To write better, break a few rules

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Here’s a difficult dichotomy: Sometimes grammatical errors make your writing better. And by “better,” I mean more powerful and compelling. The following rules are made to be broken:

  1. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But why not? And who’s to stop me? For I am inspired by the flow of these sentences. Yet editors continue to challenge them. To which I say, “Phooey.”
  2. Never end with a preposition. There are so many exceptions to this rule that I hereby declare it an ex-rule. From “What did you step in?” to “This idea makes me throw up,” prepositions are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence. That said, don’t use them if they’re redundant. “Where are you at?” is just wrong, and even “where it’s at” would be perfectly correct as “where it is.”
  3. Don’t split infinitives. Even before Star Trek urged us “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Robert Burns “dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride.” John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot and William Wordsworth were also fans of this “error.”
  4. Don’t use “data” as a singular. I know it’s a Latinate word, but guess what? So is “agenda.” Have you ever heard anyone ask for the agendum? Somehow we manage to use the Latin plural as a singular and not sound like idiots. Similarly, “The data—not the datum—on this disk is—not are—corrupt.”
  5. Avoid one-sentence paragraphs. My 10-year-old has been taught that all paragraphs must contain a minimum of three sentences: topic, supporting and closing. To which I say: What a load of horse manure.
  6. Don’t use sentence fragments. While too many of these can make your writing sound disjointed, judicious usage adds some welcome “pop.” Even in business writing. In my humble opinion.
  7. Shun contractions. I can’t think of any document—except maybe a wedding invitation or legal writ—so formal that it requires the use of “cannot” instead of “can’t,” “would not” instead of “won’t,” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” However, it’s fine to use the longer form for emphasis, as in “I cannot believe you wore that to the office!”
  8. Worship at the altar of Strunk & White. I don’t much know about Strunk (except that he was an English professor at Cornell back in the dark ages), but E.B. White was an amazing writer. He also broke his own rules. Pick up “Charlotte’s Web” or any of his New Yorker articles, and you’ll find clauses introduced by “Which” and sentences starting with “However.” “The Elements of Style” also rails against adjectives and adverbs: “Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs,” it instructs. Think White paid attention? Nu-uh. And neither should you.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.

From bake-offs to nastygrams: the definitive list of corporate clichés

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Here, alphabetized for your convenience, is the best list I could devise of corporate metaphors, catchphrases and clichés you would be embarrassed to utter outside a teak-paneled boardroom. Bonus points to anyone who can add to the list and/or use three of these in a single sentence:

A lot of tentacles.

Continue reading “From bake-offs to nastygrams: the definitive list of corporate clichés”

On Choosing Your Battles

Are you charging in the wrong direction?
Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Marketers, here’s a hard fact: You will never have enough resources to promote every new product, program or hire with the vigor its advocates think it deserves.  Instead, learn to choose your battles. Here are three I would avoid:

The Battle of New Orleans.  Remember the last skirmish in the War of 1812 — the one that was fought after the war was won? Don’t engage in the marketing equivalent. I once worked for a university that started life as a teacher training program. We were tasked with “debunking the teachers college stereotype” to a generation that had never heard the words normal school.

Pickett’s Charge.  Robert E. Lee’s classic case of hubris during the Battle of Gettysburg sent the Confederate Army — fresh off victories in Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg — stampeding into disaster.  Since then, overconfidence has sunk many a marketing initiative, from Zune to Crystal Pepsi.

The Battle of Zama.  The Romans turned Hannibal’s secret weapon — his elephants — against him in this humiliating defeat. Kind of like the Internet turned the #AskJPMorgan Twitter campaign into a bloodstained rout.

Like most disasters, these could have been avoided through a combination of research, planning, and a good long look in the mirror. Make sure your clients do all three.

Twitter for the Fearful

Let it go.
Let it go.

Twitter is the East Village of social media platforms, a once-cool locale that has been deserted by its hipster denizens and left to the well-heeled wannabes. Which means, of course, that it’s prime ground for business development.

With nearly 300 million active users (Statista 2/2015) who can be segmented by interest, location, and a dozen other criteria, there will never be lower fruit for marketers to pick. Yet, while everyone has some presence on Twitter, practically no one in the corporate world is doing it right.

There are a few good reasons for this. First and foremost, social media is the province of the young, and young people are rarely intentionally strategic. They are the world’s greatest connectors, building enormous and vibrant networks, but these pulsating masses of virtual humanity are often ends in themselves.

Second, older people are afraid of social media. “It can’t be controlled.” “It gets out of hand.” “We don’t have the resources to deal with it.” Sounds like any establishment figure talking about any youth movement, doesn’t it?

Well, get over it. We’re going to have to find a way to exist in this brave new world (which is 20-plus years old already). And that means partnering with younger people, charting a strategic course, and letting the connectors do their stuff.

Next up: Developing a Twitter Strategy, or “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for This”

Follow me @DebGainesAssoc

You Only Need One Word to Succeed in Business

It’s “Yes.”

Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson famously said, “If somebody offers you an opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later.”  Great advice, as far as it goes. But not knowing how to do something is only one reason we turn away work. Here are three others:

I don’t have time. How many times have you shot yourself in the foot with this one? If you’re too busy to do a job yourself, subcontract it out. Recommend someone and take a finder’s fee. Or recommend someone and build a network of people who will promote you later.

It won’t pay enough.” You have nothing to lose by naming a price that works for you.  Instead of asking “What’s your budget?” try leading with, “I’d love to do it. My rate is [amount that would feel really prosperous].”

“It’s not my wheelhouse.”  Ten years ago, someone offered me the opportunity to write a legal brochure. The material intimidated me, but freelance travel writing wasn’t making me rich as quickly as I had hoped so I took the job. And actually enjoyed it. Law firm work now accounts for a substantial part of my income. Travel writing, not so much.

So next time someone makes you an offer that’s outside your comfort zone, try saying yes. (And let me know how it goes.)

5 Reasons You Can’t Find Freelance Work

My company hires home-based freelancers for corporate writing projects, so I spend a lot of time sorting through resumes and talking to people on the phone. It turns out that the freelance market is not as competitive as you might think. In fact, at least 80 percent of the candidates disqualify themselves, often in a single email or conversation. Here are some pitfalls to avoid.

  1. Don’t lead with your personal life. Just because many writers (including me) choose the freelance or entrepreneurial lifestyle in order to prioritize things other than work – such as time with our kids, writing a novel or spending winters in Mexico – doesn’t mean prospective employers need to know the gory details. One writer sent me, as her writing sample, a link to a Mommy blog entitled “So Long Suckers! Why I’ll never be on Deadline Again.” (Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But only slight.) Another noted that he wasn’t available in February because “The powder’s waist-deep in Park City.”
  2.  Get the chip off your shoulder. Freelancers often spend years fighting their internal or external naysayers before striking out on their own. This can give you a certain edge, as though you need to shout, “Take that, corporate slime! I’m doing it my way!” to everyone you meet. This is what friends are for. Clients are fine with, “The next couple of months are blocked out, but I’ll be available March 1.”
  3.  Let go of the past. The past five years have been one long wake for the publishing industry. You don’t need to explain that you were the last man standing at the Times-Picayune or spend two paragraphs of your cover letter describing your depression when the Star-Ledger let you go. Nor are other sectors immune. I’ll back my former employer, LeBoeuf, Lamb Greene & MacRae, against anyone out there for Titanic stories, but the only relevant takeaway is that I’m good at crisis communications.
  4.  Don’t act like you’re slumming. I receive frequent variations on the following theme: “After 35 years in my dream job as Gardening Editor for Country Living, I find myself looking for corporate work.” Is anything about that pitch appealing?
  5. Showcase the benefits, not the background. One of my most skilled and successful legal marketing writers spent 20 years doing obituaries for a major newspaper. He started his cover letter, “After profiling hundreds of complex personalities from virtually every field, I believe I am well-suited to writing for law firms.”

Finally, one piece of advice: Don’t devalue yourself. Set a fee that reflects your worth and experience, even if it costs you assignments. Then give every client who pays it your absolute best work. Exceed expectations for professionalism, responsiveness and work quality.

You’ll do just fine.

Want to reprint this post? It’s all yours. But please include this credit: Deborah Gaines spent 25 years as a freelance copywriter, journalist and chief marketing officer. Her company, Deborah Gaines Associates, manages editorial projects for law firms and other corporate clients. Follow her @DebGainesAssoc

Happy 2015!

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.

-T.S. Eliot

After a long hiatus, I am pleased to return to my self-appointed position as coach, consultant and snark-in-chief for the business language world. So much has gone wrong in the past year —  Bridgegate, emojis and selfie sticks come to mind — that I think we’ll have a lot to talk about. Please send me your pet language peeves and follow The Corporate Writer to hear about mine. Wishing you a joyful and prosperous new year!