Track changes as a writing tool

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Despite my love for technology, I have some habits and opinions that prove that I grew up before the Internet. I capitalize and punctuate my texts. I still don’t know if Facebook and Twitter are good or bad. I still like the concept of the two-page memo (not the 1,000 word email).

I conducted a writing workshop recently at which I was forced to face a technology I thought I hated: track changes. I left with a new perspective on the feature. Track changes could actually work for me.

First, let’s get my complaints on the record:

1. Among the many traits of good writing, I think clarity and voice are two of the most important. I’ve found that they are also the first things to suffer from track changes. Documents with a dozen editors may be factually accurate, but they are usually bland and soulless.

2. Everyone gets to weigh in, and everyone does. There’s a difference between correcting factual errors (which I welcome) and changing words randomly (which I don’t). Invariably, random wording changes complicate the original sentence (see point #1 above).

3. All edits look equal. If a colleague makes several edits to a document, how is the original author to know which ones are musts and which ones are suggestions? Without thoughtful use of both edits and comments, the accept or decline process is very complicated and can cause conflict within teams (Why didn’t you take my edits?)

4. It’s demoralizing to open a document and see that five of your colleagues have deleted/edited/changed/rejected 50% of your copy. I hate sending clients a document that shows every change I made to their stream-of-conscience brain dump. My role for most of them is to take their ideas and turn it into a good document, so I just send them a clean first draft.

5. Track changes hampers the learning process for young writers. When I was starting out, my bosses used to circle an awkward sentence and write “???” in the margin. Message received. They would circle the first two typos, write “clean draft please” and hand it back to me. Message received. With track changes, managers are too quick to fix their employees’ typos and grammar errors and rewrite awkward sentences. After all, it’s faster.

Given these biases, I was pleasantly surprised during this writing workshop to help develop some rules-of-the-road for a communication team that would reduce the above flaws and embrace the tool that we all know isn’t going away.

1. When you send an edited document back to someone, save it in Show Final view before attaching it. This will preserve the tracked changes, but the viewer won’t be smacked with a rainbow of edits when it is first opened. Then, include an explanation of your edits in the body of the email so the reader knows what you were thinking. (John, please see attached edits. I preserved your thesis and main points, but I reordered them to flow better. I also rewrote several sentences that seemed a bit long and awkward. I think this new draft is a lot tighter. Let me know if you have any thoughts or comments.)

2. Managers should not fix their employees’ grammar or typos. This is hard, especially for teams that work on short deadlines. But managers that are willing to accept and fix dirty writing will forever get dirty writing from their team.

3. If you re-write an entire paragraph or section, add a comment to the edit that explains why you rejected the original text. (John, I think we need to get to the heart of America’s healthcare crisis in the first paragraph. Consider my alternative text and let me know if you disagree with this approach.)

4. Don’t change language that doesn’t need to be changed. I edit my own documents every time I open them. Editing is never over; there’s always another (but not always better) way to say something. When you make an edit or suggestion, have a rationale for the change besides “I would have said it differently.” Writers like to have their ideas and approaches honored and respected.

I’m sure there are other great ways that groups can make track changes a more useful workplace tool. If you have any, post them in the comments.

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Vision and Mission: What you want and what you do

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I find it ironic that the communication field has such a hard time locking in firm definitions for words we use to help clients. Words like goals, objectives, strategies and tactics mean different things to different people.

One person’s strategy is another person’s tactic.

I came across this recently when helping a great Austin group refine its vision and mission. I wanted to show them some examples, and I found Craig Van Korlaar’s great site, which includes articles about good vision and mission statements for large, well-known organizations. Great examples. Check them out. (Another collection of non-profit mission statements is missionstatements.com, but I’m not sure of the criteria used for the list.)

Yet it seems that even these groups can’t agree on a firm difference between vision and mission. As I know them:

a vision statement articulates how an organization would define a perfect world (or city or community), within the context of what they do, and

a mission statement articulates the organization’s reason for existing (it explains what the group does quite literally).

So a food bank in Smith County might say:

Our vision is a community where no one ever goes hungry.

Our mission is to provide food to needy families in Smith County.

One of my favorite organizations is the American Red Cross. In addition to being a great cause, the organization’s messaging and ads are so good.

But look at its vision.

The American Red Cross, through its strong network of volunteers, donors and partners, is always there in times of need. We aspire to turn compassion into action so that:

…all people affected by disaster across the country and around the world receive care, shelter and hope;

…our communities are ready and prepared for disasters;

…everyone in our country has access to safe, lifesaving blood and blood products;

…all members of our armed services and their families find support and comfort whenever needed; and

…in an emergency, there are always trained individuals nearby, ready to use their Red Cross skills to save lives.

First, it’s very well written and clearly thought out. But it’s also a very long and complicated vision. And I’d argue that the two sentences (before all the ellipses) are actually part of the mission.

Further, I’d argue that its vision is simpler: A world that is prepared for disaster before it strikes and provides professional and compassionate help when it does.

Its mission statement, however, is nearly perfect.

The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

The American Red Cross does a lot of things (see ellipses). But the sentence above wraps all of those activities, goals and programs up into a simple statement that explains its reason for being:  we prevent and alleviate human suffering.

Remember, your vision and mission should explain what you want and what you do. But they shouldn’t be complicated and they shouldn’t list EVERYTHING.

If you have examples of really good (or really bad) vision or mission statements, send them my way.

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Six tools for better writing

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I understand that offices are less formal than they were 15 years ago and that organizations now assign writing tasks to staff that were hired for other talents (I’m looking at you, scientists and MBA grads). But good writing still matters. I believe that sentences should be properly capitalized and that verbs should agree with nouns. From smart authors (especially from smart authors), we should expect smart writing. When our colleagues stumble, our job as communicators is to politely yet firmly direct them toward the light.

There are countless writers that are more prolific than I am and likely more qualified to give advice. But I can’t help myself. So below are some simple tools I keep handy and three books that every writer should read (and keep and read again). They not only help as I write, but they provide great “backup” when I have to defend my edits with my clients.

The New York Times“After Deadline” grammar blog is one of my nerdy guilty pleasures. Perhaps I read it to see if I can spot the errors before the editor points them out. I’ll never tell. For someone in the communication business, reading about writing is a healthy habit and one I’m proud to keep. And it makes me feel good to know that even the Times makes mistakes.

A dictionary. No joke. I use online dictionaries to confirm spelling. But to confirm that I am using a word correctly, nothing beats a paper dictionary. Why? Mostly it’s because I hate buzz words like optimize, convergence and tweet – words that dictionary editors know are manufactured fluff but include in new editions out of fear of appearing stuffy and old. I prefer to use words that have existed for more than 10 years (Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” is a worthy exception). With online dictionaries, I can’t tell if a word was invented yesterday. I’m working on a post focused entirely on annoying work words. But for now, sticking to dictionary words is a good rule.

A thesaurus. I prefer to use an actual book, but an online version, if used often, can be a good substitute. When I was a kid, I’d use a thesaurus to find fancy words so I’d look smarter than I was. At work, we tend to use words that are more complicated than necessary (utilize instead of use, for example). These days, a thesaurus often helps me find the simpler, not the more complex.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Known informally as “Strunk and White,” it’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read. There’s a good chance you’ve already read it. Read it again. Reviewing the authors’ simplicity and focus would be a good annual habit.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Equally heralded by those that have read it but less famous than “Strunk and White,” On Writing Well is, in many cases, even more instructive and helpful for workplace writers. It’s another good annual read.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Part biography (you learn how King came up with the storyline for Carrie…creepy) and part writer’s workshop, On Writing provides a peek into the habits and opinions of one of America’s most prolific fiction writers. No animals come back from the dead, and it’s a much shorter read than almost anything else King has written. But you’ll gain a real appreciation for words.

Any other suggestions? I’m always looking for new tools. So if you have a favorite writing book or blog, let me know.

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Writing with purpose

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Every once in a while I read something that makes me say, out loud, “Why couldn’t I have said that first?”

A New York Times blog post by Danny Heitman that made me do just that.

He cites late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who wrote about how a former boss would edit his writing:

In his hand was a pencil; down on each page one could expect, at any moment, a long swishing wiggle accompanied by the comment: “This can go.” Invariably it could. It was written to please the author and not the reader. Or to fill in the space. The gains from brevity are obvious; in most efforts to achieve it, the worst and the dullest go. And it is the worst and the dullest that spoil the rest.

“It was written to please the author and not the reader. Or to fill in the space.”

Heitman’s article is about brevity, but this quote is about much more than that. It’s about writing with purpose.

How much of the content we create fits this description? How much of our writing “can go”? Too much, I’d say.

Why? My first three suspects are low expectations, time and lack of purpose. (There are plenty of others, for sure.)

First, workplace writing isn’t very good, and it is at its worst online, where so much of today’s writing is published. Unfortunately, too few people are bothered by it. And if someone in the communication department isn’t willing to fix things (or isn’t capable of fixing things), anyone with a keyboard can be an author. That’s great for democracy, perhaps. But it is bad for good writing.

Second, writing well takes time. There’s an old Twain quote: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” It’s true. Good writing requires planning and editing. Six hundred words is a lot easier than 100.

Finally, most of us write because we have to, not because we have something urgent to say RIGHT NOW. As a result, our writing doesn’t say anything urgent or even mildly important. We’re not writing for the reader or even for our cause. We’re writing for a deadline.

Low expectations and time are often our of our hands. But as writers, we can fix the “lack of purpose” problem. Before I write anything, I ask my clients to approve a single sentence or paragraph that sums up what we want the reader to believe. If we can’t agree on a single idea, we usually end up with a complicated, wandering draft.

When we do agree on a single idea, not only is the final product better, but the process is much smoother.

I’m going to pull together some tools (books, etc.) and tricks I use to wage the war on bad writing. Stay tuned. And let me know if you have any suggestions. How do you battle bad office writing?

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Hello, again.

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Reviving a dormant blog forces you to make decisions, especially when the reason you stopped publishing was lack of focus. This blog went quiet a while back because I committed (and recommitted) the same sin that I complain about from others: post after post of what some guy knows and thinks you should know, too.

So in addition to committing to new posts, I’m committing to a strong focus on topics that: (1) are worth your time and (2) I’m passionate about.

First, after 20 years in the communication business — with firms, politicians, corporations and causes — I’ve learned some things that I think could help people that communicate for a living: messaging, writing, storytelling as a communication tool, presenting, and examples of good and bad communication. Everyone can get better, and I think I can help some folks. And I’m hoping for comments and feedback that will make me better, too.

Second, focus is easier when you really, really love the topics you choose. So in addition to cherry-picking communication topics, I also plan to write on some issues that consume a great deal of my work-day thinking. Technology is one example. So many of a communicator’s tools are technology-centric. As my job shifted from a corporation to an independent office, I’ve tried and tested many tech products and services that make my work and home life easier. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a gadget addict.

Non-profits (or causes) is another example. A lot of my work is for such clients, and I see things (and have opinions about things) that aren’t just communication issues. General commentary about the media is another. You get the idea.

Finally, I plan to use a mixture of traditional (longer) posts and shorter microposts. I’ve become a big fan of John Gruber’s technology site Daring Fireball. His entries are simple and thoughtful. I like them, even if I disagree with some of them. There are scores of good stories and sites I’d like to point out to readers but that do not necessarily warrant tons of commentary from me.

So, that’s the plan. The first “real” new post is coming soon, so let me know what you think. It’s not too late to adjust!

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