June 28, 2017

Turn numbers into things

When writing with statistics, ask ‘What’s it like?’

When the late, great Kansas City Star columnist C.W. Gusewelle wanted to help readers understand the fragility of monarch butterflies as they migrate south for the winter, he wrote:

Turn numbers into things

But what does it mean? Add context to make numbers meaningful. Image by Maite Tiscar

Consulting the literature, I find that the average weight of an adult monarch may be expressed as 0.0176 of an ounce, about the same as a good-sized snowflake.

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Out of sight, out of mind

Keep paragraphs even shorter for mobile screens

A paragraph that takes up four lines on a 30-inch monitor might well take eight lines — even more — on a mobile screen.

Paragraph length for mobile

Can you see me now? Readers struggle to read paragraphs on mobile devices when they can’t see the whole thing. Image by Cristina Gottardi

That causes a couple of problems:

1. It’s hard to read what you can’t see.

Part of your paragraph might not be visible on your reader’s 2-by-4-inch screen.… Read the full article

The cost of bad writing

It’s a $37 million problem a year at one organization

Bad writing causes 40% of the cost of managing business transactions, writes William H. DuBay, a readability expert at Impact Information, in Working with Plain Language (PDF).

Cost of bad writing

Eye on the bottom line How much does bad writing cost your organization? Image by frankieleon

He cites:

  • Newsletters that reach only a fraction of the targeted audience
  • Press releases that never make the news
  • Websites that fail to inform and motivate readers to act
  • Forms and applications that are badly filled in or left incomplete
  • Memos and business letters that require endless clarification
  • Legal notices and procedures that no one can read

How much is bad writing costing your organization?… Read the full article

The long and the short of it

Build drama, create rhythm by varying sentence length

Short sentences are best.

But make every sentence simple and short, and your copy will read like “See Dick run” primers. So vary the length of your sentences — for interest, for drama, for rhythm. Fluctuating sentence lengths can help you:

The long and the short of sentence length image

Sometimes bigger is better Most sentences should be short. But the occasional longer sentence can help you add rhythm and grace to your message.

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Search and destroy conjunctions

And, Or and So can increase sentence length

Sentences too long? Use Microsoft Word’s “find” function to search for conjunctions. They include:

Search and destroy conjunctions

Seek and find Sentences too long? Find and eliminate conjunctions. Image by Surian Soosay

  • And
  • Or
  • Also
  • But
  • So
  • Then
  • Plus

When one of my writing coachees tried this trick, she found 23 “and’s” in a 500-word article.

When you find them, see whether you can replace them with a period.… Read the full article

Make messages move faster

Partial sentences make your copy clip along faster

Mrs. Webb, your 3rd-grade teacher, probably counseled you to avoid sentence fragments.

Make messages move faster

Run, writer, run Sentence fragments make your copy clip along faster. Image by Quino Al

Mrs. Webb was wrong. Sentence fragments can help you:

  • Create drama
  • Make a transition
  • Emphasize an important idea
  • Change the pace of your piece
  • Make your copy sound conversational
  • And, of course, make sentences shorter

Write fragments like Paul Harding.

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Catch readers in your web

Online headlines must get found, clicked and more

To reach readers online, you need to spin some powerful headlines. Specifically, craft web heads that are clear, context free and creative.

Catch readers in your web

Said the spider to the fly Write web heads that are clear, context free and creative. Image by Erwan Hesry

In print, headlines must grab readers’ attention and tempt them to read the piece.

Online, headlines must grab readers’ attention and tempt them to read the piece, as well.… Read the full article

Avoid flabby middles

Five ways to shape the body of your message

My favorite scene in the movie “High Fidelity” is when Rob Gordon (John Cusack) becomes so depressed over his failed love life that he seeks solace in reorganizing his albums.

Avoid flabby middles

Build a better body Avoid ‘the muddle in the middle’ when you create a solid structure for the body of your piece. Image by Vincent Brassinne

His nerdy pal Dick (Todd Louiso) is curious about the project.… Read the full article

Bucket list

Three steps for putting your information in order

So you’ve chosen your organizing scheme. Here are some tips for pulling your story together.

Bucket list

Drop in the bucket Organize your notes into buckets of information. Image by Chris Bird

1. Put your info in buckets.

As you gather and organize information, think of your material as “buckets” of like information. Depending on the scope of the project, your buckets might be physical file folders, files on my laptop, Word documents, even bookmarked sections within a Word doc.… Read the full article

Don’t make readers dig through dense type

Use bullets in news releases

Why make us work so hard? kvetch journalists surveyed for a 2014 study by Greentarget.

Don’t make readers dig through dense type

Where’s the story? Don’t make reporters work too hard to get your message. Image by popofatticus

These folks are frustrated that they’re too often forced to hunt through long rivers of gray text to find the news. No wonder more than half of them said they’d find it helpful to have a bulleted list of key facts in a release.… Read the full article

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