Don’t Forget What Supports Good Writing

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There is several things I eluded to recently that cause me to reign in my ideals about writing good?

Who read that and thought, “Has she lost her mind?!”

People who think grammar, word choice, and punctuation aren’t all that important don’t seem to understand that those elements are necessary for clear communication. Clarity of writing is the target we all (except maybe politicians, legislators, and lawyers) must strive for.

Any business knows that clearly and precisely outlining the benefits of the products or services it offers means success.

What happens when we ignore the guidelines for good writing? One thing is that we make our readers work too hard. If the reader has to go back several times in a sentence to try to “translate” what the writer means, the reader is forced to concentrate on the mechanics rather than the meaning.

Worse than that, we all know what happens when people have to fill in the blanks of intention. In the old game of telephone, a message is whispered along to each player in a line until, by the end, what comes out barely resembles the original message. Let’s not provide an environment of obscurity.

We need to remember that grammar is the infrastructure that supports the easy flow of communication while precision with words is the traffic light that guides the reader to the idea.

We write to share – to provide information, evoke emotion, or persuade. If we ignore the elements that create good writing, we fail to communicate.


To Write Better, Focus on Quality Reading

I constantly  talk about how to be a better writer based on my observations and anecdotal evidence. Now, a recent study from the International Journal of Business Administration is backing me up.cat_and_dog_in_library

What you read influences how you write. If all we read are tweets, Facebook posts, or short news blurts, we will tend to mimic those constructions (syntaxes) when we write. I had a student in a composition course who constantly, despite my repeated warnings, failed to capitalize the personal pronoun I and continued to use text abbreviations like b/c, thru, and w/o in his essays. He was mimicking what he read.

Quality of reading material matters more than the quantity of time spent reading. If we spend hours and hours reading posts about the Kardashians or pulp novels, we may feel as if we are making great efforts to improve our minds. However, we still aren’t improving our ability to write well. We need to stretch our reading muscles even if the quality text we read is only in short spurts.

The medium doesn’t make a difference. Many people feel electronic text is more difficult to read than a printed page, but the study suggests this is less of a problem than the quality of what is written. Sometimes electronic offerings tend to focus on “make it quick and make it easy.” However, there is little difference in whether a book is electronic or in physical print when it comes how it influences writing.

Good writing skills are highly valued in the business world. The study states:

Changes in workplace technologies have placed an even heavier emphasis on reading and writing skills than they had in the twentieth century workplace. Employees now send and receive more messages than ever before, while applications like email have eliminated editors and support staff who would formerly have edited writing for managers.

Since modern technology has taken away the former layers of review, the onus falls squarely on the writer.

It isn’t a matter of intelligence; it’s a matter of ignorance. It’s not that people don’t have the intelligence needed to write well. It is our ignorance of other ways of writing that holds us back. If we are never exposed to a variety of rhythms and syntaxes, how can we know that they exist and that we can use them, too?

Students often ask me how they can become better writers. I tell them they need to read better writing. Now I have at least one study to support me!


P.S.: With a title like “Syntactic Complexity of Reading Content Directly Impacts Complexity of Mature Students’ Writing,” the study itself was a real syntactic workout!


Writing ‘Yellow Bricks’ for a Road to Understanding


People are not magically gifted with the ability to read minds.

Sometimes writers forget this, especially inexperienced writers.

We writers see everything so clearly in our heads. Why don’t our readers “get it”?

Well, our readers can’t lift the lid in our skulls and peek into our brains.  Writers need to lay down a path for our readers to follow. I’m not just talking novel or book writers here; I’m talking all writers.

We have to lay out the words for our Yellow Brick Road of writing to help our readers to get where we want them to go. Even those who write news stories or business memos need to do this. (Yes, you know you do.)

So how do we get our readers to frolic along our words to get to the Emerald City of understanding?

  • Start out small. Don’t throw everything at your readers at once. If readers have a huge glob of information thrown at them, they will need to process it, and they might not do such a good job. Provide enticing tidbits to give them a chance to “taste” and process the information and then move on.
  • Leave clues. Foreshadowing, overarching statements, and transitional words and phrases are great ways to move the reader along and pique interest. These, of course, need to be followed up with details.
  • Provide the necessary details. Yes, we often forget that we need to fill in the blanks with specifics. Show the reader what’s in your head by using vibrant verbs, specific nouns, and awe-inspiring adjectives (and don’t forget appropriate adverbs!).
  • Avoid detours. This is essential in business and other non-fiction writing. You don’t want readers drifting off to ideas that don’t apply to what you’re writing. There are times when you do have to provide a few side trips. Really good fiction writers do this all the time. The trick is to make sure the reader ends up back on that main Yellow Brick Road you’ve built.
  • Make sure there’s an end. Show readers that – ta-da! – they’ve arrived. Have you ever read something that just stopped? It’s so unsatisfying. Even Dorothy and her crew ended up at the gates of the Emerald City.

By using these tips to “build” our “road” of words, we provide the magic that allows our readers to see the sparkling “land of ideas” that’s in our heads.

How do you write your Yellow Brick Road?

Bluntness and the Art of Empathy

Grumpy Cat meme - Hurt your feelings? Too Bad!We all know at least one of them; one person who is, to put it politely, continually blunt.

That’s the type of person who has no problem saying exactly what she thinks, no matter the fallout. Often they’re surprised when people get offended by what and how they say things. Usually, they are the nicest people. It’s just that their mouths engage before their minds can stop them.

I was related to someone like that. It took a long, long time for me to understand that what he was saying wasn’t malicious; it was just unfiltered. And it’s not like I haven’t said some things at times in ways I wish I hadn’t.

It’s hard to revise in the middle of a conversation, especially when emotions run high. We often lose our empathy when we’re hurrying to slip something into the conversation. In the heat of verbal battle, we forget that words can sting – for a long time.

When we write, we have the luxury of time to revise. We have strategies and techniques to give bad news without too much offense. Although I’m not a big fan of passive voice, it is a perfect way to depersonalize a situation to make it more palatable.

Revision is vital – vital, I say – when writing sensitive things, especially in business. We need to put things aside for a while and come back pretending to be the reader.

We have to ask, “How would I feel if I received this?”

Now, I’m not advocating lying or putting too much “spin” on a situation. That just makes people distrust you. What I’m saying is, present sensitive information as if you and the reader, two reasonable people, are examining the circumstances like amoebas under a microscope. Show the reader.

“There you are,” you say. “This is the way it is.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

Is there a place for bluntness? Yes, there are times when people have to be shaken out of their apathy. However, we need to use it judiciously. We can’t swing bluntness around like a club, or a lot people will get hurt unnecessarily. And it can demolish our chances to maintain a fruitful relationship.

I was talking with someone and said how mystified I was at the meteoric rise of a certain presidential candidate because of the verbiage he was spouting.

“People want honesty,” she said.

“You can be honest without being offensive,” I replied.

That’s my policy, and I’m sticking with it.

Weekend Wrinkle: Another Adventure Begins

Everyone loves new things – new cars, new clothes, even new semesters.

business writing welcome documentYes, it’s the beginning of another semester, and this year I get the opportunity to teach a course on business communications. I’m really excited about it because it is the perfect platform to proselytize about good writing.

I think it’s great because it lets me relearn concepts I may have forgotten and even investigate some new ones.

One of the icebreakers I ask my students during the first class is, “What is your dream job and why?” I realize that I’m living part of my dream every day. I get to write and share and find new ways to spread the excitement of writing.

I even love the challenge of getting my students to understand and appreciate (if not love) grammar.

If I can pass on just a fraction of my enthusiasm to my students, I will consider my job well done. I’ll have helped send another group of effective communicators into the world of business and, hopefully, to success.

Happy start of the semester, all!

Who Cares About What We Write?

Writing AudienceWho cares?

Who cares about what we’re writing?

Answering this is essential when we write almost anything. It is the “who” – the audience – that will determine what and how we write.

“I write what I want people to know,” is the attitude many writers take.  How do we determine that’s what people want?

Very few readers, especially in the age of electronic media, have the time or patience to read anything that doesn’t immediately interest them or that includes information they don’t really need. As a result, we must look at who will care about what we write.

Ask the Questions

How do we go about doing that? The first thing is to consider some essential questions:

  • What does our audience already know?
  • What are the audience characteristics?
  • What does the audience need or want to get out of the information we’re giving them?
  • How might our audience use the information?
  • How can we package our content to meet the readers’ needs?

Paint a Picture

Answering these questions is important, but we need to start somewhere.  One thing that is helpful is to come up with a reader persona. Sit down and create a character to write for. For instance, it may be Sylvia who is a middle-aged, married, professional woman with teenaged children. Or it could be Jamal, a thirty-something owner of a small accounting firm in a medium-sized Midwestern city.

These two different characters will have different needs as well as background that we, as writers, need to keep in mind.

Mine the Internet

Getting background information on our potential readers is getting easier and easier because of the Internet. I have a business friend who has encouraged me to delve into GoggleAnalytics. It is positively fascinating some of the information I can mine from that!

There are other ways to get information. Go up on Twitter or Tumblr to find out what is trending. If you’re writing marketing copy, check out the business’s customer demographics. Business writers should determine if the readers are executives, employees, regulators, or customers. Fiction authors can cruise fan pages – theirs and other writers’.

Once we know who we’re writing for, it makes it much easier to come up with the what and how of our content. We’ll know how to package it to make it more attractive to our readers. That, in turn, will make our writing that much more successful.

Next week: Headlines Matter.

A Time for Every Word

TimeAn old friend from my newspaper days called me up a little while ago.

“You’ll never believe what happened,” she said.

She is in the process of training someone to take over her communications position as she transitions from semi to full retirement.

“The new person wrote a press release, and it needed a lot of help,” my friend explained, “I told her, ‘You can’t wait until the end to put in the main idea; bring it up to the beginning. This information is in the wrong place, and this isn’t correct.’  I stopped suddenly, and it came to me in a rush: I sounded just like you!”

My chest filled with pride. Years of effort had borne fruit! I was not a grammar prophet crying in the wilderness. (Stage direction: a tear of joy trickles down my face.)

One big mistake I see from lots of people who are writing to publicize their products, services, or events is burying the important stuff in a sea of dreck. They are so caught up in setting the scene and painting a pretty picture of what’s going on, that they forget they need to place what they want the reader to remember right up front.

It’s like those commercials we find so cute or funny or interesting, but can never remember what product they’re advertising.

People have to remember they’re competing in a Pacific Ocean of information. Readers want quick access, or they’ll float along to somewhere else. There’s a reason journalists are taught to lead with who, what, where, when, and how. There’s a reason they write in active, not passive, voice.

This doesn’t mean we can’t be a little creative. We just need to stay on point.

On the other hand, I can’t condemn too harshly those who insist on filling pages with useless verbal flourishes. They help keep Mona (my dog) and DC (my cat) in kibble.

The Clues Are in the Vocabulary

When we are in a face-to-face conversation, we receive lots of information from nonverbal clues. When we read, we can’t see somvector-typewriter-10158eone’s facial expression, nor can we hear tonal changes in the words. What can writers do to compensate for this?

Writers use active, descriptive words and precise vocabulary to create clarity. It sounds easy, but it’s something people have a hard time with. Writers just need to remember the visual they are trying to present or the questions readers might have, and include words to fill in the gaps.

Let’s look at how writers can clue readers in.

Describe the Scene

Maybe we have a young character who is trying to avoid telling her mother the truth about how she did on a test. We know she’ll try to avoid outright lying but will do her best to skirt the truth.

What kinds of things will she do that will indicate that she is uncomfortable? What words will she use to answer her mother? How can we incorporate these things in our writing?

“How did you do on that test?” her mother asked.

Emily rolled her eyes toward the ceiling over her mother’s right shoulder as she shifted from one foot to the other.

“Umm. Well, I didn’t fail,” she grimaced with a weak, “heh, heh!”

If we had just written “Well, I didn’t fail,” Emily said, we might not understand the whole situation.  We paint the scene by describing Emily’s actions and the way she is speaking with specific vocabulary.

Use Precise Words

I already hear a bunch of you saying, “That’s great for fiction, but that doesn’t help me write a business letter.”

Well, precise language is even more important in business than it is in fiction. We lose efficiency when we don’t make ourselves clear.

Lots of folks have a hard time with this on resumes.

I’m a hardworking team player with advanced education. I am a highly qualified, successful worker with mad management skills.

Would you hire this person? What job would you hire her for? How many questions about the candidate pop into your head when you read this?

Say the job is for a design engineer in the air conditioning industry.

I led a team of seven engineers, designers, and lab technicians on a three-month project to increase SEER* in a five-ton residential unit from 14 to 16 with minimal changes to existing parts or footprint. (Note: I’m not an HVAC engineer so, if the numbers seem ridiculous, sorry about that.)

Notice that the candidate uses specific vocabulary to explain working on a team, leadership skills, time frame, and industry knowledge.

In business writing, the trick is to answer all the questions before someone has the opportunity to ask.  When people have to stop and seek further information, they waste time.

Revision is where most writers will see what words they need to put in, take out, or change. (Remember, we never skip the revision step.)

The trick is to avoid vague, general, weak words whenever we’re writing.

*SEER: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio

When to Seek Professional Help: Writing

business writersAnyone in business knows there are times when we must communicate in writing. And any business person who is not a writer probably feels a root canal (minus anesthesia) would be more fun.

It isn’t easy to translate our message or information into an effective marketing piece, blog, or report. Most business people would rather spend the hours it takes to write a good brochure concentrating on their core business.

Luckily, there is an army of people who love to write and can do it well. They’re the ones that can transform your message into something that makes your business look good.

So, when is it time to call in a professional writer? Let’s look at a couple of the factors.


Businesses constantly need to put their best face forward to stay competitive. No matter how great a product or service, a brochure or blog needs content that can grab and keep the reader’s attention. The content needs to show readers why they should spend money with that particular business. Readers will put aside what is difficult to read or isn’t logical, and that may cost customers.

Experienced writers know how to construct pieces to entice readers to stick around, pieces that make it easy for readers to “see” the message. We know how to work with business people to pluck the message out of their brains with minimal discomfort and present it in the best possible light.

Cost Effectiveness

We all feel that we are capable of doing things ourselves. Writing is no different.

There are templates, spell checkers, and grammar checkers that make you believe you can easily produce a finished product. Well, that isn’t exactly true.

Templates can help format things like reports and brochures, but they don’t help much with content. Spell checkers don’t work for words that are spelled correctly but used incorrectly. Grammar checkers, well, I’ve had to turn mine off because it is wrong about 50 percent of the time.

I’m not saying that these things can’t be useful – as long as we remember their limitations.

DIY writing relates back to the importance of the piece. The more important it is that it be the best it can, the more time it will take to get it there. The more time a business person must spend on creating quality writing, the less time she is spending on what makes her business thrive.

I’m terrible with math, so taxes give me a real headache. I realized that it was costing me a lot of money to do my own taxes (not to mention I didn’t really have the expertise to do them right). Instead of creating billable hours for my business, I was bogged down in something I wasn’t good at and hated. Now I pay an accountant to do them.

The same concept holds true for getting professional writing help. Let’s look at an example.

Say you are an investment adviser and charge an hourly rate of $100. You want to provide a monthly e-newsletter to your clients, but you spend five hours a month researching, writing, revising, and disseminating the newsletter. That’s $500 you’re not putting in your pocket.

If you hire a writer to do the newsletter each month for $250, you actually will be ahead $250 each month. (Warning: I’m using really low, round figures here because I’m bad at math. The $250 newsletter rate is not set in stone. Price depends on a number of factors.)

Not only that, but the newsletter (the product) will help you retain existing and grab potential clients.

Of course, there are lots of things I’d like to farm out, but I’m not at a point in my profitability for that to be possible – yet. So I pick and choose what services to invest in, services that will provide the best return for the funds I have available.

When you get to the point where you can pay someone to write cheaper, faster, and better than you, grab them! It will make your life that much easier and your business that much more successful.

To contact someone, who loves to wallow in words, about professional writing services, visit AIC Communication Services or e-mail

Weekend Wrinkle: Vote Here on Importance of Writing

In an age where video is so easy to produce and distribute, we have to consider the future of the written word. Not only that, but how important is good writing, especially when it comes to our paychecks?

I put it to you. Vote here and tell me  what you think.

Here’s an interesting infographic done by on how avoiding writing mistakes can affect your ability to make money.