Sunday, 4 June 2017

'Your writing sucks!' Three words we can learn to love hearing

NO ONE wants to hear that their writing sucks. It hurts. Yet while we may yearn for praise, we can learn to be grateful when we hear tough criticism. When we finish a draft, we think it's perfect. If we thought it was flawed, we'd have written it differently. And there's no point deluding ourselves that we can be objective about our writing at this stage.

What we need to remember is that the act of writing is not only about committing your thoughts and ideas to a document. Writing is also about finding out what you think — as you write.

We often need feedback to challenge ideas that are still embryonic, and to help us clarify how best to express them. The key to getting useful feedback is to enlist the right people, not just those who will naturally agree with us, and to brief our helpers well on what we need from them.

When you have a long, complex document — perhaps a business proposal or a project report — you'll need a team of helpers. For a short, sensitive email, you can scale back to one person.


ASK THE RIGHT PEOPLE

People love to give feedback. It makes them feel valued — unless you've previously asked them for help and then ignored everything they've said. Chances are that you briefed them badly. 

People will naturally drift towards comments on punctuation, grammar and spelling since these are mostly objective issues we can justify. But you need big-picture comments too.

You'll be tempted to look for helpers who'll offer kindness and reassurance. Yet you need the very truth you're aiming to deliver to your readers.

That doesn't you don't want sadistic shredding of your work either. You're after balance and reason, not extremes. So choose a mix of helpers. How many you recruit is up to you. Ideally, you want to cover these bases.
  • Someone who's a strategic thinker who naturally sees the big picture. They're likely to spot flaws in your purpose and structure, and raise questions that will occur to your readers.
  • Someone who's good at detail, blessed with a solid grasp of language and a hatred of jargon. They're likely to spot research gaps, or areas where you haven't bothered to mention something because you think everyone already knows as much as you do. Warning: you may end up arguing over commas.

You may cover these bases in two people, or you may need more. Keep the number of helpers to a minimum. You're not forming a government.

Where you have more than one helper, you need a sensible system that avoids creating new muddle.
  • Circulate one document among your group, asking them to sign the document when they've given their input. Give four people separate documents at the same time and you'll get back four separate, and probably conflicting, sets of comments. It becomes a nightmare.
  • Ask everyone to mark their comments on a paper version of your document. Offer a digital one, and they'll be tempted to rewrite. That's your job, not theirs.
  • Ask people to read with specific tasks in mind — purpose, readership, consistency of information, structure, spelling and language — depending on their individual strengths.

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Your helpers won't automatically know what you want your writing to achieve. An invitation to 'Let me know what you think of this' is of no use at all. It's a veiled request for people to tell you it's brilliant. You may get an unpleasant surprise when people give you a blow-by-blow plan for how they would rewrite it — if only they could be bothered to do it for you.

You need to give a clear brief with details about what you want people to consider, and — equally important — what you want them to ignore.
  • Tell your helpers your purpose and who your writing is aimed at, in reasonable detail. If you helpers are similar to your readers, tell them. Or tell them the opposite, if that's true.
  • Ask if they think you've left out anything vital. It's easy to become so expert that you forget when people know less than you.
  • If you've deviated from common templates in favour of a more creative structure, explain why, and ask if they think it works. Make sure they know you want an honest view.
  • If you have no-go areas you've been forced to adopt, say so. You don't want your helpers to waste time by offering suggestions on something you can't change.
  • If you have instincts about areas that may need fixing, ask your helpers for their take. You may be overanxious, or your concerns may be spot on. It may sound to your helpers as if you're trying to justify your work in advance. Make it clear that you're simply trying to focus their attention, and want an honest verdict.
You probably haven't enlisted professional editors, so be kind about the results. And bear in mind that helpers aren't always right.

Some areas demand particular attention...

Factual errors and possible misinterpretation
Ever read something about your own industry or personal obsession and spotted an error or misunderstanding of something basic? How did you view that author and the rest of their piece? With mistrust? If they can get this wrong, where else did they go wrong in areas where I'm no expert?

Don't forget to cross-check information that should agree. These details may be at opposite ends of a document, where they're hard to spot.

Likely reader reaction
You want engagement and dialogue. So, if you know someone who takes the opposite stance in any conversation just for the hell of it — ask them for feedback.

You want to anticipate all likely responses, even those you find annoying. Deal with these opposing views now. Don't try to hide conflict. Plant a flag on it, and turn it to your advantage. You'll be sending out the message that you're someone who thinks of everything and is prepared to tackle tough issues.

Language feedback
Our use of language is a mix of cut-and-dried precision and subjective style. It's also about you, your readers, and your aim to change the world in a way that only you can do.

This is the area where you're likely to feel most insecure. Listen to language feedback, but follow your instincts too. If you aren't sure that suggestions are an improvement, ignore them or rewrite until you know the area being criticised is in a correct or acceptable form.

Embrace corrections that are no-brainers. Pick and choose from the subjective ones. Ask yourself how strongly your readers are likely to feed about strict grammar rules. Will they embrace a more casual style that suits you and your purpose?


WHAT CAN GO WRONG?

People will be kind, and you'll feel a 'but' hanging in the air 
You are waiting for the penny to drop. And there's usually a penny... So push. Your helpers may feel there's a problem, without being sure what it is. Don't ignore this. If you can only get a vague response, work out the details yourself.

People will over-edit and suggest a rewrite in the style they'd use if it were their document
You may have been soft with your brief, or your helpers may be trying to show off, or indulge in a power trip. Cherry pick from their suggestions and then do your own thing.

People will suggest a place where they believe a problem exists, but it feels wrong.
Your helpers are probably right and wrong at the same time. There is a problem, but not where they think it is. They may see a research gap, when the problem is structure. They may feel language, when the problem is purpose. Over to you for some detective work.

People will spot a flaw — and it makes you incandescent with rage.
Sadly, they're right. Drop all resistance. You knew there was a problem when you started writing and ignored it because you didn't want to interrupt your flow. You reread your work and ignored the issue again, thinking that no one would notice. And they have...


WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?

Read your work aloud
This will help you to pick up stray pompous words that stand out from your simple, direct work. If you stumble while reading aloud, readers will stumble as they read. If you wince... if you pause... if anything prompts you to stop reading... you have fresh alarm bells.

Check more than spelling
When you check a spelling, check the meaning too. You may find you need a different word.

Find one more helper
You want a fresh pair of eyes able to spot final flaws. Every time you change something, you   open the way for new mistakes to creep in.

You have to let go eventually. When you send something out into the world, you'll probably spot at least one mistake. Don't beat yourself up. You will never achieve perfection. 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Who wants a history lesson? Well, sometimes we do

EVERY significant moment in our lives becomes background sometime in our future. Winning a key business proposal becomes background to our elevation to the board. The launch of a new product becomes background in our company's stock market flotation. Winning an industry award becomes the stepping stone to an OBE.

Background is often useful in understanding a big picture, but it's rarely the most important thing we want to express once we've moved on from that experience.

When you overdose a document with background you think is vital to understanding the big picture, your readers are likely to bin it.

So how do we use background information constructively?

The trick is to recognise the difference between 'essential context' and 'interesting background' and to use them at different points in your document.

Here's an example from The Guardian's business section.


1,100 Jones Bookmaker jobs at risk as private equity deal collapses

JONES Bootmaker is expected to call in administrators on Friday in a move that will put more than 1,100 jobs as risk. 
The shoe retailer, which employs 1,145 people, has nearly 100 stores and a handful of concessions in department stores. It is understood to be close to going under after a deal with a private equity firm collapsed. 
Jones's difficulties came... (the story continues for several paragraphs, until the final one...) 
Jones has humble beginnings. The business was launched in 1857 by Alfred Jones and his wife Emma who opened their first store in Bayswater, west London, before expanding nationwide. The Bayswater store opened from 8am to 8pm, and until midnight on Saturdays, while the pair looked after 11 sons and three daughters.
The second paragraph is essential context. It gives us the scale of what's about to happen and the immediate reason why the company is taking it's next step. It tells us why we should think of this as an important business story.

It's the second paragraph because we don't want readers to wait long for this context. But it's not so important that we need to start with it.

The final paragraph, a snapshot of the company's history. counts as interesting background. If we don't have room to use this, we can cut it and lose nothing that stops us understanding the company's move into administration — the main focus of the story.

Sometimes we can offer background in a trickle, instead of a lump. Here is another example from The Guardian.


Jaeger collapses into administration putting 680 jobs at risk

Fashion chain Jaeger has collapsed into administration, putting 680 jobs at risk.
The brand, which dressed Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe in its heyday, had been trying to find a buyer to keep its 46 stores going, but its owner threw in the towel on Monday and appointed administrators.
The private equity owner, which dates back to 1884, has appointed administrators at Alix Partners after proving unable to find a buyer for a suggested price of £30m.
If we take out the coloured text, we would still grasp the essence of the announcement while losing some interesting background. And that's the key to understanding the role of background and where we want to place it in our document.

What do we lose if we leave information out? 

If the answer is nothing, you can tuck it away at the end of your piece or cut it.

If the answer is that we'd lose important context, find a place for the information in your second paragraph. But keep it brief and tightly expressed.

Forget about the timeline of events and tackle the essential points you want to make. Only then will you find the right way to tackle background.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Five classic business writing mistakes you can easily stop making


BUSINESS writing should be engaging, not boring. It should be packed with passion and purpose, not taken from a blueprint everyone else uses. It should get your juices flowing, instead of making you yawn.

We need individuality to be successful in business. Cookie-cutter imitations of someone else's drive and enthusiasm are a recipe for disaster. 

Yet our courage often fails us when we write for business purposes, and we fall into one of several traps that keep us stuck in the crowd.


1. WE SEPARATE WRITING FROM OUR 'REAL WORK'

The love of writing may not be what makes you bounce out of bed each morning. Your passions may lie in science, fashion design, technology, engineering or one of many other disciplines.

Your writing is still vital to you. It can help you to big success, or it can be your undoing.
THE MANUAL ROAD TO BANKRUPTCY 
A computer manufacturer lost $35m in a single quarter and eventually went out of business. Why? Customers bought a new line of the company's computers, and then rushed to return them because they found the instruction manuals to be badly written to the point of being incomprehensible.
A one-off horror story? Not really. 
REINVENTING THE PESTICIDE 
An oil company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a new pesticide, only to discover the formula had already been created five years earlier — by one of the same company's technicians. His report was so poorly written that no one had finished reading it.
Ouch! 

It's all to easy to forget how important writing is to business success. When you align your words to your passions in life, and realise the important of harnessing them to your bigger purpose, you naturally become a better writer.


2. WE FORGET ABOUT OUR READERS

Having strong purpose for our career goals and business interests is a great start towards powerful writing. But we need to link our interests to the goals of our readers too. Sometimes we may even find a purpose that hasn't yet occurred to them.

In My Fair Lady, the musical film version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, cockney sparrow Eliza Doolittle wants to learn 'to talk proper' so she can get a job in a flower shop, instead of selling on the corner of Tottenham Court Road. Her accent and command of English aren't up to scratch and linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins takes on the task of teaching her to speak well. It goes badly. Eliza just doesn't get it.

When she's on the cusp of giving up, Higgins gives Eliza a purpose beyond a job in a flower shop. 'Just think what you're dealing with,' says Higgins. 'The majesty and grandeur of the English language. It's the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sounds. And that's what you've set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.'

Eliza is stunned. This goal hadn't remotely occurred to her. But now she understands. Moments later, her voice is fluid and eloquent. She rises to the challenge, stretching herself past the mechanics of voice. Eliza sets out with a small goal, but rises to a bigger challenge offered by a mentor with a grand vision.

It's fiction, of course, and fiction has to make more sense than real life. But it's not an impossible dream. When we focus on using our writing to extend our readers' ambitions in the way that Higgins inspired Eliza, our words help to expand the world we work in.


3. WE LACK CLARITY

When we think well in business, we write well. We have clarity in what we want to say and how to express it. When we lack clarity, the answer lies with our thinking more than it does with any flaws in our language skills.

Great writing generally comes from knowing far more than we use. The act of leaving out information forces us to decide what is useful and important, and what is irrelevant. We may think it a waste to accumulate knowledge and then decide not to use it, but we are using it to make a conscious decision based on careful thought.

Nothing is wasted. It is simply focussed into a laser beam. And we've added gravitas.

When we have muddled thinking, we ramble and struggle for the elusive clarity we long to find. We write a sentence or a paragraph, and it feels as if we're stretching for something, an important point that has yet to emerge. So we write another sentence, another paragraph, in the hope that this one will round off our thought. It rarely does. 

We end up with a host of language flaws, partly because we're using more words, sentences and paragraphs than we need. And we're wasting our readers' time, expecting them to plough through our confused thoughts.

When we have laser focus, we have the confidence to write a sentence or paragraph that makes our point. Instinct tells us we're right, and we move on, sure that we're on track.

When we lack clarity, we should go back to research, working out what our readers need to hear, and planning our structure. 

Don't write until you're confident about what you need to say.


4. WE WRITE LONG

'MIND THE GAP' says a lot in only three words. We don't see 'PLEASE MIND THE LARGE, DANGEROUS GAP' at railway stations because adding more than we need dilutes our message.

Writing concisely demands that we couple clear thinking with a forensic approach to our choice of words. If a word, sentence or paragraph adds nothing, cut it.

Readers will be grateful. And when you next write to them, they'll open your document with anticipation, not dread.


5. WE RESORT TO JARGON, CLICHE, AND POMPOUS WORDS

Impress readers with your message, not with long, grandiose words and industry jargon.  Readers may expect gobbledegook in business writing, but they'll write songs about you if you keep your writing simple and clear.

Jargon feels attractive, but it can be your downfall.

Business icon Richard Branson, a man you would hardly describe as an underachiever, has blogged about the need to avoid jargon. Branson has dyslexia, dropped out of school at 16 and went on to notch up various business highs and lows. His Virgin group holds more than 200 companies, including space tourism company Virgin Galactic.

'A few years ago, we were looking into investing money in a financial company,' he wrote. 'The person I was talking to said: "We only have a five per cent bid offer spread." Later, I asked one of my team what the guy was talking about. He explained they were using jargon as a way of hiding the fact they were stealing five per cent before we even started.'

Jargon is no friend. In one crucial aspect, writing is the same as any other craft or profession. Ask a perfumer what they are trying to create with a new fragrance and the answer will be 'simplicity'. An architect, aircraft engineer, or a car designer will each give a similar answer.

Simple is good.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Bury the lead and you bury your writing reputation

DON'T bury the lead is a mantra journalists learn early in their training and it’s a tactic you’d be wise to adopt. When you ‘bury the lead’ you’re offering readers details of little importance to them while making them wait for the main point they'll find interesting and useful.

It’s a mistake that’s easy to make, and straightforward to avoid — don't make readers wait.

Hit them between the eyes with your zinger points and dare them to stop reading. If you do your job well enough, they won’t. We worry that delivering the most useful material upfront works against us when the result is the opposite. 

When your writing is useful and interesting from the start, people read on. Here’s someone who doesn’t waste time. What else do they know? How can they help me?

Let’s assume you went to an important industry event on behalf of your company or organisation and want to let your colleagues know the highlights. It was an all-weekend conference and there’s a lot you could write about.

You’ve spent your entire weekend soaking up information so your colleagues could enjoy their time off. You’re sending out useful information, so the least you can expect is for everyone to read to the end.

WRONG!

The reality is that yours will be one of a likely 120+ emails in your colleagues’ inboxes. They're likely to open only a third of these emails and they’ll stop reading as soon as they’re bored or have something else to do that’s a higher priority. 

Your email will be no exception unless you work to make it gripping, the one that stands out from the inbox fodder.

So where do you start?

Forget the order in which everything happened.

No one cares about the event's timeline. We want to know the highlights, and that may mean cherry picking items that are of most interest or relevance and presenting events out of order. Unless you're clumsy, what you write will make sense.

Start with one main point.

What was the most important or interesting thing that happened? The key point of a speech? A discussion panel’s conclusion? A surprising announcement? Put one of these, not all of them, into a single sentence — keep it simple. One main point, remember. Don’t dilute the impact of your main point by throwing in detail that can wait.

Add nuance further down.

You can flesh out the fuller picture you’re trying to paint for your readers further down your document. Pace the trickle of information so it carries most impact. Don't overload and don't overshare. If something isn't important, don't use it.

Don’t worry about having a wow ending. 

We sometimes sweat about building to a wow finish in case readers lose interest as our document tails away. You don't need to worry. The answer is simple: when you think readers are tempted to stray — STOP WRITING.

Do you need to split into sections for different topics?

Do you have a mix of issues that will interest different groups of colleagues? If you do, pick one main point that stands out from all of the others and then divide into sections with catchy headlines. Replicate the 'don't bury the lead' approach for each section and make it easy for people to flip through to what interests them most.

But be sure to stick to the basic approach. A powerful opening that sums up the main point for a particular topic, adding nuance and detail further down.

If you take the opposite approach to the one I’ve outlined, you’ll soon discover why it has little chance of working. You start with something that’s okay, maybe a little dull… you make similar points, equally lukewarm… and save the best to last. Would you stick around to the end?

You’re aiming for a result that reaches beyond the impact of one document. You’re building a reputation, hopefully as someone who cuts to the chase, someone who is an astute judge of what people really need to know and who respects the backlog in their inboxes. 

You can’t do that if you bury the lead.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

How software you use daily can diagnose your hidden writing habits

USING software to produce some objective writing analysis makes us lazy — but we go there anyway. Few of us have access to the sophisticated algorithms used to discover that Robert Galbraith, debut author of The Cuckoo's Calling, had a secret alter ego in JK Rowling. But we know how to spellcheck our work — sometimes with clumsy results we accept with little thought.

A simple Google search will throw up good and bad reviews of any writing analysis software. It's wise to approach machine-driven verdicts with scepticism and use software purely as an analytic tool, rather than as quality control of your work.

Software can't tell you if your work is capable of nabbing a Nobel Prize for literature, and it will certainly find fault with work that does meet Nobel standards. You will never win an A+ verdict from software, so don't even try. You'll just get that back-at-school feeling, the one that comes with angry red scrawls.

Language analysis software will sometimes suggest changes that will kill your writing, and it will want to add mistakes to work that's pretty damned powerful. Only a fool takes software comments as... foolproof.

So why bother? Because you'll use it in a moment of insecurity, when you desperately want validation that you're doing okay. When you're alone in the office and need a second opinion.

And software isn't all bad. It will highlight some habits you don't even realise you have.

Blunt is the word to remember...

Let's see what three different software tools tell us about the text of Apple's 'Think Different' campaign. An earlier blog (here) will remind you that it was instrumental in making Apple the giant tech brand we know it to be.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

WORD, WORD, WORD

Microsoft Word will check more than spelling if you ask it to do so, and will generate suggestions on what you might want to change, along with readability statistics to tell you how you're doing.

These are the key points of Word's verdict about Apple, and what the result means.
  • Apple used roughly seven words a sentence, making it short and easy to read. 
A common average would be between 13 and 20 words. An average of 30+ words should set off alarm bells, as some sentences will be whoppers readers will struggle to get through. If you write short sentences, your work will have more impact. Apple has pulled this off, partly because some of these are fragments, incomplete sentences. It's an approach normally frowned upon but in Apple's campaign text shown, it works.
  • Apple uses short words — an average of four characters a word.
Short words are usually familiar to us and easy to read. Apple's text isn't bogged down in jargon and pompous language.
  • Apple uses no passive sentences. A good result.
A high number of passive sentences in any piece of writing should throw up a red flag. An earlier blog (here) will tell you why active sentences are often a better choice. It should be no surprise that passive sentences will give the impression of you being... passive.

The zero result for passive sentences in the Apple text reflects the company's nature. Visionary, revolutionary, pioneering — definitely not passive.
  • Apple's reading ease is 84.7
Word offers a verdict on whether text is easy to read. The higher the score, the easier the text is to read. Apple's result is a great verdict.
  • Apple has a gr3.2 — the education level needed to be able to read and understand the text.
The 3.2 level means that the barely literate can read the company's message.

The information Word offers is useful as a blunt diagnostic on your work. Long words or short? Long sentences or short? Mostly passive sentences or active ones? Easy to read? Or slow and confusing?

None of this tells anyone if the content is worth reading, but it gives clues on what might be getting in the way of a reader absorbing what we hope will be brilliant insights.

This is how you switch on and use this feature in Word.
  • Open Word and go to PREFERENCES.
  • Click on SPELLING AND GRAMMAR.
  • Tick the following boxes:
  • CHECK GRAMMAR AS YOU TYPE.
  • CHECK GRAMMAR WITH SPELLING.
  • SHOW READABILITY STATISTICS.
  • Beneath the readability statistics box, you will see a choice of writing style — standard, casual, formal, technical, and custom. Make your choice and click OK.
  • Open a document, go to the TOOLS menu, and then to SPELLING AND GRAMMAR on the drop-down menu.
  • The software will check your writing. When it hits what it sees as a flaw — grammar, spelling or punctuation — you will be prodded to change your writing, or ignore the suggestion.
  • When Word finishes the check, a window appears showing your statistics.
These are the key areas:

Average words per sentence

If your average is fewer than 20, you're working within reasonable limits. Even so, never pass up the chance to improve and cut sentences if needed.

Characters per word

If your result is in double digits, you have some long, complicated words and may want to simplify them.

Passive sentences

These can be a significant writing speed bump. But beware: the software is sometimes wrong.

Reading ease

These are the levels:
90-100     very easy
80-89       easy
70-79       fairly easy
60-69       standard
50-59       fairly difficult
30-49       difficult
0-29         very confusing

Change some of your language choices — shorter words, shorter sentences, and fewer passive ones — and this number goes up. It's simple, but it's best to treat it mostly as a guide. 

Ultimately, you should trust your instincts. After all, it's your writing, your readers and your vision.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

How a three-word verdict shows us our writing fingerprint

THE idea of having a personal writing fingerprint is not a far-fetched one. We make daily judgments, based on what we read, about the personality, credibility and trustworthiness of people we've never met or spoken to.

There's nothing wrong in doing this. Far from it. We need ways to protect ourselves from those out to cheat us at the same time as finding like-minded people we want to connect with to achieving our goals.

Read the following paragraphs and job down three words that describe the writer. Don't try to overthink the three words, just stick with the ones that instantly come to mind.
'If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.'Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss's more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar "stickler". And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves — I have a "zero tolerance approach" to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.'
These are my three words: direct, decisive, opinionated.

These paragraphs are from a blog by Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit.com, the world's largest online repair manual. He also runs Dozuki, which helps companies write their own technical documents, such as paperless work instructions and step-by-step user manuals.

Anyone who applies for a job with Wiens has to take a grammar test. Those who fail are shown the door. Wiens believes people who make fewer grammar mistakes make fewer mistakes when doing something unrelated to writing, even stocking shelves or labelling parts.

You may think his approach is too broad or unforgiving, particularly if grammar is one of your writing weaknesses. Our opinions all come through the filter of our own mindset.

But that's not really the point. You didn't have a problem choosing three adjectives, did you?

By now, you have a reasonably clear idea of who I am, based on what you've read so far — a mix of my content and how I've expressed my thoughts. There's also a chance you have little idea of how your own writing comes across to your readers.

When you speak, you may use short words in coherent sentences. When you write, panic may creep in. When writing to a solicitor, you may throw in quasi-legal language you are ill-equipped to use. You may throw financial jargon into an email to an accountant, while having little idea what the jargon means.

Writing can do that to people. Our common sense disappears. We want to seem knowledgeable and experienced. More than anything, we want to avoid appearing to be ignorant or stupid. So we try to impress.

You don't need a linguistics expert to highlight what we're doing. You can ask colleagues or friends to give you a verdict. For our purposes, we're not trying to prove you wrote something — we already know that. We're after the essence of authorship, evidence of how your readers see you, your personality, strengths and weaknesses.

Give a motley mix of people something you've written and ask them for the three-word verdict. Two or three paragraphs should do, although you can happily give them something longer.

There's a strong chance that your recruits will want to elaborate or justify their comments. They probably won't want to upset you, and may also fall into trying to give feedback — probably with grammar, punctuation and spelling corrections — complete with suggestions on how you should rewrite what you've asked them to read.

STOP THEM! When people overthink their choices, they spoil your chance of an authentic result that will help you.

Be prepared to interpret your volunteers' reactions. You're being given clues about your writing; it's up to you to work out where the clues lead. Your instincts will show you the difference between accurate comments and misguided attempts to flatter.

You'll love some comments and hate others. A few may make your blood boil. These are the most valuable ones

Having the urge to punch someone because they describe your writing as pompous, long-winded or tedious is a slam-dunk sign that they're right. That's why it hurts. They've hit on the part of your writing you hate most, something you thought you were hiding well.

Treat these violent urges as a gift, a sign about where you need to improve. The pain will pass...

Avoid looking for praise, but accept it when it feels genuine. Warning: some comments may appear kind, while hiding criticism. If someone describes your writing as direct, ask yourself if this is a genuine compliment about ideas expressed in well-structured sentences without wasting a word — or do they really mean angry or rude?

Is clear a euphemism for simplistic? Does ambitious mean delusional? Does inspirational imply grandiose?

Some comments will be straightforward and can be taken at face value, while others may demand interpretation. Don't try to overcook anything. Just ask yourself what you were trying to achieve and trust your instincts to come to the right verdict.

Did you play it safe, wishing that a report you needed to finish would disappear? Did you put on a show, trying to dazzle with your use of jargon? Did you write for yourself or for your readers?

The comments people give you, and your feelings about them, are a snapshot of how you think, what you know, and what you feel. Everything's there. Strengths. Weaknesses. Knowledge. Passion. Boredom.

We are what we write...

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Are you a real writer or just a homework slacker?



WRITE with nouns and verbs is some of the best writing advice anyone can give you. These are concrete words with power and strength. When you use detail and facts to get across your message — and resort to adjectives and adverbs with caution — your writing will have greater clarity and impact. Used liberally, adjectives and adverbs weaken writing and devalue your writing reputation.

ADJECTIVES

When we write, we paint pictures with words — not just in novels and poetry, but even in the most serious of business documents. One of our biggest goals is clarity. We want all readers to see the same picture that we have in our minds. The use of adjectives often gets in our way, creating confusion and possible disappointment.

A large pay rise…
A small drop in the company’s share price…
Ideally, we want concrete facts and detail in our work, not adjectives, because we’ll interpret adjectives according to how we, as individuals, see the world.

A large pay rise will carry a different meaning to a care worker than it does to a high-flying CEO. A small drop in a share price is equally ambiguous.
A 10 per cent pay rise with a bonus equivalent to a month’s pay…
A six per cent fall in the company’s share price…
Facts and detail show you as someone who does their homework, who deals with questions before they arise, and who bases their opinions and recommendations on concrete knowledge. This approach shows an awareness of what your readers need to know. They will thank you for it.

Falling back on adjectives with little thought will flag you as someone satisfied with vague writing. Of course there will be times when you need an adjective. For instance, you may be able to justify red as an adjective. But can you push it further. Is it pillar-box red, burgundy, or maroon?

Remember that you’re not writing a whodunit crime novel. And even if you were, you’d still opt for detail over vagueness.






ADVERBS

Bestselling novelist Stephen King, a man who is no slouch when it comes to writing well, is on a crusade against adverbs. And I'm on his side. 

Adverbs are words that modify our verbs and adjectives, or sometimes even other adverbs. They’re easy to spot, and often end in –lyQuicklycompletelytotally. Most of the time, they miss their target.

Imagine this as a sentence in a business proposal.

If we act quickly, we can completely eliminate the threat from our competitors and totally dominate the market.
This hyperbolic sentence is weak and flabby for a mix of reasons, and seems naive and juvenile. The writer seems keen to exaggerate an opportunity, and that may lead to a disastrous business decision.

First, the word quickly is vague. Do we mean, today, tomorrow, or within a year? Each of us will have a different interpretation of what this means. If we expect to build our business with everyone puling in the same direction, shouldn't we expect to be precise in our writing?

Second, eliminate means to expel, remove, or get rid of something. If we aren't eliminating something, we’ll be reducing or lessening the threat from competitors. Don't mislead colleagues by overstating your case. You'll lose their trust if you exaggerate your case or show your ignorance of a word's meaning. Completely is redundant.

Third, dominate means to have power and influence over something. Do we mean control here, or simply that we’d be in a commanding position, one where we have influence but don't quite call all of the shots? Perhaps we'll control 60 per cent of a given market? If you can add specifics, say so. Of course, adding detail demands that you can back up what you say. Do you have the courage to put your head above the parapet?

When we want or expect colleagues to take action based on our words, we should be precise in our thinking and in how we express our ideas. Occasions will arise when you can justify the use of an adverb, but be tough when using them — and explain the need for vagueness where you have no other choice.

Your colleagues and clients may not mention your use of vague words as a reason for criticising your report, or for giving it less than their full support. But flabby words show flabby thinking. That's what they'll object to, even if they don't express it. 

Respect everyone's ability to see the flaws in your work and you'll raise your game. Everyone needs what writer Ernest Hemingway called 'a fail-safe bullshit detector'. 

Push every word to justify its place in your writing, and you'll gain clarity. Remember that the first person you have to convince is you. The objective version of you, not the one who is easy to please. Make every word count and you'll present your work with the confidence that you have looked into every possibility and locked down all options.