Friday, March 3

Writing Across Communication: An Introduction To Writing

Anyone who has ever been introduced as a writer already knows the most common question that follows. In the thirty some years I've been introduced as one, it has never changed. It's timeless.

"So, you're a writer," they say, in admiration and sometimes skepticism. "What do you write?"

"Words," I would tell them. "And on good days, sentences."

I'd immediately follow up with a litany of audience-tailored examples that could be easily understood before settling on the umbrella concept as a commercial writer (copywriter isn't readily understood by people outside advertising and marketing) and occasional journalist. Later, I turned in the nouns for stylistic adjectives that ranged from strategic and interactive to gripping and zippy. I still do at times. 

Nowadays, I'm more likely to tell people that how we define writing really depends on whom we ask. Whereas Walter Lippman might define it as an opportunity to tell the truth and shame the devil, Stephen King is more likely to say that it's "the truth inside the lie." They're both right for their craft.

Bigger than that, writing is the process by which we translate our desired perception of objective and conceptual realities into a form that others may see, adopt, and act upon. It's one of the ways we exploit our extraordinary cooperative capacity as humans — agreeing or disagreeing that certain ideas, thoughts, and concepts have greater value than the objective, physical world in which we live — even if we don't personally know the person or group of people who put the words together. 

Regardless of what "kind of writer" someone is, the fundamental core of it remains unchanged, which is why I invested some time to design a class that could provide students with an understanding of how writing could be applied across communication — disciplines such a journalism, public relations, content marketing, advertising, and multimodal integration — with tremendous impact.

Writing Across Communication: An Introduction To Writing

This deck serves as an introduction to the class as well as some of the fundamental skills that can be learned by different writing disciplines. It also introduces writers to the changes taking place within the occupation as writers are being asked to specialize and generalize at the same time. So instead of learning how to write from within the silo of one discipline, they can learn from all disciplines: 

• Editors understand organization, structure, and universal ideas. 
• Journalists know how to find and define news and source information. 
• Public relations practitioners serve both organizational and public interest. 
• Crisis communicators possess empathy while managing a crisis and bad news. 
• Content marketers are experts in developing content that has customer value. 
• Copywriters are masters at developing creative stories that speak to people. 
• Writers of the future understand non-linear content, multimodal interaction, and UX design. 

The skill sets for modern writers don't end with journalism and commercial writing. Beyond the four primary approaches to effective communication (journalism, public relations, content marketing, and advertising), writing literature can help someone become more adept at storytelling, learning poetry more masterful at alliteration, and understanding psychology more attuned with the impact we impart on audiences. 

From script to screen and everything in between, getting it all right can be profoundly rewarding. The words and, on good days, sentences written for ourselves or our organizations have the potential to reshape how people see the world in small, almost unnoticeable ways and in grand life-altering ways that have shaped the course of world events. Nothing else is so important. 

What do you think? Where are the writers of tomorrow headed in terms of skill sets and craft? Are they really destined to be replaced in part by automation? And as an aspiring or working writer, would you want to take a class like the one being taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas?

Friday, January 13

Writing Occupations Are Changing. Are You Changing With Them?

As much as 75 percent of marketers may be increasing content creation, but the average job growth rate for occupational writers isn't keeping pace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job growth for writers averaged 2 percent, with exception to some specialized fields such as technical writers.

As more and more content is produced, organizations are relying on other occupations to produce material for their communication channels, including blogs and social media, while occupational writers are simultaneously being asked to specialize while overseeing generalized content being produced by their non-occupational peers. Specifically, it's not uncommon for a writer (or communication manager) to be assigned specific projects but also serve as an editor for the organization.

Likewise, other companies are growing content while charging occupational writers with other titles, such as coordinator or manager, and then making them responsible for a broad range of advertising, marketing, and public relations tasks. Interestingly enough, however, the integrated communication specialist track hasn't taken hold as an occupation path even if it has been adopted in practice.

Writers are being asked to review content well beyond their scope. 

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for marketing managers to write news releases or for public information officers to be tasked with writing advertisements. Both tracks ought to expect a heavy load of proofreading, editing, and rewriting too as more employees, managers, and executives write content.

There isn't anything wrong with the shift in work loads, aside from obvious time famine, but it does require professionals self-assess their abilities and continually strengthen their skill sets in areas where they are less familiar. Ergo, most copywriters are not familiar with news release writing and Associated Press Style guidelines, and most journalists or public relations specialists aren't always prepared to relax their desire to write with a certain literalness. (Some even struggle with relaxed blog content.)

The outcome can be found everywhere, as advertisements become boring and marketing puff pieces attempt to masquerade as news. As they do, ironically, outcomes begin to wane with the only solution offered up by some is to double down on the investment. There is only one problem with that. More lackluster communication doesn't produce results with luster. It exposes dullness to more people.

Stop trying to wear different hats and start writing from the inside out. 

One of my biggest issues with clients and so-called brainstormers who want steal everyone else's work is that it never produces anything that elevates the conversation. It's writing from the outside in, and only contributes to the communication overload suffered by more and more consumers today.

They don't need more content. They need the right content, written in a way that meets organizational goals and best suits the medium.

This is also why I transformed Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas into Writing Across Communication. It's a better way to expose writers to different styles, formats, and techniques that used to be associated with specific fields. You see, I believe we have to start  teaching occupational writers how to write differently given we live in a world where copywriters are asked to write blog posts or white papers, public relations specialists are asked to write advertisements and 140-character tweets, and journalists are asked to be adept with social media and broadcast — all the while proofreading and editing everyone else's contributions too.

So rather than teach writers to form professional perspectives, they really need to understand the core communication components of an organization and various processes used in creating effective communication. After fundamentals, they can learn four primary approaches to effective communication: journalism, public relations, content marketing, and advertising.

While many writers likely find they are more suited to one approach over another, diversification also strengthens specialization. Even fiction writers can benefit from learning different writing approaches. Many fiction writers begin as journalists or copywriters before transitioning to the arts.

Friday, January 6

Hey Writer ... Why Do Think Your Words Are So Special Anyway?

As mind boggling as it seems, we will be exposed to more than a million words today. No, we won't see all of them, but they are there — framing webpages, breaking up social media updates, decorating walls, accompanying us to work on the horizon, and tucking us in when we go to bed.

Even those who didn't pick up a book this year — their lives are overflowing with words. In fact, this overwhelming volume of messages might even explain why the number of book readers has dipped in recent years. With as much content as people consume, voluntarily and involuntarily, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom why anyone might want to add a few thousand more.

If you write, it ought to make you think too. What makes your words so special?

It doesn't even matter what kind of writer you might be. Literary writers have the seemingly impossible task of targeting voluntary readers to add more words to their lives, which is precisely why most authors never break more than $10,000 per published novel. Content marketers and copywriters have a seemingly impossible task too.

They target otherwise involuntary readers, using interruption, distraction, and attraction as tools of the trade. But even if they are very good at it, even great at it, most of them know that the number of times a reader has to be exposed to a message before it sticks has increased from three times in the 1960s to somewhere around 300 times today.

Even if it does stick, awareness is fragile. One typpppo, intentional or not, and even the best written message suddenly evaporates as our minds are attracted more to mistakes than best intentions.

Sure, some people argue that typos have become okay. They really aren't so okay when you realize they tend to attract more attention than the message.

Sure, we can all appreciate that the quantity of communication (how much we write) and the speed of communication (how fast we are asked to write it) has certainly contributed to the diminishing rate of quality — so much so that forgiveness is given much more readily than it once was. But does that make it right?

It depends, I suppose, on our expectation of outcome. Do we want people to remember our message or our mistake? If you want them to remember your message, then the error acceptance rate is zero.

If you want people to take the time to read your work, then take more time to write it.

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There are several takeaways from the class, including a better measure of how much time — from research to layout revisions — writing projects require (even if very few have such luxury).

It also includes some fundamentals on proofreading (the final polish) the work, start to finish:

1. Read the content out loud, slowly, with special attention paid to alliteration
2. Break up the content with a ruler, allowing you to see a line instead of a page
3. Start from the bottom up and backwards, seeing each word to check spelling
4. Print the content and, if you cannot print it, then change the font size and style
5. Set the work aside for a few hours or a day between writing, editing and proofreading

If you noticed that each of these techniques is tied to tricking your brain to see the content differently, you are right. The phenomenon that makes other people's writing errors stand out is the same phenomenon that makes ours so hard to spot. It's likely related to the Troxler effect, an optical illusion where unchanging stimulus away from a fixation point will fade and disappear.

Becoming a better proofreader of our own work often means changing the stimulus so our brain doesn't fill in details that don't exist after we've fixated on the work. Conversely, readers tend to spot errors much more quickly because the error disrupts the unchanging flow of content and our brains are programmed to see disruption. Never mind that our perception of authorship is the only change.

This isn't the only area where perception affects our writing. The value we place on it is based largely on perception too, unless we invest the time it takes to elevate the reader instead of merely informing them. Why bother? An article of 750 words is .00075 percent of the words someone will see today.
 

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