Writer myopia

July 31st, 2008

Have you ever been frustrated by technology such as not being able to make your new gadget work as it was advertised?

LindaI suspect the frustration may not arise so much from the technology itself as from the instructions — or lack of them — that accompanied it. Take, as an example, my experience with my new cell phone.

I am a basic cell-phone person. All I really want the phone to do is to enable me to talk to someone when I am on the go. The only feature I truly appreciate is voice mail. All the others, including texting, are things I can easily do without.

However, cell phones today come loaded with all types of features, and since they are available, I want to know what they are how to use them. Once informed, I can then make a decision if I want to use them. So, when my husband and I traded in our two-year-old phones (which had no camera) for a newer model (with a camera), we pulled out the instruction book and began to learn what these phones could do to complicate (or simplify) our lives.

We might as well have left the instruction book in the box. It was worthless. The book’s grammar was correct, but the technical writer made all sorts of assumptions when he or she wrote it.

Here are two examples:

  • The back ‘button.’ When you turn on the display to show the various options (such as log, voice notes, settings, etc.), in the lower right corner is the word “exit.” Hitting the red “key” on the lower right side activates exit. However, once you go to an option, such as “settings,” “exit” becomes “back.” “Back” — to me — means going back one screen.But no, that is not what it means. “Back” means exit. It took (literally) several hours before I discovered where the “back” button was (upper right). It was not specified in the instruction book.  
  • Meaning of each display item. The writer obviously assumed the user would understand the meaning of each item shown on the display, such as “profiles.” Since I have used a cell phone for years, I knew what a profile was. But, every manufacturer defines its various profiles in different ways, and nowhere in the instruction book did Nokia, the manufacturer of my new phone, explain normal, silent, meeting, outdoor, my profile 1, my profile 2, and flight.In addition to profiles, the phone’s settings listed themes, tones, main display, mini-display, time and date, my shortcuts, connectivity, call, phone, enhancements, and security. Few of these were self-explanatory; fewer yet, such as “welcome note” and “flight query” (under phone settings) contained any explanation in the instruction book.

I suspect the primary reason why the instruction book lacked detail was because the writer suffered from writer myopia: He or she was too close to the subject matter and made too many assumptions about what the user would know.

Many years ago I took a graduate-level class in instructional design. The professor stressed we should never make assumptions about our learners. To demonstrate that most people do make assumptions, she had us pick a very simple task describe it step-by-step.

Try doing this. Pick a task, such as using your e-mail.

Did you remember to start by stating, “Turn on the computer”?

The lesson from my cell-phone experience is this: Don’t make assumptions about your audience. Stand back from what you are writing and think like your reader. Ask yourself how much knowledge this person has about your subject matter. It’s better to “dummy down” than to “talk over” the reader’s head.

And when you are done writing, ask someone who knows nothing about the subject to proof it for you — not only for spelling and punctuation, but for meaning. Does your piece make sense? If the person has questions, use the criticism to clarify what you are trying to say.

We have enough misunderstandings in the world. Don’t make your writing like a cell-phone instruction book.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Writing and Editing Solutions

How to hire a writer or editor

July 23rd, 2008

LindaI subscribe to a number of e-newsletters. One of them is put out by a company called Marketprofs (www.marketingprofs.com). The other day, the e-newsletter had an article on how to select a copywriter.

The article gave me pause: It occurred to me that unless you are in publishing, you will not have a lot of experience hiring someone to help you with your writing or editing projects. So, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to select someone to help you with your projects:

Know what you want the person to do. Refine your vague ideas before you start looking. It’s like hiring an employee: Write a job description before you start recruiting.

  • Start your search.Some suggestions: Post your job on a number of Web sites dedicated to freelancers; place an ad on craigslist.com; Google the type of freelancer you want to hire; or network among friends.
  • Narrow the selection.Look at samples ofthe individual’s work; read them carefully. Does the person have expertise in the area you require? Does he or she write in the style you prefer? Is the sample “clean”? Do you understand what the individual is saying? If you aren’t happy with the samples, then move on.
  • Be specific in your assignment. Because you already defined what you want the person to do, this should not be a problem. But, put everything in writing, including terms of the contract (amount of pay, due date, manner in which the copy should be delivered, etc.). If it is an extensive project, be specific about when you should connect to review progress and how corrections and clarifications should be made.
  • Pay a fair price. Writers and editors are skilled individuals. Value what they do. Pay a fair, competitive rate for their work.

A writer can take ideas and put them into words. An editor can take your words and give them a polish that will make you shine. Whether you have a short press or product release, a white paper, Web content, a business report, or a book, you can make a great impression and be perceived for the expert you are — provided you hire the right writer or editor.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

Why you need a Web site

July 23rd, 2008

A new client approached me about doing a writing project for him. As I began our project, I discovered I needed some additional background information, so I searched for his business on the Web. I was surprised to find that although he had a registered domain, his business did not have a Web site.

A few days later, I was talking with a colleague who specializes in marketing. I asked him about his Web site. He said he hadn’t had time to put one up, and didn’t feel he had the need for one.

I believe these two business people, as good as they are, are missing an opportunity that could be costing them money. Every business needs a Web site.

A decade ago, you would not have opened a business without buying a yellow-pages ad. Today, you might (rightfully) question its value. Telephone-book ads are expensive, inflexible, and do not give you a lot of real estate to describe yourself and your business.

A Web site, on the other hand, is inexpensive, flexible, and gives you virtually unlimited room to describe and market yourself and your business.

When I first put up my Web site a number of years ago, my 86-year-old mother said, “That’s nice … but what does it do for you?”

I told her my Web site allowed potential clients to see samples of my work, download my resume, and get an understanding of what I could do for them. It allowed them to get to know me, if only a little. And it afforded me the opportunity to gain new clients who might be searching the Web for someone to do writing and editing services for them.

If you haven’t yet put up a Web site, please consider it. At the very least, let it:

  • Introduce you to your potential clients,
  • Explain your services,
  • Publicize your accomplishments,
  • Provide helpful information to visitors, and
  • Tell people how they can contact you.

It’s true that few people will choose an accountant, lawyer, chiropractor, medical doctor, or any other professional just because of what they find on the individual’s Web site.  But it is also true that having information about you available can help an individual make a decision in your favor.

A case in point: Last year my mother needed some medical services. The telephone book listed a number of individuals, but I wanted to take her to someone with a specialized background. I searched the Web; I finally found one doctor who had the kind of background we needed. After I did some more background checking (to check on licensing and complaints), we made an appointment.

Did the other doctors have the necessary qualifications? Some did, probably. But I did not have time to interview all of them. I

A word of caution: When you put up a Web site, make it look professional. No misspelled words or bad grammar. Always remember that your Web site is a visitor’s first impression of you. Make it a good one.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises
Writing and Editing Services

Written words are indelible

July 15th, 2008

LindaBy this time, you know about the fiasco of The New Yorker’s cover image. The attempt by the editors of the New Yorker to joke about Sen. Obama’s religious preferences and ethnic origins backfired. New YorkerEditor David Remmick said in a statement, “Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover.”

Unfortunately, when you have to explain a joke, the joke loses its humor. That’s what happened here.

The cover, though, teaches an important lesson: Be careful what you publish, because your words become indelible.

You say you don’t publish? Do you send e-mail? Then you publish, albeit on a small scale. 

I use e-mail all the time. As an editor, I use e-mail as my primary means of communication with writers. E-mail expedites the business of writing and editing.

As you write your next e-mail, I’d like to caution you not to make four mistakes I see quite often:

  • Using caps and big fonts, and
  • Misspelling and writing in fragments.

I communicate by e-mail with a top executive in a large company. He is a kind and gentle man, and his messages to me have always been kind and gentle. The messages — not the way in which he conveys his messages. He always writes in capital letters and he always uses a very large font (14 or 16 points).

I suspect he writes in caps because he is a poor typist. As a hunt-and-peck person, it is easier for him to keep the cap lock on than to use the shift key. And I think he writes in large fonts because he can read what he is typing without putting on his reading glasses.

Unfortunately, his e-mails always look like they are shouting. That’s what caps and big letters do. They shout.

Shouting e-mails make a not-so-nice impression on the recipient. But e-mails that are written in fragmented sentences and with misspellings make an even worse impression.

Another executive writes missives that have no verbs! Words are misspelled, and nothing is capitalized. This executive is a well-schooled individual, but his e-mails suggest he failed sixth-grade spelling.

What’s so bad about these types of e-mails? Back in the days when people wrote letters, they rarely shared the content of personal letters with others. But e-mails are different. Recipients respond; they forward the message to other recipients. The result is that you never know who might read your original e-mail. So, you never know who is getting a first impression of you.

New Yorker Editor David Remmick’s choice of cover caused quite a controversy, but at least he had an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind his cover decision. The cover, though, is published for posterity. When you send an e-mail you probably won’t have an opportunity to explain yourself. Worse, you may not even know if an explanation is necessary. But your words will be indelible.

Writing is a useful, efficient, and effective way to communicate. If your typing skills are almost non-existent, consider taking an online class — or invest in dictation software. Before you send that e-mail, make sure your cap lock is set to off. And, finally, do a spell check.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

More than commas

July 15th, 2008

LindaBelieve it or not, everyone is a writer.  You aren’t, you say? I disagree. You talk; you communicate. If you can present your ideas with a semblance of logic, then you are a writer. The only thing missing is putting those words on paper.

People believe they cannot write because they get caught up on the rules of grammar, organization, and spelling. Don’t misunderstand me: Grammar, organization, and spelling are all important — very important. But they are not “writing.”

Writing is conveying your thoughts. It is persuading. It is exposing ideas. It is expressing your feelings. You do those things every day; you just don’t do it on paper.

When I first began to write, I did it with pen in hand. Having ink-stained and callused fingers felt like writing to me. Sitting at a typewriter (no computers back then!) and hammering out mechanical words did notseem like writing, regardless of the ideas I was enscribing. However, I soon discovered that I could type faster (about 90 words per minute) and more legibly than I could pen by hand. So, I adapted. I learned to compose at the typewriter.

I bought my first computer for the sole purpose of writing. I learned the hard way that editors often want changes made to submitted work.  I had sent a series of five articles on job-seeking skills to the editor of the National Business Employment Weekly, a newspaper (now defunct) published by The Wall Street Journal. The editor liked my submisions and agreed to buy them, but he wanted a few enhancements.

I had sent him typed pages. To make the necessary changes I had to retype entire pages. Depending upon the extent of corrections and the point in the manuscript they were needed, that meant retyping almost entire articles. 

So, I bought my first computer and learned how to use a word processor. Not only was it easier to make corrections, but now I had a permanent record of everything I wrote. ‘Ain’t’ science and technology grand!

(For the record, today I find it very difficult to compose with a pen and paper. My best thoughts come out on the computer.)

To get back to my original premise: You can write. Put down your ideas. Dictate into a digital recorder; use a legal pad; or sit down at a computer. The method of writing doesn’t matter; recording your thoughts for posterity does.

If you decide to submit your written work for publication, you can hire a professional to help you polish it.

Don’t confuse commas with writing. It’s your ideas that count.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing & Editing Services