Did You Learn Writing The “Right” Way?

A lot of us learned the “conventional” way: via English teacher, sentence diagrams, vocabulary exercises, and spelling tests.

There isn’t much that’s conventional about me, though, and although I endured the usual classes for a few years in elementary, I largely leapfrogged the classic English lessons via gifted and AP English. This meant that for years I couldn’t point out a past participle or label subjunctive clauses in sentences. To the New York State Education Department, that didn’t matter.

So what did matter?

Clarity of expression. As our lexicon grows, so should syntax and semantics.

Individuality of expression. Parroting what we’ve heard is only charming until around the age of three.

Comprehension of the expressions of others. That’s the only way the people around us know the lights in the attic aren’t automatic.

Michelle was tweeting during our #WrMatters chat on Thursday, during which we discussed the things we had to learn the hard way when it came to writing the things we write–schooling or no schooling. When I read her tweet, I thought, You and me both, Michelle.

Would formal training have made me timid as I learned the parts of speech and where to place each one, ever so carefully?

Has it forced you to second-guess a statement that sounded fine when you said it but reads like nails on a chalkboard to… well, your English teacher?

Why, after years of training, are so many of us still unsure we’re writing correctly?

And yet, Michelle Baker mentioned that learning English–and I think this applies to anything–can create a

“Vicious cycle: lessons can’t be unlearned until you’re competent; you gain competence by adhering.”

These days, when email is now a formal medium for important business communication and we’re being urged to use childish-sounding platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate professionally, I don’t think it’s any accident that at the same time, so many rules we thought were set in stone are being “unlearned.” But is it safe to “unlearn” when we have yet to learn about things like parallelism and mixed metaphors?

Although it seems we were all taught from the same books–just counting the number of times I’ve heard “Never to start a sentence with because”–we all express ourselves differently. Twain and Hemingway are a contrast that only begins to show how much room English has for our verbal idiosyncrasies–and how much tolerance readers have for them. And even I, with no formal training, can usually tell creativity from gobbledy-gook. Usually, I said.

But in the end, the only “right” way to learn to write well is to keep at it, while using common sense–and remembering these gems from the chat:



All this soft-focus rhetoric was generated by the much sharper #WrMatters Twitter chat for professionals of all disciplines who just happen to write things that matter. I hope to see you at the next one, on August 9 at 4 pm EST.

Photo credit: Shirley Theresia, courtesy Flickr, CC 2.0.

How To Know Whether Your Copy Is Too Creative

Can your audience spell it? I visit chief wordworker (and she really is a chief!) Nancy Friedman’s blog frequently, mainly to laugh at the gaffes other creative decision-makers have made in naming and marketing their businesses. Because I’ve never made a mistake like that, ever.

One of the most frequent elements Nancy calls out is spelling. Is it too much to ask that it not be so korny we don’t remember it’s spelled that way? Deformed syllables that you want to be pronounced as if they’re normal can easily send a Google search down the rabbit hole (“Saf” pronounced “Safe” just isn’t–not for your brand, anyway).

Can your audience tell it’s meant for them? Lululemon added a quotation from Atlas Shrugged to its shopping bag in November. I probably would never have thought twice about it, because although I’m familiar with Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I’ve never read the book. But those who did got the message instantly, and I’m sure they spread the word just as fast.

It really doesn’t matter what I thought or didn’t think. I don’t buy $150 sweats.

Does it leave out the important parts? Your audience might be delighted by the tone and delivery of your copy–and then be irritated by a fruitless search for the nuts and bolts. Make sure you don’t overlook your contact information, an instruction manual, or something else essential to extending your relationship with an interested reader in your rush to make them happy.

Are readers reading but not acting? Copy that flows beautifully is fun to read, but that’s about all your customers will get from it if you don’t remember to reach deeper into their emotions for the button that gives them the urge to do something you want them to do.

What else can indicate copy is more play than work?

Photo credit: Eli Christman, courtesy Flickr, CC 2.0.

Friday Marketing Spotlight: Jason Konopinski

Writer and communications professional Jason Konopinski has always impressed with the deep thoughts on creativity and writing that he shares at his blog, and he did the same with the lesson he shared for us at my invitation:

A recurring theme for me is always knowing your core competencies and delivering on those in everything you do.

Do what you do–and only what you do–well. Simple, right? Well, I think a lot of us–especially those of us running SMBs–can run into situations that suddenly make us conflicted about what the true mission of our business is.

Ever had an opportunity come up that promised so much money and status that you couldn’t sleep that night?

Ever second-guessed an opportunity you turned down when things are slow?

Ever wonder whether you should change your brand to fit the business you’re receiving–because it’s that far off the track you laid out for your business?

I’ve been running my own business for over ten years now and all of the above have happened to me. I’ve made the right decisions and the wrong decisions, and I’ve come to realize that conviction in your brand is something that builds within you over time. No matter how concrete and focused the face you put forward to the world, you’ll have doubts at first.

You’re going to want to address those doubts by taking action, but the faster you learn to recognize distractions for what they are, the more effectively you’ll deal with them–and move on.

So thank you, Jason, for the wise advice.

Oh, lest you forget, it’s #FollowFriday, so please give Jason a Twitter follow–there can never be too many creative, informative tweeps on your roster.

Marketing: What You Think They’ll Think

The above thought had been in my head for months before Ithe following thought arrived in my inbox from social media queen Liz Strauss’s weekly email list:

I had been thinking about who I thought they were and who they thought we were. That thinking might have been translated to “What will our customers think of that?”

A better thought might have been “What do I think of that?”

Now when I make decisions, I make sure to consult myself in that mix.

I’ll never really know what my customers think.
I’ll never really know what my neighbors, friends, enemies, or anyone else thinks, as matter of fact.

That will always be a guess.

But I can always know what I think of what I’m offering and whether I think it’s up to the standards I want to represent.

“That will always be a guess.”

It’s true, in the end. Numbers, polls, studies, observation and networking can only tell you so much about what’s going on in your customer’s head. Gathering as much information as you can will give you an advantage over most of your competitors, but there’s still always a chance you’ll miss something critical.

Don’t let this fact paralyze you.

If you approach marketing with knowledge, you may not hit the bulls-eye, strike-it-rich pot o’ gold, but you will land close enough that you’ll be able to gather even more information that will help you perfect your aim.

But if you make decisions based solely on data without keeping the soul of your business’s identity in sight, you can fail spectacularly to connect yet again.

You’ll never know, though, until you act.

Read This Before Your Blog’s Bait And Switch

I’m referring of course to Mitch Joel’s blog about something he calls the social contract. I read it while in the midst of being conflicted about the same issue of building a thriving community only to change to high-powered sales pitch. I’ve seen it advised, and I’ve seen it happen. And each time I felt as if I were missing some information.

  1. Is it cold turkey, or a kind of gradual change-over from “Take my advice” to “Buy my stuff?”
  2. Do we give advanced notice (which I see as apologetic), or do we just throw up new banners, advertorials, and buttons and wait for the clicks?
  3. How do we deal with the inevitable mass exodus of readers and bring in newcomers?

It just didn’t seem that doing something like this seamlessly was possible, and when I read Mitch’s post I agreed wholeheartedly with opting to hold onto the unspoken existing agreement we have with our communities. I go to some expecting deep thoughts, others expecting useful advice applicable to me, and still others expecting to be sold on some new tool, course, or book.

So I wasn’t missing any information. If we find we want to switch our approach to blogging, it’s probably because we’ve either lost touch with the original goal for our blog or we never had one in the first place.

Owning that is good. Making our readers suffer from our sudden itch to change over is bad.

If you find you want to start selling to your community, my advice as a reader:

Do it gradually. A review you benefit from or a course with your affiliate link is fine once a month, to me. If I like what you’ve had to offer so far, I’ll feel confident you’ll only offer the best for purchase as well. But if I start to notice it everywhere, I’ll start to wonder if you’ve lost your day job.

Note responses. If readers don’t click, take the banner down or move it and try again. Ask for feedback from those who do respond, and learn which types of things your readers are most willing (or at least not as resistant) to purchase.

Make a new space. When you want to offer something unrelated to your current brand, or in a different format than anything else currently on offer in your current space, making a new one and directing customers there regularly is a good way to stay consistent in both places.

Thanks to Jason Konopinski for the kick-start to writing this post!

Photo credit: Olga Pozdina, courtesy Flickr CC 2.0.

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