How to write for the Internet

Professional writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant says that when writing for the Internet, you should consider the advice public speakers are often given: slow down.

In writing terms, this means focusing on being as easy to read as possible. This is because people read differently at their computers than they do when faced with any printed document.

You may not always be conscious of it but when we’re reading at our computers, a light is shining in our eyes… This is the backlighting from the screen and we usually don’t notice it  — except if we’re sitting on a beach in the sunshine and suddenly discover we can’t read at all.

But there are other challenges with computers. The typefaces we like on paper often don’t work on screen. Each letter is represented by square pixels on a grid rather than by lines of ink on paper. This makes them harder to read. As well, our computers have less control over spacing, hyphenation, justification and column width.

Furthermore, the width of a standard column on the Internet is often too wide for the human eye. (When I worked in the newspaper biz, I was always told that you should multiply the point size you used by two to determine what should be the maximum column width in picas. Thus, anything in 9 pt type should be no more than 18 picas wide, or about three inches.) Many Internet sites have columns far wider than three inches!

Bottom line? When you give your readers text on a screen, you’re asking them to work really hard. Thus, it’s more important to “speak slowly” so they understand what you’re trying to say.

She goes on to give a series of specific tips and tactics to make your writing easier to understand online. Many of these tips apply to email as well. Go read Daphne’s post at The Measurement Standard for more details.

(Want more about how to write well? Check out my blog posts about writing.)

 

Nine tips for better interviews

With the rise of content marketing, communications professionals will increasingly need to create original content. That can include written Q&As, podcasts, videos and more. And the key to getting interesting, compelling content out of those is being able to ask great questions during interviews with subject matter experts.

Photo of OJ Mayo being interviewed.

OJ Mayo being interviewed. Photo via the Memphis CVB

I spent more than 10 years as a professional journalist. During that time, I interviewed thousands of people for all sorts of stories on all sorts of topics. Here are nine tips guaranteed to help you get more out of your interviews.

1. Prepare questions ahead of time, keeping in mind what’s most important to your audience. Does your audience want step-by-step how-to information? Do they want easy-to-digest tips? Or maybe they’re interested in your interview subject’s perspective on a particular issue.

2. Do as much background research as you can. Read up on the person and subject you’re covering and don’t waste precious interview time getting basic, factual information that’s easily available from other sources. The best answers to interview questions are those that provide new insights, information and perspective that isn’t already widely available.

3. Provide questions to the interviewee ahead of time, or plan for follow-up. You want quality information, not mindless responses that are the result of your interview subject not having enough time to think about them. For most marketing and public relations projects, it’s also a matter of politeness and professionalism.

4. Be polite, professional and friendly. You almost never need a confrontational interview. This is not the time to pretend you’re a 60 Minutes reporter. The subject should come away feeling the conversation was enjoyable and interesting.

5. Double-check key facts: spellings of names, titles, numbers, dates and so forth. Email is a great for this after an interview, because you get it in writing, where it’s often clearer.

6. Take notes with pen and paper, or via keyboard, even if you’re recording the interview. Transcribing an interview is time-consuming; notes taken as you talk to someone force you to focus on the most important pieces of information. Notes are also a good back-up for failure-prone recording equipment. Even if you do want to transcribe parts of what you’ve recorded, notes will help you pinpoint the most important parts of the interview. If you’re recording because you’re going to use actual audio or video in your content, notes will still be helpful in highlighting places where you may want to make edits.

7. Only put into quotes what the person actually said, not what you think he or she meant to say. In some marketing and PR functions, it might be acceptable to draft a better quote after the fact; but even then, the person being quoted should agree to “own” the remark. If your subject says something in a way that doesn’t make sense or isn’t clear, you can also simply repeat your question in a slightly different way and get a new answer.

8. Make your last question “Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t?” This gives your interview subject a chance to tell you things that you hadn’t thought of asking about. It often yields good insights.

9. Don’t be afraid of deviating from your planned questions. During an interview you will often learn things you didn’t know and weren’t expecting, which may push the conversation in a different direction. Don’t be afraid to follow that direction; it will often yield better content.

Have other interviewing tips? Please leave them in the comments below.

7 habits of careful writers

Writers who consistent produce strong, polished content have some common habits. Here are seven:

1. Double-checking the spelling of proper nouns. This includes the names of people, companies and places. Is it Linkedin or LinkedIn? (Hint  — it’s the second.)

2. Using a consistent style. Whether you write in AP style (my default), Chicago or something else, careful writers are consistent. Find out more about writing with style here.

Writer working

Photo courtesy of Renaud Camus.

3. Taking advantage of the spell-checker. It’s not perfect, but it’s another set of digital eyes on your work and it can catch dumb mistakes. Honestly, with 20-plus years of paid writing and editing experience under my belt, you probably can’t do this too many times. Just don’t let the spell-checker lull you into a false sense of security.

4. Slaying all your grammar goblins. Grammar goblins are those little grammatical mistakes you, uniquely, know that you tend to make. It might be confusing ‘which’ and ‘that’ in clauses, mixing up singular/plural in subject/verb agreement or confusing lay and lie. You know it’s one of your grammar goblins when you find yourself having to look it up to make sure you’ve got it correct.

5. Formatting your copy appropriately. An email is  different from a blog post which is different from a news release which is different from a brochure which is … you get the idea. Think about what’s appropriate for the piece you’re writing. One hint: Online, shorter paragraphs and more variations in type style (bolding, italics, etc.) are appropriate. Here’s a good set of tips for blog posts, but they also apply to other online copywriting projects.

6. Fact-checking your work. Even if you think you remember the date, the dollar amount or some other key fact, it doesn’t hurt to check a reliable source one more time. At a bare minimum you ought to at least double-check your own notes on this. If there are other sources for the information (documents, authoritative websites, etc.) it doesn’t hurt to check those, either. You will be surprised how often your memory plays tricks on you and inserts errors.

7. Eliminating needless words. Tight writing is strong writing. One of the key features of modern prose style is the focus on using only the words you need. Good writers go over their copy (more than once) to cut unnecessary words.

These seven are not an exhaustive list. Have more habits to add? Please leave them in the comments below.

Add polish and professionalism to your content by writing with style

When I say write with style, I’m not talking about dressing up like a Fashion Week model.

Fashion Week model

Photo via Two for Fashion on Flickr (CC license)

Nor am I talking about whether you write like Hemingway or Faulkner (or someone else), either.

I’m not even talking about whether you should dress like Hemingway or Faulkner when you’re at the keyboard. (Could be interesting, but not necessary.)

No, I’m talking about what rules of style you follow. By the rules of style, I mean things such as:

  • Do you spell out numbers (“one”) or use numerals (“1”)?
  • Do you add academic credentials after someone’s name (Joe Smith, Ph.D.)?
  • Do you capitalize the first letter of each word in your headlines?

Style rules are separate from grammar, spelling and usage questions, which are usually covered in grammar manuals and dictionaries. However, style manuals may note a preference when there is more than one way to spell a word, for example, or when there’s a preferred option for a controversial grammar matter.

Following a consistent set of style rules — on your website or across your company’s publications, for example — makes your communications more polished and professional. Clear-cut style rules can also end at least some of the nit-picking edits about capitalization, titles and other issues from reviewers who should focus on more substantive issues.

Many professionals in other fields — finance, law, etc. — learned a particular style in school or became accustomed to a certain style. They may believe that’s THE rule. But in most style matters, there isn’t a single authoritative rule that everyone follows. Rather, there are different sets of commonly accepted rules. Professionals (and organizations that want to convey professionalism) pick a set and stick to them.

So where’s the rule book?

There are several professional style manuals that are widely accepted. Some are more common in certain professions or industries, but any of them make a good starting point. Just make sure that what you pick is appropriate for your writing project.

Here are three common style manuals to get you started:

Associated Press Stylebook. This is the manual for Associated Press journalists. It’s also used by most American newspapers and is widely consulted in journalistic and PR writing generally. It’s the style I most often use. The AP Stylebook is shorter than some of the more academic-oriented alternatives, and so easier to learn. It also has the advantage of being the style that readers, whether they realize it or not, see most often.

Chicago Manual of Style. This is widely used for academic and book publishing. It is highly respected, but also quite a bit thicker than the AP Stylebook. That’s good when you need a ruling on an obscure issue, bad when you’re trying to figure out the rule for using numerals vs. writing out numbers. The Chicago Style rule on how to write numbers, for example, is a good bit more complex than AP’s.

Yahoo! Style Guide. Yahoo! publishes a style guide for writing online. Unlike its traditional paper-based competitors, this one is available for free on the web. It’s also more focused on some of the unique needs of digital writing.

How do I learn all this stuff?

Even professional editors keep copies of the appropriate manual at hand. No one remembers every rule.

However, to make use of these style guides, you’ve got to know what they cover and what they don’t. I don’t know any shortcuts for that process other than to get the books (or visit the website) and read them.

In college, when I was learning AP style in a copyediting class, I recall the professor having us review a couple of chapters a week. That’s probably a pretty good method to learn, over time, what’s in the style guide so you know when it’s time to look it up.

Lots of professional writers and editors also reread style manuals periodically to remind themselves of the rules and lessons they contain.

But my style questions are unique!

Of course, lots of companies will have style issues that are unique to a particular industry, profession or brand. And sometimes there is no style manual ruling for an organization- or subject-specific question.

So, in addition to formal style guides, many organizations develop in-house style guides. These are typically created by staff writers and editors. They’re often as simple as a Word document or PDF that’s shared on a file server or printed out for the communication team’s desks.

How do you go about developing an effective house style manual? It doesn’t have to be hard.

As you go through the writing and editing process, note style issues that come up. For example “Do we use middle initials on first reference for senior executive in company news releases and web copy?”

Make a decision on that issue — maybe you can make it yourself, maybe you need your boss’ OK, or maybe there’s a committee or formal process. Whatever the case, once a decision is made (we use middle initials, we don’t use middle initials, we follow the individual executive’s personal preference), record that in your style manual.

Most style manuals are organized alphabetically, so the middle initial question might go under “M” for “middle initial,” or maybe under “I” for initial. You might choose to put it under “I” as that’s a more general category (and perhaps more intuitive for someone looking for the answer to this question). But you also might put a note under “Middle Initial” in the “M” section noting that the reader should check the “Initials” entry.

Have style manuals you love to refer to? Tricks for keeping your style consistent? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Six surefire ways to zero in on your customers’ pains

Want to move someone to action? Identify one of their “pain points” and tell them how you’ll solve it.

Let’s take a literal example: back pain.

Get back pain? Does it interfere with the way you enjoy life? Chances are pretty good this ad would motivate you to go to grab some Aleve from the medicine cabinet or, if you’re out, go buy some. The commercial brings to life the physical, social and emotional discomfort that pain brings.

You can do the same thing with whatever you’re selling.

But to do it persuasively, you’ve got to know what words, feelings, ideas and images people associate with the pain your product or service relieves.

You need to learn your prospects’ “language of pain.”

If you have the pain in question yourself because you’re part of the prospective customer group, than you may start out with some insight on this. Many of us would be able to sympathize with old Saint Nick in the Aleve ad.

But if you’re a marketing manager trying to sell corporate financial management software to chief financial officers, you probably don’t have an intuitive, first-hand grasp of how CFOs talk, feel and think about the pain points around accounting software. After all, you’re a marketer, not a finance pro.

So how do you learn the language of pain for CFOs, or anyone else? Here are six ways to zero in on this vocabulary of discomfort.

  1. Mine keyword data. Using tools such as Google’s free keyword tool, you can see what terms people are using when searching for solutions or answers to particular problems. This will give you a sense for the words people actually use. (Google has tutorials on how to use this tool.)
  2. Monitor social media. By finding communities of your target customer group and listening to what they say and how they say it, you can often discover how your prospects talk about and feel about the pain in question. LinkedIn groups are a good place to start for B2B marketers, as are any specialized social media sites in your industry. There are lots of tools you can use to search broadly; one good free one is Social Mention. You should also read industry blogs (and their comments) for insights.
  3. Interviews and focus groups. In-depth conversations with even a small number of people can provide you access to the language they use and feelings they have about the problem you’re offering a solution for.
  4. Trade shows. Interviews and focus groups are formal ways to tap into the language of pain, but attending trade shows and conferences and simply striking up conversations with your target audience can lead to insights, too. Listen carefully, especially to what people say when they’ve had a few drinks and have loosened up a bit – they may get less polite, but more honest. Honesty is what you need.
  5. Your sales and customer service staff. The sales and customer service teams usually have a lot of direct contact with your target audience (if they don’t, you have another problem). Talk to them to understand how your prospects think, feel and talk about their problems. You can also go along on sales meetings and listen to customer service calls.
  6. Media coverage. If the problem you’re solving has been covered in the media the language used by reporters in stories, quotes in those stories and words used in editorials and op-ed pieces can offer important clues. Trade publications are a great place to look for B2B products and services. In addition to the publications you already have in your office, you might want to cast your net wider. Yahoo has a directory. But don’t stop with one source. There are thousands of trade publications out there.

Obviously, as you go through the research process you should, at a minimum, take a lot of notes. If you compile a large amount of raw text – interview transcripts and social media conversation, for example, you could also dump it into a tool such as Wordle, which produces “word clouds” that show you graphically which words are used more often.

What tips do you have for understanding how customers think, feel and talk? Please share in the comments below.

20-plus questions to ask before starting to write

Before you start writing anything for a PR and marketing audience, here are 20 questions you should ask. Consider it a template for a creative brief specifically for writing projects, if you like.

{a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20_questions_1954.JPG"}Photo via Wikimedia{/a}

  1. Why are we writing this?
  2. Who is the intended audience (or audiences)?
  3. If there’s more than one audience, what’s the relationship between them (if any)? Why is there more than one audience?
  4. What’s the specific goal of this piece of writing? To move someone to action? If so, what action? To change what someone thinks/believes? How?
  5. What value should the reader get from this? What’s the benefit to the reader of reading this?
  6. How will the writing be published? In a print brochure, magazine article, email, web page, blog post, case study, something else?
  7. When and how will this probably be read by the intended audience? For example, will it be a brochure they pick up a trade show and quickly leaf through, something they read at night before going to sleep, or an email that’s read on an iPhone at Starbucks in the morning?
  8. What are the reader’s likely questions about this subject? Not only the questions we want to answer, but the questions the reader may have above and beyond those?
  9. What tone/voice/personality should this piece adopt? Are there examples of this?
  10. Do you have similar pieces that you’ve seen (yours or others) that you particularly love or hate? (Get them.) Why did you love or hate them?
  11. What’s the expected lifespan of this piece?
  12. Are there any keywords (for SEO purposes) that should be included? Are there any SEO guidelines on where and how those keywords should be used in the piece?
  13. Is there a house or brand style guide that must be followed? If not, do we use one of the standard style guides – AP, Chicago, etc.?
  14. Will there be any significant legal or compliance reviews? What will the reviewer be looking for? Are there any advance guidelines available to help us avoid regulatory problems up front?
  15. Are there any disclaimers, boilerplates or other standard pieces of text we need to include?
  16. Who will review it after I write it?
  17. What will the review process look like?
  18. Who will approve it?
  19. Do those reviewers have any known ‘quirks’ about what they like and don’t like in copy? For example, does one of the decision makers hate contractions or dislike certain words?
  20. What’s the deadline?

Some of these questions you might answer yourself. Others may require input from a client, boss, editor or someone else. In any case, the more of these you can answer, and the more detail you can get, the better off you’ll be when you start writing.

Do you have questions you like to ask before starting to write something? Please leave them in the comments below.

How a little string can improve your blogging

Ever find yourself struggling with what you should write about next, or needing more details, anecdotes or statistics to illustrate a blog post, white paper or media pitch? Me too. Fortunately, I have a solution.

When I was a reporter, I gathered a lot of string. This does not mean that my desk was cluttered with balls of twine or little pieces of thread. It means I consistently collected interesting facts, anecdotes, statistics, studies, articles and other information. I could later pull from that store of ‘string’ for new story ideas or to add rich detail to existing projects. (There’s a pretty good definition of ‘gathering string’ at Netlingo.)

Ball of red string

Photo via {a href="http://www.sxc.hu/photo/747814"}nicootje{/a}.

In fact, this is such a common term and common practice that my editors and I would regularly have conversations about how I was “gathering string” for a big story or upcoming feature.

If you’re responsible for generating a regular stream of content for a blog, newsletter, media pitches or the like, then you should start gathering string, too. Done consistently, it will give you more content ideas, more links and more research ready to go when you sit down to write.

So how do you do gather string? Make these three easy steps a habit:

1. Expose yourself to a steady stream of relevant content from other sources. For me, this means I’m constantly scanning RSS feeds and email newsletters related to topics I’m interested in – writing, public relations, social media, content marketing and the like.

2. Store the information you find interesting for future reference. I use Evernote, a free application available for virtually every modern computer, smart phone and tablet; my notes are synced and always available no matter what device I’m using. I can organize material into folders and use tags to categorize it.

3. Periodically review the string you’ve gathered and figure out how to use it. Some of it, inevitably, you won’t use. Some of it will support a line here or there in something you write, or provide supporting statistics or anecdotes. And some of it may serve as inspiration for entire content pieces.

If you want a way to generate more ideas and give your writing more depth and richness, you should try gathering some string.

Four things readers want

News conference

Publishing news about your niche or topic area is one sure-fire way to attract and retain an audience. (Photo: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/106233)

What do readers want? And not just readers, but viewers, listeners – audiences for all media. If creating content is part of your marketing strategy then you’ve got to figure out what content your audience wants. What kind of blog posts, ebooks, podcasts or videos will attract the most people, get shared most often and keep your brand uppermost in people’s minds?

What they want is likely to boil down to four kinds of content.

How To

How to be wealthier, how to be sexier, how to be slimmer. How to do something — create a great Facebook fan page, sell more life insurance or bake the perfect cake.

Bookstores and libraries are full of how-to books. Magazine covers are scribbled over with how-to headlines – “How to get your guy to ____” screams Cosmo. And the Internet has become a treasure house of how-to content of every type.

[Read more...]

Five mistakes newbie bloggers make

Road closed sign

Some blogging mistakes can block your path. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/589399)

I’ve been blogging for about 10 years now. Along the way I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes. A lot.

So, if you’re new to blogging and determined to be successful at it, here are five mistakes to avoid.

Mistake #1: Not sticking with it.

Some bloggers see a lot of success relatively quickly, but there is no such thing as an overnight success. Even those bloggers who brag about how they took a new blog from zero to 10,000 subscribers in three months, or whatever, didn’t really go from zero to hero overnight. Chances are they put in years of work before they ever launched that “overnight success” blog, developing skills and acquiring tools to make a big splash quickly.

Whatever your goals are as a blogger, you’ve got to stick with it to see success. A good rule of thumb would be six  months of steady blogging before you begin to see significant traffic, readership or (if it’s a goal) revenue.

[Read more...]

How to blog frequently

Runner

Posting frequently requires discipline and a commitment to that goal. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1122022)

One of the biggest challenges for most part-time bloggers is finding the time and energy to blog consistently. Since Jan. 18, I’ve been engaged in a little challenge here for myself — 30 posts in 30 days.

As it turns out, I probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to average a post a day. Work has been crazy, with a lot of travel and an unusual amount of night and weekend hours. A couple of my volunteer commitments have required more time than usual. And just last week snow kept my daughter out of school for four days, which disrupted our household schedule and made it even harder for me to keep up a demanding extracurricular writing schedule. There is more travel on my calendar in the next couple of weeks, so this is not going to get any easier. In fact, I’m going to have to average about 1.5 posts a day to make my goal.

Nonetheless, despite the challenges I’ve learned a lot of good lessons about how to blog frequently. Here are some of the keys that have helped me to write as often as I have the last couple of weeks.

1. Keep a list of blog post ideas some place. Your list could be in a file, on paper or even inside your blogging software. But keep a list of ideas and every time an idea pops into your head, add it. You don’t have to end up writing a post for every idea, but having a bunch of ideas ready to go makes it a lot easier to keep to a writing schedule.

2. Work several days (at least) ahead. In the last three weeks or so I’ve had a couple of times when I had as many as four posts written and scheduled to go. Typically I was able to do that on the weekends, when I could devote more time to writing and when I felt less pressure to publish. This helps because it takes the pressure off to produce something for today or tomorrow and makes you feel less anxious about maintaining a frequent posting schedule.

3. Write partial drafts. Sometimes I don’t have the energy or time to finish a blog post all in one go. But that’s OK, and in fact in someways it’s better. If I start to write a post knowing I don’t have to finish it right now it makes it less intimidating to start. And if I go back to a post I’ve already started with the intent of finishing it, it’s easier because I already have some of it done. Writing partial drafts has been one of the most important keys for my regular posting.

4. Prioritize writing over reading. It’s tempting when you hop on your computer to just check your email, your RSS feeds or Twitter to see what’s going on. Don’t. Write first and write often. If you want to be a frequent blogger, you have to put your priority into creating content. And the way to do that is to simply put in the time.

5. Have a goal. Thirty posts in 30 days was a goal for me, to see if I could post that frequently. It was a private goal at first, and now I’ve made it public. But keeping that goal in mind has helped me keep going at times when I didn’t feel like blogging. Other people can post this frequently, so I should be able to also, right? (Check in on Feb. 16 and we’ll see how well this worked for me.)

These have been the most important things I’ve done in the last few weeks to post frequently, even as I’ve been busier than usual in other parts of my life. How do you keep up a regular blogging schedule?