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!

 

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Remembrance, Rights, Responsibility

memday2016

Today is Memorial Day in the United States – the day we remember those who have died protecting our rights and our way of life.

We all appreciate our ability to say or write what we think and to live without the fear of the government evicting us from our homes or throwing us into jail at a whim. Most of us gratefully honor those who protect those rights, those freedoms.

Why is it then that so many ignore their responsibility in using and maintaining these rights? Why are so many of us willing to be herded by the “thought leaders” without doing what it takes to keep them honest?

I recently tripped across the piece “Thumb War” by Katie Roiphe in the latest issue of Esquire magazine. In it, Roiphe uses the Twitter storm around Gay Talese’s alleged comments regarding women writers to illustrate how thoughtlessly people comment on manufactured slants to subjects. We are so willing to blast someone in 140 characters without knowing the whole story.

Social media are like fire – beneficial if used responsibly, but dangerous if not. What worries me is the public’s willingness to be led by the short spurts of incomplete information they are fed. So many people get their “news” from Twitter and Facebook which, by their very nature, are unable to provide the deep research necessary for a complete story.

People don’t investigate to the heart of the matter, the kernel of truth, on other media outlets. They just don’t question whether what they’re reading or seeing is valid. That responsibility takes effort.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are rights established by the Constitution’s First Amendment. The purpose was to give people access to all information, especially information and opinion contrary to the mainstream, so they can make good decisions. Self-government is founded upon making decisions.

The most important area of decision making in government is selecting and influencing our representatives. We have the right – and the responsibility – to vote for our lawmakers. We should always make the best decision based not on what we’re fed by our preferred media source but by our stringent efforts to determine the truth of the candidates’ history, character, and personality.  Elections should not devolve into popularity contests.

This takes effort. We need to think critically about the complicated issues and the candidates’ positions on them. We have do more than follow the tweets and Facebook posts. And we need to vote on our investigation and synthesis of information. We need to fulfill our responsibilities to maintain our rights.

To do less would be to dishonor those we remember today.

A Wordsmith’s Top 10 Reasons for Giving Thanks

It’s that time of year, and I am thankful for so many things (like any time the New York RangerThanksgivings win).

Yet, as a writer and editor, I find myself grateful for being able to “play” in the world of words.

Here, in a Letterman-esque way, are ten of the language-associated things I am most thankful for:

10. Word processing software – until you are forced to write using only a typewriter, you really can’t appreciate what a blessing this is.

9. Laptops, tablets, and mobile communication devices – I like to write in my office, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to. It’s also great to be able to research and communicate anywhere at any time.

8. A constant curiosity – I love learning new things and sharing them with others. This makes me easy to entertain. I can sit and watch the birds interact in my back yard and be perfectly happy, especially when I can write about it in my journal afterward.

7. A large vocabulary – with so many options in the English language to say something, it is nice to have at my disposal a vast array of words from which to choose just the right flavor. (Thanks, Mom!)

6. A work life that lets me “play” – being an editor, writer, evaluator, and instructor has put me squarely in the middle of all that I enjoy: words, phrasing, teaching, and ideas.

5. The freedom to write – it is nice to be able to write what I want and express an opinion without having goons from the government hauling me off to an anonymous, no-woman’s land where I will never be heard from again. (Thank you to all who have served in the U.S. military for that!)

4. Other “grammar freaks” – it’s nice to know there are other people out there who have a compulsion to correct poor grammar and writing. They can truly understand my situation. (Power to the grammarians!)

3. The Internet and social media – these technologies are modern miracles of communication. They allow me to research, read, write, and connect on an easier, higher level. They constitute the Jacuzzi of communication for me, allowing me to immerse myself in a way previously impossible.

2. New connections and acquaintances – through this blog, networking, and teaching, I have met many people who have generously shared their viewpoints, tips, and love of writing.

1. Old friends – I have remained in contact with friends and even reconnected with some who have drifted away over the years. They are my support system encouraging me or telling me like it is whenever I need it. They are my gyroscope helping me stay oriented on my writing path.

My hope is that we all stop for just a moment in the midst of our busy lives to truly appreciate and give thanks for the good things in our lives. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Pause Before Posting

Poor grammar professorI was reading a LinkedIn post the other day concerning education in America. The writer was well educated and experienced. Most of the people responding had alphabet soup after their names.
The conversation was civil, and the replies showed deep thought.

Those participating were obviously concerned and looking for answers.

With that elevated level of discussion, anyone would expect a display of strong writing skills. There were a few minor mistakes in the original post. Considering its length, the mistakes were, if not acceptable, at least excusable.

In the replies, there was a discord between degreed people discussing problems with the educational system and the grammar and usage mistakes they made. There’s a real problem of credibility when someone decrying the state of the schools in this country doesn’t know the difference between then and than; its or it’s; there, they’re, or their.

“Come on! It’s the Internet. People make mistakes.”

Look, I understand the nature of the medium, but that doesn’t mean I ignore the irony. If anything, the speed and pervasiveness of the Internet makes it much more important for a writer to pay attention to the impression she projects.

So many times we rush to get in on the conversation. Yet this is a written conversation, and it requires adherence to a set of rules.

Educated posters who make mistakes in grammar are like opera divas who sing off key. So how can we avoid this dissonance?

Revise

Take the time to look over posts and correct mistakes before clicking the post icon. This is hard to do in the heat of a conversation, but even a short reply should be looked over for mistakes before sending it off into social networking land.

Read it out loud

One of the best tips I ever received and am always happy to pass on is to read whatever is written out loud. It is truly amazing how many mistakes and awkward sentences a person can avoid by doing this.

Know your grammar gremlins

It is important to be familiar with the writing mistakes we make, so we can be sure to correct them. We can’t destroy our writing reputations with careless, consistent errors.

Slow down

Speed is the boon and bane of the Internet. We rush to get our two cents’ worth out there at the risk of our credibility. It’s easy to type out and post a reply quickly, but that doesn’t mean we have to. Take a little time to clean up those posts. The Internet will still be there.

Tweet Like a Songbird

Microblogging, with services like Twitter, is a great way to grab readers and direct them to more information (and to your website). But we need to make sure we still follow the paths of connection and clarity.

We first need to make a connection with readers, something they will immediately understand or, even better, emphasize with. People are more likely to respond to a common experience or a common idea.

Then we need to make sure what we write is clear to all the readers we want to reach. We need to avoid unfamiliar jargon or references. In Twitter, we also need to avoid using too many unfamiliar hashtags and links.

tweet 1

In this first tweet under “freelance writing,” the writer has included lots of links but doesn’t make the main idea clear. It seems like a foreign language to those of us who don’t follow the account. Notice that there are only four retweets and three favorites.

 

tweet w

This tweet, on the other hand, has two sentences that any freelance writer can emphasize with. Notice that it has 32 retweets and 67 favorites. Yet, there aren’t any links, other than the account’s profile, in the message. It makes the reader work to find out more.

 

nhra tweet

This tweet has a combination of a sentence any drag racing fan would understand followed by a variety of links. This tweet is different than the first because it gives clear information on the subject as well as provides links for finding more information.

rangers tweet

I really love this tweet (and it’s not just because I’m a Ranger fan). It compactly provides everything a reader needs to know about what’s going on and ways to easily find out more. A hashtag link is provided in the text. Even non-Ranger fans will understand what it refers to since it is under the Rangers’ account. It taps into a subject any sports fan can relate to – it’s game day. It also includes a neat photo that says it all for a Ranger follower: new, clean ice over the Ranger logo. Another season of hockey begins. The tweet even connects to the fans’ anticipation. It’s like waking up on Christmas morning.

This last tweet was written by a professional, but amateurs as well as writers new to the technology can learn from it and apply the principles to their own microblogging.

The text in microblogging may be brief, but we still need to remember to follow the paths of connection and clarity.

Social Networking’s Promise for Marketing

Social networking  – the latest marketing frontier! There is no doubt that social networking is revolutionizing mKerpen bookarketing strategies, but how do companies and organizations tap into the power of cyber communities?

Dave Kerpen does a very good job of outlining the “dos” and “don’ts” of social network marketing in Likeable Social Media: How to Delight Your Customers, Create an Irresistible Brand, and Be Generally Amazing on Facebook (and Other Social Networks).

A New Paradigm

Kerpen, and many other cyber marketing gurus, stress that the old marketing paradigm of pushing the brand on consumers is not only ineffective in social networking, but is actually harmful. The new marketing paradigm focuses on interaction with the customer. People use social networks to socialize and that means interacting, not just talking.

Some of the basic tenets of marketing –listening to the consumer, prompt customer service, and providing value – still apply to social networks. Now they are vital to new media marketing, and they are immediate. Marketing on networks means engagement with the consumer, a give-and-take relationship.

Another huge difference Kerpen stresses in his book is that, with social networks, the marketing function is no longer limited to one department. Because complaints (as well as compliments) can be broadcast quickly on Facebook and Twitter, other departments in an organization such as customer service or even the legal department need to be able to follow and be aware of the conversations going on about a product or service. Then the appropriate person needs to act quickly and appropriately.

Social networks allow organizations to have a reciprocal relationship with their customers and provide a huge reservoir of potential customers.

The Consumer Conversation

One of the first things to do is to listen to what people are saying about a company or organization on a network like Facebook. In a Wordstream interview,  Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, also emphasizes that the first thing to do is to “listen” to what consumers are posting on social networks. (Gabbert) Both men stress that this helps to provide insight into the characteristics of consumers as well as provide feedback for new product development.

The second part of the conversation is to respond authentically and quickly. Information posted to sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn need to be relevant to the reader and timely. In the book, Kerpen uses real-life examples and stresses the mantra: Think like the consumer.

Quick and Cheap Feedback

Many of the “analytics” of social networking sites give valuable information on how many people are following an organization, how many are interacting, and how many are buying. These indicate what things are working and what things are not. (Seymour) It is cheap and easy to set up surveys – public or private – on a social networking site. The main expense seems to be the need to monitor. Employees need to monitor social networking traffic or the company needs to outsource it. The organization needs to keep up its side of the conversation.

Which Community for What Function

Throughout the book, Kerpen tries to match each social network offering with its best marketing features. He is geared most heavily to Facebook  but outlines uses for Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and LinkedIn. He includes an appendix that does a fairly thorough job of explaining the best uses for each social networking site.

Making Fans into Promoters

One thing many social media marketing experts agree on is that an organization’s social networking fans are its best promoters.  Kerpen points out in his book that the like function in Facebook is basically one person’s endorsement to all his friends. Most Facebook users average 130 friends, so each like is a recommendation to 130 potential customers. The strength is in the connection with a known friend.

Kerpen cautions that any supporting post has to be authentic, and the poster’s relationship with the organization needs to be transparent. If a poster is receiving gifts or discounts for the post, that needs to be plainly stated. Deception is difficult to maintain on a social network and, if revealed, can do immediate and devastating damage to an organization’s reputation.

A Good Primer

Likeable Social Media is a good primer for anyone looking to enter the social networking marketing game.  However, Kerpen gives the impression that social networking is the ultimate path for marketing. He even states once or twice in the book that standard web sites no longer meet the needs of consumers.  I disagree with this (especially since Kerpen has a web site). I believe that social networking is a huge and important networking tool, but Kerpen doesn’t address some of its pitfalls. Although he does discuss complaints and negative comments in the book, he doesn’t really address privacy concerns.  When a person likes a site, does that make the user’s Facebook page open to the public? Are strict privacy settings bypassed?

While Kerpen stresses that social networking links need to be included in more conventional marketing instruments such as print brochures and television ads, he seems to dismiss these as outdated and facing extinction.  However, these often may be the introduction to a brand or product (or social networking site).

This book is a valuable tool giving  solid examples and outlining`essential processes for using social media for effective marketing.

 

Works Cited

Gabbert, Elisa. Interview with Social Media Expert Chris Brogan . The Wordstream Blog, 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 01 June 2013.

Seymour, Terri. Top 10 Social Media Marketing Tips for 2013. SiteProNews, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 31 May 2013.