Thursday, December 31, 2009

When Typos Can Kill You

As nit-picky as I can be, I'll readily agree most typos (and even grammatical gaffes) aren't exactly dangerous. But here's an example of a typo that *only* almost grounded a plane on take-off. Seriously, it could have turned out worse.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Harnessing the Hungry Diner

Why hire a copywriter to handle your menu?

Because while anyone can describe food, it takes more than a dash of psychology to create a menu that will make diners hungry to open their wallets.

Let their be no mistake: copywriting is directly linked to profits.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Put a Bow on It (Grammar is Part of the Packaging)

Packaging fascinates me, from the myriad marketing issues (eye-catching strange shape or practical box for easy shelving?) to the technical considerations of shrink wrap. Let me be clear: on the style v. substance question, I pick substance every time. BUT.

Packaging problems can kill products.

And grammar, my friends, is part of the package. Consider this, from a help-wanted post:

"[name omitted] is one of the largest book publishers in the world. It's subsidiary [name omitted] publishes [blah-blah-blah]..."

Did you catch it? When it jumped off the screen at me, I promptly prepared to send in my offer to help this world-famous publisher PROOFREAD ITS OWN AD COPY.

Maybe I'm a little extra-sensitive these days, what with the holiday parties and all. Every seasonal gathering seems to require one of those "so what do you do?" conversations, and when I say, "I'm a writer" nine times out of ten, I hear "Oh really? Sometimes I think about being a writer..." and honest, I try to smile kindly. Because [dripping sarcasm] yeah, it's true, everybody can be a writer.

Now, before you give it a go, do me (and other poor unsuspecting readers out there) a favor: do a good job. Use the right word. Clean up the punctuation. Proofread for errors. And before you offer your gift of writing to the world, put a bow on it.

By that I mean, don't print, publish, or mail anything until it's your best stuff. The words you choose to describe your business, services, and products are your packaging, as much as cellophane or cardboard.

What kind of presentation are you making?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is That the Write Word? Don't Blow It

Surely you've seen the spell-checker poem - and appreciated it because you understood too well the way that lovely tool can save your butt, or can it.

There are infinite variations on the spell-check ditty, and seemingly infinite ways we can mess up our communication. Choosing the almost-right word is one way that may lead to late-night chuckles, courtesy of Mr. Leno's headline bloopers - or, if you're not so lucky, can lead to litigation.

The following appeared in Paula Morrow's latest newsletter to her writing brethren. It was written by her business and life partner, Bob Morrow, and I post it here with permission. (Thanks, Paula and Bob.)

Ordnance is bombs and artillery shells.
The first is dropped, the second shot.
An ordinance is local law
And you're supposed to obey it, like it or not.


-----------------------------

I get uptight when people - especially business people - are sloppy in professional communications. And while my clients really appreciate that, they're also well aware I'm not an artist. Fortunately for the art and craft of children's literature, Paula and Bob offer thorough critiques for first time and experienced authors. For more about their services, visit the website http://paulamorrow.com

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't Be That Guy

Am I tense about tense and subject agreement? Yep. When I see a headline like:

Check Out an Employee Before You Hire Them

I think, 'fly-by-night company, or just plain sloppy?' Either way, it's not confidence-inspiring.

Business owners/managers, please hear this: your website should direct a reader's attention to the message, not to your grammatical errors. Trust me, I'm not a lone word snob. Those blunders will cost you potential customers. Business. Mooo-lah.

Have a professional writer, proofreader, high school English teacher, or a good high school English student (!) review your site for gaffes like the one above. Especially if you don't see the problem with the example above.

There. I'm done ranting for the day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Practical Intro to Using Social Media

Outback Steakhouse is one company that's gotten a bang for its buck using Twitter and Facebook. But scads of companies are wasting their time (and $$) on social media "campaigns" that are just so much cyber-waste.

If you're in marketing/advertising/pr (or advising someone who is) I urge you to read this marketing brief from motivelab, which, before it launches into some very practical advice, acknowledges that social media is just good-old-fashioned word-of-mouth with a much speedier delivery mechanism, thanks to current technology.

Why it's worth the download and some thoughtful consideration: it reminds us how to use the old tried and true marketing theories online, on mobile devices, and such. Clarify your positioning is good advice that will never go out of style; figuring out how to do it (and not muck it up) using social media vehicles is what writers need to know, now.

As the article points out, very wisely, "Ultimately, your most influential audience are human beings, not computers, so don't let your SEO ambitions take the life out of your blog."

Of course, I translate that sentence into "content is still king." (If you've been paying attention, you're not surprised.)

If you've got a solid grounding in advertising or copywriting, do you need to read this? Yes. There are plenty of new twists marcomm writers need to understand.

For example, we still need to leverage the one- or two-percent response to convert good marketing into better sales.

See, the game hasn't changed; social networking is just like the new sharkskin-inspired swimsuit - and we all have to swim a little faster now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Long Arm of Search

If you're ready to write beyond basic SEO strategies, get to know your customer, and start focusing on the reasons behind their searches.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Online Copywriting

I have great faith in words. When used properly, they communicate.

When I hear phrases like "writing for the web" and "online copywriting" I cringe, or roll my eyes, or both. (My anti-wrinkle cream really doesn't stand a chance.)

OK, disclaimer now delivered, today I'm pointing to an article I deem worth reading - even worth printing, but only if you promise to consult it once in a while. Deal? Ok.

Read this: The A-to-Z of online copywriting by Chris Lake.

As is true of almost every piece of formulaic writing, the content is stretched a bit thin here and there in order to suit the formula.

When Lake tells readers "Q is for Quality," I wholeheartedly agree. Attracting quality visitors to your website is crucial; attracting visitors for the sake of visitors only lowers your conversion rate, eg, the percentage of visitors who do what you want them to do (buy/donate/sign up/add a link).

But Lake's "R is for Repetition" needs some serious tempering. Repetition is a very dicey - and largely personal - thing. Too much makes me suspicious, and I'll go elsewhere. I agree with Lake's advice to "ram your message home" but I think if you get your message across the first time (or two) you risk losing sales/visitors when you repeat ad nauseam. I'd substitute "R is for Reach," meaning your writing needs to reach out and touch/grab/wake up your reader. Connect with your readers, and you'll keep 'em.

Quibbles aside, Lake's article is packed with good advice, almost all of which (I feel compelled to mention) applies to all writing, anytime, anywhere. Even writing on the web. There. I'm repeating myself. Got the message?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Chuck Sambuchino Guides Us

Chuck Sambuchino of the F+W Guide to Literary Agents recently delivered a little gift to 20-plus writers and members of SCBWI (see, you really should join) at Borders in Montrose.

The gift he delivered? Good news, bad news, and laughs to make it all go down a little easier. From my admittedly incomplete notes:

On agents -- you should identify your top five agents and query them, not send out mass queries. And yeah, you can query agents and publishers simultaneously, but that's kind of dumb. (What good agent wants to rep a manuscript that's been turned down by 30 different publishers?)

On agents, 2 -- simultaneous submissions are OK, multiple submissions are not. (eg, don't submit three different manuscripts to the same agent - send your best!)

This surprised me -- we're so often cautioned NOT to call I was surprised to hear CS say it's OK to call a publishing house to say (honestly) "I loved the book [title here], can you tell me who the agent was who represented it?" and then query the agent.

Do your homework -- read blogs! Many agents have them.

Do your homework, 2 -- send your best work, and your best query. See QueryShark.com to sharpen your query.

The 5 versions of your book/manuscript you must develop:
1. Log line (the one-sentence description; include the who/what/where/when/why)
2. Pitch (arguably the most important part - the back-of-the-book description that piques interest in 3-5 sentences but does NOT give away the ending)
3. Short synopsis (1 page, single-spaced or 2 pages, double-spaced)
4. Long synopsis (approximately 1 page for every 45 pages of the book)
5. Manuscript (ms) (always double-spaced)

Why you need both short & long synopsis -- some agents specifically ask for one or the other; if the agent doesn't specify, you should send the better of the two with your query.

About the rules -- There are rules because there are rules. Deal with it. There are always exceptions to the rules but most rule-breakers get to make exceptions because first, they played the game by the rules. The first Harry Potter book in the series wasn't much longer than the average YA novel. Success allows for a lot of latitude, after the first book was out JK Rowling was a proven commodity, an exception who was allowed to break the rules.

Note -- the above rules apply to fiction. For non-fiction works, the rule is to make the BUSINESS CASE for your book.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Skiing Letter Leaves Me Cold

Ted Ligerty, 2006 Olympic gold medalist, alpine skiing (and 2010 hopeful) needs a new copywriter.

I read his letter seeking donations for one reason: the lead was so bad, I thought it would make a good example of what NOT to do in a direct mail piece. I was right.

The lead was so bad I said - literally, out loud - "WHO CARES?!"

The offensive sentence:
If you had to guess, what would you say the most important time of the year is for a competitive alpine skier like me?

Do I care? no
Is it clever and/or crafty? no
Do I want to read more? no

Even before the letter failed, however, Ligety's list failed to deliver. Why did I get the fundraising plea? It's a mystery.

Am I a skier? no
Have I donated to the Olympic committee (or any related entity)? no

I haven't even entered a contest (that I know of) vaguely related to the Olympics.

Copywriting fails for a lot of reasons. In this case, it wasn't very good and it wasn't sent to the right audience.

Sorry, Ted, 'sno good.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Case for Having an Editor - or Friend

I've been reading a lot of medical journal articles this week (not as bad as it sounds) and finding embarrassing errors, like this:

"Mortal Combat, for instead, is embedded in violence."

(Once you shake off the icky grammar, you can see the author probably meant "instance")

Another, in a questionnaire:

"The think you're most likely to do in your leisure time."

(Pretty sure the author meant "thing")

In both cases, the authors are highly-educated, world-renown scientists. Apparently, they're also prone to the same stupid mistakes the rest of us make when we spend long hours in coffee-fueled typing sessions.

When the errors are few, or found on page 57 of an otherwise solid research paper, they're excusable, yes? Usually, yes.

When the error is on your website where you're selling swimming pools, pink tiaras, or vitamin supplements... you run the risk of losing the sale.

Get an editor, or a friend that reads v e r y c a r e f u l l y.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Words I Didn't Know

I love a few "new" words sprinkled in a good book... at least, I love them when I recover from my initial feelings of stupidity.

So here they are, the words I had to look up, from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society:

fulsome
metier
melange
mien
tractable (I think I learned, and then forgot, that one)
vociferous (ditto this one)

The new (to me) vocabulary words were used perfectly, when each was the absolute right word to use. Writers who do that further communication in general and the art of writing in particular. I am in awe of (and grateful to) Mss. Barrows and Shaffer for producing such a fine book.

Think you can produce writing of a similar ilk? Try - for the month of August, Random House is soliciting entries for its The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Essay Contest. Contestants should describe, in 430 words or less, their favorite book and what it taught them about a particular place and/or time period. Pens at the ready - and good luck!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Expert Communication

What 'the experts' say is probably no more informed than what your drunk uncle has to say. But HOW they say it, huh, that's what makes 'em experts. News consumers, beware.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Uh-Oh

The National Press Foundation accepted $$ from Pfizer (drug company) to offer journalism fellowships? I hope the situation is a little better than it sounds at first pass. More here on Gary Schwitzer's health news blog.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Rhyming in Children's Books

Should you or shouldn't you? Oft-heard advice says 1- don't, unless you really are next Dr. Seuss and 2- don't ever, ever, ever say you're Seusslike in a cover letter directed to a publisher. Supposed to be a surefire way to land on the slushpile, pronto.

The latest issue of Children's Writer* is more encouraging. The article Fly High, Immersed in Verse (by Judy Bradbury) reminds us what's at stake:
"It is the poet's privilege to help man endure by lifing up his heart." --William Faulkner

Carl Sandburg sees it from a child's perspective:
"Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the sky."

Joan Hyman, Associate Editor at Wordsong, the poetry imprint at Boyds Mill Press, reminds hopeful poets to - well, write well. "Though there is always room for light, fun verse, the best poets - and the best writers - know how to push the reader to think while keeping him or her entertained," she told Bradbury.

Good advice. Here's some more: you're not the next Dr. Seuss, and you probably don't want to be. Read, write, join SCBWI, and you too just might inspire the next generation of readers (and writers)!

*if you aspire to be one, subscribe to and read Children's Writer thoroughly

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Selling it Online

A little irony today

An article (online) about selling articles online posted at Associated Content leads with how frustrating it can be to "sell" articles through AssociatedContent.com. Well, yeah. But it's not completely pointless, IMHO. More on that later, maybe. I'm taking the weekend off!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

You Know What Copywriting Is

"It's copywriting," I said, in a like, duh tone of voice.

"Why do they call it copyrighting?"

I was surprised to get this question from a friend and college professor the other night. It took us a brief who's-on-first-like exchange before I realized he'd heard me say copyrighting when I meant copywriting.

Copywriting is what's on the back of cereal boxes and book jackets and all over the Greenpeace website. It's advertising, PR, puff, and when done right, it's persuasive stuff.

Sadly, it's also a much more lucrative calling than journalism. (Don't get me started.) Anyway, I bring this up because there's a rather nice review of positioning (a very important concept copywriters better understand) here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Working With Lawyers

Some things must be written for lawyers; fewer things must be written by lawyers. Take employee handbooks. Those must be written for employees, with help from lawyers. Read more on that good advice from SHRM here. (free registration required)

On the one hand, SHRM argues, the employee handbook should be a welcoming document, guidelines giving a framework to life inside the organization (virtually or in the flesh). When lawyers write guidelines, they're rarely welcoming or friendly. And in spite of their best intentions, lawyers can write their way into legal trouble, says SHRM.
Overly legalistic language can make a handbook impenetrable to most employees and might wind up doing more harm than good when there is a legal challenge... (and) wind up unduly limiting the employer’s discretion.---SHRM vol 54 no 5, May 1, 2009
Writing for lawyers can be a drag, frankly. I've done it for more than a decade for one client in particular, whose newsletters must pass legal review before being sent to the intended audience.

For years, I struggled to write for the intended readers and "around" the lawyers.

Unfortunately, I rarely hear from the client's clients - but I hear from the lawyers regularly. Fortunately (for the intended newsletter audience) somewhere along the way I realized that those readers need suggestions that have passed the legal test. Otherwise, they can't heed the advice without running it by council. Obvious? Well, maybe to you. But I have to say it was an AHA! moment for me. And while I still struggle to write the monthly and quarterly newsletters, it's different now.

Now when I pound out those articles, I try to imagine we're working as a team, those lawyers and I. We're not developing a long list of "don'ts," we're offering a legally-insulating "to-do" list. There still are mushy words like "may" and "should" when I really want to write "will" and "should," but you won't find a "heretofore" or "whereas" in my copy.

Because while the party of the first part and the party of the second part may not be having a party, at least we can work together.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Newsweek's News, and Mine

In its May 18 issue (on stands last week, God love the publishing industry's little quirks) Newsweek had some 'insider' news - that Anna Quindlen is stepping aside and the magazine is about to unveil a brand new design, on thicker paper, and sans celebrity 'news.'

I was as happy about the latter as I was unhappy about Quindlen's announcement. I noted that she carefully didn't use the word "retiring;" and also, as usual, her essay was both lucid and enlightening.

As news should be. Because really, "just the facts, ma'am" is just a slogan. The news business is, always has been, always better be, an information industry - meaning the facts come with some sort of analysis.

This point was made, many times, very eloquently, and never redundantly, at an Ohio Professional Writers meeting held at WKSU on Saturday. Celebrated columnist Connie Schultz made it most eloquently, I thought, when she directed her message to the youngest attendees, a dozen or so high school and college students.

Schultz warned the young journalist to not get lost in the busy-ness of the business. To take time off amid the hustle and bustle of an industry that seems to demand 160-character stories be filed every 30 seconds. Take time off, she said, because it's the only way to preserve your sanity and physical health (this message was very brief, of course; what 20-year-old really knows they'll be 40 someday?) and because it will make you a better communicator. A little life experience - getting drunk with friends counts! - helps a young cub grow up and into someone mature enough to ferret out the facts and present them fairly, regardless of one's own personal interpretation; a person who can then turn around and offer a logical and informed analysis.

At its best, the news business does that. In my hopes and prayers, it will continue to do so here in the good ol' USA and beyond.

So good luck, Newsweek. Count me among your readers who look forward to the 'new you.'

As for the 'new me,' there isn't one, but I am renewed. Since I was laid off in February, I've had time to worry, take on too many freelance assignments to be good for me, and consider seriously a mid-life career change.

I'm staying. That's the news for now. After I've had a chance to drink this over with a few friends, I'll be ready to analyze it.



*OPW is an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women, which is open to both genders.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Who Should Bail Out Newspapers?

No one disputes that a strong media is important for democracy, but the core issue is what that media should look like.
-- from Sonia Arrison's thoughtful and thought-provoking article at TechNewsWorld. Read it all here .

Monday, April 6, 2009

Want to further World Peace and Improve Global Economy? Be a Journalist

Journalism is a noble profession, darn it, and we can help wipe out ignorance. Articles like this one remind me that somewhere, out there, other people think so too. My hat's off to the entrepreneur who is willing to bet on it! Thank you, Muqim Jamshady and Jessica Wanke.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Google Understands Word Play, China Doesn't Get It (Again)

Thrilled to find out Google now takes into account semantics - how we use words and how they work together - when searching on your terms, just a little bit surprised it took so long.

And will Google let us "turn off" the semantic interpretation when we don't like how it's "reading" us? We'll find out....

Unfortunately, China pulled the plug on YouTube again last week. It's censorship, folks. Old-fashioned but alive and well. Please fight for your right to read, and write.

China's citizens did, circumventing the government's block of the terrific site (which is owned by Google). By Friday, the site was streaming in China again...but for how long?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Yay! A New Use for Old Writers

Thanks to an innovative plan at Stonybrook University and a grant from the James L. Knight Foundation, 50 laid-off journalists are about to get new jobs teaching "news literacy" to non-journalism college majors.

I love this!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Editor as Floral Arranger

If you've read one entry you know my bias: I think journalism is here to stay, it's a worthy, beautiful profession, and it's absolutely necessary to a civilized society.

Biased as I am, I think (good) editors are artists; I see an Op-Ed spread, or just about any section of the paper, as a carefully constructed work of art. Balanced, and if not lovely, at least interesting to a variety of viewers. It's not always a floral arrangement; sometimes it's just a collage. But it's art, baby. Art. (A good page designer sure helps, but the editors and writers collect the material.)

Consider a recent two-page book section in The Plain Dealer. Of course, you won't see it online, so try to imagine...
Two equal but very different three-column reviews sit front and center: one on the weighty Cheever, a biography by Blake Bailey, is balanced by a look inside the lighter Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee. The "grownups" hover over reports on two tales for teens - it's as if the arranger knows that the kids are growing up fast. Fiction and nonfiction reviews hold up the edges of the spread.

It's big-headed hydrangeas and graceful young buds, a bright spray here and bit of greenery there. A fresh look at a new-in-paperback book and a glance at the NYT Best Sellers list poke up from the bottom of the page like baby's breath.

There's something for everyone.
Keep reading.

- - - This post also appears on my reading blog - - -

Saturday, March 7, 2009

What Are Words For?

Missing Persons asked the question, What Are Words For? in the early 80s, and it seems we're still asking. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The answer is, words are for human communication.

I hope you'll forgive me when the question "is content still king??" makes me roll my eyes and spew sarcastic sound bites. Such as, well, you only need content...if you want to communicate.

Full disclosure: I'm a writer who just laid off from a company (Viacom) that recently hired a half-dozen (more) SEO/Social Media Marketing gurus.

Sour grapes? No!

We need SEO that works. We don't live to search, we live to find. And what we're looking for - in a gazillion different forms - is content. Ergo, good SEO is pointless without good content.

Content, of course, can be a picture, a game, a form, a joke, King Lear or step-by-step instructions on hotwiring a car.

I think we've heard the "reading is dead" argument enough over the centuries (Plato?) to realize it's not. I think content is still king as long as SEO marketing firm Best Rank (and others) say it is. True, content has taken a hit in accounting. But even as stately old newspapers are disappearing others are starting to ask the right questions, like: what about distribution? and how can the print product add value to the web product? Aha! Now we're getting somewhere!

(But where? It's hard to say. Just keep reading.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cautious Twittering & Facebook's About-face

So I said I didn't Twitter, and now I do.

That 140 character limit is sure to hone my editing skills, right?

I assume all writers (except perhaps those who live under rocks, and/or still use typewriters) watched the little dance Facebook did earlier this week, since it was detailed from Baltimore to Helsinki. I wasn't surprised that the social networking leader (uh, sorry MySpace) pulled a change-a-roo on its terms of service, what surprised me was its claim to deleted content as well as current content. Wow. We'll all be watching...and studying up on our copyright laws, I suspect.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What the Hell is Attribution? Who Wants to Know?

Who wants to know? It's the engineer. The one I married.

The conversation started, "what the hell is attribution?" and a minute later, we agreed to disagree. (One of the benefits to being married to an engineer: short arguments. One of the benefits to being a writer: I can always get the last word.)

My husband forwarded an e-mail to me this morning, with a lovely article (and picture) of one of his "bumps." The "bump" is a new communications radome used by Southwest Airlines to allow its passengers to enjoy wi-fi (sky-fi!) communications while in the air.

The article was lovely, however, there was no attribution. It took me less than a minute to find the source, Run Way Girl's blog, posted yesterday. Then I replied to the e-mail with a "attaboy" and a promise/threat to lecture his sales manager, who forwarded the article sans credit, about attribution.

"What the hell is attribution?" was his reply. Well, the writer deserves credit, first, I explained (and almost lost him right there) but more importantly, the reader needs attribution; it provides context.

If the article had been written by Southwest, or my hubby's sales manager, we'd know to read with a slightly jaded eye. (It's PR.) If the article had been written a month ago, it's old news - not necessarily less important, but time = context, too.

Then he had the gall to say, "Who cares? It's just an internal e-mail!" Which he forwarded to me, and a friend, and fellow pilot, and former co-worker... do I have to explain how this works?

Attribution matters, if you want to know you know. To riff on the old adage, in God we trust. All others need to cite their sources.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Thank You, the Old-Fashioned Way

Are thank you notes really passe? After a few arguments with my daughter over birthday thank you notes she didn't want to write, we compromised: she wrote the archaic missives to Grandma and Grandpa, and two family friends.

She said she thanked her friends for gifts when they gave them to her. My arguments about etiquette, politeness, and heartfelt, handwritten notes caused her such eyerolling I thought she could be having a seizure. Silly me.

I gave up when I realized she hadn't received thank-you notes from two friends - who seem to be at least as civilized as my daughter - whose parties she'd attended in the previous few months.

OK, maybe thank-you notes really are a thing of the past. I'm officially a relic; I still send the notes, on paper, via US mail. (You're welcome.)