What kind of writer are you?

Some people labor like Sisyphus over their first drafts–others do the real work while they edit. Some start with talking points or notes on a sticky pad, while others work from memory. A few write drafts in longhand, then transfer copy to the computer for revision. Many work alone, but some do better in a group.

I keep folders for each of the projects I’m working on, and take longhand notes on yellow pads during meetings, phone calls and webcasts. I date each page and stick it in the folder, along with documents, schedules and comments from others on the team.

When it’s time to write, I go through the relevant folder and take notes. From here I develop a scratch outline, and then the writing begins.

After I have a draft, I edit once (usually in hard copy) and send it off to the working group. I’m lucky enough to have another writer I trust in my organization, so I try to get her input as well.

From here there’s usually one more edit before the client sees the document. It’s an arduous trek, but I’ve found that–even after 25 years–there’s no shortcut to good work.

What’s your process?

I say abrasive, you say concise

According to my wholly unofficial poll, emails are more likely to be misinterpreted than any other form of business communication. The writer dashes off a friendly note, but the reader perceives an abrupt tone. You soften the message with a smiley face, and I think “What a flake.”

Here are some guidelines for friendly but professional emails:

  • Say hello, but don’t get chatty. Pretend it’s a business call. You would greet me,  but you wouldn’t ask if I was enjoying the spring weather.
  • Don’t start with a name. When I see “Deborah:”, I assume I’m going to be lectured or instructed.
  • Break out the positive language. Don’t go over the top–I recently got a direct mail piece that said, “We were unbelievably excited to see you at the conference!” But let me know you care.
  • Don’t free-associate. Repetition and long sentences might sound endearing on the phone, but they look disorganized on the page.
  • It’s okay to be a little informal. Avoid stilted language and phrases like “As per our conversation, the attached….”
  • Don’t get personal. Ever. Imagine your email on the gigantic screen in Times Square, and make sure it won’t embarrass you if the whole world reads it.

Editor etiquette

When you critique other people’s work, it’s hard not to compare what you’re reading to what you would have done. “He should have started with a quote,” you think, shaking your head. Or “Oh God, not the passive voice!”

This attitude will not make you popular with your colleagues. More to the point, it doesn’t serve the project.

If the writer is guilty of poor grammar or word choice, awkward phrasing or other laziness, you need to call him on it. But before you do, think about what’s really bothering you. Is it the way he writes? Or the fact that he doesn’t write like you?

When the writer does make a mistake, your criticism should be constructive. Scrawling “AWK” all over the piece won’t help. Neither will rewriting it–he’ll be insulted and you’ll be angry that you had to spend so much time on someone else’s work. Try to offer concrete suggestions (“rephrase as an active statement,” “eliminate repetition”) and vent your frustration somewhere other than on the page.

Passive aggressive

I hate the passive voice; it’s sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (“the newsletter was delayed”) or fathering a child out of wedlock (“the situation was unfortunate”).

I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil (we used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century, children). But after 20 years on the front lines, today I admit defeat.

The passive clause is essential to corporate writing. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lop one off, two come back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department,  we can’t get by without it.

This sad fact can no longer be denied.