When writing, embrace abstraction


When writing, embrace abstraction

Bring to mind A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

What do you imagine? 

I think first of the story. The three ghosts, Tiny Tim, Christmas Eve.

Then I see images. Some are from my imagination. Others are from illustrations books or from any of the half dozen movie versions I’ve seen. 

I have sense memory of a physical book. The edition I had as a kid was a heavy, leather-bound volume with a musty smell and a fancy typeface. 

Finally, I remember the parodies. Oscar Madison as Ebenezer Madison and Fred Sanford as Ebenezer Sanford.

But none of those things is what A Christmas Carol IS. A Christmas Carol is the arrangement of words set in fixed form by the author. 

It’s those words from which the story springs. It’s those words that can be adapted by others into scripts, whether serious adaptations for the screen comedic derivatives pieces.

What does this have to do with us ordinary mortals?

Holding a vision for the text seems the greatest struggle my editing clients have. 

Some people in the grip of this struggle have a very strong sense of what they want to communicate. Their writing comes across like they’re writing about the piece they want to produce, rather than writing the piece itself.

Others focus on the physical. As soon as they hit that word count, they’re reading to polish.

“It’s so abstract!” one client recently complained.

Why, yes, it is. 

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.
Thinking About Hiring a Ghostwriter? Read This First.

Thinking About Hiring a Ghostwriter? Read This First.


Thinking About Hiring a Ghostwriter? Read This First.

The topic was timely. “Hot,” even. Nay, “sexy.” The author had a job that lent credibility to his expertise. More than just holding a title, he had garnered awards and press coverage for special projects and achievements. He launched a small consulting practice, landed solid clients of some repute, and was a popular keynote speaker within the industry.

“You should write a book!” People said. “I’d buy it.”

But he had no idea how to write a book and figured learning how would consume more time than he had to spare. He turned to a ghostwriting firm that advertised online.

The ghostwriting firm advertised it can find a professional writer to produce a 225-page book from content the author supplies in three or four hours of interviews; that the author can use the book as a business calling card; and that the book can be a significant source of revenue. Like so many things that sounds too good to be true … it isn’t true.

Most ghostwriting firms promoting themselves that way earn their money by farming out the writing at low pay to inexperienced writers, and then upselling self-publishing services to the author.

There are really 3 types of legitimate, effective arrangements called “ghostwriting.”

A writer does all of the writing and the author puts their name on it. For example, a company might hire a writer to create the voice of the business and post work to a blog under an executive’s name.

The ghostwriter helps the author generate raw content and articulate ideas, then executes in the chosen format. Many of the best business books are written that way. So are many celebrity autobiographies and memoirs about extraordinary experiences.

The author provides mature content in one format and the ghostwriter shapes it into another. Imagine a psychotherapist wants to create a comprehensive web site about a method of treatment she’s invented. She has hundreds of pages of case notes, monographs published in scientific journals, and a master’s thesis, but neither the time nor the inclination to learn how to write web content.

What differentiates all three of those examples from the wishful thinking of the would-be author I began with? These authors make time and take responsibility.

If you are publishing as the spokesperson for collective wisdom, like many organizational leaders, delegating the entire writing process can make sense. However, if you’re promoting your own ideas, which you use as the basis for your professional practice, it’s up to you to own those ideas.

You’re not a thought leader if you outsource the thinking.

Even if you use a ghostwriter, producing high-quality writing is an intensive process. Find a reputable ghostwriter who will be honest with you about what’s required. Be prepared to articulate your thoughts, review drafts, and field questions. It takes time — from you — to get a writer oriented to a body of knowledge and perspective you formed over decades.

Aside from saving you money, writing it yourself may prove worth your effort. You could team up with a writing partner or coauthor, a colleague who shares your expertise but is a better writer. (Note that in some fields, professional ethics dictate that such contributors be named.) You could also hire a developmental editor to create roadmaps for your project or a writing coach to support your work plan.

Don’t ghost your readers! And don’t cheat yourself out of the opportunity to truly share what you know.

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.
Why Highly Educated People May Struggle When Writing for Business

Why Highly Educated People May Struggle When Writing for Business

Corporations have a hard time finding people who can think and write at the same time,” said an English professor turned publishing consultant.

“Better to get a smart writer to write a piece and have an expert verify the accuracy, than have the expert write it and try to edit afterwards. An expert’s badly written piece basically has to be rewritten from scratch,” said a trade magazine editor.

“We tried hiring PhDs, but you’d be surprised how many of them can’t write. I can usually get smart writers up to speed well enough on the substantive content, but teaching somebody to write on the job just doesn’t work,” said the CEO of a consulting firm specializing in research.

And then there are the numerous people with advanced degrees who have told me, “We did not learn how to write in my program. If anything, my graduate program ruined my writing.”

What gives?

These writers aren’t having trouble with mechanics. They are not the people targeted in the plethora of articles about not mixing up “their,” “they’re,” and “there.”

These writers are struggling because they have been taught not to claim any authority. Following the academic models they’ve learned, they hedge, justify, beat around the bush, and dispense hypotheticals without saying clearly and explicitly what they think. And business writing doesn’t work without the voice of authority.

There’s a tremendous need in business for people who have formal skills in research, analysis, and evaluating evidence, and the ability to stake a position in writing. How can you get comfortable taking a stand on paper, so you can step into that gap?

Consider the following:

  1. Re-read your favorite nonfiction books as a writer. Notice how the authors earn your trust, and the techniques they use to shift from giving evidence to interpreting that evidence and declaring an opinion.
  2. Take an instructor-led journalism or creative writing class. In a class, you will learn alternatives to writing as if you were laying out a proof. Instead, you will be shown how to use stories, drama, sound, and emotion — features every bit as important in business writing as in literature or entertainment.
  3. Start or join a writing group. Break the habit of writing for a professor whose job is to judge whether you know what you should know. Test your work on readers with different taste, knowledge, and expectations.
  4. Hire a professional editor or coach. A experienced professional can identify your strengths and troubleshoot your work products, your process, or both, supporting you on a self-directed course of improvement.

Professional success today depends more than ever on critical and creative thinking, rather than the ability to carry out routine procedures. Yet people trained for thinking can have a difficult time applying those skills in ways employers value — especially writing.

For many of us, school failed to deliver the right training, but it’s never too late to learn.

Three Surprising Reasons You Should Write It Yourself

Three Surprising Reasons You Should Write It Yourself

When I was a new writer-for-hire, I was always eager to serve when the phone rang or I received an email from a prospective client. It might surprise you to hear that now, as a developmental editor and writing coach, I often recommend people do not hire a writer at all. I’ve noticed that three of the most common reasons people want to outsource or delegate their writing are the very reasons they should do the writing themselves.

“I know how to write, but I don’t have time.”

Many busy people hire writers to help them with projects. That makes sense if you are a presidential candidate or CEO of a major corporation, and you need to produce a full-length book. But if you are a professional sharing your expertise in a blog post, five-page paper, or your website, you will have the greatest influence on readers if you can reveal how you think. Displaying the workings of your mind can help you win the ideal job or consulting clients, impress colleagues, or build a brand beyond your industry.

The sense that you lack time to write often indicates a deeper problem: lack of time to think. When that’s the case, you will not save time by hiring someone. If you cannot communicate your ideas clearly to the writer you hire, you will waste a lot of time and money in circular conversations and major revisions. Invest time in reflection, and you may find that you don’t need a writer; an editor or proofreader may be enough.

“I don’t know what to say.”

If you have nothing to say, why are you writing? The answer to that question points you to the remedy. I find that my clients have plenty to say, but they have trouble selecting from an abundance of data and information. It is a frustrating exercise to try to write about a topic without an audience to address, a point to make, and a goal. The more knowledgeable you are, the more frustrating it is.

Before attempting to compose a draft, jot down your intentions. They might be as mundane as, “My manager wants every sales engineer in the group to write one blog a quarter to justify the budget to her manager.” Imagine a specific person who will read your piece. What do you want them to think, feel, or do? Then use a mind map, an outline, or just clusters of unrefined sentences to come of with a plan of attack.

“I’m not a writer.”

Published material faces competition from a multitude of sources. You may fear it takes dazzling writing to get the attention of your desired audience. That belief has even created a “grey market.” A former colleague of mine works as a confidential ghostwriter for full-time marketing copywriters! Remember that while those dazzling writers were developing their writing chops, you were studying, practicing, and building relationships in your discipline. What a writer can learn through journalistic research can’t compare with reports from your informed analysis and work experience.

If there’s a critical voice in your head that taunts, “You aren’t a writer,” ask yourself what that means. Some excellent writers discount their talents simply because they are bad spellers. Other professionals are disappointed to find their educational experiences failed to provide the skills to write for business or publication. Maybe you learned to write one way for your high school English teacher and another for your thesis advisor and now you are lost. Once you know what “not a writer” means, you can find a solution. Take a short course in the kind of writing you want to do. Engage a developmental editor. Maybe all you need is to read a few good models and practice, practice, practice.

You are more than a vessel for information who needs a “creative” person to translate what you have to share. Your voice is unique — and it matters.

Writing on a Team: Lessons from the Founding Fathers

Writing on a Team: Lessons from the Founding Fathers


Writing on a Team: Lessons from the Founding Fathers

When I started out as a freelance business writer, I didn’t give much thought to anyone’s writing process but my own. Clients would send me assignments to complete independently. I’d cocoon and type. As my practice grew, I got opportunities to take on bigger projects, as a professional writer and editor embedded in work teams. I was eager to help people who said they dreaded writing — but I soon learned why these projects were so painful. At a kick-off meeting for a 20-page paper project, a program manager in a professional services firm warned that the team should expect to churn through 30-40 drafts. A nonprofit vice-president said she’d alerted managers in four agency departments they should allocate 10 percent of their time over the next four months to assembling a grant proposal. How could either scenario be possible? The professional services company expected me to act as note taker and grammarian. The writing process was as follows: A team of seven people would sit in a room for several hours a week, attempting to compose the paper sentence by sentence from beginning to end. It took about a dozen drafts before a basic conceptual framework emerged. They did not know the importance of planning before writing. The nonprofit organization ignored the structure supplied by the grant application itself; in weekly meetings, every invited staff member in every department reopened disagreements about program design, budget, and operations rather than starting from the specific questions in front of them. What they expected from a hired writer was someone who could find the magic words to create sense from their data dumps. Of course, this was nonsense. No writer could make a usable document from such contentious conversations. This team, too, needed an entirely different approach. As a developmental editor, I’m always looking out for simple ways to explain how to avoid these grueling exercises. I found some examples unexpectedly in historian Joseph Ellis’ entertaining books about the birth of the United States. His descriptions of how the founding fathers wrote are wonderful case studies in team-writing best practices. Option 1: Appoint a lead writer to produce the draft, and then let people review. As a kid, I imagined that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a burst of inspiration. Actually, it was a team project. The Second Continental Congress appointed a “Committee of Five,” including Jefferson, who was chosen to compose the public announcement of a prior decision to separate from Great Britain. Jefferson drafted the document and submitted it for review and debate, first by the committee, and then by the whole congress. When to use this strategy:
  • A member of your team has the time, skill, and willingness to complete a draft.
  • The team trusts that the writer understands the group’s collective view, and the writer is comfortable deferring to the group for the final draft.
Option 2: Assign different sections to different authors. After the U.S. Constitution was written, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton wrote a series of 85 essays aimed at persuading the people of the state of New York to ratify it. The first paper provided a list of six topics the authors intended to cover. They published the articles in New York newspapers under the name “Publius.” Today, the collection is known as the Federalist Papers. When to use this strategy:
  • Different sections or passages of the final product naturally call for different styles. For example, a program manager could write a persuasive executive summary for a proposal and a business analyst write the detailed financial planning section.
  • You are willing to appoint or hire an editor to ensure cohesion. An editor might devise a template for each writer to follow. Or they might simply write an introduction, conclusion, and connecting text to ease the reader’s journey from one section to the next.
Option 3: Hire a professional writer, editor, or ghostwriter. George Washington contemplated stepping down after his first term as president, and he asked James Madison to help him articulate his vision for the future of the American enterprise. Washington was convinced to remain in office for another four years. By the end of that second term, he and Madison had had a philosophical parting of the ways. Washington pressed Alexander Hamilton into service to revise Madison’s draft, and Washington made careful edits before the farewell address was released to the press. When to use this strategy:
  • No one on the team has the writing skills to produce the content that’s needed. For example, the learning curve for responding to a request-for-proposal (RFP) for a competitive federal contract might be very steep. There are experienced writers who specialize in those kinds of proposals.
  • You need to combine the work of multiple contributors into a single voice.
  • It’s counterintuitive, but if you hire a writer who’s not on your team, you need more clarity about the ideas, not less. Most good writers can generate logically sound copy based on any number of hypothetical concepts or angles. Your document should capture your team’s perspective, not the writer’s.
If you do not select one of those strategies deliberately, your project may fall into one anyway — after you have wasted a lot of time and experienced a lot of unnecessary frustration. A strong personality grabs the reins and writes a draft. Multiple contributors cobble together something, which may or may not achieve the quality you want. Often, the project will stall, and you bring in a writer or editor for an expensive rush job. So, follow the examples of our founding fathers! Adopt a team writing process that brings focus, encourages responsibility for the formulation of ideas, and results in clear, quality text.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.