Saturday, December 11, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

This post concludes a series on effective writing in social media.

This will be the last post in the Social Networking for the Business Writer series--also the last post of 2010, as I prepare for Christmas break. Since the end of the year is a time for list-making, this post is a list of ten things every social networker should remember. Consider incorporating them into your New Year's resolutions!

1. Social networking is not free advertising. It's been said in practically every post of this series, but it remains the #1 thing to remember; a social networking forum is no place for a hard-core sales pitch. Never post anything with the sole purpose of convincing readers to buy your product or service; that's what your website (and paid advertising) is for.

2. Ask not what your fellow networkers can do for you; ask what you can do for your fellow networkers. Thinking only of yourself is bad business in any venue, and particularly unwise in any form of networking. Be ready to provide advice and referrals whenever you can be helpful, without considering "what I might get back."

3. Keep things short. Short sentences, short paragraphs, and short posts are the backbone of online writing. No one likes a page of unbroken text, particularly on a glaring screen.

4. Speak from your expertise. Search out questions and discussions where you can contribute meaningfully--where it's obvious you know what you're talking about. Some people choose their comment forums primarily on the basis of keywords that push their buttons; you can pick out these people by their emotionally loaded tones, their failure to cite objective backup for their claims, and their evident ignorance of what was actually said in the original post and other comments. It makes a less than professional impression, to say the least.

5. Feel free to make multiple contributions to an ongoing discussion, but don't say the same thing every time. Do your part to keep the discussion moving in a line, not a circle.

6. Don't be afraid to say what you think. Some people are so afraid of giving offense that they wouldn't dare say outright that cold-blooded murder is wrong--not even if asked directly. Aside from moral considerations, this attitude is, frankly, boring. Respectful controversy adds interest to a discussion; just be sure to keep it respectful. Hint: give sound reasons for your opinions, but stop at one or two reasons. Going on and on about why you're right will soon have everyone picturing you as a stressed-out fanatic.

7. Don't pick fights. Building on the last point, the only trouble with controversy is that it easily gets out of hand. The instinct to take any disagreement as a personal insult is strong, but something that must be resisted if social networking is to be kept professional. Once tempers are lost, so are the benefits of the discussion. So never call names, blatantly contradict someone, or use such loaded phrases as "Everybody knows...."

8. Watch your spelling. And your punctuation, grammar, and usage. No one expects heavy editing on a social networking post, but at least try to get rid of all typos. You don't want to come across as hurried and careless, certainly not in any setting that reflects on you professionally.

9. Be especially careful when including online addresses. While most human readers can still understand the text through the typos, computers take everything literally. One missed character--or substituting "com" for "org"--can take someone to an "Error" page. Worse, the "wrong address" might belong to a porn site or hate group forum. And even if nothing embarrassing happens, few people will bother informing you of the mistake or looking for the real site you referenced, so you've gained nothing for your trouble.

10. Budget your social networking. Know how many hours a week you can spend and what topics and sites to focus on. Have advance ideas of information you might contribute; your writing will go smoother and faster. If you're seriously short on time and have a decent-sized budget, consider hiring a separate social networking writer (contract or staff).

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season and a prosperous 2011!

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A

Monday, November 29, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A

This post continues a series on effective writing in social media.

LinkedIn's Q & A section moved a step beyond the traditional "forum" when it provided a separate page for each question with its answers, a feature appreciated by any user who has ever tried to sort out responses to one inquiry from 500 chronologically arranged and topically diverse comments. Smart Q & A participants keep their own comments in the "one page, one question" spirit: no answering questions that weren't asked, no going off on tangents, no adding new questions on the same page.

Smart Q & A participants also stick to the following principles:

When asking a question:

Be concise but clear. Questions that run more than a few sentences look too complicated to bother trying to answer; often they are, since lengthy paragraphs are frequently the mark of thoughts put down in random order. On the other hand, questions can be too short if they fail to explain exactly what is needed. Vague questions will draw vague answers, if any at all.

Keep parameters narrow. Questions such as "What are the best ways to market?" may draw recommendations that don't fit your industry or resources. Besides, the human mind tends to go blank in the face of "Oh, just anything" requests. (Remember that grade-school teacher who left you bewildered by saying "Write 1,000 words on anything you like" instead of assigning a topic?) Think "who/what/why": who are you (how is your industry/customer base relevant to the problem?); what do you need to know (not just marketing, but online/low-cost/networking marketing); why do you need to know it (to increase your customer base, improve ROI, focus your marketing efforts)?

Do put your question in an appropriate category. Sometimes the same question can be posted in more than one category. At other times, it's difficult to find any that fit; in that case, peruse the full list carefully and consider the closest match. Dumping a Web graphics question in the Law and Legal category on the rationalization that "occasionally people get sued over Web content" is pure laziness.

Likewise, when choosing connections to send your questions to, consider who actually knows the topic. Don't just copy your whole list. Most regular LI users have contacts in widely varying fields of expertise; and it doesn't do much for relationships to constantly bother people with questions they know nothing about.

Do check after a day or two to see if your question needs clarification. The first several answers should give clues as to how people are interpreting your question, and if they're confused on any point.

Don't forget to rate the question when it closes--and send a thank-you note to the Best Answerer!

When answering a question:

Avoid "fluff answers." Saying "I'd like to know that too" doesn't add a thing to the discussion. If you're really curious, send a separate message to the question-asker, or post a similar (not identical) question of your own.

If you're an expert on the topic, feel free to mention that. Here, you can even link to your website if you sell products or services related to the core problem--provided you include a genuinely helpful answer to the basic question, free of charge. Remember that ads and sales pitches have no place in social networking.

Never say that a question is dumb or unanswerable, or write anything else that might insult the question-asker or another answerer. In fact, keep your personal opinion, except as it relates directly to solving the problem presented, out of the whole thing. A surprising number of people use the Q & A pages to vent things that belong in the Discussion section, if anywhere.

Keep your answer brief--one paragraph whenever you can. Don't fill the page with an essay on the topic.

Do cover all points as thoroughly as you can, though. Consider everything the question-asker needs for a full solution to the problem. If you can give only part of that, fine; if you can answer the whole question, do so. Read the question in full; if you stop after the first two sentences, or skip the Clarification section, you may wind up answering a different question from the one that was actually asked.

If you're chosen as Best Answerer, thank the questioner!

Many entrepreneurs have found new clients through Q & A. The secret is to let your expertise shine through.

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection

Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Monday, November 22, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions

This post continues a series on effective writing in social media.

Online "discussions" are not particularly new; many of us have been active in them since the early days of Internet chat rooms. But LinkedIn has helped move the popular image from a leisure-time diversion to something equally valid for achieving professional goals.

Of course, it only works that way if you maintain a professional image in your postings. To get the most from LinkedIn discussions: 

Don't try to use discussions as direct sales tools. It's been said many times in this article series, but it deserves all the emphasis it can get: social networking is not a free advertising venue. Anyone who writes, "If you purchase my product/service this will no longer be an issue for you--go to this address to learn more," is at best annoying to the majority of the discussion's participants and at worst risking being kicked off the network.

Don't, however, be afraid to reveal your business affiliation at all; speaking "as a publisher/travel agent/engineer" adds credibility to your remarks on relevant topics. Don't write a lengthy bio, though; anyone who wants to learn more can click your link.

Don't ever lose your temper. The worst thing any professional networker can do is act childish, and nothing is more childish than letting an anger reaction show in its full ugly colors. Even if someone says something that offends you--even if they insult you directly--never question their intelligence or call them names. "Shouting" with all caps or adding "swear symbols" is, if anything, worse; being openly defensive or directly contradicting someone isn't much better; and arguing your point of view in comment after comment will soon have every other discussion follower wishing you'd disappear. Explain your opinions objectively and concisely; accept that someone will always disagree with you in the end; and if someone else gets nasty, remember that the smartest thing to do is ignore it. 

Do say something substantial. "I agree with so-and-so" just takes up screen space. Explain why you agree--and do it in a way that adds something new to the discussion. Don't just rephrase the comment you're agreeing with; open up new ways of looking at the issue.

Do include referrals to other experts and helpful articles. While recommending yourself is usually verboten, recommending others is part of what social networking is all about. And if you know of a full-length online article that casts further light on the subject, you can even get away with having written it yourself. (When referring discussion readers to another Web page, do include enough description to arouse interest; few people bother clicking a link unless they're reasonably sure it's worth the trouble.)

Do keep your actual discussion comments short: three paragraphs at maximum, one wherever possible, and no more than 100 words per paragraph. In online discussions no less than off, talking too much makes you a bore.

When starting a discussion yourself, do choose your opener to arouse interest. A hint of controversy, a new twist on a popular topic, an appeal to curiosity or altruism--all will attract participants to the discussion. But if you ask a "same old question" or are so vague that no one can decipher what you actually want to talk about, your opening post will remain the sole comment.

Do proofread your contribution before posting. Obvious typos can only hurt your professional image; likewise for an overdose of "padding" words ("maybe," "very," "usually"). Banish all such!

Many entrepreneurs have found much new business through LinkedIn discussions. Learn to discuss like a pro!

Other posts in this series:

Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection

Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Monday, November 15, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection

This post continues a series on effective writing in social media. 

Social networking accounts can be great venues for sending readers to your blog posts or other e-articles. Be sure to post a network update or "tweet" for each article of yours that goes online, particularly items that emphasize your professional expertise. You can also send direct messages to those of your fans/friends/connections who have special interest in the article topic.

A word of caution, though: social networking is not an advertising campaign, so don't try to use online articles to launch a sales blitz. Focus at least every other article on some topic besides you. When announcing new products or special programs, concentrate on general newsworthiness rather than on convincing readers to buy; think press release, not advertorial. And put "contact us to learn more" information only at the bottom of the article itself, not in the network update (presumably anyone looking at your social networking account already knows or can easily find out how to reach you, so don't risk appearing pushy by emphasizing the information).

Do link to your social networking profile(s) in the e-article's bio/contact information; interested parties should be able to access full details from either end. (Post a copy of or link to the article--and a link to your profile(s)--on your main website as well.)

In the social networking announcement of your article's publication, concentrate on arousing click-over interest. The article title is frequently enough if it's both intriguing and descriptive; include the subtitle as well, if you can. If the full two-part title exceeds "tweet" or other space allotments, consider what best fits the "intriguing and descriptive" requirement; where an article is listed under a series title (as this one is), the "end section" may well be the better choice. Alternatively, you can quote the article's opening sentence, or create a "thesis statement." In any case, don't forget to include a direct link to the article!

Remember the basic rules of e-articles: short paragraphs, short overall length, relevant links, and strong visual elements.

Most social networking accounts also offer opportunities to publish "articles" directly on the network; prime examples are LinkedIn discussions and Q & As, which will be the subjects of my next two posts.

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages

Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Monday, November 8, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages

This post continues a series on effective writing in social media.

In the social media world, it no longer takes extensive research to locate an e-mail address; anyone with an account can contact a high percentage of the network with a click of a button. With account options like LinkedIn's InMail, you may have nearly unlimited access to the whole network. But the rule that long predates e-mail--if you want to make a professional impression, deliver your pitch in a professional manner--still holds.

E-mail is perhaps the most carelessly handled aspect of business writing. Even Ph.D.s and editors at major publishing houses are known to send messages like the following:

"Dear sir: We are in high apreciation of having received your Inqiiry. Unfortunetely, we recieve Thoursands of inquiries each week and must reject many xcellent ones. We regret that We ar thus unabel to use your prospoal at present."

No doubt convincing the recipient he's probably better off without that company anyway, if their attention to detail is that limited.

While the writer of the "no, thanks" message may not have much to lose, the person creating a proposal has plenty. Especially in a social networking e-message where attaching your resume may not be an option, you may have only one paragraph to convince a coveted investor that you're intelligent, capable, easy to work with, and otherwise worth investigating further. This is no time to dash something off in rush mode and send it into cyberspace without proofreading.

So when making a "cold" pitch through a social network, remember the rules that have long served well with the snail-mail and telephone approaches.

Know your target. If your message sounds too generic, recipients may assume this is a mass "blitz" of identical mailings--something worth little attention. Do some advance research, then customize each query to the recipient: call the person by name;, refer to a known attribute of the company (a recent news item, a major aspect of their brand, something their Web site needs) and how your own skills and experience relate; match the tone of your message to that of their own public writings.

Be respectful. Although the "never use first names" rule doesn't necessarily apply in social networking, many traditional-minded organizations still look favorably on initial approaches addressed to "Mr. Smith," "Ms. Green," or "Dr. Morgan." Other people, of course, are almost insulted at not being addressed by first name; so, again, do your homework in advance and learn what atmosphere prevails at your contact's company. In any case, never use any name version that does not appear in a person's profile; Richard Executive may never be called "Dick" by anyone he knows. Even if he is, he may not appreciate hearing it from a new contact any more than he'd want a stranger to slap him on the back unannounced and boom out, "Hey, buddy, how's it going?"

Keep business approaches businesslike. Besides erring on the side of formality in what you call the person, don't use "Hi" or "Hey" as a salutation. (Most people hate the word "hey" to begin with; it sounds too much like an order to "drop everything right now and listen to me.") Don't use slang or "folksy" language in the body of the message either; and keep any humor low-key unless you're requesting an audition at a comedy club.

Focus not on what they can do for you, but on what you can do for them.

Ask for what you want. Sounds obvious, but a surprising number of people never get around to this. All it takes is one sentence: "I would appreciate being added to your supplier database," or "Please tell me when to call for an interview."

Don't make promises you can't keep. Amazingly, the vast majority of people who write "I'll call to follow up next week" never do call--thus sabotaging any interest aroused by the initial message. The same goes for promising to send a portfolio, subscribe to your contact's blog, or register with a supplier database: if you say you'll do it, do it!

Always thank the contact for his or her time.

Never click the Send button without proofreading the message. And when proofreading, it's a good idea to look not only for typos, but for unnecessary words and ambiguous phrasing. Remember these three C's: clear, concise, and correct!

You may also want to include links to your Web site and/or blog--as well as to any articles you've published that appear online--to make it easier for the contact to investigate you further. Next week's post will further discuss e-articles as they apply to social networking.

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Monday, November 1, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates

This post continues a series on effective writing in social media.

To many people, blogs and tweets still equal "a lot of boring talk about what so-and-so had for breakfast." Though the business world hopefully knows better, no one is interested, either, in the minutes from your research team's latest meeting or the exact number of components to be included in your new computer's circuit board. If network updates by whatever name are to promote your business effectively, they must be concise, professional, well-timed, and, above all, interesting.

Concise. Twitter had the right idea setting a limit on characters per tweet; network updates were never intended to be as long as articles. Writing an update that runs beyond one short paragraph is like responding to a casual "Hi, how are you?" with ten minutes of details on your problems and triumphs. If what you want to say will take more than two sentences, put the key points into one sentence and append a "for more information" link.

Professional. While brevity is a requirement for network updates, compacted words and heavy abbreviations ("Thnx 2 our lyl cstmrs") are better left to text messages. They look super-casual, even flippant, and done-in-a-rush as well--leaving the subconscious impression that your products and services are created after the same fashion. Abbreviations are best limited to dates ("11/1/10"), numerals (as in "9" for "nine"), addresses (especially state names), and the symbols "%" and "&." Also, try to write in complete sentences; though they needn't be grammatically precise, they should at least sound like normal business-setting speech.

If you have real trouble writing both concisely and professionally, set aside half an hour each day to analyze how the experts--the top business writers and those whose social networking updates you follow--do it. Remember that adjectives and adverbs are usually dispensable. Keep a thesaurus handy to check for shorter synonyms to words and phrases. If all else fails, hire a social media specialist to write your updates!

Well-timed. Your updates will be better-written if you make time to compose them carefully, rather than dashing them off. It helps to have a daily or weekly schedule for posting; how often depends on how often newsworthy things happen at your business. If you have an event or new product launch scheduled, post updates on your plans (ideally with each post providing fresh information) once or twice a week for a couple of months in advance.

Interesting. The reason blogs and tweets got a bad reputation was that too often what they said was of interest only to the poster. In writing your updates, use the "what's in it for me?" principle--"me" being your network contacts, not you. An exclusive focus on self-promotion is boring by definition, which is why famous brands tell funny stories in their commercials rather than focusing on things the viewer has probably already made up his mind about. Even if everyone doesn't already know what you sell, people would rather have information they can use whether or not they're planning to buy a car or a computer. When composing your network updates, think about making website recommendations, inviting the public to events, or linking to blog posts, rather than always talking about what your company has to sell now. And don't be afraid to report the occasional hilarious gaffe--particularly if you can say in the update that it's now corrected.

Remember that people like their information in sound bites. Those bites can be very tasty when well-written!

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Quick note to Houston-area followers who are fans of the writer's other blog at on Saturday, November 6, a poetry book based on that blog will be for sale at the Gifts of Grace expo at Grace Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX. Contact for more information.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles

Social media is the child prodigy of the online world--only a few years old and accounting for 20-25% of the average person's Web time. And already the "social" part seems an anachronism as more and more businesses give major marketing roles to these networks.

The next few Good Writing Is Good Business posts will focus on social media as a business writing venue. Let's begin at the beginning, with the front-and-center section: the profile.

LinkedIn has anticipated me here in its FAQ article "Ten Tips on Building a Strong Profile." Here's a summary of important points, adaptable to the social network of your choice:

Remember whom you're writing for. The vast majority of social network users focus on very human needs: keeping up with contacts; locating practical information; finding jobs; or exploring the what-kind-of-person-is-this question before choosing whom to interview for an opening. Yet many social networking profiles read like cut-and-pasted resumes or like advertorials. Focus instead on things you might bring up in a face-to-face business networking conversation.

Remember also what venue you're writing for. The key to good Web writing of any type is short paragraphs and pages, preferably with links and visuals. (Side note: never substitute a cartoon image or blank square for your photo. Show your real face!) And do as the journalists do; put the most important information in the first sentence where readers will be sure to see it.

Be economical with your words as well. Instead of adjectives/adverbs paired with nouns/verbs, look for a descriptive noun/verb that carries the meaning of both words. Don't waste space on redundancies such as "future plans," or on near-meaningless adverbs such as "mostly" and "very."

Sound like yourself--and like your business. Don't write like a college professor if you rent party props, nor like a stand-up comedian if you're a funeral director. LinkedIn puts it best: "Picture yourself at a conference or client meeting. How do you introduce yourself? That's your authentic voice, so use it."

Write your tagline with special care; it may determine whether anyone bothers to read the rest of your profile. Incorporate the #1 key point of your business's mission statement.

Think "elevator speech" when drafting the first full paragraph of your profile. What two or three things do you most want every contact to know? Incorporate them into a memorable statement that can be read out loud in 20-30 seconds.

In the larger profile, include plenty of action keywords related to your specialty industries and your personal performance record. And be clear on what you (and/or your business) actually do. (But don't digress into long technical explanations; think about what will interest readers.)

Do include links to your main Web site(s), also to organizations where you hold professional memberships or certifications. Include also links to past employers. And do list professional awards or honors you have received.

Do complete your entire profile.

You'll probably have some say in your profile's official URL address. Make sure it says something short, memorable, and relevant about you.

Don't forget to update your profile when you get a new award, certification, or client.


Once your social media profile is complete, writing will continue to play an important role in your use of the account. I'll talk more about that in upcoming posts.

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Monday, October 18, 2010

Laugh Break

Since last week's post was on the use of humor in writing, this seems a good time for another post on business writing that evokes laughs it wasn't seeking. Even perfect spelling doesn't always save a sentence from unintentionally hilarious implications:
  • "The postponed president's speech has been rescheduled for December 2." (Will he still be a postponed president then?)
  • "Our camp is the perfect place to go next time you feel the call of nature." (Maybe the camp's biggest attraction is its restrooms.)
  • "Living in our apartments, a dozen bus routes are convenient." (Every bus route needs a home to go to at night.)
  • "Our doctors don't misdiagnose medical problems. When they treat you for lung cancer, that's what you die of." (Comforting thought.)
  • "When two trains meet each other at a railroad crossing, each shall come to a full stop, and neither shall proceed until the other has gone." (One from the law-books department. Word has it that the original intent was to kill the bill it was attached to--proving once again the folly of expecting committees to exercise common sense.)
  • "The only way we'll ever see the economy pick up is if we can get the economy moving." (Who would have thought of that?)
  • "Support space colonization research. One ruined planet isn't enough for the human race." (We all know humans can be destructive and greedy, but why encourage it?)
  • "Firings will continue until we see some improvement in attitude around here." (Now that's real motivation.)
  • "No drinking allowed on coffee breaks." (Please eat your coffee in powdered form.)
  • "Thanks to all our friends and customers. Our business is no longer open." (We really appreciate your freeing us from the trouble of continuing to work every day.)
  • "Our initial counseling sessions are free of service." (I think that was supposed to be "free of service charges.")
  • "After using the automatic washing machines, please remove all your clothes when the light goes out." (At least they didn't advise customers to do it in broad daylight.)
  • "Get your ears pierced here and we'll give you an extra pair free." (I've heard many people wish for extra arms and eyes, but never ears.)
Smile and have a great week!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Touch of Laughter

The average child laughs up to 25 times as much as the average adult, who, indeed, is as likely as not to scold giggling youngsters for "being silly." The capacity for hilarity is something most people grow out of once they learn life is full of hard work and disappointment.

It's a shame in more ways than one. Medical research tells us that hearty laughter strengthens the immune system, improves cardiovascular circulation, relaxes tense muscles, and provides many other physical benefits. So if you mix a little humor into your business writing, not only will your contacts like you better for it, but you'll be doing their health a favor.

Beware, however. Being funny is a hard thing to do on command, and not everyone finds the same things laughable. Obscure or offensive humor can be worse than none at all. So when considering how to add chuckles to your writing:

Remember that off-color stories have no place in the business world.

Never make fun of any individual or group. Everyone knows that racial and cultural bigotry are verboten, but prudent writers also avoid jokes that emphasize the presumed failings of mothers-in-law, wives, lawyers, politicians, preachers, and majority groups--or that ostensibly advocate any sort of animal abuse. The idea that choosing a certain vocation or having a married relative automatically makes one impossible or evil is an idea long overdue for a quiet death; and while you have a right to avoid cats if you personally find them repugnant, the ailurophiles among us have a right to be spared the equally repugnant images evoked by "other white meat" remarks.

Never overdo or force humor. Two light remarks per page, or one side-splitter or "groaner" per article, is about right. Since business materials are rarely written purely to entertain, a pun in every paragraph can make readers wonder if you take your main goal seriously. Remember also that a good joke sounds like a natural part of the conversation, not like something plucked at random from the Internet or from a homonym brainstorming exercise.

By now, you may be wondering, "With all these 'don'ts,' what's left?" Probably more than you think. Everyone has some gift for some form of humor, be it puns, exaggeration, deadpan, relevant anecdotes, or simple subtlety. To find where your talent for humor lies, start by noticing when what you say makes your friends or family chuckle.

And remember this almost foolproof principle: A guaranteed laugh-getter is making fun of oneself. While criticizing others makes a person look snide and petty, everybody laughs along with--and respects--someone who admits his own weaknesses. Likewise, the exception to the "don't make fun of groups" rule is the universal foibles of humanity in general ("No one is sure how long the human race has been around, but everyone agrees it is old enough to know better"). 

May the new business your humor attracts leave you laughing all the way to the bank!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Say a Lot with a Little

A journalism school ran a contest for the most sensational headline: "need not feature actual events, but must be no more than three words long." The winner--two words and three syllables--was "Pope Elopes."

You can say a lot in amazingly few words, if they're the right words. Journalists and other periodical writers know this best. The typical feature article contains a few thousand words at most; a back-page article or op-ed may be no more than 500 words; anecdotal or "filler" articles may stop at 250. How does one tell a whole story, or explain the essential points of a subject, in five or ten short paragraphs? Often, by going through the manuscript six or seven times to prune it of every nonessential word.

Your Web site or sales letter may not be facing an "under 1,000 words or you don't get paid" dictate from an editor, but it will be facing hundreds of potential clients who are short on time and on attention spans. Many people run from the mere sight of a page of unbroken text. Here are a few professional-writing tricks for achieving readable-looking lengths:

Build up your vocabulary. Some writers pride themselves on learning a new word from the dictionary every day, or studying the thesaurus for fifteen minutes of each lunch hour. The more words you have stored in your brain, the less likely you are to waste fifteen words describing something because you don't know its name. Don't, however, show off and use words most of the public has never heard, or you'll be back to writing out the whole definition.

Consider syllable count as well as word count: 500 ten-letter words take up more space than 500 six-letter words. Most successful writers live by the rule "never use a five-syllable word where a two-syllable one will do."

Divide long paragraphs into short ones: white space makes the text look less daunting, and may be the deciding factor in whether people actually start reading a page.

Consider the sound of the words--and of the piece as a whole. To some extent, length is in the perception of the reader; J. K. Rowling got away with making the later Harry Potter books extra-long by sheer virtue of her storytelling ability. If your writing sounds monotonous or singsong, bored readers will find your 250-word piece twice as long as a more interesting 400-word piece. Use sentences of different lengths, cut the cliches, and save rhyme and alliteration for taglines!

Don't rush! One writer is said to have ended a ten-page letter with the apology, "Sorry this is so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." Experienced authors know that you never become practiced enough to get first drafts perfect; and the less time you leave between drafts, the more unneeded words and other imperfections you leave in the manuscript. Go ahead and write down everything you have to say about your product or news item; then, rather than sending the results immediately to the printer, go back and remove everything not vital to your central point. For really important materials, give yourself a minimum of two weeks to do three drafts.

And don't say you don't have time. The time you save your prospects will come back to you soon enough.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Businesses

Once upon a time there were two business owners, Ace and Fizz.

Both made the same type of product, equally well. Both offered excellent customer service.

And both were planning marketing campaigns.

Ace thought, "Everyone loves a good story. I'll build my campaign for Business A around stories."

Fizz thought, "No one wants to waste time on trivial anecdotes. I'll stick to the bare facts in my campaign for Business B."

Ace thought, "People will be interested in hearing how my product helped other customers--people like themselves," and carefully selected the most humorous and interesting customer testimonials. Ace gave these testimonials a prominent page on Business A's Web site and made sure to include one in every press release.

Fizz thought, "I just need to explain to customers how my product will help them," and filled Business B's every Web page and press release with lengthy, tedious details of exactly how the product worked. Most of Fizz's advertisements were hard to tell from service manuals.

Ace threw in a few appropriate stories on Business A's own misadventures in the process of developing the product. After all, customers like to deal with businesses that sound human.

Fizz was careful never to admit that Business B had ever had a setback. After all, a business has to protect its perfect reputation.

Ace encouraged Business A's employees to build still more public rapport by contributing personal stories and new ideas to the PR materials.

Fizz drilled it into Business B's employees to keep their minds on their real work.

The public read Business A's materials all the way through, smiled and chuckled, and began following Business A's doings to hear more. Many new people decided to try the business's product, and soon the number of regular customers was multiplying exponentially.

The public glanced at Business B's advertisements, yawned, and tossed them in the recycling bin or hit the Delete button. No one bothered to investigate the business further.

And Ace sold happily ever after.

(Fizz, at last report, is back on the 8-to-5 grind.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Perfection Isn't Everything

"That is something up with which I will not put." That quip, attributed (in various forms) to Winston Churchill, is the standard response to the claim that one must never end a sentence with a preposition.

The line between grammatical rules and grammatical customs can be thin. Is it ever acceptable to split an infinitive? If not, how would you edit "We are initiating a new training program to better prepare new employees for their duties"? Is "Ain't I a member of this team?" grammatically correct? Yes (if you accept "ain't," the only known contraction for "am not," as a real word), but who'd dare write it? The alternative "Aren't I?" sounds correct, never mind that no one would think of saying "I aren't." Likewise, they as a synonym for he or she has become so common that it no longer seems worth the effort to argue the grammatical incorrectness of using they as though it were singular.

Some people make the effort anyway; the "write like you speak" crowd and the purists (who insist that should be "write as you speak") can start wars over the most trivial matters. When one side is editing the other's writing, coworkers are well advised to stand out of the line of fire.

One might expect a blog called Good Writing Is Good Business to side with the purists. But the truth is, a piece of writing can be technically perfect and still be far from "good" on the average citizen's "worth reading" scale. There's a reason most popular books don't start out as graduate theses. While not generally caring to deal with businesses that sound ignorant, the typical client does want to interact with someone who sounds human--not like a computerized grammar checker or that seventh-grade English teacher nicknamed "the robot" by drowsy students.

If you write a press release that scores high on your word processor's readability scale but makes a newspaper editor yawn and toss it after two sentences, you haven't accomplished a thing.

No, you shouldn't write exactly like (or "as") you speak. Who'd bother following a blog that says "yeah" instead of "yes" and tosses in an "um" or "you see" every few sentences? But you needn't be afraid of using contractions. Or refuse on principle to start a sentence with a conjunction.

Or banish all one-sentence paragraphs.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On Not Stepping on Toes

"Above all give no offense" is a noble goal for business writing--and probably an impossible one, considering how easily some people get offended. There are people who consider "Mrs." the epitome of male chauvinism, and people who claim that using "Ms." is knuckling under to radical feminism. There are people who see the quoting of a Bible verse as the first step toward a fundamentalist totalitarian state; there are people who scream "racism" if none of four experts quoted represent their ethnic group. Any blog or booklet that reaches an audience of any size will be read by someone who goes around looking for excuses to feel insulted.

However, that doesn't excuse deliberate or callous insults on a writer's part. Saying that you believe someone is mistaken is one thing; calling him an idiot or a crook is something else altogether. And there is no excuse whatsoever for writing "retard," "cripple," or any number of ethnic words long used as deliberate insults. (One list of the latter can be found at

For the gray areas between "everyone knows it's an insult" and "you'd have to be pretty unreasonable to make a scene over it," a few principles for coping follow. (And for insight on the issues that fuel inter-cultural clashes, visit the Cultural IQ blog.)

Wherever possible, verify the preferred term for any group referred to--the term currently preferred by the group itself, that is. Relying on what you hear secondhand or on what was standard thirty years ago can get you in trouble; even within groups, "acceptable" words change from decade to decade. The term your father's gardener thought nothing of may be anathema to his granddaughter.

Avoid all idioms that mention groups by name; most such are now considered stereotyping. It's not worth the risk.

Never, under any circumstances, contradict someone who is in a better position to know than you are. A surprising number of bloggers presume to "correct" an Ecuadorian diplomat on what country is southeast of Ecuador (without bothering to check the map, of course) or a seminary professor on what books are or aren't in the Bible.

Avoid contradicting anyone at all unless the wrong information could have significant consequences--and even then, be low-key and respectful. Correcting people just to show off your superior knowledge, or with words that imply "how can you be so stupid?," only says to others that you are too arrogant to work with.

Finally, for those times when someone expresses offense despite your best efforts, seriously consider that you may owe an apology--and be willing to deliver it, publicly if necessary, without argument or excuse. Genuine humility is so rare that it can only help your reputation. Even if your conscience or understanding of the facts won't let you go as far as "you were right, I was wrong," be willing to acknowledge the merits of your opponent's position. In those rare cases where there are none (the fanatic who insists that everyone who refuses to agree the earth will blow up next week is a tool of Satan), better to ignore it altogether than to argue, which only encourages your opponent and makes you look petty.

Perhaps an even better principle than "above all give no offense" is "above all, never imply you're incapable of a mistake." Where the facts support you, let them speak for themselves.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jettison the Jargon

Would you send a sales letter written in Japanese to a prospect who understood only English?

Ludicrous as the idea sounds, many a businessperson does almost the same thing by loading writings for the general public with technical terms incomprehensible outside a specific industry. Today's post title, "Jettison the Jargon," was borrowed from a lay preacher's warning to beware of such phrases as "washed in the blood" when discussing theology with today's average citizen, who wasn't raised on the King James Bible. Every profession from medicine to manufacturing carries similar "jargon" hazards. Ask, "What immediately comes to mind when you hear 'CD'"? and the typical banker's response will be quite different from that of the typical person on the street.

The habit of saying--or writing--what immediately comes to mind is related to many a problem, but perhaps none so insidious as the unconscious assumption that because something is clear to you, it will naturally be clear to everyone else. Most of us know that repeating spoken words louder and louder doesn't really help puzzled listeners comprehend what we're saying; most of us do it anyway, because human "logic" says that we just have to get the words across. The truth is, it's fully possible for a listener of normal intelligence to understand every word or syllable spoken and yet be unable to mentally string them together into a comprehensible whole. Once a brain registers "I'll be going to Seattle" as "I'll be going to see Attel," the translator circuit considers its work done on that sentence--and it becomes all but impossible to clarify what was actually said without rewording or elaborating.

Written communications are more capable of getting exact words across accurately, but carry hazards of their own. Writers rarely see the bewildered or bored expressions that warn speakers to clarify their words. Asking a writer to explain himself is too complicated for most readers to even bother. Thus, the assumption that "of course everyone understands what I'm saying" is free to work its damage unhindered; readers simply throw out or click away from materials they don't understand, leaving writers to wonder why their PR campaigns are getting nowhere.

Industry jargon is particularly dangerous because, often, everyone immediately available to proofread is equally familiar with "insider language." A company editor or even the person at the next desk can check a written piece for general comprehensibility; but when it comes to jargon, fifteen coworkers may agree that the piece is easy to understand and it may still bewilder an outsider. References to non-universal business practices, words for technologies rarely used by the public, acronyms with alternate meanings--all are so easily understood once learned, one quickly forgets that they might as well be written in code if presented for the first time without explanation.

For really important materials--a sales campaign on which your quarterly business plan hangs--you could do far worse than hire an outside writer with experience in multiple industries or in dealing directly with the public. (If your immediate reaction is "But we have a team of staff writers," reread the last paragraph.) For a blog or social media page, try to link every industry reference directly to its definition. (You may want to include a "jargon" glossary in the template; you definitely should clarify the most-used terms in your Frequently Asked Questions section.) And wherever you can, define a term when it is first used. That's particularly easy for acronyms; just write out the whole phrase, followed by the abbreviation (in parentheses), after which you're free to save space by using the acronym throughout the rest of the document.

But unless it in fact has value to concise language (say a concept is essential to the document's purpose and there's no generic synonym for the industry term) or some other tenet of good writing, try to avoid jargon altogether. Like slang and clichés, it's too often the lazy person's substitute for thinking up better ways of saying things.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Changing Times

Having more than once emphasized the need for careful proofreading, I have to concede that in many cases, "correct" spelling or usage is simply a matter of majority opinion. Web site or website? Lois' report or Lois's report? Peas, beans, and bacon or peas, beans and bacon? Even the style guides don't always agree.

The worst headaches come at those points where officially accepted usage is in transition. Most over-forty keyboarders remember the old typing rule about leaving two spaces between sentences and around quotation marks--and having to adjust to one space with the rise of word processing. Now, the shift from Web site to website has writers once again fuming over the need to develop new habits. Many a writer-vs.-editor, author-vs.-coauthor, and blogger-vs.-commenter argument starts because both parties are technically "right" (each according to a different style manual or dictionary) and each is positive he or she has the only right way. It's not only in matters of ethics and theology that enemies are made because one person's obvious fact is another person's inexcusable lack of tolerance.

It won't help to wish for permanent, fixed agreement on every point of the English language; even if such were possible momentarily, a living language can no more be stopped from changing than can a living organism. Comparing "proper" English from country to country, dictionary edition to dictionary edition, or century to century should convince any thinking person of the futility of demanding lasting consensus. (Believe it or not, double negatives--"I don't have no apples"--were once grammatically correct; and once upon a time girl simply meant "youngster" and could include males.) If nothing else, the need of new words for new inventions would ensure that English in 300 years will follow different rules from English today.

In the meantime, we still have decisions to make. So here are a few rules that aren't likely to go out of date:

Be consistent. Write Web site once, and consider yourself committed to it for the rest of the document. Better that readers should think you're out of date than that you're too scatterbrained to have an opinion. And if you use a style manual, consult the same one--and the same edition--every time.

Look it up. If there's the slightest doubt in your mind, defer to a recognized reference source. "It's in the Chicago Manual of Style" carries more weight in a disagreement than "I've always done it this way."

Give a little. Complaining about your supervisor's dictionary preference or stubbornly insisting on the last word is unprofessional behavior even if your writing is technically correct. If anyone is firmly committed to a spelling or form that does have some official recognition, better to go along with it than to demand majority rights.

Don't make a big deal out of every criticism. Not only is it impossible to be universally correct on every point, but anyone who writes for wide distribution (especially in social networking) will eventually meet one of those stubborn souls who are positive they're right even when every reference source disagrees. Don't waste energy defending yourself to the last breath; know when to ignore an accusation, or say politely "I'll think about it" and move on.

Even the best writers can't always be right in everyone's eyes; but we can always be accepting of everyone's right to an opinion!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Rush" Is a Four-Letter Word

As a professional writer, I have a quick eye for typos, which can make ordinary reading an often annoying and sometimes hilarious experience. Did our grandparents really "have their milk delivered directly form the dairy"? Would you like to "take a peak at all the software options available today"? And how many people actually know the difference between its and it's?

I own books from every decade back to the 1960s, and as far as I can tell, accurate proofreading at major publishers has been in decline since the spell checker was invented. Those spell checkers, created to eliminate typos, seem instead to be giving writers one more excuse for laziness....

Or is it laziness that dismisses the need to proofread personally? Are business owners, working hard to all appearances, turning out sloppy social media writing because they "don't have time" to proofread--and sending brochures to the printer with unnoticed typos because they "don't have a week" to let the text sit so they can come back to it with fresh eyes? Is the underlying reason the same one that causes sleep deprivation and 70-hour work weeks: society has been conditioned to value quantity over quality? Until, of course, one becomes the customer whose order was lost in the crush, or the driver whose car was dented by someone hurrying to meet a delivery schedule. Or the shopper who goes to the wrong address because a harried copywriter mistyped the number. Rush is ultimately the worst enemy of success.

The best defensive weapon is a little planning. I try to allow at least one full hour for preparing a blog or social media post of my own, and a minimum of one week per 500 words when doing a project for someone else. I may never win a prize for greatest number of projects per month, but my work is rarely featured in "The Funniest Writing I've Seen" forums either.

A bestselling book of the early 1990s asked, If You Haven't Got the Time to Do It Right, When Will You Find the Time to Do It Over? Twenty years later, most businesspeople still forget to ask themselves that question. If you apply it to your writing, you'll gain a marked advantage in making a professional impression.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Time to Say a Few Words

Businesspeople like to tell of the condemned prisoner in the Roman arena. He stood calmly as the gates opened and a starving lion bounded toward him. Just as the lion was about to pounce, the prisoner whispered something the audience couldn't hear--and the lion whirled and bolted back through the gate.

Another lion was set loose on the prisoner, then another. Each time, he whispered something and the beast fled as if in panic.

By now, the official in charge was bursting with curiosity. He called the prisoner over and offered a full pardon "if you'll just tell me what you're saying to those lions!"

"It's simple," the prisoner replied. "I tell them, 'After dinner come the speeches!'"

The idea of a speech--especially when you're the one who has to make it--can also tempt human beings to bolt for the door. The emotional value we place on speeches is one reason they're prepared in advance, and that's where writing comes in.

It's a different category of writing than is done for books or Web sites, because speeches are designed to be heard rather than seen. Before jumping to the "hows" of speechwriting, memorize three essential points on what to do with it once it's written:

1. Rehearse the speech--out loud and preferably with a trusted small audience--before going public. This rule is vital not only for the practice and for raising your comfort level, but to ensure the speech actually fits the alloted time parameters.

2. Make the speech--don't read it. Keeping your eyes on the text will interfere with your making eye contact with the audience, and thus will reduce their interest in you.

3. Don't get obsessed with memorizing the written speech word for word. Concentrating too hard on your memory can result in your voice slipping into a monotone; moreover, the "word for word" approach can lead to getting completely lost if a single "next word" is forgotten.

As for the actual writing:

Arrange your speech in a meaningful order: chronological if one story is the focus; or from most important point to least; or on the alliteration or acronym approach (key words all beginning with the same letter or with letters that spell another word).

Use lots of anecdotes and examples. Good in any writing, this is particularly important where your audience may not have a copy of the text to save--facts and principles attached to real "happenings" will stick best in their minds. Don't be afraid to tell stories on yourself; audiences love it!

Don't force square pegs into round holes. Relate every sentence to the main theme. Don't include irrelevant jokes or anecdotes just for their entertainment value.

Avoid highly technical terms and words of over three syllables; they're hard to process when delivered verbally.

You can be more casual than with materials written for others to read; don't exchange everyday conversation for technically perfect grammar. (Of course, don't get so casual that people wonder if you finished high school!)

Remember the principle of "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; tell 'em; tell 'em what you told 'em." Summarize your key point(s) at the beginning and again at the end.

Choose your first and last sentences especially carefully; grab your audience's attention at the beginning, and end with a strong takeaway point.

The takeaway point for this article is: No one's really waiting eagerly for some stupid remark they can use against you for the rest of your life. Don't let perfectionism ruin your dinner!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Define Your Business in Three Steps

The successful business owner owes many a good idea to networking events and seminars. At a recent breakfast sponsored by my Chamber of Commerce, the speaker suggested the following useful hint for summarizing your business to interested parties: Develop your elevator speech around three key questions. The idea can easily be adapted to written materials, from your Web site's home page to your new sales letter.

Key Question #1: What is your Unique Selling Point, the distinct characteristic that makes your business stand out among the competition? Characteristics that every business in your field epitomizes (or should!) don't count; always delivering orders on schedule is commendable, but it'll hardly earn you special recognition from the news media. On the other hand, both Domino's Pizza and FedEx built successful USPs around unconditional guarantees of delivery within specific time limits. Be as specific as possible in choosing what point you should emphasize. What do your customers compliment you for? (Take special note of any comparisons to your competitors.) If you've won any awards or been featured in any news stories, what qualities of your business did they focus on?

Example: Want blogs and brochures with genuine interest value to potential clients? Spread the Word Commercial Writing knows what the general public likes to read; we bring combined experience of over 10 years writing articles for business and popular periodicals.

Key Question #2: Who is your ideal client? Saying "anybody" will get you fewer, not more, referrals; people need specific images to focus on. Think demographics: what do your current customers have in common in terms of age or income bracket? Gender or ethnicity? Family situation? If you offer business-to-business products or services, what are your top three preferred industries? What is the typical size/revenues range of companies likely to hire you? What is your ideal client's typical business mission?

Example: Spread the Word offers its services to businesses and organizations that are dedicated to helping people out of depression and discouragement.

Key Question #3: What specific needs do your products/services fill? Never forget the "find a need and fill it" principle! Customers don't come to your boutique because you won a designer award; they come because the clothes you sell suit their perceived needs. If you have trouble being specific here, consider taking a customer survey; you might even find an opportunity to subsequently emphasize a need you're now filling for the first time. (And to start filling it before some competitor uses it to lure your customers away!)

Example: When you use Spread the Word's writing services, your brochures will no longer be tossed as “junk mail” [filling the need to offer something people will save--thus keeping your name before them--and also the need to send the subconscious message, "My company is valuable"].

Answering these three key questions to the public's satisfaction can bring you more and better clients; garner more and better referrals; and help you clarify your business's focus. Please share your answers in the Comments section!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Be Careful What You Say

When it comes to the written word, flawless spelling and punctuation aren't always enough to make your business look good. Building on last week's theme of humor in the English language, here are a dozen examples of the potential embarrassment in not thinking through what your words actually say:
  1. "Donate to Consignment Retail Shop's quarterly sale and get rid of all those things that just clutter up your home. Bring your family."
  2. "Don't let outmoded medical treatments make your health problems worse. Come to Homeopathic Clinic and let us take care of that."
  3. "Our vacuum cleaners run so quietly, you'll swear they aren't working at all."
  4. "Our West Road franchise will be closing next week. Thanks to all our former loyal customers."
  5. "Come to our rifle range. We provide instructors so you can learn to shoot yourself."
  6. "Can't get Internet access? Visit our Web site for the solution!"
  7. "Our software is completely foolproof and virtually guaranteed never to frustrate you. To further ensure your convenience, we maintain a 24/7 Customer Complaints hotline."
  8. "At next Sunday's church service, the pastor will formally announce his resignation, after which the congregation will sing 'Praise the Lord.'"
  9. "Fly with our airline and let us worry about the hassles of driving."
  10. "Our cars are effectively indestructible and let you hit anything with impunity."
  11. "Tinter's Barber Shop prides itself on cultivating long-term customer relationships. We'll cut your hair until you go bald!"
  12. "Get away from the crowds at Custom Resort. Reservations must be made at least six weeks in advance."
Just because you're clear on what you mean doesn't mean anyone else is; others can only read your words, not your mind. Never let anything significant to your profits or reputation get out to the public without testing it on at least one person who had no hand in writing it!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Words Are Funny

In honor of vacation season, today's post takes a break from talking about business, and makes time to laugh at the idiosyncracies of the English language.
  • Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?
  • Why do we send shipments in cars and cargo on ships?
  • If your father's wife is your stepmother, why isn't your uncle's wife your stepaunt?
  • If she corresponds to he, why don't we have shim and shis to correspond to him and his?
  • If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn't hice the plural of house? How does one tell the difference between the singular and the plural of sheep? And what's the singular of trousers?
  • If vulnerable and invulnerable are opposites, why do inflammable and flammable mean the same thing?
  • Why doesn't overlook mean the same as oversee? And why does quite a lot mean the same as quite a few?
  • If "worn-out" clothing is no longer fit to wear, shouldn't brand-new clothing be sold as "worn-in"?
  • Why isn't there any egg in an eggplant, or any apple in a pineapple? Where are the rocks in rock candy? Why aren't lead pencils made with lead, and why are tin cans made mostly of steel?
  • Why do dogs and people take catnaps?

Take a nap yourself this afternoon, and remember that relaxed minds make for "creativer" writing! (Why doesn't every adjective have one-word comparative and superlative forms??)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Your Blog's Mission

A good blog, like a good magazine, needs a reasonably narrow focus. Few people will continue following a blog that talks about cat care one week, Middle East politics the next, and computer software the week after that--unless the writer can tie all three to some common aspect (such as "the realities of the modern world from a radical conservative's perspective") and emphasize that aspect to make it obvious all posts come from the same basic point of view.

It is possible to write a blog that covers a large variety of subtopics. Look at major periodicals that have been around for decades: National Geographic; Good Housekeeping; Time Magazine. All cover a variety of topics that at first glance seem to have little in common, yet no one thinks it odd if National Geographic runs an article on caffeine next to one on the history of polar exploration. The secret is to have a clearly definable mission--whether that mission is to educate readers on people, their cultures, and their world; to show average Americans how to make personal and family life more fulfilling; to explore how a philosophy or religion relates to the real world; or simply to provide entertainment for lovers of literary fiction.

The most obvious advantage of the mission-oriented blog is that it's less likely to die for lack of new post ideas; how many things can the average blogger really say about "the view from my kitchen window"? (For a detailed discussion on how not to run out of ideas, check back to the March 23 post.) But unless the mission itself is obvious, readers may lose interest as quickly as with a "topics chosen at random" post. So "your mission, should you choose to accept it," is to write your mission-oriented blog according to the following hints:

Make your blog's mission match your business's mission--or some aspect of the latter. A veterinarian might write a pet-health blog; a community-development nonprofit could focus on positive aspects of architectural or educational trends. A relevant blog is good publicity for your business, helps establish your expertise in readers' minds, spreads passion for the cause, and also is the best bet for a topic you won't run out of ideas on.

Put a header on your blog that states its mission in one short paragraph. The "mission statement" for Good Writing is Good Business begins "Despite what many would-be novelists think, good writing is not easy. It is, however, vital . . ." (see above). When Web surfers discover an interesting post on driving for maximum fuel efficiency, and come back the next week to find a post on locating thrift stores, they won't be jarred by the apparent incongruity if the header has made clear that this is a blog on "everyday economical living."

Choose a blog title equally evocative of the mission. Even if you prefer a clever or intriguing title that doesn't make the mission obvious (in which case a descriptive header is doubly important), match it to the blog's overall tone. Beware of risque implications if your mission is conservative, and remember that "groaner" puns lead readers to expect plenty of humor.

Keep the tone consistent from post to post; it'll help maintain a cohesive feeling when topics vary. Define the typical response you want to evoke: belly laughs? Moral indignation? Sentimental musings? If you write your own posts, beware of trying to speak in a "voice" that isn't yours. Attempting humor without a gift for it is bad enough in a single article; in a series of posts, it'll drive both you and your readers crazy.

Every successful business has a mission. The wise business owner designs blogs--and all other PR and marketing materials--to provide maximum support for that mission.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Want to Write a Magazine Article?

Every academic and scientist has heard the phrase "publish or perish." When part of your job is to be brilliant, people expect to see your byline in major journals; lack of a bibliography quickly begins to reflect on your professional reputation.

While the pressure is less in other fields, the concept holds universally true: the businessperson who gets noticed by a major periodical is the businessperson whose presumed expertise gets respect. The press release, covered in an earlier post, is one way of getting an article into a newspaper or trade journal. To go beyond "the latest scoop on my business," try an article in one of the following categories:

The op-ed (as in "opposite the editorial page" or "opinion-editorial") is a good beginning choice; these social-commentary articles are short (rarely more than 750 words) and can be written directly from personal knowledge. Don't, however, slip into the "everyone with any sense knows this" approach; the opinion advanced still has to be supported with clear facts and logical conclusions. Pick a topic you feel strongly about and have considerable experience with; give "see-their-point" consideration to those who disagree; and cite at least one respected source that isn't on your payroll.

The filler--the brief piece of advice, anecdote, or trivia item--can also be a good first-article choice, especially if you work in a human-interest-related field. There's rarely room for lengthy author bios; just note your business name and/or Web address, plus your field if it's not obvious from the name.

The profile, interview, or news feature is an expanded version of the press release: instead of one specific milestone or accomplishment, this article focuses on multiple aspects of a person or business and (in the case of the news feature) how they relate to some major event or trend. It's ideal if a periodical interviews you; but, unfortunately, this isn't something you have much control over (though it helps to get involved in prominent causes and build good person-to-person relationships with the community and media). If you do want to write one of these articles yourself, be careful; it's hard to keep self-profiles from sounding like blatant self-promotion. You might hire an outside freelance service to edit your article for general interest, or to ghostwrite a news feature; or you might offer yourself to a freelance writer as a profile or interview subject, contributing a sidebar under your own name. (Don't, however, pay a writer for doing an interview article with you as the subject; it could invite uncomfortable ethical questions.)

The full-length feature article, whether news, social trends, or how-to, should be attempted only by the most experienced writers. However, there's nothing wrong with hiring a ghostwriter or "as told to" writer in this case. Do write the author bio yourself; it should be one short paragraph noting your business name/specialty, the best means of contacting you, and an interesting fact about you or your business that relates to the article's focus.

The full-page advertorial deserves a quick mention, though technically it's a paid advertisement rather than an article. The most effective ones read like press releases and include the human element, especially case histories and photographs.

A couple of final points:

1. For prestige, reader interest, and chances of being published, the trade journals for your industry are the best places to submit articles.

2. If you can't yet claim a published article, there's nothing unethical about posting your best work online with the note "as submitted to x magazine" (provided it's the truth, of course, and provided there's no risk of the magazine's later requesting first publishing rights). At least you'll get credit for trying!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shorter Is Better

Most people think of "rushing about" as a modern dilemma. But though faster technology and unlimited options have exacerbated "hurry sickness," dislike of "wasted time" has been around for quite a while. The classic composition booklet Elements of Style, first published in 1918, urges writers to avoid wasting readers' time with "needless words": "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

A sure way to offend magazine editors is to submit a manuscript with the comment "I know you don't normally publish stories of over 1,000 words, but I'm sure you'll find this 3,000-word piece is worth making an exception for." Such approaches frequently come from writers who haven't even bothered trying to shorten their first drafts. And the temptation is even worse in business writing, where there are no official word counts, no obvious immediate rejections, usually more of a sense of "rush," and (in e-writing) no extra expense involved for additional length. No extra expense in terms of print costs, that is. One can only guess how many potential customers lose interest after one glance at the infinitesimal size of a screen-height bar, or give up in disgust after two rambling paragraphs.

The #1 hint for concise business writing is Take time to edit. First drafts always ramble; it's unavoidable.

Some other (short and sweet!) hints:
  • The word that, and phrases containing it ("the fact that," "it occurs to me that"), are among the most dispensable items. Ditto for qualifier adverbs such as usually, frequently, and very.
  • Active voice ("Tom brought the salad") is more concise and stronger than passive ("The salad was brought by Tom").
  • Replace adjectival phrases with nouns, and adverbial phrases with verbs. ("Prodigy" instead of "brilliant young man," "sprinted" instead of "ran quickly.")
  • Keep a thesaurus handy; it cuts words wasted trying to achieve precise descriptions.
  • Keep your topic or thesis narrow, and remove any sentences (or paragraphs!) that don't relate to it.

Hope this post was short enough!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not All Articles Come in Series

Stand-alone articles (as opposed to those published in magazines or newsletters) have been around for a long time in the form of white papers, tracts, and pamphlets, but in the online age such publications have really come into their own. Now, everyone with a Web site or social networking account can freely post company anecdotes, helpful hints, and top-ten lists. And these articles can be written as long or as short, as frequently or as sporadically, as the needs of the situation call for.

Of course, sometimes it's useful to have a hard copy in hand, and a simple printout isn't always enough. Particularly if you need handouts for a trade show or want to give clients something easier to handle than an 8 x 11" sheet, the professionally printed booklet or brochure can do wonders for your "businesslike" image. Even if you have to hire a professional graphic designer and make sure the number of pages is divisible by 8, it may be worth it.

In either case, as with any business writing, you need a specific purpose for your project. And whether you're introducing your business--or your latest product or service--to the public, providing news on your industry as a whole, or giving out helpful hints related to your field of expertise, there are principles that apply to every stand-alone article.

Shorter is usually better--and the longer the article is, the less it should state outright what the sponsoring company wants. Not only do people have short attention spans, but the more focused an article is on "selling them," the faster they get bored. That's why advertorials run only one page and feature articles don't include "buy now" appeals.

Use lots of subheads. Article readers like to skim for key points, and anything that makes that easier is welcome.

Bulleted and numbered lists nearly always get favorable attention. Their "sound bite" approach and the white space they leave on the page gives an impression of "efficient and uncluttered."

Visuals may be more expensive than all-text, but often the greater appeal is worth it. Try to use visuals with Web articles, at least, where cost is far less an issue.

Lifelike visuals score highest. Photographs usually trump drawings, especially when the subjects are shown smiling and acting natural. People always trump objects. If your article topic is something like "keeping the wilderness wild" and you don't want to show people stepping on nature, include shots of active living creatures--not just plants and rocks.

If you aren't talking about your company directly in the text, don't forget to include your logo, mission statement, and contact information. Keep it inconspicuously at the bottom of the back page, though. In the interest of good public relations, every business should occasionally give away some free information related to its field of expertise, but making the source too obvious (e. g., explaining every two paragraphs that you specialize in solving such problems professionally) gives a "back door sales" impression that irritates readers.

Also to avoid annoying readers, don't serve up mixed purposes in the same article. Sales on one page, news on the next, and everyday advice on the third works fine in magazines, but a single article--even a booklet-length one--needs a single purpose. Like the short story that shifts point of view every third paragraph, a multi-purpose article will soon have readers wanting to throw the thing across the room to relieve the frustration of trying to figure out where their primary mental focus belongs.

Articles can be extremely useful as public relations or sales tools. Like all tools, they are most useful (and safest) when handled in certain ways.