Struggling to read, or write? How to be productive in lockdown, TheGuardian.com, features tips from several authors. Here’s how creative writiers' ideas can help us as a professional writers.
I am really finding it challenging to stay motivated. I’ve worked from home for years, but not in such an isolated way. Going out for a meeting, lunch, coffee was often a reward for the tasks I accomplished. As both a professional and a creative writer, I found nuggets in this article that help with both challenges.
Struggling to read, or write? How to be productive in lockdown, TheGuardian.com, features tips from several authors. Here’s how creative writiers' ideas can help us as a professional writers.
Although the creative writers suggest ‘giving’ yourself time to sit and write, I think it is a good idea to write in time batches. Break it down into appetizer-sized tasks. The full meal deal might just be too much. This can help if you are inundated with interruptions, your day is interspersed with others' needs and you want to keep up, but not in a stressful, demanding way.
Another gem was to not feel the need to complete a whole project in one go. Accept that during this time you may be feeling more stressful about your to-do list. That’s normal considering the changes we’re going through. A schedule can help. Go one step at a time.
I know, people have been saying this forever. But it does make sense. Sometimes we just need to stand back, take a fresh look and get rid of some of the clutter in our work and creative lives. Try a new approach. Ask a colleague or friend how they are juggling things. Clear your work area.
Make sure it’s a real break, not a household chores or work break. Get away from your work station. Do some exercise or mediation. Just sit and look out your window. Have a chat with a friend. Check your garden or a neighbour.
One author suggests unplugging—your internet! Scary? Maybe just shut down your computer rather than letting it ‘sleep’. Definitely turn down or off your phone at night. Our sleep is so important for our health, give it all the support you can.
So, whether you are writing a report, a short story, a novel, a film script, be resourceful in finding some help to get you started, keep you going and reward yourself as you move along.
Review by Kate Harrison Whiteside
The story behind Write’s (Write.co.nz) success is all about how they live and breathe what they do. Their goal is to save organizations and people from bad communication and give them the tools to create memorable messages. This time they’ve taken on the universal challenge of too much (often not very interesting) information. They show us how to tell stories that will free up decision-making, motivate leaders, and empower people. And, all this because an idea, pitch or choice is best presented in a story framework the audience can relate to. Simple!
Let's bring storytelling at work to life
So, why haven’t we been doing this style of communicating all along? Well, writing styles are often entrenched in organizations and professions, deadlines force the writing process to by-pass audience focus, and leadership is needed to make a change in direction. The motivation may be there, but skills and knowledge may need help. Write’s Storytelling at Work online course and workbook are there to take you above and beyond.
The online course reflects the very core of clear communication (plain language) in its simple presentation style, understandable content, video and text options. The content is discussed in the video, supported by the workbook exercises and finishes off with a quiz to help you measure progress.
Your new skills will generate interest
With Write’s storytelling guide in your pocket, you are ready to turn ordinary ideas into memorable stories and apply these to brilliant effect in your writing life at work. Don’t worry if this is all new. Write works their magic throughout the course. You’ll learn the types of story themes, the stages that build a bridge (story arch) as your story goes from a situation, to a spark point, to a solution. Just take a deep breath and dive in.
I took this online course and highly recommend it. I’ll be putting it to use immediately with a new client. Contact me if you are interested in finding out more.
Kate Harrison Whiteside
Plain language consultant and trainer
I’ve been asked to write a feature for a magazine in subhead format. As a web-journalist and editor I welcomed this refresher. They are critical to getting, keeping and entertaining readers, so I thought I’d share these tips.
Do blogs really need subheads?
Yes. Readers like, are used to and expect small chunks of information on the web, particularly in blogs. It is our responsibility as writers to help lead our readers through our stories, and subheads are important signposts. Search engines also like them, although filling them with keywords is not recommended. Subheads help you target information, promote benefits and inspire action. Hubspot has a great overview.
How do I grab readers' attention with subheads?
With less than 10 seconds to grab the attention of most web readers, it’s important to make subheads work. Smartblogger lists these three tips:
Before: Becoming a freelance writer
After: Why becoming a freelancer was a great idea
The ‘before’ example is simply a regurgitation of the topic that follows.
The ‘after’ example raises interest, makes the reader curious, has readability.
What are the secret ingredients of cooking up great subheads?
Pay attention to the subheads in blogs you enjoyed reading. Look for common characteristics like:
I enjoyed this refresher, and hope you did too.
Plain language still evokes questions from many clients. What is it all about? How does it work? What benefits are there? You can simply answer the questions. Or, you can ask for some time to do a training exercise to bridge the knowledge gap. This can be anything from a short team training exercise, a learning at lunch program, presentation to key leaders or an event keynote talk. Of course, you can run a workshop. Here are five plain language training options that focus on involving people and integrating it into your communications.
1. Drawing Personas
Audience awareness plays a huge part in plain language. You need a detailed picture of your audience for your team to create, commit to and use throughout the project. Personas involve drawing pictures or creating profiles of your audience using research on their lifestyle, cultural, social, professional and personal activities and values. I find it a fun activity to open a training activity or for team building.
Usability.gov has an excellent description of how to do personas.
2. Develop plain language style guide
Integrating plain language guidelines into an existing style guide or creating a stand-alone guide is a great investment with a long shelf-life. Focus on jargon and simple words that can replace your organizations in-house jargon. Everyone appreciates a writing resource. They save time, create shared techniques, enhance peoples’ skills. Integrating it into an existing style guide increases its value and can be a great stepping stone to a learning event.
BC Government website shares content style guides.
3. Create a plain language checklist
Plain language checklists are available online. Most are very generic. Get your communications and plain language project team together to brainstorm a checklist specific to your task, audience or organization. This increases colleagues’ understanding of, skills for and commitment to plain language.
Plainlanguage.gov offers a checklist guide.
4. Carry out an audit
Without embarrassing or intimidating anyone, carry out a plain language audit. Gather a team and collect a variety of documents or information sources and measure against selected plain language guidelines. Share the findings and as a group come up with recommendations. You'll be coaching and training people throughout the whole process.
IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) shared this guide for audits.
5. Enter a project for an award
Awards offer several opportunities for learning and committing to plain language. It helps see what the standards are in the profession. If you are recognized, you have motivation to carry on with your plans.
PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) offers members ($60/year) opportunities to be recognized at its conferences. Other organizations offer annual awards.
Integrating plain language from the top down is your best way to achieve success.
PlainLanguageAcademy.com has core and advanced courses that cover the whole process.
I recently saw an article stating we haven't made many, if any, major gains in the battle against jargon over the past 25 years. There was proof from all the big players in many sectors. I agree we have a big challenge ahead, but I also feel we can win the fight with a strategic approach that proves the benefits of plain language.
Three ways to win the battle for plain language
1. Show and tell
Build a diary or archive of bad examples made great with plain language writing, editing and design. A picture of plain language results can clearly show someone how to effectively use clear language and readable designs to really connect with clients.
Work closely with your designers, for print, visual and online products, to ensure they understand the techniques of clear design. We too often focus on the written components and forget about the creative.
Back up your claims with benefits.
Create a diverse team of clear communication champions. Identify client, staff or organizational opportunities to improve your communications and decrease time spent fixing problems. Be very open-minded about the membership. Solutions can come from anyone, anywhere. Someone not in a communications role may have excellent ideas, be a great problem-solver, and have unique insights. Plain language is most successful when multiple disciplines have a commitment.
3. Be in it for the long term
Plain language is a bit like starting a new exercise program. It can hurt at first. But, once you make the commitment, you start to see the benefits. You have to make a long term commitment to see the biggest gains.
Show and tell, teamwork and a long term commitment together can help you put, keep and enhance plain language on your organization's agenda. You can expect to meet resistance. You can expect to have lots of chats explaining the process. And, you can win people over by selling the benefits.
Plain language is your client service advantage
Plain language, the process of ensuring information meets readers’ needs, is quickly becoming a top skill for freelance writers and editors. Our clients are faced with increased competition and the need to stand out. Plain language benefits for editors include clarity checklists for writing, ways to strengthen the connection between content and clients, and design guidelines for readability. Benefits for your clients include being more effective and efficient at communicating, solving their clients’ problems quickly, and improving staff skills. Words take time, and time is money. So, where do you begin?
How to explain what plain language is?
It is important to understand what plain language is, where to fit it into your services, and how you can promote it to your clients. You may be confronted with the question “What is plain language?” Plain language, or clear communication, is the process of creating print information or online content that meets readers’ needs. We know that organizations struggle to get and keep a client’s attention in today’s competitive marketplace. Following the plain language process helps ensure clients can:
Read the full blog Plain Language is the Editor's Key to Reaching Readers on Indiacopyeditors
What really works?
Regardless of which guidelines you use, what the project focus is, or how much time is available, plain language professionals always put their audience first. As freelance editor Christa Bedwin states in her book, if our audience doesn’t understand what we’ve presented, then we didn’t communicate effectively. Read her Forum blog The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write to see how plain language can effectively cross borders, professions, and topics. It knows no boundaries. It is a great way to enhance your skills, scope, and services.
Interested in enhancing your skills? Sign up for an online PlainLanguageAcademy.com course.
Plain language professionals and marketers know the importance of connecting with audiences in messages they can relate to. But, how do you present those messages in the most meaningful way? You tell a story. The is the marketing focus of the future. It is here to stay. So, how do you adapt your style?
Why is storytelling important?
Echostories.com points to marketing leader Michael Brenner, Newscred, saying storytelling would be the future's number one way to connect with clients. Readers and writers are noting the need to speak directly to people, and connect with them about their interests. This is a cultural change away from delivering the "I want you to buy my goods now, because our stuff is great.' message. It has to be turned around to say: 'You love holidays. Where ever you go, good luggage can make the difference. Let us help you have a smooth, secure journey.' There isn't an 'I', 'my', 'our' in the second examples. Many may find this a hard habit to break. But, the checklist to successful story writing are straightforward.
Storytelling six-point checklist
The first rule is to let your clients lead the way: it's there story, not yours. That's a tough one. But, once you've done it a few times, and had their responses, you'll see its strengths. The second rule is that it that the focus should be on benefits —60% of what you write! Most importantly your story needs:
1. context—reader relevant angle
2. curiosity factor—gets their attention
3. characters—readers relate to
4. conversational style—talk with them, not at them
5. conflict and resolution—problem-solution; question-answer; before-after
6. conclusion that calls for action—set a challenge.
Plain language storytelling
Plain language is all about connecting with your audience. Writing in words they understand. In Business2Community blog on storytelling, 'crisp' is identified as a key writing trait. Is your writing crisp? clear? concise? These are all important factors in plain language ad connecting with readers. And, that's what this story is all about.
TED Talks on storytelling - great stories about storytelling
PlainLanguageAcademy.com - online courses
Presented at the Editors' Association of Canada Conference, Vancovuer, June, 2016
Make sure your project is a shared vision: not double vision. Invest the time before you even pick up your pen, or open a new file, to find out exactly what your client and what your audience wants. Remember: the audience is number one in plain language projects.
2. Gather Resources
Each project—no matter how big or small, whether within your organization or virtual, full on or just a quick sketch—requires resources.
3. Make a Plan
Start with a bare plain language canvas. Then, bring your talents, team expertise and tools together to create a masterful work of art. Yes, the final version will be the 'show and tell'. But, ask any artists: the real results come from the pain staking planning upfront.
4. Tools and Supplies
Plain language uses many tools. But the important ones are unmasking your audience's personal needs and your information's true depth.
Readability tests—the early backbone of plain language—can only supply broad strokes to the canvas: you need to go deeper. Don't forget to blend in user testing at each stage: it can add real visual power to your next version.
You are starting with a blank canvas for each project. Always keep the doors to communication open. Start with gusto, but work with your client along the way. Go step-by-step: resist the temptation to throw all your creative and concept skills at the canvas in one go. Be prepared for tantrums—yours and theirs.
6. Build a Foundation
Whether the project is one document, or a whole group of documents, or a mix of media, create a style guide. Consistency is a huge part of plain language: using first person instead of third; upper and lower case titles instead of screaming bold caps; not underlining copy (readers think it's a hyperlink). Do it for your sanity and to create your signature.
7. Dip In Paint
So, you've done your preparation, planning, and the canvas is ready. Go wild—'dip it in paint'. Go for the test, the rewrite, and the edit. Create! Paint a clear picture of the top changes and share. Training staff has always been a key part of my projects: it can make plain language the universal language of the organization.
8. Professional Secrets
Each and every one of you has unique skills, talents, knowledge and experience that will be transferable to any plain language project. The key is the audience. Use all the plain language tools to get, use and measure the impact of the audience's needs, interests, and expectations. It will make the final project so much more stunning.
9. Glue It Down
Put on the final touches—proofread, check against style guide and checklists, review audience feedback. Get someone else to take a close-up look. Give it to the users for final review. Finish it. Stand back and admire. Then, on with the show.
10. Unveil Your Work of Art
Make a big deal of the final project unveiling. Encourage your team to celebrate. This is a big accomplishment and deserves a 'gallery opening' style event.
Ask for samples. Some huge successes can be made, and you'll want a limited edition version for yourself. Gather them for your next gallery showing!
Where an artist works primarily alone, plain language is all about collaboration. This may feel awkward at first – but it is the best way to get the 'oohs' and 'ahs' when the unveiling happens. Plain language is hard work and you must be proud of your creations.
Best of luck with your next work of art!
Slide show features art project by Cheryl Stephens.
I celebrated International Plain Language Day 2015 by posting #30plainwords—one each day for the 30 days leading up to Oct 13. We can all use plain language resources. As words are at the heart of plain language, this list can be a starting point. It may be the beginning of a style guide for your organization, encouraging people to choose their words carefully.
Don't Use, Choose
1. anticipate, expect
2. attempt, try
3. As a consequence of, because
4. accordingly, so
9. expedite, speed up
10.in the event of, if
13.in accordance with, with
14.in relation to, due to
15.in the amount of, for
16.it is requested, please
17.at this point in time, now
19. numerous, many
20. operate, use
22.for the purpose of, for
23.prior to, before
26. subsequently, after or then
29. with reference to, about
30. our office, we
Remember: Every word counts, and costs.
Take the #WriteClearly2015 Challenge. Choose a document or project for your organization to change to plain language. Set up a team. Draw up a plan. Test it. And, learn from it. Then keep going. But, if it's possible, post your before and after documents and share the link on Twitter with the hashtag #WriteClearly2015. join our IPlainDay Oct 13 tweet-up 9amPT #talkplain2015.
Starting your first plain language project—or initiating a new one—can seem like a big mountain to climb. But, it simply takes a step-by-step approach to get started, go the distance and achieve success. On International Plain Language Day Oct 13 we are inviting you to take the 'Write Clearly 2015' challenge. Here are tips to help you get started.
Kate Harrison Whiteside has over 25 years experience in plain language, writing and editing, training and consulting.