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.

Conquer Writer’s Block

Are you searching for a way to say what you want to say? Or are ideas crowding into your mind and fighting for primacy? Or do you have no idea what you should write about?

All of those problems are forms of writer’s block.

Here are four techniques that should help you regardless of the type and cause of your writer’s block:

  1. Talk. Pull out a chair. Pretend your best customer, the one you feel most relaxed with, is sitting in the chair and asks a question. Talk to the customer. Transcribe exactly the words that come from your mouth.
  2. Make a drawing. Either diagram what you intend to say or just doodle. If you are struggling for ideas, the act of drawing frees up the creative part of your brain. If you are overwhelmed by your ideas, a drawing shows you their logical progression from top to bottom, left to right, first to last or big to small.
  3. List all  your ideas. Once the ideas are listed, see if they fall into natural groups or overlap each other. Concentrate on one group at a time and ignore all the others. You don’t have to jam every idea into one brochure, blog, newsletter, web page, or chapter. There will always be another opportunity to write.
  4. Start writing about anything. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, flow or even relevance. Hold off on editing until after you finish writing. I guarantee that the last sentence you write will capture a golden idea.

If none of these techniques conquer your writer’s block, consider hiring a professional writer. Your marketing and technical content can’t start working for you until your customers receive it. How long do you want to wait for that moment of inspiration?

Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications and we’ll make sure your words mean business.

4 Questions before You Start Writing

You’ve heard the maxim “know thyself”? In your rush to spread the word about your products and services, you may have forgotten an equally important maxim: Know thy customer.

All writing is written for someone to read; even a private diary is written for one’s self. So here are four questions you must answer before you start writing.

  1. Whom are you writing for? Your writing takes on a different tone for the new CEO of a company searching for a coach and the homeowner who needs emergency roof repair. Be realistic: you may want to reach the top five billionaires in the world, but is there any chance they will want to purchase a billion dollars worth of your widgets? What you write depends on who your customers are. The better you know them, the better chance you will have of grabbing their attention.
  2. Where do your customers hang out? A daily tweet might go nowhere whereas a weekly blog post catches exactly the customers you want. Your salespeople might appreciate printed brochures to leave with customers after a personal contact; they might prefer e-brochures for online contacts. What you write depends on where your audience looks for you.
  3. How much tolerance do your customers have for repeated contacts? Whether you create an online or paper campaign or both (eblasts, tweets, blog posts, postcards, brochures, newsletters), at some point your customers will become annoyed rather than intrigued. Know when to stop writing.
  4. Will they be interested in what you have to write? Customers are looking for a solution to a problem, whether it is how to etch semiconductors or where to find a prom dress. Details of your company philosophy and history, a laundry list of products and services that are irrelevant to their problem or a recap of your last sales campaign–that can wait. What you write depends on what your customers want to hear.

Are you having trouble figuring out who you are writing for, where they hang out, how much you should write and what you should write about? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications and we’ll help you find the answers.

 

Write for Today–and Make It Positive

If you want your marketing material to have a long life, then write for today. Let’s say your website or brochure talks about what you will do next year or what product or service is coming. Then the moment that future arrives–next year or whenever the product or service becomes available–your website content or brochure is outdated and must be rewritten.

The simple past and present are also much easier to both write and understand. People who write in the future tend to tangle themselves into weird sentences: “We would have been offering this service earlier if we had known how many clients might have been interested should we have offered it.” Those convoluted sentences make it difficult for customers to know what you are driving at.

Moreover, writing in the future leaves you vulnerable to negatives. If you spend too much time on all the bad things that could happen (in the future) if customers do not use your product or service, you are likely to turn them off.

Everyone likes to feel they have a choice. Fear tactics (“if you don’t use our product, your house will fall down and your teeth will fall out”) lose their power pretty quickly. People hate to be badgered and would rather deny the problem. Hope has a much longer shelf life.

So the better, present tense, positive message is: Our product keeps your house structurally sound and your teeth healthy.

When you rewrite sentences to emphasize the present and the positive, you guide your readers to immediate, positive action. Every salesman knows that you want your customers to be thinking “yes” long before you ask them for the buy.

Finding the positive words to motivate customers now is one of the specialties of TWP Marketing and Technical Communications. Contact us today.