Concise writing

Are We Losing Our Ability to Write Well?

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In the last couple of weeks the concept of good grammar has been showing up all around me.  The first incident came in the form of a colleague wanting to use more active verbs in one of his articles.  When I read the example he sent of a passive and active verb, it didn’t look right to me.  To verify my suspicions I went to my references and yes, indeed, his example of an active verb was incorrect.  It was as much a lesson for me as it was for him.

The second occasion was when I attended a tele-class entitled “Tightening Your Text Like a Pro” with Arielle Ford and Linda Sivertsen (it was fabulous).   What a great reminder of how many filler words we use (really, actually, that, etc.)  I took a look at some of my recent writing and realized I had fallen off the concise-writing wagon.  I went back to my exercise of cutting my word count in half whenever possible.

Then I read this article, “Many English Speakers Cannot Understand Basic Grammar”. Yikes.  Here was another reminder that we have not mastered the basic elements of English grammar.

All this was a wake-up call for me to revisit some of my trusted resources.  A thorough reference guide with easily skim-able content is Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words by Bruce Ross-Larson.  If you don’t have a copy, check it out!

For instance, when was the last time you looked at your writing and thought, “Do I have any overweight prepositions?” Or have you wondered, “Do I use premature pronouns?”

Overweight Prepositions:

…with reference to                         Substitute: of, on, for, about

…in relation to                                   Substitute: on, about

Premature Pronouns:

If he scores a goal, Mario will be named MVP     Change to: If Mario scores a goal, he will be named MVP

Digest a few sections of this book at a time otherwise you will question your choice to be a writer at all!  My advice is to always look at your word count and find areas to delete.  Set a goal of cutting at least 30% on your first edit.  You will be surprised at how many extra words you have that take away from the potency of your text.

12 Elements of a Great Blog

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Hmm…there is so much that makes a blog great that I am challenged to fit it all into 700 words or less.  That is not to say you have to incorporate a lot of elements to create a great blog but there are so many easy, intuitive things you can do that I want to share them all with you.  So no more preamble, let’s get to it.

    Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

    Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  1. Be consistent with personality and voice. What do you feel passionate and knowledgeable about that you wish to share?  How conversational do you want to be while still remaining professional?  Your visitors should get a very good sense of your personality while they spend time with you online.
  2. Stay focused. The reader should be able to get a quick sense of what to expect from your blogs.  If your posts are about random topics and rants, you will not keep a steady readership.  Topics among blogs should vary to keep your reader interested but your overall blog site should have a clear theme.
  3. Identify your target audience. Who is your reader? Who is your ideal client?  Write about topics that are important to them.
  4. Provide original content. Make sure you don’t just rehash what is already online in order to create a blog, speak from your own wisdom and experience.  You can always add an additional tip or two from what you have read, but use it to enhance your content.
  5. Address your audience. Write for your reader, not at them.  Use “you” more often than “I”.  Blogging should not be a lecture, a keynote, or a monologue.
  6. Create scan-able formatting. Long paragraphs and big blocks of text turn visitors off.  Instead work towards short introductory paragraphs, lists of tips, bullet points, action items, etc. and then finish with a quick round-up.  If a particular blog does not lend itself well to lists, find a way to highlight key points or elements within the paragraphs that break up the text so that the reader can find the gems easily.  Incorporate subheadings or separate the blog up into a series of posts rather than try to fit it all in one long blog.
  7. Invite a discussion. Your topic does not need to be controversial to create a buzz.  Elicit comments and ask for feedback.  Readers like to share their views but sometimes unless you create a clear call to action they may just read, enjoy and move on.  Clearly ask for comments or opinions.  Go back to your post and respond to their comments.  Answer questions and thank people for engaging with you.
  8. Support others. Linking to other sites and blogs is a great search engine strategy but it can also be a wonderful way of adding even more value to your reader and supporting the efforts of your colleagues.  For instance, Arielle Ford makes some great points about why (and how) authors should champion their competitors in a recent blog on The Huffington Post. Check it out.
  9. Limit Self-Promotion. It is certainly understandable if you want to share valuable content and then do a soft sales pitch for your services or products, but this should not be a regular occurrence.
  10. Edit…Edit…Edit. Reread your blog draft and cut unnecessary and irrelevant pieces.  If your initial word count is 850, challenge yourself to get it down to 600.  Your writing will improve and your readers will thank you for it.
  11. Write a great title. Make the title of your blog interesting, descriptive and accurate. It is fun to come up with clever headlines but if you are interested in the general public finding you sometimes you have to be simple and clear. Think in terms of the keywords someone might use in a search engine.
  12. Integrate pictures. Your blog will be more visually appealing and give a relevant clue to your readers about its content if you add photos.  Look at Flickr for available photos and just make sure you link back to the original.

What have I missed?  Please share your wisdom!

Do You Lose Your Voice When You Write?

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I am not suggesting that you suffer from a strange side effect of writer’s block.  I am referring to our tendency to lose our brand identity when we write books, speeches, promotional collateral, opt-in products, website copy, etc.  Have you ever read some of your own content months or years later and thought it does not even sound like you?  Have you watched one of your keynote presentations and wondered why it did not feel authentic? Have you reviewed your website copy lately and thought, “Is this really me?”

Just for fun, let’s call this phenomenon Writer’s Laryngitis (WL).  We will define it as a condition resulting from authors or speakers deviating from their brand, their rhythm, and their personality because they are trying too hard to accommodate their perceptions of their audience.

Are you addressing industry mavens and CEOs and instead of being your clever and engaging self, you end up delivering a stoic and lifeless presentation?  What if the demographics of your readers are predominantly male or female, do you get too in touch with your masculine or feminine side in an attempt to establish rapport when in fact your disingenuous tone turns people off?

These may seem like dramatic examples, but on a much smaller scale this happens more often than you realize.

Mild to Severe WL-like symptoms:

  • You find yourself stuck trying to write about content you coach everyday, or you try to mimic expressions and concepts that do not come easily to you.
  • You stumble for just the right words to explain your own services and products.
  • When you receive your own Opt-In product emails each day, are you unable to see your reflection in them?
  • Your personality resembles slacks and a nice sweater but your correspondence wears a three-piece suit
  • When listening to your own recorded tele-seminar script you sound more rehearsed than the conversational tone of your in-person consultations
  • A new client or colleague tells you that based on your previous correspondence and content, you “seem different” in person

In-Home Remedies:

  • The next time you talk with a potential new client on the phone, record yourself on a digital recorder.  Are you explaining your services the same way in print?  Chances are your audio explanation was more engaging and persuasive.
  • Put your promotional collateral and sales letters side-by-side with your web copy and see if they are consistent in tone and messaging
  • Read your manuscript chapters aloud to yourself. If the words do not flow easily for you, then simplify and replace it with your everyday diction

Professional Treatment:

You may have a more severe condition of WL (or lack the time to cure yourself) and I recommend you seek the advice of a second set of eyes.  Chances are you are too close to your own condition and self medicating may not be the answer.  Work with a collaborative writer or editor to help you with the consistency and tone of your messages.  After only a couple of consultations and reviewing your existing content, a writer specializing in voice duplication can create impressions of you on paper.

Here’s to getting better soon!

How to Edit Your Own Writing. Getting Back to Basics.

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These tips are for anyone interesting in creating quality content for books, blogs, ebooks, newsletters, ezines, and even daily email correspondence.  Getting back to the basics is a great way to tackle a process that appears overwhelming or mystifying.

So What: You might have a pretty good idea why you are writing a book, ebook, newsletter, etc., but are you sure you know why someone should read it?  What are your take-aways?  What do you hope the reader would learn?  How can it or will it make a difference in their lives?

Theme Party: You have already determined why someone should read your content therefore you are half way there.  You have a theme.  You have a driving force for continuity, but are you continuously making the connection, threading that theme throughout the product?  It may seem obvious to you that each step, tool, story or strategy is related to the overall premise, but make sure you take the time to reinforce it with clarity.  But let’s be clear:  Continuity does not mean redundancy.  Threading is not the same as repeating.  There is the old adage of “Tell them what you are going to tell them.  Tell them.  Then tell them what you’ve told them.”  Yes, this is true, just don’t hammer it into your reader or they will perceive this, and you, as not respecting their intelligence.

Too Much Good Stuff:
I often have clients come to me when they have been told by a publisher that they need to cut their word count by 25-30%.  Their expressions range from “But I don’t want to cut any of the stories or tools” or “I keep rereading it and I don’t see how I can cut anything.”

For most of us, being told that our work needs tightening is a bit ambiguous.  It is easier for a publisher to say, and an author to hear, “you need to cut 2,000 words”. The end result, when done correctly, is the same. By looking for effective ways to cut word count, the writing becomes tighter and the manuscript reads better.  You will find redundancy in your message and extraneous words that may be part of your day-to-day diction but have no real place or purpose in your manuscript. The thesaurus feature is a great tool for eliminating the redundancy of your most popular word choices.  (See previous blog post, The Best Concise Writing Tip I Ever Learned for more details.)

My Two Tense Worth: Are you telling a story in the past or present tense?  Pick one and go back through your writing to make sure it all matches.  For instance, do you write, “we were expected to have our PowerPoint presentation available be at the event so I write the last few slides, I upload the graphics and I will send it off to my assistant to print and bind the hard copies.”  Can you see how the beginning was in the past tense of “we were expected” and then suddenly all of the verbs that follow are in the present tense “write, upload, send.”  It is very easy to slip back and forth when you verbally tell a story, but you have to be very careful when you put pen to paper.

Step away from the screen, there is nothing to see here, folks: Ever go back to an important email you sent or a blog you posted and find a mistake?  You have no idea how you could have missed it.  Simple, it is your work and your brain sees what it means, not necessarily what is on the screen.  You may have forgotten the “it”, “do”, or used the wrong “their/there”, etc. and each time you initially reread it before you hit Send or Publish you could have sworn it was there.  Save it and walk away for an hour or even a day.  Fresh eyes are a key to making the obvious, well, more obvious.

Double Vision: You may think it is a masterpiece, it is exactly what you intended to say or wonder how there could ever be anything left to improve upon.  Nice thought, but reach out to your network, your colleagues and a professional trained to make improvements.  This second set of eyes is priceless but you need to remember to check your ego at the door.  Nothing can zap your self-confidence more than the colored evidence of Track Changes splattered all over your precious work of art.  Remember that you asked for suggestions and improvements and the result is your reader’s professional and sometimes personal opinion of what will make it better.  Take what you want and leave the rest.

There is a lot to be gained by refining your writing abilities.  Just as you are considered articulate based on your strong vocabulary,  so will you hold expert status by others based on your clear, concise and well-written products.

If our ears could talk. What your audience is saying about your tele-seminar.

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Tell me something new.  Give me a tool or strategy that did not occur to me.  I want to walk away feeling as though I traded my time for value.

Have you ever picked up a “7 Strategies” or “10 Principles” type book and scanned the table of contents or flipped through the book hoping to find a gem or knowledge nugget that could be an a-ha moment for you?  You are not alone.  We all want to learn more and with the accessibility of information online and our need for instant gratification, it appears as though we are commitment phobic when it comes to purchasing products and making the time to sit quietly and actually read them.

The Answer: the tele-seminar.  I prefer to speak and learn in bullet points with a story or two, and I retain more information through auditory means.  Give me a concise format with clear explanations and I am a fan (or follower) for life.  Those were the motivating factors for why I started signing up for any tele-seminar that I thought might teach me something, spur my creativity, or increase the value I bring to my clients.

What I found was that some of these classes added value and others just appeared to be a means to obtain more names for a mailing list.  For those of you who are motivated simply by the latter, may this serve as a wake up call because your audience is brighter than you give them credit for.

Planning to create content for your tele-seminar?

Here are some of my observations, not as an expert creator, but as an avid, engaged participant.

•    What grade are you? Rate your own content.  Are you providing guidance for amateurs, intermediates, or advanced participants?  Consider your audience when you decide what to share.  For instance, is this a follow up to another call or live speaking engagement?  Have you covered a lot of the material in your newsletter or ezine which they already receive?  You can always break up your sessions into different levels which will keep the beginner coming back, while it respects the more advanced student’s time.

•    What’s on your mind? Solicit questions prior to the call.  By asking for questions in advance, you not only pre-qualify the existing knowledge base of your caller, but you personalize the seminar.  Anyone who took the time to send in a question will make it a point of not missing the class.  When you send out the reminder email it would be great to see what questions you have already received which further peaks the interest of your audience.

•    This is a story about…. Please do not read from a script.  Notes are great, but a script is too much.  The audience can tell and they will perceive you as an amateur.  This is your content, your passion, and they are listening to you because they believe you to be the expert.  Step up and speak from the heart and the mind.

•    And the Oscar goes to…. The other side of that issue is when the facilitator sounds as if he/she is either a television product spokesperson or drank too much of the Kool-aid.  Be yourself, please.  Most participants in a tele-seminar are turned off by the fully-animated hard sell.  Add value in a smart, relaxed yet engaged manner.

•   I see clearly now…. Not all of the audience will be strong auditory learners, therefore if you have content that lends itself well to a worksheet, send it out with the email reminder for the call.  Taking notes and filling out sections of a short tool-kit will not only help retention but it will be a tangible reminder of you, the call and your expertise.

•    Seen but not heard. Offer the webinar option.  The idea of using up cell phone minutes or incurring long distance charges on their phone may not be the most economical for some of your listeners.  Being able to listen to the call from a PC or laptop is a great alternative.  Although it limits input from the audience, webinars allow you to have more people on the call who would normally not participate.  More ears and eyeballs is the goal, isn’t it?

•    What was that again? Record the session and send it out to those who participated.  They may have been driving, preparing dinner, or just simply missed a concept and want to go back and review a portion of the call.

As a future fan of your tele-seminars, I ask you to please, concentrate on delivering gems and your expert status will be well-deserved.

Improving Writing Sessions with Clients

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“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” – Maya Angelou

Over the past couple of years I have been using my digital recorder during some of my client sessions more frequently and I am amazed at how much I have learned from this method and hope it will help you as well.

Capturing Their Voice: Whether I am collaborating, ghostwriting or editing, I find it extremely valuable to review the audio sessions to make sure I am authentic to my client’s voice.  Have I been able to pick up on their diction? Do they use particular phrases?  Do they have language patterns that are their signature style?  Do they choose words such as “not happy” instead of “unhappy” therefore creating a sense of temporary condition rather than labeling their state of mind?

Have you ever watched a celebrity or public personality being interviewed about their new book and after about 20 minutes of the interview, the host reads a passage from the book and it does not sound like them?  The same is true for recognized speakers whose presentations do not resemble their daily dialogue or the content in their products.  This disconnect can be subtle or it can be embarrassingly apparent to the audience and may jeopardize the credibility of the ‘author’.

The concept of honoring and capturing the voice of my clients, be it speakers, authors or executives, is the catalyst for the creation and branding of Your Voice, Inc.

Improving Communication with Clients: I have learned valuable lessons about my communication style and my interaction with my clients while listening to some of these audio files.  In one instance, I realized that my client asked me questions when what he was really doing was working through an internal dialogue and while I had been attempting to answer the question, he is on to the next subject.  In the present moment, and within the context of the session, this pattern was not easily recognizable.  When I was reviewing the audio, it became clearer and having noticed it in our first session I made the adjustment and both our communication with each other and our overall sessions have improved.  In another example, I was able to notice that pregnant pauses inserted after addressing certain aspects of the content were very productive for stretching my client to go deeper with the concepts and in most cases creating extremely powerful expressions and phrases that might otherwise never have surfaced.

I do not want to imply that any manipulation is occurring as a result of listening to these tapings, however recognizing personality traits, communication styles and improving the creative process have made the audio recordings invaluable to me.

Catching Every Word: With some clients it is important that their stream of consciousness, the stories they wish to add to a chapter or speech, or our concept development sessions be captured word for word.  I use the audio file to supplement my handwritten or typed notes from the sessions to create valuable summaries as well as pure content development.

In some of these instances it is most efficient for me to employ the use of a transcriber who can document the session while I am working on another part of the project.  (For referrals of top-notch transcribers, please contact us at writer@yourvoiceinc.com)

Note: My clients are fully aware that our sessions are being recorded and is done only with their permission.  All recordings remain the property of my clients and are provided to them or destroyed immediately following the completion of the project, if not on a weekly basis.

The Best Concise Writing Tip I Ever Learned

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Ever read a blog, an article, or an entire book and thought, “Wow, the author could have told me that in a few bullet points, a couple of paragraphs, or without those extra 100 pages”?

I learned the most basic and most critical tip for how to write more concisely in my English class back in middle school. I had to write a story about a personal event and was given only a time limit. When the class was finished the teacher asked us to count the number of words in our story.  I wrote about 1,000 words and was feeling very proud of myself, as if I had accomplished a great feat.

The teacher told us to take that same story and write it with HALF the number of words.  I did not believe it could be done, and my ego told me it was a perfect story just the way it was.   Reluctantly I started crossing out all of the unnecessary words.  When I recounted my words, I was surprised that I was able to cut the length in half and still tell a good story.

Once again, the teacher told us to cut that second version in half.  This time it was more difficult and I was forced to think of ways I could replace entire phrases or sentences with fewer words.  I was honing my writing skills and I didn’t even know it. When my 250-word story was finished, it was much better because I had carefully chosen words that kept the story interesting.

Note to Self: Writing and editing can be a very cerebral and complicated process, but don’t let it overwhelm you.  Go back to the basics, and back to the 7th grade: Count your words and start to see what you can do without.  It really works and it also respects the value of your readers’ time.

P.S. This blog was originally 566 words and with two attempts I was able to reduce it to 314 words.  To view the first version, click on the link below.
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