Writing Well When English Is Your Second Language

If you are a writer for whom English is a second language, you probably have several advantages over native-English speakers. You may be more likely to write with short sentences, short paragraphs, and everyday words–these are choices that more people should make.

But you may also face writing challenges in these four areas:

  • Sentence construction. Many constructions that are acceptable in other languages–for example, putting a verb at the end of a sentence–are uncommon in English. Some constructions used in British English (for example, “Well done, you!”) sound odd to US ears.
  • Spelling. US English has borrowed words from many countries, yet rejected their original spelling (confidant/confidante or colour/color). Homophones are common: vein/vane/vain and they’re/their. Another problem arises with close spellings, such as effect/affect and compliment/complement.
  • Contractions. US writing includes lots of contractions, even in formal situations. Some contractions can be especially challenging: “I’d” could mean “I had” or “I would” or “I should,” depending on context.
  • Verb choice. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about gender when using English verbs. The bad news is that it is very easy to get tangled up in participles, gerunds, verb/noun agreement, and whether the past participle of lay is lain or laid (laid is correct).
  • Local differences. You probably know that US football is not soccer, but you may not know about US nonsmoking laws, wildly different climates from East Coast to West, or other legal, cultural, and geographic differences. In addition, every country has sensitive topics; failing to navigate them can detract from the message you intended to send.

Are you concerned that your message is being lost among problems with US or British sentence construction, spelling, contractions, verb choice, and cultural differences? Consider asking a professional, native English writer to review your written materials.

In the course of my career, I have helped individuals and companies from China, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Britain write in standard and idiomatic US English. I would be delighted to help you. Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

Insight Papers: Is Your Expertise Going to Waste?

Insight papers or white papers are a perfect way to present your expertise to current and future clients and customers. They are also a way to develop a deeper understanding of your own business and consolidate your marketing focus.

A true insight paper requires more than writing down everything you have learned in your career. It should present a new perspective on a current industry problem; information that has not been gathered in one place before; and support for a stance.

Here are five steps toward building an insight paper:

  1. Research the current trend(s) in your industry. For example, if you are a kitchen designer, you might want to research the use of color, metallic, and engineered surfaces.
  2. Ask your clients and experts in your field about their experiences with that trend. Most people are happy to be cited in an insight paper, but treat their comments with respect whether or not they agree with your preconceptions.
  3. Research the topic of your insight paper. For example, if you are a manufacturer, you might research statistics on how just in time manufacturing has affected innovation in your industry.
  4. Take a stance–one you believe in. For example, if you are an executive coach, you might argue that some team building exercises alienate employees instead of inspiring them.
  5. Make it interesting. No one wants to read two thousand (and more) words of statistics or a lecture on what you believe. Use quotes, stories, illustrations, and even humor to make your point.

One of the easiest ways to construct an insight paper is to create it from your own blog posts or other marketing collateral. But remember that an insight paper must go beyond a reiteration of your own thoughts: it must be substantiated with quotes from experts, statistics, and stories about real experiences. A well-constructed insight paper is far more valuable as a source of future blog posts and marketing collateral.

One of the advantages of your research is the insight it will give you into your business. Are you taking advantage of recent trends, marketing to the concerns of your customers, and developing solutions that meet their needs and set you apart from your competition?

You might decide to self-publish your insight paper on your website; provide a hard copy to potential clients; email it to past customers to remind them of your expertise; or submit it to industry magazines. It can serve to generate qualified leads, when people are interested enough to leave their contact information in return for the insight paper.

If writing an insight paper feels like a momentous task, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. You’ll be delighted with how efficiently an insight paper can be written and delighted with the results.

10 Questions for Your Freelance Writer

Here are 10 questions to ask a freelance writer before you start a project–and the reasons why those questions are important.

  1. What is your native language? You want a writer whose first language is the same as your audience’s to avoid cultural, idiomatic, and other missteps.
  2. How long have you been a freelance writer? You want a professional freelance writer with a track record who won’t abandon you the moment a “real” job comes along.
  3. What software do you use? Every freelance writer should be expert at Word and Acrobat (the editing version, not the reader). In addition, you may need expertise in FrameMaker, Excel, etc.
  4. What is your process? Find out if the writer charges separately for multiple iterations and for nudging to get a response to a question.
  5. Do you travel? Some freelance writers are willing to go to your site; others prefer telecommuting only.
  6. Do you have samples? The samples should show you the freelance writer’s style and whether it will align with your goals. They also are proof that the writer has completed assignments successfully in the past.
  7. Have you worked in this industry before? Lack of experience in your specific industry may or may not be a deal breaker; breadth of experience in your type of project (blog post, website copy, case study, etc.) may be more important.
  8. What are your typical prices and what is your turn-around time? Often a freelance writer cannot answer these questions without a better idea of your project–but do find out if the writer charges an hourly or project rate. Usually, a project rate is better for you.Also share your deadline and find out if it’s feasible.
  9. How do you want to be paid? Some freelance writers take credit cards; some don’t. For a long project, you may be asked to pay at milestones or at the end of each month.
  10. Do you offer any services aside from writing? Don’t assume that “writing” includes interviewing, graphic design, public relations, publishing, or proofreading. Ask if you have a specific need.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications is a sole-proprietorship that offers writing, editing, and proofreading services to a wide variety of industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, consulting, and energy. For nearly 20 years, I have written blog posts, website copy, case studies, user manuals, insight papers, and more. Please contact me if you have questions or want to discuss a project. I welcome inquiries.

Grammar: When Good Copy Goes Bad

Mistakes in grammar pass by many a writer’s radar but they can cause huge problems with marketing copy.

For example, see if you can spot the error in this sentence: “The operations team reported an upward trend in efficiency, training, productivity, morale, failure rates, and innovation.”  An “upward trend” in failure rates would mean that the rates increased, not exactly something to boast about. The writer could fix this problem by changing “failure rates” to “operating life” or by starting another sentence with information about downward trends.

Many problems with grammar come from relying on the grammar checker that comes with Word. That grammar checker seems to hate the word “who,” leading to a proliferation of sentences where people are referred to as things: “The engineers that are responsible for this innovation….” ought to be “The engineers who are responsible for this innovation.” But try telling that to Word.

Common mistakes in grammar include random changes in verb tense from past to present and back again, indecision about whether a company should refer to itself as “we” or “it,” lists that change in midstream from phrases to whole sentences, and lack of agreement between noun and verb.

Why is bad grammar a problem?

  • First, as shown in our initial example, it can send the exactly wrong message to your readers.
  • Second, bad grammar is one of the markers for online scams, according to the founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911. You don’t want your message to be tagged as spam.
  • Third, bad grammar sounds unprofessional. Yes, the misuse of “that” for “who” is so common now that most people will accept it; but it still sounds bad (or it ought to!) and interrupts the smooth flow of your message.
  • Fourth, more and more companies are international. Your readers who speak English as a second language (and any translation software they use) will struggle needlessly if your English is grammatically wrong.
  • Finally, how can your readers trust the quality of your products and services if you can’t even describe them in standard English?

If you aren’t confident in your grammar, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to review and edit your marketing or technical writing. Make sure your message goes out the way you intended.

How Can I Focus My Website?

Q. You often say that the best marketing message for customers is: I can solve your problem. But how do I figure out what a customer’s problem is? How do I focus my website’s marketing message for a customer I never talk to?

A. You have a point: If you had a storefront, you would know a customer’s problem right way–you would walk up to the customer and ask, “How can I help you?”

In a way, your website needs to do the same thing.

When you started your business, you must have identified some need in the community or industry that your business would fill. Whether that need is for shoes with velcro fasteners or software to fly a drone, your marketing message should concentrate on the specific types of customer who have the exact need you are aiming to fill. You can not reach “everyone.” Whether by walking in your physical store or by searching online, most customers will self-select based on the problem they believe you can solve. Your website should focus on those customers and your solution.

Are you wondering whether your customer’s needs have changed? Your website’s “contact us” page should allow customers to email or call with questions. By keeping track of those questions, you’ll have a good handle on what your customers are looking for and whether your website and mission are meeting their needs.

Q. My company offers lots of products and services and we’re great at all of them. How do I know what marketing message I should focus on?

A. Let your customers help you decide. First, as explained above, you should ask yourself what what problems your customers need you to solve. Your marketing message should focus on providing solutions. Then ask: What solution brings you a steady income you can live with and the most satisfaction in providing? The hope is that a clear match occurs between what your customers need most and what you need most. Finally, go to the website of your favorite major retail store and study how they let customers drill down through multiple products and services. Give your customers some control over the solution they reach, and they will listen.

Do you have a question about marketing or technical writing? We’re happy to provide answers. Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, where our words mean business–and give your website just the right focus.

 

Exact Words Make for Stronger Writing

Your product is best-in-class; your projects are completed in a timely manner; your company is at the forefront of technology.

So what? Those claims can be made by anyone–by any competitor or even by a company in an entirely different field. Vague phrases tell your customers nothing. When you use exact words instead, you stand out.

Vague words come in two types: Generalities and bad grammar.

Generalities

What industry or internal standard did you meet to qualify as best-in-class; does “timely” means within days or within weeks; and what brought your company to the fore in technology? The answers to those questions are different for every company. They separate you from the pack.

In addition to stock phrases, such as best-in-class, companies often use words that sound specific, but aren’t. For example, they will say, “Our precision measurement …” or “Our expert engineering…” without explaining whether “precision” means to the inch or to 0.000035 cm or explaining what their engineers do that shows their expertise.

Facts, figures, examples, awards, case studies, testimonials: these all require exact words.

Testimonials are a special case. You never want to prod your customers into saying something they are not comfortable with. But you can ask them to relate a specific way in which you helped them or specific results they appreciated.

Bad Grammar

Vague words in marketing copy often confuse customers about who did what. For example, “We introduced the app to the marketplace once before but they ignored it.” Who is “we” and who are “they” and what “it” (the introduction, the app itself) did they ignore? Make sure all your pronouns have clear antecedents.

If you address the customer as “you” in your marketing copy, keep track of who that “you” is. For example: “I tell my customers that you should always update your virus protection software. You should take that advice, too.” In this case, the “you” in the first sentence (all current customers) is a different person from the “you” (the reader, a potential customer) in the second sentence.

When vague phrases take over, your marketing copy is harder to read and your message loses its zip. If you want to be sure you’re using the liveliest exact words possible, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’re experts at giving marketing material a memorable edge.

How Can I Organize My Thoughts?

Q. I have great ideas for blog posts. But I have so many ideas that they are jumbled in my head. I’ve written them all down, tried to put them into logical groups, and then I start writing and my thoughts fly everywhere. How can I get organized enough to write something that sticks together and makes sense?

A. In some ways, this is a great problem to have: too many ideas. But your frustration in trying to organize your thoughts is common to a lot of writers. My third grade teacher would have said: “Make an outline!” However, I hated outlines then and I hate them now. Outlines are like chess plays; you have to think far ahead and before long you are trapped by your own strategy. Instead, I favor three more organic approaches to organize thoughts.

  1. The Rule of Three. Science has shown that most people remember no more than 7 new ideas at a time. I like to stay well under that number. In this approach to organization, you first explain that you will introduce three ideas about or arguments for/against a topic; then you spend at least one paragraph on each idea/argument; and finally you wrap up by quickly reviewing what you just said and why you said it. (See the end of this blog post for a sample conclusion.)
  2. The 10 Best. This approach is based on a single list–10 best lawn mowers or 8 worst excuses for not mowing the lawn or 5 ways to prevent lawn mower injuries. You start by explaining your criteria for the list, then devote no more than 2 sentences to each of the items. You may find that each item on your list later becomes a complete blog in its own right (“Why I Love My Rider Mower”), but right now you are simply listing. Your conclusion might briefly suggest how readers make their own decision or offer a statistic or conclusion of your own.
  3. How to. This approach to organization is chronological, first to last. You are explaining how to do something, so you need to present the steps in order. Begin with the most basic step: plug in the equipment, press the on button, gather your supplies–whatever genuinely comes first. Never assume. After you finish the how-to, use it yourself to perform each of the steps as written. If your hands start doing something that is not written down, you need to revise the how-to.

By choosing one of these three approaches, you can organize your random thoughts and make sure they stick close to a single topic. If you still feel that your writing is out of control, call in a professional. Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’ll be happy to help.

What Your Freelance Writer Needs to Know

Before you hire a professional freelance writer, you want to know the writer’s experience, rates, process, and reputation. But as a professional freelance writer, I also need to know five things about you:

1. Your deadline. I want to complete your marketing or technical writing project on time–even ahead of time–but that necessitates knowing your deadline. If your deadline isn’t realistic, I’ll let you know up front. If it is flexible, I’ll provide a ballpark on when to expect a first draft or finished project.

2. Your audience. What audience are you are trying to reach with your blog, website, success story, brochure, proposal, or user manual? “Everyone” is not an answer. Your audience will differ in their knowledge, problems, resources, and so on. How will you reach them? I may have suggestions for building an audience or selecting the most efficient marketing approach.

3. Your process. Will you correspond best by email, phone, or Skype? How easy will it be to connect with the people you want me to interview? How open will you be with information? Will your reviewers start editing each other’s edits? What is your approval process?

4. Your budget. I’m not asking because I want to gouge you; I’m asking because I don’t want either of us to have a surprise at the end. I’m happy to give you estimates on the basis you prefer: project, per page, hourly.

5. Your goal. Are you trying to educate, entertain, or inform your audience? Do you intend to follow up with them or do you expect them to contact you? Where does this project fit in your overall marketing plan? Would you be open to suggestions on how to meet your goal?

If you know your deadlines, audience, process, budget, and goal, you are ready to speak to a freelance writer. If you don’t, at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, we have years of experience in helping companies just like yours figure out a solution that meets or exceeds your expectations.

That’s what a professional freelance writer does.

 

Two Fast Ways to Improve Technical Marketing

You have a high-tech product that you’re marketing to high-tech customers. So to convince those customers that this product is truly amazing, you use complicated sentences, multi-syllable words, acronyms and jargon–and you lose them.

No matter how informed your audience or how well educated, if your product is new to them, they are beginners. They need a slow introduction that focuses, not on the technology, but on the problem that technology solves, especially if it solves the problem faster, cheaper, more reliably and more easily.

Improving Technical Marketing: Simplify Your Message

For example, take this 47-word sentence: “Our product avoids the traditional approach of splitting up the DCS and power distribution system into numerous sub-contracts, which is not an optimal solution because the operating company has to operate, maintain and periodically evaluate a multitude of disparate products and subsystems over the project’s life-cycle.”

In that sentence, a very simple concept (basically, “too many cooks spoil the stew”) has been made difficult and obscure.

My suggested rewrite is 11 words shorter and a lot clearer: “Traditionally, the distributed control and power distribution systems are made up of products and subsystems from many different subcontractors. Operating, maintaining and evaluating all those different subsystems is difficult. Our product provides an efficient and cost-effective solution.”

Improving Technical Marketing: Know Your Audience

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, your customers are novices when it comes to your new product, even if they are highly experienced and educated in your field. But your customers may also be divided into end users and financial decision makers. Your end users may understand the value of your product faster and more enthusiastically than the financial decision makers.

Therefore, your technical marketing should address the concerns of both end users and financial decision makers. Research has shown that most readers can absorb at best 5 new ideas at one time. You want to keep your opening message well under that limit. Focus on no more than 3 benefits of the product, including the problem it solves for the end user and its return on investment (in productivity, increased revenue, efficiency and so on).

If your technical marketing is mired in high-tech language and doesn’t quite connect with your audience, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications is here to help. Your customers will thank you.

5 Most Dangerous Writing Mistakes

  1. Ignoring your readers. Writing that ignores the reader contains humor the reader might consider inappropriate, an overabundance of acronyms and expert terms and many more “I” statements than “you” statements. This writing mistake includes addressing people in ways that either the reader or the person referred to might consider unacceptable–for example, “a dyslexic” instead of “a person with dyslexia.”
  2. Assuming that you know what a word means. “Consensual” and “consensus” are two very different types of agreement. “Perceptive” and “preceptive” have no meanings in common. This writing mistake includes using an archaic or rare form of a word. Even if you use it correctly, your readers are unlikely to know what you are talking about.
  3. Writing really long sentences–over 34 words. The problem here is that you and your readers are likely to lose track of what you are saying. This writing mistake is compounded by sentences that contain a negative–leading to statements like “we hope we won’t have to cut employees and save everyone’s job.” Grammar checkers choke up when they try to decipher a long sentence and will give you even worse advice than they usually do.
  4. Burying your message. In newspapers, this is called burying your “lede,” the paragraph with all the most important information in the article. When your message falls deep within your story, your readers lose heart and don’t search for it. They simply stop reading.
  5. Losing focus. Research has shown that readers can retain 3 new pieces of information tops. So don’t try to cram everything you ever wanted to write into one sentence, one paragraph or one article. Determine the 3 most important points in your message and focus on those three (or fewer, if possible).

At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, our goal is clear, concise, accurate writing that grabs and keeps a reader’s attention. So if you recognize any of the writing mistakes above in your marketing or technical copy, please contact us. Our words mean business.