What Letterman left out

On the mom scale, I give David Letterman’s apology a three out of four. He gets one point for fessing up and another for resisting the temptation to justify his actions, which you know your kids are doing as soon as they say “but.”

I give him a third point for persuading me that he is not going to screw around again. A kid may apologize for hitting his sister, then do it again as soon as he thinks you’re not looking.

But David loses a critical point for not telling us everything. He implies that the shenanigans took place while he was married. But he has not been specific. And what about all the extracurricular sex during the many years he and wife Regina were in the relationship that preceded the marriage? I think he’s hiding a lot of naked skeletons in his closet.

When my kids were little, it was always important to know just what they were apologizing for. There was no point in forgiving someone for making a mess in the living room if they had actually smashed the television screen.

I know you would like to move on, David. But you’re not off the hook, at least with us moms.

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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.

Too many grammar rules dam the writing flow

Pretty much every week I am riveted by a great blog debate about the fine points of grammar. Last week, it was Don Ranly on Ragan Daily Headlines going on about pronouns.

Good points, Don and the many people who commented. You’re right: Observance of grammar rules has plummeted, especially since teachers began ignoring them in favor of creative flow.

Unfortunately, there’s a generation of people who missed out on the protocols that help us understand each other. On top of that, many people seemed to have forgotten what they were taught, just like I no have clue about basic calculus or the periodic table of elements.

We tend to remember what’s easy for us and relevant to our lives. If I tried to remember everything I’d been taught, my brain would explode.

But when the pendulum swings back to grammatical purity and people insist on a return to the rules-for-the-sake-of-rules school of grammar, I am left shaking my head.

Having edited business people for many years, let me tell you that misused pronouns are the least of our worries. In most cases, the misuse is so commonly accepted that it does not interfere with understanding. Whether you read “it’s him” or “it’s he” makes little difference, though the “he” example may sound a little pretentious.

I would prefer to focus on the rules, such as the difference between “it’s” and “its”, that make a difference to our understanding and let go of the ones that just aren’t worth debating.

Another example of rules that I often ignore is subject-predicate agreement when the subject is singular but people think of it as plural. Take the example of “The team celebrated its project completion” versus “The team celebrated their project completion.”

Most people would say the second example sounds right. Plus “its” turns people into objects, making the writing less human. Taking liberties with subject-predicate agreement also lets writers and editors side step awkward “he or she” constructions.

When most people are uncertain about how to write something, they go back to what sounds right in speech, not what their teacher said. We learn our first language orally, long before we can print, let alone understand the rules. If our parents speak well, we do too.

When I first learned French in school, it was all about memorization and learning the rules and the long lists of exceptions. But my French became so much better once I was able to converse, even badly, watch television or listen to client conversations, which many of us have opportunity to do in officially bilingual Canada.

With German, which I studied for five years, there was little opportunity for this kind of immersion. I am in awe when I hear German people speak, because I don’t know how they can so quickly process all the language’s complicated rules. But of course they don’t think of the rules. They just talk, as they have since they learned how to speak.

People do need to follow many of the grammar rules so they won’t look stupid, as Seth Godin reminded us in a recent post. But there’s a a more vital imperative for the rules that help us understand each other.

So let’s not get rid of all the rules. But let’s focus on the ones that help us communicate. And let’s remember that most people consider what sounds right, not the rules, when they are making writing decisions.

Besides, as bloggers and other social media people know, writing that is conversational is far friendlier than stilted, grammatically correct sentences.

Language evolves. As a community, we need to provide direction on which rules to strengthen and which ones to allow to die quietly. What do you think?

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.

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?

The Dalai Lama would appreciate content marketing

I’ve been reading about content marketing at the same time as Becoming Enlightened by the Dalai Lama. This synchronized learning has me thinking that the Dalai Lama would like the concept of providing content, or knowledge, based on your audience’s interests, rather than pushing sales.

 

In fact, he might say that content marketers court better karma than advertisers who create materialistic needs and fan covetous impulses.

 

Here are some other concepts the Dalai Lama would probably appreciate:

  • Instead of sellers focusing on what they want potential customers to do, content marketers understand the interdependence of writer and reader.
  • Content marketers demonstrate compassion for their audience members by providing information they have sought out and care about, from their point of view.
  • Content marketers build relationships through patience, rather than the push for a quick sell.

 

As I recently heard a content marketing expert say: “Love is the killer app.” The Dalai Lama would enjoy the irony.

Email newsletter tips: free book on planning

Almost every time I start an email newsletter for clients, I wish they had a better understanding of what goes into creating an effective newsletter. So I wrote a free e-book to fill that gap.

It’s simple, practical and packed with information. It makes no assumptions about strategic planning or technical jargon.

From the decades I’ve been writing and editing newsletters, I know that most people start out with great enthusiasm that wanes with time and work. To stay on track, they need a detailed yet flexible plan. The book’s work sheets will help them complete one.

The book will continue to help, as they customize their template and write the kind of content their readers want.

The book is especially valuable for experts who want to build relationships with like-minded people through a knowledge-rich newsletter. Too often experts toil unknown and underappreciated because they don’t know how to make their ideas shine.

7 Steps to Shine Brighter through Electronic Newsletters is where they should start. If this sounds like somebody you know, please send them to http://www.stickycommunication.ca/newsletters-publications.html.

If you’re already an expert on newsletters, please share your opinions and let me know what you think I’ve missed.