Saturday, April 24, 2010

Workplace Writing: As Easy as 1, 2, 3

If your regular job doesn’t involve working with words, you might think writing is something you studied in high school or college. It’s an academic subject, you say, and only some people are good at it. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you couldn’t be more wrong. Writing skills are just that: skills. If you can learn to create an Excel spreadsheet, run a POS terminal, or accomplish any of the many tasks required to do your job well, then you can learn to write clearly, coherently and effectively in the workplace.

Here are a few strategies to make the writing process easier and to help you avoid some common pitfalls.

Step 1: Beginning, Middle, End

Think of everything you write as having three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some business writers describe this structure as the what, so what, and now what.

The beginning states the purpose of your message and gives the reader an idea of what you’re writing about. For example, “Here is the agenda for Tuesday’s progress meeting” or “Could you please check into the status of Order Number 12345?” Keep it brief and focused.

The middle is where you give the details, the so what, of your message. For example, “At the meeting, we will address training schedules for the new equipment, as well as discuss some recent problems with customer service.” Or, “The customer called this morning about part number 1234 that was ordered on Monday, May 3 for delivery on May 10. Could you track this order and let me know when the order will be filled?” Include as many details as the reader will need, but don’t overdo it. For instance, if your message is intended to get people out of the building safely in case of fire, a simple “Use the stairs, not the elevator” will be much more effective than a lengthy, technical explanation of the dangers of combining fire, smoke and elevator shafts.

The end is where the reader gets his instructions, the now what. “Call me if you have any problems.” “Please let me know by Friday.” “Thanks for calling, and I will get back to you within three days.” The end is where you close the message, courteously and clearly.

Step 2: Plan, Write, Revise

There’s another threesome you need to be aware of, and this is the one that most time-pressed writers forget. Plan, write, revise: these three steps could make the difference between a clear message that impresses the reader, and a sloppy, disorganized message that reflects badly on you and your business.

Here’s an example of a message that once sat blaring in my inbox:

Thnx for getting in touch i’m looking for help with a website rewrite. We’re in the process of rebranding and have met with all the neccesary people now need u to pull it together. Can we meet Monday, my office. Anytime is ok with me but I am pretty loaded with another big client at the moment so maybe u should call me or i’ll call u to set up a time that works for both us. Thanks for getting in touch and i’ll be in touch.

These are clearly the ramblings of someone who didn’t take the time to think before – or after – writing. There’s nothing wrong with pounding out your thoughts, but once you’ve done that, read your message again. Does she need to know that you’re busy with another big client? Do you need to repeat the first line at the end? If the main point of the message is to set up a meeting, why don’t you just say that? And remember, it’s best to leave the informal MSN-speak for your off-hours, please.

A better message would have been:

Thanks for getting in touch. I’d like to talk with you about the Web site rewrite. Can we meet on Monday at my office at 2:00 p.m.? I will call to confirm the time with you.

Which leads me to my last point:

Step 3: Bigger is NOT Better

Despite what many business writers think, plain English is always best. Use short sentences. Use short, familiar words. Avoid jargon. A tendency towards the utilization of multi-syllabic verbiage will exponentially interfere with the ability of your communication to be interpreted and comprehended by the audience. Translation: Using big words will make it hard for readers to understand your message.

Keeping these strategies in mind when tackling your next writing task will help increase your skill and confidence as writer. Better yet, strong writing skills will increase your value to your organization, and that benefits everyone.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two Words that Effective Writers Avoid

There is a scourge afflicting even the best writers among us.  There is no excuse for it.  There is, however, a cure.

Okay, let me try that again.

A scourge afflicts even the best writers among us. Forget  making excuses; find the simple cure instead.

Do you see it yet?  

Stated simply, avoid starting your sentences with there is.  Don’t bury your message under a layer of vagueness. 


In paragraph one, above, the word there has no substance, no body, no real meaning.  And the verb to be in all its many forms is necessary (see?)  to the smooth running of the English language, but it shouldn’t be (see, again?) the go-to verb that jumps up every time you’re feeling too lazy to search for a more effective one.

Notice how Version Two displays a directness that Version One lacks.  The noun scourge jumpstarts the sentence.  The verb afflicts propels it along.

A fiction writer friend once reported to me that an editor told her: any story that starts with “It was…”  or “There was…” immediately loses points.  You want to grab the reader’s attention, not slide gingerly across the page.

So, if you want to improve your prose, try stretching your writing muscles. Avoid starting your sentences with wimpy there is,  and, instead, seek out concrete nouns and active verbs - words that work.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Calling all Young Writers: The SJK School for Young Writers offers online courses

I was a writing kid.  I read my brains out.  My desk, bed and floor were strewn with books, and I filled notebook after notebook with my own stories, poems and journals. The only people who knew about my writing ambitions were my English teachers.  That was it. 

Fast forward to 2010.  Kids now read books and fire up their computers to interact with the author’s website.  Skype visits are a possibility (I wrote about Art Slade, here, doing just that.)  I’ve used this blog to communicate with students reading my books. It’s a new world for young readers and writers.

SJK SYW Get ready, because the next step is the virtual writing workshop, which the new  SJK School for Young Writers offers with its slate of 12-week courses, beginning September 2010.  Aspiring young writers can focus on writing fiction, poetry, plays, and personal essays with expert instructors, including award-winning authors Marsha Skrypuch and Vern Thiessen, among others.  Using email and secure blog, young writers can practice their craft, anywhere, anytime. And their “teacher” is, virtually, right beside them.

The School offers partnerships too, with What If? (Canada’s Fiction Magazine for Teens) and the University of Guelph’s CFRU radio show, The Poem Repair Shop.

The SJK School for Young Writers is the inspiration of educator Adrian Hoad-Reddick, who serves as the School’s creative director (and poetry mentor, btw!)  Check out the website.  Send young writers to take a look.   The SJK School for Young Writers has something to offer young writers – anywhere and anytime.