Write great beginnings

north-of-here-seattle
Journalists call story openings “ledes.”

Whether you call them beginnings, openings or ledes, you need to agonize over them – because you have about 250 words to grab your readers.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go on ’till you come to the end. Then stop.” Lewis Carroll.

Up top, identify the message of the e-mail, web page or article. Learn new ways to begin a piece of writing. “A lead ought to shine like a flashlight, down into the whole piece, if possible,” says John McPhee.

Avoid these bland, trite leads

  • An apology or complaint: As you probably know….
  • A panorama or vague overview: Urban sprawl is a problem each of us faces every day.
  • A truism, a cliché, the obvious or platitudes: We are dedicated to being the world’s best at bringing people together – giving them easy access to each other and to the information and services they want and need – anytime, anywhere.
  • The Adam-and-Eve approach: Back when the company was founded….
  • There’s good news and there’s bad news….
  • A dictionary definition.
  • To whom it may concern.
  • Dear Sir or Madam.
  • Enclosed (or attached) please find.
  • It has come to my attention.

What Ed Snider taught me about writing nonfiction

Flyers

In 1966, Ed Snider, the billionaire entrepreneur who died recently at 83, co-founded the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. He also developed and acquired 10 additional businesses, including SMG, an early sports-arena management company; WIP, an early all-sports radio station; and SpectaGuard, a security company. Oh, yes, and the Spectrum, the late, great indoor sporting arena in South Philly.

Snider bundled his companies into an entity called Spectacor, which occupied a mansion on the south side of Rittenhouse Square. It was there that I met Snider, whom I was to profile in Spectacor’s employee newsletter.

Snider’s office, the top level in his elevator-free building, was as impressive as his business empire. His reputation was even greater: He was a towering figure in the world of sports, well known for the emotional support he gave to his players, the presidents of his companies and his friends and colleagues in the city and country.

I was literally and figuratively breathless when I arrived at the fourth floor. But Snider put me at ease, and he spoke with ease. Across the world’s largest wooden desk, he talked about his love for his family and players. He interspersed comments and memories with gestures to photos of his favorite people. And he chatted at length about the wonder of having a child and a grandchild of the same age, a feat he accomplished by marrying multiple times.

The lesson he taught was that, if I just kept quiet and allowed his mind to wander, I’d get a good story. I knew that already, but he, or at least his behavior, reminded me. I didn’t interrupt with questions from my prepared list. Sometimes I smiled or laughed or said, “Oh!” – an inducement for him to keep on keepin’ on. And he did.

Well, the story wrote itself, as they say. It was easy to punctuate his musings, to turn phrases into sentences, to insert paragraph marks. Before deadline, I submitted the profile to the p.r. man who hired me. He loved the article.

I wish that were the end of the story. But when Ed Snider, later honored for his charity work by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, read the piece, he had second thoughts. According to the p.r. man, Snider regretted opening up as much as he did. He didn’t take back any of the details, all of which I cited accurately. He merely dismissed the entire article, which never saw publication.

RIP, Ed Snider: You taught me to keep still when I interview, even if the result did not thrill you.

Yes, grammar matters.

you're right

A man I don’t know sends an e-mail. According to his signature, he handles website development, digital marketing strategy, SEO, social media, paid search management, and content marketing. So, while he probably is not a writer himself, he might hire or consult with writers. He says:

“I am not trying to connect with you for any particular reason. I am trying to do a better job of connecting with people I have met so that I don’t have to go to a million places to find people when opportunities or potential introductions arise.

“For example, if someone came to me with a need for a writer who was crazy fanatic about grammar. I would likely send them your way but might give up if I have to search all over for your contact information.”

Wow, I think. He thinks I am crazy-fanatic-about-grammar. I am, and proudly so. It’s not for nothing I have co-opted my friend’s nickname of Comma Momma. I swear, though, I never corrected this guy in public, perhaps because we have never met. Then I wonder: Who wants a writer who is not crazy-fanatic-about-grammar (CFaG). Do people call and ask him to recommend writers who are or are not CFaG?

Similarly, who wants a tailor to alter a jacket without being crazy-fanatic about making the sleeves the same length? Who wants to eat a restaurant meal where the chef is not crazy-fanatic about a clean kitchen? Who wants a website designer who is not crazy-fanatic about checking broken links?

But this is not the only dude who asks if grammar matters. In fact, I teach a course at Temple University Center City called “Does grammar still matter?” The answer, if you care, is that grammar does matter.

The fact that teachers don’t teach grammar at any grade level doesn’t mean it’s not essential to clear communication. It is. The fact that parents don’t or can’t correct their children’s oral or written grammatical errors likewise does not diminish the value of good grammar.

I teach grammar to adults because they didn’t learn it in school or they have forgotten it since. They come to class for refreshers, hoping to recall first-, second- and third-person voice; active and passive verbs; and the difference between affect and effect.

I am not alone in believing that grammar matters.

Andrew Hindes lists credibility, professionalism and clarity among the 6 top reasons why grammar matters.

Richard Nordquist says that people associate grammar with correctness. “Knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.”

And Steve Tobak writes about creating content for social media: “If what you’re writing will be public and has your name attached to it, assume that anyone who works with you or might be interested in hiring you will see it. As such, whatever it is can be conversational, and a typo isn’t the end of the world, but it should still be reasonably grammatically correct…. Business writing is about clarity in communication….”

I remain, sincerely yours, CFaG. Consider signing up for my grammar class at Temple.

Write positively, not negatively

A restaurant
When you write nonfiction, use positive words rather than negative ones.

Set the tone for what you write by using positive expressions. Use positive words to soften messages. Use positive words to make you or your organization seem friendly and interested.

Imagine yourself as a reader. Which would you prefer to read?

Positive words Negative words
appreciate blame
beneficial careless
capable complain
commend decline
cooperative disappointed
efficient doubtful
excellent failing
recommended impossible
reliability neglect
sincerity unfairness
thoughtful wrong

 

Write sentences in a positive manner so they sound friendly. Otherwise you may annoy readers or damage your existing relationship with them.

Negative sentence 1. We must have a copy of your specifications by October 15 or we will be unable to deliver on time.
Positive sentence 1. Please send us your specifications by October 15 so we can deliver on time.
Negative sentence 2. This certification may only be used by individuals who have passed the specified course and exam.
Positive sentence 2. You may use this certification after you pass the specified course and exam.
Negative sentence 3. We are unable to insure that equipment because you failed to enclose the serial number and original sales receipt.
Positive sentence 3. We can insure that equipment as soon as you send us the serial number and original sales receipt.

What sentences have you written recently that you are ready to revise?

Don’t syphon your hyphens

coin-op showers
Q.
What’s the proper use of hyphens?

A. Hyphens diminish the space between words. They bring words closer rather than separating them. Here is a guide to the most common uses of hyphens.

Whether you are a native speaker of English or a speaker of English as a second language (ESL), these tips can be helpful.

compound words  Use hyphens to separate parts of compound words. Use the dictionary to learn whether to use one word, two words or one hyphenated word. Water-repellent, but waterproof; cross-examine, but notebook.

multiple-word adjectives  Use hyphens to connect two or more words functioning together as an adjective before a noun.

  • Buy some paper-wrapped fish at the market.
  • We charge for in-house consulting and for EPA-mandated documents.
  • Sears’ 120-piece tool-set.
  • Profit-sharing plans (profit modifies sharing, not plans).
  • Levi’s red-tab jeans, on sale for $90.00.

avoiding ambiguity  Use hyphens when uncertainty would arise without them.

  • She will speak to small-business men (not short males).
  • Forty-odd employees would be silly without the hyphen.
  • The agency provides domestic-violence training (training in domestic violence, not an at-home training session on violence).
  • A genuine-leather catcher’s mitt (a mitt made of genuine leather, not a mitt for a leather-catcher).
  • Hyphenate to distinguish re-creation from recreation.
  • Hyphenate to differentiate under-served from undeserved.
  • Hyphenate to separate awkward double or triple letters, such as anti-intellectual and cross-stitch.

multiple words as one   Use hyphens with words that you want to glue together into a single unit. The hyphen brings single words together so they work as a team.

  • Slab-on-grade.
  • A less-is-more philosophy.
  • The Eagles-Redskins game.
  • The Willard-Laney-Johnson-Elliott family reunion.
  • The Atlanta-Philadelphia flight.
  • When my son sat on my lap during his first Phillies game, it was a take-me-out-to-the-ballgame feeling.

suspended hyphens  In a series of similar entries, when each entry requires a hyphen, write the hyphens and skip (or suspend) the common word.

  • You may buy first-, second- or third-class tickets.
  • The agency provides before- and after-school care.
  • We offer both short- and long-term leases.

fractions  Use hyphens for fractions. One-fourth of my income goes to pay off the national debt (the hyphen brings words closer).

incorrect hyphens   Do not use hyphens when the same words follow the noun.

  • We do in-house consulting.
  • We do the consulting in house.
  • We did a last-minute edit of the nonfiction manuscript.
  • We edited the nonfiction manuscript at the last minute.

more incorrect hyphens  Do not use hyphens to connect -ly adverbs to the words they modify.

  • A slowly (no hyphen) moving truck.
  • A partially (no hyphen) edited manuscript.
  • An especially sympathetic writing coach.

Quiz: How many hyphens would you insert in this paragraph?

The 12 story, glass and limestone tower improves the look of the entire neighborhood. The new condominium development on Bank Street features homes with state of the art appliances and the latest in furnishings. Buyers looking for beautifully appointed two and three bedroom contemporary homes with open floor plans should visit this high-end development. First-quarter sales have been brisk, attesting to the property’s solid investment potential. Buyers and their agents should stop by the sales office on Bank Street or request a copy of the four color brochure.

Answer: My version adds 11 hyphens.

The 12-story, glass-and-limestone tower improves the look of the entire neighborhood. The new condominium development on Bank Street features homes with state-of-the-art appliances and the latest in furnishings. Buyers looking for beautifully appointed two- and three-bedroom contemporary homes with open floor plans should visit this high-end development. First-quarter sales have been brisk, attesting to the property’s solid investment potential. Buyers and their agents should stop by the sales office on Bank Street or request a copy of the four-color brochure.

Who wears head scarves?

Bahiraa Abdul Rasheed is folding tall piles of scarves into perfect rectangles, preparing them to hang on a thousand hangers around The Islamic Place, a shop in West Philadelphia.

She’s wearing a scarf – a Muslim head covering called a hijab – in a blend of greens, yellows and tans.

Hijab means to protect or cover, and it relates to far more than clothing. Hijab is personal, says Aleem Choudhary, the Pakistani native who manages the store. It’s about one’s personal relationship with God, he says. “In Muslim culture, women have very high status. They are considered sacred. They represent the honor of society. Hijab is about protecting that honor.

“Some societies turn that ‘protection’ into a method of suppression,” he says, and non-Muslim people often look at women in hijab and think of them as repressed. But that’s often not the case. In the Pakistani town where Choudhary’s wife grew up, the women jointly decided to wear hijab. “My wife has a master’s degree, so no one is suppressing her, but she prefers to wear hijab.”

Rasheed, born Christian in the USA, explains how she began wearing. (“Wearing” is short for “wearing hijab.”) “I was working at Rite Aid,” she says, and I wanted to know why I saw sisters covering up. So I asked one sister, and she told me about the Muslim religion. I asked more questions, and she said she would help me.”

Rasheed’s journey began. “I feel Muslim in my heart,” she says. “I want to know more about Islam. As I submit to Muslim law, one condition is covering my hair.”

The hijabs most popular among Western women are square scarves that cover the head and neck but leave the face clear. Although women wear hijab to maintain modesty, available colors range from somber black, brown and burgundy to fashionable lime, hot pink, brilliant florals and tailored geometrics.

Aaliyah Hamid, shopping at The Islamic Place, grew up singing in the choir in her grandmother’s Catholic church. “Now my family are all Muslims, but we are not strict,” she says. “As my faith has increased, I cover my entire body.” She wears a khimar, too, which covers the head and neck, and a jilbab, a neck-to-shoes over-garment.

Mohamed Elcheikhadi, of a Philadelphia suburb, is a single, practicing Muslim man. His mother and sister, who remain in his native Lebanon, wear hijab, but his Philadelphia sister does not. “My family does not restrict our women. Our values do not require that women cover themselves. But a woman who covers is not at risk of getting negative attention from strange men, which would be bad.”

Before visiting this store, I asked a dozen women wearing traditional head coverings if I could talk with them. On a bus, I met two women wearing hijab: one, wearing pastel pink, teaching her mom, all in black, to navigate Philadelphia on her cell-phone map. Daughter said that some veiled women tend to wear a lot of makeup, “And if they have money, they get nose jobs, too.”

But she never returned my phone calls. Half the women I approached said no and turned away. Half said yes – and then failed to respond on the phones or e-mail addresses they had shared. The consensus in The Islamic Place was that that was not surprising, that the women were maintaining their privacy, their cover, their hijab, by refusing to talk.

A study guide accompanying a PBS show called “Suppression or Liberation: Islam, Hijab and Modern Society,” says that countries vary in defining women’s garb. Iranian women must wear a hijab, and Saudi Arabian women must veil their face. In Turkey, the government outlawed women from wearing hijab in public places.

Aleem Choudhary’s sister Wajeeha describes herself as “A 25-year-old hijab-observant Muslim woman born and raised in the Philadelphia area. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. 26 years ago.” She is a PhD candidate, writing her dissertation on the visual representation of South Asian Muslim women in American mass media.

“At age 14 I started wearing hijab,” she says. “My mother does, but she questioned me, wanting to make sure I was doing it of my own volition. I was. Wearing helped me grow with my friends, and I am glad I did it early. I grew comfortable and confident in it. If you’re looking for a job in your early 20s, you wonder if hijab will get in the way. Women who are denied employment because of wearing hijab can always go get another job.”

Choudhary is focusing on Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old, scarf-wearing Pakistani who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. “She wears the garb that is local to her community, but she is the opposite of how Muslim women have been represented. There seems to be a tendency to exceptionalize her, to say she is a celebrity, that she is not like other Muslim women.”

Choudhary finds Philadelphia “a very Muslim-friendly city. I don’t see any Muslim hatred here.”

Elcheikhadi says, “If I marry, I could ask my wife to cover herself, but I would not demand it.” In fact, he has never dated a woman wearing hijab, and a woman who covers all but her eyes would seem “too strict” for him. “To Americans she looks old-fashioned, even like an outcast. But an educated woman with hijab is a plus. You know she will care deeply about her husband and that she will be faithful.”

Local resident Hakima Ewida, a native of Morocco, has a different, perhaps unique, perspective on covering. Her father was an imam, a leader of prayer in mosques. His lesson guides her daily behavior: “Cover your heart with good deeds. God sees your heart.” She has never worn hijab, but she considers herself fully wrapped.

This article appeared November 24, 2015, on Huffington Post.

 

Writing coaching for companies and people

Son pitching first ball for Padres

My son pitches first ball for Padres.

Here’s a sports metaphor:

Sports teams work at trying to win by creating a playbook and scheduling practice sessions. They invest time and money in developing game-time skills. They coach their players.
How can you apply those strategies to your corporate (or nonprofit) writing team?

When companies want to improve their market performance, they hire coaches to make a positive impact on leadership development, grooming successors. Human resources professionals say that coaching helps most when it

  • Improves individual performance and productivity.
  • Develops executive leadership.
  • Improves managerial performance.

How can writing coaching help your company? Coaching can help individuals improve the speed and efficiency of their writing. I have handled many scenarios like these:

  • Problem: Your new hire sends emails to clients with embarrassing informality and many errors.
  • Solution: You hire a writing consultant to train on professional email standards.
  • Problem: The director of a regional nonprofit wants to improve communication and create new stakeholders.
  • Solution: S/he hires writing coach to train on transforming technical data, write readable documents and aim for ordinary people, not PhDs and passionate fans.
  • Problem: One medical center’s physicians devote weeks to writing research reports for publication.
  • Solution: The research director hires a writing coach to train physicians in the best practices of journal writing. The medical center’s publications increase four-fold in one year.

Can you improve your work with one-on-one writing coaching? Yes.

  • Do you have an imminent deadline and need some help picking up your writing speed?
  • Are your writing goals super-ambitious? Do you want to find a way to actually achieve them?
  • Do you have a challenging boss or client? Do you require some tips on handling Mr. or Ms. Difficult?
  • Do you procrastinate about writing until the stress boils over?
  • Are you stalled in a particular writing project?

While your scenario may differ, these examples show how you can use nonfiction-writing training to handle your writing needs. If you tell me about your writing goals and challenges, I will give you tailored, personalized writing coaching.

Phone, e-mail or knock on my door.

 

Use strong verbs. Avoid weak verbs.

Dewey defeats Truman
Use active verbs to tell almost every nonfiction story.

Past tense
Present tense
Future tense
Active 
We completed the project.
We did complete it.
We did complete the project.
We complete the project.
Are we completing it?
We will complete the project.
Will we complete it?
Passive
The project was completed.
Was the project completed?
The project is completed.
Is the project completed?
Will the project be completed?
The project will be completed.
Active
He designed the shoes.
He did design the shoes.
He designs the shoes.
Should he design the shoes?
He will design the shoes.
Will he design the shoes?
Passive
The shoes were designed.
The shoes were designed by him.
The shoes are designed.
The shoes are designed by him.
The shoes will be designed.
Will the shoes be designed?
Active
You kissed the bride.
Did you kiss the bride?
You kiss the bride.
You do kiss the bride.
Everyone kisses the bride.
You will kiss the bride.
Will you kiss the bride?
Passive 
The bride was kissed.
By whom was the bride kissed?
The bride is kissed.
Is the bride being kissed?
By whom is the bride being kissed?
The bride will be kissed.
The bride will be kissed
by her lecherous uncle.

 

Wield active verbs

A verb expresses an action, a condition or a state of being. A verb acts, does something or exists. I call the person who commits the verb the perpetrator and the person or thing that receives the action the victim. Whether you are writing for print or electronic media, for resumes or websites, use the active voice as often as possible.
 

Active verbs
Passive verbs
The subject performs the action.
The subject is acted upon by someone.
Require fewer words.
Require more words.
Are more personal.
Are less personal.
Are more direct.
Are more indirect.
Convey conviction and responsibility.
Mute the activity; lack authority; suggest doubt.
Identify and emphasize the perpetrator.
Make the subject the perpetrator of the verb.
Excel for writing news and information.
Excel for communicating bad news.
Focus on the perpetrator of the verb.
Hide/protect/minimize the perpetrator of the verb.
Identify the perpetrator of the verb.
Emphasize the victim of the action/verb.
Tell the truth, the whole truth.
Smooth political situations and ruffled feathers.

    “When men read rape-and-battery stories written in the passive voice, they attribute less blame to the perpetrator – and less harm to the victim – than when reading the active-voice versions. The reason? Probably, says Nancy Henley, PhD, because passive-voice sentences don’t mention the attacker. As a result, male readers ignore the perpetrator and blame the victim.” According to Psychology Today, Spring 1995, based on research at UCLA.

Can non-native English speakers write nonfiction?

all rules apply

Q. English is not my first language, but I have to write business reports for work. Help!

A. Help is on the way.

I understand that your goal is to be able to write better, more precise e-mails and reports – and to produce them more quickly. Even though English is not your first language – even though you write English as a Second Language (ESL) – you can do this.

If we were meeting in person, we would spend two hours together each week, devoting one and a half hours to writing and a half hour to vocabulary. Whether you are writing to colleagues, co-workers or clients in Camden or Cairo, you will be better prepared to write what you need to write.

As an educated person with an excellent command of English, you know grammar far better than most native speakers. For the writing segment we would begin with the basics:
• A quick review of grammar, including parts of speech, pronouns and prepositions.
• A special focus on active verbs and how they improve all writing.
• A review of punctuation, sentence structure and paragraphs.
• Ways to edit and proofread your early drafts.

Then we would kick it up a notch and discuss:
• Clarifying your thoughts before you write.
• Organizing your document.
• Knowing your audience.
Writing in parallel construction.
Avoiding common mistakes.
• Tightening your copy.
• Formatting (if appropriate).
• Spelling and grammar tools in Microsoft Word.

Along the way, if you get stuck in the middle of a document, you can call or e-mail me. If I’m at my desk, I can often answer immediately.

For the vocabulary lessons, we will talk during each session about a business-related topic, such as human resources, domestic business and international business, the areas in which you specialize. I will create short lists of words that you can master in a week.

P.S. Until we begin….

Buy an inexpensive crossword book, at a dollar store or a chain pharmacy. Start doing the puzzles, looking up answers whenever you want. Keep lists of the words you need to master.

8 things to write in your memoir

Little Me

Little Me

Everyone wants to write a memoir. But nobody knows where to start.

Here’s a writing tip: Start with the easy, nonfictional facts of growing up.

1. Write about the street where you lived. Draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in – or the house you remember best, or the one where you lived at age 9.
2. Describe rooms, closets, porches, pianos, the kitchen table. Mention the art or cracks that decorated the walls. Draw the paths to the front and back doors. Draw the sidewalk where you jumped rope.
3. As you write, consider the sounds, smells, tastes and feelings the house evokes. Write about the smell of sauerkraut or your father’s pipe tobacco. Write the sounds of a squeaky floorboard, the screen door slamming, your sister stomping her snow off her boots on the landing, the parakeet calling.
4. Write about the smooth velvet of the wing chair. The swish of beaded curtains. The steam rising from a pot of soup. The cold kitchen when no one prepared dinner. The lightning outside your bedroom window.
5. Write about the people and their activities. Show your mom leaning over the tub, giving the twins a bath. Show grandmom letting you taste the peaches as she makes preserves. Explain your disgust when Uncle Charlie demands a kiss in exchange for one measly tootsie roll. Depict Dad hammering as he builds a set of shelves for your room.
6. Write what happens in each space. Describe lying on your sister’s bed on Saturday morning, listening to the radio and playing with the parakeet. Write that you are kneeling on a stool, helping Mom make kreplach or gnocchi or kielbasa. Create a picture of yourself leaning on the bathroom door, whining for your brother to hurry up.
7. Tell how you feel in each space. Explain where you go when you feel sad. Mad. Scared. Write the details of the space where you dance and do homework.
8. Once you write these factual details, force yourself to dig deeper than the surface recollections. Now you can write what you were really feeling at the time.

And here’s an idea: Be a bag lady. Save every idea that comes to you: in a bag, a box, a diary or a Word document. Save them now. Write them later.