About sharon

As the founder and head of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, Sharon Bailly has more than 25 years of experience as a professional business and technical writer for large and small companies and nonprofits throughout the U.S. Her articles on writing have appeared in Minority Engineer, Women’s Business, New Hampshire Business Review and other publications, and she has presented writing workshops at business groups, nonprofit organizations and individual company sites. TWP provides accurate, exciting and focused content for websites, blogs, brochures, newsletters, success stories, user manuals, presentations and white papers both online and on paper.

Give Me a Verb

When you write with nouns and verbs–instead of adjectives and adverbs–you write with power. But all too often, writers undermine their verbs, adding empty phrases or using weaker forms of the verb.

Strong verbs are exciting–strong verbs drive excitement. Want to score big with your verbs? Watch out for:

  • The “ing” constructions. Instead of “we are currently manufacturing…,” try “we currently manufacture….”
  • Passive constructions. Instead of “our precision tools are designed by expert engineers,” try “our expert engineers design precision tools.”
  • Noun phrases. Instead of “we are the developers of the first…,” try “we developed the first…”
  • The word “of.” Instead of “we are engaged in the research of…,” try “we research….”
  • Verb tenses you don’t need. Instead of “your process will have been transformed…,” try “your process will be transform.”
  • “There are” constructions. Instead of “there are three ways to solve this problem…” try “this problem has three solutions….”
  • Negatives. Instead of “never buy a car without test driving it first,” try “always test drive a car before buying it.”

Now a word of caution: When you edit for stronger verbs (or any other improvement), re-read the entire sentence to make sure it still makes sense. You might change “we are currently manufacturing small containers” and find that the sentence now reads “we are currently manufacture small containers”–with the “are” left in by mistake.

This problem occurs so frequently that 250 years ago, Samuel Johnson (the writer of the first well-known English dictionary) stated, “The making [of] a partial change, without due regard to the general structure of the sentence, is a very frequent cause of error in composition.” Or as we might say now: Don’t trade your weak verbs for a nonsense sentence!

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your marketing message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

Writing with Less Stress: Three Tips

In business, you are expected to write. The act of writing can be very stressful. Simply organizing your thoughts takes time. Then you worry if readers will ignore or misunderstand what you send them. If the first message goes wrong, you may find yourself in an endless loop of explanations. Here are four tips to reduce the stress of writing:

Don’t write, talk.

I happen to be a writing person; I stumble when I’m forced to talk spontaneously. You may very well be just the opposite–a person who shines when you talk. In any case, these days we spend way too much time texting and emailing each other and not enough talking directly. When you are face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice with another person, miscommunications are less likely and can be easily cleared up. Surprise someone: talk to them.

Consider your readers.

Talking isn’t always possible, especially if you are reaching out to several people simultaneously. But remember that everyone’s first question is, “What’s in it for me?” Always begin with benefits or results, then explanations. In a long email, proposal, or report, give a list of contents–and then stick to that list–so that your readers know what to expect and have some idea what sections apply most to their particular interest. If you want the answer to a question, make sure you include a question mark somewhere early on; if you are responding to a question, give the answer first and then explain how you got there.

Be brief and specific.

For example, in the executive summary of a proposal, readers are interested first in the solutions to their problem, and then in learning the details. Vague words like “great,” “wonderful,” “state-of-the-art,” and “proactive” merely take up space and your reader’s time. Readers know what they want to know--do you?

If you are frustrated by the results you get from your marketing collateral, proposals, letters, and emails, review them to decide whether you might be better off with a face-to-face meeting; whether you have given primacy to your customer’s interests; and whether you have written as briefly and specifically as you can.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

8 First Steps for First-Time Sole Proprietors & Freelancers

Twenty years ago, I started TWP Marketing & Technical Communications (originally called TechWritePlus) as a leap of faith–no business plan, no board, and no idea of the need in the community. I had one client and after a long while I had two. Gradually, I learned what to do and what not to do.

Are you thinking now about starting your own freelance, consulting, or sole-proprietor business? Let me share what I learned:

  • You need a clear idea of what you offer–not a vision or mission statement, but a 1 minute, 2 sentence summary of what you offer and why it is important to other people. If you don’t know, no one else will.
  • You have to commit. Revise your LinkedIn profile so that it features your accomplishments and experience that make you a great freelancer or consultant. Build your website around your business. If you are simply running in place until a full-time offer comes along, people will notice and you will never build loyal clients/customers.
  • Luddite is good. Yes, you need a website and a LinkedIn profile, but you also have to take advantage of off-line, real-life opportunities like speaking before the Chamber of Commerce or joining local networking groups or writing a press release (or even a column) for the local paper and industry magazine. You want to get your name out? Get yourself out.
  • Think about pricing. Pricing can change as your business grows but do not start by undervaluing yourself in relation to everyone else. Think about pricing in terms of your experience and your profit, not your speed or big heart. What do you need to live on? I began by charging by the hour; moved to charging by the project; and now charge by the word, except in the case of very small projects.
  • Consider your customer/client. Always, always, over deliver–for deadlines especially. Always be calm and reasonable but do not deal with unreasonable people. They are the ones who will end up not paying or delaying payment or never referring you and they raise your stress level. Not worth it. But the ones who appreciate you? Do everything for them! You might even consider a “preferred customer discount” once in a while.
  • Ask for referrals and make the most of testimonials. Let customers know their referrals are welcome (I mention that at the bottom of my invoices) and thank them when they come through. If a customer sends you a particularly nice thank you, ask if you can post it on your website or online profile or use it in your marketing material. Do not hesitate to ask for testimonials–or even a case study interview–when a project has gone well but remember to always make sure the customer comes off looking good. They were smart enough to hire you, right?
  • Get help. You are great at what you do but are you also great at bookkeeping, writing, motivating, organizing, publicizing, and so on? All of those tasks are available from other freelancers, consultants, and sole-proprietors and sometimes for free (for example, your local Small Business Association). Consider whose help you need most, and add them one-by-one to your team when you can afford it. Don’t fail for lack of help.
  • Act but not recklessly–and don’t give up too soon. Don’t delay because of your fears. However, make sure you have a year’s income to keep you going. If you or your family cannot risk that one year of income, definitely rethink. Most businesses do not take off in less than 6 months and most need the full year. Once you are past that point, you should re-evaluate–but if you decide to go for it, let yourself reach that point.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

The Success of Success Stories

A case study or success story not only raises the appeal of a website but also opens up other ways of promoting your business. Too many business owners rely, in vain, on their customers (or clients) to provide testimonials, when most would be delighted to tell their stories if only they were asked.

As your business returns to partial or full operation, now is the time to remind your customers, your employees, and yourself of your past successes.

The best case studies or success stories always:

  • Present the customer’s perspective on the problem. The problem you believe you solved may not be the problem that drove the customer to you and may not be the reason why the customer most appreciated your efforts. But that is the problem your future customers will relate to–and the one you should focus upon.
  • Show both you and the customer to advantage. After all, the customer had the intelligence and initiative to call you–and specifically you–to solve a problem.
  • Explain what you did from your point of view as well. Many testimonials fail to give a complete picture; a case study or success story fills in the missing pieces.
  • Has a plot. After all, if nothing went wrong and you did nothing to fix it, where is the story? Simply stating that you did “this thing” for “that person” isn’t a story. A story includes the who, what, why, when, and where–and most of all, the who cares?
  • Includes quotes. Direct quotes lend immediacy to the story and help you build a direct relationship to the reader.

Putting together several short case studies creates a white paper or an informational article that you can publish on your website and in industry or local magazines and newspapers. Testimonials drawn from the customer interview are usually more specific and more interesting than one-off testimonials because the customer has been transported back to the original situation, rather than focused solely on the results.

In earlier posts, I detailed the three steps to a great case study and explained how to conduct great client interviews. But if interviewing, contributing to, and writing success stories or case studies appears like an overwhelming task, please reach out to me. I’ll be happy to send you samples that show the excitement you can generate with successful success stories.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

The Wonders of Humor

During this pandemic, I’ve received many emails from family and friends with jokes about muddling through. I’ve listened to funny songs about staying safe and watched hilarious videos about the difficulties of sewing a face mask for the first time. Humor often turned around a tedious and boring day. I love humor.

Here is why that humor works:

  • It includes all of us. When humor is aimed at one particular group on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, or any other grouping, and especially if it aims at belittling that group, it is not humor but attack.
  • It is good-natured. When humor aims to demean another person, especially a person with less power, it is bullying.
  • It is appropriate. Suffering can be laughed at but not at the expense of the person who is suffering.
  • It invites us to laugh at ourselves. Laugh at yourself whenever you like but think carefully before laughing at someone else if they did not invite the laughter.
  • It doesn’t need an apology. “I was only joking” is not an apology. It is the last retreat of bullying, aggressive, and clueless adults–and perfectly normal five-year-olds.

When you use humor in your writing–and you should–make sure that it fits all the criteria above. As Jerry Seinfeld says in one of his specials, people think that what he does is easy. He just gets up on a stage and says humorous things and people laugh. But he spent years finding the right combination of words that made people laugh–instead of, for example, running him out of town, tarred and feathered.

Even appropriateness, possibly the easiest criteria, can be hard to judge. I once had a client, a plumber, who wanted to fill his website home page with bathroom humor. But most people who desperately need a plumber are not in the mood for bathroom humor. If you don’t know your audience or their circumstances, be cautious.

Humor that is aimed at yourself or that plays on words is almost always safe. But if ever your humor misfires, apologize–really apologize. For humor gone wrong, it’s the only grown-up response.

Need words to engage your audience and keep them engaged? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

What Your Customers Don’t Know…And How It Helps You

I recently visited a website for a company selling beeswax candles. On one web page, the company explained how their candles were made. The information fascinated me. I’ve melted crayons to make candles and simply assumed any candle was made with the same technique. It isn’t.

The beeswax candle company made a smart move: they asked themselves what their customers might not know and supplied it. As a result, customers like me stayed on their website much longer.

If you have been telling yourself that “Everyone in the industry does it that way” or “Everyone knows that,” it may be time for a reality check: never underestimate what your customers don’t know.

  • Do your customers know information that is common in your industry? Probably not. Your customers have their own special interests, which is why they are coming to you. Share your knowledge, educate your customers and you’ve hooked them. 
  • Are your customers comparing you to your competitors? Most certainly. So make sure you include information on industry standards, industry regulations, awards, and baselines that you meet or exceed. Provide testimonials, before and after photos, and case studies that confirm your expertise.
  • Do your customers know what they don’t know? For example, you assume they know what you mean by “extremely precise measurements.” But in reality, there’s a big difference in precision between 0.0003 cm and 0.00003 cm. Be specific and ensure you are both working with the same data and assumptions.
  • Do your long-time, highly educated customers like intellectual challenges? Why push them? Even the most savvy customers get tired of constantly translating acronyms and industry jargon. Make it easy on your customers to understand what you are saying. The faster they read, the faster you can convert them to a sale.

Knowing what your customers don’t know–and want to know–helps you meet their desire for information and makes you stand out from the competition. Need help in figuring that out? Contact me today at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your marketing message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

Writing by Committee

I once proofread a proposal where the word “huge” was spelled throughout as “hugh.” (High marks for consistency, though.) I edited the descriptions of presentations for a major industrial conference where presenters used the same acronym for entirely different meanings over a dozen times. 

When any document is written by committee, it seems that no one is responsible to check that it actually makes sense. Basic facts change from chapter to chapter or page to page, including product and service names. Cross-references go nowhere, as everyone assumes that someone else is providing the cross-referenced content. Some writers believe their readers are knowledgeable and the rest believe their readers need detailed information–which means the actual reader is either lost or bored.

You can avert and fix the problem of writing by committee if you:

  • Create a short style manual for writers to reference. A style manual is a brief description (2 pages maximum) of format, grammar (use of the serial comma, for example), spelling, acronyms, and use of copyrighted or intellectual property.
  • Decide early on about tone and audience. Do you address the audience as “you” or “they”? Is content highly technical or relaxed (think the “for Dummies” series)? Who is your audience: executives, purchasers, installers, users? Don’t switch audiences mid-page or mid-sentence.
  • Limit the number of reviewers. Aim for a maximum of three reviewers; say, customer liaison, technical, and executive.
  • Assign one person to read the entire document. With multiple writers and reviewers, sentences become edited into nonsense, words are dropped, and even firm requests by the customer for specific information are overlooked.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. The smallest change or mistake in even a standard document can turn the rest of the document into scrap paper.

As a professional technical and marketing writer, I’m often called upon to provide a uniform voice and structure for documents that undergo writing by committee. That outside perspective not only ensures that mistakes are caught, it also helps to resolve conflict when writers re-write each other.

If your company, division, or group is used to writing by committee, please contact me.

12 Reasons for Hiring a Freelance Writer

After 20 years as a freelance writer, I have discovered 12 reasons why business owners hire a freelance writer. Regardless of the business owner’s industry, years of experience or overall marketing expertise, hiring a freelance writer addresses one or more of these concerns:

1. I don’t have the time to write.

2. I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it.

3. I need someone who isn’t full time but is dependable; will handle my writing projects when they come along; and understands my business.

4. My products or services or solutions are complicated and/or highly technical, and I need a better way to explain them to potential customers.

5. I’d like to standardize my replies to customer inquiries, my marketing collateral or cold call scripts so that my brand is clear.

6. My proposal (or report or manual) writing team needs someone to unify the content and figure out what’s missing, repetitive or contradictory.

7. My business has changed; I need a collaborator who can clarify what I should be writing now and then write it for me.

8. I’m writing a blog and I’m out of ideas for posts.

9. I need more publicity online/in print but I don’t know how to go about it.

10. I’m not detail oriented–at least, not with writing. I need someone who actually enjoys grammar and spelling.

11. My current marketing collateral sounds exactly like my competition’s; I need a way to differentiate myself.

12. I hate writing.

A professional freelance writer is adept at clear and accurate communication, organizing information, collaboration, addressing customer concerns and priorities and providing creative content.

Why would you hire a freelance writer?

If you recognize yourself in any of the top reasons for hiring a freelance writer, please contact me. At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, our words mean business.

Words That Show, Not Tell

Recently, I replaced the carpet in my downstairs with maple flooring. I had a very difficult time deciding the type of flooring (hardwood, laminate, maple, oak), until a flooring professional showed me photos of maple flooring he had installed for another home owner. Seeing the flooring in place–not just a square sample–made all the difference.

We all know the power of photography to show, not tell. But what about the power of writing to do the same thing? How do you show, not tell, in words?

  1. Don’t create bare lists. When you simply list your products and services, one after another, you are telling. That list may be important to you; but is it compelling for your customers?
  2. Do think about what your customers want. You might offer 30 different products or services but–and I cannot say this often enough–customers want to get fast to the product or service that interests them. On a website, that means easy navigation; in a brochure, that means a clear and consistent layout; in an article or blog post, that means focusing on a single problem/solution each time.
  3. Build trust. I had a budget for my new flooring. One flooring rep turned me off by giving me an outrageous price (what, he thought I didn’t research on the internet?) and then offering me a “special discount” that brought the price within reason. Games like that are a lose/lose. I paid more to work with someone I trusted.
  4. Let your current customers speak for you. Like photographs of past jobs, success stories (case studies) bring your product or service to life. Testimonials are also great; but success stories provide a larger context and everyone loves a story.
  5. Use exact words. Your writing should build a picture about you and your company that is as singular as a photograph. The more exact you are, the more that picture will truly represent you and set you apart from your competition. Everyone has “dedicated staff” but not everyone can boast: “Our dedicated staff of 15 has 300+ years of experience between them.”

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, helps large and small businesses reach out to customers and keep them engaged through clear, accurate, concise, and passionate writing. Please contact me through the TWP website or through LinkedIn.

More Words? Less Power.

There are two things that great marketing copy is not:

  • Sesquipedalian
  • A vocabulary test.

“Sesquipedalian” is one of those vocabulary test words. I could have easily chosen “wordy” or even “verbose” and made the same point. Yet, many writers of technical or marketing copy believe in using long words, no matter how obscure.

By contrast, professional writers know:

  • You can reach more readers faster with everyday language.
  • Unnecessary 4- and 5-syllable words (functionality, maximization) slow readers down even when they do understand them.
  • Clear is better than concise; if it takes 3 extra words to be perfectly clear, use them.

All writing is communication. Even the most difficult content is trying to communicate. So if “difficult” is not your priority, why make your audience work hard for what you desperately want them to know?

Small Words

I challenge you to take any marketing or technical copy and circle every word over 3 syllables. Now replace those words with words of 3 syllables or less. You will be amazed at the power your words achieve when most of your writing relies on 1- and 2-syllable words. And your readers will understand what you have to say faster, a major benefit in turning them from prospects to customers.

Short Sentences

Once you have simplified your words, you should shorten your sentences by aiming for an average of 18 words per sentence. Shorter sentences are fine; very few if any should exceed 24 words. For this purpose, a colon before a list counts the same as a period–just make sure you are using the colon correctly.

Short Paragraphs

Now that you have small words and short sentences, review your paragraphs. Most paragraphs should be 5 sentences long (or 120 words) at most. Any document that contains 10 paragraphs would benefit from subtitles; as shown here, you can also use subtitles for shorter documents.

Alternatives to Words

Finally, consider the alternatives to words: graphs, photos, illustrations, video, graphic design. Words are not the only way to communicate, and it is absolutely true that a picture is worth 1000 words–if it’s the right picture.

With these techniques for writing marketing and technical copy–using small words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and graphics–you will communicate with more power, more speed, and fewer sesquipedalian failures.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications 20 years ago to help large and small businesses communicate with their clients through articles, case studies, insight papers, newsletters, and blog posts. She can be reached through LinkedIn.