What’s your greatest writing challenge?… Finding fresh ideas to write about? Outlining your projects? Landing good interviews with quotable sources? Editing your work, based on client feedback — or your own ruthless critique? I plan to cover these and other writerly topics here in the Worry-Free Writing® blog. I hope to nosh with my fellow writers (and reluctant writers!) on the craft of commercial writing…what keeps us up at night and gets us up in the morning, to write all over again. The blog is just starting to take shape… So please stay tuned for more. Thanks for stopping by!
Last month, my neighbors invited me to a party at a “paint bar.” It’s a brilliant concept: Combine friends with a mini painting lesson, snacks and alcoholic beverages, and voila! Everyone is a budding artist for a night. We would all paint a wintery version of Boston’s iconic Make Way for Ducklings statues, based on Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book.
Having never painted so much as a fence, the idea was thrilling … and terrifying.
What if my ducks looked like something that crawled from the sewer, rather than a family of cute yellow quackers? What if my painting was the lamest one in the class? What if? What IF?
This got me thinking about why some people hate writing so much…. Continue reading
Whoever said “If I had more time, I would have written less…” stuck a red pen through the hearts of writers for generations to come. So many words, so little time — and space!
Variations of the quote have been connected to John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. The original, though, is thought to have been written by French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal in a letter in 1657. Translated from French, it read:
“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”*
Any writer who’s bumped up against a word count limit understands Pascal’s pain. But Pascal couldn’t imagine the challenges of today’s digital writers (nor that a computer programming language would be named after him in the late 1960s — but no room for that here).
Today’s writers must craft tight copy for webpages being viewed by people on smartphones. We’re communicating via brief Facebook updates and 140-character Tweets. Web articles must be chunked out for easy scanning across multiple pages. Case studies, white papers, appeal letters, essays — everything we write must be tight, to the point and persuasive. Continue reading
This week, our beloved Boston Red Sox won their third World Series championship in a decade, and their first at Fenway Park since 1918. Leading the charge was veteran slugger David Ortiz — a/k/a Big Papi.
Papi owns his game. He strides to the plate like Godzilla. He stares down every pitcher with a fierce confidence that comes from knowing that odds are, he can hit anything thrown his way. So what if he struck out his last time at bat? Minutes later he was back on the field, celebrating with younger players he’s inspired. Papi’s message: Don’t give up. Give it your best. Believe, no matter what.
One quote from Papi in Boston.com really hit home:
“We have a lot of players with heart,” Ortiz said. “We probably don’t have the talent we had in ’07 and ’04, but we have guys that are capable, stay focused, and do the little things. And when you win with that, it’s special.”
That got me thinking about being a freelance writer in a big, competitive market such as Boston.
Just heard one of my least favorite marketing expressions on the radio.
An ad for an elder law practice touted the firm’s “hundreds of years of combined experience.” Not an egregious offense, but so overused, the meaning is lost.
Any listener who wasn’t born yesterday knows better. This description doesn’t mean the practice was founded by the partners’ forbearers in the Middle Ages, nor are any of the resident attorneys 500-year-old vampires (at least I hope not).
What it literally means is if you add up all the ages of the staff, you get a number in the hundreds. Which could be said for most businesses with more than four staff out of college.
What “hundreds of years…” wants to convey is, “We have years of experience in this field and working in our community.” Or deeper, “We understand your needs, as seniors and the people who love them.” And on a practical level, “We have the knowledge and expertise to assist you and your family with retirement, extended care, and estate planning needs.”
Wouldn’t it be better to just say that? Other examples of language infractions that have irked me of late… Continue reading
As soon as news of the latest U.S. mass shooting trickled out… The national news media rushed to the scene. This time it was an elementary school in Connecticut. Over 20 shot dead, mostly children. Horrible. Unthinkable.
The media machine kicked into high gear and the images began to flow.
How much detail are we as the public entitled to know? Do we need the news media there at the scene asking traumatized children and parents, “How did that make you feel?” Do we need to see the weeping face of a father who’s just learned his child was killed in the rampage?
No. No we do not.
We’ve come to expect such callousness from the 24/7 cable news media stations. We expect them to “brand” any tragedy with a banner across the tops of our TV or computer screens, whether it’s “SUPER STORM SANDY” or “MALL SHOOTING” or “ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MURDERS.” We expect them to stay at the crime scene until every last child and parent has been asked how they felt about a deranged killer executing students and teachers. We expect them to drown us in these miserable images of sorrow.
Now it appears some of the network news stations – who used to take a “just the facts” approach to reporting the half hour of evening news – have sunk to the same level. Let’s do “special coverage” of the tragedy. Let’s put frightened children and horrified parents on screen for hours and hours. It’s about ratings, not “news you can use.” It’s certainly not about people or compassion.
To all the reporters, anchors, station managers and owners who pursue ratings, not stories, there’s a few things I need to get off my chest…. Continue reading
Two words that leave no doubt about their intended meaning. The stuff of NO TRESPASSING signs and text-message breakups. Words that get to the point and hit their target. Words that, depending on the context, can hurt.
A colleague who runs a web design and marketing business recently sent an email newsletter announcing some new service offerings. Like all conscientious email marketers, she put an opt-out link at the end of her email telling recipients how to unsubscribe. One reader who wanted to opt out took it a step further, emailing her to “Go away!”
While most of her reader feedback was positive, this one message bothered her.
I know how she feels: While praise about our work is always appreciated, negative comments seem to hit harder and reverberate longer. Either the “Go away!” writer didn’t think a real human being would read his or her email…or he or she just didn’t care. But would they say that to my colleague’s face? I like to think not.
Email, texting, and social media communications let us exchange information with just a couple clicks. OMG! LOL! We write in text message shorthand. A new generation of writers doesn’t always know the difference between formal English and Internet slang. But these immediate, concise forms of communication have a downside. Continue reading
The phone rang, and Mom’s caller ID flashed across the screen. At 89, she doesn’t mince words. “I’ve got some bad news.”
Our long-time family accountant had died suddenly in his sleep. I put down the dog’s leash, and sat down to take in the unbelievable news. Paul was an energetic, funny, sharp-as-nails CPA who owned his own accounting practice. What you’d call “on top of his game.”
Though he’d recently sold his business and had “semi retired” at 70, he’d still put in marathon hours during tax season–reassuring loyal clients like us that he’d personally handle our tax returns. No one looks forward to taxes, but Paul somehow made doing them fun. He’d chat us up, make jokes, show a sincere interest in what we’d done over the past year. We knew we were in excellent hands, and Paul would make everything OK.
I’d emailed Paul a couple months earlier to ask a tax question, and I caught him on the beach vacationing with his family. “Someone’s gotta do it,” he joked from his iPhone. But he still took time out to answer my tax question. Paul was like that. And now he was gone.
The sticky note on my monitor to call Paul for our 2013 appointment is a sad reminder of the unpredictability of life. His sudden departure is an enormous loss for so many people, both professionally and personally. Paul taught me a lot about what it means to be a real pro, someone who is dedicated to their craft and helping their customers. A few lessons learned from a great CPA…
Treat every client like they’re your best client. Paul could have started his business anywhere, yet he chose to work in the small town where he lived, and serve his local community. Paul started doing my taxes when I was right out of college, as I eked out a meager living at a local newspaper. He never made me feel less than anyone else, never blinked at my modest earnings. He always treated every question, no matter how basic, with thoughtfulness. Paul gave us that same level of attention, consideration, and service nearly 30 years later. No question was too silly, no problem too minute. Continue reading
Does writing come naturally to you? Or is stringing words together a painful process, akin to a root canal or IRS audit? For some writers, the words seem to flow so easily. For others, the dance seems less like a waltz and more like a spin in the mosh pit.
Is the ability to write well something you’re born with? Or can we all learn to write better? How?
Our guest expert Tony Castagno shares his thoughts on the subject. Tony is an accomplished professional writer who teaches Communication Science at the University of Connecticut and heads high-tech business consultants The Rowe Group (more about Tony below).
Good writers … nature or nurture? Your gut reaction, please.
Tony Castagno: I think it’s a combination of the two. I do believe being a really good writer is a talent just like being a really good piano player is a talent. But even if you’re not a talented writer by nature, by practicing and practicing and practicing, you can become a pretty adept writer. There are people who decide to learn to play the piano, and while they might not become fantastic concert pianists — they become skilled enough to be able to get hired to play. The same goes for writers. The more you write, the more you practice writing, and the more you get critiqued — the better you become.
When a new group of students walks into your classroom, can you tell who has what it takes to become a professional writer?
TC: Actually, I can. On the first day of class, I ask students to write just a couple of paragraphs about something that happened in the last few weeks. That one short assignment tells me a lot. There are always a few people who are really outstanding in their writing. They all have the basics down. They have good grammar. They have good sentence structure. They can put together sentences that follow each other logically. And they pick an interesting topic to write about — or make their topic sound interesting. Those are all necessary skills in the communications world.
What are some of the traits of good writers?
TC: First off, when they write about something, they understand what they’re talking about before they start writing about it. They can conceptualize it, sketch out an outline, and then put it down on paper. Second, they can express concepts in a language that’s appropriate for their audience, so that they don’t speak above or below their audience. They have it properly targeted. Continue reading