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.