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.

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.

What’s your top writing challenge?

When we started using computers, we became writers. Like it or not.

The trouble is many people had never learned how to write with the skill, speed and grace required for the staggering amount of writing we are expected to do.

As a result, people get frustrated when their co-workers misunderstand their emails, make embarrassing mistakes or have trouble distilling their great ideas into 140-character tweets.

If you sometimes struggle, I’d like you to share your experiences here. From your input, and my 30-year writing and editing experience, I will be writing an e-book, called The First 30 Words or maybe Write Like You Talk–Only Better.

Because many people make the same mistakes, it shouldn’t be difficult to point out the most common minefields to avoid, such as long-winded introductions, confused sound-alike words and punctuation that serves no purpose.

Common sense advice
Over the years, I have also learned a lot of simple techniques for encouraging readers to pay attention, remember, relate to and maybe even act on what I’ve written. To add to my stash of writing tips, I encourage you to share what works for you. I’ll bring them together in the book.

Don’t worry about boring grammar rules. I’ll avoid terms like compound adjectives and subordinate conjunctions. Promise.

Few rigid rules
In fact, I’ll advise you to flout certain rules if it makes your writing easier to understand or more engaging.

If you want to know the rules, there are many great books and blogs on the fine points of grammar. We don’t need another.

But we do need a guide for people who sometimes struggle with all the writing they’re expected to do.

Share your experience
To write a book that reflects the issues so many people face, I’d like your help in preparing this book. I know I’ll learn from you too.

I’ll preview chapters in this blog, so subscribe, comment and join the conversation.

Tell me what’s difficult or what bugs you. Share your frustrations over writer’s block or clients not reading your white papers.

Let’s get the ball rolling by commenting on these basic questions:
What are your biggest writing nightmares?
What are your top tips?

Writers, if you provide a tip that’s shared in the book, I’ll make sure you receive credit.

Blogs, emails etc: write for readers’ eyes

If you write emails, web content or anything else read on a computer screen, you need to make it look like fits into a big F .

Eye-tracking studies confirm that online readers follow an F pattern. They focus the most attention on the top horizontal line of the F, then scan down, eyes left.

The first 25 words
That means you need to summarize your main message and give your readers an important reason to continue reading — all in the first 25 words, across the top of the F.

Then you need to give them flush-left bullets, numbers, subheads, bolded words or other signposts that help them refocus.

At journalism school, they drilled into us the importance of packing who, what, when, where and why into the lead paragraph.

The hook
While the main purpose of the newspaper is to provide news, online writing often has a long or short-term marketing objective. What’s more, if it’s a blog of other social media, you want to invite conversation. So in addition to the who, what, when, where and why of journalism, those critical 25 words need to answer the question: What’s in it for me?

Because readers tear through online content much faster than newspapers, this 25-word hook has to be strong enough to encourage readers to continue and pay attention.

Email
If you’d like to learn more about how to work with online reading patterns in html email newsletters, check out my newsletter, Focus left for online readers.

Recently I’ve been receiving more marketing emails from people who cram long lengths of text into a narrow, flush-left column. Points for sticking to the left. But the trouble is they seem to forget that people just won’t keep scrolling down a long screen.

Again, newspaper publishers had it figured out, with the most important features placed on the top half of the page, above the crease, as they say.

To sum up, here are my three pieces of advice:
1. Pack your main message and benefit into the first 25 words
2. Guide scanners with numbers, subheads and other signposts.
3. Spare me the long text.

Any advice to add?

Online reading is rewiring our brains

It’s no secret that the web has changed the way we read.  Whether it’s a blog, email newsletter, web page or other type of online content, we quickly scan, then link to something else, consuming information at break-neck speed.

This has some people worried. According to an intriguing article I recently read Is Google making us stupid? our new reading behaviour is rewiring our brains, just as hand writing, clocks, assembly lines and other innovations have through history.

The author, Nicholas Carr, laments our declining ability to read long   tracts, grasp ambiguity and think deeply. Lighten up, Nicholas. Before  you rush to judgment, let’s wait for the scientific evidence. In the meantime, let’s consider how this growing reading behaviour may be enriching our minds.

Snack vs feast

Nicholas cites a study of the online reading habits of researchers who snacked on many tidbits of internet information rather than finishing the long feast of research papers. Yes, they were not plumbing the depths of the articles. But, assuming they expended an equivalent amount of energy online snacking and thinking, most were still nourishing their minds, just in a different way.

Of course, it’s up to the individual, perhaps with a prod from a teacher, boss or coach, to decide whether to connect those snacks through critical thinking. It’s also up to us to decide how we slice, splice and spice the snacks with knowledge we consume from books, television, personal conversations and other sources.

Exercise the brain

Like muscles, brains strengthen through exercise. The more the reader thinks about what she is reading, the more her brain will develop. Like exercise, more difficult or faster thinking should produce more growth.  What’s more, cross-training with different kinds of mental activities, from solving Sudoku puzzles to playing the violin, should build a better brain.

So let’s not be too quick to dismiss scanning and linking as part of a healthy brain workout.

Nicholas implies that the quick summaries we find on the Internet lack the depth of longer texts. But good online content succinctly captures the important points and perspectives. That makes it easier to link these golden nuggets to each other, to make sense or even gain insight from the rich range of sources the internet offers.

Well-written content summarized for online reading is not superficial. It spares readers from having to wade through unnecessarily long writing. It’s quite similar to the skill of newspaper writers and editors in summarizing the most important information in the first paragraph. Of the abstracts for academic papers. It’s not new.

Get to the point

The leap to scanning and linking has simply made clear, concise summaries more important than ever. People writing email newsletters, blogs, web sites or anything else that’s read on the screen need to make it easy to grasp the basic essence of their message. In this way, they also make it easier for  readers to mentally link their messages to the main ideas from other sources.

So yes, Nicholas, how we read is changing. But there’s no need to rush to judgment. The couch potatoes passively absorbing laugh-tracked sitcoms or cat photo web sites probably aren’t growing as many brain cells and synapses as the people who are learning Mandarin or analysing DNA sequences.

Get smarter

My answer to the question: Is Google making us stupid? is No.

Maybe Google may help us evolve into smarter beings, providing we don’t abandon other brain-stimulating activities.

In fact, I’ll bet neuroscientists will confirm that people who combine energetic snacking on internet tidbits and focused feasting on long, complex texts will develop bigger, better brains.

What do you think?

Feed blogs, newsletters fresh content

To keep up with the need to regular update their blogs and newsletters, many writers opt for canned content. But this make your content look like a can of generic vegetable soup instead of a melange of garden-fresh ingredients.

Most businesses insist their brand is unique. Yet, they go with generic content.  Worse still, some want to can a year’s supply.

But if you’re telling the world what’s special about you, generic content makes no sense. Neither does too much canning.

Your brand is all about you and the people who are important to you. It talks about your area of expertise and your perspective.

Your brand breathes. It responds to external issues as they arise and converses about bright ideas that have popped into your mind.

Can you imagine if you’d automatically sent out material you’d written before the economy tanked?

Can you imagine missing that opportunity to share your latest epiphany? Or failing to answer the same questions that have recently kept you tied to the phone and email?

Sure, I understand why people want to prepare in advance. I even advise people to can a few newsletters, blogs or other articles for when they are too busy.

But lose the spontaneity that enables you to reflect your world and respond to your people? No way.

Besides, there’s little point in generic content when almost anyone can google on any topic. People will read your content for your individual expertise and opinion.

Although many experts understand the importance of staying in touch, some simply don’t have the time or comfort level to write. But canned content isn’t the solution to their dilemma. Professional support  is.

Few of the people I’ve talked to who want to use canned content are lacking in expertise and opinion. They just need someone to pull it out of their brain and package it. That starts with a telephone conversation with a writer.

What could be simpler — and more delicious?