anything to almost anyone

Practical writing is often intended to provide information, instructions or advice. Whether you’re writing a report on your department’s sales, an instruction manual or a post on search engine optimization, you need to decide on the best framework before you begin.

This framework, which you’ll probably outline in the first paragraph, will kick start your writing. It will also make it easier for your readers or audience to understand and remember.

Although there is an infinite number of possible structures, here are some of the main ones to consider. The point is to have a framework.

Provide information
*by region
*by product or service
*from top to bottom or bottom to top
*under a memorable acronym, e.g. a CRAP month for sales (Cautious and Reactionary, Abysmal but Promising)

You can help your readers scan through your document, with subheads, bullet points and numbered points that reflect your framework.

You can reinforce these points visually through charts, graphics or photos.

You can provide context by
*comparing the new to the known
*explaining how the pieces fit into the puzzle
*emphasizing what the information means to or how it benefits your readers or audience

Instruct
If your objective is to explain how to do something, as in manuals, recipes or processes
*Start with anything the reader needs to do in advance. For example, recipes list the ingredients and the oven preheat temperature first.
*Use numbered steps dished out in chronological order.
*Explain each step separately, clearly explaining and deleting any unnecessary or unhelpful wording, but repeating any vital points as needed.
*Add simple illustrations to help readers identify parts or check that they are correctly following your instructions.
*Remember that your readers will likely refer back to the instructions. So make them easy to review, with subheads, diagrams, indexes or helpful reminders.

Advise
For tips on how to succeed at almost anything, where priorities are more important than steps in a process
*Use numbered points, but limits them to no more than five points; three are even easier to understand and remember.
*Lead with your most important point and conclude with the second most important point.

Although a popular blogging technique, this approach has been around for a long time. Who hasn’t been intrigued by those covers of Cosmopolitan magazine promising 5 Ways to Tell if Your Man is Cheating?

Long numbered lists work for instructions because readers continue to refer back to them as they assemble their furniture or set up their computer. With advice, they think about what they remember, not the whole list, so keep your advice short and focused. If you have lots of points to cover, consider breaking them into separate posts.

People reading yet another post called 10 Tips for Blogging Success will likely recall only the one or two tips most relevant to them. The same goes for the people who read your emails, reports and proposals. So make it easy for them to understand and remember.

Five tips for coming up with ideas

I’m one of those lucky bloggers who always has more ideas than time. But from what I read, it’s obvious some people aren’t so fortunate.

Let me share my five top tips:
1. Express your opinions about what you read, hear and observe
2. Recycle current content
3. Update older content
4. Respond to observations and questions you receive in your comments and other forums
5. Draw inspiration from your work and personal life.

Express your opinion about what you read, hear and observe
I’m assuming you try to stay up to date on your area of expertise. I’m also assuming you have opinions. Of course, you’re not always at the computer when they strike, so carry around a notebook or someplace else to jot them down.

If you’re one of those people who does not have strong opinions or the confidence to share them, maybe blogging isn’t for you. You can’t be shy.

Recycle your current content
I also write a regular email newsletter, so I go back and forth, revising the content to better reflect what works best in each medium and the different target readers.

If you’re producing content in another format, whether it’s updates to your website or tweets, consider how you can recycle it.

Update older content
I’ve written on related topics for a number of publications and clients. If I need to do a quick post and I’m stuck, I review past material and update it, to reflect developments, as well as the needs of this medium and its audiences. I also find that after I’ve had some distance from some content, I can always think of ways to improve it.

So dust off that old filing cabinet or external drive and see what’s in there. You may rediscover all sorts of magic content in your vault.

Respond to others
This post was inspired by a blogger who quoted me on the importance of quality over quantity. The writer also expressed frustration with the need to keep coming up with ideas, a concern I have heard again and again.

Many of my recent and upcoming posts respond to feedback I received on What’s your biggest writing challenge?, in the comments as well as LinkedIn discussions, email and personal conversations.

What better way to start a conversation than to ask and answer questions.

Draw inspiration from your work and personal life
I often share what I have learned from working on a project. It’s very satisfying.

I also post about words that annoy me, making a mental or written note when I come across them, then drafting the post when I’m in one of those moods when venting is fun.

I will reference my personal life when it backs up the point I’m trying to make. But seeing as this isn’t a personal confessional blog, I spare you from reading about my future singing star daughter, what my son found on Youtube today, why my almost-blind father feels he’s safe to cycle, the cute way my dog is looking at me, which friend is going gray fastest, today’s garden delight, the mysterious squeak in my car… Enough? I thought so.

My point? If it’s something people who read my blog are interested in, then it’s an idea I can use.

I realize I’m not the only idea machine. So please share what works for you.

More about minimalist punctuation

This post has been updated and moved to http://www.stickycommunication.ca/2010/10/minimalist-punctuation-direction-without-clutter/.