Writing for Business: More Isn’t Always Better

writing and editing for business
Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I read these words in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, and they stuck. They percolate to the surface of my mind whenever I am editing a piece, especially my own. Whether you write for a living or are in a business that only occasionally involves writing, it’s good advice (and appropriately stated, coming from the master of horror.) What it means is this: cut out the unnecessary parts, even if you love them. Why you might ask, would you love those parts if they were unnecessary? Several reasons:

Issue #1:

You feel strongly about a point – perhaps it’s political, possibly it’s part of your chosen profession. When we are passionate about the subject matter, we tend to re-state the same points over and over again in consecutive sentences, rephrasing it each time. You’ll say it once and then say it again a different way. You’ll say the same thing twice or even three times. It’s the same point just reworded. You’ll just repeat yourself…repetitively.

Fix It:

Pick the sentence that says it best, or combine parts of sentences for what most accurately says what you mean. Cut the other ones out. The “Issue #1” paragraph above is about four sentences too long.

Issue #2:

Your thoughts on your subject matter are not well-formed, but you know it’s an important subject. Let’s say you want to write about tips for exercising, but you haven’t thought through the details. Your sentences are full of passion but ramble without ever getting specific, and suddenly you’re up to 1,000 words without having written any concrete tips.

Fix It:

Two words: research and organize. If your thoughts are more broad-scope than specific on a topic, do some digging online. Then, write up an outline of the specific points you want to make. Afterward, as you edit, ask yourself, “Does this sentence serve to help make my point, or is it off topic or vague?” Example: There is no need to tell people what you are not going to talk about. Anything you follow with, “…but this is beyond the scope of this article,” can almost assuredly be cut out.

Issue #3:

You know a lot of detail about the topic – the opposite of problem two. If you are writing about your profession, you may be tempted to go into more detail than your audience can bear. Sometimes we lose touch with what a layperson knows and will find intriguing when we are entrenched in the minutia of our own craft.

Fix It:

As fascinating as you may find the technical details of how your particular widgets are made, the general public is usually interested in a broader stroke they can relate to in their own lives. Have a friend not in your profession read your piece. Consider cutting anything they find confusing or boring. Again, stick to your overall point. More detail is not always better.

Sometimes, keeping to a certain word count can be helpful. If you are determined to get something down to 500 words for a blog post, you are less likely to indulge yourself in rambling. No matter what you’re writing, you want people to read it. So kill your darlings, because they are just that – yours – and not necessarily your audience’s.

Treasure Chest

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I have a cedar chest that sits on the floor of my office. My grandfather made it for me when I was a kid, and my mom and I stained it to match the desk I sit at now – also from my childhood bedroom. Until recently, the chest was in a closet, and I’d sort of forgotten about it, but, in a recent bout of rearranging furniture, I decided to move it downstairs. (Jason is both exasperated and patient with my penchant for moving heavy furniture up and down the stairs periodically.)

It didn’t even occur to me to open it until the kids asked me, “Mom, what’s in there?” So, we sat down on the floor and started pulling things out. Some of the things I remembered: my white, satin flag corps jacket with my name and “Captain” embroidered in green on the front, a story my mom had written about two little girls named April and Bonnie (me and my sister) at the beach, and various trinkets from my years as a Girl Scout. And there were things I had forgotten: photos from high school, sticking to each other with tape residue, because I had taped my favorites to my closet and mirror, a doll from the 1950’s that was my mom’s. I saw the marks on her face (the doll’s, not my mom’s) and smiled as I remembered Mom telling me their dog, Tippy, had gotten a hold of the doll. Tippy is long gone, but those teeth marks persevere.

The kids lost interest, but I sat on the floor of my office for a long time, looking at photos and items I had at some point deemed significant enough for the cedar chest. Most of the objects sparked a visit to the past: view-finder-style photos of my childhood best friend, Kim, and me at Great America. I had been visiting her in Chicago where her family had moved. Children of the ’80’s, in the photo, we’re all poofy bangs, big earrings and NKOTB/George Michael t-shirts. Some of the things, a greeting card with a cow on it and absolutely nothing written inside, I stared at quizzically. Why the hell did I keep this?

It’s been a long time since I allowed myself to revel in the past so thoroughly. In my adult years, I’d begun to see it as a self-indulgent waste of time. But, as I’ve thought about my childhood and adolescence as a result of those cherished cedar chest items, I realized there is more there than just fond (and some not-so-fond) memories; I started to remember how I felt as a child. Before puberty, before I became self-conscious about how I looked, before I was assaulted with social pressures and hormones, I was free. I played joyfully naked in the sprinkler in the front yard. I put on eclectic outfits from my dress-up box and danced in the living room, sometimes with no music but what was in my head. I did headstands just because I liked to. I played with other kids when I felt like it and went home to my room when I was ready. And I read a line in the story my mother wrote, “April was an imaginative child,” and I realized I’d forgotten that. I didn’t remember that I was always full of imagination, much like my youngest child now.

I’m rediscovering a little of this freedom. Through a little reading and a lot of contemplation, I am remembering that un-selfconscious feeling of childhood – living in this moment, free from worry of being judged. It’s an even better feeling as an adult, because I have an appreciation for it. I see it in contrast to the times I feel anxious, awakening at 3am, suddenly worried by my pesky adult brain: Did I remember to call that contributor back? Am I supposed to send snacks to school today? When I said that thing to that person, did she take it the wrong way? And what about that horrible thing I did twenty years ago… 

Those worries still happen, but now, more and more, I have reclaimed that unabashed sense of self I had as a child. I am just me, April – not a writer, not Mom, not an introvert. I mean, yes, all that, but simpler, boiled down I am just me. It was always there, that comfortable, confident sense of self. I didn’t lose it, but like the trinkets in my treasure chest of the past, I just forgot I had it.

Election

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I wrote this the day after the election but didn’t publish it. I was afraid I was still too close to give a fair, big-picture account of my feelings about it. Now, on inauguration day, I’ve re-read it, and I still believe it. Un-edited, here it is:

I know you’re probably sick of hearing about it, but I have a lot on my mind concerning what happened in the 2016 presidential election. Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant. I got my ranting out of my system yesterday morning in the bathroom, as Jason and I were getting dressed. He very graciously did not point out I was acting like a lunatic.

Watching Hilary Clinton lose Florida, and then all the other swing states, was like watching in horror as the Longhorns lose to Iowa State at home, only I didn’t have the reassurance, “it’s just a game.” The outcome of this “game” we have to live with for at least four years. I fell asleep on the couch after it became apparent Donald Trump would win. I awoke around 3am and checked the news on my phone, hoping against hope, but my fears were confirmed. Donald Trump, the man who was portrayed as America’s rock-bottom president in a prescient Simpsons episode in 2000, was the president elect.

The day after the election, I couldn’t focus on work. I kept wondering why? Why, America, did you vote for a man who, according to all evidence, is racist, bigoted, misogynistic and narcissistic? I couldn’t fathom it, so I took to the radio. I listened to National Public Radio a lot of the day – election analysis by experts, thoughts on what a Trump presidency means for the U.S., interviews with Trump supporters, both politicians and average people. I had discussions with friends on both sides of the campaign.

This is what I discovered: overwhelmingly, those who voted for Trump were after change. They didn’t want another career politician influenced by special interest groups, moderating their views to keep everyone happy and not listening to what the people wanted – jobs and help for business owners. Though it is not clear they will actually get these things under Trump, they believe he is a better bet than Clinton.

While I see their point, and it is somewhat of a relief not to hear anyone saying they supported Trump because they think all the Mexicans need to go back to Mexico or because they think grabbing women by the pussy is acceptable behavior, I still don’t agree. While most Trump supporters are focused on shaking up Washington and what Trump might be able to do for businesses, I focus on his character, what he might do to the environment, what he might do to immigrants, and, scariest of all, who he might appoint to the Supreme Court. My heart hurts for all the people who are scared of being deported. Whether it can actually happen or not, living in fear is no way to live, especially for children.

Character is important. Online, I read a retort to those concerned about Trump’s personality: “People say all the time that their doctor or lawyer is an asshole, but they are a great doctor/lawyer. What does his character matter if he can get things done?” My response: he is not a doctor or lawyer. He is the president of the United States. He represents the American people, and he’s responsible for maintaining relations with other nations. I’d say decent character is a little important.

I understand the concern that Clinton won’t follow through with promises. She has outright contradicted her own positions at times, and the way her views became more adamantly leftist after beating out Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination smacked of political maneuvering – an effort to gather Sanders supporters to her side. I don’t quite trust Clinton, but I do think her heart is in the right place. She is striving to break that elusive glass ceiling, and she genuinely wants a more inclusive America. She has dedicated her life to making the changes she sees vital; I admire her for that. Politics is not for the faint-hearted. But does that lifetime of politics disallow her to see the forest for the trees? Is she so entrenched she doesn’t see what is really going on in our country with the average person? Does maneuvering for power to push her agenda cloud her vision of that agenda? Maybe. It doesn’t seem like any of us so much voted for one candidate as we did vote against the other.

Bottom line, I still think I’m right: while Clinton may not have been the shake-up Washington needed, she was a far better bet than Trump, whose hyperbolic, self-centered ways of thinking quite frankly scare me for our country. His acceptance speech was conciliatory and gracious – a relief to hear – but, as one New York protester said, “he can’t just erase all that other stuff he said.”

When my 8 year old asked me who won, and  I told him, he said glumly, “I guess everyone’s moving to Canada.” While I may have said that flippantly in the weeks before the election, I realized, that’s not where I stand. Now that Trump is president, and we’ve had our day of ranting, obsessing, mourning , commiserating with like-minded friends and contemplating, where do we go from here? The United States is my home, and there is no place I’d rather live on earth. I feel damned lucky to be here, and I have a strong sense of loyalty. The democratic process, imperfect as it is, needs to be protected. I don’t agree with the outcome, but the people have spoken. I have hope, though. I hope I’m wrong. I hope all the people who told me Trump won’t be able to set women’s rights back and build a wall are right. I hope everyone who said his dramatic campaign statements were only for the sake of media attention (much as I abhor the tactic) is correct.

I am still worried, but I hope, and I will be here, in my small and humble way, to hold Trump accountable. Bernie Sanders said several months ago, in a plea to his supporters, that we needed to vote for Hilary Clinton, even if we were concerned she wouldn’t follow through with her promises, because the Democratic party’s platform is good and solid. We needed to elect her and then hold her accountable, he said. Trump is not my choice, but he’s the one we’ve got. When we sign up to be Americans, which we all do by living here, we agree to abide by the democratic process. One of the best things about our country is that, even if we make that implicit agreement, we are free to shout as loudly as we want when we don’t agree with what’s going on. I urge you to do the same. Whether you voted for Trump or not, hold him accountable for what you know in your heart and head is right. Because, as divided as the nation may seem, we are all in this together. We will all reap the benefit or pay the price, and we must work together.

Trump is what we have to work with. I accept it, even if I don’t like it. I will do as Clinton suggested in her concession speech: I will give him the chance to lead. I will do my best to be open-minded and fair. I will pay closer attention than I ever have before to politics, I will hold him accountable, and I will be loud when I don’t agree. It’s a very American thing indeed to stand up for what’s right. I truly hope he means what he says, that he wants to be president for ALL Americans. I hope he means all genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, ages and abilities. And I don’t mind saying that I hope, four years from now, the Democratic Party does a better job of getting some qualified person elected.

But, if all else fails, I’ll nurse my sorrow with some wine and Saturday Night Live…which is sure to be awesome for the next four years.

Flag Image Copyright: hausdorf / 123RF Stock Photo

How to Write a Business Blog

how to write a business blog
Photo by Le Buzz on Unsplash

So, you set up a beautiful, fully-functional website for your business. Now, how do you get people to visit it? One of the best ways to drive traffic to your site is with free, valuable content that can be linked to on social media. That’s right – start a blog. Here are some tips for making your business blog successful:

Pick a Simple, Relevant Topic

There’s no need to go into grand detail on the technical aspects of your business. Address questions people commonly ask you, or overview-type topics. Imagine you’re talking to a curious friend who doesn’t know anything about your area of expertise. Seasonal topics also get a lot of attention; focus on the holidays, spring cleaning, or New Year’s resolutions.

Keep It Short

In the case of content blogs for businesses, less is more. Just be sure you’ve explained yourself enough to actually add value. Around 500 words is a good length.

Use List Format

Readers attend more to well-organized information. If your topic lends itself to list format, use it. Or, consider separating paragraphs into sections with bold headings.

Be Informal

A casual tone will connect more with your audience. Avoid overuse of technical words specific to your industry and explain any you do use. Again, imagine how you would explain it to a friend, verbally. Just leave out all the “ya’ know’s”  and “um’s.”

Proofread and Edit

It’s helpful to write one day and proofread a day or two later. Even better, ask someone else to correct it for you; they are more likely to see your errors and can tell you if something isn’t clear. Editing is mostly about cutting out extraneous words and phrases and eliminating inadvertent, long-winded rants. You can also download Grammarly or Ginger for automatic editing. They have both free and paid versions. Just be sure you still have a human proofread; the programs aren’t perfect.

Include a Graphic

Even if your post doesn’t lend itself to them, a picture gets people’s attention when it shows up in the thumbnail image on social media. Pick something at least loosely related to your topic, and if the photo isn’t your own, be sure to give proper credit in the caption. Wikimedia Commons and Unsplash are useful resources for free stock photos, and they provide the photo credit as well.

Avoid Shameless Plugs

This isn’t a hard, fast rule; I’ve been known to insert my own shameless plug from time to time. Blog posts, though, should be mostly educational information related to your field. Stay away from making entire posts into advertisements. An occasional link back to your main page at the end of a post, however, is useful and tasteful.

Post Regularly

This can be the hardest part — coming up with material every week. But if you want to stay in front of your target market, post at least once a week and share it on social media. Be sure to add a “follow” button to your blog, so those interested can receive a notification every time you post.

If you are consistently in front of your target audience, offering valuable information and advice, when they find themselves in need of services, they’ll call you. Don’t have time to keep up with a blog? Send me a message. I can help.

My Take on New Year’s Resolutions

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For years (okay, my entire life), I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. I’d vaguely entertain the idea, maybe write something down, but it was always half-hearted – something I did because I was supposed to and not with any real conviction. Over time, I developed an aversion to resolutions. Coming up with them and sharing them felt like a setup for failure, and often when I thought about what I truly wanted to achieve in the new year, I couldn’t come up with anything I felt excited about.

 

It does, though, feel natural to take stock of my life this time of year – to review how things are going and think about what I’d like to work on. I know – semantics, but the word “resolution” has pressure-y connotations to me. Plus, resolutions are usually things people want to DO: exercise three days a week, eat more kale, work on that business plan. I always felt at a loss starting with, “What do you want to do?” So, this year, I took a step back and looked at the big picture. I asked myself, “What do I want to feel?” My answer was, “calmer, more focused and more confident in my decisions.” From there, I came up with three principles that would help: simplicity, intuition and freedom. Let me break it down:

Simplicity

This is a hard thing to achieve in the modern world. With all of the input we get each day from other people, our phones and media, it’s difficult to filter out what is useful. I am in the habit of considering everything. This is a good trait, in that I am open to new ideas, but being open to EVERY idea leads to feeling scattered. So, I will immediately ignore the stuff I don’t need right now, without feeling compelled to explore. And, I will expose myself to less stuff by unsubscribing, turning off notifications and generally spending less time on social media. This actually means not reading so much, too, or at least not so many personal growth books. These are useful, but like they say….everything in moderation.

Intuition

We have gotten away from respecting our intuition, as people and parents. How DID people parent without all those expert opinions foisted on them? How did we make decisions before there were warning signs about not running and not diving? Yes, advice and warning signs can be useful, but they’ve become so ubiquitous, we’ve stopped trusting our intuition and instead rely on the experts to tell us what to do. We don’t even eat intuitively; we go find a prescribed diet that we think works for us. By avoiding being overrun by social media and by committing to doing regular, self-care things like meditating and getting outside, I can cultivate the centeredness I need to hear my intuition (distinguish it from irrational, reactionary thoughts) and respect it.

Freedom

“Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?” Louis Sachar, author of The Wayside School series, asks a character in one of his books this – a child who has wandered down into the basement of the school and is lost. The child says he wants to be free, so he is allowed to find his own way out of the basement. From then on, he doesn’t have to participate in any school activity he doesn’t want to. This means he gets to sit on the floor and chew gum if he wants, but it also means he misses a really fun day in P.E. when he decides not to go. Freedom can feel, well, freeing, but it can also be scary. When you step outside the norm – go into business for yourself, for example – you are responsible for much more. Freedom can be stressful, but it can also be completely worth it. And, by mindfully attending to simplicity and intuition, freedom can be less stressful and scary and work out wonderfully.

This is a very different approach for “resolutions” than I’ve been exposed to for most of my life. Instead of starting with action, I started with the big picture, because it’s more stable and enduring; the actions that support it may change over the year. What I need to do to promote simplicity, intuition and freedom will grow and change from January to December.

The Buddha says, of his own teachings no less, “Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of liberation.” In the same way, while my three principles may guide me through the year, I will not cling to the individual actions that support them past when they are useful to me. The actions are only tools to get where I want to go.