Monday, March 29, 2010

It’s Not about You

“I know and you know people who blunder through life trying to wigwag other people into becoming interested in them,” wrote Dale Carnegie in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Of course, it doesn’t work. People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves—morning, noon and after dinner.”

It’s amazing how many intelligent entrepreneurs never learn this. Every other sentence in their press releases starts with “we.” Their Web sites read like transcribed employee manuals, and their advertisements resemble research and development reports. They never consider that most consumers, struggling to keep up with existing responsibilities, might not care that some company they’ve never heard of makes orange widgets or won an award from the Fourth Annual Business Committee of Nowheresville.

Even worse are the direct appeals that come across as “Give me what I want because I want it.” Carnegie’s book includes one such letter as an example of how not to win cooperation: “We desire to retain our position in industry leadership… Will you put us on your preferred list for regular updates and send a prompt acknowledgment of this letter, giving us your latest ‘doings.’” The typical reader’s reaction is likely to be something along the lines of “Why should I care about what you want or how important you are; I have problems of my own to worry about. Who do you think you are, anyway, ordering me to drop everything and write a detailed response right now?” Not exactly conducive to good public relations.

If you wonder whether your own promotional writings may be too self-centered, here are nine red flags to watch for:
1. You can’t describe the typical person who can be expected to read the text.
2. The text is full of company-specific jargon. (If you’re not certain, ask a trusted friend outside your business to read a hard-copy sample and highlight anything s/he needs you to define. If the papers come back looking gold-plated, it’s time to consider hiring an outside writing expert.)
3. The text of an item intended for the general public is full of industry-specific jargon.
4. The text includes large numbers of statistics. (Unless you can present those statistics in an exceptionally intriguing or humorous manner, no one who wasn’t directly involved in producing them will be interested.)
5. The text brags too much. (Non-stakeholders couldn’t care less about the awards you win unless those awards are for something exceptionally intriguing; everyone has a “Top Sales” or “Citizen of the Year” award. And even readers who rejoice in your triumphs will get bored if the “how great we are” text runs beyond a few paragraphs.)
6. The text contains the phrase, “I/we want.” (Only your personal friends and loved ones will do anything for you simply because you want it.)
7. The text includes any requests that fail to say “please” (and preferably “thank you” as well).
8. The text contains far more “we’s” and “I’s” than “you’s.”
9. The text talks extensively about what you can do, but never mentions what you can do for the reader.

That last point will be covered further in next week’s scheduled topic, “Features vs. Benefits.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keeping up the Blog Momentum

The first few posts of this blog having covered the technical points of good writing, it’s time to move to the uses of good writing. What better place to start than with—blogs?

Blogging and social networking have succeeded Web sites as the business trend of the future. Unfortunately for lazy self-marketers, the new approach requires even more frequent updating. It takes maybe two weeks without new posts before readers quit checking.

As a professional writer, I encourage outsourcing the actual writing of this valuable marketing tool—but that doesn’t mean you should be personally lacking in ideas for post topics. You know best what your perfect customers want to read about…. usually. Every long-term blogger has “what’s left to talk about???” days.

Far more is left than you might think. Here’s a top-ten list of ways to keep your idea bank full (adapted from a summer 2009 posting at

1. Spend some time every day reading (or viewing) media related to your blog’s main theme. This will provide topic ideas, suggest new reference sources, and allow you to absorb what “works” in terms of style.
2. If you’ve been relying on television and radio for daily news, find a written source as well. Written media covers topics in more detail and explores more angles.
3. Along with blogs and other articles, read full-length books on your topic. It only takes ten minutes a day to finish a book a month, and you’ll gain a lot of insight into how much can be said on a theme.
4. Read reviews and comments for books and blogs on related topics. It provides great insight on what the public likes in a writer.
5. Read an occasional article or novel (or watch an occasional documentary or movie) just for fun. Relaxing keeps your mind fresh, and you may be surprised at the ideas you get from diverse sources.
6. Don’t be afraid that reading other people’s work will stifle your originality. This is rarely a danger except for those who try to “copy” popular writers in the vain hope that success is directly transferable.
7. Read books and articles on the art of writing itself (my favorite databases are and Learn how successful writers of all kinds come up with their ideas.
8. Don’t neglect the real world! You can collect dozens of blog ideas (not to mention descriptive details and true stories to make things more interesting) just by spending an afternoon in the park watching the world go by, or by sharing lunch with a friend.
9. Do keep a journal or “idea notebook” for those days when your mind does go temporarily blank.
10. Think positive! Guard your mind against any “the world has nothing new to show me” attitude, and you’ll experience new insights every day.

My next post will talk about one obvious idea better not used in blogs—or any other written communication.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Commonly Confused Words

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”

That old quote proved itself when I tried to confirm exactly who said it. A dozen famous characters are credited with originating the phrase—and each has advocates who “know this for a fact” and are ready to tear into anyone who disagrees. I’m sure I’ll hear from some of these if I personally credit anyone besides their top candidates; so I’m going to take the coward’s way out and avoid even mentioning any of the possibilities.

Some “things we know that ain’t so” have uglier consequences than heated arguments. Ask anyone who has mistaken the accelerator for the brake, or spoken condescendingly to a “receptionist” who turned out to be the company president. And though few people have been sued for confusing “principal” and “principle,” avoiding vocabulary mistakes is crucial to projecting a conscientious, intelligent professional image.

Last week’s post talked about commonly misspelled words. Today, we go on to commonly confused words. Here are ten pairs for starters:

1. Accept/Except: “Accept” means “to receive”; “except” means “excluding.”
2. Benefactor/Beneficiary: The benefactor does the giving, the beneficiary the receiving.
3. Complement/Compliment: “Complement” means “a necessary part of” or “to supplement something”; “compliment” means “a flattering statement.” (And the word that refers to free gifts is complimentary—like gift, it has an i in it.)
4. Continual/Continuous: “Continual” means “regularly recurring”; “continuous” means “uninterrupted.”
5. Disinterested/Uninterested: “Disinterested” means “objective” and may refer to someone, such as an arbitrator, who is very much involved in a situation. “Uninterested” means that someone is totally uninvolved and couldn’t care less.
6. E.g./I.e.: “E.g.” means “for example”; “i.e.” means “in other words.”
7. Farther/Further: Generally, “farther” refers to material, physical distance and “further” to less measurable quantities. Hence, “three miles farther” but “for further consideration.”
8. It’s/Its: “It’s” means “it is” or “it has”; “its” is the possessive form of “it.” One sentence demonstrating the difference: “It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.”
9. Mean/Median: Both are mathematical terms roughly meaning “average,” but they are calculated in different ways. When a sum is divided by the number of calculations that went into it (as in [3+9+12]/3=8), the result is the mean. A median is the midpoint of a list of numbers that is arranged from lowest to highest.
10. Principal/Principle: “Principal” means “first in rank” or “the person first in rank.” (The head of a public school is the principal. The amount of a loan before interest is the principal. The central issue in a situation is the principal issue.) “Principle” means “a basic standard or truth.”

Dozens more “Common Errors in English” are posted at You may be surprised to learn what you’ve been getting wrong!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Perils of English Spelling

Do you know that one of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language is--"misspelled"? That sneaky double s has tripped more than a few people.

Just as most misspellings of proper names (discussed last week) are due to variations from the "regular" spellings, other frequently misspelled words achieve that status by violating convention. Remember the grade-school spelling rule "i before e except after c or when sounded like a as in neighbor and weigh"? But... how do you spell "height"?

You form plurals by adding s; but then how do you explain "mouse" and "mice"? Or "woman" and "women"? Or "goose" and "geese"--and for that matter, why is the plural of "mongoose" still “mongooses”?

And what about words that are spelled one way and pronounced another--and letter combinations for which there seem to be no conventional pronunciations? Why does "knife" have a k in it? Why doesn't "dough" rhyme with "rough," nor "key" with "obey," nor "plow" with "tow"?

Be grateful if you learned English in toddlerhood. The more-or-less-official tongue of international business is perhaps the hardest language in the world for adults to master. Blame a centuries-long habit of freely adopting words from other languages, no doubt aided and abetted by the British Empire period.

Nonetheless, and like it or not, people still see sloppy spelling as a sign of ignorance or carelessness or both. Blind faith in your spell checker is not an advisable solution: few computers can tell the difference between "twenty-four resources" and "twenty for Resources." At times, we all have to revert to the ancient "look it up" method.

However, no dictionary can help if you're so uncertain of a spelling that you can’t find it in the alphabetical list or keyword search, or if you're like the college student who lamented, "My professors say I have to learn to look up words when I'm in doubt--but I'm never in doubt!" The only thing resembling preventive medicine is to review likely-to-be-misspelled words until the correct spelling is burned into your memory. Do you have "misspelled" straight? Good; now here are ten more words to memorize before drafting your next business proposal:
1. Accidentally
2. Calendar
3. Consensus
4. Guarantee
5. Indispensable
6. License
7. Occurrence
8. Personnel
9. Relevant
10. Stationery (as in "writing paper," not to be confused with stationary, which means "motionless")

When you have all those right, visit the "Most Often Misspelled Words" page at for a top-100 list and some useful memory aids....

...the word for which is spelled M-N-E-M-O-N-I-C-S and pronounced “knee-MAWN-iks.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Perils of Misspelled Names

Having talked in my last post about the value of proofreading, I should note one thing that is often “corrected” where no correction is needed—the unusually spelled personal name. I should know. My last name is S-W-A-R-T-S with an s at each end, and if I had a dollar for everyone who’s written it as S-C-H-W-A-R-T-Z or S-W-A-R-T-Z or even S-C-H-W-A-R-Z, I could retire right now.

Hundreds of others have reason to curse the surname legacy of their paternal ancestors—or to wonder what their immediate ancestors were thinking on choosing a first name. Long, impossible-to-spell names are bad enough. Names that sound like bad jokes (as every Houstonian knows, Ima Hogg was a real person) quickly get old to live with. Names with obvious alternate spellings (“Is that K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E or C-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E?”) can be a nuisance. But a name for which everyone thinks the spelling is obvious means a lifetime of policing everyone who writes it down—and still seeing it come out wrong half the time. It’s especially bad if the discrepancy comes near the end of the name; people usually stop listening to me spell out S-W-A-R-T-S after I pass the w.

Many people regard misspellings of their names not merely as annoying but as personally insulting—especially when those misspellings are attached to message responses, and the original communications were signed with the right spellings. Get an e-mail signed “Smyth” and reply to “Dear Mr. Smith,” and you effectively tell him you didn’t consider his message worth reading carefully. Even where it concerned a key element of his identity.

Get a name right, by contrast, and you make a favorable impression. Get a difficult name right, and you make an especially favorable impression (“What a relief to meet someone who doesn’t misspell my name!”). Dale Carnegie knew this well; his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People devotes a whole chapter to remembering names.

Which isn’t always easy, especially where multiple tiers of communication are involved. Many convention attendees carefully spell out their names (verbally or in writing) during the registration process, only to receive a badge with the wrong spelling upon arriving at the event. Usually, the person who actually took the registration wasn’t at fault. Despite computerized recordkeeping, many registrations still go through two or three levels of human beings. And often, one of those human beings transcribes a note or memo without looking carefully.

Worst of all, however, is the usually careful proofreader who sees the actual spelling clearly—and still writes down the wrong one. “It looks wrong, so it must be a typo” is the sort of “logical” thinking that infuriates those of us whose names vary from majority custom. So unless you know someone personally, always assume that a name is spelled exactly the way it’s written, no matter how ridiculous it looks to you. If the spelling really is wrong, at least you’ll have someone besides yourself to blame.

Remember that, or I’ll send you an e-mail with your name misspelled!

Despite what many would-be novelists think, good writing is not easy. It is, however, vital—especially when your reputation and customer relationships are riding on it. Don’t steal time from your business’s primary mission to struggle with written communications. Contact Spread the Word Commercial Writing today and learn how professional help can save you time and frustration!

“Anything Worth Writing Is Worth Writing Right”™

The Perils of Careless Proofreading

Blame the growth of text messaging; or the modern ease of copying messages as opposed to the old “retype the whole thing” approach; or today’s rush-rush mentality; but people just aren’t proofreading the way they used to. Though no one expects e-mail memos to conform to Pulitzer Prize standards, even professionally published books are now laden with typos any third-grader should have caught. As for proofreading standards applied to the average business brochure: I have considered going into professional expos with twenty-five $10 bills and offering one of those bills to anyone who hands me a brochure I can’t find a misprint in. I’d be willing to bet I could go to every booth without losing the whole $250.

Following is a top-ten sampler of the funniest typos I sighted in 2008-2009 alone (italics added):
1. Online form error message: “In valid Web site format.”
2. Writer’s market guide: “You will find a dollar sign ($) in front of the periodicals that ate paying markets.”
3. Daily-trivia calendar: “Lightening starts more forest fires…”
4. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! book: “…more members than the Untied Nations.”
5. Inspirational reader: “The early bird gets the word.”
6. Major writers’ newsletter: “…favorite books… whether they are classics or more recent tiles.”
7. Online writing-articles database: “For some, walking slowly and methodically allows them to think things through, while for others, too slow provides too much distraction…. On the other hand a very rapid face can leave you out of breath…”
8. Major nature magazine: “…avoid undo exposure to predators.”
9. Business e-newsletter: “was generating over $10 million per month in gross review…”
10. Rendering of Bible quote by major religious publisher: “Cod opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

And as a bonus, my all-time favorite, still fresh in mind years after first sighting:

Voter’s guide: “…ten years in pubic service.”

It’s funny when someone else makes the mistake, but do you really want your business to be best remembered for such a gaffe?

Failure to proofread can also have results that definitely aren’t funny. First, it can leave a decidedly negative impression of your business. People will overlook one mistake; but if your written communications average 10 typos per 100 words, how long will it take potential customers to start wondering if you’re as careless with your primary services?

Sloppy proofreading can also lead to serious and costly inconvenience. The seminar announcement that reads “we will meet at 7 a.m.” instead of “7 p.m.”; the business address listed as “1001 Richmond” instead of “10001 Richmond,” or even as “Norwalk, CT” instead of “Norwalk, CA”; the Web link that leads nowhere because the address was mistyped—how much time is wasted annually because people take such messages as they are written?

However great a hurry you’re in, never think of proofreading as a waste of time. Carelessness here can hurt you and those whose opinions you value.

Despite what many would-be novelists think, good writing is not easy. It is, however, vital—especially when your reputation and customer relationships are riding on it. Don’t steal time from your business’s primary mission to struggle with written communications. Contact Spread the Word Commercial Writing today and learn how professional help can save you time and frustration!

“Anything Worth Writing Is Worth Writing Right”™