by E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan

July 19, 2014

Want to be a better proofreader? Read these books and build your skills

Need to brush up on your proofreading skills? Here's a list of books that will help you catch errors before they embarrass you or your company. These books were recently recommended by members of the Stet Professional Copy Editors LinkedIn group, and I have included their comments on each title.


Do you have a book to suggest? List it in the comments, below. Thanks!


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June 5, 2014

Customer Service Chat by Vizio: Some Answers, But No Help

Chat_Bubble_Huh?Customer service chat is the bright new thing -- popular with companies and customers alike. It's easy, it's quick, and it works well on mobile devices. But easy and popular doesn't always equal good. Read this chat with customer service agent "Jack" at Vizio. It is a set of customer service blunders, large and small.

Here's the chat transcript

Visitor: Hi I just bought a 50" M501d-A2R tv. i am trying to set it up. I can't put in the password to my wifi because my password is longer than the number of characters allowed. I don't want to reset my password on my Cisco cable router. Can you help?

Jack: Here at VIZIO we pride ourselves in providing best in class U.S. based support. I’m happy to assist you today. How many digits is your wireless password?

Visitor: 26 digits

Jack: The TV will support up to 22 digits. Unfortunately the password would need to be shortened to work with our TVs.

Visitor: Hmm i am not glad to hear that

Jack: I apologize for the inconvenience.

Visitor: Ok. Please email me a transcript of this chat. Thank you.

Jack: You're welcome! You will receive a copy of this chat transcript as soon as the chat window has closed. Thank you for chatting with VIZIO today. If you have any questions feel free to contact our support team at 1-877-878-4946, online at, or email us at! We would also like you to join VIZIO Fandemonium today to earn points and win prizes only at Thanks again, and have a great day!


Here's how this chat needs to be improved:

  • Stop the chest-thumping about being US-based. This should NOT be the first thing Jack says to the customer. In fact, Jack shouldn't say this at all. It doesn't matter whether Vizio's support is based in the US. The customer wants a high-quality chat. He wants a quick, correct, complete answer. Jack's first statement really causes problems because the support he provides isn't worth the company's pride and it isn't best-in-class. The cultural elitism of this statement is really unattractive, especially given the poor quality of the chat.
  • Use the customer's name. The impersonal use of "Visitor" rather than the customer's name clashes with the parts of the chat that are quite good. Some of Jack's replies are specific and personal. For example, when he asks, "How many digits is your wireless password?", it is clear he's read what Visitor has written. The chat system should be configured to use the customer's name. Why would any customer service organization want to refer to a customer by an anonymous term?
  • Be sincere. I was really sad when Jack laid down the classic customer service trope:  "I apologize for the inconvenience." In this case, this statement is insincere and unnecessary. There's no need for an apology because neither Jack nor Vizio has done anything wrong. And it's a true service failure to simply apologize when the customer needs help solving the problem.
  • Help the customer. Don't merely answer the customer's question. Visitor got an answer to his question about the length of his password. His is four digits too long. But Jack never helped him. Even if Jack can't actually help Visitor reset the password on the Cisco router, he should have written something like, "Refer to the user guide that came with your Cisco router to find instructions on how to reset and shorten your password..."
  • Omit the marketing.  Vizio clearly thinks, "We've got Visitor's attention, so let's pitch him Fandemonium." But this pitch doesn't belong in this chat, especially given the poor service Vizio has provided. And it's not good marketing copy, either. Points? For what? Prizes? What kind? What's In It For Me?


Check out these resources for writing great chat to customers



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May 20, 2014

Formatting business emails? Less is always more

Back away from the caps lock. Hands off the background colors. When it comes to formatting emails, minimalism works best. 

Have you ever received an email like this one to Josephine? It's proof that too much formatting makes your email unreadable.


Don't pretty-up your emails

If you are tempted to add lots of color, use many different fonts, or drop in some super-cute clip art, please reconsider. Using too much formatting is confusing and unprofessional. Write your emails clearly and concisely, then stick to the formatting basics: crisp black text on a clean white background. Use white space to show how ideas are grouped.

How often should you use these formatting options in your emails?


Four things to remember about formatting emails:

  1. A little formatting goes a long way. If you use bold or color to make certain words stand out in an email, use only a little. After all, the special words need to look different to stand out. When you use too much formatting, everything looks the same.
  2. Readers can usually understand two font effects, not more. Let's say you are writing an email that contains instructions on how to submit an online application. You might bold the first word in each step: " (1) Create account; (2) Review personal information; (3) Upload resume..." You might use italics for an explanatory note: "Note: You cannot revise your application after you have submitted it." In this example, you have used two font effects: bold and italics. In most cases, the reader will understand that the bolded words indicate steps in a sequence and the italicized words indicate an explanation. But if you use a third effect--red font, for example--you'll probably just confuse your reader.
  3. White space does the most work. Because white space shows how ideas are grouped and the number of ideas in your email, it's the formatting tool that helps readers most. Use white space carefully and purposefully. Your readers will be grateful.
  4. Work email is different from personal email. In your personal emails, you just go ahead and add as much formatting as you'd like. Use a yellow font on an orange background. Insert row upon row of emoticons. Add pithy quotations and Bible verses to your signature, each in a different font. Your friends and family will let you know if they've stopped reading your email because, well, they can't read your email!

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March 27, 2014

Instant Messaging at Work? Eight Ways to Avoid Annoying Your Colleagues

Instant_Message_ScreenYou've mastered report and proposal writing. You can write a tidy performance review and a compelling letter of commendation. You write concise emails, provocative blog posts, and pithy tweets. But no, that's not enough. You've just learned that your company is adding instant messaging to your at-work communication options.*

Follow these writing tips and you'll get the most out of IM without driving your colleagues crazy.

1. Ask, “Is now a good time?” Add, “I have a question about…” IM is the most interruptive channel, unless you consider a toddler a “channel.” IM is, by its nature, a convenient tool for interrupting your colleagues in whatever they were doing. So when you start an IM exchange, ask if it’s convenient and briefly explain what your question is. If you start the IM conversation this way, you’ll get more of your colleague’s attention.

2. Provide an estimate of how much of the other person’s time you need. Instead of writing “Can you discuss the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting now?” ask, “Do you have five minutes now to go over the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting?” Just be sure you’ve accurately estimated the amount of time you need. Don’t try the old five-minute-fakeout when you really need 15 minutes.

3. Write short, tweet-length IMs. Keeping your IMs short does require some skill and practice, but doing so will prevent you and your colleague from writing across each other. If you go on too long, the other person may begin answering before you’re done, and then the whole exchange can devolve into a “What? Wait…” mess.

4. Use conventional spelling and punctuation. You’re at work, and your IMs are a form of professional communication. Spelling mistakes or missing punctuation just make your writing harder to read.

5. Control your tone. You think this is difficult in email? It’s much harder to control your IM tone. Because you’re crafting such short messages, it’s easy to come across as cranky. To overcome the limits of the channel, you’re going to have to try to sound friendly. Say thank you. Write full, if short, sentences. For example, “Can you explain?” sounds friendlier than “What?!”

6. Use a prepared phrase to end the IM if you need to. A phone call, an important email, or an actual live person might interrupt an IM conversation, so plan what you’ll say if you have to end the IM abruptly – and it will need to be more elegant than “gotta run.” Try these:

  • I’ve got a phone call now, so I will be back in touch [insert timeframe].
  • Can we continue this [insert timeframe]? I have to take a call/meet with Fred/respond to an email.

7. Know when to switch from IM to another channel: phone, meeting, or email. IM is best for talking about simple, direct topics or asking questions: “How many people from this office are going to the trade show?” or “Did Brian send the wireframes to the client yesterday?” If you need to have an open-ended discussion, choose a different channel.

8. DATM. That stands for Don’t Abbreviate Too Much, and you’re right – no one uses that abbreviation. I invented it to make a point. If the person you’re IMing doesn’t know the abbreviation you’re using, it’s a problem. Use few abbreviations and that problem is less likely to come up.

* Yes, I know it isn't 2005. Most companies aren't just now adding old school instant messaging. But your employer may be asking everyone to use Skype chat or the Chatter Messenger in Salesforce for internal communication. The software may have changed, but the interruptions just keep coming, don't they?!

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March 5, 2014

FedEx's Post-Purchase Survey Request: Good Manners or Faux Pas?

Companies, we customers know you want our post-purchase feedback. We know your stores, hotels, salespeople, and customer service agents receive recognition and rewards when customer satisfaction survey scores are high. We used to be surprised when the waiter handed us the receipt for our credit card payment, circled the URL for the post-cheesecake satisfaction survey, and turned big puppy-dog eyes to us, saying "If you've been happy with my service this evening, I'd really appreciate it if you'd complete a brief online survey."

Today, requests for survey feedback are very common at the point of purchase or immediately after we receive service. We're not surprised by these surveys anymore. Recently, though, I was surprised and unhappy about a post-purchase survey request I received from FedEx Office. On February 5, when I paid for my copies in the store, the woman who helped me politely asked me to complete an online survey. She circled the survey URL on the paper receipt she handed me. While she had given me good service, I did not complete the survey. I just didn't feel like it. I'm pretty sure that 95% of customers make the same choice I made that day.

A week later, I received this survey request email from FedEx Office:


This whole experience seems too close for comfort. Here's why:

  • I didn't fill out the survey because I don't want to fill out the survey. It's not an accident. Reminding me won't make me want to do it.
  • I didn't tell FedEx Office I was staying at the Hyatt, so how do they know? This is really creeping me out. I try to ignore Big Data, and I don't like to be reminded that companies can automatically compare my billing address to the store address and conclude, correctly, that I am a visitor not a resident.
  • I didn't explicitly give FedEx permission to email me this way. Yes, I've got a FedEx account and I did place my order for the copies online, so FedEx Office has my email address. I do expect FedEx Office to send me order confirmations and receipts via email. I wouldn't be at all surprised if FedEx Office emailed me a survey request for services I'd purchased online. But when I've purchased something in the store, I expect the survey request to happen there, if at all. Just because you have my email address, doesn't mean you should use it at will.
  • I simply can't figure out "What's in it for me?" I guess it would be somewhat OK if FedEx Office stalked my inbox to offer me something, but this isn't an offer. The only one who gains when I complete the survey is FedEx Office.

What do you think about this practice? Do you react the same way I did? Let me know by email or in the comments, below.

P.S. You know I can't end a blog post without commenting on (picking on?!) the writing:

  • Spelling. It may be just a typo, but "preformed" is unfortunate. Sometimes, spell check just can't save you.
  • Subject line. I hope FedEx Office has tested the "Thank You" subject line, and that they have hard data that it causes more opens and survey responses than an explicit subject line like "Please complete our survey." I find the "Thank You" subject line deceptive.
  • Glib corporate customer-service-speak. If you just don't think about it, the sentence "I sincerely hope we performed above your expectations" kinda-sorta makes sense. But if you do think about it, the sentence -- and the concept -- crumbles. Why does FedEx Office have to hope it did more than I expected? Isn't it enough to just do what the customer wanted and paid for?


Update: FedEx Office's reply to my tweet about this post

While I certainly appreciate the fact that FedEx Office noted that I had tweeted their handle, this tweet from "Lizzie" -- who must be a robot of some type -- isn't an example of high-touch customer service!


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