Friday, April 29, 2016

The weekend read

You've been suited and booted all week, communicators. Now it's the weekend, and time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. These boots were made for walking toward getting smarter by Monday:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Ale Ale)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From the vault: I don't write blog posts till I'm ready to write. Instead...

(Editor's note: This post originally appeared on the blog in 2014. It's still the way I handle my blog writing tasks, proving a durable approach--and I've even added a third blog since this first appeared. Often, these tactics allow me to prep dozens of posts in advance, a real boon to the blogger. The trick here, of course, is that I'm rarely ready to write at the last minute, and don't need to be, with this system.) I blog a lot--on this blog and on The Eloquent Woman, my public speaking blog, and now the Moderating Panels blog. Between and among the three blogs, I publish five posts a week, and occasionally more. Yet I don't spend all my time writing, because I don't write blog posts until I'm ready to do so.

That may sound obvious, but I work with many clients who spend all their time on the writing, whether that's thinking about the post, staring at the blog interface, or rewriting again and again. You might be sitting down "to write," but quickly get distracted by the need to find photos, copyright info, a link you remember but can't find right away. And it's distractions that lower the quality of your writing, new research shows. More important to me, as a business owner, I don't have time for all that. Here's what I do instead, while I'm waiting to write:
  • Collect string: I save anything that might be useful for the blogs in specific notebooks created for each blog in Evernote, which lets me clip from web pages, my email, or my RSS feed (currently Feedly Pro). Anywhere I'm reading, pretty much, can be saved there. I tag some saved items as "story idea" to make them easier to find, and I make specific notebooks for weekly features on each blog, such as the DGC blog weekend read or The Eloquent Woman's Famous Speech Friday feature. Because I use Evernote Premium, there's a strong search function I can use to find all the notes about, say, online video when I'm ready to write a post on that topic. (Use the Evernote link to get a free month of Premium when you sign up for a free Evernote account.)
  • Set up shell posts: I set up a shell post before I ever sit down to write. For most posts, that shell includes a title, perhaps an intro, links I want to include, quotes, photos or other illustrations--everything but the writing. That way, I'm not distracted by looking for those things when I'm ready to write.
  • Write a tweetable headline: My feed pushes out a tweet with the blog name and post title when it first publishes, so I've learned to make the headlines fit within 120 characters and, if appropriate, to include @ symbols, hashtags, and Twitter handles.
  • Get credits in: If I need hat tips or photo credits, those go right into the shell post--a huge timesaver.
  • Reading what else is out there: A subset of string-gathering, I read widely and listen to audiobooks and podcasts like they're going out of style. Mobile devices and tablets mean I can be collecting string while doing many other things, and if I have several shell posts set up or story ideas tagged, I'm ready to save what I'm reading or listening to and know where it belongs.
  • Wait: If nothing comes to me on a topic, even though I know it has potential, I wait. It might be my best quality control measure on the blog. To balance any anxiety over not having enough material--which might prompt me to post even when I'm not ready--I just make sure I have plenty in the queue. Waiting then lets me pull disparate pieces together in unusual ways that work better for me and my readers. 
  • Split burgeoning piles in half: The process of saving many draft posts in "shell" form also lets me quickly see when a post has many links and threads, before I start writing. Sometimes that prompts me to turn that into more than one post, a bonus for my blogging--and something I might not realize until I'd put in too much effort, without this system.
Those of you with interns and assistants can train them to do the same before you start writing, but this system makes it much easier even if you're flying solo. On Not Writing takes a deep look at putting your writing down for a long time, and is worth considering if and when you need a longer break. I'd like to think that my system builds in shorter breaks with purpose, keeping it all fresh.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Thiophene_Guy)

Friday, April 22, 2016

The weekend read

Pollen count rising all week for you, communicators? Shake it off and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. Nothing to sneeze at in this collection:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Alastair Vance)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Saving that op-ed: 5 fixes for a lame opinion piece

I don't offer writing and editing services very often anymore, but recently, a client approached with a problem to solve. Her nonprofit had results to report from a big initiative, and the PR firm hired to do a variety of tasks just couldn't pull an op-ed together. They'd done all sorts of prep--from interviewing the leaders to writing a draft--but it just wasn't hanging together. Could I take a look and perhaps fix it? In less than a week?

The client was good enough and smart enough to allow for the possibility that the op-ed was beyond repair, but really wanted to try again. So I looked at the resource materials, compared them to the most recent draft, and threw out all but a few sentences with data points in them. The result, after a bit more research, writing, and editing was a draft that yielded this comment: "Thanks again. We didn’t know if we could make this op ed happen.  Now I know we can."

What exactly did I do? I just followed my five favorite tests to guide the fixing of an opinion article:
  1. Does it have an opinion or distinct point of view? Most lame or overblown or ineffective opinion articles are missing just that: An opinion, or at least, a distinct viewpoint on an issue. The "op" in op-ed stands for "opposite the editorial page" in newspaper parlance, not opinion. But there's no quicker way to get yours rejected than to leave out a clear opinion. This one made a common mistake, talking about the program and the fact that it worked, not how it worked in a novel way, nor why it worked despite the odds against it. Talking about the fact that it worked is a description, not an opinion. Handily, the leaders of this project had decided points of view, expressed in the background material I had to work with. I tossed a lot of declarative sentences and put in the opinions.
  2. Does it included the detail needed to keep it from getting puffy? This particular draft had an overabundance of jargon, summary sentences, and vague groupings in it, largely rearranged from existing documents. But it was short on specifics. Fortunately, there was plenty of data available to bolster the position we were going to take. It helps to remember that your op-ed is not a brochure, nor should its contents draw from a brochure.
  3. Were you judicious with your data? This piece was short on data, but the opposite problem is another litmus test for me, as too much data is as bad as not enough. You don't need to drown the op-ed in every number you possess. My challenge here was to avoid adding too much data to make up for the lack of it in the original draft.
  4. Can we see your viewpoint early and late? If we don't get a good whiff of your point of view right at the start, and again at the end, your op-ed isn't doing its job. Don't hope that the reader will stick with you as you build your case into a crescendo at the end or the middle. Make it clear, first and finally.
  5. What's holding it together? Have you used something to keep us interested throughout? That might be a metaphor or analogy that winds all the way through...an anecdote that helps prove your point early and late...or some other storytelling device that makes it easier, even interesting or fun for your reader to follow along. I found a metaphor that worked for this initiative, illustrating its risk-taking and results, and wove it throughout so the approach made a bit more sense, faster.
The assignment was another reminder of the value of these five factors, since most of them were missing from the draft. You'll do much better if you plan them into your op-ed from the beginning. If they're missing, you may have a draft, but you'll have much more trouble getting it published. For more tips right from the source, check out Op-Ed and You, a useful article from the New York Times on what it's looking for in your draft.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Bart Everson)