Using the right words matters – a lesson for companies big and little

Last week one of the juniors at work said, “What’s SEO?”

Bless his little heart. He’s in his first year of journalism and they haven’t covered search engine optimisation yet. If you don’t know what it means either, it basically means using the right words so that people can find the content they want easily, in the place they expect it to be.

Here’s my case study on why using the right words is important for businesses big and small.

Last week for work I was researching which service station chains had environmental repair programs, community support programs or sponsored worthy charitable causes. (These articles coming soon to an interwebs near you.)

Most of the chains I researched made that information really easy to find: “Environment”, “Community partnerships”, “Sponsorships”, “Giving Back”, or even “Why you can trust Our Company not to screw up your world”.

But some of them didn’t list the information at all, or they buried it in their corporate reports under “Governance structures” or “Company policies”. Um, hello?

Imagine if I was a prospective customer instead of a journalist – they just lost themselves a sale because I couldn’t find the information I wanted.

So today’s big lesson is for everyone in a company, whether big or small. From web designers to corporate writers to CEOs:

Write for the customer.

Nobody else matters.

And even if this non-customer person does matter, you don’t write stuff for them on the public website; you put what they need into a report and give it to them in a professional package.

Otherwise, all you’re doing is causing frustration and driving potential customers away from your company. Like singing opera when your audience came to hear a musical – a similar concept in most ways, but very, very different in terms of user-friendliness.

The opera 'La Boheme', being performed at the Teatro Solis in Montevideo in August 2005. Image source: Foto te Casur, Ireland's Own

The opera ‘La Boheme’, being performed at the Teatro Solis in Montevideo in August 2005. Image source: Foto te Casur, Ireland’s Own

What are the “right words” that I mentioned? They change over time, unfortunately, so you need to always be on the ball, checking what other people in your field are up to. Regularly view your competitors’ websites and do a “spot the differences” with your own website.

This won’t be a long post about SEO or copywriting or web design. All of that is pretty boring if it’s not your passion, and you can pay someone else to do it. (I’ve done a stack of copywriting in my career so far because I love it.) I just wanted a chance to vent about companies whose websites aren’t user-friendly.

Phew.

End vent. 🙂

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2015. Re-blogging is always highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

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An ode to Terry Pratchett and the only gift a writer ever needs

Terry Pratchett.  Image source: Robin Matthews, Camera Press, via Daily Mail UK

Terry Pratchett.
Image source: Robin Matthews, Camera Press, via Daily Mail UK

One of my favourite authors of all time, prolific and gifted fantasy satire author Terry Pratchett, passed away last week. It hit me suddenly; I realised I had missed my chance. I wished I could have written to him before he moved on, to thank him for how he changed my writing, my life.

“You are a wonderful writer. Your books live in two and a half whole shelves of my largest bookcase because I enjoy rereading them so much. Thank you for your clever characters who made me think about the world differently. Thank you for your involving plots and your hilarious sense of humour, which gave me another world to live in on grey days.”

I know I’m just one fangirl of many. He’s such a famous author that I know he must get stacks of fan mail every day, from emails to postcards (“Terry, here I am at the edge of the Disc!”). By the time he died at 66 years old, he’d written 70 novels, including the 40-novel Discworld series that I loved so much.

But I still wish that I’d been able to express my gratitude to him in some small way – for me, not for him.

That day I made sure I didn’t miss out on other opportunities. I wrote two letters to authors at the publishing house where I work, whose novels are currently being copy-edited (an arduous process in which you question every word choice). I’d read the first or second drafts of their manuscripts in preparation for promoting their work and loved – simply loved – the writing and the characters. I’m not a crier, but I cried over the happy ending of one of them, sitting there at my desk in the marketing office.

So I wrote and told them, “I loved your book. It moved me greatly and I feel inspired to go out and do something about it. Your theme is one I’ve seen in real life and it thrilled me to see someone put it into words so accurately and with such real emotion.”

And I learned a big lesson.

Your encouragement is the best gift you can give a fellow writer.

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Read all about it: Write Around Queensland short story I edited and my reviews of other stories (50th post!)

Historic moment: Just realised this is the 50th post on my blog! Woohoo!
Thanks for joining me for the ride. 🙂

Maya’s signature look of excitement  Image source: Chelsea Anne Photography / Becuo Images

Maya’s signature look of excitement
Image source: Chelsea Anne Photography / Becuo Images
(http://chelseaanne.com/personal/mayas-signature-look/)

After 12 months of working and waiting for the 2014 Write Around Queensland anthology, today is the day!

You might remember that I said there would be some book reviews coming. Well, you also get to read the story that I edited in the eBook of the anthology – for free!

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Why you should listen to your editor

Grumpy Cat Image source: AP Images

Grumpy Cat
Image source: AP Images

“In the end, what makes a book valuable is not the paper it’s printed on, but the thousands of hours of work by dozens of people who are dedicated to creating the best possible reading experience for you.”
― John Green

At the publishing house where I used to work, we had one author who simply would not listen to the advice of his editors.

Ultimately, the final say in how a book is edited is up to the author. It’s their copyright; it’s their book. But the publishing house always has the option of terminating the contract if the author refuses to make required changes.

Our editors recommended very strongly that this author edit out his “purple prose”. This guy was in love with adjectives. It was a common problem in all of his previous books, too.

When this author’s book was finally published, it got reviewed in the Courier-Mail (one of Australia’s larger newspapers). Guess what. The reviewer picked up on the purple prose, too. They nailed the book, and it didn’t sell well – big surprise.

We talked to the author about it but he was convinced that it was a coincidence that everyone had picked up on the same issue and made such a big deal about it.

This is why listening to your editor is so important.

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Bad stories that are being written in the world, and how we can edit them

Delete button. How to edit truly bad stories Image source: Fonts and Fiction Blogspot

How to edit truly bad stories
Image source: Fonts and Fiction Blogspot

This post is a long one, sorry, but stick with it! I really believe this is something we need to make time for.

 

 

Recently, I was looking for inspiration for a part of my novel where one character interrupts a battle to give a passionate speech that marks the beginning of the road to peace. One of the first results when you Google “speech about peace and war” is Martin Luther King Jr.’s little-remembered 1967 speech opposing American involvement in the Vietnam War, ‘A Time to Break Silence’.

I had no idea that reading this speech would change the topic that I would blog on today.

“A time comes when silence is betrayal. In Vietnam, that time has come for us.” – Martin Luther King Jr., ‘A Time to Break Silence’, 1967

Many of you, upon reading the title of this post, assumed that I’m talking simply about my profession of editing. “I say there are bad stories being written out there, and we gonna git ‘em fixed!”

I wish I was.

In the world today, as there has been every year since the dawn of man, there are bad stories being written. By governments and individuals. By my government in Australia. By individuals who I know who think that the government is doing the right thing.

And I need to talk about it. I need to tell you about it. I need to talk about why we are writing a “bad” story and how we can edit it so that we aren’t ashamed of what we have written.

“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” – George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’ Essay

 

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When the deed is done: How to run an effective writer’s critique group

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
      — Larry L. King, WD

Once the writing is done, you should definitely pop a champagne and celebrate.

But guess what happens next?

You can either have a sucky first draft of your novel forever, or you can get stuck into editing it.

Unfortunately, almost everyone is absolutely terrible at seeing the story issues or the misspellings in their own writing, so you need a writers’ critique group (a “crit group”).

So how do you find a good group? What should you be looking for when you need someone to really dig into your work (a critiquer or “critter”)?

What should you focus on when it’s your turn to crit someone else’s work?

And what should you be aiming for when you are the one running the crit group?

I ran the Dugong Writer’s Critique Group for two years as Facilitator and served as Secretary for two years before that while it was run by our founder, Grace Dugan, author of The Silver Road (ebook available from Penguin or on Kindle from Amazon). The group ran from 2007 through 2010 and we learned many valuable lessons from the experience.

Read on for tips not just from my group, but also from BWF presenters Vision Writers Group and memoir author Claire Dunne.

Today’s post will be charmingly illustrated by the creative folk worldwide who put captions on photos of cats.

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Why editors can – and should – keep writing

Graphophobia - fear of writing. Image source: WeirdPhobia.com

Did you know this is a real thing? Woah!
Image source: WeirdPhobia.com

I recently interviewed for a position at a great publishing house (the dream job – ah!).

As the head editors were interviewing me, at one point, they said:

“So, it says here that you are also a writer?”

“Yes, absolutely; I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen. My first words were literally, ‘Book’ and ‘Read’. I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was four years old. ‘The Adventures of Freddy Fish’.”

“Wow!” said one.

“How do you do that?” asked the other.

I was surprised. “Um, I just love writing. It’s why I became an editor at all; I love reading and writing and I just want to make stories better wherever I can.”

“Wow,” said the first again. “I don’t think I could write anything anymore. Probably ever.”

“I haven’t read a book for fun in years, let alone written one.”

“Yeah, I mean, you’re reading other peoples’ writing all day, it just gets… It would be completely intimidating now to try and write something of my own. Because I know what it’s like, who’s going to be reading what I write. I’m used to sitting on this side of the desk now.”

“I don’t think I could take the rejection. Writers are very brave, I think.”

“Well, thank you,” I said.

And we moved on. Phew!

My point…

Editors are afraid to write because of their inner editors – just like normal writers. But we shouldn’t be, whether we’re a writer or an editor!

'Fear'. Image source: Kathy Coatney and Lisa Sorensen via Jean Oram via fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s blog:

Image source: Kathy Coatney and Lisa Sorensen
via Jean Oram
via fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s blog post

Whether you’re a writer or an editor, you should also be an editor and a writer. (Ooh, see what I did there?)

Writer, I really hope you’re self-editing your stuff before you show it around to people. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but you’re probably a really really poor writer. Sad face. 😦

And Editor, I really hope that you read and write as well. Otherwise, you just don’t know what it’s like for us writers. You don’t know what it took to get our babies – I mean, books – out of our heads and into the world, so you don’t treat our babies – books! (Wow, that keeps happening!) – as kindly as you could.

(Hey, if you could use the extra push, why not use NaNoWriMo to get you writing again this month? It’s fun!)

Editors in big firms and magazines don’t usually have time to write, I know, if you want to have any kind of home life and actually speak to your family once a day. You work long hours at the office and you don’t always get home for dinner. But J.K. Rowling was a waitress supporting her kids as a single mum when she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, so not having enough time is not really a good excuse.

If you want to write, you don’t have time to write; you make time to write.

For more info, the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University pointed me to this great post, ‘Who edits the editors?’ by Mark Medley, which talks about famous editors who have become published authors. Cordite Poetry Review even published a poetry collection, Editorial Intervention, entirely made up of the poems written by poetry editors.

So, in summary, writers, take a deep breath and get to that self-editing; editors, be bold and get writing again. As the great Mark Twain once said:

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

'Just Write'. Image source: Trent M Kays on Rhetorical Rumination

Image source: Trent M Kays on Rhetorical Rumination

 

 

Writers, how do you get past your fear and start editing your own work? Editors, how do you get past your fear and start writing?

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

Writing about people you know – treading the fine line

Friends Season 1 Monica and Rachel Image source: 'FRIENDS' TV show via Hello Giggles

Friends Season 1 Monica and Rachel
Image source: ‘FRIENDS’ TV show via Hello Giggles

Rachel:                Oh, and I’m sorry I said you were a cow in high school.

Monica:               That’s okay. I was a cow.

Rachel:                Yes, but I’m still sorry I said it.

– Friends, Season 1, Episode 17 “The One With Two Parts”

Disclaimer:

This post offers a broad overview of defamation law but is not intended to be read as legal advice. This is a complex legal issue that should not be taken lightly. If you have concerns about your own writing with regards to libel liability, you should seek independent legal advice.

I’ve had authors who were worried about writing about the people in their family. Memoirs are always a bit tricky like that. It’s your story, but it’s also the story of how your life was affected by them.

It’s more complicated than just which details to include and which to leave out. It becomes a question of, do you even want to represent them as themselves, or would you rather change their name, age, occupation, everything, in fact, apart from what they did for you or how they impacted on your life?

It doesn’t have to be for negative reasons. Some people really don’t want the credit. One of the writers I knew in uni wrote their own stories as novels because they didn’t want their subject to be embarrassed by how the writer looked up to them as their role model, their hero.

At the Brisbane Writers Festival, I heard a great talk by Sian Prior about her memoir, ‘Shy’, which chronicles her struggles with social anxiety. She wrote about living in the shadow of an ex of hers who was very famous. In her case, she said she didn’t need to check with him before writing about him. They had already parted ways, but more importantly, he had already written about their relationship in his own book! He’d already set the rules by not asking her before he wrote about her.

Her approach, knowing that she would uncover things about their relationship that people didn’t know, was to be rigorous about being honest. By contrast, she did check with her family about her portrayal of each of them, and they were all surprised but happy with her including them in her story.

Lots of people worry about defamation law – specifically, the written form, ‘libel’. Here’s the raw basics:

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Semantic satiation: Don’t kill your reader

Recently I was editing a novel where the author had used the “text method” of writing. I don’t mean that they included texts in their story. I mean that they wrote “dont” instead of “don’t”.

So I’ve just spent an hour straight hitting “Ctrl+F” (Find and Replace) to fix the variations of “dont” that have appeared throughout the story. I’ve literally looked at the same one word over and over, to the point where the correct word, “don’t”, doesn’t even seem like a real word anymore.

Dont.

Dont’.

Donnt.

Donut…? (Mmmmm, donuts… *immediately breaks diet*)

I was telling a well-educated friend of mine about it and he told me that this is called semantic satiation. (Not to be confused with Semantic Saturation, the progressive rock metal band.)

Semantic satiation is the proper term for when you’ve been looking at a word for so long that it loses its meaning to you and just looks weird. It happens because the neurons that are responsible for that word are temporarily worn out from overuse. But what can I do about it?

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Weird Al parody song teaches grammar – not even kidding, y’all

Weird Al just released a parody of ‘Blurred Lines’ (uh-huh, that catchy song that gets stuck in your head so easily) called ‘Word Crimes’.  In this beautiful video – using beautifully-animated flowing word graphics, I might add – he explains the basic rules of grammar that, like, everyone, like, gets wrong these days?

All I can say is:

Woohoo!

I laughed so hard I cried. And it’s all correct, as far as I can see!

Oh, Al. I’m so proud.

Teachin’ y’all how to conjugate…

 

If you can’t view this video, visit TIME Magazine’s link to it:

http://time.com/2988041/let-weird-al-teach-you-about-grammar-in-his-new-blurred-lines-parody/

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.