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.
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.
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
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.
“Write how you speak.” The advice is well intentioned. It’s meant to ease the fears that stop smart people from putting their words on paper. (Everybody can talk, right?) It’s meant to correct the tendency some people have of writing in a style they were taught to use for 11th grade English assignments.
The advice is not bad; it’s just misleading. To compose effective pieces, one must understand that written and spoken communications have different structures. What’s more, since increasing amounts of what is written today is stored or distributed digitally, there’s another reason to be more deliberate about structuring pieces: structure helps machines “read” your content so that it can be found by your target audiences.
When people suggest you write how you speak, they’re talking about style. They’re recommending that you match the register (how formal the language is) of your written communication with the way you would speak to the same audience, and that you match the tone (the attitude or mood you convey) with the message.
Writing a welcome letter to people who have registered for workshop, “Be A Clown: Improv for Executives”? The register should be informal; the tone should be friendly and humorous. Writing a demand letter to a customer who wrote a bad check? The register should be formal; the tone should be serious and matter-of-fact.
Style isn’t everything.
The enrollees of that improv class and the writers of that rubber check know they are reading a letter when they see the salutation, a typical feature of a letter’s structure.
Spoken communication happens in an interactive context. It capitalizes on body language, vocal inflection, and the physical environment. Written works, including prewritten speeches, trade those advantages for another one, something akin to a blueprint. When writing a piece, you rely on its structure (the organization of the ideas and information in relation to each other) to achieve the effects you want to have on people’s thinking and feeling.
• Journalists use the inverted pyramid to write basic news stories. The first paragraph includes all of the essential information, and the story trails through less and less important content as the paragraphs progress.
• Write fiction, and you will learn some version of a formula of Aristotle’s theory of plot or Fryetag’s pyramid. This structure promotes readers’ identification with the main character and immersion in the world and events of the story.
• High school students learn some version of the five-paragraph structure. That’s a way to organize a short piece to construct an argument.
These formats provide landmarks that hold — and direct — readers’ attention. Each one cues a particular state of mind and promises a specific kind of experience.
Neglect structure, and you confuse and annoy your audience.
The piece is vaguely interesting, but the reader can’t tell where it’s going until three or four paragraphs in.
The main point is buried.
The article isn’t wordy, exactly, but it goes on way too long.
A short piece uses several conflicting metaphors rather than a unifying one.
Instead of a satisfying wrap-up, the piece ends abruptly.
An instruction sheet or manual seems cluttered with unnecessary or distracting background information.
Each of these problems is a failure of structure. Most of them don’t pose a problem if you’re speaking to someone in person.
To be sure, great writers sometimes break structure deliberately, for effect. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we think we are following the story of Marion, who’s stolen her boss’ money and gone on the lam. Thirty minutes into the action, she’s stabbed in the famous shower scene. Surprise!
In the digital realm there can be additional hiccups, like:
An excerpt on a content aggregator misrepresents the post to which it clicks through. (The lack of structure means the content hasn’t been marked up properly.)
The navigation on a Web site confuses you. The flow between linked pages doesn’t make sense. (No big picture gives order to the ideas.)
Writing how you speak is a great way to get a first draft, but the next step isn’t “polishing.” When you edit your first draft, you stop being a conversation partner and start being a maker.
Try to imagine the train of thought your readers will need to take if they are to respond the way you want them to. Imagine also their emotional reactions. Then lay the track.
Are you reporting, teaching, entertaining, convincing? Arrange your content to support the goal.
Don’t forget the concern of how people will consume the piece: From their phone while on the commuter bus, from their desktop while at work, from a bound book while sitting in a favorite reading chair, or from loose sheets of paper propped up next to a machine they’re trying to fix?
Don’t write how you speak; there’s nobody listening. Give people a route to follow.
Do “people” really prefer visual Web content to text?
Me, I’m an outlier. I find a long, dense block of text as tempting as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. Still I’m inclined to believe there’s some truth to the common wisdom that a majority of people absorb and retain information better when it is presented visually. So why do Web sites that feature video, dozens of photos, and very few words so often subject us to a bad experience?
Technology makes it easy to produce Web sites, video, and infographics. People seem to have less anxiety about snapping photos than they do about writing. However, most people have less training in visual communication than in writing, and it shows.
Here are the three most common errors I see in visual design on the Web:
Problem #1: Illustrated verbal metaphors. You’ve undoubtedly seen some version of this image — a pair of hands holding a mound of soil with a green sprout growing out of it. My dynamo Web designer Jessica Albon wrote, “Stock photography can be great, but more often it’s generic. If you were on a site that had a photo like [that], what would you think they did? Business consulting? Environmental cleanup? Daycare? (I’ve seen this type of photo on sites for all three types of companies–and many others.)”
It’s as if the people designing the page thought:
“What would say ‘rich, deep’ experience that grows in the customer’s mind?” or “What says ‘health’”?
“Oh, yeah, dark, fertile soil!”
And that’s not the only such cliched image. How about:
Corporate team members poring over documents (“What says ‘collaboration’?”)
Fit young woman sitting in lotus position alone on the beach (“What says ‘peaceful, healthy’?”)
There’s not much visual communication happening there; the pictures symbolize verbal ideas.A skillful writer might indeed use some combination of words to compare a sprout bursting from the soil with a growing business. The photograph is often a non sequitur.
The cure: Think like a filmmaker. Successful films tell stories through a series of visual images informed by dialogue and music. The words in the script give the director cues for things that will actually be seen. Films use symbolism, but the people and objects you see on screen are not just metaphors. Once the shot has been transformed into an image, that image can not be completely captured in words at all. This is one of the most famous shots from Citizen Kane.
Here is the passage in the script that forms the blueprint for that shot.
Camera now pulls back further, showing Thatcher standing before a table on which is his stove-pipe hat and an imposingmultiplicity of official-looking documents.He is 26 and, as might be expected, a very stuffy young man, already very expensive and conservative looking, even in Colorado.
For a peek into the minds of two master visual thinkers and storytellers, check out the film, Hitchcock/Truffaut.
Problem #2: Video that doesn’t communicate visually. Many Web sites link to a YouTube or Vimeo file of the author sitting at a desk and speaking into the camera. The shots are poorly composed. For example, the edge of some unidentifiable piece of furniture (but not the whole object) pokes into the corner of the frame. The lighting is off, with distracting shadows visible on the walls. Sometimes the video is blurry. Ironically, these authors neglect the visual dimension of the content.
Worse, this is not really visual communication at all. It’s oral communication bolstered by images. The same applies to a person reading from a PowerPoint. Even when there are a few slides of charts, graphs, or pictures, the dominant mode in these slide presentations is auditory.
The cure: Do video right or not at all. If you just want to talk, try a podcast instead of a video. If you want to give people a lot of information, written copy is more effective than an hour’s worth of reading from a PowerPoint. Use video where it adds value: in a demonstration,like how to braid hair; in a mini-story with scenes; or when your talk makes entertaining use of props. If you use video for a lecture or interview, learn good technique or hire a professional producer.
Problem #3: Lack of visual design.The visual dimension of a Web site goes beyond the subject of the pictures posted there. In fact, a Web site communicates visually with no representational images at all. Typography, layout, white space, choice of color all contribute. The style of the images matters, too. Cartoonish illustrations send a different message than realistic ones and photographs send a different message than illustrations.
The cure: Don’t stop with pictures. Even better — don’t start with pictures. If you’re a wedding photographer or painter, images should probably dominate your Web site. If you are marketing yourself as the only psychotherapist in your city specializing in support groups for narcoleptics, you probably need to explain that in words. Of course the visual quality of your site, the “look-and-feel,” should match the quality of your message. Before prospective clients or referral sources even read the text, they should get the impression that you are caring and wise and professional. They should not think they accidentally surfed to the Web site of a rock band.
Recognize when words should predominate. If that is the case, write or hire a writer.
When making a video, give people something to see.
To tell a story in pictures, make a logical connection between the image and your offer.
Finally, respect the discipline of visual design. An artist or graphic designer can do a lot more for you than a WordPress theme and stock photos.
I hope this post has been as filling — if not as tasty — as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. I’ll spare you the picture.