Do You Write the Way You Want to Write – Or the Way They Want to Read?

Last week’s release of the Intel study – what happens on the internet in one minute – has left many shaking their heads, and wondering how in the world it could be possible to break through all this internet “noise” to Internet Noisecommunicate anything to anyone.

In a worldwide culture where today and every day 204 million emails are sent, 6 million Facebook pages are viewed, and 1.3 million YouTube clips are downloaded – to say nothing of 20 million photos seen, the 61,000 hours of music played, and the 20 stolen identities plus the 47,000 apps downloaded – every 60 seconds, this is indeed a good question.

And, the study projects, by 2015 the number of networked devices on the earth will be double the number of people on earth. By that time it would take five years to view all the video content crossing IP networks each and every second.

A good question indeed.

Decide on your purpose. Why are you writing? Do you want a specific reader, or readers to read what you have written? Or is just writing it enough? Who are you writing it for?

While it seems obvious, your best chance of getting your writing read is to write about something your reader wants to read. Second-best is to write something he or she has to read. In the second case, don’t count on that much of it getting through.

Now that you have decided what to write about, ask yourself how your reader prefers to read: Online – in a letter, memo, instructions, report? Or in a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn? On paper? Where are you most likely to find your reader?

Next step: assuming you want your writing read, what is the appropriate tone to use? What is the tone your reader will expect? What is the tone that will best connect with your reader? Should you use a formal, or academic tone? Will your reader be more likely to read and comprehend a less formal tone? Is that appropriate? Does your reader speak a specialized language – “legalese,” “medicalese,” “computerese”?

Much of the business writing done for higher-level co-workers tends to sound almost like a vocabulary test, as staff tends to “write up” for the higher-level reader. And yet, if that higher echelon reader were asked, he or she most likely would prefer to spend less time with a more comfortable, more readable, more easily-understood writing style. After all, that reader probably prefers having a family dinner, and maybe watching a little football, to staying late at work, trying to figure out what that piece of business writing says.

So if you want your writing to be read, write about something your reader wants to read – or present the information in such a way that he or she will want to read it. Use the writing medium your reader prefers, when you can appropriately do so. Write with a comfortable style, and an appropriate tone and language. And by all means, if you do nothing else, make it easy for the reader to get your point quickly, clearly, and concisely.

That last guideline is, and will continue to be, your most essential, most critical tool for cutting through all the “noise” your reader deals with on a day-to-day basis. The one tool you can totally control: Make your point quickly, clearly, and concisely.

We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

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Eight Critical Checkpoints for Successful Business Writing

We’ve hit grammar and usage – the mechanical aspects of business writing – pretty hard over the last few weeks. This week, let’s talk about eight critical checkpoints to increase the effectiveness of your writing:

1. Even before you begin to write, ask yourself, “Should this information be passed along at all?” And if so, should it be passed along in writing?womanChecklist180

2. When? And who should sign it?

3. Should I use a straightforward, to-the-point-immediately approach? Are emotions involved? Should I build in reading time?

4. Considering the reader from demographic, psychographic, and “problem” points of view, what approach should be most effective?

5. Using this approach, do the thoughts flow smoothly from one to the next – all the while building the point I intended to make? What content can be eliminated? What holes need to be filled in?

6. Are my lead paragraph, and my final paragraph (if I used one) consistent with each other? Do they support the content in between? Should my reader reasonably be expected to take the meaning I intended?

7. How hard will my reader have to work to understand what I have written? Is that appropriate?

8. Have I given this piece both a spellchecker and an eyes-on visual check before it goes out, to find those old goblins – grammar, punctuation, and spelling problems?

Let’s talk a bit more about some of these checkpoints:

Probably the number one rule of communication is whether or not a specific piece of information should be passed along at all. Some of the participants in my workshops tell me that this can save up to 50% of their writing activity!

Should this information be passed along in writing? While there are many reasons you might want to write, the most common reasons for writing are to create some sort of record or proof, such as documenting an agreement; to provide a reference – instructions are one good example; because there is a mandate to put this information in writing; or to get the same information to a large number of people at relatively the same time.

Timing is always a critical strategic element, as is the decision as to who should sign the piece. Tone, the relationship the writer establishes or reinforces with the reader, is also critical, and may well tie in with the signer decision. The writer has the opportunity to set the tone with the reader to be what he or she wants that relationship to be. For example, it could be friendly, professional, authoritarian, technical, collegial, helpful – or even warm and fuzzy! What is the word you choose to describe that relationship?

The purpose of most of these posts is to talk about clear, concise, easily-understood business writing.  Business writing that can be read and the meaning grasped at a glance. One thing we have not yet discussed is when you might want to build in time for the reader. This does not mean to make the writing confusing, or your content hard to follow. You need to be clear at all times in the business writing situation.

There are times you will want to include more information, and times you will want to keep it as brief as appropriate. The effect of providing more information is that it takes the reader longer to read. Sometimes you can assume the reader has the background and the information to understand a brief message on the topic. At other times that’s just not the case. On rare occasions you might be writing about a serious emotional issue, and you might want to provide a bit of additional background or information to the reader, which will give him or her a bit of extra reading time to come to grips with his or her emotions.

Now, considering the reader from the demographic (what are the facts I know about, or can find out about this reader); the psychographic (what drives this reader, how he or she sees himself or herself, how the reader wants you to see him or her); and the “problem” (what is the issue you can solve for your reader) points of view, what tone will be most effective? What content will best serve your purpose?

From this perspective, do your thoughts flow smoothly from one to the next, building to the point you need to make? What information needs to be added? What information could result in “overload,” and could be easily deleted?

How hard are you making the reader work to “get it”? Can you reasonably expect that the reader will understand your intended meaning?

Finally, of course you will use the spellchecker and the grammar checker, but have you also put your own eyes on that piece of writing to give it a final proofing? Watch for words that are correctly spelled, but are in the wrong place, e.g., to-two-too; or there-they’re-their. Also look for words that are correctly spelled, but not the words you meant, e.g., “an” when you mean “at,” “on” for “of,” and so on.

At the very end, look for consistency, particularly in issues of style; then check, and revise as necessary, your word choice and syntax.

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Gotta Dash – or Split? – Dashes and Hyphens

Yep. It’s true. Writers may, unfortunately, use a dash when they are in a rush, and don’t have, or don’t take, the time to complete a thought. In fact, one dictionary definition for “dash” is “move with haste; rush….” While the writer may suppose that the reader will complete his or her thought, or will “know what I mean,” this supposition can be dangerous territory.

The reader may very well complete the writer’s thought – with thoughts of his or her own – and totally negate whatever point the writer had hoped to make. Or maybe, and probably more likely, skip along, giving that incomplete or unsupported nascent idea no recognition or thought at all.

The dash is an interruption of your sentence’s smooth flow. That’s why it’s often used for emphasis – because its interruption causes your reader to stop and think, even for that split millisecond. But use dashes economically; too many interruptions can be confusing, and defeat your purpose for using them.

The dash can work in two areas: clarity, and style. As you saw above, not all sources agree on what the dash should look like, and not all keyboards are the same. Writing is a visual art. I prefer the space-hyphen-space (the final one above), but you may choose whichever “looks right” to you. Just remember (1) to be consistent; and (2) to avoid over-use in your writing – more like pepper than salt!

Now: As for the hyphen. Here’s where we have some definite grammar rules, along with some indefinite authoritative differences of opinion.

The dash and the hyphen each have a different job. The dash is often used to “split” or separate, or to emphasize large pieces of a sentence. The hyphen is more of a connector, or disconnector of individual words, or word parts.

Most students learn that when a word must be broken at the end of a line, a hyphen goes at the end of the nearest syllable, or “word bit.” We probably learned that some words are always hyphenated, some never, and with some, it depends. “Look it up,” we may have been told. Here are a few guidelines to make it a bit easier, and if you’re not sure… Well, you know: “Look it up!”

You will want to use hyphens:

• When two words come before the word they are describing, and one or the other is not a stand-alone word, e.g.,

My red-haired sister and I went swimming.

Don’t miss this last-chance opportunity.

• But generally not when those words come after, e.g.,

My sister has red hair.

This opportunity provides your last chance.

• And not when each of the two words is a stand-alone word, e.g.

Augusta was a cranky old lady.

He is a pleasant young man.

• For some terms describing members of a family, e.g.,

mother-in-law; son-in-law

• For fractions, e.g.,

two-thirds; three-quarters

• When the dictionary always spells it with a hyphen

• When using self or quasi, e.g.,

self-awareness; quasi-legal

You must use a hyphen:

• With ex (meaning former), e.g.,

ex-president; ex-representative

• When you add a beginning or an ending to a word that is capitalized, e.g.,

Whitman-like; anti-American

All in the family:

• Use hyphens for ex-spouse; sister-in-law; and great-uncle.

• Do not use a hyphen for stepdaughter; half sister; or grandfather

These are the most common hyphenated and non-hyphenated words. But then there are those other, less-common words, the exceptions, and the surprises, where you cross your fingers, open the dictionary, and hope you get it right!

Bring Gail to your workplace for an onsite workshop, coaching, or consulting. Or to work with your team to complete a writing project.

 

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Guest Tip of the Week: Helpful Microsoft Word Tips

By Alan Taylor

Microsoft Word has become a very mature and powerful document editing application from its humble beginnings in 1983. This 30 year lifespan has created a powerhouse application with features many of us never discover (or, in some cases, ever need).

If you use Microsoft Word on a regular basis, the following tips may help you become more of a “Power User.” Some of these tips help cut down time spent manipulating text while others illuminate features that can help with your writing and document collaboration and production.

What I’ve found while helping Word users navigate features is that many already know of these functions but rarely use them simply because they’re not “ingrained.” If you were to practice the following tips 10 times each, you might just start using these features regularly. And believe me, once you start using these tips, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start using them way back! Quick tip: These functions work across most of the Microsoft Office suite including Excel and PowerPoint.

  • Keyboard shortcuts: By using the Control (ctrl) key on a Windows keyboard, you can save a great amount of time by avoiding all of the mouse movement involved with executing each function. Use these shortcuts by first pressing the “ctrl” key and then simultaneously pressing:
    • S = Save the document (if you’ve not saved it yet, a “Save As” dialogue box will appear)
    • C = Copy selected text to the clipboard
    • V= Paste selected text from the clipboard to the cursor’s location (if text is highlighted during this function, it will be replaced with the pasted text).
    • I = Italics – make selected text italicized.
    • B = Bold – make selected text bold.
    • Z = Undo last action. If you really don’t like what you’ve done, you can undo last action many times.
    • P = Print – opens the print dialogue box
    • A = Selects entire document
    • Shift+> – Make text larger. Press “ctrl” AND “shift” AND “>” simultaneously to get this one.
    • Shift+< – Make text smaller.
  • When in doubt, right click – If you’re at a point editing or formatting a document and don’t know how to perform a function, try right-clicking. The menu that appears is a “contextual menu” meaning that the commands shown are tailored to what Word thinks you might want to do. For instance, if you select a few words of text and right click, the menu shows the popular functions that you can perform on a selected piece of text (copy, paste, font selection etc).
  • Use Track Changes when asking for input from others. If you collaborate on documents with others who proof, edit, contribute to or otherwise change your document (especially multiple people), “Track Changes” is for you. Track Changes is available from the “Review” menu item. Once you turn it on and send the document to others, all of that subsequent work is highlighted. In order to incorporate it permanently into the document, you have to “accept changes” from the same “Review” menu item (once the document is sent back to you). This is a life-saver in being able to see exactly what changes were made in a document.
  • Compare two documents. Along the same lines as track changes, if you have two documents that should be the same yet are different somehow, “Compare” (found in the “Review” menu item again) is the perfect tool for finding those differences. The Compare function also includes a “Combine” feature that can combine changes from multiple authors into a single document.

Alan Taylor is this week’s guest blogger. His  first Word Processing program was called WordStar, which was loaded into a computer using floppy disks. Alan has been involved with technology from leading a 20-person IT department for a Fortune-500 company in Silicon Valley to running his own consulting business, Alpine Technical Group, which focuses on web presence including website design, SEO/SEM, social and online marketing. 

We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

 

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Words that Create Mix-Ups Part 1

And then there are those pesky word mix-ups – words like their, they’re, and there, for one example. Or to, two, and too, for another. Or how about can’t, can not, and cannot? Or affect and effect? It’s and its? And the worst part? These words may be incorrectly used, but as long as they are spelled correctly, even if misused, Spell Checker will not catch them!

Let’s take a look and see what we can do with this merry mélange!

All right then, let’s start with alright: While alright is shown, and given an explanation in most dictionaries, it is still considered “non standard.” So, the correct way to spell the word is “all right” – two words.

Now let’s go for our first trio:  their, they’re, and there:

Their” is a member of that group of possessive words that does not use an apostrophe. “Our,” “your,” “my,” “mine,” and so on. Think about this kind of word, and you can add a few others to this list.

“They’re” is a lovely contraction, and means “they are.” Contractions are interesting in that the apostrophe (’) shows us that something has been left out. For example, the name O’Brian was originally “of Brian,” meaning Brian’s son or daughter. So in the name O’Brian, the apostrophe shows us that the “f” and the space have been left out. Similarly, for the word “they’re,” the apostrophe shows us that the space and the “a” have been omitted.

“There” is a place.

So, perhaps we could say, “They’re there with their friends.”

 And here’s a dangerous duo – possibly the two most frequently misspelled words in the English languageits and it’s:

Its is – you remember – a possessive. Another of those possessive words that does not use an apostrophe. Did you think of “its” when adding words to your list in paragraph five?

It’s is – a contraction! “It’s” means “it is.” So what has been left out? The space and the “i.”

We could say, “It’s good to have its color such a cheery red!”

While we’re talking about the most frequently misused words in the language, here are three morecan not, cannot, and can’t:

“Can not” – two words – is only used when the next word is “only.” For example,“Mary can not only pitch, she can catch.”

“Cannot” – one word – is the most often used. For example, “I cannot thank you enough.”

“Can’t” is another of those – contractions. If you happen to be writing a term paper, thesis, or dissertation, you will not be using contractions in your writing. In the business situation, contractions will work in informal writing, but not when the situation calls for a more formal tone.

Here’s what I hope you will do this week: Concentrate on the words we’ve talked about today, to make sure you use these words correctly.

If you enjoy these Mix-Ups, let us hear your favorites! More next week.

Find this information helpful? Consider bringing a Gail Tycer workshop to your workplace, or recommend one of Gail’s shorter presentations   for an upcoming meeting or conference.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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What was that again?

Take a quick look at the following sentences. Can you see what the three of them have in common?

  1. The troops fired into crowds protesting the return of the religious leader.
  2. John and Bob were in the coffee room when Bill Smith and Art Jones from accounting walked in. Words were exchanged, and the two wanted to argue about the hiring policy decision.
  3. Army helicopter pilots reported seeing steam plumes venting from near the top of the smaller mountain last week, but they disappeared shortly after the observation.

Whatever else these sentences may have in common, none of them tells the reader who did what. Take another look.

In sentence1., who was protesting the return of the religious leader? Was it the troops who were protesting? Was it the crowds? And in sentence 2., who was it who wanted to argue? And how about sentence 3.?

Creating confusion is easy to do when the writer knows so much about the subject that it all seems clear at first glance. So now look at sentence 1. How can you make it perfectly clear who was doing the protesting?

Perhaps you said something like.

“The troops, who were protesting the return of the religious leader, fired into the crowds.”

Or, if it had been the other way around, perhaps something like,

“The troops fired into the crowds, who were protesting the return of the religious leader.”

And how about sentence 2. How could you make it clear which two wanted to argue?:

This one is relatively easy, right? All you need to do is substitute the names of the would-be arguers for “the two.” So fixes are not always that complicated. The hard part is to recognize when what you have written is not as clear to the reader as it was to you when you wrote it.

And now for sentence 3.  Who was it who disappeared?:

This one is probably the most common source of confusion created by the writer. Is “they” the pilots (oh no!) or the plumes? This sort of confusion is also the easiest to spot when you proofread your writing before you send it. Just look for words like  “they,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “it.” Then substitute the name or description for that word.

Fixing this sort of confusion – who did what? – can be relatively easy. The trick is to be aware of, and to recognize the sentences that will be confusing to the reader. Then fix them.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Good manners, good email

Consider the tone of your message.  Tone is the relationship the writer sets up with the reader.  Even though email is a friendly medium, it’s tough to make humor (especially humor clothed in sarcasm) or tongue-in-cheek comments work in email, and it’s best to avoid them.  Also avoid personal comments about others, or knee-jerk emotional responses – email is no place for sarcasm, hostility, cynicism, or whining.

Remain professional at all times.  Consider waiting a bit before emailing a “sensitive” message.  Avoid “venting,” vulgarity, or certainly, any kind of profanity.  Think about your corporate culture, or prevailing attitude – which can be especially critical for emails to co-workers.
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Using the Right Word: Accept vs. Except

One of the many reasons that I like Writers INC is that they have a section called “Using the Right World.” This section is great for helping writers figure out which word they want to use. Here’s an example:

accept, except: The verb accept means ‘to receive’ or ‘to believe’; the preposition except means ‘other than.'”

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Review: Writers INC

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Writers INC is a valuable resource for writers of all ages and all genres. While intended for high school students, it contains a wealth of essential information that is relevant to business writers.

A quick look at the Writers INC table of contents:
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Prepositions

A preposition is a connecting word that shows the relationship between words in a sentence, and elaborates meaning. A prepositional phrase begins with one of the prepositions below. A very common mistake is to match the verb in the sentence to the word at the end of the prepositional phrase, rather than to the subject of the sentence (“A selection of three entrees is available at dinner” is correct; “A selection of three entrees are available at dinner” is incorrect). By learning to recognize a preposition when you see is, you can avoid this grammatical error.
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