The Secrets of Effective Writing

Y U NO...The internet is a brilliant medium for too many reasons to list, but giving a voice to so many people must surely rank up there among the top bonuses.

There are thousands of formats and mediums to publish yourself on, so there is really no excuse not to be writing about a subject you are knowledgeable about. In fact, well-written articles are some of the best ways to build a solid reputation online.

There is one major drawback though. No one moderates what is being written and published and as a result the general level of written English has deteriorated dramatically. Nowadays you do not need to be an exceptional writer or have something very interesting to say to get published.

Most businesses try to save a buck by handling content creation themselves and, as a consequence, the number of web sites and blog posts that are riddled with horrible grammar is staggering. What most people writing don’t realise it that most of us (and most of their potential clients) can tell an amateurish piece from a well-written one, even if we are not all professionals.

If you are writing for your own business or on behalf of someone else’s business, it is imperative to have flawless grammar. The quality of the material you present reflects your company’s image as much as a clean office, a smart uniform or your brand identity. Clients and the press alike will build their impressions based on what they read about you, so when you put poor-quality material out there yourself, you are communicating an air of mediocrity. I remember working in a newsroom where we received dozens of press releases every day. We used to simply ditch the poorly-written ones and publish the interesting ones which did not need lots of grammatical corrections – it made our lives much easier.

Every problem, however, breeds an opportunity. The more bad writers there are out there, the more you will stand out if you can write well. I have seen quite a few businesses flourish online simply because they could put themselves in their clients’ shoes and communicate effectively.

There are a few tips to keep in mind if you intend writing yourself. The first, and probably most important one, is to edit brutally. Hemingway is said to have believed in writing drunk and editing sober. It might not be wise to take him up literally on that, but my advice is to write what you mean to say in a stream of consciousness and then read it over and over again, fixing it as you go along.

Ask a friend or relative to read your articles and suggest ways to improve them. If you don’t have someone you can trust enough to help you, find someone online. There are many friendly writers on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ who would be willing to give you their input. If that fails too, you can find websites which can connect you to proof-readers all over the world.

Quality is not merely about grammatical correctness though, if you write something well but do not take the time to understand the wants and needs of your reader, then you have failed just as miserably. If you are writing on behalf of a business then take a step back, look at what you want to get out of the article and imagine you are the reader for a bit. If you’re selling a car with some special gadget that saves fuel, the manufacturer might be very excited about it and would want you to write all about the way that gizmo works. Your average reader, however, would be far more interested in simply learning that the car will be more efficient, and possibly by how much.

(#23 of 366 X 2012 project)

Communicating and Design: The 3 levels of engagement

Magazines - (CC) Leigh Jay Hicks/flickr

The best lessons are taught by experience. Vida magazine presented me with a problem I had never encountered before. I had to create a publication that would interest people from completely different backgrounds – effectively an entire nation. This might seem simple at face value, but took us a lot of thought and consideration to hit the nail on the head.

The most important commitment we had to make was that design and content would work hand in hand. The layout had to be planned with the needs of the message firmly in mind, but the content had to be written to match the peculiarities of the design. It was a game of give and take, as the Supremes would sing.

We found that the best way to do this was to prepare rough sketches of articles on a sheet of paper and then handing them over to the designers to work their magic within the parameters that had been set originally for the magazine. Getting to these parameters was the hard part though, and we only got there once we split the audience into the three levels of engagement:

Level 1: Skimming

The first level of reader is also the most common. These people will skim over the content in a matter of seconds. Both content and design must allow for maximum impact at this level. Readers who decide to remain skimmers must go away with the gist of the story, ideally knowing enough to recommend it to someone who might be interested in it.

How to achieve it: Lay out the article in a way that lends itself to easy absorption at a glance. Have large, meaningful pictures; legible and striking titles; intelligently captioned images; strong pull-quotes; and an engaging strapline (or by-line).

Level 2: Reading

Someone who has been tempted by all of the above and has a slight interest in the subject (and some time to spare,) will probably go on and read the whole article. Content is king here. The text must be well-laid out and readers must feel as if they have taken enough out of their effort if they stop at this stage.

How to achieve it: The crucial aspect here is the legibility of the longer blocks of text. Writers must keep the flow going throughout but they have to be helped (or at the very least not hindered) by the design. Use sub-titles and split the content into bite-sized chunks. Make sure that the text flows from one block to the next without visual breaks, place columns next to each other and do not try to place images all over the page “for variety”.*

Level 3: Following Through

When you have really grabbed the interest of a reader they usually want to know more. These are probably the readers you want to pamper most because they will be the ones who will read every word you write and look out for any follow ups you can provide. They are also the most likely to recommend you to someone else, and we all know that there is nothing better than word-of-mouth promotion.

How to engage them: Give them more. Use boxes to include information which is ancillary to the main subject matter covered in the article; find links to relevant websites and send them there to learn more; and encourage engagement by suggesting they get in touch with you about the subject.

Not all designs will need to appeal on all three levels. In most cases you will design specifically for readers who will go all the way (a specialist magazine), whereas in others your primary target is to be immediately striking (most adverts). 

If you keep these three levels of engagement in mind you will always have a head-start when designing or laying something out.

Even though this knowledge is gleaned directly from my experience in magazines it can apply itself to most design theory. The medium might change but the basic requirement is always the same. To communicate effectively.

 

This article is (#16 of 366 X 2012 project)

P.S. You can also go back to the article introducing communicating by design.

P.P.S. Did you know you can subscribe to a FREE photography course I will soon start giving?

*I will go into the ins and outs of legibility at a later stage – it deserves an article in its own right.

5 Traits of a Horrible Boss

I recently watched the movie called Horrible Bosses (with Kevin Spacey et al in it). I wasn’t expecting too much out of it but I actually found it to have quite a few good laughs and it reminded me of some terrible experiences I had in the past.

The pity is that a horrible boss is not usually an unsuccessful one. Most of these behavioural traits can be found in some of the most entrepreneurial people around. Some might say that it is nearly a prerequisite, however I have worked with people who are successful and do not even display an iota of the nasty habits I will delve into below.

 

1) You have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you have to let everybody know it.

The first step in becoming a terrible boss is to let all the people around you know that they cannot survive without you. You are the lifeblood of the company and if it wasn’t for you, there would be nothing right going on. You have to constantly let your peons know that you have sacrificed your life for the job and that it was not worth it, however you press on for their sake. Even if you are the one reaping the profits and they are the ones being paid peanuts.

2) Your subjects must fear you; fear is the only way to earn respect

Given that you spend all your life working you feel that the people who work for you are nothing more than subjects in the empire you built. Since you believe that all your employees are there to exploit you, you feel you should do the same and ensure you squeeze every drop of blood out of them. The only way to do this is to instill a sense of fear in all the people who work for you. Raise your voice and cuss regularly. Remind people that their job is always at your mercy.

3) Fun should be abolished from the workplace.

A smiling workforce is definitely not busy enough. If your employees are enjoying themselves then something must be wrong. You need to rectify it by enforcing stricter rules and tightening the screw harder on employees at every level. You must also frown upon, or flatly disallow any activity organised by the company which is not directly related to “work”.

4) Only you can do things right.

If you want to be the perfect terrible boss you must master the art of doing everything yourself. This can be done in one of three ways. You can either physically do it yourself; you can write strict instructions that should be followed step by step by one of your minions; or you could pretend to delegate with misleading instructions, then storm in and change everything.

5) Shift rules, goals and expectations on a whim.

The final one for the list is usually the best way to kill off managers, but it works just as well with people at all levels. Give them a set of goals and expectations to work towards and then shift them on a regular basis. Ideally you need to justify the shift by blaming other people within the organisation, even though it is always clear that these are also acting on your instructions.

If you are a boss and anything in this list is vaguely familiar you should be very worried. Then again, if it really applied to you, you would have stopped reading ages ago. Learning from others is not something you would consider worth spending time on.

If, on the other hand, you are an employee and your boss shows some (or God-forbid all) of these traits, I can assure you that you are not the problem. Polish your CV and slowly, but surely, start looking for a job. If you actually want to find a job, refer to my earlier post about succeeding.

The saddest thing about this article is that there was a selection process involved in it. I have quite a few other terrible things that bosses can do to make their colleagues’ lives miserable so I will revisit the subject in the future.

Do you have any experiences or traits of horrible bosses that you can share? Use the comment section below to vent.

(#12 of 366 X 2012 project)

Do Big Words Impress?

 

No suspense here. Long and complicated words don’t impress, they lose audiences. We are bombarded with information in every minute we spend awake; your readers don’t have time to waste.

It is usually a great honour to be asked to write about a subject you are considered an expert in, but, unless you are writing for a very specialised publication, most of your readers will not be half as technical as you are.

I find that the usage of long and complicated words is usually the result of one of two categories of “writers”:

The Expert – To become an expert in a field it is not a requirement for you to write lovely flowing English. It would help, but you can usually find a good enough editor to fix your writing before having it published.

In my years in publishing I had to work with a lot of these. Was it worth the effort? Yes – every time. I would sometimes spend hours editing an article to bring it up to scratch and to “translate” it into appealing English, but there was no other way to get access to the subject matter. Nowadays I sometimes translate geek-ese into English in my day job. Once again I don’t mind doing it because I know that whoever wrote the original text was employed to program not to write.

The Idiot – You don’t usually find these writing articles, but you find a lot of them hogging your inbox with long and convoluted emails when all they need to write can be condensed into a few words. They will name-drop with long and “technical” words, but more often than not use them in the wrong context.

The solution:

The one cliché to rule them all – KISS, or keep it simple, stupid. You impress people much more when they can understand what you are trying to say. At the bottom if it all lies the same message of my earlier post about design. We write to communicate, and should let your content shine out through the words. If you need to impress by using big words, then you should reconsider whatever you were going to write.

(#7 of 366 X 2012 project)

Morbid Circus Act

I must admit it. I am intrigued by the double murder that happened on the first morning of the year. Just for the sake of anyone not living in Malta, this horrific happening does tick all the right boxes in terms of morbid fascination. I have watched countless* episodes of C.S.I and don’t think I have ever seen anything similar.

Essentially, what seemed to be a home invasion/ robbery gone wrong turned out to be something which is at yet uncovered. In summary, though, the details we do know are:

  • Person A somehow entered the penthouse of person B at around 6.30am on New Year’s day.
  • Person B was in bed with his wife in a room with their twin babies, who was sleeping.
  • The next fact we know is that both person A and person B were found dead of stab wounds in the kitchen of the apartment.
  • Both men appeared to have killed each other, and the only weapons used were two steak knives from the apartment’s kitchen.
  • The wife and children were (physically) unharmed and the wife said she remembers the husband saying something along the lines of “not in front of my kids”.
  • Person A is a young man who had spent the night working in a bar, then in another bar until he was asked to leave.
  • Person B, who is married to the daughter of one of Malta’s most powerful businessmen, spent the evening at home with his family, drove his parents home and headed in for an early night.

There was very little hard evidence released officially to the press and most of the rest of the information came from Person B’s father-in-law.

The second part of the nightmare, however, started the following morning in what passes for press on this God-forsaken island. First of all everyone raided both people’s Facebook profiles for pictures – including one of Person B with his twins in his hands.

Next the conjecture started. I can fully understand that the whole population turned into Horatio Caine for the week, but the press should have had enough sense to only report what was actually happening.

The police said they ruled out robbery, The Times (of Malta) interpreted that as “Person A went into the house with the intention to murder.”

MaltaStar, in some of the worst English to hit the internet, suggested that the men were in a relationship. No sources, just that.

Another Maltese newspaper suggested the wife was involved, claiming that she must have finished off the intruder.

Where has journalism gone? Where are the good old days of only publishing a story when you have one? Where is the respect for the families of the deceased? Why does the Maltese dedicate hundreds of column inches and hastily produce TV programmes about the event when there is absolutely no clarity into it?

It is natural to be intrigued by such a horrific event – and I can understand why people would want to know the truth as soon as possible. This, in fact is why CSI is exciting to watch, but in CSI we get closure at the end of the day, usually forty minutes after the “murder”. If people cannot see the difference between fact and fiction, then I think we need to start educating them.

The press, for starters, should be the ones to be advocating caution and restraint. But then again caution and restraint does not push stats up – so expecting this to change any time soon is an impossible dream.

On a separate, but related note, I was shocked by the level of English being used in Maltese papers nowadays. I remember a time when at the very least The Times had impeccable grammar and was relatively free from mistakes. In my research for this post I stumbled upon some of the worst English I have ever read (though not from The Times, to be fair).

*Gosh, I attempted a quick count there and it was shocking too – around 600 episodes if you include C.S.I. Miami and C.S.I. New York.

(#6 of 366 X 2012 project)

Communicating by design: an introduction

In my years of publishing magazines, one of the things I tried to enforce most with our design was usability. Anyone who has worked with something needing to be designed has been caught in between a rock (beautiful design) and a hard place (more content).

However, if you look beyond each person’s artistic pride (which is also crucial, don’t get me wrong) you get to the most important, and far too often overlooked, aspect of layout and design:

Communication.

An advert, for example, might look amazing but it will not be effective if it cannot transmit the message required by the client. On the other hand, if you have enough copy to write Bible 2.0 but cannot lay it out in a way which is attractive to your readers you will never reach your targets either.

It might sound obvious, however the best design is ultimately the one that works best in the context. A colourful flyer might attract a number of youths to your parish’s summer barbeque on the beach, but it won’t fill the church if you use the same bright and gleeful colours to advise the older members of the parish about a sombre prayer vigil to remember Christ’s suffering.

So how will you know when you have hit the right balance? There is no single simple solution, but even if you trust your agency or in-house design team blindly you will need to put in a lot of hard work at the brief stage. Skimp on this and you will most likely be throwing valuable money away.

So what is the information you absolutely need to collect before starting off?

- Do you need to communicate? We are constantly being bombarded with so much useless information that there are times when silence is golden. So you should always start off by questioning whether you actually have something to say. Whatever you do never accept an answer like: “because all the others are doing it”.

- What do you aim to achieve? The question before this should have led you to this answer, but if it hasn’t, now’s the time to ask it. Are you looking to increase branding and awareness? Do you need cash flow badly or have stock you need to get rid of? Do you aim to be recognised as an industry expert in the field?

- Who is your audience? Depending on your products or services and the previous answers you should by now have a clear picture of your intended audience. Learn as much as possible about them – what makes them tick, where they hang out (virtually or in real life), what level of education they have, whether they are male or female, whether they take decisions or simply influence them. Learn all you can – every bit of information you can gather is worth its wight in gold (in the right hands).

Once you have this information you can start working on whatever you intend putting out there – be it a blog post, an entire magazine or a 5-second radio advert. Make sure the design is tailored to target the right audience and communicate the right message. How will you do that? Well you’ll just have to wait for my next posts about the subject.

(#5 of 366 X 2012 project)

This post was originally written for LinkedInToMalta.

 

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