Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Become a verb warrior. Try this writer's resolution for the new year

Key points:

- Find out whether you're verb-impaired.

- Fix wimpy, vague writing that induces the MEGO effect. (MEGO = My Eyes Glaze Over)

- Use this list while in recovery.


The one way to most immediately see the biggest possible improvement in your writing is to choose higher quality verbs. For this reason, I’m suggesting this as your New Year’s writing resolution.

First, self-diagnose to find out whether you're verb-impaired. Then set out to become verb-talented.


Print a hard copy of a document you wrote and circle all the verbs. Read them aloud as a list. You may realize without prompting that they're generic or repetitive. But even worse, your verb choices may be alienating readers. To objectively evaluate the strength of your verbs, ask yourself the following questions and compare with the following lists.

1. Are your verbs so precise that they aren't easily interchangeable with their neighbors?
2. Do they evoke one of the five senses? Can you picture, feel or hear them?
3. Do they have motion?
4. Are they …

… wimpy ?

§ Do
§ Have
§ Is, was, be, been
§ Serves to (another verb)

… vague?

§ Address
§ Affect
§ Impact
§ Enhance
§ Expand

… overused tech verbs? (fine to use, but other verbs may be more descriptive and precise)

§ Implement
§ Provide
§ Deliver
§ Deploy
§ Establish
§ Enable

Multi-syllable for no good reason?

Initiate (start), utilize (use), facilitate (help), educate (teach), designate (name)

Or are they active and precise?

Before ending this post with a list of super-hero verbs suitable for business writing, may I suggest that you begin harvesting your own favorites from an article or book that you recently enjoyed. My fave verb source is National Geographic magazine.

Secondly, I suggest you develop your ability to capture verbs in the moment of activity, rather than conjure them after you’ve returned to your desk. More on that in a future post.

And if I haven’t convinced you yet that college verbs (often derived from Latin) aren’t as good as plainer verbs (often derived from Anglo-Saxon), ask yourself whether this time-honored saying would still be with us today had it been stated less plainly.

Memorable and to the point: “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Not: “A sufficiently early suture eliminates the necessity for subsequent multiple interventions.”

Ring in the new year by becoming a verb warrior. Challenge yourself to choose verbs well.

Strong one- syllable verbs


Also OK


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

For Christmas, my interview with Maya Angelou: "All Human Beings Try to be Beautiful"

Key points:

- Teach tolerance
- Examine other cultures without fear
- Give every newborn a membership card to the UN

"Just let them know they’re born a member, and that they have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining."

- Maya Angelou

I wrote this article while working at The Associated Press in San Francisco. It moved on the national wire on Sept. 13, 1995. I tweaked the version below just a teeny bit.

At the time, Angelou was promoting a new book of poems called "PHENOMENAL WOMAN” and had just read “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the United Nation’s 50th anniversary celebration.

This story was the second of two. The first I wrote on deadline about what I thought I was supposed to write about. This second I wrote between assignments later about a question close to my heart:
"What advice can you offer a mixed-race child struggling with his identity?" I was asking about my nephew, then 12.

Guess which story got more pickup. Yep, this one.
Lesson learned: Questions close to your heart yield the best stories. Sometimes what you’re “supposed” to do is wrong.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – If Maya Angelou could give children a single luminous insight to help them do their growing, she would deliver it gift-wrapped in poetry and wait for the children to fold back the words to reveal tolerance.

A sampling from Japanese haiku to American inner-city rap could show that “everybody loves flowers or everybody has some fear of the dark,” Angelou said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I would encourage the child to look at her/his world, at the people in their world, and to try to examine the cultures in their world without fear,” the poet said. “I would try to lead the children into seeing that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

Author of 12 best-selling books, Angelou has consummated her reputation for wisdom, particularly regarding a child's emerging sense of identity in a fractious world. Now 66 [now 81], she wrote “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” about her childhood self-revulsion as a black girl growing up in 1930s Arkansas. By contrast, her newest book, “PHENOMENAL WOMAN, celebrates self-possessed women in maturity.

Her life speaks well to the history of racial tension in America. She protested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, prospered on her own merits during the shift from Jim Crow laws to affirmative action, and journeyed to Africa and back only to discover that a person’s search for roots may have little to do with race after all.

“It’s the striving in itself that is delicious,” Angelou said, explaining her buoyancy amid adversity and pain.

It’s hard to decide if she thinks people survive and forge ahead because they are courageous, inspired or just downright bullheaded.

“We have to kill to eat, and eat to live – and yet we want it,” she said. “If we dare to love, we might be devastated – and yet we want it.”

“The contradiction is so intriguing that very few of us willingly give it up,” she said.

When Angelou speaks, one gets the sense that more of her attention goes into hearing her words than speaking them. She’s alert and listening as she produces the sounds. She enunciates slowly. Her facial expression subtly registers expectation, uncertainty and then something like satisfaction.

Her life story offers hope that even down-and-out youth can pick themselves up and realize dreams of their own making.

Angelou was 16, pregnant and unmarried when she watched ambassadors and diplomats file by on the sidewalk on their way into a San Francisco hotel 50 years ago to sign the United Nations charter. She remembers feeling too black, too female, too tall and too alone to think about following them inside.

But she was invited inside this summer for the anniversary celebration of the charter’s signing. Angelou read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” on the same stage with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

A few days before the event, Angelou reflected on how far the “united nations” have come and how far they still have to go. She said children’s singing star Barney and Sesame Street’s Big Bird give her hope.

“I mean, look at today’s children loving a purple dinosaur who doesn’t look like anything raised in their homes. And a bird that is 10 feet tall and speaks with a very strange voice,” Angelou said.

"It’s rather natural to fear those things we don’t understand and those people who might look different from us,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s very easy for people to overcome.”

She suggested promoting world peace by giving every newborn a membership card to the United Nations.

“Just let them know they’re born a member, and that they have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining,” Angelou said.

Her solution includes showing children pictures of the human family’s varying forms of ornamentation: intricately scarred torsos in Central Africa, bamboo-pierced noses in the Amazon, tattooed biceps in San Francisco and diamond-studded earlobes in Paris.

“Let the child see that all human beings try to be beautiful,” Angelou said.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Four lessons from mentors (& tormentors) at WSJ, AP & SF Chron

On the brink of writing a warm, fuzzy appreciation for my favorite writing mentors, I realized that I grew the most as a journalist only after having been insulted.

Will this post be about my mentors' fine contributions? Or my resilience? Let's find out.

Mentor No. 1: Urban C. Lehner, then of the Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal, taught me that the most important question a news reporter can ask is “why.” The insult: “You’re a better writer than you are a reporter.” I hated him for this comment, for about 10 minutes. After that, I delved deeper into every story to find the back story, the precursor events, the underlying dynamic.

That worked for me. I immediately became a Page One regular at the small-town daily I worked for at the time and soon thereafter won first place for feature writing in California’s newspaper equivalent of the Academy Awards. I didn’t get to accept the award in person because no one told me I’d won. That’s because I’d left the little daily to go work for The Associated Press.

Lesson 1: “Dig, dig, dig until you find out why.”

Now a writing coach in the high-tech PR industry (Yahoo, Intel, Google), I’ve changed this to “dig below the surface for insights” and “look for causal factors.”

Mentor No. 2: Rob Haeseler, then of the San Francisco Chronicle, never insulted me. But people who worked for him did. One of them completely re-wrote one of my stories and made it really bad while leaving my name on it. Another gave me wrong info in a confident tone of voice that I later passed along and got called on. It was embarrassing.

But when Rob spoke, it was like finding precious, tiny rivulets of gold. I rather felt like a spy when we talked on the phone. He would utter a seemingly simple one-liner so rife with impact that it was almost like he was speaking in code. Here’s an example: “At the Chronicle, we have a rule. Every lead must have conflict or tension.” That was it. Conversation over. I took that and ran with it.

Rob’s advice, combined with Urban’s, led to my getting a memorable note from a Chronicle reader. He said I’d turned “a sow’s ear” of a story into “a silk purse.”

At the time, I was still at the small daily and stringing for the Chronicle on the side.

In PR, I’ve repackaged that nugget as “look for subtle tension.” I’ve even got a two-page handout with examples. It’s important in pitches and award submissions in particular and sometimes also in e-mail subject lines.

Lesson 2: Look for contrasts and juxtapose them. That's one way to achieve subtle tension.

Mentor No. 3: Joe Bigham of The Associated Press was the most kindly, even though he was a gruff, old-school guy. He was personally conservative but stunningly tolerant of others. It’s like he knew how to flip a switch in his brain. In professional mode, he could accept any aberration of humanity and tell his/her/its story with accuracy and compassion.

He never insulted me, either. But we worked in a two-person office for about 14 months and I was reminded every day by his example that I was a flea to his dog, Hamburger Helper to his beef bourguignon, a bead of water to his tidal wave.

He sometimes asked me to stand over his shoulder and watch him write. He sometimes narrated his thought process. It was from him that I learned the technique I call “first three words.” This came from the fact that Joe would type three words on a blank screen and then pause. It was an unconscious habit, not an intentional lesson. But I would then gasp because he had already captured the essence of the story.

Adapted to PR, I call this “making the best use of the best real estate.” My spiel includes a reminder that we write nowadays for skimmers, not readers, so you have to put your best stuff in a location where the skimmer will see it: the first three words. (The opposite is true if you're writing for the ear rather than the eye.)

There’s more to that, but I need to be brief.

Lesson 3: Start fast. No need to set up what you will say and then say it. In fact, you are likely to lose readers if you do.

I learned so much more from Joe that this little anecdote almost does him a disservice. He’s also the reason I advocate what I now call “side-by-side writing,” which has been extremely popular at A&R Edelman (my employer). It lets you guide writers with your questions while capturing their thoughts as they speak them aloud. You can capture the writer’s threads and weave them into fabric. The writer in turn learns to weave.

Mentor No. 4: Dennis White of the Manteca Bulletin (the small daily) told me my writing was “wooden.” I angrily examined my work in search of examples of how wrong he was.

After all, I’d been praised for writing all my life. I got my first prize for writing in third grade when I submitted what I did on my summer vacation to a comic book. They sent me $25.

Professors read my essays aloud in class and said, “This is what I’m looking for.”

Wooden? Me? How dare he!

Of course, he was right. In my analysis, I discovered that I had acquired the bad habit of using college verbs. Generic, multi-syllable, Latinate. Yuck.

To cure myself, I made lists of verbs I found in stories I liked and kept them at my keyboard. That was good but not good enough. I soon realized that I had to capture the verbs while still out on the scene, that I couldn’t conjure them after getting back to the office. So in the office and out, I became a verb collector.

Lesson 4: Choose highly specific, one-syllable verbs. For example: tug, flip, lock, find, build, send, flow, choose, dig, start, bring. Not: establish, initiate, enhance, construct …

Naturally, there are as many lessons as there are editors and stories, so I could go on. But now you have a sense of what I mean when I sometimes say in my classes, “I’m not telling you anything new. I’m just channeling the wisdom of the forefathers.”

All of this advice and more is available in my favorite book on writing, which was intended for journalists but works beautifully for anyone. When I was at The AP, we got quiet-looking copies of it with “The Word” printed in gold on a brown cover.

I recommend “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing” by Rene J. Cappon. It's the same book with a different cover. You can find it on Amazon and elsewhere.

It’s even a little bit insulting. So I know it will work for you, too.

Just remember to be resilient.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Advice menu: Which situation is yours?

What kind of writing and editing help do you need? Check out this menu of constructive tips to see if any of these situations apply:

(1) You're distraught over a supervisor's consistently voracious re-writing of your work. This post suggests alternatives that he/she might go for.

(2) You need to evaluate team members' writing and hold them accountable for improvement. This post includes a chart and recounts our success using it.

(3) You want to give feedback that supports writing growth. This real-life example demonstrates an alternative to tracking changes. (Also see No. 1 above and No. 6 below.)

(4) You're a solitary, introverted writer or editor coping with grief and could use a little understanding and even a bit of advice on managing the winter holidays.

(5) You get dinged for grammar, usage and style errors. This post describes how we trained a super-star proofreading team that finds mistakes most people miss.

(6) You want to step back from overly reactive small edits and keep the big picture in mind. This post lists eight questions that help you keep your eye on the ball.

(7) You want to start off a new account on a good writing foot or need to find out why a client appears to be irrationally unhappy with your team's writing. This post helps you begin creating a cheat sheet on your client's unconscious writing preferences.

(8) Your press release approval process takes too long and results in jargony mush. This post offers guidelines for assigning roles and responsibilities. Or check out's nicely abridged version, minus questions for writes/mediators.

(9) You sometimes freeze and can't get get anything good onto a blank page. This post suggests that you break a rule to break through the gridlock.

(10) You wonder why I agreed to blog, even though for years I said, "Nooooo."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

News releases: Fix your broken approval process

The worst thing about news releases is the approval process. Too many cooks, as the saying goes, right? After too many iterations, what comes out in the end often looks like something that's been through a trash compactor.

Does it have to be so painful and unproductive? Can we fix the broken process?

The solution, my friends, is discipline. Or baseball, if you prefer. By that I mean each player needs to play his assigned position in accordance with his strengths -- and no one else's. You can't have the shortstop sprinting to first base or the pitcher standing in center field.

Here are some guidelines to help each approver play to his strengths:

(1) Choose one person to write. Everyone else should be hands-off. Hands-off people should comment and give direction but not write, re-write or edit.

(2) Set parameters for each approver's contribution. Here are the roles I suggest for marketing managers, product managers and lawyers.

Marketing managers should ask, "Does it support the brand and long-term business objectives?" They should comment on messaging and emphasis.

Common overstep by marketing managers: Reciting messaging verbatim in the headline, subhead, lead or quotes. Instead, consider messaging an indirect takeaway.

Some explicit recitation of messaging may be OK, but only if blended with vocabulary and scenarios that are familiar and compelling to the audience. Try to balance messaging with empathy and authenticity, as seen through the audience's eyes. Otherwise, you lose credibility and induce the MEGO effect (My Eyes Glaze Over).

Product managers should ask, "Is it accurate?" They should comment on the technology, features and benefits.

Common overstep by marketing managers: Deleting or moving down social context. Instead, let the top half of the press release answer "why" and the bottom half answer "how." In other words, first establish relevance in the lives of the audience, then explain how it works.

Lawyers should ask, "Could we be sued or penalized?" They should comment on potentially negative consequences related to the SEC and other regulators, intellectual property (trademarks, patents, copyrights) and whether the company can deliver on promises.

Common overstep by lawyers: Changing punctuation and capitalization to meet style standards for legal contracts, and deleting social context for the announcement. Instead, let internal experts use AP style, the industry standard for news media and PR. Look for compromises that prevent legal problems while allowing social context.

The best way to avoid problems is to pay more attention to the pre-writing process. There should be substantive input before creating a first rough draft.

Don't even bother to write a "shell." It's a futile time-waster that creates needless frustration for all.

Instead, ask the approvers to do these tasks in advance:

Marketing managers should:
-prioritize target audiences and messaging
-weigh in on correct emphasis
-explicitly state what long-term business objectives are being served

Product managers should:
-demo the technology for the writer
-provide detail on specs, features and benefits
-weigh in on correct emphasis

A VP- or higher-level PR person on the agency side should "frontload" the writer. By that I mean provide context for the assignment. This should take less than 10 minutes and cover:

-news release's role in overall strategy
-detailed description of intended audiences and problems the product or service solves
-intended effect on audience (including actions to be invoked)
-competitive differentiators and indirect takeaways about the industry or audience, not just the product/service or company
-desired emphasis

Who writes? Usually a mid-level PR person, often an AE or SAE, who understands the task is to balance competing interests while appealing to external audiences. This person is more of a relationship broker than a writer because he won't be using his own voice or acting on his own priorities. The writer is really a mediator.

The writer/mediator does the following:
-receives content and other inputs
-looks for holes and asks questions
-consults with PR team members for frontloading, to find out what's been done in the past and for a mid-point check-in on content and structure (but not wordsmithing)

Ideally, the writer/mediator has access to:
-the sales department’s internal PowerPoints on customers and competitors to better understand the overall business and how to dovetail with parallel campaigns
-internal company and agency research, including Search Engine Optimization, aka SEO, and key initial findings that informed the PR plan in the first place

In many cases, the writer/mediator must develop the context that hooks the immediate announcement into the ongoing conversations of key influencers (while remaining within the parameters of branding and business objectives). A good way to do this is an audience analysis technique I call PDAs (Problems, Decisions and Actions). More on that in a future post.

Why add context? That's what makes it a "news" release. News is info that surprises people or helps them make decisions.

News = announcement + context

If you want to write solely about your product, that's OK, too, but -- technically speaking -- that's more of a backgrounder or fact sheet. Journalists do appreciate those and the SEC may require them, so have at it. You don't have to include context if you are talking primarily to beat reporters who already know your company well.

Throw out 95%

Now the writer has a big pile of inputs and must select the most compelling and relevant 5%, looking for intersections between disparate topics and resources.

Notice I said 5%. Writing is really a matter of deciding what to leave out. The writer should plan on deleting 95% or more of his source material.

Sometimes people ask me if it isn't more efficient to just collect only what matters in the first place. The answer is no because your final product will be shallow if you do. It will lack resonance. It won't have a shelf-life. And it will falter in the approval process.

Good writing comes from good content. First get the best ideas, then simplify and package them for easy absorption by strangers.

OK, getting back to process ...

The writer's unique contribution (separate from that of the others who gave early input) includes appropriate vocabulary and scenarios that will be familiar to audiences.

This last part -- audience vocabulary and scenarios -- is extraneous to what the marketing and product team may have had in mind. It also might feel superfluous and imprecise to lawyers.

However, it's the link to the audience, so please let the PR person proceed with this small contribution. When approving these few phrases, keep in mind your position and expertise. If you're the first baseman, stick to playing first base. Comment and compromise, but don't delete and re-write.

Ideal situation: Get PR, marketing, product and legal to agree in advance on appropriate vocabulary and scenarios. Key point: Look for language your audience really uses and delve into problems they actually talk about among themselves.

This is the same logic behind search engine optimization. But it has always been true, even before there were search engines. Know your audience and speak their language. Be useful to them, from their perspective.

Does the writer have to work alone? No, preferably not. Others on the PR team can help by providing:

-a speedy midpoint check-in to approve content and structure (not wordsmithing, which can still be rough and wrong at this stage) Time: 5 minutes
-a hands-off look by someone who didn’t draft the release and can provide outside eyes as to whether the information is clear to outsiders and mechanically sound (grammar, etc.), and to say what indirect takeaways they picked up on
-a hands-on look by a senior person who can finesse the small stuff while keeping in mind the big stuff (but please read my other blog posts for advice on this)
-submission to the person who will oversee the approval process, perhaps with a note explaining reasons for certain decisions and listing possible alternatives

Questions the writer should ask:
1. What are my client’s hot buttons, preferred vocabulary and customs?
2. What approved language from previous releases should be included to provide continuity and help beat reporters and analysts distinguish new info from background?
3. Have I added context that connects the client to the outside world without becoming distracting or irrelevant (and while remaining within parameters of brand and business objectives)?
4. Is the “why” at the top and the “how” at the bottom of the release?
5. Will the first paragraph appeal to relevant outsiders and make them lean in to listen?
6. Have I blended messaging with news value?
7. Have I met both the client’s and audience’s needs?
8. Are customer types specifically named in the release and generally in the fronts rather than middles or backs of sentences? (not users; instead educators, physicians, Web designers, network architects, business professionals, families …)
9. If I delete the quote, will I have to rewrite the release to fill in the missing content? (If not, then rewrite the quote. The speaker should add substance or remain silent.)
10. Have I added white space through effective use of subheads, bullets and short paragraphs? (White space is inviting.)
11. Do my subheads have verbs in them? (If not, consider rewriting. Drill down deeper. Be more specific.)
12. What is my gut saying that I’m ignoring? (Don’t ignore it. Honor your instincts.)

Discipline and self-restraint are make-or-break factors in fixing your broken approval process. Everyone needs to know their position and respect their teammates.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to figure out your client's writing preferences

Of course, this has never happened to you, but it might have happened to someone you know:

A hard-to-please client is re-writing your team’s work in the wee hours. Team morale is sliding because new quality control measures haven't helped. Baffled junior staff wonder if they chose the wrong career, and senior staff schedule extra client meetings to get to the bottom of things, to no effect.

In case you ever land in this situation -- or better still, if you want to pre-empt it -- here's what you can do to figure out a challenging client's writing preferences.

(1) Find out who your client admires -- Ask for writing samples from third-party or internal sources that the client likes. These may be from a company the client admires or the work of a favorite internal writer. Most people can’t articulate their preferences, but they know what they like when they see it.

(2) Study a body of tracked changes -- Gather three to five samples of this person’s tracked changes and look for patterns.

(3) Analyze in three specific categories: (a) discretionary vocabulary, (b) sentence structure and (c) content decisions. (That’s for starters. When I dive into these, I tend to find more categories specific to the client.)

(a) Discretionary vocabulary –
Does your client prefer international, global or worldwide? They all mean the same thing, right? Does he like meet, need and look better than assemble, require and appear? Again, same meaning, different words.

But to him, one set sounds right and the other doesn't. He can't tell you why. For most of us, it's a natural inclination to want writing that we are editing to sound similar to the syntax and connotation that matches the voice we hear in our head when we read. Most of us don't realize that we have these personal biases.

Does your client choose customer retention over customer loyalty, dramatically over highly, and stimulate over fuel?

Make a list of words that potentially could have been interchangeable with other words of similar meaning. Analyze them.

Some people have biases for particular sounds – like the “uhl” sounds in loyal, highly and fuel. I can't tell you why, just that I've observed it.

Some insist on generic college words (Latinate) like establish, initiate, consolidate and examine, while others prefer plain words (Anglo-Saxon) like set up, start, join and find. I know of one individual who likes Latinate verbs but poetic Anglo-Saxon kicks at the ends of sentences: “….consolidate ….initiate… cash in on the car’s cachet.”

If you detect an underlying core image, it may be easier to guess which discretionary words will be the best fit. Your client won’t realize how deliberately you made your choice; he’ll just feel comfortable reading what you wrote and won’t know why.

One company’s preferred vocabulary reminds me of music from the 1968 sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s transcendent and expansive – freed from the limitations of, future generations, legendary.

Another emphasizes comparison (double the capacity, aggressive development milestones, outperform, minimal) and perspective (in a roundup of five, range from, longstanding, latest).

One reminds me of a race car: speed, accelerate, perform, grab, win, spin, stop.

(b) Sentence structure –
I know of at least one individual who systematically deletes all introductory clauses without fail. Meanwhile, others insist on them: “At a time when people are traveling more than ever (comma)” or “Demonstrating the popularity of mobile devices (comma).”

One company likes a rhythm of fours instead of the usual rhythm of threes, as in “apples, oranges, bananas and pears” versus “apples, oranges and bananas.”

I know of a company that deletes adjectives, except for certain ones immediately in front of product names – and nowhere else. This company mostly writes with strong verbs highly recommended). Many people do just the opposite. They mostly write with jazzy nouns (and quiet verbs like is, has, do), and love adjectives everywhere.

I know of a veteran professional communicator with an engineer’s love for efficiency but none for colloquialisms. So it’s “enables remote PC access” not “so users can connect to their PC while away from the office.” Another company with similar products prefers just the opposite.

(c) Content choices –
Some companies like to make explicit statements about business strategy in product announcements. Others stick to specs and features. A few (the ones that win awards and get talked about) emphasize social context. (Everyone agrees on emphasizing benefits.)

Once you’ve got these kinds of lists in front of you, the problem is no longer mysterious. You can create a cheat sheet for everyone on the team to use.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't channel your inner Henry Higgins while editing business documents

Skilled editors and mentors recognize individuality, respect deadlines, and know where a document lives in the big picture of the organization's reasons for being.

Arbitrary editors impose their own syntax and biases onto others, turning dashes into semicolons, replacing "seems" with "resembles," replacing "stemmed" with "originated," inserting a comma where they want to hear a pause, adding "transitions," and committing other crimes against nature.

Unfortunately, we are all arbitrary editors at heart. It takes professional restraint to keep oneself from transforming other people's writing into what "sounds right" to us.

But remember: What they told you in kindergarten is schmaltzy but true. People are like snowflakes, each one beautiful and like no other.

Yes, even if your team aims to write in a particular client's voice, you still need to give writers some elbow room.

Here are ways you can become a more productive editor.

On your first read, use the blue highlighter in Word to mark any phrasing, punctuation or content that hits you funny. Don't stop to fix it. Just highlight it.

On your second read, look only at the blue and ask yourself questions like these:

- Are there recurring patterns in what bothers me?

- Is a key perspective missing?

- Have the audience's needs been met?

- Are proof points missing?

- What long-term business objectives do we need to serve?

- Does this document dovetail with related efforts and campaigns?

- What indirect takeaways do we need readers to catch?

- Are the content and tone credible? Persuasive? Authentic?

- Is the hook, decision, recommendation, surprise or change at the top (where it belongs), with back story, rationale, alternatives, "the how," archival record-keeping details or chronology pulling up the rear?

Create three to five bullet points & ask for speedy tweaks

Next, compose an e-mail (that you may or may not send), articulating three to five points that can be expressed as questions or how-to suggestions.

Then, send the blue-highlighted version with your questions in an e-mail to the writer, asking for the fixes within 20 minutes. Or speak by phone or face-to-face.

When you get the document back, read it afresh, again with the blue highlighter. (You'll be delighted by the changes, believe me, and you'll have saved yourself time by doing something else on your to-do list while the writer made the improvements.)

Then read the blue and begin editing, consciously treading lightly, trying to make as few marks as possible on the page.

Better still, call the writer over and have him sit beside you at the keyboard. This results in a dialog that makes the edits go faster. When you voice a concern, the writer will probably have an idea for addressing it.

Avoid changing something for a vague reason such as "it sounds/flows better that way." Don't impose your values, standards or prejudices on the document, even if yours are better than the writer's, even if you are the mentor and he is the mentee. Let other people's work be different from yours.

Focus on business outcomes and decisions.

Try it. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Or continue as you are, Arbitrary Editor, so that you can alienate your team members, keep working into the wee hours, and feeling as frustrated as the pompous Henry Higgins of "My Fair Lady," who asked, "Why can't ________ be more like me?"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Eagle Eyes Find What Other Editors Miss

What if you could hit a panic button and have a flock of expert editors fly to your rescue?

A&R Edelman (my employer) actually has such a system in place. The panic button is an e-mail alias that reaches five volunteer “Eagle Eyes” who race one another to be the first to reply to the person in need. In addition, we have eight more Eagle Eyes available on advance notice (usually between two hours and two days).

Every other summer, we train a new flock recruited for talent and initiative. We only allow participants with somewhere between one and three years of agency experience. Less than one year isn’t enough, and anything more than three years is too much.

You’ve probably seen the perfect recruits at your own agency or company. They’re the ones you never have to correct twice, the ones you trust with your own editing, the ones who always seem to have enough time and efficacy for yet another project. They are service-oriented people who enjoy easing the path for others.

I can spot them a mile away.

We train for two months during lunch hours on Mondays and Wednesdays. In addition, recruits spend about an hour a week in solo study or with a buddy with whom they are asked to share whatever they’ve learned that week. We pair each recruit with a buddy but don’t monitor whether they actually meet. Sometimes, pairs meet together as a larger group.

Most people assume we are teaching grammar, style and usage. But we’re not. I ask them to study on their own. I provide a Knowledge Book and they are to come to class with questions about it. We take as much class time as necessary to answer questions.

The rest of the time, they learn to:

1. sense whether they are in the right brain-wave mode for editing (“brain off” mode)

2. recognize situations that tend to invite errors (“hot zones”)

3. look things up frequently (Confidence is bad; only the paranoid survive.)

4. find the hard-to-find references (I show them shortcuts through the woods.)

5. edit surgically (remove only the tumor and leave all other flesh intact)

6. ask the right questions at the right times (Some corrections require a brief conversation.)

They learn professional restraint. This means editing only what’s wrong without re-writing.

In the end, they pass three tests in a row. They can make two mistakes per test. An over-edit (rewriting rather than surgically removing or changing something that wasn’t wrong) counts as a miss. In the beginning, we do exercises, then simulations. The simulations and tests are press releases loaded up with errors, some of which are quite tricky.

You can see why we don’t train senior people, whose edits should be primarily for messaging, strategy, emphasis and business value.

When invited, Eagle Eyes can make further suggestions. Since they are gifted writers in the first place, their suggestions are usually genuine improvements, but they know better than to tamper with a document uninvited.

Eagle Eyes always retain the right to say no. They put their own account work first but take pride in squeezing in customers on other accounts. Nor do they edit sloppy documents. The person who sought their services is expected to have done his or her utmost to make the document perfect. Eagle Eyes find what other people miss.

As Eagle Eyes advance to leadership positions over time, they take their old strengths up the chain with them while acquiring new strengths. Having edited agency-wide documents, Eagle Eyes possess a broader perspective than peers who weren’t given regular exposure to other teams and clients.

Our Eagle Eyes command respect beyond what’s commensurate with their job title, and account teams gain an otherwise unattainable level of impeccability and confidence.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

QT No. 1 -- Don't Write in Full Sentences

Quick Tip No. 1: If you tend to become paralyzed in front of a blank screen, write lists rather than full sentences.

By lists I mean things like this:

- 238.8 miles in 48 hrs on road
- how far she's gone, w/ peaks & valleys
- started small, but it was a start

Key point: Keep typing. Don't worry about structure, tone, vocabulary, spelling or audience. Just get your content down. Fragments? Good! Mispellings? Great. Typos? Bring 'em on! It's all good. In fact, the messier the better.

Only let yourself write lists. Don't slip into full sentences. Go, go, go, as if the higher crime is letting your fingers stop, not writing poorly.

Once your ideas are there, you can move them around. And later, after moving them around, you can begin to finesse the structure and vocabulary. Make corrections afterward. Don't start with "good writing."

This is called "free-writing." If you've done a good job of pre-writing, then your free-writing will be productive.

Some people become mentally constipated because (1) they haven't asked enough questions from the audience's perspective, which is part of pre-writing, or (2) because they jumped too fast into the mental mode associated with the final phase, which is re-writing.

Pre-writing means brainstorming, research, analysis, collecting questions and jotting down gut instincts. You can also call it critical thinking. In tech PR, we mine from three specific categories for effective pre-writing: (1) news value, (2) business value, (3) secret sauce. (I teach this in my workshops.)

Re-writing means editing for grammar, voice, impact on reader, etc. It's inherently judgmental. But if you *start* in this judgmental mode, you get stuck.

So, don't put the cart before the horse. First, search & find. Second, throw words at screen as fast as you can. Lastly, tidy up.

In "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott, you'll find explicit permission to write crap. (In my workshops I delicately spell it in make-believe French -- crappe.) In writing, crap is good. It's fertilizer for the pretty flowers that come later.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Science Translation Tips from Prof-Turned-Filmmaker: Motivate Then Educate, Concision Not Dumbing Down ...

Book Review: Helping Scientists & Engineers Talk

A just-published book by a professor-turned-filmmaker raises a question that tech PR people have long asked: How can we help science and technology guys (& gals) communicate with the mainstream public?

I offer a zillion tips and tools for this in my writing workshops, but that's not what this post is about. Instead, let's look at the biggest problem of all.


Even when a scientist or engineer decides he wants to speak effectively with outsiders, peer pressure works against him. His resolve can't last.

Randy Olson's book, "Don't Be Such a Scientist," is written from the perspective of a scientist. And that's what makes it valuable. A Harvard-trained biologist with an MFA from USC's School of Cinema, Olson deals with the scientist's psychological fears about compromising accuracy, for example, and speaks the language of scientists while offering alternative structures for packaging info.

Tough, cheeky & confrontational

At the same time, Olson isn't forgiving or hand-holding. Four of five chapter titles are criticisms (e.g. "Don't Be So Unlikeable").

His tone is almost a free-association account of his personal experiences in both worlds, a stylistic choice that gives him plenty of leeway for being flippant. On balance, he's throwing down his glove and challenging scientists to a duel.

His conversational tone and cheeky attitude are also what makes this a good read for tech PR people. You won't feel like you're in school.

Some of his tips are useful sound bites. For example, "motivate, then educate" and "concision, not dumbing down." I like these because they eliminate negative connotations that in my opinion are unfounded.

As a science reporter myself for three years, I've interviewed plenty of great scientists who were also great communicators. There's no reason to believe there's a trade-off. Scientists can be both, and the world will be all the better for it.

Will scientists read it?

But getting back to that question of willingness: Most scientists aren't there, and probably won't pick up this book in the first place. So it behooves all of us in tech PR to read it for them. We'll gain better understanding of their psychological obstacles and of the core values that they worry are being laid on the chopping block. We can learn how to make them feel safe while taking necessary risks.

Incidentally, two other books I can recommend are:

"Richard Feynman: A Life in Science" by John & Mary Gribbon (Dutton, 1997) -- Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who could tell a good story. One caveat, though, is a big one -- he fudged the truth and the authors go too easy on him for that. Still, the bigger takeaway is important: He was influential because he could talk.

"Field Guide for Science Writers" by Deborah Blum & Mary Knudson (Oxford University Press, 1997) -- Super valuable collection of lessons that the best newspaper reporters on science beats have learned at the school of hard knocks. Very practical advice. Very applicable to PR writing. In fact, I've just now decided to re-read it myself. It's that good.

You might also search archives for news stories by Keay Davidson, my all-time favorite news reporter on a science beat. He wrote for the San Francisco Examiner when it was awesome (no more) and more recently for the San Francisco Chronicle. He has published six books. I haven't read them, but they must be good. He exemplifies science storytelling at its best.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Editors, build a powerful writer through self-restraint; don't track changes

Here’s another way to help a new writer grow without resorting to tracked changes. Try highlights.

On Oct. 8, I riffed about bad editors being bad for business. For the purposes of this blog, “bad editors” means “people who re-write the work of others.” Let me say it again: Re-writing is not editing.

Today, I’ll show you an example of a new employee’s work and what I said to influence her second draft. I didn’t touch a hair on her document’s head. She wrote every word of both versions herself.

From: Edwards, Lauren

Sent: Thursday, [Month XX], 2009 11:54 AM

To: [Name Removed – I’ll call her Sarah]

Subject: suggestions here FW: Draft Pitch on Acme SmartTech

Hi again, Sarah. If you have time before we meet, try restructuring this slightly so that the yellow is the first line of the pitch and the green comes soon after that, and then the blue. (See below.)

Also consider writing as if to a blogger. Did you take the class on writing for social media? Write to a person, not so much “about” something.

Talk to you later.


The "after" version is concise, newsy & to the point

Here’s the first line of her original:

For years, families with autistic children lived with frustration, despair, and little chance of any substantial treatment.

Here’s the first line of her second (and much improved) draft:

Non-verbal autistic children no longer have to suffer in silence.

I like Draft 2 better because it’s shorter, shows a break in the normal flow of events (“news”), and gets right to the point without wasting words on setting up what she’ll say before she says it.

Here’s her second sentence:

Original: New technology from Acme is offering hope for these families and empowering autistic kids to communicate in ways once never thought possible.

You don’t care, right? I mean, you’d like to think you are a caring person and all, but really …do you care while reading that sentence? Her writing mechanics are fine, but this is not compelling.

Here’s her second draft’s second sentence: For the first time, they can tell their teachers, “My head hurts,” or communicate that they are hungry or tired, thanks to technology from Acme being used at the Ryde Technology School in San Francisco.

I’d include video links to the broadcast hits that resulted from this pitch, but in this blog I’m deliberately masking identities to preserve confidentiality. In these excerpts, I’ve changed the names of the city, school, client, technology and writer. I’ve also left out the exact date.

Aside: [I can't resist, however, sharing one line of a particular broadcast story about an autistic teen who had never been able to speak until he began using this new technology. He said, "I'm funny, but nobody knows it." He gave a wry smile. My heart broke open and I said, "Awww."

Can you imagine these kids going through life fluent and with things to say but unable to say them!! This is why I love my job. Our clients really do make the world a better place.]

"Sarah" is now powerful, successful & motivated

From my perspective as writing coach, the best outcome is not the hits. It’s that “Sarah” is now powerful. She’s stoked, successful and knows how to do better from the start next time. She feels ownership, pride and hope -- all of which are energizing and motivating.

If her work had been re-written, or if she’d been told to “make it more compelling” or some such vague advice, she’d be some combination of confused and demoralized, whether she fully realized it or not.

If you want to see the yellow, green and blue highlights referenced in my e-mail, here they are. You’ll see that she grasps the point of my highlights, but provides her own words, pacing and content decisions for the re-write.

Original w/ highlights (but not tracked changes!):

For years, families with autistic children lived with frustration, despair, and little chance of any substantial treatment. New technology from Acme is offering hope for these families and empowering autistic kids to communicate in ways once never thought possible.

The Ryde Technology School in San Francisco is now using the Acme SmartTech device with voice recording technology to make progress in teaching non-verbal autistic children to speak. By using the SmartTech, students who have never verbalized their thoughts are finally given a voice. For the first time, they can tell their parents “I love you” or communicate to their teachers that they are hungry or tired.

This is a testament to the amazing potential of technology to help people overcome special needs and improve lives. For years, Acme has been committed to developing products and services that are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities and age-related impairments. …

It goes on, but that’s enough to show you what I mean about using highlights. Amazing what a great substitute they can be for tracked changes.

It’s also worth noting that her first version was an overly long 312 words; her second, 186 words. And I didn't even have to ask her to "be more concise," which is another thing bad editors often say. (If writers knew *how* to be concise, they already would have done that. Be more specific.)

Anyway, atta girl, “Sarah”!

Editors, try this yourself and please let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to Evaluate PR Writers -- Five Criteria

"Is So-and-So a good writer?"

Early on, my response to this question was a paragraph in an e-mail. But we eventually came up with a chart for evaluating everyone in the agency (director/VP and below) once a year as part of their annual review. Here it is below.

In this blog, it's a list. But in practice, it's an Excel spreadsheet with ratings on a horizontal axis: excellent, exceeds expectations, meets expectations, needs improvement. It's not a report card.

This is a business, not a school, so we don't grade on a curve or "reward" people with A's. The excellent category is reserved for "go to" people who are agency icons of that particular skill. The good place to be is "meets" and the good place to work toward is "exceeds."

Critical thinking trumps artistry

The most important category is "critical thinking." The least important is "artistry." In winning the attention of the traditional news media, truly useful insights written in crayon on the back of a crumpled napkin will always beat pretty words on pretty paper.

The chart originated from my sitting down with myself and asking, "What are the hoops that my thoughts jump through when I write these e-mails to executives? How am I assessing skill? What skills am I assessing?"

Having been a news reporter for 10 years, I had the news media part down pat. But I needed marketing insight, too. So I started the list, and agency executives added to it. What you see here is a consensus that I truly and proudly stand by, in every detail.

Emerged from downturn with profit & awards

Our CEO at the time, agency founder Bob Angus, made "writer profile charts" mandatory, and I literally shut down for business during the entire month of October so I could churn out a chart like this for nearly 50 people.

It was 2002, the dot-com bubble had burst and Bob had made an unusual decision. He allowed attrition but didn't lay anyone off; if account teams had extra time on their hands, they'd spend it in training. Our writer profile chart was integral to that process. We set standards, measured people, demanded improvement, and got it.

Thanks to Bob's counter-intuitive management style, we emerged from the economic downturn with profits and awards, even as our competitors lost half their staffs or went out of business.

Agency gained a forward-leaning ethic of improvement

After a few years of this, we reduced the number of people we evaluated. New employees or employees who needed attention were the only the ones who got them. Everyone else had clarity about their strengths and knew how to keep improving.

After a couple of years, people came to me for coaching in anticipation of having their chart done, and their first charts reflected progress from the get-go. That was the most fun.

An awesome benefit of this system was our new ability to pair people with complementary strengths. I told them, "You're good at this, and she's good at that, so when you find yourselves in disagreement, make sure you each win in the area of your strengths and acquiesce in the area of the other person's strengths."

This immediately produced high-quality work and the two people unofficially mentored each other. Organically, both became strong.

I suggest you find a writing guru in your office and ask this one person to assess staff on these criteria. Individual supervisors can't do it because they aren't necessarily good at this kind of thing -- that's why they ask me. Choosing just one person provides consistency.

In a "comments" section below the chart, I always copied examples of the writer's work and offered detailed "next steps" for improving.

In this list below, I've called out one item in blue type. It's the most common and most damaging problem among bad editors. I plan to go into more detail about it in an upcoming blog.

As a writing coach, of course, I continue to hate this question. I couldn't do my job well if I really thought there were only two kinds of writers: good and bad. To me, everyone is where they are, and my job is to help them move up.

Not what executives want to hear, I know. So here's the chart:

(1) Mechanics
-AP style
-Grammar & usage
-Active voice

(2) Discipline
-Digs below surface for "meat," insights
-Terseness (no padding, brisk pace)
-Structure (gives order to chaos)
-Client-ready, carefully copyread

(3) Critical thinking
-Considers audience point of view
-Foresees audience reactions
-Drives clients' long-range objectives
-Balances media and client needs
-Asks, researches, finds what matters
-Offers context, perspective
-Sees new wrinkles in familiar situations
-Breaks rules effectively

(4) News judgment (See detail toward end of list)
-Satisfies journalistic definition of news
-Effectively uses "news elements"

(5) Artistry
-Liveliness, flair, spark
-Engages as well as informs
-Advocacy, subtle “salesmanship”

News is…
(1) ... a break in the normal flow of events, an interruption in the expected.
(2) ... information people need to make sound decisions about their lives and businesses.

News elements: Change, timeliness, impact, names, numbers, nearness, unusualness, currency/topicality, life & death, health, human interest, conflict, biggest/smallest, animals, first/unique, sex, sports, weather, scandal, suspense, discovery, humor

For Senior Staff: Editing Skills
-Elevates messaging, objectives, strategy
-Checks/adjusts for correct emphasis
-Strengthens unity, coherence
-Troubleshoots as needed

-Refrains from arbitrary changes (ear, style)

-Avoids introducing new errors
-Cultivates writers' growth

Friday, October 9, 2009

What Changed My Mind? Cultural Change and a Time-Management Tip

Why now?

For years, I emphatically wagged my head and elongated my enunciation while insisting I wouldn't blog. "Nnnoooooooooooooooooooo."

My change of heart came during a free webinar by @hubspot aka Coming across as relaxed, practical and sincere, webinar leader Rick Burnes suggested that when someone asks you a question and you are going to reply by e-mail, instead write a blog post and send the person a link. That way you help more people at once.

That appealed to me because it's time-efficient.

I hadn't wanted to blog because I thought it would be time-consuming. Plus, I wasn't vain enough to imagine I'd have a following. What would I say? I felt vindicated as I heard about people quitting their blogs, saying they'd never imagined it would be so much work. (I was a news reporter for 10 years before becoming a business writing coach in 2000, so I know very well that research, interviewing, writing and editing aren't easy.)

The world has since changed around me. At A&R Edelman (my employer), the corporate culture shifted. We're now encouraged to add our individual voices to the world's chorus. And Twitter's emergence as a news tip service gives readers a way to find me. I don't need a regular following because Tweets and re-Tweets direct the right people to the right topics at the right times. A sporadic following will do.

Someone asked me, "What if you make a mistake? Won't it take a long time to proofread to be absolutely sure you haven't let a grammar or punctuation error slip through?" Well, I'm sure that *will* happen. I fully claim to be human. Even editors need editors. So when someone kindly checks me, I'll thank them and make the correction.

Finally, this blog isn't about me. It's about you.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bad Editors Are Bad for Business -- How to Cope

Your bosses or clients might in fact be the problem. If they are re-writing, sending you a lot of tracked changes, or making vague demands like "make it more punchy" or "make it less like a brochure," you are in the majority.

If I could wave a wand and fix the world in one graceful sweep, I'd make everyone a better editor. Poof! Now people are respectful, appreciative, nurturing and specific. If that's not how you'd describe your boss or client, it's a good thing you met me.

Bad editors are not only bad for morale, they're bad for business. First, there's the immediate waste inherent in over-editing that takes up time on deadline without altering the eventual business outcome. Second, an insidious dynamic develops within the team and poisons efforts yet to come. All kinds of weirdness ensue: blame, apathy, polarization, ineptitude ... don't get me started. For perspective, ask: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

So, how to cope with bad editors?

First, don't take it personally. I'm a mercenery myself. I do this for a living, not for my ego.

Second, don't join in the over-reacting.

Third, OK, now it's going to get a little messy. To go on, I need to know more about your situation. Please tell me your specifics, but mask the names of people and companies, of course.

Before getting too far into this, I need to let you know that I only coach smart people. My clients are professional writers at companies that are famously smart. So this blog is not a confessional or ghetto for writing washouts.

Know that your problem is many people's problem. You are just the one with the guts to speak up about it. Take a stand. Be a leader. Articulate the problem. I guarantee you won't be alone in experiencing it.

That qualifier aside, here's a bit of generic editing advice, in case you are able to suggest something like this to your taskmaster of the moment.

1. Try side-by-side editing. This means the writer sits beside the editor as he reviews the document. The editor thinks out loud, so you can hear his thoughts immediately rather than try to guess later what he was trying to get at when he made the entire page bleed.

It also takes no extra time. The editor doesn't have to make an appointment with you to "walk you through the changes," as so many bad editors tend to put it. Instead, you just sit there in real time, observing while it happens. Both parties will learn from this exercise, painlessly.

2. Step back and look for patterns. Rather than fixing every little thing, reacting one by one to each micro-episode of mental discomfort, the editor distances himself from the document. He looks for repetitive choices or a missing perspective.

He sends you a note with two or three questions that get you to think differently about the content. He sits back and waits, then gets a pleasant surprise. The quality ratchets up about 200 percent. And he didn't do a thing.

3. Decide what really matters and let the rest go. Sometimes your editor is horrid simply because he's gifted -- at writing, not editing. It may be that you will never be as good as he is.

Your editor needs to accept this reality, even if it hurts. He needs to make a list of two to five things that are really important to him and let the rest go (crying or gnashing his teeth, fine, but he needs unloose those white knuckes).

Once you can do everything on his list, he can add other items, one at a time. He needs to let you evolve over time. You can't be him. You'll never be him.

Editors with this problem always say to me, "Yes, but I need to uphold quality standards for the client's sake." Yes, but some quality standards matter more than others. Choose.

4. Proofreading is a separate issue. It's something to be done at the very end and done surgically. That is, the editor removes only the tumor while leaving all healthy flesh intact.

Yes, your grammar and punctuation need to be impeccable. That's a credibility issue. And yes, your business needs to convey credibility.

But senior people shouldn't be doing this particular task, so I'm not counting it as editing in this particular blog, which is about edits by bosses and clients.

Change is hard, I know. A mantra that can help you keep this advice in mind while under duress on deadline is the question I posed earlier: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

If you are the writer, this question can help you steady your emotions. If you are the editor, it can help you keep your eye on the ball. A red sea of tracked changes helps no one.