Saturday, April 29, 2006

Recommended Reading: Writers on Writing

If you want insight into a writer’s life, one of the best ways to get it is from working writers themselves. Beginning in early 1999, The New York Times began publishing a series of commissioned essays by American novelists, essayists, journalists, poets, and playwrights to explore literary themes, approaches to writing, and just about any creative idea that can come from topics as seemingly mudane as walking a dog or as controversial as engaging in politically subversive activity. The result was nearly a hundred lucid, succinct, and engaging essays covering an impressive range of topics, including writers' responsibility to their world, how ideas become the seed of a full-length novel, what it takes for a writer to survive financially from one book to the next, and tips to overcome writer’s block.

Those essays are available in book form. Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (Times Books, 2001) and Writers on Writing, Volume II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (Times Books, 2003) comprise a collection of 92 pieces from the eclectic likes of Russell Banks, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, William Kennedy, Jamaica Kincaid, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, Anna Quindlen, Amy Tan, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and some eighty more celebrated American authors.

The contradictory viewpoints expressed by these writers are often striking. Take Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), who begins his article by noting, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence,” and contrast it with Carolyn Chute’s (The Beans of Egypt, Maine) observation, “Usually it takes three days to get into writer mode. Three days of quiet nonlife mode, lots of coffee and no interruptions.”

For aspiring writers these collections have plenty of fodder. Consider the observation from teacher and novelist Nicholas Delbanco (The Martlet's Tale): “To engage in imitation is to begin to understand what originality means. … Imitation is deeply rooted as a form of cultural transmission; we tell our old stories again and again.”

Both books are well worth the $11 cost from for anyone looking for fresh thinking or inspirational ideas.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 8: Brief Briefly

The ironic adage, “Be brief, brother, be brief,” seems to smack of the problem that the speaker admonishes others to avoid. Why couldn’t he state the imperative in two words (“be brief”) instead of five? The answer is quite simple: He could—if speaking to those inclined to listening; however, the five-word version adds emphasis for those inclined not to. I say this not to suggest that you repeat yourself in the executive summary, but to reflect on what your readers consider to be brief. President Ronald Reagan preferred just the high-level briefing to decide on issues and left the details to his trusted associates; Senator John Glenn liked delving into the details before taking a position. Clearly, you would have to write different executive summaries of the same report if either man were your chief executive. As I’ve said on this blog before, knowing your readers should precede knowing what to write—if you are to write with ease and precision.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 7: Style

When writing executive summaries, remember these four tips to make every word count!

1. Prefer general language to jargon to reach all your readers. Try your executive summary with readers who may be familiar with your audience but unfamiliar with the technicalities of your subject matter. If those readers can understand your executive summary, so will your audience; if they cannot, then edit it for clarity.

2. Limit transitional phrases and prefer content language over context language—but not at the expense of clear expression. For example, note the context, or helpful-to-know, language that the writer strikes out in the interest of brevity and highlighting the content, or need-to-know, language:

DRAFT 1 (51 words)
Investors Plus should hire three account executives in Region 3. In doing so, the Company will effectively achieve its stated objective to increase sales by $1.5 million within 18 months. As a result, it will succeed in and recovering sales lost to increased competition from Surety Banking over the past year.

DRAFT 2 (30 words)
Investors Plus should hire three account executives in Region 3 to increase sales by $1.5 million within 18 months and and recover sales lost to increased competition over the past year.

3. Summarize information rather than repeat it verbatim. This is tricky. You do not want to recreate your story by changing its meaning; rather, you want to find words and phrases that better serve the readers’ need to capture information efficiently. For example, say the original report stated:

An 8-square-centimeter area of polyvinyl chloride tubing triple-coated with Color R203 exhibited a 75% patina loss when exposed to 1 milliliter of Xylol over a 30-second period.

The executive summary may make the same point by stating:

Polyvinyl chloride coated with Color R203 suffers significant patina loss when exposed to Xylol.

4. Use bullets wherever possible to broadcast key points and reduce verbiage. Let the following example speak for itself.

DRAFT 1 (62 words)
Moving the Creedwell Production Facility will reduce operating expenses by saving $25,000 on rental space annually. In addition, the move will make commuting easier by an average of 30 minutes each way for more than 75 percent of our existing staff. Finally, the move will substantially increase our labor pool because of the higher number of available workers in the new area.

DRAFT 2 (36 words)
Moving the Creedwell Production Facility will:
  • reduce annual rental expenses by $25,000
  • reduce commuting by approximately 30 minutes each way for over 75 percent of current staff
  • increase the number of available workers

Using bullets positions writers in a brevity-focused mindset. By placing key details into bullets, the writer keeps whittling away until every word counts and the ideas presented are conceptually parallel.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 6: Substance

When considering content for the executive summary, remember these tips:

Condense what you’ve already said in the lengthier document. Add nothing new. If your document has an informational flavor, do not use the executive summary to editorialize. Moreover, do not use this precious space to evaluate what you have written. Resist the urge to write, “Our Company stands at the threshold of a monumental decision which could explode profits and trigger a new era of unprecedented prosperity.” Leave that chatter for your upcoming interview with the reporter from The Wall Street Journal. In short, claim only what you have already claimed in the document.

Include only information relevant to the report or proposal. Cutting sections entirely is advisable if they do not advance the key sentence you established when beginning the executive summary.

Remember the 10 percent maximum rule.
Keep the executive summary to fewer than 100 words for a 1,000-word report, to fewer than 1,000 words for a 10,000-word proposal, and so on. While this may not be a hard-and-fast rule, it makes for a sound guideline. Most executive summaries that sparkle meet this criterion.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 5: Structure

When organizing the content of an executive summary, follow these guidelines:

Design the structure of the executive summary based on your argument. Doing so provides a virtual table of contents for those readers interested in a more detailed examination of the document.

Limit the executive summary to a few paragraphs, each of which can stand alone as a coherent, unified idea. You’ll know that your paragraphs are rock solid if you can give each a one- or two-word title (e.g., recommendation, background, principles, observations, conclusions)—with each sentence in the paragraph relating to that title.

Place the executive summary at the front of the document on its own page or pages. Occasionally, writers place the executive summary at the end of the document. This practice defeats the point of its function—to summarize quickly and easily for the intended reader. Placing it in the front as a separate document enables the reader to separate and catalogue it for easy reference.

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