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Getting out of the habit of writing can lead to some ugly writing consequences. I’m not talking necessarily about the quality of what you write, but simply getting anything written at all.

write daily, coffee optional for some

write daily, coffee optional for some

I’m reminded of this because I recently rededicated myself to writing every day in the morning, before I look at email or do any other kind of work. It’s been great—I’ve made progress on my ebook, on blog posts, and on the beginnings of a novel. Yeah for me!

But I took yesterday morning off, since I was meeting with a friend for coffee on the early side, and couldn’t get there early enough to squeeze in some writing before said friend arrived.

This morning, trying to write has been one long uphill struggle. No words for the novel came, no motivation to write anything on the ebook. Finally with my hour set to expire, I decided that a short blog about how difficult today was might work. It has, to a point.

I’m not a morning person, the way that the Great Plains are not mountains. So why decide to write first thing in the morning? Despite my hatred of it, I need structure to write. Doing something creative first thing in the morning stimulates my brain in a way nothing else—even coffee—can, and sets a better tone for the day.

For several years, following Julia Cameron’s excellent advice in The Artist’s Way, I wrote morning pages—three pages longhand every morning right when I got up. (OK, I did make coffee first. I’m not a saint, you know.) While I was doing those, I also worked on a novel, short stories, even a play—and that was all in addition to my paid writing work.

Daily writing works, even if you don’t like what you’re writing. It’s nice if you like what you wrote, but you don’t need to. Usually your inner critic is picking on you, and about a month later, whatever you wrote suddenly sounds much better.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying what Tchaikovsky said about composing—it applies equally to writing: “I am at my desk at 9 o’clock every morning, and my muse has learned to be prompt.”

Jennifer Alvey is a writer and editor who is trying to make friends with mornings. She still prefers to edit in the afternoons. Have your own winning writing strategies? Drop a note to jalveyATwordsolutionsDOTbiz.

As tempting as it is, I’m not going to gun for buzzwords today. (But you can read a great post about ridding yourself of business buzzwords at QuinnCreative, if you’d like.)

avoiding the word mazeInstead, I’m highlighting five common phrases that are guaranteed to clunk up business writing, and give you some substitutes for cleaner, clearer prose.

  1. “In order to.” This one tops my personal pet peeve chart. Lawyers in particular suffer a serious addiction to this phrase, but they are not alone. It’s verbal hesitation. Get to the point, eliminate the crutch of “in order,” and simply use “to.” Instant, painless verbal de-cluttering.
  2. “Despite the fact that.” This phrase nearly always results in tortured sentence construction, as in “Despite the fact that the defendant had notice that her conduct was unwelcome, she continued asking the plaintiff out on dates.” Bleah. Instead, use “even though” or “although.” So the improved sentence would read: “Even though the defendant knew the plaintiff did not want to date her, she continued asking him out on dates.” (Bonus points if you can tell me the other problem with the first sentence.)
  3. “In connection with.” If you want to sound like a stuffy old coot, be sure to use this phrase. Otherwise, “about,” “with,” or “concerning” will do nicely instead. Be careful with “concerning,” though, if wordiness is your Achilles’ heel; “concerning” often spawns complex sentence contortions if you don’t keep a sharp eye on it.
  4. “As such.” What does this phrase mean? Seriously. It’s filler, more throat clearing, and does not advance your point. Delete it, and say what you need to say.
  5. “For the most part.”  This is a verbal hedge. Using it signals uncertainty to your audience, and most of the time, you want to sound confident and assured. So drop “for the most part.” If you must qualify, try “usually” or “typically.”

If you simply can’t write without one of these phrases, drop me a line, and I’ll gladly help you figure out the fix.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, trainer, and editor who thinks that simplifying your life includes simplifying your writing. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions.biz.

Are you afraid to use contractions in your business writing? Most of us learned along the way that contractions were acceptable in casual writing ONLY. Teachers marked down our school essays when we used isn’t or didn’t or don’t. Only in creative writing were we permitted to use non-standard grammar.

apostrophes everywhereLike so many things we learned in school, we must now unlearn this belief. For Gen Y, it’s easy; you haven’t been burdened with decades of reinforcement. But for us old Gen Xers and Boomers, it’s hard. Our knee-jerk reaction is to pick up the red pen (or font) and scribble a terse “S.O.” (spell out).

People who study linguistics, such as Wayne Danielson and Dominic Larosa, found out a decade ago that contractions enhance readability (see A New Readability Formula Based on the Stylistic Age of Novels, 33 Journal of Reading (1989), pp. 194, 196).

Even the government advocates using contractions to make writing easier to read. The Government Style Manual says

“Write as you talk” is a common rule of writing readably, and the best tool to do that is to use contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English, and using them in your writing helps them relate to your document.

Use contractions with discretion. Just as you shouldn’t bullet everything on a page, you shouldn’t make a contraction out of every possible word. Don’t use them wherever possible, but wherever they sound natural.

And, contractions feel much less stuffy. Think that’s not important? Maybe you’ll reconsider when your audience bypasses stuffiness for articles or memos they can easily digest. Using contractions to make your writing more accessible means you can still discuss difficult concepts, but with a better chance of being understood. Isn’t that the reason you wrote something in the first place? I thought so.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor and trainer who can’t imagine writing “cannot” all day long in her work. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions.biz.

I really, really, really had vowed not to post about fonts for a while. But then I saw a link to an Onion article about the 73rd Annual Fonty Awards, and just could not resist. Looks like I may have to eat my words about Helvetica.

Onion Coverage of 73rd Fonty Awards

Here’s the link. Enjoy!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, trainer and editor who may need some help with her font fixation. Suggestions can be sent to jalvey [at] wordsolutions [dot] biz.

If you are of a certain age, your first conscious exposure to fonts was probably similar to mine: an IBM Selectric typewriter that had an italic ball. Or maybe it was when you first used a Mac in college or grad school, back in the day. (Gen Y’ers might not know this, but Macs were, as Steve Jobs says, “the first computer with beautiful typography.”) Now, of course, our familiarity with fonts is mostly through Microsoft Word.

Why do fonts matter in this day and age? The same reason they’ve always mattered: readability, and emotional subtext.

Fonts profoundly affect readability in print and online, but in different ways. As anyone in need of bifocals knows, font size is important. But even more important is the font family, serif or sans serif. You know what these are, even if you’ve never consciously thought about it. Serif fonts like Times New Roman sport small decorative strokes, the non-structural details, on the ends of letter stems. For example, in the photo, the “i,” the “n” and the “t” are in various serif fonts, while the “p” and the “r” are sans serif (sans is French for “without”).

serif and sans serif examples

serif and sans serif examples

When choosing fonts for readability, you need to know whether the finished product is going to be primarily some kind of hard copy, or whether it will be viewed primarily on a screen. (We’ll get to mixed use in a moment.) If your font is difficult to read, your audience gets fed up and goes elsewhere, whether it’s to find the equivalent info or make a purchase. If your audience is stuck with you for some reason, they’ll be resentful. Not the feeling you want to generate in customers or clients.

If you’re in a print world, serif fonts are generally more readable; the added strokes help lead the eye from letter to letter. Times New Roman, Georgia, and Garamond typically are good choices for print fonts.

Sans serif fonts, on the other hand, are easier on the eye when reading from a screen. Sans serifs have a higher “x-height,” the height of the lower case x that typically governs the height of all lower case letters in a font. Larger x-heights make fonts more legible at the low resolutions found online. Also, the crisper edges of sans serifs give a higher contrast on a screen. (Ink bleeds, even on the best printers.) Tahoma is a nice, middle-of-the-road sans serif, as is Verdana. Not Comic Sans, trust me.

Fonts go in and out of fashion. That’s where the emotional subtext comes into play. Remember some of the groovy fonts used in the Seventies?  Most of them now are found only in graphic design software, unless you download and install them yourself. Times New Roman has been the leader in projecting stability for businesses for quite some time, if for no other reason than it was the default font in Microsoft Word. Many courts and professors require documents be submitted in Times New Roman.

But with Office 2007, Microsoft updated its font collection and made a new font, Calibri, the default. Calibri is a sans serif font, a nod to the prevalence of online reading. It’s more rounded than Arial or Helvetica, making it a better option for documents that might be printed out–a good option if your document will be mixed use.

A nice 2006 article on the Poynter Institute website suggests Constantia or Cambria as other alternatives for mixed use documents.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area on Feb. 23, stop by the Corcoran at 7 p.m. for a eye-opening lecture on fonts. Matthew Carter, the creator of the Verdana, Georgia, and Tahoma fonts, will be speaking.

In the meantime, you might want to give your newsletter, email, and website fonts a quick review.

Jennifer Alvey is an editor, writer and trainer with a background in both print and online media. She confesses to a slight obsession with fonts, but only changes her default font on Word once a month now. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

There are phrases that we use daily without examining them. Until someone clues us in that there might be something offensive about the phrase.

One time, a colleague told me about the phrase “in like Flynn.” I thought it meant that someone got into something–a club, school, or other kind of selective place–more easily than most. My colleague, one of those Harvard-educated lawyers, said that actually, the phrase referred to film star Errol Flynn, who certainly had quite the reputation for myriad romantic conquests. Intimate romantic conquests, if you catch my drift. (Oh, the joy of writing to appease web site blocking software.)

I was pretty horrified when she told me this. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I am a control freak about words. I want to know both the connotation and denotation of what I’m saying. Especially if there’s a judge or client or boss on the receiving end of a letter I wrote with suspect phrases in it.

It’s hard to be well read and keep current with pop culture these days. After all, you’re a busy professional. I doubt the productivity gurus would accept, “But I’m surfing to make sure I’m current on lingo, so my memos/emails/legal briefs/client letters are better.”

There’s a great website to give you a quick, well researched summary of loads of colloquial phrases: The Phrase Finder. Because the site is run by some witty Brits, it’s very heavy on British phrases. But there are plenty of phrases from across the Pond, too.

Some good ones for business and legal writers:

Phrases.org.uk also offers a free weekly email that details the origins of one phrase. I always learn something. If you’re a professional writer or just write a good deal of material that requires color and zing, you can also purchase an annual subscription to search the database. It’s £28.00 for a single user (about $40 at this writing), or £70.00 for a multi-user site license (about $100). For businesses that rely on words, that’s pretty economical. (And I don’t make any money if you sign up; I just think it’s a great resource.)

Happy phrase hunting!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor, and trainer with a background in law and business. She thinks getting your audience to read your website or marketing copy depends on colorful writing and solid information to back it up. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

I text (oh my, am I really using “text” as a verb? sigh) my 11-year old niece occasionally, plus a friend, my sisters, and my husband. Until the lines die at the Apple store for the iPhone, texting is a laborious thing for me. I use an aged Motorola phone, whose software designers should be sentenced to use their product for three more years. In short, it’s not a device that lends itself to texting.

And that is good, very good. Since texting isn’t easy on this phone, I find myself compressing wordy phrases often. Like so many lawyers, I was trained in law school and in practice to use complicated grammar and words to express complicated ideas. And it’s a habit that creeps inexorably into other writing (see what I mean?).

But texting makes me ruthless in word choice, because I don’t feel like typing one more character than I must on my craptastic phone.

I’m flirting with opening a Twitter account, so that all 37 of the people I know in the world can sign up to read my sage, delightful observations of 140 characters or less. That’s right, Twitter limits entries to 140 characters. (So you know, 140 characters takes you to roughly the end of the first sentence in this paragraph.)

This is a fantastic discipline for lawyers. You must be concise, or you’re cut off. There’s no judge who can grant you an extension. The software doesn’t care.

I’m not alone in seeing the value for writers. The Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar is all for Twittering, as she discussed in a Washington Post article about Twittering from the Democratic convention:

Sklar loves the haikulike restrictions, “posting my real-time thoughts, impressions and wisecracks without having to worry about fleshing them out for a proper blog post. Working within that 140-character limit — and still managing to get out your observation, your comment, your setup and punch line or what have you — is great training for a writer.”

For those of you who couldn’t care less about Twittering or texting, there’s a wonderful substitute called flash fiction. You don’t even need a computer for it. Flash fiction requires you to write an entire story with a set number of words, say, 100. If the class instructor is feeling generous, you might get 150 words. Few things will make you more aware of word choices. It’s an excellent way to practice Strunk & White‘s timeless edict: Eliminate needless words.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, writer, and editor who loves new technologies that actually help people get where they want to go in life. She will someday soon achieve iPhone nirvana. She can be reached at jalvey[at]wordsolutions[dot]biz.

You would think that someone who has been writing for a living for far more than a decade wouldn’t have problems with writer’s block. You would be oh-so-wrong. Writer’s block plagues writers of all ability and experience levels.

Anne Lamott explains it so well in her classic Bird by Bird:

People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they are sitting down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their neck a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But that is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.

Lawyers definitely suffer from writer’s block. The associate who says she’s having trouble finding cases, and that’s why the memo is late? Maybe so–or maybe she has been staring at her computer screen for a few moments, then running out to get coffee, going the gym, texting a friend–you name it. I’m not implying that associates are lazy. They’re scared. Scared that they will write a memo or brief that is less than perfect and brilliant. And of course, by putting it off, they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Except when, at the 11th hour, they suddenly produce something staggeringly good. How can this be? Easy. Their inner critic finally got tied up and stuck in a corner by the imminent deadline, so they were finally able to write. Nothing like a crisis to really focus the mind.

There are as many strategies for short-circuiting the inner critic as there are writers in the world. One way is to quit aiming for perfection. The stakes become too high, and you become paralyzed. Accept that you are a mere mortal, and that your draft will, in all honesty, suck. It’s OK. You really can fix it later.

As a former boss of mine used to lecture me, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” (Exactly–I’m no fan of Good to Great.) If you keep aiming for perfection, you won’t write anything because you know it won’t be as perfect as you envision–so nothing gets done. I would go a step further and suggest you not even aim for good or decent in your first drafts; just aim for some ridiculously low number of words in a file.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly the pile of usable words, sentences and paragraphs grows, once you get out of your own way.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor and recovering lawyer. She welcomes comments from recovering perfectionist writers, or those who want to be. She can be reached at jalvey[at]wordsolutions[dot]biz.

If you don’t keep up with the publishing industry, you may not know that the Washington Post recently shed a slew of its experienced copyeditors in a downsizing buyout. And I’ve been able to tell. I’ve seen many headlines for story links with bad punctuation, wrong words or, yikes! misspelled words. Or headlines that are unintelligible.

Some examples:

A link on 8/1/08 that read: Whose to Blame for Oil Prices? (“whose” is possessive, but “who’s” is a contraction for “who is”, the intended meaning here)

A photo caption on 8/1/08 about Olympic runner Usain Bolt that read “Blot Sets Record for 100 Meters”. Bonus points for this one because in the photo, Bolt’s name was prominent on his shirt.

A caption for a photo on the 7/16/08 homepage: Rose Levy Beranbaum who holds degrees in food science shows chemistry — and good pies — cannot be ignored or rushed. (lacks an appositive comma after “who”)

It’s not just the WaPo, either. Just today, I saw this headline when I signed into Yahoo!:

Magazine over featuring Obamas draws criticism (AP)

This is exactly the kind of flub that Word and other word processing programs don’t catch. When you’ve read the same text more than a couple times in the same day, you stop seeing errors, no matter how excellent your editing skills. Short turn-around times nearly always equal bloopers, in my experience.

Yet even if you have vast savannahs of time, there’s no guarantee of perfect copy, particularly if yours are the only eyes reviewing. More than once, I’ve been so grateful to have the luxury of a proofer or copyeditor who caught some whoppers, despite three others on staff who had edited the copy twice each previously. Those editors weren’t incompetent, just overburdened and constantly rushed. Sound like anyone you know?

Here’s a fun story by Gene Weingarten at the WaPo about the importance of copyeditors. See if you can find all 57 errors. If not, let me know and I’ll send you the list.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor and trainer who gets equally irritated at avoidable mistakes in copy and endless debates over which and that. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

My hat is off to William B. Chandler III, the chief judge of the Delaware Court of Chancery. He combines heavy-duty judicial opinions on high-profile corporate cases with pop culture references. His prose is engaging, and gets you reading. Put his latest opinion (on sufficient disclosures to stockholders for a proposed merger) on your bedside reading list. Here’s the intro:

World of Warcraft, the market-leading massively multiplayer online role playing game, entices millions of paying subscribers to immerse themselves in a virtual online world. These subscribers create their own characters, and through these avatars they interact with other players, develop skills, create a unique jargon, join guilds and alliances, engage in battles, and embark on quests. The game has been described as highly addictive, has had an impact on popular culture, and has made an extraordinary amount of money for Blizzard
Entertainment, a division of Vivendi Games.
In some ways, perhaps, the world of Mergers and Acquisitions is a massively multiplayer role playing game as well. Like in World of Warcraft and other games, the participants in the M&A field take on certain roles, interact in their own community, hone specialized skills, and even develop a unique, somewhat curious vernacular. One particular quest in the world of M&A is
disclosure litigation. In the instance of disclosure litigation presently pending before this Court, the world of M&A meets the World of Warcraft.

Thanks to the WSJ Law Blog for the post that alerted me to this great piece of legal writing.

Jennifer Alvey trains legal writers to have fun with their writing while getting their message across more persuasively. She hasn’t dipped her toe into World of Warcraft . . . yet. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.