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.

Peek Into My Mailbox

When I started this blog, I had no idea what would happen. I just wanted to share ideas, and hoped that somehow, somewhere, somebody would find it and read what I wrote. Now, seven months, and nearly 240,000 hits later, I am amazed. People all over the world are reading this blog, and many have written to me with questions about how to improve their English writing.

Surely others who are students of English have similar questions. With the kind permission of my new pen pals, and a little editing for clarity and privacy, here are some of the things we have discussed. I hope they are interesting and helpful.

K. from India writes:

Hello,
I am from India and we are not native speakers of English. I dream of becoming a news reporter. I make lots of mistakes in writing and I skip the difficult words while reading, or guess the word.

  1. How much time does it take to master the language and what should I do? How much time should I spend every day?
  2. How should I practice remembering the words? I mean, should I learn the word’s spelling first, or know the meaning first?
  3. How do I improve the speed of reading, and should I learn the word while reading the paragraph itself?
  4. How should I communicate my thoughts to others? When I am speaking to somebody, I won’t be able to speak for a long time because I lack words. How can I improve that? I think all these are interrelated, right?

Thank you,
K.

_______________

Hello K.,
Thank you for writing to me. You asked some important questions, and I will try to answer.

  1. How much time does it take to master the language… One answer is that it takes a lifetime. English is a complex language with a huge vocabulary of words. Nobody can learn them all, but the more words you know (and know how to use properly) the better you can express your ideas. Only you can decide how much time is available to study English. The important point is that you use that time well.
  2. How should I practice remembering the words… It doesn’t seem useful to learn how to spell a word if you don’t know what it means. Spelling it correctly, and then using it incorrectly, won’t make your English better. So I would say it makes sense to first learn the meaning of a word and how to use it. In order to use it in your writing, you need to learn how to spell it. For me, both tasks go together. Why try to separate them? When you learn a new word, just decide that you will learn both meaning and spelling.
  3. How to improve the speed of reading… I think what you are really asking is whether you should stop reading in order to look up the words that you don’t know. I would say YES. How can you hope to get the meaning from a piece of writing if you don’t know what some of the words mean? You will only be guessing at the meaning. If you do that, you are not reading what the writer wrote, you are creating your own fiction using parts of what the writer wrote. It takes time, and makes reading slow, but I believe it is necessary. You may wish to scan a paragraph, pick out all the words you don’t know, look up each one (maybe write them all down) and then go back and read the paragraph using what you have learned. Don’t worry about speed. That’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is to understand. If you keep doing this, the speed of your reading will increase automatically.
  4. How should I communicate my thoughts to others… I think it’s true for every person who is learning a new language that when you try to speak, you often can’t find the right word. You are correct that the answer is interrelated with the other things I told you. (By the way, interrelated is a very good word, and you used it perfectly.) When you write, you can take the time to think and to look up words in the dictionary. But when you speak, you have to start eventually to “think” in English. Once that starts to happen, you will be more fluent. It just takes time and practice.

I encourage you to read as much English text as you can. You don’t have to limit it to academic subjects. It’s good practice to read for entertainment also. You will be learning while you enjoy. If you have access to English language movies and television programs, watching those will also increase your familiarity with English. It will make you more comfortable with English, and that will also make you a better writer.

Best regards,
Judy Rose

M. from Singapore writes:

Dear Judy

I am a desperate student struggling with English writing. I stumbled across your website and I found some very useful information on how to improve English writing. I have been reading extensively but my writing doesn’t seem to improve at all.

Can you help me?

Thank you and I look forward to your prompt reply.

Best wishes
M.

_______________

Dear M.,

Your question is so general that I can’t help you solve your problem directly.

I will ask the obvious question. Have you taken any courses in English composition? Such courses should provide you with lots of practice and feedback from the teacher. As a student, you probably have access to a good library and resources that can help you. There are many books that offer information on writing style. Ask your professors. They should be able to direct you to the good ones.

But all this reading can only take you part of the way. There is no secret to good writing. It is a discipline like any other, and requires the same careful thought and practice as any other skill. The best path to excellence is to write, and write, and write more. That, coupled with guidance from a capable teacher who can review your work and discuss it with you, should help you to improve.

Good luck to you. I admire your desire to improve. You already have a good start, judging from your e-mail.
Best regards,

Judy Rose

_______________

Dear Judy

The pointers you gave are extremely helpful! Thank you! 🙂

I will stay tuned to your blog! All the best!

Best wishes,
M.

_______________

Dear M.,

You know, your writing is so fluent I can’t imagine why you first described yourself as desperate and struggling. I could make some minor grammatical corrections, but in the overall, your writing is so much better than the samples I usually see when people write to me.

What is it about your writing that you are so dissatisfied with? I’d like to know a little more about you, if you don’t mind telling me.

Regards,

Judy Rose

_______________

Dear Judy,

Absolutely, I will be more than glad!

I am a Singaporean and Chinese is my first language. I am a native Chinese speaker: my parents speak Chinese. Here comes the twist: In Singapore, English is the de facto language. i.e. the national language. And by the same token, the education in Singapore is also English- based. Science and math are taught in English, we also have subjects like English Literature and Economics.

When I was first enrolled in a primary school, my English really suffered. I couldn’t speak English (let alone say write). I have been reading extensively 3 years back and it’s only now my English is beginning to improve slightly. What really brings me down is the inability to come out with complex sentence structure and the unawareness of grammatical errors made in writing. All I am told is to read more to improve my English. 😦

Best wishes
M.

_______________

Dear M.,

I think there are two separate parts to learning to be a good English writer. First you need to master the foundations of the language (grammar and vocabulary) and then you need to develop style.

When I was a student, we had grammar lessons every day. We diagrammed sentences to identify all the parts of speech, and learned the proper structure of writing. We also had regular vocabulary lessons. We learned the definitions of words and how to use them in sentences. We had grammar textbooks, but it was so long ago that I have no recollection of titles or authors. (I’m talking about a REALLY long time ago!) But I think I have something that may interest you, thanks to my husband (Michael) who found the following references while I was still drinking my coffee this morning.

You may already be familiar with Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia. Michael selected the following pages because they are very orderly presentations of grammar lessons and information.

This is the first place I would send you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar. Among the items on this page, you’ll find a listing of grammatical terms with links to more detailed explanations.

Then have fun searching around this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_grammar. It covers topics like word order, gender, use of articles, tense, voice, and more. These are typically things that cause difficulty for ESL speakers/writers. So I think you’ll like this page too.

As for style, that’s where the reading comes in. The more you read good authors, the more you get a feel for different ways of expressing ideas. Don’t just read for content; read for style. Take notice of how the writer chose to phrase his or her thought. Think about word selection, and use your thesaurus, and especially your dictionary, to study the differences between meanings of words that may seem to be totally synonymous, but actually create different pictures or reactions in the reader’s mind. That’s one of the great advantages of the English language. We have so many words that we can convey even the subtlest shade of meaning or mood by selecting the perfect word. Of course, in fiction, writers often abandon the rules of grammar to create authenticity in a scene. People don’t always speak in complete sentences, and much of fiction is dialogue. But if you have been studying grammar, I think there’s little danger of getting into bad habits from reading good fiction. Just recognize that for any sort of formal writing, the rules should be observed.

Finally, in a previous e-mail I recommended that you take a course in English composition. The advantage of doing this is that you’ll get feedback from the instructor. You won’t be completely on your own to figure out whether your grammar is correct or not, and whether your style is developing. Writing is a skill that has to be practiced like any other. Improvement takes time. But I have no doubt that you will eventually become a confident and capable writer.

Best regards,
Judy

H. from Vietnam writes:

Hi Judy Rose,

I am very interested in your website. If you have available time, please chat or send me email so that I can improve my English writing skill.

I am ‘H’ from Vietnam, my English is not good, so I write and read a lot to understand and improve all English skill. But it seems it is not effective. Please give me more ideas or the method that will help me grow.

Thanks so much and appreciate when I receive your email.

Sincerely,

H.

_______________

Dear H.,

You asked how to improve your English. I assume you mean both written and spoken English. Of course, the obvious answer is that if you are in school, take more English grammar, conversation, and writing courses. But I think you are asking for things you can do independently that will make you more fluent. So here are some suggestions:

  1. Read as much as you can in English. It doesn’t have to be limited to text books. Any kind of reading is good. I’m sure you can find many entertaining books that will keep you interested, even though it is hard work for you.
  2. When you don’t know the meanings of words, take time to look them up. I know it makes the reading slow, but that is the only way you will understand what was written. Since the purpose of reading is to gain understanding, it is necessary. But one way is to quickly scan a paragraph and identify all the words you do not know. Make a list, and then look them all up before you read the paragraph. When you read the paragraph again, the meaning will be more clear to you.
  3. Listen to English language movies and television programs as much as possible. If there is not much choice in Vietnam, perhaps you can watch American TV shows over the internet. Most of our most popular shows can be seen on-line.
  4. Find other people who also want to learn English. Practice speaking English together. If you are in school, perhaps you can form a club for English speaking. Promise not to use your native language, and just speak English during your meetings. If you can’t think of a word, maybe one of your friends will know. Or you can look words up together and help each other.
  5. Be patient. All this is hard work (although it may be fun) and it takes time. You said that the work you are doing is not effective, but I have a feeling it is more effective than you realize. Over time, you are going to improve if you do the things I mentioned.

Best regards,

Judy Rose

After this e-mail, H. explained to me that he is not a student. He graduated from the university about three years ago and has already begun his career. Since he is no longer in school, I suggested some things he can do on his own.

Dear H.,

You mentioned that your vocabulary is not good. But vocabulary is an easy thing to improve. It just takes time. When I was in school, my teacher said it is good to learn 5 new words every day. The best way to learn them is to practice using each new word. If you can write three different sentences using a word, then it will become part of your vocabulary. Here’s my idea for you:

  1. Start a notebook for vocabulary words.
  2. When you find a new word, look up the definition. (If you don’t have a paper dictionary, the on-line dictionaries are very good. Use the Thesaurus also. It will give you similar words, and may increase your understanding.)
  3. Write each new word into the book along with its definition.
  4. For each word, write three different sentences using the word. (This part is very important.)
  5. Every day, look back over the words you learned yesterday. Review them so that they stay in your mind.

At your stage of learning, you are going to find many more than 5 new words per day. But it is too much to learn them all every day. So limit yourself to 5 new words maximum each day. Even just three words will still be good. The point is to keep building. If you do this, your vocabulary will grow.

Best regards,
Judy

_______________

Hi Judy,

First, I want to say thanks for your reply. That’s great.

Second thing, with your emails I am learning lots of ways to improve my English skill.

Third, I will self-study 5 new words day after day.

I will learn, read and write more. Promise you I can do it.

Have a nice weekend.
Yours truly,
H.

People like these writers really impress and inspire me. They recognize the importance of knowing English in today’s world, and are determined to do whatever it takes to master it.

Writing this blog is my way of reaching out to people I’ve never met. I am grateful when my readers reach back in my direction. I hope you find something of value here.

More Common Writing Mistakes Your Spell Checker Won’t Find

A few months ago I showed you ten of the most common writing mistakes people make. Here are ten more. Your spell checker can’t spot these mistakes because they involve misused words, not misspellings. As before, my explanations are simple, and should keep you on the right track in most cases. So here we go.

1. Advice/advise
You’ll never confuse these two words when you’re talking because you know the right sound for each one. The word advice rhymes with “nice.” The word advise rhymes with “size.” But be careful when you’re writing. It’s easy to mix them up.

Advice is a noun. Advice is what you get when somebody gives an opinion or recommendation. Or it’s what you give when offering wisdom (one would hope) to somebody else. Take my advice; don’t go out with him until you find out if he’s already married. Advice is what Dear Abby gives out. Here’s some good advice. If you’re looking for a great guy, don’t expect to find him at the county jail, unless he’s the one wearing a badge.
Advise is a verb. It’s what somebody does when he tells you his opinion about what you should do. Or it’s what you do when somebody asks you. I’ve never eaten at this restaurant before. Please advise me on what to order. You advise information that somebody needs to know. I’d like to advise you that I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks.

2. Loose/lose
Loose has to do with how something fits. It’s an adjective. The opposite of loose is tight. Loose could refer to clothing, mechanical parts, pieces of something, a schedule, or in a more abstract way, to morals and attitudes. Loose describes the state of something. I didn’t expect these jeans to be so loose, and then I remembered that I’ve been eating fruit instead of Haagen Dazs. The car seems to be vibrating. I think one of the tires may be loose. To make something loose is to loosen it. Please help me loosen the cap so we can get the olives out of the jar. Don’t loosen that screw; the whole darn thing will fall apart. You’re so tense! See if you can loosen up.
Lose is the opposite of find. Lose is also the opposite of win. Lose is a verb. You lose your glasses, lose your way, lose your cool, lose an election. (You’re not having a very good day, are you?)

3. Passed/past
Passed is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” It means to move forward or through. I passed the bakery on my way home. (I was good. Usually, I stop in and buy cookies.) I passed my algebra test. I passed the French fries to my brother (what was left of them). I passed by a speed trap on the way to Las Vegas.
Past refers to a time that already happened. It’s over, ended, gone. It does no good to remind her about that embarrassing incident because it’s all in the past. (Wouldn’t you like to know what I’m talking about?) This year we ate Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, but in past years, we ate at Aunt Amy’s house. (Amy’s not a very good cook, so I’m glad we wised up.)

4. Desert/dessert
Desert can mean abandon (as a verb). Please don’t desert me, I don’t want to go by myself. Or desert (as a noun) can mean that stretch of sandy terrain between Los Angeles and Las Vegas where, if you don’t get stopped by a cop, you can drive about 100 miles per hour. It only took us an hour to drive through the desert on our way to the penny slots.
Dessert
is that delicious treat you get after dinner if you’ve eaten all your vegetables. It has two S’s. I learned the difference between spelling desert and dessert at age eight, when a friend said, “Dessert is the thing you want two of.” She knew how to reach me.

5. All ready/already
All ready means something is completely prepared – it’s ready. I studied hard last night, and today I’m all ready for the test.
Already means previously. She had already locked the door when she realized she’d left her car keys on the table. I already bought the dress, so we might as well go to the dance. You don’t have to go to the store because I already bought the milk.

6. Weather/whether
Weather is about rain, and snow, and sleet, and hail, and temperatures, and sunshine… It’s also about endurance. I can weather this ordeal because I have good friends to lean on.
Whether means “if.” It has to do with making a choice or a comparison between possibilities. I have to decide whether to enroll at Harvard or Yale. He didn’t know whether or not to tell her that he was already married. (I think he should tell her.)

7. Sit/set
Sit refers to the act of putting your derriere into a chair.
Set means to place some object (other than your derriere) on a surface. Let me just set this cup and saucer on the table, and then I’ll sit down and drink my coffee.

8. Can/may/might
Can refers to ability. I can lift 50 pounds. (I am capable of lifting 50 pounds.) He can go to school tomorrow if his temperature is normal. (He will be able to go if he can just get over that pesky cold.)
May refers to permission. You may walk my dog if you promise not to give him any treats. (It’s my dog, and it’s up to me whether I’m going to let you walk him.) May I come by for a drink on Friday night? (Before I answer that, I’ll need to know if you’re already married.) May also refers to possibility. He may come over around 2:00, if he’s finished with work by then. I may win the lottery if I buy a ticket. (Your chances are about the same if you don’t buy a ticket.) It’s not likely you’ll confuse this usage of may (possibility) with can, but you could confuse it with might. Most sources I’ve checked agree that may and might are pretty much interchangeable, unless you’re talking about the past. For events in the present or near future, you can use either may or might. I may do my exercises now. I might do my exercises now. (Not much difference, and also not much possibility I’m going to do those exercises.) But for past time, most sources prefer only might. Last year, I might have been able to go to Europe on vacation, but this year I definitely can’t afford it.

9. Then/than
Then refers to time. I pushed the papers toward him and then he added his signature. Do you think you’ll be ready by then?
Than indicates a comparison. My paper was longer than hers. It was worse than the time he got a $200 ticket on the way to Las Vegas.

10. Site/sight/cite
Site is about location. Site is a noun. I visited the construction site where the new hotel was being built. I am going to look up the information on his web site. The detective has a witness at the crime site who can describe the murderer. The doctor determined the site of the infection before selecting the best treatment.
Sight refers to the sense of vision or something you can see. My sight isn’t what it used to be before I turned 40. When he walked off the ship in his uniform, he was a sight for sore eyes. Let’s go see the sights when we get to town.
Cite means to make reference to. Cite is a verb. In the footnotes of my paper, I am going to cite an article by Albert Einstein. You cite somebody’s work as the authority or source for your own statement. You cite examples to prove your point. Cite can also refer to an order made by an officer of the law. The policeman may cite me if I exceed the speed limit. The ticket (a citation) is a legal order requiring me to appear in court. (He was hiding near an underpass on I-15, and I never even saw him.)

Readers of this post may be wondering if I’ve ever gotten a speeding ticket on the way to Las Vegas. No, not yet.

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.

The 25 Funniest Analogies (Collected by High School English Teachers)

UPDATE: Tens of thousands of readers have found this post and hundreds of you have commented. A few have said that these analogies were actually taken from other sources and were not written by high school kids at all. Now, we have a link that ends the debate. These analogies are the winning entries in a 1999 Washington Post humor contest, and there are more than 25. Please look at the comments sent August 3, 2008 by “Jiffer” to get to the complete list and the names of the authors.

ORIGINAL POST: I have to share these “funniest analogies” with you. They came in an e-mail from my sister. She got them from a cousin, who got them from a friend, who got them from… so they are circulating around. My apologies if you have already seen them.

The e-mail says they are taken from actual high school essays and collected by English teachers across the country for their own amusement. Some of these kids may have bright futures as humor writers. What do you think?

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a ThighMaster.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

Published in: on September 12, 2006 at 4:56 pm  Comments (544)  

Three Important Ways Good Writing Affects Your Bottom Line

Good writing can do many things for a business. Here are three important ones:

1. Increase Sales: Customers are like air. You can’t stay alive without them. Unless you have more customers than your business can handle (not a good thing, by the way) you’re always on a quest for new ones. If your marketing strategy includes appealing to potential customers in writing, you may have just a few precious moments of attention in which to make your sale. Well written sales letters have a chance to persuade. The better they’re written, the more of a connection you make with the reader. That immediate gut response (“I like the way this sounds”) can be the difference between a person who buys your product, and one who throws your letter away.

2. Enhance the Image and Credibility of Your Business: Customer confidence is a key component of success. You want to be credible to your customers. While good writing doesn’t increase the reliability of your products or services, it shows that you care about communicating with people, and make the effort to do it well. It shows that quality matters to you. In my last post, I mentioned that the problem of bad writing is especially noticeable when it is in direct conflict with the promise of excellence. When letters and documents are thoughtfully written and well executed, they say several things about your company: (1) we strive toward excellence in all things; (2) we know what we’re talking about; (3) you can be confident in our abilities. If you can make that kind of an impression on the people you do business with, you’ve done your company a valuable service.

3. Add Clarity to Documents That Define Relationships and Agreements: Businesses produce many documents that define relationships and set the terms for agreements. Every contract, every proposal, every warranty, and every employee handbook, contains representations that form the basis for how parties deal with each other. They define the expectations under which people do business, and they are generally enforceable in court. What could be more important than making sure every term and condition is understood by all parties to mean the same thing? The construction of each sentence, the choice of vocabulary, and the punctuation all contribute to the clarity of such documents. When documents really say what they are meant to say, they have a better chance to do what they are intended to do. Sometimes, disputes happen despite the best preparation. If your documents are well written, you’re more likely to prevail when disagreements occur.

If you can’t honestly say that the writing done by your employees is good enough to achieve these objectives, then it’s time to consider doing something about it. It will be well worth the effort. Good writing affects your bottom line. Whether its job is to bring in new revenue, or prevent expensive problems, good writing can help put (or keep) the money in your pocket.

*****

Could your business use my services?

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

Good Writing – It Makes A Difference

How much does the quality of the writing on your website really matter? Let’s take a look at some before and after samples. The before samples are portions of text taken from actual websites. (I’m guessing the companies would rather remain anonymous.) The after samples show the benefit of a little “writing repair.”

I’ll start with one of my favorite examples. The company is a website design firm that offers content writing and technical services to international clients. They’re selling good writing!

Before

For the purpose of retaining in the international markets, it becomes important for the organizations to have a creative and optimized website. This is being accomplished by hiring experts who can write the contents for their websites that can be used globally with the contents being optimized as per the local needs.

This helps the companies to reduce the coordination effort in addition to ensuring that quality is maintained. Since, content/technical writing is something very important, hence it involves a lot of effort also.

After

In order to succeed in international markets, organizations must have creative and optimized websites. This can be accomplished by hiring experts who can write website content that will be effective globally, and is customized to have the greatest impact on local targets.

Our service helps companies save time and effort, while ensuring that the end result is of the highest quality. Because content/technical writing is very important, sufficient resources must be dedicated to the task, and it must be done by people who have the requisite talent and experience.

If you want to increase business, which sample do you choose?

Let’s look at another one, from a manufacturer of food packaging:

Before

In addition, under the strong faith of “Even a single dirty is not permitted” we have continuously performed “zero defect movement”…

After

In addition, under the strong belief that “even a single germ is not permitted” we have continuously achieved a standard of “zero defects.”

This next one is part of a welcome message:

Before

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.

After

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 we fall short of our goals, but there will be no hope of growth and development.

If you think the kind of writing I’m showing you only occurs on websites of foreign companies, take a look at these samples from the site of an internet services company right here in California:

Before

Instead of creating a cool looking web site (what is nice to show your friends) we will create a functional web site to achieve the company’s goals and satisfies the visitors.

After

Instead of creating a cool looking web site (that will impress your friends) we will create a functional web site that achieves the company’s goals and satisfies your visitors.

Here’s more from the same site. In this section, the company is offering tips for selling on Ebay:

Before

You can sell you products as an auction, a “Buy it Now” or sell it in your Ebay store.
Can I make a lot of many selling on Ebay?
There is still a lot of potential, however there is significant more competion entering this market daily.

After

You can sell your products by auction, “Buy it Now,” or sell them in your Ebay store.
Can I make a lot of money selling on Ebay?
There is still potential, although many competitors enter this market daily.

What’s your reaction? When you read the before samples, is your attention diverted by obvious errors? Does your brain disengage when it’s too much work to understand what the writer is saying? Does the promise of excellence fall flat when the company hasn’t taken the trouble to make sure its own website content is correctly written? More importantly, when you read the after samples, are you better able to focus entirely on the message?

If you want to inspire confidence and attract customers, you need to be sure that the writing on your website is compelling and effective. It can’t be either of those things if it’s not also correct.

For more information about “writing repair” for websites, brochures, and regular business correspondence, go to my website, or contact me at rose@jlrco.com.

“Writing Repair” – Because Bad Writing Costs You Money

writing-erasing_edited-double.JPGI’m going to tell you about my “Writing Repair Service” in a moment. But first, a little history:

In 1976 I began working as a secretary for a large Japanese trading firm. Quickly, and quite unin- tentionally, I became more than just a secretary.

All of the department managers were from the Tokyo home office, assigned to work in the U.S. for several years before moving on to other locations. There were sales people from Japan and other countries, including China, Korea, and the Philippines. A few of the support people originally came from Latin America or Asia. Most were American born and educated. In short, I was in the midst of a mini-United Nations.

While the bulk of the communication between our office and Japan was conducted in Japanese, correspondence with our customers and local suppliers was in English. The foreign employees had varying degrees of English proficiency, but most were rather fluent and it was easy for them to read and speak the language. Writing it was a different story. They could get something down on paper, but not something that was ready for customers or suppliers to see. This came as no surprise.

What did surprise me was that many of the American employees had serious writing deficiencies as well.

Word quickly got around the office that I was a good writer, easy to work with, and willing to help. My co-workers started coming to me whenever they had to write something important. Manage- ment saw this collaboration as a good thing, and encouraged us. Because of my help:

  • distracting grammatical errors were eliminated, allowing the reader to focus on the intended message;
  • employees were no longer sending out poorly written letters that challenged the reader to figure out what was being said;
  • the company image was no longer undermined by correspondence that was in direct conflict with our promise to provide the highest quality products and services;
  • poorly expressed ideas, capable of causing damaging misunderstandings, were identified and corrected before they could cause conflicts – or worse, lawsuits;
  • writing took fewer hours out of the workday, because it was no longer a struggle;
  • employees became more confident about their ability to do a good job, because they were supported in their efforts to communicate their best ideas to full advantage.

People started calling me “The Living Dictionary” and “English- to-English Translator.”

I was promoted several times and eventually became a project manager for sales of special-engineered machinery for waterworks projects. All the while, I was moonlighting, in plain sight, as a “writing fixer-upper.” Virtually every reference letter and evaluation I received in my career cited my writing ability as a significant factor in the smooth completion of our projects, and my willingness to assist others as an important contribution to the company’s overall success.

But circumstances are never static, and life takes unexpected turns. In 2004, I decided it was time for me to go on to something else. I took some time to adjust to the changes in my life, and then decided to go into business for myself.

* * * * *

My years of experience have taught me that every company has some employees who need a “writing repair service.” When companies acknowledge the problem, and decide to do something about it, I can save them lots of time, trouble, and money.

Here’s what I do:

  • I correct obvious mistakes;
  • I identify and clarify passages that could be misunderstood;
  • I organize the information so that it flows logically from one idea to the next; and
  • I make the entire piece effective enough to achieve the desired result.

I can work from completed drafts; I can help during the formulation process; or, if someone has an idea but just doesn’t know how to get it down on paper, I can do the writing from scratch.

I’m not a teacher. I don’t do training sessions, seminars, or writing workshops. I think the impact of these is very limited. My personal opinion is that past a certain point, it’s just too late. My goal is not to turn people into good writers; my goal is to make their writing good.

I work directly with individual employees, perfecting their actual business correspondence and documents. People are usually aware of their own limitations, and welcome my support. Some companies see the value in this approach right away. Some need more convincing.

* * * * *

I am offering a new and different way of dealing with the problem of bad writing. Most companies have never considered using an outside party as a continuing resource for employees who need help with writing. But I believe it is the best way to get immediate and significant improvement. I am offering them a cost-effective solution that can eliminate the problem from the very first day.

Many executives I have spoken with acknowledge that the problem exists, but believe they already have an adequate way of dealing with it. Perhaps employees who are better writers are asked to assist those who need help. Perhaps supervisors make corrections before written work goes out. But these measures are hit or miss.

My way is better – here’s why. If I am available as a resource:

  • The problem is handled on a consistent, company-wide basis.
  • Employees who are good writers can focus on their own work.
  • Supervisors and managers can address their attention to the strategy or completeness of a piece, and not on the writing itself.
  • Pieces that have solid thinking behind them can be ready to go on the first shot, reducing the need for rewrites.
  • People, knowing that the company has provided a dedicated consultant to support their writing, are much more likely to ask for input. This is especially important for employees who aren’t expected to check their work with higher management.

Some executives don’t think writing matters. They don’t see that poor writing can ruin the company image, damage relationships with customers and suppliers, and cause disputes or lawsuits. They just don’t get it.

Want an example? I wrote to the president of a large foreign- owned company, and here’s what I got back:

WE HAVE NO NECCESITY AT THIS MONMENT,PLEASE CONTACT OTHERS.

This is not a joke. Can you imagine how frustrating it was to receive that?

* * * * *

I know some of you reading this are business owners who have faced the kinds of challenges I describe. I’d love to have your comments and hear about your experiences. Even better, if you are thinking, “I could really use her services at my company,” then I especially want to hear from you.

This blog is a place to talk about my business and about issues related to writing itself.

I have much to say. You are welcome to join me in the discussion.

Judy Rose

Could your business use my services?

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

______________________________________

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