Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My top tips for getting over writer's block

It often happens late at night or on days when I’m trying to meet a deadline; the writing isn’t done and I’m stressed. After an hour of staring at the computer, writing sentences and deleting them, my stomach starts to churn, and I sometimes feel a bit nauseous. I’m never lucky enough to be down with the flu and able to take a break, as there’s usually someone waiting for a draft of a report, press release or web copy.

Everyone I know, whether expert writer or novice, suffers at one time or another from writer’s block.

I’ve never gotten over it by working through it. It just doesn’t happen, and here are some of my favorite methods for calming my stomach and my head and writing the words I need to write. What do they all have in common? I stop working on the project at hand. I find that turning my focus from a writing project, even if just for a few minutes, is often enough to get my brain working and my fingers typing. (BTW, playing on Facebook doesn't have the same positive effect.)

Moving away from the damn computer and doing something else!
Seriously…if I haven’t written a word in an hour, I should have gotten up 30 minutes ago. Thinking too hard about why I can’t write makes it even harder for me to write, so when I remember, I try one, or more, of the following. 
  • Walk my dog (that’s my favorite!), 
  • Empty the dishwasher, 
  • Do a load of laundry, 
  • Meditate (ok, I’m not so great at this, but I just close my eyes for a few minutes and think happy thoughts!), or
  • Call my mom.
Writing about anything but what I am being paid to write
I’m a huge fan of the s$%^& first draft. I find that if I give myself the freedom to write about something else, anything else, the right words come.

A great “write about anything” exercise is a writing prompt. I might look at my dog, George, and write something about him. Or the striped chair in my office. Or, if I want to have a bit of fun, I find a prompt online. One of my favorite writing prompt sites, Prompt & Circumstance, is run by some friends of mine. This talented group of writers continues to develop writing exercises that get me thinking and writing outside of the box. Right now they have an exercise that asks you to develop an imaginary conversation between co-workers with completely different personalities and belief systems. I'm going to try that one the next time the right words escape me. Those few sentences get my writing brain moving and who knows, they might turn into something creative that I can use somewhere else.

Do you have any tips for getting past that writing “hump” to create the next great masterpiece, or at least finish the report that’s due tomorrow? Leave a comment in the notes below.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Guest post: 4 things your graphic designer wishes you knew

Today, my friend, neighbor, designer and fellow writer Jaclyn Paul dishes on the relationship between writers and designers. She talks about those critical topics clients should keep in mind when working on projects together. You've recently heard me yell about at least one of these. Do you have any of your own to add???

If you’re a freelancer, chances are you’ve collaborated with a graphic designer at some point. When I worked as a public relations writer, I was taken aback by the amount of time required to get anything right. Most of our design contracts specified two rounds of edits, but our team always needed at least double that number.

Want to minimize frustration next time you work with a designer? Follow these four easy tips:

Use single spaces between sentences. Though many of us learned the two-space rule in typing class, it’s just plain wrong. Many writers disagree on this, but modern graphic design requires one space after the period — period. Don’t ask your designer to play copy editor by submitting anything different.

Watch your word count. Are you writing for a website, a one-pager, a tri-fold brochure, or a postcard? Get a sense for how much copy you need and prune your writing to fit. If you submit significantly more or less text than your designer is expecting, you’re both stuck at square one.

Give them the final copy (really). The designer should always receive your final copy — last-minute tweaks in place, free of typos, carefully fact-checked. This is especially true if multiple people need to sign off on your work. “We recently had a publication that had 34 ‘final’ versions,” lamented one designer I interviewed. As if that’s not annoying enough, editing a block of text in graphic design software is clunkier than in a program like Microsoft Word. Time is money — for you, the designer, and your client — and asking for several rounds of copy edits in the design phase wastes a whole lot of both.

Avoid overly directorial feedback. Have you ever found yourself reviewing a piece with a designer and saying “could we use that font over here?” or “how about we make this whole paragraph bold so it stands out?” These choices are at the heart of graphic design, and there’s plenty of theory behind them. Think of it this way: would you appreciate a client advising you on sentence length or suggesting more exclamation points to add excitement? Of course not.

Instead, give general feedback to clarify needs you may have missed in your initial consultation. For example: “this is really important; I think it’s getting lost and needs to stand out more.” Your designer can use that feedback as a springboard for further discussion or an adjustment to the design.

Remember, graphic designers are professionals in their craft, just like you. They’re trying to produce a quality product, meet their client’s needs, and avoid wasted time. Make a good impression and you might just find yourself on the receiving end of some valuable referrals.

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelancer based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families and Mix Tapes & Scribbles and in print as arts and entertainment writer for the Keystone newspaper. Before she quit her day job, she served in various capacities as blogger, public relations writer, and technical writer for the Baltimore non-profit community. Find her online at and @jaclynleewrites.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Faye Rivkin: what do you do as a technical writer?

Recently, I talked with two women looking to jumpstart their writing careers. Our conversations were wide-ranging, and I’m looking forward to watching their careers take off. We chatted about all kinds of freelance writing-related stuff, like rates, proposals and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). I’d wager that most of you didn’t know those activities were part of writing.

There are probably more than a few people who aren’t really clear on what it means to be a technical writer. This is the group that looks at me blankly, smiles, nods a few times and says “ah,” when I tell them that’s what I do. Well, it’s time to fix that. 

The short version
I eliminate the pain that comes with creating compelling content, which allows my clients to communicate effectively and with influence.

The details
Every technical writer has his or her areas of expertise. I concentrate on a few industries – hardware and software, science and medicine, education and law – taking highly technical data and turning it into content that’s appropriate for its audience, whether an audience of engineers, scientists, safety technicians or purchasing managers. Purchasing managers, for example, don’t need the level of technical detail required by engineers and scientists, and in some cases, including it can be a detractor and could end a sale. Once I understand the audience and message, I know what to include and what to leave out.

One of my major tasks is to repurpose extremely technical content to explain procedures, define processes and sell products. The resulting documents (see my list of types below) deliver information that allows users to do things like:

  • Install and use software applications,
  • Understand product specifications,
  • Safely operate equipment,
  • Comply with a law, and
  • Meet a regulation.
Or perhaps, it’s to meet a simpler need, like eliminating the chance of embarrassment by reviewing an article before it’s submitted to a journal. I find errors missed by the author, who may have reviewed the same document 12 times.

Whatever the reason, my work allows my clients to focus on their critical tasks. In some instances, I rewrite and revise existing copy. In others, I write a piece from start to finish. How can I do that, if I’m not an engineer, biologist or lawyer? My background and years of experience, my ability to ask the right questions (working as a recruiter allowed me to develop these skills) and my access to subject matter experts, make the process work.

The types of technical content I produce

  • Web copy
  • Brochures
  • Press releases & other marketing copy
  • Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
  • Requests for Proposals (RFPs)
  • Instructions & training materials
  • User manuals
  • Journal articles
  • Technical reports & data sheets
  • White papers

Examples of my work
Much of what I write is covered by NDAs or is ghost-written, and you’d never know I had anything to do with it. But, there are a number of pieces I’m happy to, and allowed to, share. Below are a few. There’s more on my web site, and I’ll share additional samples in the future. 

Recent web sites
SmartLink, LLC
Thornton Service 

Longer form copy
"Delivering Technology Projects on Time, on Budget and On Value,” Tech Trends Journal

“Like It or Not, You Need a BYOD Policy,”Tech Trends Journal
“Additive Marketing Technology and Smart Packaging: A Reality Check,”
Industry Market Trends

Make sense?
Some intricacies are specific to each customer, like using style guides and working with designers, but this should give you a good overview. How’d I do? Did you already have a good idea of my job, or was this a useful tutorial? In my next post, I’ll share with you just how I got to this point. That is a story in itself.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Two spaces after a period?? I didn’t know anyone still did that!

I’ve been a copywriter and an editor for close to 15 years. When I started, I had a reputation as “the red pen lady.” Actually, many of my clients probably still call me that, and I don’t mind. It just means I’m doing my job.
Considering that some of my first clients weren’t native English speakers, you can imagine the fun I had with that red pen. I tried to school them in AP style, which included eliminating the serial comma, using a lot less capitalization and utilizing a single space after a period. This last change was harder than I had expected. Many had been taught that a double space was correct, and they didn’t want to give it up; since it was early in my writing career, I didn’t push.

That was 2001. Since then, I’ve pushed a lot, and I have been pretty successful at getting clients to change to single spacing. But when asked why, I’ve never been able give a definitive explanation, other than to say it’s because I follow the AP guidelines (page 334 in the edition I have). All of the “big” style manuals, AP, Chicago and MLA, specify one space after a period. And for those academic types, the APA (American Psychological Association), recommends single spacing in published works, even though they allow double spacing in drafts.

An article written in 2011 but updated and reposted last week on Business Insider reignited the “one space versus two” conversation. The author, Farhad Manjoo, is a bit pretentious in a likeable sort of way, and he asserts that a single space is the only way to go. He has a concrete explanation. Apparently the early history of type included a mishmash of everything – spelling, spacing, etc. – everyone did what they wanted, nothing was standard and texts were often difficult to read. Typographers, those who study and design the typewritten word, decided it was time for standards, and they agreed on single spacing, among other best practices. It was that simple. Europe adopted the rule in the early 20th century, and America followed shortly after.

In the early 1980s, my typing teacher insisted on double spacing, and it made sense for typing on a manual typewriter; the size of typed letters was inconsistent and double spacing clearly indicated the end of a sentence. At some point in college, maybe after my first computer class (Anyone remember DOS?), I switched to single spacing. It must be old age; I have no recollection of the exact timing, or why I switched. I continue to single space because the experts, AP, Chicago etc., tell me to, but now I can say it’s because the experts decided on it a century ago.

I’ve been asking colleagues, friends and clients, including other graduates of my Hopkins MA in Writing program, what they follow. My small, very unscientific survey showed a pretty solid commitment to single spacing:

“Always, always single.”

“I'm a full time tech writer. First thing I do to every document I touch is a Find/Replace to swap two spaces for one. Thesis was single space, too.”

“Two spaces after a period means you are old. That's all. From typewriting class. When I unlearned it (after failing an employment typing test because of it), I felt immeasurably younger.”

“I'm constantly taking them out of other people's writing. It drives me nuts. In grant writing space is at a premium and I need all the character space I can get!”

“I'm a one space guy and don't even remember where I picked that up.”

“I have been reminded, time and time again, for years that there is only one space after a period. Old habits are hard to break. “

If single spacing is the accepted best practice, why do some still not do it? I had dinner this week with three of my favorite people. All of them are double spacers, and none had a real explanation. They said it’s just always what they’ve done. One went so far as to say that when she can, she changes single spacing to double. Another, although she’d heard that single spacing is the accepted way, just can’t bring herself to change.

I honestly think single spacing looks better than double spacing, and it reads better, and I think readers are happier for it. I am a fan of white space, but I also believe too much white in text makes readers pause for too long, and when that happens, their brains wander. To deliver a message appropriately means readers should not stop, even for a millisecond, and consider leaving the page.

Where do you fall? “They” say that it takes 30 days to create a new habit, so it also takes 30 to kill an old one. Start counting the days, as double spacing after a period is one habit I’d like to see you break. In return, I’m willing to consider giving up my disdain for the serial comma.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

WHEREABOUTS: Stepping Out of Place, An "Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine" Anthology, oh and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Grave of Washington Irving
This past weekend, my mother-in-law and I toured the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, 15 minutes from where my husband grew up and his parents still live. Our first stop was the grave of Washington Irving. It was a grey, misty morning, the perfect setting to learn about the writer of some of my favorite stories, including Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I was very happy to hear he was one of the first writers to figure out one could make a living as a writer, and it didn’t need to be a side gig!

Our morning reminded me I hadn’t yet leaked the details of my latest publishing adventure. It’s one I’m thrilled to be sharing with my friend, Brandi Dawn Henderson, and a number of other “crazy talented” writers. Brandi is main brain behind Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and I mentioned in my last post that we're working together on a project.

The first anthology from Outside In, called WHEREABOUTS: Stepping Out of Place, An "Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine" Anthology, was published last week. It’s a compilation of the best nonfiction from the magazine, which Brandi started in 2011. She and her editors thought the piece I submitted, “Beauty,” was worthy of inclusion, and for that I’m very grateful.

The release is being celebrated with two events, one at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on October 12th and one in DC on the 16th. I’ll be at both, especially since I'm reading my piece at the event in Baltimore. The Baltimore event (scroll down the page for details) is at JHU’s Homewood campus in the Levering Lounge and starts at 6 with a cocktail hour. Readings start at 7. Readers are all Johns Hopkins University alumni:   me, Michele Fizzano McFarland, Shenan Prestwich, Vicki Valosik and Dario DiBattista (reading from his recently released memoir). The DC event is the official launch. It’s at 6:30pm in room A-5 of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Readers are Paula Cruickshank, Adrian Mangiuca, Angela Magnan, Shenan Prestwich and Vicki Valosik.

Hope to see you at one or both. If you can’t make it, or even if you can, I’d highly recommend buying the book, available on Amazon. It’s a great gift for the traveler in your life.

BTW, there are some Rockefellers and Chryslers buried at Sleepy Hollow. And the infamous Leona Helmsley and her husband are there as well. We’re saving those for our next trip to the cemetery, now that Mama Vera wants to do the 2-hour tour.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Better Business Writing: When I’m not there to edit

“Do you freeze when you learn you have to write memos to senior executives”? Do your reports meander and raise more questions than they answer for stakeholders”? Those are the first two lines of HBR’s Guide to Better Business Writing, a book I think should be in every business person’s library. And one they should use, not just let collect dust.

In just over 200 pages, it summarizes the key tips, tools & tricks individuals need to write pieces that are clear and meet their intended goals, and I think it can ultimately make writing easier and less painful. Subjects range from understanding readers to the dos and don’ts of business writing etiquette and how not to “anesthetize” readers. Only a tiny fraction of the book is about grammar, which does my heart good. I’m not dissing grammar; I think it should be high on the writing checklist, just not at the top. Oh and there’s a really complete writing checklist in the book, starting on page 139.

I stumbled on this practical, informative guide, which BTW, I get nothing for talking about, while gathering research for a new project I'm working on with Brandi Dawn Henderson, a fantastic writer, editor and teacher (Check out Outside In Literary &Travel Magazine, the quarterly journal she edits. The next issue is due out October 5th.). We are developing a training program to give employees of small and medium sized businesses faith in their ability to write and help them deliver pieces that are clear and accurate as well as message and audience appropriate. Stay tuned for details on “Conscious Writing for Business."

For some, even me at times, writing can be a terrifying, solitary, boring sport. There are days where those first words just won’t come and when they do, they’re just awful. Earnest Hemingway once said that “the first draft of everything is shit,” and I think this book (coupled with our training of course!) is a great tool for moving that final version of a memo, a report or even a simple email, far from shit and towards greatness.

I’ve had the book for a week and I find myself flipping through it daily, along with my ancient copy of the AP Stylebook. What’s your secret to ensuring your writing doesn’t put your readers to sleep and delivers as intended? Leave your comment below.

Monday, August 19, 2013

8 months to figure out I had cataracts? There’s a story there!

I’m always looking for things to write about. Sometimes my random thoughts sit in a journal for weeks or years before I do anything with them. Some don’t ever see print. But occasionally I'm driven to get these musings to the public, if for nothing more than to make me feel better.

This piece, published in the most recent issue of the Wharton Healthcare Management Alumni Association Newsletter, tells my lessons learned from uncomfortable dealings with the medical establishment in 2012 and early 2013.

In late 2012, I was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes; two months later, I had very simple surgery to remove them. The diagnosis came about eight months, three different types of contacts, four doctors, and approximately seven consultations after I first told my eye doctor the glasses with progressive lenses I’d been trying to wear for the past several months weren’t working.

Neither doctor(s) nor patient (I didn’t get off easy!) took the extra time to ask the right questions; Plus, the doctors continued to think of cataracts as a purely age-related disease. Now that I’ve had the surgery, I can look back on the event clearly (no pun intended) and unemotionally. My hope is that after reading this, you’ll see your next visit to a doctor a bit differently. Perhaps you’ll do your research before your first visit. Or if you’re a doctor, maybe you’ll take an extra minute or two with your next patient to think outside the box.

BTW, the doctor (and friend) I quoted in this piece, Dr. Sanjay “Sonny” Goel, Executive Medical Director for LasikPlus Laser Vision Centers and Visium Eye Institute also had an article published in this issue of Wharton. It’s about the rising costs of healthcare as they relate to cataract surgery. Be sure to check it out.

Have you ever felt like you just HAD to share an experience to anyone who would listen? How did you tell your story? Share in the comments below.