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.