Sunday, December 25, 2011

What to do when you have writer's block

Writer's block?

Please allow me to suggest a couple of remedies. In my 10 years as a corporate writing coach, I've seen hundreds of people get unstuck using both of these approaches.

(1) List questions from the audience's perspective.

(2) List your ideas as fragments rather than full sentences.

Why list questions

Writer's block often comes from failing to adequately "pre-write" -- that is, to think critically and do research before settling in to begin composing. If you pause to imagine yourself in your audience's shoes and think from their perspective about your topic, it can be helpful to simply list questions that you think the audience might ask. This can jump-start an effective pre-writing effort that, once initiated, is likely to flow readily and will feel to you like intuition.

It could be that you have writer's block because you simply weren't ready to begin.

Why write fragments

Another common reason for writer's block is self-censoring too early in your writing process. Have you ever typed eight words across the page, then backspaced to delete three of them, typed two more, then backspaced over five, and so on? You can work for a half-hour like this and end up with a grand total of four words on the page.

We've all been there at some time or another, right?

Or worse still, you sit there just staring, unable to compose a first sentence while your mind races, unproductively creating and rejecting possibilities in rapid succession.

In these cases, try writing in fragments instead of sentences. This will release your over-active censor. Misspelled word? Fine. Wrong tone? No prob. Incomplete thought? All of these are OK while listing your ideas as fragments.

When bad is in fact good

No need to make a pretty sentence ... yet. Really, it's too early for that. You should be in "free-writing" mode, not "re-writing" mode. Free-writing means slapping it all down without finessing the details. In this phase, you have permission to write what I delicately spell in make-believe French as "crappe." Let me say it again: You have permission to write "crappe." (wink wink)

The act of listing your ideas as fragments breaks the unhelpful brainwave pattern that comes with editing/censoring/rewriting. Instead, you'll slip without noticing into a different brainwave pattern conducive to creating rather than polishing. Again, as with Remedy No. 1 above, you'll find yourself in the flow and enjoying a feeling of writing intuitively.

These tips are like diving boards. Once you rise up and break the surface with either of these deliberate acts, you will find your natural buoyancy and enjoy new momentum and freedom.

If you want examples, check out this previous related post.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Commas are *not* pauses

This $10.95 book by René Jacques Cappon of The Associated Press is neither remedial nor scholarly. It's a slim, practical, example-filled, in-between sort of book that business professionals and other writers can quickly skim.

Second-grade teacher's good intentions gone awry

The chapter on commas alone is well worth the price of the book and then some. I'm not exaggerating when I say this chapter will change your professional life.

Here's why: Many of us learned in first or second grade that a comma is a pause. Our teacher fed us this fallacy because we were new to the written word and, while scrawling our first sentences in unsteady handwriting, we had to be reminded incessantly to apply a period, a space and then a capital letter. (I have volunteered in elementary schools for several years now, so it's fresh in my mind how much children struggle to remember those seemingly arbitrary details.)

Then, after we get the period-space-capital pattern down, our teacher throws a new form of punctuation at us, the comma. We're startled and we feel betrayed. Our teacher kindly explains, "The period is a full stop and the comma is a pause." We relax a bit and obediently try to apply the new punctuation mark.

Hence, the willy-nilly application of commas

Unfortunately, that's the last time most of us hear anything about commas. Consequently, as grownups now writing professional documents, we apply commas willy-nilly whenever the voice inside our own head hears what could be identified as a pause.


Every comma has a reason for being. Commas are not subjective. They are not pauses.

What makes the elementary-school fallacy particularly destructive is the fact that we don't all hear pauses in the same places. We each have our own syntax, usually without being aware of it. The typical rookie editor tampers with other people's commas, forcing them into spots where they hear a pause and removing them from places where they don't. This is a waste of your company's time and demoralizing to the person whose work you're editing.

Top students use this book

This book, "The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation," will clarify things for you, primarily through examples. Hooray! *Finally*, your ambivalence and errors can be put to rest.

I create and give writing and critical-thinking workshops, including a few different kinds of classes related to copy editing. I use this book only with my top copy-editing students.

Disclosure/clarification: I worked for the AP in the early to mid-1990s, but I don't make any money from the sale of this book. In fact, it was published in 2003, about seven years after I left The AP (and three years after I had already become a writing coach in Silicon Valley.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Press releases: A necessary evil & how to use them

Corporate press releases -- ugh. Raise your hand if you agree.

Let's face it, most corporate press releases aren't newsworthy, compelling or relevant to readers, often because the approval process is excessive.

Unsurprisingly, surveys repeatedly have shown that top-notch news media hardly ever use press releases for sourcing stories.

That said, press releases do in fact have great value for corporations -- internally, that is. They may trigger the start of an internal process involving multiple departments, catalyzing people in a variety of functions and aligning them around common business objectives. Once the approval process for a press release is complete, there's consensus. And if there isn't consensus, there's a new awareness of divisive issues or not-well-thought-out questions that may not have come to light so quickly.

A press release is a stake in the ground. It's a public statement of what a company does, believes or intends, with the help of which partners and for whom. It's useful for archiving. You can look at press releases posted on a company's website to see where it's been.

If you work in PR, I suggest writing an email pitch tailored to a specific news reporter, emphasizing information that your own research tells you will be useful to that particular news reporter.

In the last line, include a link to the press release, inviting the reporter to have a look at it for further information. It's unlikely the press release alone will be of interest, so I recommend including it but not relying on it.

Caveat: Earnings releases and other financially relevant announcements are the exception. These have external news value because they influence the decisions of people outside the company who buy and sell stocks, as well as help the company fulfill SEC requirements for proper disclosure.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Interviews that bring copy to life

What I'll be doing next week for a client in Silicon Valley:

Interactive Writing Workshop for Web Professionals

· Two days, 4.5 hours each day with a 30-minute lunch break

· Workbook and cheat sheets included

Day One: “How to Bring Your Copy to Life”

Please bring three writing samples and a pen. If you wish, you may also use your laptop. You’ll self-diagnose your writing and choose your own improvements. You’ll do hands-on exercises and get useful answers to your on-the-spot questions.

Topics include:

1. Invigorating verbs

2. Info-chunking for the Web

3. Writing for the eye, not the ear

4. Meshing with [company]’s editorial guidelines

5. Sounding like [company] while still thinking for yourself

Day Two: “How to Make the Most of an Overly Busy Interviewee’s Time”

If possible, please bring writing samples that involve at least one live interview. (It’s OK to use the same documents from the day before.) Even if your job doesn’t require you to engage audiences, you’ll learn better ways to elicit information from colleagues. You’ll hear “war stories” from a veteran journalist and science writer, with emphasis on tips and tricks.

1. Know when to “drop your script” and go rogue

2. Create your own cheat sheet for emergencies

3. See samples written with and without live interviews

4. Get physical with non-verbal cues that keep people talking

5. Listen in a way that gets people to say the most interesting things

About Lauren Edwards, Writing Coach

A former reporter for The Associated Press, Lauren Edwards has successfully coached hundreds of professional communicators and engineers at companies including Intel, Yahoo and Google since August 2000. She customizes writing and critical thinking workshops for science- and technology-based companies in emerging markets. Topics include: finding news value, adding business context, creating compelling content and repurposing content for social media. Her Tweets and weekly blog offer results‐oriented tips on writing and editing. Lauren was a staff writer for The Associated Press in San Francisco, Fresno and Tokyo and a science writer for the Oakland Tribune and other dailies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her international experience includes Peace Corps service in the Philippines and ambassadorial scholarships to live, work and study in Japan. She graduated with honors from the University of California, Berkeley, with a bachelor’s degree in the political economy of natural resources. You can reach Lauren at …