Squelching Fluff in Writing

Fluff in writing is fairly easy to spot. You hold your hand over the contact information for the company website, blog post, newsletter, success story–and then ask yourself two questions:

  1. How can this company help me?
  2. Do I have any reason to use this company rather than its competitor?

Does the marketing content fail to answer those questions? You are reading fluff.

The Reason for Fluff

Sometimes that fluff is generated by the company because no one on board recognizes what it is or because the company is frightened that customers won’t understand its technology if more specific information is given or because the company hasn’t settled on an audience. Sometimes the fluff is bought as a package from a content-generating company or from an extremely low-cost writer who doesn’t ask important questions or research answers.

Reality is what makes content stand out: the reality of your company, your leadership, your relationship with customers, your experience. Think of it this way: if you were hiring a new employee, would you appreciate a resume full of lyrical praise and generalities or would you prefer a resume describing experience, skills, and passion clearly detailed and supported by accomplishments? Why should your customers be any different when they are hiring you?

How to Squelch Fluff

The four easiest ways for squelching fluff in writing are:

  • Watch those adjectives. If you load your writing with adjectives like “state of the art” and “unique high-value” and “finely engineered,” you are missing the opportunity to explain why your product or service is state of the art, unique, valuable, and finely engineered. You are writing fluff that any company can duplicate, even your least skilled competitor. Throw out the adjectives and rely on verbs and nouns instead.
  • Give the details. Testimonials are wonderful if they are specific. Success stories (case studies) are even better because they show exactly how you helped a customer like the customers you hope to attract. How-to instructions are always helpful to customers. Before and after photos, videos of a project in progress, examples of how your products could be used–they all connect with your customers and distinguish you from the competition.
  • Share your perspective on your industry. Share your techniques. If they are the same techniques everyone else uses, be the first to embrace transparency. Share your passion for what you do.
  • Hire the right writer. The right writer talks with you about your goals and the future of your company; researches your industry and your competitors; grows in understanding with each writing project, no matter how far apart the projects are scheduled; and absolutely hates fluff. Whether in-house or freelance, you need a professional writer like that.

Now read through this blog post and count the number of adjectives, check for details, including how-to information, consider whether you have found out anything about my priorities and passion (no fluff!), and then decide if I’m the type of freelance writer you would want to write your company’s content. I hope to hear from you soon.

Writing for Customers Who Read English as a Second Language

Major companies often write websites in the major languages of their international customers. For smaller companies, that option is too expensive, especially if they are unfamiliar with the primary languages of their readers.

Whatever your limitations, it is possible to write in English for customers who read English as a second language.The bonus? The following techniques also help your customers whose first language is English!

  1. Limit hypenation. It’s hard enough to understand a word like “fractionation” without hyphenating it as “fraction–ation.”
  2. Respect cultural differences. Others have as much pride in their heritage as you do in yours. Remember, even “football” has different meanings here and in Europe (where it refers to “soccer”). Humor is different; use humor cautiously. You should never ever mock an accent or entire group.
  3. Limit the use of synonyms for important ideas. Those who learn English as a second language often have trouble with synonyms: “chattels” seems to mean the same thing as “assets.” On the other hand, if you switch from “assets” to “property” to “effects” to “estate,” any reader might suppose you are writing about four different items.
  4. Use short sentences and paragraphs. Short sentences and paragraphs give readers time to understand one idea before moving on to the next. Sentences should stay under 24 words and paragraphs should keep to 5 sentences maximum.Breaking up text with bullets, numbered lists, and subtitles also helps.
  5. Choose the simplest word. In Item 3 above, I originally wrote “important concepts” before choosing “important ideas.” The words mean the same in this case, but “ideas” requires less knowledge of English.I stayed with “synonyms,” however, because the synonyms for “synonym” are even more difficult.
  6. Pay attention to grammar and spelling. I was once asked by colleagues from China why English needed the articles “a,” “an,” and “the.” I offered this reason: English has many words that sound exactly the same as nouns and verbs. The articles help alert us to the difference (startup and start up, vent and vent, run and run, and so on). Correct grammar and spelling help understanding.
  7. Do not mix abbreviations and expressions from other languages. Someone struggling with English is thrown off by a sudden switch to Latin (etc., e.g.) or French (c’est la vie, c’est chic). Use “and so on,” “for example,” “that’s life,” or “it’s stylish,” at least the first time.
  8. Define acronyms. You are sure you know what FDA means–Food and Drug Administration. But it is also the abbreviation for Fuji Dream Airlines of Japan, the Forest Development Agency in India, and many other companies and ideas.

If you follow these seven rules, your marketing writing will become clearer for customers who read English as a second language–and for all your customers. Need help with clear, accurate, concise, and creative writing? Please contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

 

 

Writing the Perfect Proposal

I’ve worked on many proposals and executive summaries for industries as diverse as oil & gas and green products. I’m always impressed by the amount of information offered–and depressed by the problems.

Problems That Undermine Proposals

Two problems stand out in imperfect proposals.

The writers are so close to the product (or service) and so enthusiastic that they no longer see the proposal through the customers’ eyes. Belief in your product or service is an excellent trait and should inform any proposal. However, you yourself wouldn’t make a purchase based solely on someone else’s enthusiasms; neither will your customers. They don’t want a sales pitch; they want you to solve their problem.

Because multiple writers are assigned to a proposal, it doesn’t hang together and important information is either left out or repeated so often that it becomes annoying. Proposals take teamwork, but at some point one person should be assigned to ensure consistency, clarity, and conciseness throughout the proposal.

Characteristics of the Perfect Proposal

Your potential customer has a specific issue that you need to resolve. The perfect proposal assures the customer that you understand the problem and have a solution–one that the customer can understand quickly in easily understood terms. The perfect proposal:

  • Identifies the problem or mission of the customer.
  • Explains (in everyday words) how your particular product or service resolves the problem.
  • Focuses initially on the benefits, not the features, of the product or service.
  • Differentiates the product or service to ease the customer’s process of choosing.
  • Delivers the message clearly and efficiently, keeping overall length (including attachments and links) to a minimum.
  • Gives clear contact information, including a specific person’s name, so that the customer doesn’t have to plow through your entire company directory for someone familiar enough with the product/service to answer questions.

At TWP Marketing & Technical Communication, we have over 25 years of experience writing proposals that give customers the information they want in words that clearly differentiate the product and service while exciting the customer’s interest. We can do the same for your proposals. Contact us today.

For a Long Life, Read This…

If you want your customers to live a long life, give them something to read. A recent article in AARP’s Bulletin states that book readers have a 20% lower chance of dying than nonreaders, according to a study of over 3,600 adults.

Good writing makes for good reading, and evidently good reading makes for good living.

Blog posts, success stories, and Q&As fall easily into the “good reading” category. People love hearing about others in their same situation, and they appreciate answers to their questions about your products and services. Even a short injection of information–like my Friday #writingtips–can engage customers and, who knew?, keep them healthy.

If you have problems organizing writing resources, consider hiring a freelance writer like me to take over the writing duties for you. Afraid that I can’t possibly understand and represent your business as well as you do? Keep in mind that:

  • A professional freelance writer is your partner, not your replacement. I will work with you to make sure that everything I write has the tone, direction, and format that works best for you and your business.
  • A professional freelance writer has years of experience partnering with many different businesses, some exactly like your own. My current client roster includes manufacturers, educators, executive coaches, resume writers, and healthcare professionals. In the past, I’ve worked with many other companies, including nonprofits, banks, and clinical research organizations.
  • A professional freelance writer is passionate about communicating. That means I’ll make every effort to ensure that my words not only clearly represent what you want to say but resonate with the customers you want to reach.
  • A professional freelance writer reads and researches. If reading extends a life by 20%, I’ve earned my 20% over and over. If you run out of ideas, I will research new ones; if your customers raise questions, I’ll research answers; and if your competitors seem to have closed all the doors to interesting content, I’ll open new doors.

Contact me today at write [at] twriteplus.com and let’s get started on your writing project.

Blogs: Finding the Ideas You Didn’t Think You Had

What will I write in my blog today, this week, this month? That question can freeze anyone, preventing them from ever beginning.If you are ready to write about insights from your business or career on LinkedIn or other social media, then you need content. You need to find the ideas you didn’t think you had.

Let’s say you sell security devices, specifically locks for both home and commercial customers. Your first blog post explains what you do. But then what? Here are ten ideas for writing new blog posts:

  1. Separate and compare. Write separate blogs on home locks and on commercial locks and explain the ways each type of lock is different (or the same)–maybe they are different because the doors, quality, amount of use, or styles are different. Each difference could itself become a separate blog post.
  2. Delve into the choices. We’ve now established that home locks have certain characteristics. What choices do those characteristics create and why would a homeowner choose one over the other? Ask the same question about commercial locks in another blog post.
  3. Describe how it works. What are the mechanics of locks? What makes a lock more or less likely to fail or be picked? What is the difference between locks that use keypads and those that use physical keys?
  4. Explain the evolution. Why did home locks end up looking/working the way they do? Why do commercial locks look/work the way the do? What decisions were made long ago that affect purchases today.
  5. Explain the trends. Is artificial intelligence affecting the way people secure their doors? Are new types of materials used to build doors or buildings affecting the materials for locks?
  6. Consider the worst. What happens if someone locks themselves out of or into a room or building?  What is the correct response? What if a lock fails? Can and should locks be repaired?
  7. Enjoy the history. What types of locks were used on dungeons? Is Ali Baba’s “Open Sesame” the first Alexa-type lock? Where did the concept come from of a locked heart opening with a key?
  8. Interview a customer. Ask a customer: why they decided on a better/bigger/different lock; how did they choose their first lock; why did they come to your business for a lock; what do they want the lock to accomplish? Create a Q&A using a “virtual” customer to ask the questions customers should be asking.
  9. Provide 10 reasons. Rank locks from best to worst for certain tasks. List the reasons why someone should consider a new or different type of lock. List the top factors that contribute to lock failure and how to avoid them.
  10. Describe how to prepare for a buy. What information will a lock salesperson need about the home or business and how should the home or business owner decide whether to buy a lock from that salesperson or another?

These ten ways of finding ideas for a blog all involve sifting through information you already have but may not have realized your customers need. The ideas root deeper and deeper into very basic questions: what are locks, how are they used, and how do I know what lock to buy? But if you begin and end your posts by answering only those three questions, you are doing a disservice to yourself and your customers.

You can apply these ten categories of ideas to any business to create a year’s worth of blog posts. If you are having trouble finding ideas and writing an ongoing blog, please contact me through LinkedIn or at write at twriteplus.com.

6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Writing

Before you start writing any marketing copy, whether website content, blog post, success story, insight paper, brochure or article, you should know the answers to these questions:

1. Who are you talking to? Are you targeting the purchaser, user, or maintainer of the product or service you are selling? Does your audience have a little knowledge about your products/services or a lot (when in doubt, presume a little)?

2. Where do your customers get their information? Are they likely to be online, walking into your store, reading newspapers, or randomly searching for someone in your field? Do they attend trade shows or networking events? You want to write copy that your customers will actually see.

3. What do your customers want and what do you want to give them? Every customer arrives at your physical or e-door with a problem, whether finding out what shoes to buy or how to train operators at a nuclear energy plant. Your marketing copy must provide a solution for the customer’s problem. You have to target the problem, be able to solve it, want to solve it, and know how to communicate all that to the customer.

4. What are your resources? How much time are you prepared to spend? A regular newsletter or blog takes time; so does tweeting and maintaining a Facebook presence. Do you have enough money? Do you adequate writing or technology skills or do you need to hire someone?

5. What is your deadline? A website or proposal that is due in a month but takes four months to finish is worthless. Your marketing copy can’t start working for you until it reaches your customers.

6. Do you really need this additional marketing copy? Don’t send out a brochure because “everyone” in your field sends out brochures. Maybe customers will be more captivated by an unexpected postcard or email.

If you are having trouble defining and reaching your audience or finding the resources and time to complete writing projects, contact me. At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, our words mean business.

English the Right Way

The English language is joyful–and exasperating. It provides so many ways to say what you mean, and all of them are correct. Or in other words: No matter what you want to say, there are dozens of ways to say it right.

So here are four guidelines to help you make sure you are using English correctly:

  1. Recognize the limits of words. An engineer once asked me for a single word that meant cost-effective, high quality and efficient. No such word exists. If he tried to create one, he would be asking customers to read his mind. If you are not sure whether a word exists or you are using it properly, look it up in a dictionary. Online dictionaries are as helpful as paper ones; just make sure you rely on a dictionary and not a spell checker because spell checkers will happily let you use the wrong word, as long you spell it correctly.
  2. Follow the rules of grammar. Grammar gives writing its spine. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook is a good source. The glossary and index alone are worth the price. Do not rely on online grammar checkers. They will send you in the wrong direction; they question perfectly grammatical sentences and promote howlers like using “that” instead of “who.”
  3. Listen to your ear, and write like you talk. This is a harder rule to follow if your native language is not English. Read everything you write out loud. If it sounds stilted, pompous, long-winded and confusing, then it probably is stilted, pompous long-winded and confusing. When you talk to your customers, you use clear, familiar language that lets your excitement about your product or service shine through. Good writing is good talking. If you need help, turn to The Elements of Style by Wlliam Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. In less than 100 pages, this classic book will transform your ideas about style.
  4. Limit yourself to one or two trusted reviewers. Because English is so flexible, heated debates arise over a single comma or a single synonym. If you find yourself fighting your reviewers, then check the sources suggested above. Or find new reviewers. Writing by committee is impossible. If you must work with several authors to finish a project, place one of the authors in charge of the whole–that’s the only way to ensure consistency and clarity from page to page.

Perhaps the most important writing advice is to know when to stop revising. With the flexibility of English, you can second guess yourself into stagnation. But your website, blog post, brochure or success story can’t start working for you until you send it out.

If English is driving you (and your reviewers) crazy, you have one more resource you can count on: Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications (write at twriteplus.com). We’ll help you discover the best way to say what your customers want to hear.

 

 

A New Year’s Look at Your Website

Have you taken a gander yet at the latest in website design?

The Latest Website Design

On home pages, the content is tighter, with more visual interest.

Navigation bars are simpler, so that visitors can quickly dive into the solution they need.

Instead of wading through large blocks of text, visitors click on a photo with accompanying caption to search for more information on a specific topic. Or they listen to a video.

The website is constantly refreshed with blog posts, case studies, news releases, and insight papers.

And there are opportunities on every page for visitors to click through to the contact information.

Help for Your Website

You don’t have to adopt all these changes, but you should take a close look at your website content for wordiness, static copy, and complex navigation. You want to ensure that your website has:

  • Clear, concise, compelling, and factual content that quickly attracts and holds the interest of your audience.
  • Content organized to highlight your most important products and services while helping visitors navigate through your site.
  • Photos, videos, and other interactive elements that take full advantage of the internet’s capabilities.
  • Interviews, testimonials, and exciting insights in blog posts, success stories, press releases, and insight papers to keep your website fresh.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications

Based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, I offer the highest quality writing–with credits in Forbes, the Boston Review, Oil & Gas Journal, and other publications. I work with sole proprietors, large corporations, and anyone in between in both technical and nontechnical fields. Because I’m a freelance writer, you have the option of using me just once on a specific website project or over-and-over as the need for new content arises. Some of my clients have disappeared for years and then resurfaced with a new need–and some keep me busy every week writing blog posts, newsletters, or press releases.

Not clear what your writing needs are? I’m happy to discuss your current website and how I can help bring it to the next level. Keep ahead of the times and your competition! Contact me at write at twriteplus.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

What Comes First When You Have Too Many Great Ideas?

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is figuring out what to say first. If you dump everything you want to say into one web page or one article or one blog post, you are likely to end up with a mess that no one understands. And yet, how can you let those great ideas slip away?

The first rule of organizing any writing is that there is always another sentence, paragraph, and page. You do not need to cram everything into one opportunity. What you need is focus.

A Basic Structure for Organizing Ideas

Let’s say you run a car repair shop and want to draw in customers by performing annual car inspections.

  • First write a “thesis“–a central idea–that takes this form: You (the customer) should (do this) to get (that). In this example, the thesis states, “You should have your car inspected every year to make sure it is running properly.”
  • Next write the reasons why this thesis is true: “The inspection checks for problems with safety equipment, such as brake lights, and for violations of regulations, such as emission standards.”
  • Next write a conclusion based on the information you have given. “If your car passes inspection, you will know it is safe to operate for another year.”
  • Finally, call the readers to action. “Sign up for a car inspection today and we will give you a 20% discount.”

When you are finished, look through the content to make sure your opening sentence is as strong as it can be. Sometimes opening turns out to be buried in the conclusion–by then, you’re thought out exactly what you want to say. But this structure keeps your thoughts on track–in this case, you stay focused on car inspections.

Other Ways to Organize Content

Here are a few other ways to organize your ideas:

  • Write about three benefits/features of your product or service (Our car inspection service covers three safety concerns…). Three is usually the optimum number.
  • Create a list (10 ways to keep your car safe).
  • Set up a Q&A. Create a question (“I’m afraid to have my car inspected. What should I do?”), building up a scene that might have prompted a real customer to ask that question. Then answer it.
  • Tell a true story (“One of our customers wanted to buy a car that had no record of inspections. We suggested…”).

Get Help from TWP Marketing & Technical Communications

You have lots of great ideas for marketing content. If you find your writing wandering all over the universe and back, contact me. I’ll make sure your marketing content is always organized to show off your best ideas.

Why I Hate Online Grammar Checkers

Grammar checkers drive me crazy. Here’s the problem with online grammar checkers–and yes, I mean Grammarly also–they can’t think. When confronted with the slightest complication in a sentence, they default to “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Recently, a client used an online grammar checker on a sentence like this:

We give sales, marketing, and executive teams greater visibility into financial performance.

In context, the grammar checker insisted that “teams” needed to be a possessive: team’s or teams’. In truth, the sentence was perfectly correct as it stood. Adding an apostrophe would make it grammatically incorrect.

Grammar checkers break down over possessives and contractions. I often catch them preferring “you’re” to “your” in a statement like “what should you do if your house collapses?” They are also baffled by capitalization: the Word grammar checker insists on capitalizing company even in a sentence like “we all went to the company picnic.”

Here’s another example of grammar checker bungling:

If you are going to send someone a long email, make sure that you start by listing the topics under discussion and that you are being as concise as you possibly can.

The grammar checker objected to the word “being” because (pause for irony) it wasn’t concise enough. This client asked me to remove “being.” But if I removed it, the client would be left with the phrase “you are as concise as you possibly can.” That phrase is simply awkward; compare it to “you are as happy as you possibly can.” Clearly there is a verb missing: if “being” disappears, then the phrase has to become “you are as concise as you possibly can be.”

The grammar checker choked on the original sentence because grammar checkers do not understand subordinate clauses. They also go into tailspins over compound subjects and compound sentences. Grammar checkers make suggestions without recognizing the need for alternatives that make sense.

I long ago reached the frustrating conclusion that grammar checkers are of least use to people who seek help with their English grammar. Those individuals may write a perfect sentence only to change it to something ungrammatical in response to a grammar checkers’ whim.

Should you ignore grammar checkers entirely? Well, like the watch that stopped at 6 o’clock, grammar checkers have to be right some times. But be aware of their shortcomings and that you might benefit more from someone like me, with 20 years of freelance writing, editing, and proofreading experience and skill.

Contact me whenever grammar and grammar checkers are driving you crazy.