Packing light

stuffing_suitcaseWhen you travel, how do you pack? Do you stuff a suitcase with everything you might possibly need, rain or shine? Or do you have a neat set of matching clothes that fit into one small case?

Being a recovering heavy packer myself, I’ve noticed something. Confident travellers (typically people who travel a lot) tend to pack light. Really confident travellers – including women with lots of beautiful clothes, not just men grabbing a suit and tie for another quick business trip – almost never have to check a bag in when they’re flying. As Diane von Furstenberg said, “I get ideas about what’s essential when packing my suitcase.”

Packing light can become a kind of game, a test of your own nerve and good judgement. So can writing light.

I’m leading nine writing workshops this autumn (three down, six to go), which means I’ve been reading masses of writing. Sometimes I can tell when you – the “dear writer” out there — feel uncertain. It’s as if you’re worrying that it will freeze in Marbella in August, so you decide to stuff a fleece into the bag, just in case. When you’re writing, you worry that your reader won’t know everything your charity does, so you pack more words into every sentence.

It’s only when you think like a reader yourself that you can see how much those sentences weigh. That’s why workshops are so valuable. You get to read other people’s writing. Right away you’ll notice how many writers use “doubles” to cover all bases. Here are some examples, straight from recent workshops:

 presentation and production

set up and grow small businesses

 break free and become independent

 areas of social and economic deprivation

 the teaching and learning of the national curriculum

 promote and encourage cultural participation

 nationally and internationally renowned

 successful and wide-reaching

 health and happiness

 new and thought-provoking

 difficulty and disadvantage

I know that “health” and “happiness” don’t mean the same thing. The same goes for all the other pairs of words. But when the writers had the courage to choose just one word (or even cut both), the writing felt stronger. “Areas of social and economic deprivation” could become “poor neighbourhoods”, for example – reducing the word count by four. “Nationally and internationally renowned?” How about just “renowned”? As for “health and happiness”, the workshop writers agreed that “happiness” was what really mattered in the proposal. Standing all by itself, the word carried much more emotional weight.

Go for it. Comb through your prose and find the doubles. Dare to cut at least one word from each pair. Read it out loud and see if it sounds more confident. And Marbella in August? Forget the fleece.

 

 

 

 

 

Another ‘F’ word

Feedback

If somebody asks, “Can I give you some feedback?”, how do you feel? Ready for the truth and eager to make any necessary changes? Or sick with dread, knowing you’re about to get a sharp nip of criticism?

I thought so.

I’m leading three writing workshops in the next month, so I’m thinking a lot about giving feedback. I know that some writers will literally shake with anxiety when their writing is discussed. Why is it so hard to share our writing? Is it because we reveal something of how our own mind works every time we write? Or is it because we’ve all been judged again and again on our writing alone – by teachers, examiners, and potential employers or lovers? More rejection: who needs it?

If feedback on our writing is painful, we won’t write better, that’s for sure. Most of us tumble through a cycle of hurt, anger, and denial. Then we try to forget the whole miserable episode.

This month, then, in anticipation of the workshops, I’ve come up with eight rules – not for writers, but for myself and all the critical readers out there. I’ve been guilty of breaking all of them. Nonetheless, I know they work, and you might want to share them with the managing editors in your life.

  1. Meet in person with the writer. Feedback by email helps experienced writers working with professional editors. It doesn’t help anxious people trying to learn on the job. Put the document between you, to show that it’s a shared endeavour that you care about equally and are both responsible for.
  2. Do not write on anyone else’s document. I know. It’s hard.
  3. In the same spirit: when meeting with people, do not hold a pen in your hand. Let the writer take notes and make corrections. If there are basic grammar or spelling problems, point them out and verbally give examples or corrections, but again, let the writer make the actual changes. (It can help writers to keep a running list of errors if they make the same mistakes again and again.)
  4. Ask the writer what he or she wants feedback on. Make sure you address the writer’s concerns, even if they aren’t the same as yours.
  5. Let the writer know where you got lost or sleepy. Acknowledge that you might have had a low blood sugar moment, but suggest that they read those sections aloud and see whether they can write shorter, plainer sentences.
  6. Give feedback that’s descriptive and specific, with steps the writer can follow, rather than subjective. For example, suggest simply cutting a paragraph rather than saying that a section “doesn’t flow”.
  7. Tell the writer what you will remember best. You will be indicating where the writing is strongest, and people learn more from praise than from criticism.
  8. Give the writer time for a rewrite and offer to read it. If the writer does share a second draft with you, bear in mind that writers need to take risks as they develop, and the new writing can look messier at first. Have faith. Say three positive things you haven’t said before and encourage one more “tidy up” draft.

Yes, doing all this takes time and might leave some teethmarks on your tongue, but it pays off quickly for the writer and for you*. Soon you’ll be able to trust the writer to send things out without you having to “check it over”. You’ll have won a colleague’s trust, and you’ll have created a good vibe of collaboration and respect at work.

I’ll be back next month with fresh insights from the workshop. Until then, enjoy the journey!

*Of course, if the document’s being sent off to the Gates Foundation or 10 Downing Street that day, you may need to pick up your pen after all. Just be sure that you, too, get feedback on your writing from time to time. You wouldn’t want to make things worse, would you?

 

 

 

The F Word

Flowery

When I ask people to describe their own writing, they often say (with an embarrassed expression) that it’s “flowery”. They don’t mean that it’s poetic or lyrical. They mean that they’re working extra hard to whip up emotion in the reader.

Here are two examples of writing that might be called “flowery”. The first is an ask from a theatre:

“We would be thrilled if you would consider joining our Top Tier Circle. Not only will the monetary value of your membership support this valuable work, but it provides you an opportunity unlike any other to get further involved with the theatre. You will have greater access to a number of performances from music to circus to theatre, and a chance to join our creative team for opening night parties and rehearsals. On top of these, receiving access to sold out tickets, entry to the stageside Top Tier Bar and queue jump will make every theatre experience extra special each time you come to a show.”

The second is from an overseas development charity. It’s part of a letter asking for matching funds:

“We would love for you to be involved in our Challenge by making a pledge of [amount]. Then you can watch as your pledge joins with leadership funding to match donations from the public, thereby inspiring new donors to support the chatity and making your pledge worth up to three times as much.

 “Your support means so much to the charity and without supporters such as yourself we would not be able to continue this amazing work. This opportunity is so great and we would love for you to help us reach this goal.”

The first writer creates long sentences with elaborate clauses and lists. Here’s somebody who wants to be sure to include every benefit in one short paragraph. By the third sentence, the writer’s piled up so much that the reader disappears. The magic word “you” has vanished.

The second writer uses words that tell us how to feel, rather than giving us cause to feel something: words like “love,” “amazing,” “great.” We know this writer is heartfelt. We can also feel the desperation: we love you, we’re so wonderful, we need you. Please.

Unfortunately, many of us pull back from people who sound needy. If we’re independent spirits, we resent being told what to feel and do. The same holds true with charities. Readers can feel pressured by emotional insistence.

Writing’s a lot like gardening. We need to weed, prune, and stake. What would happen, for example, if the first writer cut down the sentences, then focussed a bit more on the reader’s experience? Here’s a second draft of the same paragraph:

“Join our Top Tier Circle today, and you’ll have instant priority booking to all our shows, from dazzling musicals to heart-rending drama. You can attend rehearsals and even get tickets for sold out shows. You’ll have exclusive access to the stageside Top Tier Bar and special invitations to private opening night parties, where you can talk to the creative teams about what goes into every performance. What better way to enjoy the theatre?”

You’ll notice this version is about 30 percent shorter. Nine times out of ten, rewriting means reducing. Cut, and you’ll have space for a couple of fresh adjectives, such as ‘dazzling’ and ‘heart-rending’, which are about the shows themselves, or the word ‘private’. Who doesn’t want to be asked to a private party with theatre stars? It’s a wonderful way to make donors feel special without telling them the experience will be special.

The second example starts promisingly. It’s all about the challenge. Although it could be edited a bit, the writer at least lets donors know what they can make happen. But if you’re aiming for a threefold leap in income, why not immediately say why? What does that extra money mean? For example, will more children go to school? Will more families get cleaner water? The writer wastes a golden opportunity, probably because he, or she, was nervous about the fundraising goal, and started adding pressure.

Next time you think your writing is “flowery,” take a quick check. Are you insisting that the reader must feel something? Are you writing about your charity as if it’s love-hungry? Like any good fundraiser, you’re probably worrying too much about the charity’s financial needs and internal processes. You’re not alone. It’s just time to do some summer weeding.

 

 

Robot Writing

joy

While I was wondering what to write in this blog post, I watched the movie Ex Machina. Maybe you saw it. It’s the one about the beer-swilling genius in a remote American hideout who creates sexy young robots. The robots are efficient killers, but you can’t blame them. They want to be free of their creator. They want to be — people.

Robots are back. They’re back in the movies, back in the headlines, and in the real world, they’re not bloodless young women wielding sharp kitchen knives. They are – amongst other things – writers.

That’s right. ‘Robots’ (computer algorithms that turn data into readable text) now write the news stories and reports that you and I might read. Maybe they’ll soon be writing charity fundraising proposals and letters.

What will robot writing look like in the charity sector? Here’s an example. It’s a paragraph describing a paid apprenticeship programme at a top arts organisation:

“This scheme is highly valued by young artists as well as by the Company and we are keen to ensure its continuation for years to come. Some talented young artists would not have the chance to pursue a career as professional artists without a paid apprenticeship. Although the contemporary arts sector is growing there are not many contemporary companies who have the capacity to offer this type of opportunity.”

It wasn’t, of course, written by a robot. It was written by a warm-hearted, intelligent human being. And it’s not too terrible. It’s just robotic, with long sentences and abstract words. The writer knew it, I knew it, and you know it.

Let’s be honest. We’ve all been guilty of writing like this. One sign of trouble is when paragraphs look like bricks on the page: heavy and rectangular, stacked up in a row. Bricks make walls that block out the light. Robotic writing has the same effect.

How can you add a lighter, human touch, so your reader knows you’re a real person? Sometimes, the best thing to do is chat to a friend. You’ll use plain language that your friend can understand. You’ll let your passion show.

You might then write something like this:

“Professional artists are in high demand. The jobs are out there, but many talented people won’t get them. The reason is simple: there aren’t enough paid apprenticeships that help young artists to launch their careers.

We’re one of the few companies to offer paid apprenticeships. We give young artists a break when they need it the most. We’re proud of the results, and we’re committed to future apprenticeships.”

There are hundreds of other ways to say more or less the same thing. That’s the beauty of writing. If it’s done by humans, not robots, it’s never the same way twice. If it’s done by robots, it sounds like every other tired funding proposal, and the best you can hope for is – a knife in the back.

Let me know what you do to make your writing sound like you, and if you like, I’ll share it in a future blog post. Thanks for reading!

 

Festina lente

Create

Festina lente is the Latin (so I’m told) for ‘hurry slowly’. It’s a lovely reminder for writers facing a deadline.

I’m guessing that you, like me, often have to write under pressure. So here are some questions for you.

Does it take you longer to write a short letter than a long one?

Do you sometimes feel as if you’re flying at the keyboard, and other times as if you’re ‘pushing boulders around with your brain’, as one writer I know puts it?

Do you struggle to think of people who can give you the kind of feedback that helps more than it hurts?

Welcome to Writable. It’s a blog for you – the writer who wants to write well about the work that charities do (or about anything else that’s important). Because charities are important. They’re so important, in fact, that you might sometimes buckle under the pressure. You want to please everybody. You want to raise more money fast. You want to get it right in just one go. You don’t want to miss that deadline.

Festina lente.

Or in plain English: whenever possible, allow yourself time. Write rough drafts. Daydream a bit. Be kind to yourself. You’ll write better for it. And visit this blog again soon. You’ll find tips and hints, short ‘before and after’ examples from the front lines, words of comfort, and answers to your questions.

You can get in touch by signing up to our newsletter using the subscribe button below or drop me a line at [email protected]. If you’re a writer and you write for a charity, then I want to hear from you.

Wishing you the very best – Liz

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