New Year’s Resolution #1: Read More for Pleasure

This is the last in my countdown of New Year’s resolutions.

Number 5: Learn Something New 

Number 4: It’s Ok to Say No

Number 3: Ask for Help

Number 2: Get Moving

I love to read. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. I consistently read above my grade level thanks to my parents encouragement of my love of books. 

Then grad school happened. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, academic reading and writing trumped reading for pleasure. Then my professional career. Then kids. Then… life. And, I kid you not, over the last 10 years, I’ve probably read two books a year that were totally and completely for my own pleasure. Half of those were probably audio books. I’ve read trade books, professional books, academic texts, too many blogs and articles to count… but reading for pleasure has definitely taken a backseat.

In the last five years, I’ve learned that I need input. In fact, it’s one of my top five strengths in the StrengthsFinder system. In crave input. I need it to feel strong and confident in my work. I’ve relied on the input from business, trade and academic press, but reading for fun is also part of that.

(You can learn more about how I feel about StrengthsFinder here. The short answer is that I love it.)

This quote from Stephen King, who often writes about writing, also resonates with me. I’m a writer. Strong writing is widely the number one skill required of a public relations professional.  I’m working on a book and I (quite literally) write sun up to sun down in my day-to-day work.

Continue reading “New Year’s Resolution #1: Read More for Pleasure”

Five Easy Ways to Create Reader-Friendly Documents

I read a lot. Not much for pleasure, it seems, but between research articles, books for class, assignments and Web content, I read a lot. And I’m often frustrated with dense paragraphs, hard-to-decipher thesaurus-speak and unclear emphases.

I have some instincts and some knowledge by osmosis of basic design principles that apply to making your copy reader friendly. You’ll find two parts to reader-friendliness: the first is the basic design and document formatting concepts that work. The other part is that your writing should be concise and meticulously on point. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph has purpose.

I read assignments like I’m a member of the audience it’s intended for – the client, most often. Once you’ve edited and reedited, these tips can help your message get through, regardless of who you’re trying to reach.

  • Befriend white space – the space without words on the page gives the eye a place to rest. When powering through a 10 or 15 page PR plan, this can make the difference between an irritated reader who is just trying to find the point and one that follows your logic and keeps up with your best ideas.
  • Focus on short paragraphs – frequent paragraph breaks allow the eye to transition from point to point easily and soak up the main point. A good rule of thumb is to keep your paragraphs to three to five sentences (and sentences should be short – 15 – 20 words). Massive paragraphs that take up half the page are not reader friendly.Best case scenario, this makes me cranky. Worst case, I choose not to read it and you lose points (aka budget dollars, credibility, etc.). Of note: if you’re writing for the web, or in an email, consider even shorter paragraphs.
  • Slow the eye with bullet points – when your reader is scanning through your short paragraphs with ample white space, bullet points and numbered lists can slow your reader down and ensure that your key points stick. Of course, I’m assuming that you’re making good points to begin with. Bullet lists also help your reader understand steps in a process (awfully handy for, say, a plan).
  • Selectively use fancy formatting – ALL CAPS is difficult to read, as is underlining. Don’t highlight or use more than two fonts in any given document. For emphasis use bold and italics. For example, one might bold the key point of each item on a bullet list. ahem.
  • Think about margins – use left-aligned or ragged right margins, rather than justification for easier flow from line to line. I also prefer flush margins on the left with a hard return between each paragraphs (like the alignment in this blog post), rather than an indented paragraph with no space between. Using indented paragraphs is fussy and looks dated.

What tips do you have for making your copy reader-friendly?

Note: This is an updated & republished post from 2008. 

My Top 5 Shortcuts: #2 Create a Process

mind map drawing

The cost of social media isn’t in the hard costs, it’s in the time costs. Creating a process for yourself will help save time and also make social media activities a part of your routine. If you missed Tip #1, check out my advice on setting up an RSS Feedreader here.

I find it challenging to share my personal process because I’ve developed it over more than four years. So take what you think will work and modify the rest to work for you. The point is to have a process, not replicate my process.

My process basically breaks down into three categories – making time to track, time to write and time to play.

Time to Track

You’re doing all this great monitoring with your feedreader, but you  have to give yourself time to track – time to read and browse your feeds, your Twitter stream, your Facebook news feed. Input is crucial for good output (see the next section).

Your process may mean scanning as you have time during the day or in the evenings or maybe between tasks. Or it may mean setting aside a specific block of time during the day. I do recommend finding time every day so you can create a habit of using social media to track news and trends. I tend to scan a little here and a little there, using Twitter as my most common “input.” Through Twitter lists and columns on Tweetdeck, I can filter out some of the noise.

Time to Write

Creating content means spending at least some time being thoughtful and some degree of focus. I find the best times to blog for me are either a) on Sundays or b) when the spirit moves me. Sundays have just turned into my “surf the Internet, mentally prepare for the week but don’t work too hard” days. Blog writing me fits into that bucket. I enjoy writing. I enjoy blogging.

But your time to write may be different. Figure it out for yourself – and it may take some stops and starts. You may have to try a few different things. That’s ok!

Even if you’re not blogging, you’re still updating, tweeting (or whatever) and that means you’re creating content. Give yourself time to do it well.

Time to Play

If you’re not doing some fun stuff with social media, it’ll quickly become a chore. Fashion, gossip, design, sports… whatever you enjoy for fun, find a way to incorporate that into your social media “process.”

What’s worked for you? Do you have a process? Share it with us here.

mindmap photo by sirwiseowl

Creating Compelling Blog Posts: A Checklist

Creating a blog post is really more than just writing good content. The following checklist can help you ensure that your post is readable, findable and shareable.

  • Do you have a compelling headline? There’s some dos and don’ts.
  • Does your post have good structure & provide useful information? Plenty of folks have written posts on how to write posts. Take a look around.
  • Does your post invite feedback or ideas?
  • Did you provide at least one in-text hyperlink? Don’t include links as text, hyperlink them using the “link” button.
  • Did you include an image? (or other multimedia) 
 Some blog templates require an image, but even if it’s not required, an image helps to make your post more visually attractive. 
Try istockphoto.comsxc.hu, or flickr (creative commons licensed) for images. Or check out some of these sites for free or cheap images.
  • Did you assign a category or categories? Categories help to organize your content. When your blog has a lot of posts, categories can help you visitor find what he or she is looking for.
  • Did you include tags based on keywords in the post?

What did I forget? What’s on your checklist?

Eliminate Weak Verbs Once & For All

Ises and ares and to bes.

Blech.

Weak verbs can make your writing boring and wordy. In one of my first agency positions after I graduated from college, my manager went so far as to call them “lazy.”

This same manager and her (sometimes) harsh feedback drove me to make changes in my writing style. But catching weak verbs before they come off the end of your fingers onto the screen or paper challenges even experienced writers.

I developed a trick that I used until I’d retrained my writing brain. My only tool? A highlighter.

  • Take a printed copy of the assignment (work or school) and a highligher in your choice of color.
  • Start at the top of the page and highlight every form of the verb “to be”: am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, have been, had been, etc. Focus primarily on is, are, were.
  • Work to change as many of the highlighted verbs as you can from weak verbs to active verbs. To be verbs do serve a purpose and it isn’t necessary to change every single one, but strong, active verbs should dominate your writing.

Some other tips:

  • Use your imagination to substitute more interesting words.
  • Don’t start sentences with “There is” or “There are.”
  • Use the simple forms of your verb of choice (listens vs. is listening, for example).
  • Embed the adjective before the noun you’re modifying rather than dragging the sentence out (brand-new baseball stadium vs. the baseball stadium, which is brand new).

Go forth and write well!

*note: you’ll only find one “to be” verb in this blog post. 🙂

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Beautiful Blog Posts Have Great Bone Structure

Saturated colour spectrumImage by Kounelli via Flickr

Creating a beautiful blog post isn’t difficult. Following a basic structure formula that gives your posts great bone structure will give you more room to drape with creative style, solid information and desirable resources.

  1. Craft a Great Headline. Include an active verb and try to squeeze some of your key topic words in as well. The search engines love the headlines and a strong headline will not only attract Google, but will also compel your visitors and regular readers to read on.
  2. Write a Compelling Lede. Provided your readers hang around to see what the headline is all about, a compelling lede will keep them reading. Establish what the post will cover, of course, but also flex your best writing muscle and write something people want to read.
  3. Start with Bullet Points. Use bullets to outline your ideas in an outline form. If you’re writing a list post, keep your bullets as your core structure. If you’re not, use your bullets to…
  4. Develop Sub-Headlines. Sub-heads help create a scanable page and make it easier for people to read on a computer screen and digest the information. (pssst… Google loves sub-heads, too).***Now is also a great time to ask your friends on Twitter what they think. Chances are you’ll get some great feedback that will mean a strong post in the end.***
  5. Fill in the Detail. Flesh out your bullet points and/or sub-heads to really bring the point home. Keep yourself on track (rambling is way too easy to do, especially if you feel passionately about something) and keep your readers in mind.
  6. Find a Great Image. I recommend Flickr. Under the “advanced search” link, check the creative commons button and make sure you credit the photographer. If you want to go with stock photography, istockphoto.com is low cost and has the best selection. Stock Xchange is free and you can usually find something decent.
  7. Double-Check Your Headline. Now that the post is complete, make sure your headline still reflects what your post is about and gets a reader’s attention. Can you refine it to be even stronger and more effective?
  8. Edit, Proof, Correct, Polish and Revise. Errors in grammar can kill a blogger’s credibility and traffic. Take time to make sure you’re putting out your best work. There’s a certain immediacy to blogging, and a stray comma or run on sentence doesn’t typically have dramatic consequences. But avoid the five grammar errors that make you look dumb.

Resources:
10 Tips for Writing a Blog Post

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Sharpen Your Pencil and Take Out a Clean Sheet of Paper

No, this isn’t a quiz. It’s an invitation to write during this winter break. You’re often writing term papers and assignments for PR classes and other formulaic sorts of things. Try spending the break writing something for fun. Journal a bit or start a blog about something you enjoy (not necessarily something that will win you accolades from a future employer).

For example, I was talking to one of the instructors in the magazine major at Oregon’s Journalism School and telling her how rarely I get to write feature-length article-type pieces. So when I’m required to, it’s not easy. It’s a writing muscle that, for me, rarely gets flexed. I wish I could write longer pieces more often.

What do you wish you had time to write?

Writing in a Human Voice

I’ve been talking a lot this year about writing with a human voice. Drop the lingo, leave the jargon and edit out the “corp speak.”

Whether you’re writing a letter to employees about a company shake-up, writing compelling public relations materials such as releases, backgrounders or fact sheets, or penning a speech, it’s becoming more vital to communicate in a human voice.

This terrific example from Nedra at Spare Change is from Zichron Menachem – The Israeli Association for the Support and Assistance of Children with Cancer and their Families. The letter has been translated from the original Hebrew. An excerpt…

I want to thank you for your partnership with Zichron Menachem — for helping make a very difficult time, a bit easier. And I want you to know that how successful your effort is, every time I see a bashful smile from those mirrors, trying to love what they see. And they succeed.

This letter is amazing. The emotional (and human) connection of the words on the page not only reinforces the donor’s decision, but paints of picture of those who the precious gift of hair will serve.

Some of the Best Posts from Students

Students in my Advanced PR Writing have been blogging the last five weeks. It was an experiment on my part and it worked pretty well. In fact, I think next term I’ll have the students start sooner so they have time to find their blogging “voice.”

Stu’s Clues: In my PR Thinkin’ Chair
First of all, more than a little odd that Stu references the perennial children’s favorite – down the the “thinking chair” – but he did an outstanding job with this assignment and I hope he keeps his blog up. My favorite posts –
I Keep a Fire Extinguisher in my Pants (ok, I admit it, I mostly like the headline. funny!)
NBA Severs Ties with Tim Hardaway

PRemonitions
Danielle Galluzzo is a rising star. Not afraid to ask when she doesn’t know, contribute when she has a good idea and commit herself fully to every assignment (whether it is a new release critique, a blog assignment or a corporate booklet). Her blog was no different. A mix of the professional and the personal, Danielle has some great posts:
Spring Break in Oregon (my son, Braxton liked this. He was giggling the whole time it was on)
PR Portfolios (Thanks for these resources, Danielle!)

Jay’s Ad Blog
This is the first time I had Jay Hermele in a class. Now, in all fairness, he could’ve easily been in my PR Principles class but that doesn’t really count. There are typically 100+ students in that class. Jay was a great addition. He is a very thoughtful writer and does really top notch work. He had a couple of posts that I particularly enjoyed.
Product Placement at a Whole New Level
Entitled Kids

Will post more tomorrow….

Annoying Buzz Words

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The Creative Group recently polled 250 marketing and communication professionals about the most overused buzz words. The problem with buzzwords, of course, is that when overused they become meaningless and cliche. When in doubt, use clear concrete language that cannot be misunderstood by any audience. The same language should be effective when talking to your peers as it does when talking to a client… or, the real test, when talking to your mom.

Here are some of my favorites form the Creative Group’s survey: (and my commentary)

Outside-the-box: outside what box? i think this is so overused that the outside of the box has actually become the inside of the box.

Synergy: Guilty of using. Probably even in public. Bad.

The big idea: Isn’t this the name of that TV show on CNN with at advertising guy? Hmmm…

ROI: This one is tough. In some situations, you’re almost expected to use it. Unfortunately, it’s overused and misused so it’s almost become of synonym for “I understand that I need to show that this tactic is worth doing financially” rather than some concrete measure.

Paradigm shift: Do we need to do paradigm shift drills? and have our communication plans paradigm-shift-retrofitted?

Integrated solution: The sister to synergy – say what you mean. If your recommendation is to combine media relations, a YouTube channel, direct mail and a MySpace page – say so! Using language like integrated solution and synergy are the reason that consultants and agencies end up dealing with “scope creep.” Be clear and you’ll be understood.

Make it pop: I think the only place this work is on What Not to Wear. And it’s referring to color. As in, that red sweater really makes that outfit pop.

Low-hanging fruit: Oh, I’m so guilty of using this. So, so guilty. I will stop. Right now. Really.

Any others?

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