Showing posts with label editing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label editing. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, June 3

The Educational Ecosystem Plays A Role In Writing Challenges

Ever wonder why high school students struggle with college writing assignments and college students seem ill prepared for business writing as they enter the workforce? Me too, even if the answer turned out not to be much of a mystery. It's surprisingly simple.

Most people struggle with writing assignments during those transitional periods (between high school to college or college and careers) because they are neither prepared nor practiced for the style, form, and function they need to succeed. It's not their fault. Most are only taught how to write for one specific ecosystem.

In high school, this means sharing and supporting opinions, providing summations, and remixing content from a variety of sources. Most of it is in a short-format essay form, under five pages, sometimes conveyed in first person, and rarely seen anywhere beyond high school with the possible exception of personal blog posts.

College demands something different. Students are more often asked to define problems and propose solutions, conduct analysis and criticize arguments, and provide some evidence of original thought that is tied to quantitative and qualitative evidence. The papers they write are significantly longer.

After graduation, the specifications change again. There is greater pressure placed on writers in the workforce to write shorter format objective-oriented communication that considers industry standards, corporate filters, and greater sensitively to the needs of an audience — a consideration that is not always present in college papers. Even more challenging, for those who enter communication, recent graduates must navigate an entirely different set of organizational models, attention-grabbing introductions, and recapping conclusions that meet an objective and have a call to action.

Educational ecosystems play a role in undermining effective communication. 

Every year, I tell students who enroll in any editing or writing class I teach about the various pupfish that populate the least likely places in Nevada. One of them, the Devils Hole pupfish, for example, only lives in Devils Hole, a geothermal pool located within a limestone cavern.

It's the smallest population of desert pupfish species in the world and it is amazingly specialized to only live in this one location. As long as they are there (and there are no substantial environmental changes), they thrive. When they are removed, not surprisingly, they die.

When it comes to writing, students are very much like pupfish. We teach them to adapt to writing for  a specific educational ecosystem for four years and then marvel at their inability to conform to a new one. We don't do this one time. We do it twice or more, without ever revealing the process behind it.

If we did, then more students would be keener on the diversity of style, structure, and form while also adhering to the consistent application of editing rules and proofreading practices. By teaching students a variety of styles, structures, and formats, they will become better practiced in the presentation of the material and, in some cases, might have more fun doing it.

What do I mean by that? What if ...

1. History students had to write an infomercial on joining the Roman Empire?

2. The next report on Sylvia Plath was written in poetic form mirroring The Bell Jar?

3. Rather than an opinion essay, students wrote a short story conveying the opinion like a moral?

4. We skip the standard problem/solution paper in favor of a presentation deck that does the same?

5. Students chose two historic figures with differing viewpoints and compose dialogue between them in the form of a podcast?

My long-time friend and colleague Ike Pigott has a fondness for saying "good writing educates and great writing elevates." He's right, which is why it is so unfortunate that great writing is becoming so scarce that people don't even know to look for it anymore. They'd rather skip a sentence for the pic.

Or maybe not. Maybe writing is just like baseball in that it relies on youth sports. The more people who have had at least some play time are much more likely to appreciate it for a lifetime. I'd like to think so because pictures tend not to stick with us as much as words that ignite our imaginations.

It's one of the primary reasons that on Friday afternoon (June 12), I'll be investing a few hours to help students and working professionals brush up on some skill sets. Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a long-standing half-day program designed to help people understand the essentials of style, usage, punctuation, and other mechanics. Hope to see you.

Wednesday, January 15

Your Writing Is Almost Never As Good As You Think.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), slightly more than one quarter of all students, grades 8 and 12, are proficient writers. The majority achieve a basic level.

Basic almost sounds acceptable until you read the definition. It is considered partial mastery and allows for spelling, grammar, usage, capitalization, and punctuation errors even if these mistakes impede the meaning of the work. Consider it poor writing, passible if the reader makes an effort.

The NAEP also asked students if writing was one of their favorite subjects. About half of the students agreed, likely believing they are proficient writers. As many university professors can attest, the average student is more confident in their ability to write than their assignments indicate. It's a false confidence that many will take with them into adulthood.

Many people think they are good writers, and some people really are good. But most aren't good writers as much as they are "better" writers. Better than what? Better than those who write poorly. How can you tell if you are a good writer? Start by asking yourself some honest questions.

Ten questions that will help you assess your writing for improvement.

1. Do you use a thesaurus to find to avoid word duplication? If you do, stop it. The only reason to use a thesaurus is to find a more accurate word. All too often, writers who lean too heavily on their thesaurus create new problems with improper substitutions. A synonym is similar and not the same.

2. Do you pay attention to where words land in relation to others? Good. Misplaced modifiers cause more writing errors than almost any other style and usage error. (e.g., While driving down the street, a tree began to fall toward the car.) Read every sentence as if it stands alone to improve it.

3. Do you understand the difference between affect and effect? Affect and effect are two of several dozen words that people misuse and confuse. There are dozens of others: who and whom, immigrant and emigrant, jibe and jive, adverse and averse, etc. If you don't know the difference, know when to look them up.

4. Do you punch up words to make your writing more exciting? I hope not. While some marketers like to drop in words like "stunning," "exciting," or "best ever," unsubstantiated superlatives are equally likely to drive customers away. Worse, too much hype can ensure a negative experience.

5. Do you know the difference between active and passive writing? Even good writers sometimes confuse passive writing with writing in the past tense. The difference between active writing and passive writing is whether the subject is doing something or an object is having something done to it.

6. Do you look for words that will make your writing sound smarter? I hope not. Smart writing doesn't require fancy words. It requires accuracy and economy of language. So you don't have to write "he stated" when you mean "he said." Said and says is fine almost 95 percent of the time.

7. Have you double checked your work for redundancies? The reason writing tight becomes the mantra of great writers is because they know that time is valuable. No one wants to waste it by having to circle around, briefly summarize, or repeat it again. Not even for $5 million dollars.

8. Do you assume that every writer develops their own style? They do to a degree, but that ought not be your first thought about style. Style simply means putting your content in an acceptable form. This post, for instance, is a conversational style that pays homage to the AP Style Guide. But there are many more forms than this one.

9. Are you such a great writer that you can bang out an article? While there are a few people in the profession who can do it, great writers wouldn't dream of it. They recognize that writing is a process, requiring at least three steps: writing, editing, and proofreading. All three are different.

10. Does your content lay around like a rug? The great show vs. tell debate deserves its own post. Suffice to say that writers who like tell vs. show have confused showing with being unnecessarily descriptive. It's not the same. Showing is about substantiation, accuracy and vividness. It's about knowing whether to write "angry man" or "he fumed," "luxurious sheets" or "Egyptian cotton."

How did those questions turn out for you?

If some of those questions stumped you or if you would like to brush up on your writing, I teach a half-day Editing & Proofreading Your Work session at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas every now and again. The next class is scheduled for Friday, January 24. It would be great to see you there if you can make it. It is especially good for students planning to take Writing For Public Relations in February.

If you can't make it, there are other options. I develop customized sessions, programs, and curriculum for select organizations upon request (schedule pending). Or, if you're an aspiring writer or independent professional, drop me a note and suggest a topic. I'll be happy to explore the subject in two directions.

Wednesday, November 2

Organizing Stories: Writing The Mushy Middle

There are hundreds of articles and blog posts that tell people how to write better. Most of them are pretty good, even if they make the work sound easier than it might be, and are overly reliant on a formula.

I poked around yesterday and found several decent ones (and most of the decent tips aren't in the top ten on search engines, but that's a different story). Here's one for blog posts. Here's one on news releases. Here's one on articles. None of them are wrong; not really. But they are all so very boring, which is probably why writers and would-be writers who apply them never seem to reach their full potential.

Maybe we can look at organizational structure differently.

All in all, stories (which includes all writing) are pretty simple animals. They have a beginning, middle, and end. And many writers, myself included, tend to tell people to think about the lead paragraph (the beginning) and the conclusion (call to action or concluding point) because they are so very important.

Well, we're right. They are so very important. But that is not to say the middle isn't important. And the more I think about it, the middle might be more important than most writers give it credit for, because it can influence the lead paragraph and often dictates if anyone will ever make it to the end.

How to structure the mushy middle and tell a better story. 

Several years ago, I was working on various news releases, articles, and advertising copy for one of the largest art events in the region. So, I was exposed to dozens of artists with different artistic styles.

One of them made these amazing wooden sculptures, animals and people cut into crude wooden branches, stumps, and driftwood. And I remember asking him how he decided what he would make on what seemed like random bits of found wood. He laughed and told me I had it all wrong.

"The wood tells me," he said. "It already knows what it wants to look like."

I think written communication is very much like that. You have to look at the entire context and have some semblance of the organizational structure, especially the middle. Most stories already know the best way they could be told, but most writers don't listen — especially those who force every one of them into the formula. (I suppose it's better than no organizational structure at all, but not really.)

It's also why I decided to call the piece the mushy middle. It's mushy because, just like the wood, it can be carved in any number of different ways. The challenge, however, is to find the best way possible.

Nine common options for writers to experiment with to make the middle work. 

• Chronological. Some stories work better in chronological order. For example, personal narratives and imaginative stories that don't concern themselves with topical constraints. The telling is as important as the content and context. Information stories are sometimes written chronologically too, especially if the writer is asking someone to do something step by step.

• Reverse Chronological. Some stories, like biographies for example, frequently work better when they start with the position someone possesses right now, and then work backwards to reveal how the person arrived at that point. Depending on the person, it's not necessarily that cut and dried but reverse chronological is a pretty good start.

• Importance. Even though they don't have to be, most news stories are written using an inverted pyramid style, sharing the most important details up front and then drifting into the remaining details. It provides readers with a big picture before adding details that might be important to the story. It works, but many writers struggle with it because they sometimes pick the wrong details to keep people reading.

• Reverse Importance. Features articles sometimes do the opposite. They might lead off with a fine detail or event before breaking into another structure, including some of those that follow. It works best when one of those fine details is something that people can relate to or feel immediately empathetic about like the example of one homeless man before breaking into a story about homeless people.

• Topical/Classification. Stories that want to share large amounts of information, like a company website or children's book (all about dogs), are generally arranged in a topical format. And while this isn't always the case, most topical structures have a pattern that flows from one point to the next. The real challenge for most writers is that they have to choose topics that naturally fit together instead of simply trying to cover all the bases.

• Spatial. Although spatial is very similar to topical, the categories are generally thought out in advance and rely on specific characteristics. A very obvious example might include motor vehicles or even hotels. Generally, when we read anything about cars, the content is broken up into interior, exterior, and engine. Hotels generally talk about property amenities, room amenities, and nearby attractions.

• Comparison-Contrast. While there are several ways to approach a comparison-contrast story, the most common is to preset various points that the writer wants to highlight while comparing two objects. It's very similar to a topical structure, except the writer might shift back and forth among the two or more objects being compared. Analogies also tend to use comparison-contrast for great effect.

• Problem-Solution. Some writers lay the foundation of a story drawing in readers to something they can all relate to, usually something annoying or even tragic, and then offering a solution to avoid the problem. There are millions of classic advertising examples that use this model. Ergo, if you are tired of "this," then maybe it's time to try "this." Personally, I love problem-solution stories that diminish the problem or don't even bother to state the problem because the problem is already understood.

• Relationship. While this structure can be more challenging for some writers, it can be extremely effective in revealing how things might work, especially in areas that involve sociology. I used it the other day to work through a bigger picture on behavior during a down economy, specifically why people might believe home value appreciation delivers a high return despite their negative feelings about the economy. But this style can be more direct too, tying together ecosystems and ancestral trees.

Those are the most common nine, but there are more structures. 

It really doesn't matter what the purpose of the story might be (blogging, advertising, journalistic, fiction, informative). All good stories eventually develop a structure, and some of the best stories develop very complex structures that weave in several smaller ones.

This column might qualify. Obviously, the bigger structure of this piece is problem-solution based. But contained within the obvious structure, you can also find: chronological, importance, topical, and relationship. Its intention is two-fold: it creates a more conversational tone and helps break up the monotony of reading (and writing) the same inverted pyrimid day after day.

It's also one of the bigger picture concepts I'm integrating into Editing & Proofreading Your Work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) this year. The session is scheduled for Friday afternoon.

Tuesday, June 8

Writing Skills: Public Trust In Education Falls Short

Harris Interactive, one of the world's leading custom market research firms, recently conducted a poll to determine how Americans feel about 16 quality of life issues across the country. What was especially striking to me was that colleges and universities ranked high (65 percent), but the public school systems ranked low (32 percent).

Keeping in mind that SAT and ACT scores are not meant to test for achievement and are generally taken only by students considering college, the public might have a case. We took a look to see how well the brightest students were performing.

Between 1990-91 and 2008-09, SAT test scores peaked between 2003-05 and then began to decline. Writing has steadily declined since 2006 across the board. Contrary, ACT scores peaked sharply in 2007, before declining again in 2008.

2009 SAT Test Scores

• National Critical Reading Average 501
• Nevada Critical Reading Average 501

• National Mathematics Average 515
• Nevada Mathematics Average 505

• National Writing Average 493
• Nevada Writing Average 479

2009 ACT Test Scores

• National English 20.6
• Nevada English 20.5

• National Math 21.0
• Nevada Math 21.4

• National Reading 21.4
• Nevada Reading 22.0

• National Science 20.9
• Nevada Science 21

Specific to my state, Nevada has consistently dropped in SAT performance, with 42 percent of the students taking the test last year. And while it scored 21.5 on the ACT, only 30 percent of students took the test. This represents a relatively low percentage of college bound students, especially when compared to some states where up to 70 of students test.

Is The State by State Public School System Broken?

Some people think so. In fact, the public school systems rank low enough in public opinion that national initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, are working toward standardizing the educational system on a national level on a voluntary state-by-state basis. I'm not writing about this in depth today. It's a complex issue. At a glance, I can say I had no issues with the recommended literature.

More to the point, people in Nevada clearly feel the school system is broken, particularly in Clark County. And from my own perspective as a parent with a child in the public school system, I've noticed the best teachers tend to deviate from the system that is currently in place. The least effective tend to adhere rigidly to the system. So do systems really work?

In addition to being a parent, I also teach a few educational outreach classes part time at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In most university settings, teachers are generally free to teach the subject matter any way they would like. And from what the students tell me, the educational process is hit and miss as a result. Some teachers lend nothing to the experience. So maybe the real problem is the teachers?

Modern Solutions For Teaching Education.

It seems to me, much like any communication program, you need to balance educational goals and needs. You need a solid system; but you also need teachers that know when to deviate or supplement that system based on the needs of each class.

This Saturday, I will be teaching a half-day program on "Editing and Proofreading Your Work." The class is designed to improve clarity, consistency, and correct usage in your personal, literary, commercial, or business writing. The class was constructed from scratch, but I deviate from the material every year based on in-class feedback. The result is a program that never repeats.

It seems to me that the structure of the class works much the same way modern education works best. While much of the foundation is built upon grammar basics, the class is adapted toward communication, integrating the Associated Press Stylebook and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (among others).

For example, given the limited time I have with students, I might mention subordinate clauses, independent clauses, antecedents, etc. in passing. But that is not the focus of the class. I really want students to be able to apply the instruction on a daily basis by thinking about the sentences they write. Memorizing terminology or rote memorizing rules tends to be less effective than learning to analyze a single sentence for clarity and by exercising critical thinking skills.

Over the years, however, I found something else. Students that learn to apply the examples tend to learn the grammatical terms anyway. So, it allows the students, especially those that lack proficiency in writing, to learn by application as opposed to memorization.

In other words, if this was a class in a public school system, they would first learn to write better essays and then learn what an antecedent is through the application. The problem with many systems today is they attempt to do it backward, stressing the importance of the antecedent first.

Think of what we're asking student brains to do with traditional instruction. It requires us to strip a sentence of comprehension, overlay unrelated semi-memorized terminology, reconstruct it, double-check with comprehension, and then repeat. Instead, I like to teach students to recognize when a sentence lacks clarity, pinpoint the problem, and correct it based on style suggestions. In the process, they learn the terms anyway.

Anyone interested in the class can register online or call 702.895.3394. You can also contact Michelle Baker if you have any questions (check the class listing for her contact information).

But, in closing, I'd rather leave people with a different thought. Public education is failing if the majority of high school students score just better than 1,000 on an SAT, and 21 on the ACT. Most colleges won't accept those scores. So we might prize our universities, but what good are they if only about 20 percent of all students can be admitted without an educational handicap? Your guess is as good as mine.

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Wednesday, August 26

Teaching Conversations: Richard Becker

Ten years ago, when I asked my longtime friend and mentor Keith Sheldon, ABC, APR, if he had any advice before I taught my first class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he chuckled and suggested I might offer him advice instead. Very funny, I had said, before refusing to accept his non-answer and asking him to reflect a bit more on the open-ended question.

"Never teach the same class twice."

I knew what he meant. After considerable years as a student, most people begin to develop a sense about various teachers, instructors, and speakers. And whereas some present material that is tried, true, and tired, the most engaging education is not all that different than social media. It's situational, adaptive, and conversational.

For all the speaking engagements that include G2E (World Gaming Expo), U.S. Small Business SCORE, Leadership Las Vegas (Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce), International Association of Business Communicators, and Regis University, I recall presenting a few common truisms with the remaining 98 percent of the class dedicated to new and adaptive content. It seems to make a difference for the audience whether they are students, working professionals, or executives, which is particularly more useful for me because I teach with the pretense that I will likely be taught something too.

"The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be." — Isaac Asimov

While the quote's conceptual construct can be attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, Asimov was right. While most businesses employ people who seem to be experts on the now with 'strategies" based on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social networks, they ought to be considering people who are prepared to guide them into the world that will be. Thinking in terms of what might be changes the entire dynamic of the questions to ask.

One of the better examples of this came from my service on the IABC Research Foundation Think Tank when some of my colleagues had proposed researching policies and procedures related to instant messages via Blackberry. I thought the idea of investing one or two years of research into Blackberry communication was pretty funny stuff (even more funny today, as social networks have since changed the entire dynamic). I suggested researching the increasing immediacy of situational communication ought to produce a more beneficial study, instead.

At the same time, the conversation taught me something. Most communicators were not prepared, and I do not believe they are prepared, for where communication will be five years from now, two years from now, or perhaps even six months from now.

Think I'm wrong? If so, don't hesitate to teach me something here or during several upcoming sessions scheduled this fall. Because the way I see it, in addition to Sheldon's truism about great teachers never teaching the same class twice, I believe another to be that good teachers always remain good students.

Nonprofit Engagement — Richard Becker

Nevada Association of Nonprofit Organizations — 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15

This session will be unique in that, rather than providing a presentation, NANO has asked for it to be developed much more like social media — as a conversation inside the Cafe by Wolfgang Puck at the Springs Preserve. The format will provide an opportunity to demonstrate a long-standing theory at Copywrite, Ink.: social media mirrors real life in how people travel, connect, and interact with each other.

The Nevada Association of Nonprofit Organizations (NANO), which is part of the National Council of Nonprofits, is dedicated to supporting area executive directors and their executive board leadership by providing education, networking, and resources.

UNLV Class Schedule — Richard Becker

Editing and Proofreading Your Work — 9 a.m. to noon, Oct. 17

The half-day session presents a revised presentation that focuses on improving clarity, consistency, and correct usage in personal and business correspondence. It includes essentials such as language, mechanics of style, spelling, and punctuation. It also includes an in-class exercise and several take-home exercises to help students refresh their writing and editing skills.

The revised session provides basics, including definitions that help distinguish proofreading from editing.

Social Media For Communication Strategy — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Nov. 6

The full-day class presents a new format and extended session with the latest case studies and applications to create a new understanding of social media as it fits within an organization's communication strategy. While the session begins with a presentation on increasing the use of online technologies to share content, opinion, insight, and experience, the full-day format allows for extended discussion and live demonstration, as it applies to public relations and human resources.

Collectively, social media shapes more opinion than all other media and has changed the communication landscape. (CEUs: .6)

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