Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 2

I know you’ve been holding your breath waiting to find out what my young aspiring novelist said in reply to my questions (see Part 1) and how I answered her. The wait is over.

Most of my questions concerned the atmosphere in which she writes and whether she’s been doing the necessary prep work. I wanted her to think about what really goes into any serious writing effort. In a nutshell, she told me that she has only written a few short stories before attempting the novel, that her general writing skills need work, and that perhaps these are the main causes of her difficulties. She’s not following a set process or method, but she is trying to apply some sort of organization to the work.

Her biggest concern however, and one which I believe many authors share, is doubt over whether she will ever finish. At times she feels overwhelmed by what she has set out to do. Welcome to the world of writing!

Here’s what I wrote back to her.

Writing a novel may seem like a huge task, and that’s probably a reasonable thing to think. But there’s no magic or mystery about how it’s done. Writing is a discipline like any other art. You need talent, but most of it is just plain work.

You said you’re having a hard time with everything there is to do. The better organized you are, the less overwhelming it will seem. Good organization involves breaking things down into manageable pieces and that gives you control. We already talked about keeping notes for various plot points, characters, and details. That’s an important part of organizing. You also need a method for how to proceed. Here are two possible suggestions:

  1. Start by writing the entire story in outline form. Decide the events that will take place in each chapter. Use bullet points instead of full sentences. The outline becomes your road map. Then go back and write each chapter, filling in the details. Go back again and fill in more about the characters. It’s writing in layers. Each layer adds something to make it better.
  2. Start by writing it as a short story. Write full sentences and include some details about the characters and events, but don’t worry that it isn’t long enough. After you’ve written it as a short story, you can expand it by adding scenes, sub-plots, and more detail. You can add narrative to describe locations and settings. You can elaborate on the characters’ actions and make it more real with dialog.

As for the work itself, here’s where discipline comes in. If you can, set aside a certain period of time each day just for writing. Make an appointment with yourself and don’t break it. Create a quiet atmosphere and clear your mind of everything else. Even if you have no idea what you’re going to write that day, keep the schedule. If you plan to write for an hour and you sit there for 50 minutes unable to think of anything, but in the last 10 minutes you have a great idea and get it down on paper, you’ve accomplished something. It’s not always about quantity.

Don’t worry about correcting grammar and spelling as you write. Get the story and details down. You’ll have to go back and polish (all writers do) but the first and most important thing is to put your ideas on the page. You’ll be surprised how writing flows once you get started.

Have a great resource for grammar and spelling. As long as you know where to look things up, you’ll be okay. Learn from what you’ve looked up and develop good habits. The more you write, the more you’ll learn, and your skills will increase over time.

Keep studying about writing. One of the best ways to do that is to read lots of novels. Choose good authors and learn from them. When you read, pay attention to style. Note how the writer uses dialog and makes it sound natural. Notice how he or she plants information early in the book and then returns to it later, tying up loose ends. Look at the structure and how the story unfolds. Does it take place in sequence, or are there flashbacks? Is one character the narrator, or is the author the narrator? Is there a narrator at all? There are so many things to notice.

Whether you do any of this or not depends on how much you really want to write your novel. Know the answer to that before you start.

I hoped these points would give her a foundation for her work — at least enough to get going. I also offered some ideas and examples for filling in the details that bring a story to life. I will share those with you in Part 3, so stay tuned.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm  Comments (2)  

Your English is Your Face to the World. How Do You Look?

The Earth is getting smaller. The internet has shrunk the entire planet down to the size of your computer screen. Businesses all over the world are going global, and, as the title of this blog says, English is the international language of business.

Whatever the language of its home country, a company that wants to attract customers beyond the limitations of geography must use an English version of its website to inform, promote, convince, and sell. But there can be a huge difference between English written by native speakers and the English written by people who use it as a second language. I have nothing but admiration for people who master a second language. It takes years of dedication. But no matter how much effort one puts into learning English, it is the rare person indeed who can write it like someone born to the task.

Companies who want to sell to English-speaking customers need to pay close attention to the quality of writing that appears on websites, in brochures, and in product literature. Language, skillfully used, has the power to make a connection between writer and reader. That’s a valuable asset in marketing. Well organized, error-free text, written in a pleasing style, will make potential clients feel well informed, comfortable, and confident – and more likely to buy.

But the opposite is also true. Text that is difficult to understand, or that contains distracting mistakes, will fail to connect with native English speakers. They’ll notice the flaws, such as misspellings and improperly used idioms, and their attention will be shifted away from your message. Most people will only give a website a short time before moving on. If understanding the text requires too much work, people will leave. Every time someone stops reading your site because of poor-quality writing, you’ve lost a potential customer.

Let’s look at some examples. The following are excerpts borrowed from the English versions of websites put up by companies outside the U.S. In these case studies, the first version is verbatim, the second version merely corrects errors and phrasing, and the final version is the transformation into a style that is designed to make a connection with English-speaking readers.

BEFORE (as written)
Talented people are our treasure
Producing the first-class brands and satisfying our customers are made only possible by people. If our employees are not capable to make such products or if they have no will to do so, not only such goal cannot be achieved at all, but also there can be no room for promise, growth and development. Therefore, management always need to remind itself that employees of XYZ with capable and enthusiasm are the asset of XYZ, and should always support development of employees’ ability and to inspire their enthusiasm.

AFTER (correction of errors and phrasing only)
Talented people are our greatest asset
Achievement of our primary goals – producing first-class products and satisfying our customers – is only made possible by our employees. If our people are not capable of making fine products, or if they haven’t the will to do so, then not only will XYZ fall short of our goals, but there will be no hope of growth and development. Management must always remember that capable and enthusiastic employees are our greatest asset, and must always support further development of their abilities and inspire their enthusiasm.

BEST (effective text for English readers)
Talented people are our greatest asset
Our talented employees make it all possible. They are the reason we can achieve our primary goals: to produce first class products and to satisfy our customers. Our people have the capability and the will to keep us on the right track and to ensure our continued growth and development. Management never loses sight of the vital contribution our employees make to our success. We work hard to inspire their enthusiasm and to support them in meeting the exciting new challenges they face every day.

Here’s another example:

BEFORE (as written)
Without using any chemical agent or tooth pest just water treated brush will eliminate all harmful bacteria inside mouth which cause bad odor, gingivitis, different type of gum desease, infections etc, ,
No need any kind of tooth paste, ,
Good for health, specially good for chemical sensitive person also good for enviorment, ,
Our product has been tested and certified by dentist but dentists do not want to see the brush on the market, , simple reason, less dental patients to treat, ,
We have a live salaiva test video under microscope to satisfy all of our skeptical customers,

AFTER (correction of errors and phrasing only)
Without using any chemical agent or toothpaste, just adding water to our treated brush will eliminate all harmful bacteria which cause odors, gingivitis, gum diseases, infections, etc.
There’s no need for toothpaste.
Good for your health – especially for chemical-sensitive people. Also good for the environment.
Our product has been tested and certified by dentists. But dentists don’t want to see this brush on the market because they’ll have fewer patients to treat.
We have a live saliva test video showing microscopic proof that will satisfy all our skeptical customers.

BEST (effective text for English readers)
Throw your toothpaste away! Just add water to our Magic Brush toothbrush, and eliminate all harmful bacteria which cause mouth odors, gingivitis, gum disease, and infections. People who are sensitive to chemicals will love this toothbrush. It’s good for your health, and the health of the environment too.

Our product has been tested and certified by dentists. But dentists don’t want to see this product on the market because they’ll have fewer patients to treat.

Are you skeptical? Let us send you our saliva test video showing microscopic proof.

Many people can learn to take text from the first stage to the second. Very few can create the third stage, but this is what companies should strive for. When someone translates from a language that is structured differently from English, the resulting version may still sound “foreign.” If you or your in-house people aren’t capable of producing natural sounding, effective English writing, then get help from somebody who is. It’s a worthy investment.

The type of transformation illustrated above is what I do professionally, and what I promote as part of my philosophy regarding the importance of good writing. Let the text on your website or brochures carry your reader along the path you set for him, and keep him on track. Good writing has the power to do that, and more. It has the power to convince, and to encourage action. And in this case, the translation of ACTION is SALES.

*****

Could your business use my services?

Visit my website at www.jlrco.com or e-mail me at rose@jlrco.com.

When Do You Need a Writing Fixer?

Take this test

  1. Did you write your own website text just to save money?
  2. Do you have sales and marketing copy that’s dry, boring, or confusing but you don’t know how to make it better?
  3. Do you have employees who use English as a second language whose job responsibilities include writing?
  4. Are most of your employees under 35 years old?
  5. Are you located outside the U.S. and want to do business with English-speaking customers?

Bonus Question

Do you care about the image your company is projecting?

If you answered YES to any of the first five questions, and if you got the bonus question right (there is only one right answer), you need the services of a writing fixer.

It’s what the boss thinks that counts

Through this blog, I’ve met lots of ambitious individuals, living in the U.S. and all over the world, who are working hard to improve their writing skills. They ask me questions, send me samples, and express a desire to achieve excellence. They are hungry for improvement and strongly motivated. But the reality is that very few of these people will ever produce a level of English writing that meets high professional standards – and these are the ones who are really working at it. What about the great majority who think that whatever they write is good enough as long as people can understand it? Or those who excuse poor writing because English is their second language? Or those who attend a writing workshop but never improve enough to make much difference? Some of them may be working for you, and maybe they think it really doesn’t matter. But if you’re the owner of the company, or the manager of the department, what do you think?

If you don’t care, then you’re reading the wrong blog. But if you do care, and if you’ve been searching for the answer to a problem that’s hurting your business either locally or in the international arena, then welcome – you’re the person I’m writing this for.

Another test

  1. Do you notice mistakes in other people’s writing?
  2. Do writing mistakes influence your evaluation of the author or organization?
  3. Have you ever read something a few times, yet still had to guess at what it meant?
  4. Have you ever stopped reading something you thought you were interested in because the writing was putting you to sleep?
  5. Do you have any writing pet peeves?

If you’re saying YES, YES, YES as you read these questions, you’ve got the point.

Do something about it

I’m a big fan of my own approach: Writing Repair. I know it works. Clients send me text they don’t like and get back effective writing that says what they want to say – but better. The original may be awful and need a complete overhaul. Or it may be close – almost there – just needs a little something… What I do is more than editing or correction of obvious mistakes; it’s the application of creative polish that brings about the transformation. As one client said when he compared the original and revised versions of his copy, “It’s magic!” (That was a bit dramatic, but it was fun to hear.) Whether you come to me or use somebody else, the goal is to eliminate bad writing in your business. If you get the right kind of help, it’s a lot easier than you think.

If you’re thinking that Writing Repair is just what your company needs, you can contact me at rose@jlrco.com. Be sure to mention “Writing Repair” in the subject line. And visit my website at www.jlrco.com.

More information

Here are a few articles that may be of interest.

A Workforce That Needs “Writing Repair”

There are two key factors that explain why today’s workforce needs writing repair services.

The Growing Diversity of our Population:
Our workforce includes ever-growing numbers of people born and educated outside the United States. Many have studied English in their home countries, or take classes once they arrive. They may speak and read it well enough to get along. But speaking English and writing English are two different things. Writing presents a greater challenge, especially in the workplace where correspon- dence and documents must be accurate, clear, and professional.

This is an obvious factor, but there is another, more troublesome one.

Failure of the educational system:
I was raised in a different era. I went to school in New York City at a time when its public schools were among the best in the country. Class time was devoted to developing basic skills, and learning a body of information (literature, history, geography, science, math, and a foreign language) that was considered the minimum core knowledge needed for a bright future. Art, music, and sports were all available for those who were interested. But there was no choice about studying the required subjects. Every class included lots of reading and writing.

Things are very different now. The presence of remedial courses at most colleges these days is evidence of the failure of elementary and secondary schools to consistently turn out students with adequate language skills. Last December, NBC News reported that over 30% of college graduates do not meet basic literacy standards. So even after taking remedial courses and graduating from college, about one third of students still lack acceptable skills to bring to the workplace.

I will never forget the following incident that occurred some years back. I was on a coffee break and went to the employee lounge to enjoy a chapter of the novel I was reading. It happened to be a rather long book, about 1400 pages. One of the young clerks saw me and asked how I could read such a thick book. “I want to find out what’s going to happen,” I told her. “Gee,” she said, a little sheepishly, “I never read a whole book.” Clearly, all reading was a chore for her. I didn’t have to see a sample of her writing to know what it would be like.

Most people know their limitations and welcome assistance. Some companies arrange for writing workshops taught by consultants over a one or two day period. People can pick up a few tips regarding common mistakes and grammatical rules. But it’s usually too little, too late. It is difficult to change ingrained language patterns. So these remedies have only limited effect, and don’t provide long term support. That’s why I advocate a continuing approach, like my writing repair service, which you can read more about in the first post on this blog, Writing Repair – Because Bad Writing Costs You Money.

When companies ignore these realities or underestimate the negative impact that poor writing has on customers, suppliers, and even their own employees, they make a serious mistake.

___________________

Could your business use my services?

Visit my website at www.jlrco.com or e-mail me at rose@jlrco.com.

Writing Workshops vs. Writing Repair

What do employers really want? Do they want their employees to become better writers? Or do they want company correspondence and documents to be well written? These are not the same. I think employers want the latter. Fortunately, there’s a way to get it without going through the exercise of trying to turn employees into good writers.

Many companies think they can solve the problem by sending employees to a two-hour or two-day workshop. But as they say in the ads for hair restoration creams and diet pills, “your results may vary” – and a lot depends on where you’re starting from.

When an employer needs to know that the correspondence and documents being written by his employees are correct, clear, professional, and effective, he can’t take a chance on the wide range of results that may come from asking his people to attend a workshop or take an online course. Nor can he wait while employees practice their writing lessons, because while they do, his company’s correspondence may still contain mistakes, ambiguities, and ineffective expression of ideas. In a business setting, “better than it used to be” is not an acceptable alternative to “good.”

I want to repeat something I talked about in one of my other posts, “A Workforce that Needs Writing Repair.” Employers today are dealing with an employee pool that has serious problems with writing skills. Two key factors contribute greatly to this: the decline in the educational system, and the fact that so many people come to their jobs with a language background other than English. Whatever the reason, many people simply don’t write well. If they want to get the most out of the skills and experience their employees do have, employers need to address the issue of poor writing. The question is: what’s the best way for a business to do that?

Readers of this blog know that I sometimes use this space to talk about my own consulting business. In that context, here’s a comparison of the workshop approach vs. the ongoing support provided by my “Writing Repair” service.

Using the Workshop Approach

  • Workshops can’t guarantee enough improvement to eliminate all mistakes.
  • Results are not consistent. Some employees may make great progress, some hardly any.
  • Workshops offer methods and tips; but employees, especially those using English as a second language, won’t always know how or when to apply the information.
  • At some point after the workshop, even if a period of follow-up is provided, employees are left to fend for themselves, completely unsupported.
  • Workshops use educational materials created for the course. They may not be relevant to the type of writing being done at the employer’s company. They are certainly not the actual correspondence and documents the employee has to produce in the course of doing his job.

Most important: people’s language habits are deeply ingrained. Past a certain point in life, it’s extremely difficult to change them. Several hours or days of workshop training won’t do it.

Using My Writing Repair Service

  • I see the document, not the writer, as the thing that needs to be “fixed.”
  • I review grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors; clarity; organization of material; and effectiveness of expression, so that the final version is professional and does the job it is intended to do.
  • I am going to make sure the writing is good, even if I have to write the piece myself.
  • I work side by side with people who need writing support. By asking the right questions, I can identify passages that don’t really convey what the writer means, are misleading, or which have the potential to cause misunderstandings. Such passages can cause real damage to a business if they are not caught and revised.
  • I can show a writer how to think about what needs to be written, and to organize his thoughts before they go down on the page. (See my post “When You Can’t Get Started Writing.”)
  • I am there as a continuing resource that employees can call on whenever they need to write something important. Any time an employee doesn’t have the confidence or skills to do it alone, I’ll be there to make it easy.
  • I work directly on the company correspondence and documents, not on made-up exercises. Actual company work is being produced in the process.
  • Company work is correct and professional from the very first day. There is no time lag while employers wait for employees to get better at writing.
  • Although teaching is not my primary purpose, employees do actually become better writers because they can compare their original drafts with our final versions, and because they can ask questions about why certain changes were made.

Does “Writing Repair” cost more than a workshop? Maybe. You pay for the workshop once. You pay for me every month. From the most important point of view, however, it doesn’t matter which one is more expensive…

…because there’s nothing cost effective about choosing a cheaper solution, if it doesn’t do what you want it to.

*****

Could your business use my services?

Visit my website at www.jlrco.com or e-mail me at rose@jlrco.com.

Ten Ways to Become a Better Writer

Spend even a short time reading through blogs and you’ll quickly realize that a lot of blog-space is spent discussing the art of writing. People who have the urge to express themselves want to do it well, and are willing to work hard to become the best writers they can be.

In a previous post (When You Can’t Get Started Writing) I went through the process of sitting down to write a specific piece. I discussed things I do when I write, and when I help others to write. Today I’d like to share some tips that are more general, and have to do with your overall development as a writer. Some of the tips go together. Numbers 4, 5, and 6, for example, deal with having a great variety of words at your disposal and using them correctly. Numbers 7 and 8 have to do with clarity and simplicity. Some of the tips belong in both posts because they relate to writing habits. Even if you’ve read them before, they are worth repeating.

1. Read: Reading the work of good authors helps you develop a sense of how effective writing is constructed, and gives you a glimpse of the skill and artistry that go into it. Fiction, non-fiction, newspapers (which are supposed to be non-fiction), biographies – anything that captures your imagination and keeps you interested – can provide a model for language used well. So read. And while you’re reading, take note of the author’s style and pay attention to how ideas and emotions are expressed. It’s a very enjoyable way to become a better writer.

2. Listen: If you are writing fiction, having an ear for the way people speak is essential. Listening to spoken language is a good way to get it, because spoken English and written English are not always the same. Dialog writing is a special skill. Authentic dialog makes characters real. When dialog is written well, the story comes to life. When done badly, it can derail the story, or have the reader laughing during the most serious passages. Listen for idioms, accents, and local expressions. When you read good contemporary fiction, be aware of how effectively you are transported into the scene by great dialog. It’s definitely an art worth working on.

3. Think: Writing isn’t a pen to paper activity. It’s a brain to pen to paper activity. Thinking is necessary preparation for writing. Before you pick up a pen or place your hands on the keyboard, get in the habit of giving thought to what you want to say. Know your purpose. Do your research. Organize your information. Choose your style (formal, casual, professional). All of these are decisions a writer must make. If you take the time to make them before you start, writing will be a much easier and smoother process.

4. Use your dictionary and thesaurus: One of the advantages of the English language is that we have so many words to choose from. There is an almost infinite variety of meanings and moods that we can impart by selecting the perfect word for every thought. Whenever you have a doubt, use your dictionary to check the definition, spelling, and even where to correctly hyphenate a word. Dictionaries also provide information on the origins and derivations of words (etymology), word roots and families, and relationships to other languages. All this will give you insights into how to best use a word and how your reader may perceive it. Dictionaries also include common expressions, abbreviations, and lots of other information. You may find, as I have, that reading a dictionary just to see what’s in it, is entertaining and enlightening. As an added benefit, you’ll become really good at finishing the crossword puzzle. I also make frequent use of my thesaurus. It’s an invaluable resource for finding synonyms. If you re-read a paragraph you’ve written and find that you’ve used the same word several times, you can vary it with alternatives found in your thesaurus. The right choice of words gives your writing sparkle, and lets you convey the precise shade of meaning you have in mind.

5. Enrich your vocabulary: All those words to choose from! The more of them you have at your command, the more expressive your writing will be. You can enrich your vocabulary by reading and listening to proper English. Choose the work of respected writers in any genre that interests you. Whenever you look up a word in the dictionary, take another moment to read the synonyms. You’ll gain extra information each time you look something up. You can find vocabulary-building websites that contain lists and quizzes. You can also find vocabulary texts and exercises at educational bookstores. Take the trouble to do these things if you feel you do not have a large enough variety of words at your disposal. It’s going to make a big difference and make writing more fun.

6. Learn the differences between “sound-alikes” and commonly confused words, and use them correctly: You want your reader to focus on what you have to say, but mistakes are distractions that will grab a reader’s attention and interrupt the flow of your writing. One of my other posts discusses common mistakes your spell checker won’t find – words that people often mix up and use incorrectly. There are many “sound-alike” words in the English language (their/there/they’re, to/too/two, for example), and many commonly confused words (such as less/fewer, then/than), that can sabotage your writing. You can study about them by reading websites that are dedicated to clarifying the differences and giving examples of correct usage. There are also mistakes that come from the way we talk. One such example is “would of” instead of “would have.” When we speak, we tend to pronounce the words “would have” as a contraction (would’ve) which is perfectly legitimate. The spoken contraction sounds more like “would of” than “would have”, but only “would have” is correct when you’re writing the phrase as two separate words. It takes some work to learn to identify the potential pitfalls, but eliminating these mistakes will do a lot to improve your writing.

7. Don’t overdo the “million dollar words”: While you want to use a variety of words to convey more precise meaning, be careful that you don’t fill your writing with what I call “million dollar words.” These are longer, more obscure, or more scholarly- sounding words that people often insert into their writing purely for the purpose of seeming more intelligent. But it’s not the words themselves that indicate how smart you are, it’s the ideas. If you have something interesting or compelling to say, your intelligence is going to come through even if you use the simplest words.

  • Example: By promulgating this theory, I can evince my erudition.
  • Rough translation: By putting forth this idea, I can show how smart I am. (If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re already in trouble.)

Too many big words, where shorter or more common words would work as well, just come across as phony or as a cover for lack of confidence. Either way, the result is bad writing. You may find situations when those million dollar words are just right, but in my opinion, less is more. Use them sparingly.

8. Keep it simple: Simple writing is clean, clear, and accessible to a wide variety of readers. Simple writing conveys your meaning but doesn’t call attention to itself. (Think of watching a play with really bad actors.) Simple writing minimizes ambiguity. I always try to keep the following three things in mind:

a. Sentence length and structure: Generally, I like to express one idea per sentence. It may be a complex idea, but when I’m ready to move to the next idea, I start a new sentence. Short sentences are okay. It’s good to vary the length of sentences in your writing. Separate your clauses with commas so that the reader will take a mental breath in the right place. That helps make your meaning more clear.

b. Needless words: Take a look at these two ways to write a cooking class regulation:

  • When the process of baking a pie results in drips and splatters in your oven, the student must clean the mess created by such activity before leaving the kitchen.
  • If you get the oven dirty when you bake your pie, you must clean it before you leave.

In the second example I’ve cut a lot of extraneous words and chosen words that serve the purpose better. Nothing is lost but the clutter. You can check your writing for extraneous words by asking, “If I cut this word, does the meaning remain effectively the same?”

c. Active voice vs. passive voice: Compare these two sentences:

  • The cake was cut into tiny pieces by Alice. (passive voice)
  • Alice cut the cake into tiny pieces. (active voice)

Or these two:

  • The book was read by many people. (passive voice)
  • Many people read the book. (active voice)

By switching from the passive voice to the active voice, I’ve made the sentences cleaner and more direct.

9. Keep it honest: Writing is a risky activity. Your writing tells the reader many things about you, whether it’s a personal piece or not. Your writing shows what you think, how you think, and what you find important. It can indicate your level of education, political leanings, opinions – a whole world of information about you. Much is revealed by your written voice. What kind of a person do you seem to be? In blogging, opinion pieces, business writing, and personal writing, honesty shows. So does phoniness. If you want your audience to trust you (usually, you do), you have to be yourself. Very few people can successfully pull off writing in disguise. Of course, fiction writers need to do it in order to create characters that are unlike themselves. But if you are speaking in your own voice, let that voice be authentic.

10. Proofread your work: I harp on this in post after post because I know how careless mistakes can spoil an otherwise good piece of writing. Writing mistakes can cost you an opportunity with an employer or a customer, can reduce your grade on a paper or exam, or destroy your credibility. If you’re not sure about some- thing (a fact, a word, or the proper form of a sentence), look it up or ask someone you trust. If you have a tendency to make typing mistakes, find and correct them. Don’t merely rely on your spell checker. It won’t catch real words that are used inappropriately. Don’t rely too much on the grammar checker either. It doesn’t really know what you want to say. Here’s a crazy example. When I was checking this post, the spelling/grammar checker selected the following sentence from Number 5 above:

The more of them you have at your command, the more expressive your writing will be.

The checker wanted me to change the second your to you’re. I have no idea why! So don’t automatically do what this sometimes helpful device demands. You’re the human, and last time I looked, humans were still in charge.

Proofread slowly and more than once. Proofread paragraphs out of order, or backwards. Those tricks may help you find mistakes you’ll miss if you’ve read the material so many times that your brain fills in the gaps, and “sees” what you intended rather than what’s really on the page. Sometimes a mistake will slip through, but do make a good effort to turn out error-free writing.

________________________________

I hope this provides some very basic ideas about good writing. It’s not meant to be a complete list. I invite other writers to share some of the tips that help them create good work.

When You Can’t Get Started Writing

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me, holding an empty piece of paper, saying, “I have to write this letter and I don’t know how to begin.”

Whenever I sit down to write with someone, the first thing we do is talk. That helps the writer organize and focus on what he wants to say. So if you can’t get started writing, perhaps you can start by talking. When you can explain something clearly to another person, you’ve got the basis for writing it. If you happen to be all alone, that’s okay. Nobody will report you for talking to yourself.

Before we begin, I like to break the task into smaller steps – “doable doses,” as James Taylor calls them in one of his early songs. If writing doesn’t come easily to you, then thinking about the whole thing is too daunting. One little step is “doable.”

So what are the steps? Let’s talk about writing a business letter.

  1. Identify the purpose in your own mind. Are you explaining something? Asking for information? Arguing about something? What do you hope to achieve with this letter? As soon as you’ve identified your purpose, write it down. Then you’ll have something to come back to if you lose your focus.
  2. Let the reader know the purpose. Nobody likes to go through six paragraphs in order to find out what you’re talking about. Tell the reader right up front what you want, and then make your case.
  3. Set the context. There are always certain facts or statements on which the rest of the letter is based. You’ll have to use your judgment as to how much background you need.
  4. Know what you want to tell the reader. Once you’ve told the reader what he’s going to be reading about, then you can give him new information. What specific points of information are you going to include?
  5. Organize your points in logical order. You want information to flow smoothly from one point to the next. You’re building something when you write, and you want it to stand on a solid foundation. If information comes in random order, you’ll have your reader jumping back and forth trying to understand where you’re going. Nobody wants to work that hard.
  6. Before you close, repeat the purpose of the letter. If you’ve asked for something at the beginning, repeat the request. Leave the reader with the most important idea that puts a cap on the whole thing.
  7. Get rid of the mistakes. Review your grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. You want your reader to pay attention to what you’ve said. Mistakes are distracting. If you’ve got certain types of mistakes, you’re not going to be taken seriously. If you’re not able to eliminate all the mistakes without help, get help. If you find a small typo, for Heaven’s sake, don’t be too lazy to fix it. Never say, “Oh that’s okay, they won’t notice.” Yes They Will!
  8. Think about whether the letter is too long. Look for things you can cut without removing key elements. Have you included irrelevant information that doesn’t move you closer to achieving the purpose? Take it out. It may be a few words, a whole sentence, or even an entire paragraph. Be ruthless, but be sure to keep the important parts in.
  9. Watch out for that nasty computer! If you are working on a computer, it’s easy to overlook errors you create when you cut and paste. When you remove a few words, make sure that the part you keep still makes sense, and that it’s a correct sentence. Make sure that subjects and verbs still agree. Make sure you haven’t unintentionally cut words you need.
  10. Put it down. Have a drink of water. Come back and read it again. Sometimes you can get so close to a piece you’ve been working on that you can’t even see it anymore. You read it through, but your eyes skim over whole phrases because you’ve read them too many times. Before you proofread your letter for a final okay, walk away. A very good editor I know likes to read it backwards, sentence by sentence. That way, his brain is less likely to make assumptions about what it sees on the page. I’ve found some pretty embarrassing mistakes that way, myself.
  11. Reconfirm that you’ve done the job. Try to read the letter as though you were reading it for the first time. Does it make sense? Is anything missing? Is it easy to understand? Have you made your point? Be critical. It will help you achieve the desired result.

All this may seem like it’s going to take an awfully long time, but it doesn’t have to. Clarity of thought will speed the process to a great degree. So will practice. The more you write, the better you’re going to become.

Bad Writing – An Obstacle to Achieving Your Purpose

Some business owners don’t recognize – or care to acknowledge – how their employees’ writing influences the success of the business. One of my reasons for starting this blog was to open some eyes. So let’s look at the reasons why bad writing is such an obstacle to achieving business goals, and how I help to conquer it.

High standards of grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be expected in the workplace; but these mean nothing if the content itself doesn’t express the writer’s ideas accurately. Every piece of writing has a job to do. Whether the intention is to convince, argue, inform, or document, there’s a business purpose to be achieved.

I’ve had people say to me that perfection in writing is not important enough to spend time (and money) on. As long as the reader gets the drift, that’s good enough for them. That kind of thinking is dead wrong, and here’s why: errors in writing are not benign things that readers gloss over and ignore. Errors do damage!

Let’s separate the concept of “errors” into two parts:

  1. Grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes;
  2. Flawed or confusing expression.

Errors of the first kind will damage your company’s image and credibility. Errors of the second kind will result in failure to effectively convey thoughts or information, and worse, can create serious misunderstandings. Misunderstandings in business often lead to loss of sales, damaged relationships, and even lawsuits – all with the potential to waste time and money.

I always tell clients that even small mistakes draw the reader’s attention away from the subject matter and focus it on the errors themselves. Even if they are not severe enough to cause a misunderstanding about what is being said (and all too often, they are), errors still obscure the message and detract from the company’s image. This is especially unfortunate when a company is proclaiming the superior quality of its products and/or services. The incongruity is obvious.

Don’t presume that good writing is important only in formal letters and documents. E-mails deserve the same care. However, these are often written in shorthand, and are rarely edited before they go out. When employees have substandard writing skills, and if they believe that mistakes “don’t count” in e-mails, these communications can pose an internal (and possibly external) risk to the company if they are not checked first.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I am not a teacher. My purpose is not to turn people into good writers; my purpose is to make their writing good. Some people, no matter how intelligent they are, no matter how compelling or sophisticated their ideas may be, no matter how earnestly they believe in what they are saying, are simply not able to get all those qualities down on the page. Often they are using English as a second language, and are just not facile enough with phrasing and vocabulary to do their own ideas justice on paper.

Sometimes, for native English speakers, their early schooling didn’t demand adherence to high standards, and concentrated instead on ideals like “self expression” (without any regard to the content) or “self-esteem” (without any regard to achievement). I have my own issues with that kind of educational focus, which I believe leaves many bright students without the necessary tools and discipline, but that is a subject for another post (and probably not suitable for this blog).

Whatever the reasons, poor writing will hamper a business in achieving its goals. So it’s to the company’s advantage to help employees do a better job. Some try writing workshops, but I don’t think they make enough difference. Workshops can provide useful tips for improvement, and that is certainly good. But language habits are deeply ingrained, and a function of how we think. Past a certain point, for many people it’s probably too late.

So what to do about good workers who have much to offer a company, but just need some assistance with writing? My answer, and one function of my business is to provide them with a resource to: (1) check their drafts; (2) talk through their written expression of ideas to make sure the reader will really understand not only the basic intent, but also the fine points; and (3) catch their mistakes. This kind of support solves the problem right away. It lets employees get as much help as they need, and it protects the company from the kind of damage and waste that writing errors can cause.

The thing to remember is, bad writing leads to bad results. Good writing… I’ll be taking that up in my next post.

*****

Could your business use my services?

Visit my website at www.jlrco.com or e-mail me at rose@jlrco.com.

Get Results by Following the Five C’s of Writing

When you’re buying diamonds, you need to know the Four C’s (color, cut, clarity, and carat). That little trick tells you what to look for, or at least what to ask about. Diamonds aren’t the only things that can be discussed in terms of C’s. Writing has some C’s of its own.

Maybe you’re a business person trying to get a reader to buy your product, agree to your terms, or meet your deadline. Maybe you’re with a charity, non-profit, or political group that seeks contributions or involvement in a cause. In any case, when you need results, your job is to convince your reader to take action.

To make that easier, I suggest following the Five C’s of writing. I hope they help you create business letters that are worth their weight in diamonds.

Case: When your purpose is to sell products, services, or ideas, you need to build a case. Line up a strong set of arguments – your selling points – to convince the reader that what you’re saying has merit. Give him good reasons to buy what you’re offering or agree to what you’re asking. You’re trying to create desire, need, or consensus. No matter what you want the reader to do, you have to address the thought “Why should I?” The better you know the answers, the better you can express them. So think carefully about the points that support your goal, and use them to build your case.

Choose: Be selective about what you write. You don’t need to include everything you can think of. If you’ve got many selling points, select the best ones. Overkill works against you. Choose your strongest, most convincing arguments, and present them effectively.

Clear: Your message should be completely clear. Usually the simplest way to say something is the best, so go for the straight- forward approach. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation are your enemies. It’s to your advantage when the reader knows exactly what you’re asking for.

Compel: This one may be the most difficult. People are busy, or lazy, or they just don’t care about the same things you care about. When you want your reader to take action, you’ve got to compel him. Give him a reason to write the check or head for the store. Push him out of his inertia. If you can’t think of a compelling reason, you’re not ready to write the letter. A deadline may work (limited time offer, on sale Wednesday only, penalty for late payment); so may a call to conscience (we need the roar of a thousand voices, if each of you sends just one dollar). Your reader has choices: the garbage pail, the “later” pile, or taking action. If you want results, it’s not enough that he agrees with you. You’ve got to give him a compelling reason to act.

Correct: Find and correct your mistakes. Mistakes are distracting and undermine your credibility. I talked about a few of the most common writing errors in my last post (Ten Common Writing Mistakes Your Spell Checker Won’t Find) and will feature more of them in future posts. Many mistakes occur simply through haste. If you write or type quickly, that’s great. But proofread slowly, and do it more than once.

Remember, you can influence the response by carefully controlling what goes on the page. Applying the Five C’s should increase your influence, and help you get the results you want.

*****

Does your company need my “writing repair” services? Contact me at rose@jlrco.com.

Ten Common Writing Mistakes Your Spell Checker Won’t Find

Here are ten of the most common writing mistakes people make. Because they involve use of incorrect words, and not misspellings, your spell checker won’t see them. So you have to catch them yourself.

There is much more that can be written about each of the following examples, and academic grammarians will gladly oblige. But my intention is just to give you some easy hints for how to tell, in most cases, which word to choose. I hope they help.

1. Less/Fewer: (The fewer mistakes, the better!)
People often use these words interchangeably, but each has its own correct usage. It helps to think of it like this: Less is for items that can’t be counted. Fewer is for items you can count. There is less pollution in the air, but there are fewer particles of dust. You can’t count pollution, but you can count particles (at least somebody somewhere in a lab can count them). After a storm, there is less sand on the beach, but there are fewer grains of sand. Get it? You can’t count sand, but you can count grains. (If you want to spend your day at the beach that way, it’s up to you.) Another example: This checkout line is for people with ten items or fewer. (Darn right! And if you can’t count the items in your cart, get in another line, because I’m in a hurry.)

2. Two/Too/To -tsie, Goodbye!
OK, I’m showing my age. It was an old song by Al Jolson. Trust me on this, there was a song called “Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye.” Really.

Two is the number. Most people get this right.
Too means also or overly. You like potatoes, and I do too. I ate too many French fries. This shirt is too big. (Well, maybe not, after all those French fries.) Too is also used as an emphatic, especially on the playground. You won’t catch that ball. I will too! (Oh yes I will. You just watch me! Oops!)
To means…everything else. According to my old Webster’s dictionary, to has about 20 usages. The first few listed are: (1) In the direction of, towards (I’m going to the kitchen); (2) toward a condition of (her rise to fame); and (3) on, onto, against (apply the lotion to the skin). It’s also part of the infinitive form: To be, or not to be. To sleep, perchance to dream.
Which two/too/to is the correct one in any given situation? That is the question!

3. They’re/Their/There (It’s all going to be okay.)
They’re is the contraction of “they are.”
Their is the possessive – things that belong to them or that they have. Their hats are on their heads. (They own hats and they have heads – which is a good thing, otherwise the hats would have been a waste of money.) It is their intention to get to class on time. (They have an intention, and it includes getting up when the alarm rings. They may not pull it off, but they mean well.)
There answers the question “where?” It refers to place (I live there) and direction (I’m going there). There is also used with the verb “to be” (wasn’t I just there?), as in: there is very little time; there are several options; there be whales here (Okay, nobody says that last one any more).
There can be used to express satisfaction (There! I finished it.); or dismay (There! Now you’ve done it!); or sympathy (There, there. It’s all going to be okay.) And that’s where we came in…

4. The Who’s Who of whose and who’s
This is really simple.
Who’s is the contraction for “who is.” That’s all.
Whose is the possessive of “who.”
The reason people get confused is because they think all possessives need an apostrophe. Not true. Possessive pronouns don’t have apostrophes (mine, ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, whose). So just learn it. Who’s going to pay for dinner? (Who is going to pay for dinner?) Whose money is on the table? (Not mine.)

5. Its and it’s (It’s the same story as whose/who’s.)
It’s is the contraction for “it is.” That’s all.
Its is the possessive of “it.” (Are you seeing the similarity here?)
Just as in the example above, there’s no apostrophe used in this possessive. It’s another one you just have to learn. It’s high time everybody started getting this right. I hope this example does its job. When it comes to which word gets the apostrophe, the contraction wins and the possessive loses.

6. I and me (You’ll have to deal with both of us.)
When you’re talking about yourself and someone else, be careful to use I and me correctly. Many people think it’s classier to always use I, and they end up getting it wrong half the time. The best way to know which one to use is to eliminate the other person from the sentence and see what you’ve got left.
Jenny and I went to the store. I went to the store. (That’s right.)
Grandma gave the cookies to Jenny and I. Grandma gave the cookies to I. (Nope.)
Grandma gave the cookies to me (that’s right), and I didn’t save any of them for Jenny. (That’s probably right, too.)

7. You’re/Your (It’s as easy as apple pie.)
You’re is the contraction of “you are” – nothing else.
Your is the possessive of “you.”
You’re the apple of my eye. (Yes, you are!)
Your apple just squirted juice in my eye! (Use a napkin!)

8. Bad/badly (Sorry if this makes you feel bad.)
Many people think badly is a more genteel form of bad, so when they’re expressing hurt, sympathy, or regret, they’ll say “I feel badly about that.” That’s bad writing. These two words are not interchangeable. When someone hurts your feelings, you feel bad. You don’t feel badly. If you felt badly, that would mean that your emotions weren’t working well, or that you were numb. It would be about your ability to feel. If your emotions are working just fine, then when you hear something sad, or someone insults you, or you do something wrong, you’re going to feel bad. (It’s a shame that you have to go through all that, but at least your usage will be correct.)

9. Imply/infer (or be careful who you call fat!)
The speaker or writer implies. The listener or reader infers. This is all about who’s putting it out there, and who’s taking it in. When you imply, you express something. When you infer, you understand something. There’s interpretation going on. When a speaker/writer implies something, he’s not saying it outright. He’s leaving some meaning for the listener/reader to pick up on his own. It’s also a tricky way to say something about somebody that you can later deny.
Jane: Didn’t those pants used to be looser on you?

Sally: Are you implying that I’m fat? Because that’s what I inferred from your question.
Jane: Oh no, I must have them confused with a different pair of pants.
Judyrose: (Yeah, right!)

10. A lot is two words.
That may not be a lot, but that’s all I have to say about it.

All of this will be on the test.