In almost any career, you must know how to writeeven if it's not part of your job description. But if you are a reluctant writer, producing even the simplest memo may be a struggle.
Write Better Right Now is the springboard to get you ahead in any job, passion project, or situation that requires writing skills. No matter what you are called upon to doblog posts, speeches, web content, press releases, or morethis step-by-step manual gives you the solid techniques you need to get the task done.
Write Better Right Now works because it is:
Write Better Right Now offers you the tools to identify your own problem patterns and choose the quickest and most appropriate fixes.
You can improve your writing today. With straightforward guidance, Write Better Right Now is the quick read for productive people who need to create clear and crisp communicationright now.
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About the Author
Mary-Kate Mackey is an award-winning writer, speaker, and teacher. Write Better Right Now is based on the tools and techniques she developed during her 14 years of teaching at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, and shared in popular writing workshops across the United States. As a professional journalist, her byline has appeared on more than 200 articles for national magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Sunset, the Christian Science Monitor, Horticulture, and Fine Gardening. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
Get to the Point
Writing Problem: I don't know where to start!
Rx: Answer three questions about people, problems, and promise.
Beginning to write can be a stumper. There's a gap between what's in your head and what you want on the page. You experience that blank-screen moment. Or your fingers are moving madly and your brain is in the next room.
So let's prepare. Let's back up from writing and answer a few questions. It doesn't matter if the answers are rough or messy. The questions are the first step for getting the ideas from your head into the physical world. That's the only place you can actually work with them, mold them, cut them, and shape the thoughts like bread dough. Answer these three main questions (and a few minor ones) and you are well on your way.
The Write On Exercise: Think Fast! can be used for this beginning step whenever you start a new piece of writing. This chapter also has two Words to the Wise sections: Play the Tone Scale will help you determine how to approach your reader — from friendly to formal — and What's My WIIFM? helps you judge the strength of your connection to your reader. Real-World Review: Flip Your Thinking features documentation writer Kelly O'Brien. Through her work, she shows the thinking process in action.
Question One: Who Cares?
Focus on People
Right now, forget about what you have to write. Forget about your ideas or your assignment. That's a relief, isn't it? Now let's look at something more concrete and easier to consider — your reader.
Ask yourself, who needs this? The answer is usually obvious — for example, you need to write a blog post for your customers. Or you might be writing a project proposal for a group at work, or an essay for a college admissions rep, or a cover letter to a job recruiter — you get the idea.
Write down the name of this person. If you imagine that person, your subsequent writing will be more specific. Depending on who they are, you might know them extremely well or not at all. But if you're addressing a group, name one person in it who could represent the whole — it's easier to write with one person in mind than to a crowd. If you don't know the person's name, make one up you like.
Think about your relationship. This could be your boss, a social media fan, a colleague, or a person you need to direct. Sometimes, you can't name a relationship. If you're at a complete loss, imagine someone friendly you'd like to talk to — not someone harsh and judgmental.
This is exactly what many marketing departments do when they are selling the company's product. They create a customer. They give their imaginary person a name — Sienna — and a title in a fake company — customer service manager, EnviroWorks — and they envision how Sienna would use their product. Sienna might even have a Twitter account, personal characteristics, and whole stories invented about how she handles problems. It's called "world building." While you don't need anything so elaborate, you might as well borrow this technique when you can't put a name to your reader.
By looking at names and relationships, your writing will hit the right tone (see Words to the Wise: Play the Tone Scale). Decide on these specifics up front and you'll also help yourself answer the next two questions.
Words to the Wise: Play the Tone Scale
When we communicate in person, we automatically adjust our tone. You talk in a different way to your brother, your boss, your five-year-old niece, or your bar buddy. The same is true with your writing — it's just that we don't usually categorize it. So, when you figure out your relationship to your reader, then you're empowered to make those same tone modifications in your writing.
To do that, think of these adjustments as occurring along a writing tone scale. One side would be formal or academic. Slide down to the other end and you'd find shortcuts, abbreviations, and colloquial slang.
* Formal:Strict adherence to roadway traverse must be observed at all times.
* Informal:Stay on the path, dude.
Formal Informal Academic Conversational Impersonal Personal Serious Funny Elaborate Simple Controlled Unconventional
By naming your reader and what relationship they have with you, you'll locate your writing along this scale. Identifying the tone tells you a huge amount about how you will write something. The tone scale dictates word choices, verbs, sentence length, and all sorts of other picky details. Discovering the tone strengthens your voice — your distinctive manner of expression — and you haven't even started writing.
For example, you'd deliver a short reminder to your boss with brief sentences and specific verbs in a no-nonsense tone:
Your noon meeting is in the Webb Building. The discussion is on the liability of the roadway repair. A ten-minute Q&A will follow.
You might explain a cookie recipe with details that help readers understand the information, using a tone of friendly, but confident, authority:
This simple sand tart recipe makes a super-thin cookie, but it's not a tart and it isn't sandy. Handle as you would pie dough — as little as possible.
Or you'd employ casual language to send a warm invitation for readers to follow your blog:
My blog features the latest in environmental and animal news from around the globe. Follow along and share your own stories from the critter kingdom!
Question Two: What's the Difficulty?
Look at the Problem
Much of our written communication is about solving readers' problems. Problems can be all over the map, from simple to complex. For example:
Simple — This person needs to know the conference schedule.
Complicated — This person needs information about hospital statistics in order to persuade the administration to change protocol.
In any case, you solve readers' challenges with your writing.
Here's where you can do more world building. Allow your empathetic imagination to step in. Jot down details about the difficulties your reader is facing. The more you can add, the more chance you'll refine your focus. And that makes your future writing task easier.
Often the problem is that the reader lacks information. You supply it. Be specific about what's needed. Sometimes it helps to identify the problem and then ask questions about it. For example, let's say you need to write a piece for a farming newsletter. It's aimed at people interested in raising alpacas. You identify the problem — Readers don't know what to consider when raising alpacas for wool. After you nail the problem, you might write out questions like this:
Does diet matter? Does the type of soil on which alpacas are raised make a difference? Do bloodlines count for wool quality? Does weather affect the wool?
If you know the answers to the questions — or can ask the people who do — you now have the information you need to build your piece.
Here's another example. Let's imagine there's been a shakeup in the nonprofit organization where you work. The leader who carried the ball has left. You've been assigned to give a presentation to the remaining board members about how to create an action plan for the future. But first, you need to figure out what's the board's problem. Turns out, this board has been rubber-stamping, allowing the departed leader to make all the decisions. So the problem? The board members don't know how to take an active role. Now you can research these questions:
What type of board do we have? What are the legal requirements?
What are the specific duties?
Your presentation is shaped before you've even written your first draft.
When writing a letter of complaint or a demand, the problem appears to lie with you and not the reader — These supplies have not come in. But think again in terms of the reader's problem. Perhaps they are unaware of the snafu. Or if they are aware, they have a problem because your company is going to look elsewhere for the supplies. Your clear writing gets them in the picture.
Sometimes writing situations don't seem to include problems. For example, do readers of college application essays have a problem? Start by imagining that essay reader — let's give her the name of Althea Perez. See her sitting there in her office? A stack of papers rises in front of her. All day long she's perusing what students write. What's her problem? She needs to find potential students. The application essay is one of the only ways she can judge. And she reads a lot of lousy essays. What does she need? Althea's looking for an essay that makes it easy for her to say yes. She'd like one that grabs her attention and gives her confidence that the student is ready for college.
Once you name her predicament, your marching orders become clearer. And oddly, even though you may be writing a personal essay, the task becomes less about you and more about solving the puzzle that will focus your writing. (Check out Chapter 7 for tips to create the personal essay that will make Althea say yes.)
Question Three: How Will My Writing Solve This Problem?
Picture the answer to this question in Hollywood lights. This is the vital connection between you — the writer — and your reader. Solving your reader's problem is at the very heart of your thinking process.
Now — and only now — should you return to your original writing idea or assignment. To match up your idea with the reader's problem, ask yourself, What am I giving my reader that they don't have now?
When you think in terms of results, you're making a promise to the readers. In the alpaca example above, would-be farmers get the information they need to make a decision. That's the promise. Or in the second example the presentation promises the board members that they will function more effectively after attending the presentation. For the slow supplier, your clear statement of the issue will get results one way or the other. If you can hook in that college essay reader with a snappy opening, your promise of a good read solves her recruiting problem.
Think of your problem solving as the quiet harbor with the readers out there bobbing on a sea of words. The promise becomes the lighthouse beacon that brings readers in. They spot what they need. They home in on you. They engage with what you have to say.
Problem-Solve for a Strong Promise If you can't easily answer the question — What am I giving my readers they don't have now? — back up and look at your problem.
It might not be specific enough. You need to give the problem more focus. One way to sharpen is to imagine how you'd put the dilemma in the subject line of an email. Even if you're not writing an email, by paring down your problem to a bold eye-catcher, you'll know what to put in when you write (and what to leave out).
You might go back to your problem step and discover that you've got more than one difficulty to solve. In this case, you'll need to decide which is the most important point. If, as you write, you discover that another problem and its accompanying promise seem more important, you can always go back and change your emphasis.
Promises With Benefits
Most promises contain at least one of these three benefits. Readers will
Gain knowledge or information.
Enjoy the writing as entertainment.
Be persuaded or moved to action.
Pick up any consumer magazine and you'll see this benefits pattern — often all three types are offered at once. For example, in a New York Times Magazine article, "The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street" (3/21/14), Michael Lewis gives us an exposé about stock market players getting cheated by high-speed trading. The promise is a grabber with three benefits — you'll gain insider knowledge about high-speed trades (information), you'll be taken to a mind-blowing world you know nothing about (entertainment), and you'll come away wanting to change the laws so everything is more transparent (action).
Check out a few more examples of how these work.
For a nonprofit's donor ask-letter:
Your profile on a cooking school for at-risk youth shows one participant turning her life around and opening her own food truck.
People: Nonprofit donors
Problem: Donors don't know how their money is used.
Promise: You'll understand how important your contributions are (information) in this engaging story (entertainment) and be motivated to give again (action).
For a food suppliers' trade newsletter:
Your review of seven money-saving shortcuts using the latest apps.
People: Food suppliers
Problem: Food suppliers have tight margins and need to save money.
Promise: Read this and you'll up your profits (information).
For a status report:
Your analysis of the results of a survey.
People: Your boss
Problem: Company is confronting customers' changing buying habits.
Promise: Read this (information) and make a move based on the data (action).
But what if you need to address two or more people at the same time and each has different requirements? To avoid confusion or a lack of focus, use the people/problem/promise for each person. Once you're clear on that, you can figure out how to structure your writing so that all needs are met.
In this example, suppose you're a program manager sending a short email about an upcoming project to two people. You're emailing both your supervisor, Cheryl (who needs a big picture update), and your department assistant, Sean (who needs a specific task assignment). Sort out who needs what problem solved before you write and your task becomes quicker and your writing sharper.
Hi Cheryl and Sean,
The web migration project will start the week of June 14. Our goal is to have the new site live by the end of August. Cheryl, you'll receive weekly updates from me on progress or any roadblocks. (big picture)
Sean, to kickoff this project, please: (specific task)
Schedule a meeting with all project stakeholders for early next week to review the plan
Finalize the current sitemap
Confirm pricing options with our vendor
As you get comfortable with converting your thinking into problem-solving mode, you may find yourself jumping straight to the question of, "How does my idea solve the reader's problem?" That's great, as long as your answer is short and specific. If not, back up to the steps before and consider who this person is and what they need.
Think Now — Write Later
Thinking is the most underrated part of writing. By taking the time to familiarize yourself with these tools — I promise, it takes longer to read this chapter than to actually answer the questions — you'll lay the foundation for your writing construction. If you define the specifics first, your whole writing job ahead gets easier.
Words to the Wise: What's My WIIFM?
Another way to make sure your writing is focused on your reader's needs is to rank your piece on the WIIFM scale.
WIIFM is the acronym for the question every reader wants to know: What's In It For Me?
Sometimes, your writing project is so short and clear you can skip this question. But if your writing is complicated, your idea unclear, or you just want another way to think about the whole thing, try giving your concept a WIIFM rank — high, medium, or low.
If your idea closely matches the needs of your reader, that's a high WIIFM. For example:
* An article for an orchid newsletter — Gives orchid fanatics the information from the experts on how to keep their plants healthy.
* A report to boss — Shows that your small business has added a hundred additional service contracts and delineates where they came from.
* A blog post for Allaboutbirds.com — Tells cockatiel owners five signs that their birds are at death's door and what to do about it.
If there's a gap between your idea and the needs of your reader, that would score a low WIIFM ranking. For example:
* A memo on information about customer preferences — You put in production numbers instead.
* An annual report — Needs the metrics for institutional effectiveness, but you included the history of the institution.
* A letter to past donors about a river restoration — Features details so complex the donors see no practical application for their money.
If you've identified a strong WIIFM, great! Move on! But if you think your WIIFM might be low, back up a step and check out how you identified your reader's problem. Ask yourself again, "How will my idea solve the reader's problem?" That's the basis for engagement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Write Better Right Now"
Copyright © 2017 Mary-Kate Mackey.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Section 1 Think 15
Chapter 1 Get to the Point 19
Writing Problem: I don't know where to start!
Rx: Answer three questions about people, problems, and promise
Chapter 2 Copy, Copy, Copy 33
Writing Problem: I don't know how to write what I have to write
Rx: Copy first, create later
Chapter 3 The Dreaded Theme Statement 47
Writing Problem: My writing ideas are wandering and unfocused
Rx: Create a cable-car sentence to take you where you want to go
Section 2 Structure 59
Chapter 4 Story Arc to the Rescue 61
Writing Problem: My writing is boring and flat.
Rx: Climb the story arc
Chapter 5 The Hero's Journey 73
Writing Problem: I've got a real-life story. How do I tell it?
Rx: Borrow a structure from the fictional Hero's Journey
Chapter 6 Other Structures, Other Forms 95
Writing Problem: I'm not telling a story. What structure should I use?
Rx: Twelve structures get the job clone
Chapter 7 Constructing the Personal Essay 113
Writing Problem: I need to tell a story from my point of view
Rx: Use the personal essay structure-yes, there is one
Section 3 Edit 135
Chapter 8 The Big-Picture Edit 135
Writing Problem: How do I know what to keep and what to cut?
Rx: Snap your Ideas into line with a long-view edit
Chapter 9 The Medium-Focus Edit 147
Writing Problem: I've done my big-picture edit, but my writing still feels weak
Rx: Four fast tactics help you create clarity and power
Chapter 10 Pointer Sentences Put You in Charge 161
Writing Problem My writing jumps from thought to thought
Rx: Add pointer sentences to guide your reader
Chapter 11 The Close-Up Edit 175
Writing Problem: I don't catch my grammar/spelling/usage mistakes
Rx: Tackle picky details with these simple suggestions
Chapter 12 Help Yourself by Helping Someone Else 199
Writing Problem: My writing isn't improving fast enough
Rx: Try a group
About the Author 223