Saturday, February 15, 2020

Good Advice for Writers from Stephen King

For this 900th post on WORDS ON THE LINE, I thought it would be helpful to highlight Stephen King's advice to aspiring writers. The article, "22 Lessons from Stephen King on How to Be a Great Writer," summarizes excerpts of King's best-selling book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, originally published in 2000. While each of the 22 lessons is valuable, I'll stick to the three here that have helped me the most. 

The first point King makes in the article is the most important: Read. This means cutting back on watching television in favor of reading widely and frequently. The focus on widely will expand your knowledge, and the attention to frequently—every day—will make reading as second nature and essential as breathing.

The second tip, expect endless criticism and failure, is an undeniable and inevitable truth. I have heard criticism of the greatest writers in history, and I am sure they heard it too. But the negativity did not stop them. That's the attitude you have to take. 

The eighteenth guidance in the article, write every day, goes hand in hand with the first. Stop making excuses. Just do it. Before you know it, you'll have enough material for several novels, screenplays, essay or poetry collections, or whatever it is that moves you.

The article by Maggie Zhang originally appeared in Business Insider in  August 2014 and was updated on August 11, 2015.  It is timeless journalism.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Perfect? Take It from Anne Lamott

Anytime I hear someone say, "I won't accept anything less than perfect," I think of Anne Lamott's retort: "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor."

Let's be clear. Perfection is something to strive for, like eternity, as long as you know you'll never achieve it. Insisting on perfection means letting that naysayer in your head get the best of your judgment. As an example, look at the three-word sentence at the top of this paragraph. I gave little thought to it, but now these six of an infinite number of alternatives are crossing my mind:
  1. Let me be clear.
  2. To clarify ...
  3. So what's the point?
  4. The point Lamott is making ...
  5. Lamott's point is so clear to the thoughtful writer.
  6. (Omit the sentence.)
Who cares? Just write the darn thing. Life is too short to mess around with a sentence whose "perfection" is entirely subjective. A writer needs to produce words, sentences, paragraphs, and documents, not slave over the impossible idea of perfection. Perfectionism falls under the if-you-had-one-wish category. It's a pipe dream. Thanks for the reminder, Anne Lamott! 

Saturday, February 01, 2020

On Writing for the Web, Part 4: Editing for Conciseness

To close this four-part series on writing for the web, let's review the first three parts: first, analyze your audience; second, address your audience's concerns; and third, start with the points most important to your audience. This last installment covers editing for conciseness, because you don't want to waste your audience's time.

1. Remove repetitive ideas. Repetition can be helpful when speaking to drive points home and stimulate retention, but it is less valuable when writing. Here is a repetitive passage I saw in a company's intranet:
Thanks for your generous contributions to our fundraising campaign. We appreciate your thoughtful donations. (14 words)
Both sentences have the same meaning, so the delete the second one:
Thanks for your generous contributions to our fundraising campaign. (9 words) 
 Here's another one from a company's website:
We are concerned about your security, and our latest XYZ technology will ensure your data is secure 24/7. (18 words)
Did you pick up the repetitive security and secure clauses? You have a few choices here, but I'll keep them to two:
Our latest XYZ technology will address your security concerns 24/7. (10 words)
Your data will be secure with our latest XYZ technology. (10 words)  
2. Undo unnecessary words and phrases. Some words add value and others simply do not in a given context. If you were comparing the current system with the proposed system, the adjectives current and proposed matter for clear contrast and parallel form. But we nearly never need the adverb currently, as in:
I am currently completing the analysis. (6 words)
The continuous tense am completing takes care of currently:
I am completing the analysis. (5 words)  
Some phrases exist apparently just to sound important, but discerning readers know they add zero value:
In the year 2019, the S&P 500 rose up by 30.43%. (11 words)
In 2019, the S&P 500 rose 30.43% (7 words)
We know 2019 is a year in the context of the sentence and rising obviously goes up. Even the preposition by seems unnecessary to a fluent speaker. Notice the huge real estate wasters in this next example: 
Please be advised that in the month of July, 14th Street between First Avenue and Second Avenue will be closed to vehicular traffic. (23 words)
In July, 14th Street between First and Second Avenues will be closed to vehicles. (14 words)
Four blunders appear in this sentence: 1) Whenever we write anything, we are advising our readers, so we don't need to tell them we are. 2) Readers needs no reminder that July is a month. 3) Avenue can be changed to Avenues to cover First and Second. 4) Logic dictates that if vehicles can't enter the area, neither can traffic. Here's another example more common in email:     
My name is Philip Vassallo. I am writing to let you know that it was brought to my attention that at this point in time we are not monitoring the area on a day-to-day basis. (35 words)
We are no longer monitoring the area daily. (8 words)
Is this example an exaggeration? Maybe, but I still see all those unnecessary phrases in email:

  • I don't need to introduce myself, as my name and title are in my signature block, and if I don't have a complete signature block, I should. 
  • I am writing is a false start. In fact, it is inaccurate because by the time you are reading this message, I am not writing it.
  • To let you know that is another way of saying the useless please be advised that.
  • The passive voice it was brought to my attention adds the unhelpful idea of someone telling me rather than what I need to tell you.
  • At this point in time falls under the same category as currently, only worse with the extra words, because of the continuous tense are not monitoring.
  • On a day-to-day basis is not a more important way of saying daily, as some writers claim; it is just more verbose.

3. Trash trite transitions. (Say that five times fast!) Many high school composition teachers would say I am committing a sin by calling for the elimination of transitions. But too often such transitions are painfully obvious at best and intelligence insults at worst. Here are three cases in point of disposable transitions:
As you know, economic indicators are showing increases in nearly every sector of the global economy. What this means is that the worldwide recession is finally reversing after nearly a decade of stagnation. In summary, investors are looking for aggressive growth funds.
People say they write as you know for those readers who know whatever they are writing about, or to let those who do not know it realize they should. Then why say it? This is not too deep a question. The clause is unjustifiable.

What this means that attempts to show a causal relationship between two sentences. Again, readers will usually understand the relationship without what this means that, in effect, or as a result. See if inserting any on those three phrases between the sentences below would bring greater clarity to them. I think not:

  • Last year we closed our California production facility. We no longer have a presence on the West coast. 
  • Sales have decreased by 5 percent year over year. The CEO has bolstered our sales team to reverse this decline. 

Finally, the phrases in summary and in conclusion are generally lame ways of wrapping up a discussion. We know it's in summary: the phrase starts the last sentence or paragraph.

Making every word matter is vital to online writers who want their readers to capture their message. Employing these three tips, as well as those in the previous three installments of this series, will go a long way toward achieving that goal.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

On Writing for the Web, Part 3: Hitting the High Points

You can distill the four parts of this series on writing for the web to one word: audience. Part 1 of this series looks at analyzing your audience in the planning stage of writing, part 2 asks you to look at whether your draft addresses your audience's concerns, this part looks at elevating those concerns for your audience with a powerful style, and in the next post part 4 offers tips for making every word matter to your audience. Audience, audience, audience, audience—just in case I didn't say it enough.

How do we heighten our audience's concerns? By bringing the key point to the top of the message. Let's look at a well written example from "Investing in 2020: A Year to Be Selective," which I accessed today from the website of investment banking giant Morgan Stanley:
What a difference a year can make. At this time in 2019, major U.S. stock indices had logged their worst yearly performance in a decade. While the start of 2019 may have felt rocky, investors ultimately witnessed a remarkable year. The S&P 500, the broad U.S. stock market benchmark, rose more than 30% and now sits at or near all-time highs, while the main bond benchmark, the Barclay's Capital U.S. Aggregate Index, gained around 9%—both up three times their long-term annual averages.
The first sentence, only seven words, is the key point of this paragraph. The second sentence starts by pointing to the bad year of 2018 without mentioning it, and by placing this information in a clause beginning with while to minimize its value in contrast with what follows it, namely the good news of a remarkable year. The third sentence gives the supporting data, concluding a powerfully focused and articulate paragraph. 

Placing that short first sentence at the end of the paragraph would make it appear amateurish and melodramatic. We read online looking for the key points upfront. 

Perhaps delaying the point works well in fiction writing, where suspenseful writing leads to page-turning, engaging reading. Here's a self-written fictitious example of placing the key point at the end of a paragraph for humorous effect:
This morning I woke up remembering I had not checked the mailbox the night before. Since it was still dark, I thought it was all right to step out into the cold winter air in my underwear, as the mailbox is only five feet from my front door. There I found only one item, a letter from the IRS demanding an audit of my tax returns for the past five years. Trembling, as much from the letter as from the Arctic temperatures, I then realized I had locked myself out of the house. I began knocking, and then banging, on the door for my sleeping wife to wake up and rescue me. No response. Except for a stray dog that leaped on me and bit my thigh before running off in the darkness. At this point I was shivering and screaming in pain while banging on the front door. Within seconds a police officer pulled up his car on my driveway and handcuffed me, half-naked, frost-bitten, and bleeding, unwilling to listen to my raving about accidentally locking myself out of my own house as he shoved me headfirst into the patrol car before whisking me off to the police station. I am having a bad day.
That last six-word sentence is an amusing understatement, but it is an example of the kind of writing you'd be better off avoiding if you were writing for the web.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

On Writing for the Web, Part 2: Using the Talking Points

Part 1 of this series examines audience analysis in writing for the web. In fact, all four parts of this series rely on a deep understanding of audience: their tolerance for detail, comfort with rhetorical approaches, familiarity with varied syntax, and preference of vocabulary. This post covers level of detail for your online content.

The most valuable tip I can give is to create talking points. Each sentence you write says some specific thing, often more than one thing. You should have names for the things you express. Look at this example:

Our company was founded in 1991. At the beginning of the internet explosion, we created an online presence. Our clients, in turn, needed to reach a larger marketplace for their products and services in an increasingly global economy.  We have helped numerous organizations big and small brand themselves to a worldwide audience. 
This passage has 4 sentences and 52 words, but bean-counting should be at the bottom of our quality control list. First, let's call out the talking points, making sure we limit the points to no more than one or two words, such as problem, impact, method, cause, options, solution, benefits, and plan:

  • History – Our company was founded in 1991
  • History At the beginning of the internet explosion, we created an online presence
  • History Our clients, in turn, needed to reach a larger marketplace for their products and services in an increasingly global economy.  
  • Achievement We have helped numerous organizations big and small brand themselves to a worldwide audience.

Our first problem with this passage is having the most important sentence, the achievement, buried at the bottom of a history paragraph—not a good idea. Second, we have a lot more history than we do achievement. Third, we are combining two ideas into one paragraph. By calling out the talking points, we might rewrite the passage like this: 
Since our founding in 1991, we have helped numerous organizations big and small brand themselves to a worldwide audience. At the beginning of the internet explosion, we created an online presence. Our clients, in turn, needed to reach have reached a larger marketplace for their products and services in an increasingly global economy.  
By bringing the achievement sentence to the top of the passage, we have entirely eliminated the need for history with 2 sentences and 36 words, a 50% sentence and 31% word reduction. Far more importantly, we have a more effective audience-focused message.

You can use the talking point method for any kind of content. It will transform your online writing to a style aligned with your audience's concerns.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

On Writing for the Web, Part 1: Addressing the Audience

This post begins a four-part series on writing for the web, whether blogging, tweeting, or posting on sites like Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube.

Start with addressing your audience. If you have a new enterprise to promote, a Great American Novel to sell, or a vacation site to recommend, always consider how that business, book, or bungalow relates to your readers. You wouldn't want to sell igloos in Ecuador or roller skates at the Mount Everest base camp. You would surely want to address the potential buyers, in other words, the right audience. This is a three-step task: identify, plan, and find.

1. Identify 
You can best identify your audience by answering a few questions:

  • What is their demographic profile (sex, age, race, ethnicity, religion, education, income, occupation)?
  • How much of their information do they get from reading social media?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • Why and how does your content address their concerns? 

These questions are just a starter. They often lead to other questions, so keep your mind open for those flowing ideas.

2. Plan
Now you should be prepared to not only answer those questions, but respond to them with a clear answer. For example, if affordable healthcare keeps them up at night, explain how your enterprise addresses that concern? Write down those answers and responses, so you will do the writer's equivalent of talking the talk. Those notes you compile will inform your approach to writing social media. 

3. Find
Finally, you've got to locate that audience. Where do they go to stay connected? Do they read posts on LinkedIn? Facebook? Tweets on Twitter? blogs? Are they more interested in vlogs on YouTube? Go where they go.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Happy 15th Birthday, WORDS ON THE LINE!

On this day 15 years ago, I began WORDS ON THE LINE with the aim of offering resources for business and academic writers. With this post, the 894th, I remain true to that purpose by providing links to my greatest hits:

  • The Books section offers 68 reviews of books that may inspire you or guide your writing.
  • In Diction,  you'll get a lot of advice in 26 posts on word choice and etymology.
  • Email renders copious tips throughout 25 posts on employing the most common mode of business writing today.  
  • Many of your Grammar questions will be answered in this section of 54 posts. 
  • Reading this 20-part series on Logical Fallacies will enable you to avoid rhetorical blunders.
  • The Style section (109 posts) covers an exhaustive range of topics, including active-passive voice, parallel structure, and sentence construction.
  • Theory and Writing Process comprise 169 posts abundant with advice on the greatest writing challenges and their solutions. 
  • The 11 posts in Websites is a clearinghouse for a legion of excellent websites for writers.
And there is much more in this blog for developing writers in any field and discipline based on my 24 years of full-time and 21 years of part-time writing consulting to business, government, nonprofits, and academia. Here's to the next 15 years of WORDS ON THE LINE!