Thursday, May 28, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 2: Ask Questions

Writing at work is like engaging in a dialogue. Take a look at these two sample sentences:
  1. Purchasing a SmartyPants Smartphone for our sales representatives would enhance their client relationships, data sharing capabilities, and accessibility to management from remote locations.
  2. On Friday, May 22, 2009, at 2:46 a.m., a significant event occurred when CompuGook Version 13.7 crashed at Server 16, causing a service interruption of 11 minutes, 23 seconds, and a save failure of 34 transactions valued at $52,963.07.
Think of the questions these statements answer. Sentence 1 answers five: What should we purchase? For whom should we purchase it? Would it enhance the sales representatives’ client relationships? Would it enhance their data sharing capabilities? Would it enhance their accessibility to management from remote locations? Sentence 2 answers eight: When did a significant event occur? To what did the event occur? At what location did it occur? How long did it last? Did it cause a service interruption? Did it cause a save failure? How many transactions were affected? How much income was at stake?

Now, let’s think in reverse. These are the very questions that your readers would want answered when reviewing a proposal (sentence 1) or root-cause analysis (sentence 2). Of course, the writer has more questions to answer (e.g., for sentence 1: What is the cost of the smartphone? Is the smartphone service good? And for sentence 2: What was the cause of the crash? Did we recover the transactions?). But we should not take for granted what the questions are.

So here’s a good way to get started when you’re stuck: Write down the questions your readers would have about your topic—and then answer them. Before you know it, you’ll be pounding away at the keyboard in a freeform burst of creative energy.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 1: Read

Have you ever sat at your writing desk wasting time instead of moving your fingers forward on the keyboard? This problem plagues even the strongest writers. The difference between the seasoned and novice writer, however, is in knowing what to do when writer’s block comes knocking on their door. The next dozen posts of WORDS ON THE LINE will feature tips on breaking writer’s block.

Here’s a first suggestion. The next time you’re pulling the hair out of your head, fingers paralyzed, unable to create the next word, try reading. Pick up a book by a favorite author, or browse a magazine or newspaper—anything—to connect yourself to language. The ideas you’ll get from reading may prove the perfect transition to your writing task. We are constantly associating ideas from one area of interest to another. For instance, you may be struggling over a how to best present an argument in favor of a controversial course of action for your business. Opening a passage by an admired writer—especially one in a discipline similar to yours—might just give you the inspiration you need. Or say you can’t turn a phrase the way you’d like. Shifting gears by thumbing through an interesting essay or op-ed piece might give you what you’re looking for: focused, artful, powerful, sentences.

To be a good reader you do not have to be a good writer, but to be good writer you have to be a good reader as well. Reading keeps you in the language groove.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Online Courses on the Way

I have decided to offer online minicourses and webinars in 2009. They will include the content on my one-, two-, and three-day writing workshops, and they will cover a broad range of writing topics, such as e-mail, grammar, customer service correspondence, executive summaries, proposals, reports, audit reports, meeting minutes, instructions, marketing materials, Web 2.0, English as a Second Language, and much more.

These courses will be ideal for people in numerous situations:
  • clients who are not inclined or have the time to attend my in-depth sessions
  • those who feel a small time and cost investment would better serve their needs
  • writers who want just a refresher of the key concepts covered in the lengthier course

More announcements will appear on this blog as they become available. Keep posted!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Tips from a Novelist Apt for the Workplace Writer

In an April 28 article appearing on the Writer’s Digest website, author Karen Dionne shares what she learned from the work of mega-hit author Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure, among many other blockbuster novels). The article, “Michael Crichton’s Top 5 Writing Lessons,” offers three suggestions that work best for the fiction writer: surprise your reader, keep the clock ticking by maintaining tension, and play fast and loose with the facts).

But the two other tips are of immediate use for the business and technical writer: challenge your reader and get your facts straight. We should never assume that our readers are our intellectual inferiors; on the contrary, we should challenge them to consider new ideas based on compelling, accurate evidence. Here’s a link to the brief article:

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Most of the World in One Room

A group of 19 engineers was in attendance for an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) writing class I recently conducted in New York City. Counting myself, I realized that to my pleasure, but not to my surprise, each of us represented a different nation of origin (listed in order of greatest population): China, India, United States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Ukraine, Colombia, Poland, Afghanistan, Dominican Republic, Bulgaria, and Slovakia! In a world of 6.7 billion souls, those 20 countries represent only 9 percent of all the 220-plus nations and territories on Planet Earth, but their 3.9 billion residents account for 58 percent of the world’s population—more than half the world!

What’s the point? I could think of three:
  1. It doesn’t get more diverse than working in New York; for this very reason, I love working there.
  2. It goes to show that the United States does not need to make English the official national language, since so many people want to learn English, which has become the unofficial language of the world marketplace, anyway.
  3. It proves that the term ESL is a misnomer because for the multilingual professionals who come to my writing courses, English is the first language of their jobs. What they do at home is their business; however, they are all well aware that English is their first on-the-job language. They desire to get it right—and they leave the course feeling their progress.