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 .