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!



7 Ways to Nurture Your Online Presence

We send off our writing projects, grateful they’re done. We forget them and move on to the next project.

This would spell doom when it comes to our online presence. The worst thing we can do is ignore our social networking presence and website.

I like miniature rose plants, but I only buy them at a deep discount because they die in a matter of weeks. One day, I decided to be a little more attentive. I took one plant and transplanted it. I’ve been watering and fertilizing it on a regular basis. It is now ready to bloom for the third time!

The lesson here is that I take a little time to nurture it and give it what it needs to thrive.

dead rose
Usually, my miniature roses whither and die.
healthy rose
Look what happens when I pay a little attention.

Here are seven ways to nurture your online presence so it continues to bloom:

Start Small

Unless you have a staff to monitor and maintain your online presence, start with a nibble instead of a chomp. Have a website of about three pages and choose two or three social networking sites that will best connect you with your target audience. This will give you a good idea of the time you will need to maintain things properly.

If you try to do too much too quickly, you end up getting overwhelmed and will do a poor job. You can always add things, but it is difficult to cut back.

Strive for Quality

If you always try to give your audience your best, you will stand out from the crowd. Remember that your online presence sets your reputation. Sometimes one well-written blog post a month is better than two poorly done daily. Just be consistent to meet audience expectations.

Add New Content

Social networking sites are great for telling what’s new with you. However, don’t forget to update your website, too. A website that is too static, that never changes, gets outdated quickly. Sites like Twitter are great for up-to-the-minute micro-posts. Facebook and LinkedIn are good for promotional posts and sharing. Blogs provide an opportunity to share information to a more interested, targeted audience. Websites are a more permanent presence providing a base of operations.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Make it easy for yourself. Connect your updates. You can update your blog post with an automatic link to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever. You don’t have to spend time posting to each site. You can also tap into social media management systems like Hootsuite.

Just make sure the links actually update. I’ve had problems with my blog not being updated on LinkedIn and had to go back to reconnect.

Budget Time

Like exercise, we look at our online presence and say, “I’ll get to it later.” Schedule regular reviews of how you appear on the Internet. All it takes is an hour a month to check your look, what your analytics are telling you, and what you need to tweak.

Consider Professional Help

You may need to hand things over to professional content managers. This is a big step because you lose total control of your content, which may affect your online reputation (just ask Shaquille O’Neal).

There are several questions to answer:

  • Is it economically feasible? (Will you make more money concentrating on your core services and products than what you are paying for the help?)
  • How much should you hand over? (Can you have someone just write major content and provide images?)
  • Can you trust those providing the service? (Is it a real person or some faceless organization? Do they have your best interests at heart or theirs?)

When someone else is working on your online presence, it is vital to continually monitor what they’re doing.

Never Just Walk Away

Sometimes life forces us to end one thing and move on to a new adventure. Don’t just walk away from your online persona since it could be in cyberspace forever. Let your audience know what’s happening.

A while ago, I tripped over a blog post that really interested me. I went to the author’s site and realized she hadn’t posted anything new for three years. But she had left a message explaining why.  She didn’t just walk away, and I felt better that she hadn’t abandoned me.

Just remember that a little time and effort goes a long way toward making your online presence thrive.

This concludes the series “7 Critical Content Concerns.” Anyone in the Charlotte, North Carolina or Rock Hill, South Carolina area can join Annette for her workshop “Design Your Online Presence”  2 p.m. Saturday, November 14. The Forward Focused workshop is held in partnership with Sunscribe Publishing and Happy Accidents Painting.

Change Is Constant: Tweaking Your Online Presence

“Wait five minutes, and things will change.”

We’ve all heard that old saw when it comes to the weather. (When I lived in Central New York, it usually meant snow.) When creating and distributing content, this is good news.

Dog's fur blowing in the windLet’s face it. We work really hard to create content. We put it out there and feel proud of what we have accomplished.

Then reality strikes. Things aren’t working out quite the way we expected them to. Now what?

Change, we need to change things.

Adaptability is not only important in the modern electronic age, it is imperative. Luckily, it’s also a lot easier than it has ever been before.

Think about it. Fifty years ago, if you came up with a marketing campaign, it involved a lot of printing. It might even mean radio and television advertising. This took a long time. Once things got started, it was tough – and very expensive – to change.

Today, we can change our message in a snap. Even photos and videos can go from idea to published product in a matter of minutes.

But we have to be careful. We shouldn’t just change things for change’s sake. As with everything, we need to have a reason and some sort of plan.

  • Start with a goal in mind. What is it you are trying to accomplish?
  • Decide what criteria mean success.
  • Have patience. Some things take longer and need some time to get established.
  • Analyze why the current method isn’t working.
  • Develop alternative methods that might work better.
  • Implement the best alternatives.
  • Evaluate whether the change is working.
  • Start the process over.

Even if we’re satisfied with the way things are going, we still need a periodic assessment. A quarterly review of your online presence is always a good idea.

Don’t be afraid to revise what you have online. Most of the time it’s not a major overhaul; often it’s just some judicious maintenance.

Next Week: The series ends with Ways to Nurture Your Online Presence.

The Meat Is in the Content

It sits before ybeefless burger bunou with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and ketchup spilling out of the sides. Mouth watering, you bring the loaded bun to your mouth and take a giant bite.  Shocked, you realize — there’s no meat!

This hamburger lover’s nightmare is like visiting a web site or reading a blog that doesn’t have the information you’re looking for. When it comes to our online presence, we don’t want to leave visitors asking that famous advertising slogan, “Where’s the beef?!”

We’ve already talked about knowing who we want to reach and how to use (and not use) headlines to entice people into our content. However, it is imperative that the content be good, solid, and (dare I say it?) meaty to satisfy what our visitors require and what we want to say about ourselves. (Notice who is first in that sentence?)

Basic information – name, contact information, background – are vital to any site but should not be the main focus. An “about page” and header and footer areas are more than enough to handle this. It is important to make sure the visitor has easy access – one click of the mouse at most. We all know how frustrating it is to have to hunt for information. Make sure an email address has a clickable link. Even phone numbers can be set up for automatic dialing.

The tenderloin of the content should be offering what our audience needs. For instance, if you are a cleaning service, maybe you could provide hints on how to clean with environmentally friendly products (maybe that is something that sets you apart from other services). You may even give tips on why and how to hire a cleaning service.

If you just published a fantasy fiction e-book, your author’s Facebook page could discuss the political background of the world you’ve created or even character motivations – details you may not have included in your book but could make the readers’ experience richer if they knew them.

We’re all consumers of something. The trick is to ask ourselves, “If I was looking for more information about me, what would I need and want to know?”

Here are topics we need to address in our content to make it more successful:

  • Why would someone visit my site?
  • What do they need or want to know?
  • What information can I provide to satisfy these needs or wants?
  • How can I make it easy for a visitor to seek more information?
  • What fresh information can I offer?
  • What can I include to establish a relationship with that visitor?
  • How can I make sure they are satisfied with their experience on my site and will come back?

One very important step in building our content “burger” is cleaning up grammar and usage. Making mechanical errors in our writing is like biting into a juicy burger and finding gristle or bone. Yuck! Who wants to try another bite of that no matter how attractive the burger looks? Not me!

The bottom line is that we have to provide substance that satisfies our visitors and makes them want more.

Next week: Garnishing Content with Design

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.

7 Critical Content Concerns

me-me nametagNobody likes a braggart. On the other hand, if you’re in business, silence is deadly.

How do we market our businesses without being either of these?

There’s a fine line we have to walk when it comes to content.  If we keep the idea of quiet confidence in mind, it can help us avoid falling one way or the other. So let’s look at some techniques that can work as guide ropes for us.

  • It’s the customer, dummy! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (until I’m blue in the face if I have to), it’s what the customer needs or wants that’s important. We can have the niftiest product or service the world has ever seen, but if the customer doesn’t need or want it, it is all for naught.
    So, go from, “This is the greatest thingamajig you’ve ever seen!” to “This is how our thingamajig can make your life better.”
  • Headlines matter. Those bold snippets of information grab readers and draw them into the actual content. Great headlines are hard to write. Don’t get too cutesy or clever, and never leave a grammatical error. Headlines should cause folks to keep seeking more.
  • What we say is important. Flashy animation and pretty designs are great, but it all comes down to the information and how we offer it to our readers. If what we say isn’t clear or doesn’t meet the readers’ requirements, we get nowhere.
  • So are looks. Although what we say is vital, the way things look is also important. A pleasing or interesting layout that highlights our content is what we should strive for as well as ease of use for the reader.
  • Get the right attitude. Remember, we want to be quietly confident in how we approach potential and current customers. We all know people who are constantly telling us about all the people they know and all the great things they do. They’re rather annoying and actually come across as a bit desperate. On the other hand, the people who state things with confidence without feeling compelled to be the brightest star in the sky are the ones we tend to gravitate toward and trust.
  • Change is constant. If we try something and it isn’t working, we must analyze the problem and adjust what we’re doing. Nothing is written in stone; everything is open to revision.
  • Content needs nurturing. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to set up content then leave it alone. Our content is our relationship with our readers, customers, and prospects; it needs maintenance to retain the connection.

These are a few things we need to keep in mind when we’re marketing ourselves, our services, and our products. I’ll investigate each of these in more detail in my Monday posts over the next several weeks, so stay tuned.

What do you think of these points, and how do you deal with them?

How Product Characters Can Help Your Content

Whatever happened to Speedy? You know, that bouncy little character that hawked Alka-Seltzer?

Why don’t we see more of Ronald McDonald or Morris the Cat these days?

How have product characters like Popin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury doughboy, and Mr. Peanut, the Planters guy, survived for a century or so?

And why, after a hiatus of almost a decade, would they bring back the Burger King? (Sorry, but in his present form, I think he is just creepy.)

Product characters come and go depending on how well they connect with consumers. Some, like Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, get upgrades.

The point of all this is that the tastes of our audiences change. Sometimes they cycle back to something popular a while ago, sometimes not. The trick is to keep paying attention and be willing to change our own preconceived notions of what our audiences like and what they don’t.

There are many ways of doing this, and the Internet makes it so much easier. Check out what’s trending on social networking. Tap into Google Analytics, or do your own surveys with SurveyMonkey.

There are so many tools available to help you pinpoint your audience so you can tailor your message. Check out your social media data (blog services have them, too!), Facebook numbers, and website hits.

Oh, and fiction writers, don’t neglect tracking your fan base, either. Don’t you want a character as popular and enduring as Alex Cross?

Take advantage of all the information floating around out there to help you connect – and keep connecting – with your target audience.

P.S. Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s new (old?) sequel (although it was written first) to To Kill a Mockingbird hits bookstores tomorrow.

Pair Beauty with Substance


“Oh! You won’t believe our new website. It’s beautiful and so professionally done!”

The young woman, a member of a local nonprofit, was very enthusiastic about the organization’s new website, so I eagerly looked it up when I got home. She was partly right.

The site was visually stunning. The photos were superb, the colors were well used and balanced, and there was just enough animation to be interesting without being annoying. It was everything we like to see in a well designed web site.

Then I started to read.

There were serious (and I mean serious) word use and grammar errors. It’s not like they were buried deep in the content, either. Some were right there in flashing headlines.

It was like opening a beautifully wrapped present only to find a moldy, half-eaten PBJ inside.

On the other hand, you could have the best content in the world, but if it looks like garbage, it will be treated like, well, garbage. In that case, it is like wrapping a diamond in wrinkled newspaper that had already been used to wrap fish.

No matter how stellar the words are, we need to dress them up nicely to get people to look. (This can be a struggle. Take it from someone who has discovered that WYSIWYG isn’t always what you get.)

But getting people to look isn’t enough to make it “professional.” The content — the message — has to be clearly and cleanly written. After all, the purpose of a website is to show people what we can offer them. If we can’t explain it clearly (and without blatant errors), they won’t stick around long enough to discover the gems we offer.

This tension between content and design isn’t new to the Internet. It has been around as long as people have presented writing to a public. There has always been a need to balance beauty with substance.

The good news is that, in our electronic age, it’s a lot easier to fix.

Now all I have to do is try to figure out a gentle way to tell all those nice people that they need someone to copy edit their site…