10 timeless quotes about writing

27 05 2011

“I write to tell stories. I believe that there a some professions in the world that will last forever: doctor or a nurse, teacher, builder and a storyteller.”
— Eppu Nuotio


“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
— Thomas Jefferson


“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.”
Matthew Arnold


“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
Stephen King


“A writer doesn’t solve problems. He allows them to emerge.”
Friedrich Dürrenmatt


“Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.”
Rhys Alexander


“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”
Edwin Schlossberg


“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
Orson Scott Card


“The two most engaging powers of a writer are, to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”
— Samuel Johnson


“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”
— Mark Twain

Image credit: leighreyes.com


Hemingway’s 4 rules for writing well

7 04 2011

Simple genius.

That’s the best way to describe the writing style of Ernest Hemingway.

Some writers love to fill their prose with flowery adjectives or complex descriptions that run on and on, but not old Ernie. He wrote simply and clearly, and reading him is like eating a meal of meat and potatoes that tastes better than anything you could order at a five-star restaurant.

A key moment in Hemingway’s development into one of the great American writers came in 1917. Then a fresh-faced reporter at the Kansas City Star, Hemingway was taught four basic rules of writing that he would carry with him the rest of his life.

Because the list of rules is so short and yet so insightful, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in writing effectively:


Short sentences are easier to digest. They make it easier to follow each point of an argument or story.

Your job as a writer — or editor — is to make life easy for your audience. Forcing the reader to navigate through a bunch of long, complex sentences is like forcing him/her to hack through the jungle with a machete. Create a nice, tidy path with plenty of short sentences.


See opening of this post.


Copywriter David Garfinkel describes it like this:

“It’s muscular, forceful (writing). Vigorous English comes from passion, focus and intention.”

This rule is really a reminder to do your homework and fully understand what you are writing about. It is impossible to write with “passion, focus and intention” without having a real grasp of the subject.

In most cases, if you’ve done your homework, you will write with authority and vigor.


Basically, “be positive” means you should say what something is rather than what it isn’t.

– Instead of saying something is “inexpensive,” say it is “affordable.”
– Instead of describing something as “unclear,” say it is “confusing.”

This might seem like a small point, but it’s actually quite important. Being “positive” makes your writing more direct. Whether they realize it or not, readers are turned off by “roundabout writing.”

So, there you have it: eminently practical writing tips from one of the masters — or more accurately, from the Kansas City Star.

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

Image credit: rarelibrary.com

Communications issues for 2011

8 02 2011

2010 brought plenty of reminders that words are powerful.

Whether it was a question of transparency or terrorism (WikiLeaks) or a serious case of crisis communication (BP oil spill), the value of thoughtful, well-crafted messages was never more apparent.

Looking ahead to 2011, The Communicator — a great blog for communications professionals authored by industry veteran Peter Schram — recently posted its top 11 issues facing the profession this year.

Here are five highlights:

1. Working with new audiences: Communications pros used to focus on a core group of audiences (traditional media, customers, employees, executives), but those days are over. “This year,” Schram writes, “plan to spend significantly more time on new and influential audiences such as environmental groups, transparency watchdogs and local influencers.”

2. Reducing environmental footprint: Schram points out that the communications department is one of the biggest users of paper in most offices. Building on the ideas of environmental responsibility and brand management, companies will create programs “that both protect the environment and stand as an example to peers, customers and suppliers.”

3. Coaching executives: In Schram’s opinion, the events of 2010 showed that most executives need better crisis and communications training. He expects that communicators will focus more on coaching executives on how to stay cool under pressure and stick to key messages.

4. Communicating with mobile audiences: With smart phones now the norm and e-readers continuing to grow in popularity, communications pros must adapt. Schram writes: “As consumers and audiences migrate more of their communications activities onto mobile devices, professional communicators will need to pick up new skills and strategies to make the most of these new channels.”

5. Writing to differentiate: “No matter how fast technology moves or what new devices are offered on the market,” Schram writes, “one thing always remains a constant: the written word.” With all the new channels available to communicators, Schram argues that most will find that their corporate writing style is about the only thing that really differentiates them from their competition.

Is Schram right on with his predictions? Are there other issues that will take communications pros by surprise in 2011? Regardless of the year, one thing’s for sure: Communication works for those who work at it.

Secrets from JFK’s speechwriter

19 01 2011

Ted Sorensen was one of the great wordsmiths in American history.

An advisor and legendary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, Sorensen will always be remembered for penning some of the most eloquent and inspiring language ever spoken by a U.S. president.

Sorensen — who died at the age of 82 in October of complications from a stroke — wrote eight books from 1965 to 2008. In his final book, Counselor, he outlined the basic rules that made JFK’s speeches powerfully persuasive. These rules apply to all types of presentations, not just formal speeches. You can make your next presentation more effective by following them:

1. Less is almost always more: A presentation or speech should be lean and mean. When attempting to persuade, less is more. Keep your focus narrow, and be direct. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I wish that speech was longer.”

2. Organize the text to simplify, clarify and emphasize: According to Sorensen, speeches should have a “tightly organized, coherent, and consistent theme.” Setting the theme of your presentation from the beginning — and providing guideposts along the way — make it easier for your audience to follow.

A good example would be a sales manager who kicks off a presentation by saying: “Today we’re introducing a new software tool that will help you meet and in many cases exceed your quarterly quotas [sets the theme]. There are three features of this software that I would like to highlight for you today. Let’s start with the first one [provides verbal guideposts].” An organized theme repeated consistently throughout the presentation is easier to follow and more memorable.

3. Use variety to reinforce your message: Variety can keep your audience engaged. For instance, funny stories are great, but a half-hour of nothing but funny stories will have the audience viewing you more as a stand-up comic than an expert on a subject. Pelting listeners with factoids for 40 minutes is usually a mistake, but removing them altogether is also an error. Mix it up.

4. Employ elevated but not grandiose language: According to Sorensen, JFK believed in elevating the sights of his listeners (“We choose to go to the moon…”) and simplifying his language at the same time. Sorensen and Kennedy kept the sentences short and the words understandable. They grasped the importance of avoiding terms that could not be understood by the average listener.

5. Substantive ideas are the key to any speech: “A great speech is great because of the strong ideas conveyed,” Sorensen writes. “If the words are soaring, beautiful, eloquent, it is still not a great speech if the ideas are flat or empty.” Often, executives spend thousands of dollars on the venue (audio/video, presentation design, etc.) and not enough time developing ideas. No one ever says, “Great presentation. I especially liked the design on slide 14.” Instead, you are more likely to hear: “Great presentation. I think our company could reduce our expenses by adopting your ideas.” The effectiveness of your presentation will ultimately rest on the power of your ideas.

Whether you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation or a formal speech, the way you craft and deliver your ideas will leave your audience either inspired and energized or bored to tears. Sorensen says: “A speech can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world.

Is poor punctuation ruining your writing?

12 01 2011

When it comes to punctuation, many people either don’t think it’s important, or if they do understand how important it is, they have trouble with it.

If you fall into either of these categories and you have to write anything at all for your job — even something as small as an email — you have a problem.

There are three major reasons proper punctuation is important — very important — to writing:

1. Clarity and “sound”: When we talk, we punctuate what we say with frequent pauses. Often we raise or lower our voices to stress or bring attention to certain phrases. We also gesture with our arms or raise our eyebrows to enhance what we are saying. We do all this without thinking about it. It’s natural. If we spoke to someone in a flat monotone, evenly spacing every syllable, we would lose the person’s interest. The person we are speaking to might even think something is wrong with us. When we write, we can’t rely on raising or lowering our voices or using hand gestures to make our point. Yet somehow we must clue the reader in to how we want our words and phrases to “sound” on the page. This is where punctuation comes in.

Punctuation helps the reader navigate what you’ve written. It can tell the reader where to pause, what emotions are behind certain phrases, what points you are trying to emphasize, etc. A writer’s job is to make life easy for the reader. Punctuation provides a framework that eliminates confusion and keeps the reader interested in what you have to say. If the reader is tripped up by poor punctuation or an awkward sentence, you’ve ruined the flow of your piece, and your message is lost.

Consider this paragraph from Sean Wilsey’s humorous memoir, Oh the Glory of it All:

We were Mom and Dad and I — three palindromes! — and we lived eight hundred feet in the air above San Francisco; an apartment at the top of a building at the top of a hill: full of light, full of voices, full of windows, full of water and bridges and hills.

Try to imagine that paragraph without any punctuation — it would be unreadable. With proper punctuation, it’s clear, entertaining and keeps the reader’s attention.

2. That’s not what I meant: Punctuation — where it appears or if it appears at all — can literally change the meaning of a sentence or clause.

In 2006, a Canadian court ordered cable TV giant Rogers Communications to pay Aliant Telecom $2 million because of a misplaced comma in a contract between the companies. The court ruled that the comma in question changed the meaning of a clause in the contract.

Another example didn’t cost anybody any money, but it does illustrate how punctuation alone can completely change the meaning of a sentence or passage.

An English professor wrote the following words on a chalkboard:

A woman without her man is nothing

The professor then asked his students to punctuate it correctly.

All the males in the class wrote:

A woman without her man is nothing.

All the females in the class wrote:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

The words are exactly the same, but different punctuation changes the meaning entirely.

3. Look professional: How you communicate affects how people perceive you, and how people perceive you affects how they interact with you. Would they hire you? Do they want to do business with you? Would they trust you to represent them in court or handle their retirement fund?

Sloppy or confusing punctuation in your correspondence tells people: “I am second-rate. I haven’t dedicated the time or resources to get this right, so what makes you think you can trust me with your business?”

Don’t undermine the expertise you’ve worked hard to establish by sending a letter or giving a presentation that looks like it was written by a seventh-grader.

If you have trouble with punctuation, it’s important to recognize it and address the problem. You can either work at it yourself or hire someone to edit your writing. The last thing you want to do is ignore the weakness and hope others haven’t noticed, because they have.

5 ways a skilled writer can impact your company’s bottom line

7 01 2011

Good communication is essential to any successful endeavor, and none more so than business.

How a company communicates both internally and externally can make or break it, and at the core of good communication is skillful, polished writing.

Here are five ways a top-notch writer or team of writers can impact your organization:

1. Corporate branding: Besides advertising, corporate communications is your only means of communicating with the public. What is your message? What are your values? What sets you apart from the competition? You might have a fantastic product or offer the greatest service in the world, but if you can’t make that clear to the public and inspire people to act, you miss out. It takes creative, skillful writing to tell your company’s story and keep the public interested.

2. Social responsibility/crisis communication: This one is closely related to corporate branding, but it’s become so important in recent years that it deserves its own entry. The Internet and social media have enabled consumers to connect across town and national borders, and search tools have enabled people to identify common experiences. Being viewed as a socially responsible company is good business, and it’s crucial to choose your words carefully when making your case. In the same vein, dealing with a crisis requires careful consideration and top-notch writing to convey the message.

3. Senior executive presentation: Businessmen and women who have reached the c-suite level are obviously intelligent and dynamic, but the majority of them aren’t great writers. They might be adequate, but their writing usually doesn’t do justice to their intelligence and expertise. This is nothing to be ashamed of; most professional writers are terrible at math and wouldn’t know the first thing about running a sales team. It’s important for high-level executives to know their limitations when it comes to writing, because there’s nothing worse than a letter, speech or presentation by a senior exec that is mediocre — it reflects badly on the entire company. Trust a pro, and he/she will make you sound as smart as you are.

4. Internal communication: Sharing information with employees, building employee pride and managing employee issues are essential to a healthy corporate culture. Skilled writers are able to write polished speeches for CEOs as well as material that informs and resonates with employees. Being able to write in various voices and for varied audiences is a skill that professional writers develop over time.

5. Press management: An effective corporate communications writer grasps many of the same principles that those in the press do. They both understand the importance of clarity, accuracy and identifying the key point or points in a story. In media writing, the paragraph that explains the news value of the story is called the “nut graph,” which is a reference to “in a nutshell.” Ideally, a corporate communications writer has experience on the media side, and thus knows how journalists think and what they are looking for. Press management is critical to shaping a company’s image.

Smart business leaders know that a company that doesn’t communicate well is like a sales professional who doesn’t speak well — it just isn’t going to work. And the cornerstone of effective corporate communications is great writing.

Image credit: venthq.com

The simplest way to increase your blog subscriptions

17 12 2010

As I’ve previously noted, Copyblogger.com is a fantastic site dedicated to copywriting and building a successful website. With over 130,000 professional writers, bloggers and content producers on the mailing list, Copyblogger clearly is a trusted authority on effective writing and content marketing.

Contributor Willy Franzen — who writes a blog about entry-level jobs for new college graduates — recently shared some valuable insights on the danger of using the words “subscription” and “subscribe” when trying to entice readers to sign up for your site’s mailing list.

Franzen writes:

“A week and a half ago, I had a sudden realization. Subscriptions generally cost money. Think about that for a second. It’s jarring, especially if you’ve spent the past few months or even years incessantly asking your readers to subscribe.”

Franzen’s point is that you need to make it completely obvious to readers that it won’t cost them a penny to have useful, valuable content delivered to them via e-mail or RSS. If not, you run the risk of turning them off. When many readers hear the word “subscription,” they think of paying a fee to have a magazine or newspaper delivered to them. You need to make it crystal clear that this is a completely different proposition.

The best way to avoid confusion over blog “subscriptions” is to not use the words “subscribe” or “subscription” at all.

Franzen continues:

“Most of my subscribers use one of the two large buttons on my site. The buttons used to include the text ‘Subscribe by E-mail’ and ‘Subscribe by RSS,’ along with appropriate graphics. After I had my epiphany, I switched the text to ‘Get Jobs by E-mail’ and ‘Get Jobs by RSS.’

Franzen instantly saw results. His subscription rate spiked, increasing by a whopping 254% following the change.

The dramatic increase speaks to the larger point of avoiding jargon in copywriting, even if it’s not jargon to you. The words “subscribe” and “subscription” aren’t jargon you say? When they mean one thing in the print world and another in the online world, they are jargon. It’s the writer’s job — in all forms of writing — to ensure that the reader doesn’t get confused. During my time as a sportswriter in newspapers, the expression “write for your mom” came up a lot. While that expression might be insulting to sports-savvy moms everywhere, the point about avoiding jargon is well taken.

It probably took Franzen less than five minutes to alter his subscription invitations. A few minutes of work for a 254% increase in regular readership is a mighty impressive return on investment.