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.

To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.