“To generalize is to be an idiot.”
— William Blake, English poet and artist

Paint the schnauzer

Find examples to illustrate your point

The other day, I was brainstorming with clients for ways to make this abstract lead more concrete:

“As the weather warms up and the end of the school year looms, a familiar dread emerges among parents of preteens, middle schoolers and high school students: What will keep their children busy this summer?”

WRITER'S BEST FRIEND Turn abstract ideas into concrete images like this schnauzer. Photo by Happy Batatinha

To make an abstract idea concrete, you might:

  • Come up with a creative technique to illustrate your story angle.
  • Run down a list of types of concrete details until you find one that fits your story.
  • Ask questions that drill down from the abstract— “What will keep kids busy this summer?” — to the concrete.

We tried the third approach.

“What have your kids done that’s kept them engaged over the summer?” we asked. “What have they done when they were bored?”

And from the back of the room, Greg Smith, learning design specialist for Thrivent Financial, shouted out:

“Paint the schnauzer.”

“Paint the schnauzer” is my new mantra for finding examples that prove the point. That’s important. Because everything we know about how people respond to information tells us that they’re more likely to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on concrete messages than abstract ones.

Name names, number numbers.

One way to make your copy more concrete is to cite specific details. So name names and number numbers.

William H. Broad names names to make this passage about the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge more concrete:

“The span, at the time the world’s third-longest suspension bridge, crossed a strait of Puget Sound near Tacoma, Wash. A few months after its opening, high winds caused the bridge to fail in a roar of twisted metal and shattered concrete. No one died. The only fatality was a black cocker spaniel named Tubby.”

Poor Tubby. But notice how “black cocker spaniel” is way more effective than “dog” and how “Tubby” is way more effective than “black cocker spaniel” alone. As The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark counsels, “Get the name of the dog.”

Smith’s schnauzer’s name? Frisky.

But I’m still not seeing poor painted Frisky. We need to step down a rung on the ladder of abstraction to make him more vivid. So we asked, what color did the kids paint him?

“They used Pepto-Bismol,” Smith said.

Now I see.

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’”
— Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist

Get to the verb faster

Avoid long parenthetical phrases

Quick! Where’s your verb?

UNDER CONSTRUCTION Sentence length and structure are among the top contributors to reading ease.

For clarity’s sake, put it near the front of your sentence, right after your subject. It’s harder to follow sentences with delayed verbs, like this one, where the verb doesn’t show up until 28 words in:

“The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), one of the largest mutual life insurers and a leading provider of employee benefits for small and mid-sized companies, today announced that it will cover 100% of the cost associated with the administration of the H1N1 vaccine for employees and their eligible dependents enrolled in a fully-insured Guardian medical plan.”

(And let’s not even discuss the fact that “cover,” not “announced,” is the real verb in this story.)

Don’t bury your verb under a long parenthetical phrase (let alone your whole boilerplate). Remember: You can always explain what your company is the leading provider of in a separate sentence.

Writing short, simple sentences is one of the top two ways to make your copy more readable, according to 70 years of readability research. Here are three ways to make your sentences easier to read by getting to the verb faster.

1. Write low-depth sentences. 

High-depth sentences are harder to understand than low-depth sentences, found readability expert G. R. Klare in a 1976 review of 36 readability studies.

Depth refers to the number of words before the verb in a sentence. The deeper the sentence — the more words before the verb — the lower the comprehension. Twenty-two words, for instance, delay the verb in this sentence:

“Vital secrets of Britain’s first atomic submarine, the Dreadnought, and, by implication, of the entire United States navy’s still-building nuclear sub fleet, were stolen by a London-based soviet spy ring, secret service agents testified today.”

2. Limit dependent clauses. 

Bob Baker, a deputy metropolitan editor at the Los Angeles Times and creator of Newsthinking, writes:

“As journalism became more sophisticated in the 1970s, and started trying to carve out a niche that TV could not compete with, the notion of ‘interpretation’ came more and more into play. You started to see more dependent clauses that defined the importance of a story, which is OK if the clause isn’t too long, like maybe 8 to 10 words. But in my newspaper, and others, the desire to make an important statement gets out of control sometimes and you can have a 40-word lead sentence that includes a 17- or 18-word dependent clause, and the reader’s head is likely to explode taking all that information in without a period.”

So limit your dependent clauses to eight to 10 words. Even better: Limit parenthetical phrases and other background information in your lead paragraph to six words or less.

3. Force the verb to the front. 

And here’s a quick trick for pushing the verb toward the top of the sentence from Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

“Run a line under the first five or six words of every sentence. If you find that (1) you have to go more than six or seven words into a sentence to get past the subject to the verb and (2) the subject of the sentence is not one of your characters, take a hard look at that.”

Great advice.

Cut Through the Clutter

Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?

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“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”
— Robert Cormier, American author, columnist and reporter

Banish the grammar police

Don’t let the editor in

When I started writing this piece, I wasn’t sure how to spell Robert Cormier’s last name, and I didn’t know what he’d written. But if I’d stopped writing long enough to hunt down his credentials and to confirm that Cormier isn’t spelled with a “U,” I would have made the transition from writer to editor.

DON'T SHOOT YOUR COPY DOWN ... at least in the freewriting stage. Write first; edit second.

When you’re freewriting, don’t stop to look up or correct anything. The minute you do, the left side of the brain wins out, and you have to start all over again the process of getting into writing mode.

Instead, lock the editor out and let the writer create. Then you’ll have something worth revising.

Fix it later.

When you write instead of editing, your copy will sound like you: fresh, fast, fascinating. When you edit instead of writing, your copy will sound like that: sluggish, inert, torpid.

So how do you keep the editor at bay? When you’re freewriting, don’t go back to read a sentence, paragraph or section you’ve just written. Instead, just write the next one and the next one and the next.

After you’ve finished writing the section you’ve assigned yourself and taken a break, then it makes sense to reread what you wrote in your previous writing session. At that point, you might even do a little tweaking (though not wholesale rewriting) before you move on to the next section.

So during freewriting, don’t worry about mistakes. Use a dash instead of a semicolon, write “you’re” when you mean “your” — even misspell the CEO’s name. You can always go back and fix your mistakes later, during rewriting.

What you can’t do is go back and breathe life into a stillborn draft — a draft that never really got written in the first place.

Polish your writing skills.

Want to master the art of writing better, easier and faster? Read “Block Busters: More than two dozen ways to break through writer’s block and get words on paper — now.”

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“Ann offers her professional expertise and makes this seminar fresh. Whether you are new or seasoned in social media, you will appreciate her insights.”
— Meiling Starky, social media coordinator, Rock Church

Go social for PR

Journalist shares which tool to use for what

Which social media channel works best for private communications with journalists and bloggers? Which for time-sensitive announcements? And which should you never, ever use?

TWEET ME Use Twitter for breaking news, Facebook for conversations, suggests journalist Robert Niles.

Robert Niles, founder and editor of “Theme Park Insider,” shares his insights on which tool is best for which PR function:

Twitter for announcing news

With short nuggets of information delivered instantly, Twitter’s best for breaking news. Make announcements here first.

Facebook for conversing

Without a 140-character limit, Facebook is a better medium for conversation and reaction. Converse with your community here. And post pieces that will elicit a reaction, spread the word and increase your reach and influence on Facebook.

Email for private communication

Email is best for one-on-one communication and planning. Alert reporters to upcoming Twitter announcements, schedule interviews and send documents via Twitter. Don’t use email for time-sensitive information, though, given the medium’s frequent delivery delays, Niles suggests. And be sure to target and tailor email blasts.

websites and blogs for in-depth information

The problem with websites is that they make readers come to you. So use blogs and websites to share longer pieces with dedicated followers. If you want to reach larger audiences instantly, use Twitter to refer folks to your site.

Because websites are branded, your organization might feel uncomfortable hosting potentially negative conversations here. Use Facebook — a more visibly “neutral” forum — instead.

And which tool should you avoid?

Never use Twitter’s direct mail for private communication, Niles suggests.

One reason, of course, is Weiner’s Law (“Anything that’s meant to be private will go public on Twitter.”) Plus, Niles writes, “Twitter DM spam has become so common that I never look at DMs any more.”

Expand your reach and influence online

Would you like to learn more tips for getting the word out via social media? If so, please join me for the Public Relations Society of America’s Oct. 6 webinar, “Write for Social Media.” In this session, you’ll learn how to make your blog postings, tweets and other status updates more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Use the 70-20-10 rule for engaging your followers. Plus other tips for making sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests
  • Pass the “who cares?” test. And four other techniques for becoming a resource, not a bore, on social media
  • Get retweeted. Five steps for expanding your influence and reach on Twitter
  • Tweet like the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks
  • Make your posts personable. There’s a reason they call it “social” media
  • Tweak your tweets. Get your message across in 140 characters or less. Plus: How to make 140 characters go further — and when you must come in under the character limit

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“At lunch, I used what I wrote in [Ann’s morning workshop] to communicate a timely message to some key business partners.”
— Greg Smith, eLearning relationship manager, Thrivent Financial

Ann’s running out of time

Time to book 1st quarter 2012 workshops

Have you been thinking about bringing me in for a writing workshop early next year?

If so, let’s act fast.

I ran out of 2011 workshop dates in August this year — several months earlier than usual. (Thank you to all those of you who brought and are bringing me in to work with some fabulous communicators in fascinating organizations this year!)

As a result, my first quarter 2012 is already filling up. As I desperately want to work with you next year, please contact me today if you’re looking for a writing workshop in the first few months of the year.

No expenses in 2012

I’m offering a new No Surprises — No Expenses fee plan for 2012 workshop that should make both our lives easier.  No Surprises — No Expenses is just what it sounds like. My inclusive fee covers my customized workshop plus all travel and miscellaneous expenses, including:

  • Air transportation within the continental United States
  • Accommodations
  • Ground transportation
  • Meals
  • Parking
  • Shipping and courier services
  • Phone calls
  • Internet access
  • Incidentals

You don’t need to worry about whether I fly first class or no-class, take a limo or the bus, sleep at the Ritz or in my car, dine on caviar and champagne or chomp on Cheetos and Diet Coke. I don’t have to collect, collate, scan and send receipts. You don’t have to do battle with the bean counters to get my invoice paid; I don’t have to stand by for my check while you fight with accounting. You know exactly what your expenses will be well in advance; I know I don’t have to hassle with paperwork.

No surprises: No expenses. No kidding.

How may I help you?

Please let me know how I can help your team members Think Like a Reader, Cut Through the Clutter, Write for the Web and otherwise get the word out in 2012.

Let’s talk!

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“Best writing session since I started two years ago. Great outside credibility — quotes from studies/stats help articulate to clients the importance of great writing.”
— Marnie Anderson, account executive, Padilla Speer Beardsley

Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Atlanta: Dec. 19
  • Baltimore: Oct. 24
  • Boston: June 22
  • Chicago: March 23
  • Cincinnati: Oct. 27
  • Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
  • Danville, Penn.: Dec. 14
  • Houston: Dec. 7-8, March 8
  • Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 28
  • Memphis: Oct. 12
  • Nashville, Tenn.: Oct. 11, May 3
  • New York City: Nov. 4-9
  • Orlando: Oct. 16-17
  • Sacramento, Calif.: Dec. 1

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.

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Let’s connect

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For more info

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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