Plagiarism and Creativity

In college, I had a professor who failed one of my papers because it sounded like something his favorite author had written. I asked if he had found any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that matched that author, whom I had never heard of. This was before online plagiarism checkers, and the teacher admitted he couldn’t find any duplication–the paper simply “sounded like.” This is not the definition of plagiarism.

What Plagiarism Is

Someone who plagiarizes takes another person’s work and passes it off as their own. For that to happen, the plagiarism must do more than merely sound like it might have been written by the other person; it must exactly duplicate the original work. And it has to encompass more than a mere phrase or a word or two.

You are plagiarizing if you quote from any online or print article, blog post, book, movie, or other creative work without permission and without citing the source. You are plagiarizing, for example, if you take a photo off the internet and pass it off as your own. The only exceptions are for information that is clearly marked as free to share. Do not assume that a work is in the public domain or that “public domain” frees you from citing a source: there is only one Romeo and Juliet and if you quote huge chunks of it, you should mention Shakespeare.

Whenever you give a complete attribution for a work by someone else–and there are many online sites that will explain how to do this–you are guarding against plagiarism by admitting that someone else created the content you are using. As mentioned, you may also need to ask the original creator’s or publisher’s permission first.

What Plagiarism Is Not

If you are fooling around with ideas, you don’t need to put quotes around “fooling around” as if you feared plagiarizing; it’s an overused cliché but it isn’t owned by any other person.

If you are writing for a client, as I do, then a work becomes the client’s (not yours) as soon as it is paid for and you cannot duplicate it for another client. But if no one has bought the work, it is yours to duplicate as you wish–in articles, blog posts, website content, success stores, and so on. (If you are writing for an independent publication, such as an industry magazine, make sure you understand their policies on ownership.) Generally, you need not fear plagiarizing from yourself.

It is not plagiarism if, on occasion, more than one person comes up with the same phrase. Let’s say, in the course of giving instructions to a DIY builder, you write this phrase: “Create a tight joint using glue and screws.” I can guarantee you that at least one how-to book, if not every one, contains a sentence identical to that. There are only a few ways to explain how glue and screws create a tight joint.

Creativity versus Plagiarism

These days teachers, managers, and editors can run anything you write through an online plagiarism checker to ensure that you haven’t inadvertently plagiarized from another source. That’s fine, but prevention can easily be carried too far.

Let’s suppose you write a sentence all on your own and the online computer program says that the sentence also appeared in a book someone published in 1918 that you never heard of and never read. Inadvertent repetition is part of the creative process in every field. A little simultaneous creativity isn’t necessarily plagiarism.

For example, scientists often scramble to be the first in their field because so many people are aiming for the same result and may reach it at the same time. They aren’t plagiarizing from each other (one hopes); they are merely following the same creative path to the same conclusion.

Creativity should never be manacled by slavish devotion to computer programs. You can use a computer program to find evidence of plagiarism, but never abandon common sense or devalue the results of independent thought.

By the way, that teacher who falsely accused me of plagiarism ultimately gave me an A for the course. A high standard of writing is not plagiarism, no matter how young you are.

I am proud of my ability to write marketing and technical content that is clear, consistent, concise, and creative. If you need writing like that, please contact me today.

Start Writing with Your Wow Factor

Every new product or service has a wow factor—it’s faster, smaller, more beautiful, more reliable, more precise, or greater value than the competition. Your best selling opportunity is to start writing with your wow factor. Too many companies bury that important information deep in their copy. To identify your wow factor and give it the top billing it deserves, follow these four steps:

Step 1. Make sure you know what your customer wants most. Your customer’s priorities might be quite different from yours. You may want to boast about your success at miniaturizing internal components while your customer is only interested in whether the product looks cool. Your marketing copy must speak to the customer’s priorities, even if this means ignoring your finest achievements.

Step 2. Concentrate on the specifics—they set your product or service apart. If accuracy to 5 microns is important to your customers, your text should state “accurate to 5 microns” rather than relying solely on vague adjectives like “extremely accurate.” If personal service is important, let photographs, testimonials, and case studies reveal exactly how personal your service is.

Step 3. Select your language to empower, not overwhelm, your customer. In an effort to be concise, companies sometimes cram 10 selling points into one long sentence or string of nouns (“a robust email marketing newsletter solution service”). First be clear, then concise. Educate customers slowly in everyday language; no matter how proficient customers are in their own field, they come to you for your special expertise, so share it in a way they can understand.

Step 4. Focus first on your strongest benefit. Always remember that the most powerful message you can send to a potential customer is “we can solve your problem.” When you identify a compelling problem and solution, you have your first sentence: your wow factor. Then you can detail the other benefits and features you offer. But customers can absorb only a limited amount of new information at once (some research suggests a 4-item limit). Stay well within those boundaries at the start of your marketing copy.

Are you struggling to find and write about your wow factor? Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications; I’m here to help.

A Bill of Rights for Your Reader

Sometimes I wish there were a bill of rights governing content for customers! Readers have the right to content that addresses their problem, offers a clear solution, is written logically and clearly, and explains what to do next.

You try your best. You’ve produced reams of online and paper content describing your products and services. But sheer volume isn’t enough. Here are the four biggest reasons a marketing message violates the bill of rights:

  • Nobody cares. You’re excited by your achievements. I once had a client whose entire brochure focused on her artistic philosophy and growth. But her customers weren’t interested in her personal triumphs. Their immediate concerns were, “What are you selling, what does it cost, and why should I buy it from you?”
  • It’s confusing. When you cobble content together from old content or have multiple authors writing independently, mistakes enter. For example, I often encounter both marketing and technical content where measurements shift from metric to English and back again; in this case, I recommend giving both measurements at all times: “approximately 10 feet (3 meters).” When customers receive information that’s inconsistent, outdated, or simply wrong, they begin to mistrust whatever you tell them.
  • No one understands it. Your customers expect content written in the plainest possible English, information they can understand quickly and thoroughly. One of my clients stated that “our chemical research has created an absolutely inexhaustible wealth of forms, phenomena, and possibilities.” What they meant was this: “our research has created a wealth of chemicals and new ways to use them.” If you consistently write with 4- and 5-syllable words, business jargon, acronyms, and tech speak or if you skimp on explanations because “everybody knows that,” you’re in trouble.
  • No one can find it. If you dump everything you do or provide into one huge list–or worse, one huge sentence–for the customer to sort out, the customer gives up. I remember a client who wrote a three-chapter proposal: 10 pages in the Introduction, 5 pages in the Conclusion, and 277 endless pages of actual information in the middle. Organize your content so that customers are guided directly to the information they are looking for.

When content aligns with the bill of rights, customers recognize themselves and their problems in your message. They understand that you have the solution they need and how to acquire that solution. And they don’t have to fight for the information because your writing uses everyday, straight-forward, consistent language in a format that is easy to follow.

Having trouble establishing your own bill of rights for marketing content? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. Our words mean business.

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.

7 Years of Blogging: Lessons Learned

I have been writing blog posts for various customers for over 7 years–weekly or bimonthly–and I’ve learned several important lessons about regular blogging.

Three Important Facts about Blogging

First, regular blog posts gather dedicated readers over time. They prompt comments, requests for contributions from industry organizations, and discussions on LinkedIn.

Second, blogging and the reactions to it often clarify customer expectations and what a company should be doing. It may lead to a shift in the company’s entire marketing plan or become the basis for an insight or white paper that confirms the company’s expertise.

Third, writing a great blog post is a matter of following a few basic rules:

  1. Focus on one idea at a time–there’s always an opportunity to write another post.
  2. Aim to educate, not sell.
  3. Keep the post short; but concentrate first on quality content, then size.
  4. Write with a recognizable and consistent voice.
  5. Deliver details (e.g., 10 steps to…), not vague generalities.
  6. Make sure blog posts appear regularly, whether once a week or twice a month.
  7. Recognize your blog is one tool in a marketing toolbox–not the entire box.
  8. Obey the rules of all great marketing content: concise, clear, concrete, and passionate.
  9. Take time to find an interesting title.
  10. End with a next step for readers.

How to Rescue a Faltering Blog

Are you hesitating to write a blog, are you running out of ideas, or has your blog languished, untouched, for over a month? Consider asking a professional freelance writer to take over.

One of the advantages of having a professional writer handle your blog posts–besides the savings in time and energy–is that you may be too close to your business to understand what customers find interesting and informative. What seems to you to be a boring detail or information that “everyone” knows may actually be fascinating to customers.

A professional freelance writer adapts to your comfort level: submitting ideas for approval, researching content, interviewing customers and employees, tracking the competition–whatever you need. You can review individual ideas before a post is ever written and/or approve the completed post before it appears online..

Conclusion

For a professional writer, blogs posts are interesting and fun to write, and I have written them for many businesses in fields as varied as home construction, clinical trials, executive consulting, and marketing.

Contact me if you need help setting up and maintaining your blog content; that’s what I’m here for.

10 Ways to Make Writing Easier

Professional writers love to write. But if writing is not your first career choice, you may find it slow at best and painful at worst. So here are 10 tips to make writing easier.

  1. Write first, edit last. Editing at the same time that you write is like taking a giant step back for every two steps forward. That voice in your head that keeps saying a word isn’t perfect or an idea could be expressed better–ignore it for now.
  2. Let the ideal first sentence wait. Holding out for that golden first sentence is frustrating, especially since the best opening sentence often emerges at the end, when your thoughts have coalesced. Start writing and the perfect first sentence will appear eventually.
  3. Start with the simplest structure–first to last, top 10, 3 ways to do something, or 3 reasons for taking action. Delete whatever doesn’t fit that structure. What you don’t use may become another day’s blog post or tweet. That’s a good thing.
  4. Write like you talk, because even your most sophisticated customer knows less about your product and service than you do. Share your knowledge; don’t struggle to sound like a marketing guru or subject-matter-expert. Your expertise will shine through and more important, everyone will understand your message quickly.
  5. Keep your audience in mind. Your goal is not to make yourself sound and look good; your goal is to solve a problem for your customers. Keep your eye on their problem and your solution.
  6. Know your limits. You may be able to write a 300-word blog but trying to write a 1000-word insight paper gives you an overwhelming urge to run away from home. The solution is to keep doing blogs, but wait until you can hire a professional to write insight papers. Alternatively, you may eventually be able to combine 3 or 4 of your related blogs into one long paper.
  7. Review with a fresh eye. Put away the finished piece for at least 24 hours. But remember to take it out again! The review is important.
  8. Edit, don’t destroy. Your goal is to improve what your wrote, not throw it away. Keep your attention on important fixes: Look for sentences longer than 18 words (no period, no colon), words longer than 3 syllables, strings of adjectives or adverbs, inconsistencies ($5M, $5 million), misspellings, and vague words (“on time”) when you could be specific (“within 4 days”).
  9. Listen to outside reviewers–mostly. Ask only one or two people to review and ask them to concentrate on errors or confusion in the content; don’t start debates over synonyms or serial commas. But pay attention to what they say. If you refuse to listen to your reviewers, find new reviewers you will listen to.
  10. Know when to stop. Your marketing copy starts working for you when you send it out into the real world. Words can always be edited after they’ve had a chance to make an impact. Give them a chance to start.

What approaches have you found helpful in easing the pain of writing? Please share them. And if you want totally painless writing, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, where our words mean business.

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.

 

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.

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.