- Bulleted lists
- Customer satisfaction survey
- Customer service
- Customer service e-mail
- English as a second language
- Government web writing
- Grammar and usage
- Help desk
- Hypertext links
- Plain language
- Press release
- Public relations
- Quality standards
- Social Customer Service
- Social media
- Style guides
- Subject line
- Visual display
- Web Writing
- Word cloud
- Writing resources
- Writing Skills
- Writing training
Posts within the category: Writing
December 17, 2012
Many thanks to Karla Taylor of Karla Taylor Communications for interviewing me and writing this article for ASAE's newsletter Communication News. Sure, it's a little uncomfortable to air my dirty writing laundry in public, and to see myself talked about in third person, but Karla always brings out the best!
Here's Karla's article...
Writing is a realm of agony and ecstasy. Leslie O’Flahavan once struggled for hours to rewrite some relatively straightforward web copy. Another time she whipped out a blog post without a moment’s hesitation—or anguish. What made the difference?
From the moment she got the web copy, she worried that she lacked both enough material and the right kind of information to do the job well; the worries snowballed into confidence-sapping delays. In contrast, the blog covered a subject both she and her readers cared about, at a length that was perfect to express her opinions. Every writer has heard the phrase “That project wrote itself.” This was the dream task: the self-writing content.
O’Flahavan gets an up-close view of such struggles from two perspectives: She’s a writer herself, and she coaches others in her role as principal of E-WRITE in Silver Spring, Maryland. After analyzing what slows writers down and speeds them up, she has pinpointed three common problems—and found practical solutions.
Problem 1: You’re uncomfortable with your topic. Maybe you’re up against a deadline and don’t have time to do the needed research to make your point. Or perhaps you have to express a viewpoint that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t align with your organization’s past positions.
Solution: When grappling with the web rewrite, O’Flahavan finally admitted she couldn’t overcome her writer’s block alone. So she drafted sample copy and asked the client if it was what she was looking for. When the client readily said yes, O’Flahavan felt she understood how to meet the client’s needs and powered through the rest of the copy. The moral: If you’re bothered by the substance of what you’re writing, produce a small portion and get feedback. This will either convince you that you’re on the right track or direct you to a new one.
Problem 2: You’re having trouble with the format your information needs to fit. Sometimes when your assignment is to write a fact sheet, you’re buried under enough data for an encyclopedia. Or when you need a full report, you hardly have enough for a convincing PowerPoint presentation.
Solution: Ideally, your communications office has enough of a repertoire of materials that you can adjust your format to fit your content instead of the other way around. If a fact sheet isn’t right, what about a blog post, brochure, or magazine article?
A variation on the format problem: If your annual report has always been four sections in 16 pages, but this year’s major events will need six sections and 20 pages, propose the change before you start writing. Or if you’re writing a proposal the funder says must be no longer than10 pages, develop a workable writing strategy to help yourself avoid the time-wasting draft-and-delete cycle.
Problem 3: You’re suffering a crisis of confidence. You can’t stop thinking, “I’m a bad writer—always have been, always will be.”
Solution: Although most of us believe other people struggle less with writing than we do, that’s generally not true, O’Flahavan says. Ratchet down the emotional part by refusing to compare yourself to an unattainable standard.
Remember, too, that “most of us don’t need to write from the bottom of our souls,” O’Flahavan says. Good-enough writing is often good enough. The people paying you to write are often just grateful that you’re getting the job done and meeting their deadlines.
O’Flahavan offers two other practical tips to help you write faster.
First, study everything from tweets to emails to magazine articles with a critical eye to what makes them effective. Then adapt the good ideas to your own work. All by itself, “the act of reading critically will make you a better writer,” O’Flahavan says. Create an electronic folder to collect samples of model communications. Next time you’re struggling to organize a meeting promotion or to shorten a magazine article, pull out a worthy example to emulate.
Finally, figure out the source of your writing struggle before your deadline is breathing down your neck. The only thing worse than problems with your topic, format, and confidence is all those plus a missed deadline. “A writing task is something you really can take apart in manageable pieces and finish on time,” O’Flahavan says. “Don’t make it worse by doing what I call ‘working ugly’—having to do it at 12:45 in the morning.”
Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, December 2012, Washington, DC.
Update: Great infographic on busting writer's block
Like this infographic? Check out HowToMakeMyBlog.com.
September 5, 2012
Download the presentation for this workshop: E-WRITE STCWDC Plain Language Workshop 30Nov12
In this hands-on, half-day workshop, you'll get up to speed on the federal plain language legislation, and you'll learn strategies for streamlining your own writing.
About the Plain Writing Act of 2010, you will learn:
- Which types of federal writing the Act covers
- What federal agencies must do to comply with the law
- Which agencies are in the plain writing vanguard
- Where to find government plain language resources and models
About plain language strategies to improve your own writing, you will learn:
- A two-tier process for editing for conciseness
- How to make your writing scannable
- How, and when, to display information in vertical lists or tables
- How to cut word count by 10 percent, 25 percent, or even 50 percent
- How, and why, to write in active voice
Note: We will do some writing exercises during class. Paper will be provided for these exercises. If you prefer to type, you may bring your laptop.
Many thanks to the Society for Technical Communication's Washington, DC and Metro Baltimore Chapter for sponsoring this event.
The Society for Technical Communication (STC) advances the theory and practice of technical communication across all user abilities and media so that both businesses and customers benefit from safe, appropriate, and effective use of products, information, and services. The Washington, DC and Metro Baltimore (WDC MB) Chapter offers opportunities to network with others in your field, explore your interests, and expand your education and skills.
- View other STC Washington, DC and Metro Baltimore Chapter events
- Connect with STC Washington, DC and Metro Baltimore Chapter on Facebook or Twitter
January 13, 2012
I'd like to introduce guest blogger Michelle Bishop, Vice President at Collaborative Communications Group. Among the many things she does at Collaborative, Michelle helps clients such as United Way Worldwide and the College Board develop and maintain online "communities of practice." These online communities enable people to work together even when they're separated by distance, time zone, affiliation, expertise, or employer. Online communities help people continue the work they've launched at conferences or other meetings.
I recently had a great discussion with Michelle about how the quality and types of writing in these online communities can determine whether the community achieves its goals. Here's some advice about writing in online communities - in Michelle's own words:
"Online communities provide private spaces for groups to share information, deepen relationships, collaborate, and conduct business across distances. What people are trying to achieve in these online communities influences the tone, pace, and approach of their writing. In our work with online communities of practice, writing has three main purposes:
- Writing to build community
- Writing to provide value
- Writing for reference
Writing to build community
Community-building writing focuses on strengthening interpersonal relationships or offering personal advice on a shared issue. This type of writing often takes place in a discussion area or via social networking. When writing to build community, the writing should be informal, conversational, and personal.
Writing to provide value
Writing to provide value to the community is more formal. It might take the form of an email blast to the entire community. A community facilitator may send out a message about a news article, recently posted resource, or new research finding. The key to success is to clearly communicate the value of the message quickly and succinctly. Writers should use a clear, value-oriented subject line; bullets to summarize the information; and visible links to the item of interest. The recipient must be able to scan the information and understand its value immediately.
Writing for reference
Writing for reference happens when a community member or facilitator posts a document, tool, or resource to a library or document repository. In this case, the key aspect of the writing will be the use of keywords and tags, so members can retrieve the resource at a later date. If a summary or brief synopsis is included, it should include the key descriptors that a member would use to search for the item in the future. The tone members use when writing for reference may be more formal and the text more detailed than when writing to build community or provide value."
Do you participate in an online community of practice? If so, please comment here to share your thoughts about the writing that goes on in your community.
August 15, 2010
A week ago, I did something very brave. I engaged in a customer service chat with Comcast, my cable and internet access provider. Why was this brave? Because Comcast is known for spectacularly bad customer service:
- In MSN Money's 2010 Customer Service Hall of Shame, Comcast was number 3 of the "10 companies we love to hate," and the Consumerist named Comcast Worst Company In America 2010.
- The 2006 classic YouTube video: A Comcast Technician Sleeping on my Couch (1,542,556 views)
I was chatting with Comcast because my cable service was still out one week after a 3-day power outage. I had web access but no TV. I'd had no luck getting through to Comcast by phone or e-mail, so I figured I'd give chat a try.
Overall, the chat experience was OK. It took a long time, more than 30 minutes from start to finish. Some of that time was spent waiting in the queue before the chat started, and some was spent running the stairs between my office and living room and doing various things to my cable box to try to get it working. The customer service agent (or "analyst Dean") was pleasant enough. Dean's solution to my problem didn't work, so it's difficult to consider the chat a true success.
But I did take a critical look at the chat transcript and can offer some tips on writing customer service chat:
- Avoid glib empathy. Before I even had a chance to explain to Dean what my problem was, he fell all over himself apologizing for it: "... I understand the trouble that this has caused you and I want you to know how sorry I am for the inconvenience. As your service representative today, I want you to know that your satisfaction is of my topmost priority..." These scripted empathy statements sound insincere. If he had empathized only half as much, he would have sounded twice as genuine.
- Don't pitch offers to customers who need help. After asking for 1-2 minutes to pull up account information (which I'd already provided), Dean launched into this marketing pitch: "... Are you a big movie and TV fan? Comcast now has the best free online streaming and extensive video collection of television shows, movies, trailers and clips online. For you to experience this great entertainment site please visit..." I firmly told him not to provide marketing information during the chat, but he and the scripts he's given to work with could not resist. Near the end of the chat, this upsell slipped in: "... Do you want to watch full TV shows and movies online? Go to ... "
- Respond directly to what the customer writes. The benefit of chat, for customers and companies alike, is its two-way quality. The agent should always respond to the customer, even if a time lag or a script briefly gets in the way. Dean did a good job of this. When I asked how to schedule a service call, he responded concisely: "You can chat back or call 1-800-XXX-XXXX."
- Don't sweat the small stuff (like an occasional grammar or spelling error). While I can't excuse typos or mistakes that impede understanding, I can forgive the agent's occasional errors during a live chat. As a customer, I'm more interested in getting a correct answer or a solution to my problem than I am in copyediting the chat. Even as a "connoisseur of fine writing," I'm not bothered by minor errors in chat because I realize that the agent is probably multitasking wildly: chatting with more than one customer at a time, inserting scripts, offering links, troubleshooting, even taking control of the customer's browser. Dean made some errors. He wrote "I am glad I was able to assist you you today" and "Every information on what we have done is noted in your account..." But these errors did not alter the overall quality of the chat.
If you'd like, you can review the transcript of my chat with Comcast.
I'm interested in your experiences with customer service chat. Which companies do it well? Poorly? In your opinion, what is a well-written chat? Post a comment or e-mail me your thoughts.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
July 11, 2010
We recently evaluated the correspondence of a major insurance company and its competitors. Using a benchmarking tool we developed, we rated their e-mails and letters to customers on seven Standards. One Standard that we carefully looked at was tone: "Correspondence is written in a personal, professional tone."
While the topic of the correspondence frequently involved complex legal and regulatory issues, the insurance companies did a very good job of creating a personal and professional tone. Exactly how did they do this? We've identified the excellent strategies they used and provided some examples. We've also flagged some lapses in tone that you may find creeping into your own correspondence.
We think these do's and don'ts provide guidance on creating the right tone in any industry or organization.
Strategies That Create a Personal, Professional Tone
1. Do use personal pronouns.
- You will receive your ATM/Debit Card by mail within seven to ten days.
- You're automatically enrolled in our free online bill paying program.
2. Do use active voice.
- Send your payment to the address on your billing statement.
3. Do use action verbs.
- You can pay bills, transfer funds, request your auto ID card, place stock trades, set up alerts and more.
4. Do use plain, simple language.
- We’re letting you know about those changes so you can take advantage of today’s earning levels and rewards. You will not lose points, and you have until March 31, 2010, to redeem your points at the current level.
5. Do use words that show respect for customers.
- You are a valued customer, and we thank you for banking with us.
- For more information, please call a customer service representative at XXXX. We apologize for this inconvenience and look forward to continuing to serve your financial needs.
Tone Lapses That Make the Writing Stiff and Bureaucratic
1. Don't use passive voice.
- No action is necessary unless this activity occurred without your knowledge or permission.
2. Don't use bureaucratic language.
- Our records show that on 5/12/09 at 11:44 AM, you accessed your online account and established or updated the following information: Password
- The disclosed and corrected information is as follows:
- We are enclosing an "Important Information About Damage Caused by Flooding" notice, which you should also keep with the above referenced policy.
3. Don't use inflated and clichéd words and phrases.
- Rest assured that you will continue to enjoy unparalleled value from our rewards program.
- Due to the new regulations
- These are challenging economic times for everyone.
4. Don't use caveats and legalese.
- Based on the information you provided and certain assumptions we made (such as assumptions about the credit report information we obtained) to calculate this estimate, the estimated cost for the auto insurance we discussed with the coverages, limits and deductibles shown below is $407/6 months.
What did we learn by evaluating insurance industry correspondence? It doesn't take a gecko to communicate with customers. The right tone is not a matter of accent or species. It's choosing the right words.
-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
Get email updates
- Why a 280-Character Customer Service Tweet is a Bad Idea
- How to Use LinkedIn to Your Best Advantage
- In live chat, don’t argue with customers who are trying to pay
- Writing for the Web: Register for this course on March 15, 2013 in Silver Spring,MD
- Using Twitter for Customer Service? Answer the customer’s dang question
- 456 Berea St
- Bad Language
- Beth Kanter's Blog
- Business Writing
- Communication in a Web Saturated World
- Compete on Usability
- Debbie Weil
- Earley Blog
- Good Experience
- Grammar Girl :: Quick and Dirty Tips
- I'd Rather Be Writing
- In the Box
- Learn How to Write from the Best Blogs
- Manage Your Writing
- Plain Language Matters
- The Writer Underground
- Words to Good Effect
- Writing for the Web
- Wylie's Writing Tips
- Your English Success
- April 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- July 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008