Unless You’re Prepared for People to Ignore — and Maybe Sometimes Laugh at — What You Write, You Might Need the Help of an Editor or Copywriter

If you must smoke, please do it quietly!

Yesterday a friend asked if I’d like to speak at his Rotary Club in a few months. We tentatively agreed on a topic, namely the title of this post.

The following is a preview of some of the territory I expect to cover in this and another presentation I’ll be giving in a few weeks.

As some readers of this blog may know, I post material that pertains, at least loosely, to writing, editing, language and English usage on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter every day. I find this material — most of it humorous — online, and it often provides a window onto some of the pitfalls that people occasionally encounter when putting words to paper. Pitfalls that, as an editor, I can help people avoid.

Of course, few people write professionally for a living. They generally write only when something in their life or business requires it. In my experience, most people believe they express themselves competently in writing, and many certainly do.

However, I believe that most people who don’t frequently need to write tend to produce wordy prose that sounds “flat” and fails to actively engage their intended readers. Sometimes it can even induce fatigue and boredom. Readers will often put such writing aside and not return to it.

Writing like this needs the help of a professional editor or copywriter if it is to convey the writer’s intended message with the energy needed to get his or her audience to respond as the writer hopes they will.

I’ll start by showing a few examples, gleaned from the internet, of the funny traps that unwary writers can fall into.

If a person’s writing gives readers more than a rare example of things like these, his audience may not take him very seriously. They might even be laughing.

However, funny mistakes are the least of the problems writers face. I’ve seen many articles that describe research showing that writing with more than the occasional typo or error in grammar or spelling erodes an author’s credibility. This greatly weakens the effect of the message.

So what should a business person or other professional do who’s faced with a writing project? If, like most people, they think they write well enough, they might wish to stop and ask themselves if “good enough” really is good enough.

Is it good enough to get their message heard, absorbed and acted upon by the people they want to pay attention? Does the writing sound a little awkward, as though the writer was having trouble conveying his or her thoughts clearly and concisely?

Or is the written piece so long — perhaps more than just a couple of pages — that readers may feel intimidated and not even pick it up?

The Other Side of the Coin
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. When a piece of writing lands in front of busy people, what will prompt them to start reading — and keep reading?

The opening sentence or two needs to draw them in. It helps if the piece is no more than a couple of pages. It shouldn’t look like a time-suck. The paragraphs should be relatively short and perhaps some of the key points can be written as bullets. These are signs that the piece will be easy reading.

As readers get into the piece, will they find the writing engaging? Is the language lively? The verbs active? The sentences of varying length but never convoluted? The arguments clear? Will a touch of humor make the reader smile?

If the prospective writer can produce a piece like this him or herself, great! If not, perhaps it’s time to consider asking an editor or copywriter for a little help.

Here’s what an editor can do for you.

  • Make your material clearer, tighter, punchier, more engaging, more effective and therefore more valuable to you and your organization.
  • Give your documents a professional look and feel.
  • Turn your industry’s jargon into language everyone can understand.
  • Create a favorable impression — make you look good.

Here’s what a copywriter can do for you — and you don’t have to be writing a book to benefit from a copywriter’s help. The president uses them all the time. They’re called speechwriters. I spent nearly a year as the speechwriter for the governor of Hawaii.

  • A copywriter — that is, a professional business writer — can not only make your message clear, tight and engaging … he can help you organize your thoughts so the piece carries your readers right along with your train of thought, so they can easily buy into your arguments and conclusions.
  • A copywriter can help you create web content, blogs, brochures, fliers, newsletters, press releases, op-eds, letters to the editor, FAQs, executive bios, speeches, PowerPoints, magazine articles, advertorials, legislative testimony, election campaign materials, reports, plans, resumes … even the dreaded holiday letter.
  • A copywriter, like an editor, can make you look good.

Here are some examples of how a creative writer and editor — in this case me — can make your prose a little less prosaic … and add a little spice to your business writing.

  • From an article about a harbor. Here I tried to find a lively way to say that virtually all the island’s imports — “everything else” — come through the harbor:
    Everything else comes by sea — apples and appliances, hardware and formal wear, office cubicles and pharmaceuticals, gasoline and Vaseline, CDs and BVDs.
  • Rhymes, alliteration and a bit of playful double entendre in a news release describing “aloha wear” for dogs:
    Why should your pooch be clad in plaid, when you can dress her up in an aloha print? She’ll be the most elegant bitch on the block. For Bowser, an aloha tie makes the ultimate statement in doggie style. From Chihuahuas to Great Danes, we put togs on your dogs.
  • From an op-ed intended to gain publicity for an aquaculture project:
    The single-shelled abalone is a highly prized ingredient in epicurean dishes around the world — a veritable gastropod for gastronomes.
  • From an article on a sailing race:
    While sailing may be fun, it also involves plenty of hard work. Racing, especially, is no breeze.
  • From an article on Kauai’s National Tropical Botanical Garden. Here, the narrative is about the director, a man of extraordinary talents:
    His accomplishments could fill the lives of several garden-variety high achievers.
  • From a review of a neighborhood Indian restaurant:
    It took a computer whiz from Madras to bridge this gustatory gap. Ravi Shivaraman has wedged an entire subcontinent into a modest storefront between Mike’s Barbershop and the Post Office.
  • From a holiday-related news release on behalf of a website selling made-in-Hawaii products:
    We like to think of the holidays as a time of warmth and cheer. But by the time December makes its presence felt, the domain of warmth and cheer is all too often compressed to an ever-shrinking circle by those other heralds of the season: icy roads, biting winds, gray skies, long nights, cold feet and runny noses. There’s nothing like a little sunshine and aloha from Hawaii to inject fresh reserves of warmth and cheer into the bottle. So if you’re desperately seeking aloha, check out the website that can dissolve those holiday blues with a touch of Blue Hawaii.
  • From an article about coffee growing:
    Attending a cupping is an experience in which the aroma of fresh coffee competes with an assault on the eardrums, as the half-dozen or so cuppers slurp their way through 40 to 50 samples, then discharge each mouthful into a spittoon.
  • From an article about Kauai’s main harbor:
    “Thanks to Charlie Scharsch, the people of Kauai got up to the trough while there was still food in it.”
  • Make numbers speak:
    Why write 31.7 percent, when you can say “one out of three” or “nearly a third”?
    Why say 48 years, when you can write “nearly half a century” or “almost five decades” or “two generations” or “before most of us were born” or “over half a lifetime ago”?
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