Lynda McDaniel loves to get people fired up about writing. Whether she’s coaching, training, or writing books, she digs into her satchel of proven techniques and personal experiences to help them increase their confidence and catapult their creativity. As they work together, her clients can better access their own problem-solving and creative-thinking skills and draw from their strengths and stories—the ones that set them apart from the rest and help them excel at work.
In August 2009, Lynda published her latest book, Words at Work: Powerful business writing delivers increased sales, improved results and even a promotion or two. It draws on her lifetime of writing books, articles, and business documents with essays and instruction. More than how to dot Is and cross Ts, Words at Work teaches readers how to think big and write big. It explores how to mine their creativity and write their ideas in an organized and compelling way so that they can persuade, sell, teach, improve, guide, explain, change, contribute, motivate, praise, recommend, propose, and create.
Her next book is entitled Words at Work-Book. The companion to Words at Work, it takes readers deeper into the fundamentals of good writing. (Available fall 2009.) Too often today, business writing is like the literary equivalent of fast food: slapped together, full of fat, and hard to digest. Through interesting, short quizzes, and fun exercises, readers refresh their understanding of grammar, punctuation, and style. And by the time they finish Words at Work-Book, they’ll be ready to write letters that get results, documents that demand attention, and proposals that persuade.
In 2005, she created and produced Compelling Communications©, a series of business-writing seminars. Her coaching and seminar clients include the City of Seattle, Cutter & Buck, First Choice Health, Kroll Security, Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Seneca Real Estate Group, Sound Inpatients Physicians, T-Mobile, U.S. Small Business Administration, University of Puget Sound, University of Washington, and YMCA.
She brings bring more than 25 years of writing experience to her seminars, presentations and books. National companies I’ve written for include DuPont, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Georgia Institute of Technology. Her long career as a journalist includes feature articles for magazines and newspapers such as Law & Politics, Associations Now, Southern Living, Country Living, Yoga Journal, University of Chicago Magazine, Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, guideposts.com, and washingtonpost.com.
Lynda spent years learning how to write and tell great stories, and she loves to share all the tools and tips she’s learned along the way. And she still writes, every day. She has an unflagging commitment to both the science and art of writing. www.lyndmcdaniel.com and www.lyndamcdaniel.com/blog.asp. Or www.afcbw.com
Although my latest book, Words at Work: Powerful business writing delivers increased sales, improved results, and even a promotion or two, focuses on writing in the workplace, the principles it covers work for all writers—from novelists to journalists, essayists to poets. It explores inspiration, self-confidence, and creativity, and who couldn’t use a little more of that?
One of the best techniques I write about is “deconstruction.” At first this may seem dangerously close to plagiarism. It’s not. Deconstruction is a tool that can help you identify and more fully develop your personal writing style.
Copying, when used correctly, is simply a way to learn technique. I came to terms with this idea years ago while visiting an art museum. The exhibition text panel explained that Degas and Cassatt applied for permits to the Louvre to copy the Great Masters. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that it was okay to copy greatness. Wasn’t that cheating? Eventually, though, I realized that this kind of copying is simply an exercise, not a finished product. We learn by example, by mimicking greatness until it feels natural to us.
Try deconstruction the next time you get excited about something you just read—whether it’s in your genre or not. The frisson you feel while reading signals a strong emotional message, something way more powerful than an intellectual idea. As you read, glean ideas you can bring to your writing. Explore your usual sources and add new ones. If you read literary novels, try mysteries (and vice versa). If you read blogs, pick up the New York Times (and vice versa).
When practicing deconstruction on writing you admire, look for:
1. How does the piece start? How does the writer grab your attention: describing a scene, telling a story, asking a question, creating a “what-if” scenario?
2. What’s in the middle? How did the writer organize the information? What techniques made the information flow seamlessly?
3. How does it end? Is there a notable denouement or call-to-action? Does it wind up with a twist or finish the “what-if” scenario started at the beginning?
Next, dig a little deeper. Are there:
4. A variety of sentence structures: short, long, in-between? And fragments? Together, they add punch that keeps us reading. Long sentences lull us to sleep.
5. Vivid verbs? Last week I read the verb “canoodle” and added it to my favorites list. Jettison 50 percent of those boring is-are-were verbs that plague most writing. Replace them with brandish, festoon, launch, ravage, rummage, shout, taunt, unfettered, wither, and wilt, to list a few.
6. Similes? Does the writer explain something complex with a comparison to something familiar? Similes help you bring your readers up to speed quickly. I keep a list of these, too, like this one from G.M. Ford in Black River: “Lost in thought, Corso watched the paparazzi move along the sidewalk like a meal going down a python.”
Rejoice when you read something of beauty. First, it deserves it. Second, it’s alerting you to a new level of writing just waiting for you to achieve.
About the Book:
In her latest book—Words at Work: Powerful business writing delivers increased sales, improved results, and even a promotion or two—Lynda McDaniel shares tools and techniques she developed over her long career as a writer and business writing coach.
Not taught in school
Words @ Work helps fill in the gap between what’s taught in school and what’s needed on the job. Many topics covered in Words @ Work are very different from those in most business writing books.
Like these five unique ways to improve business writing:
· Eureka!—Tap into your creativity in just 10 minutes to improve your writing—and your career.
· Stories—Tell tales and keep your audience captivated. Stories appeal to our emotions, which is what makes us buy. Not selling anything? Think again. Everything we write is a sales piece.
· Projection—Pay attention to your thoughts about others—they’re telling you something important about your hopes, your dreams, and your writing.
· Deconstruction—Borrow from the best to make your writing better. Study the work of professional writers to learn how to make your own writing sing.
· Bad writers just stopped too soon—Edit in short, sharp bursts rather than one longer session. With each shorter session, your brain helps you find more mistakes and misstatements.
Step by step
Each chapter starts with a short essay from McDaniel’s life that illustrates a key issue about the writing process. The rest of the chapter includes detailed explanations and examples about that issue. Topics include:
· Listen to your gut
· Write for your readers
· Overcome the fear of starting
· Write fast first drafts
· Tap into your creativity
· Edit your way to success, to name a few.
Does writing well still matter in a time of e-mail, texting, and Twitter?
You bet it does.
Writing is so much more than stringing words together. The process of writing can help you clarify your thoughts and uncover ideas you didn’t know you had. Writing well can deliver increased sales, improved results, and even a promotion or two.
I admit that as a professional writer for 25 years and a business writing coach for five, I’m hopelessly in love with words: their flow, their nuance, their message. At the same time, I appreciate what a boon to business e-mail and text-messaging can be. Quick questions, fast answers, no postage—I’m all for them! But somewhere along the way, we’re losing our ability to write.
When you write only short e-mail and text messages, your ability to develop your thoughts shrivels, along with your ability to persuade, sell, teach, improve, guide, change, contribute, and create. Words @ Work is about learning how to tap into your deepest thoughts and present them in an organized and compelling way. It’s about thinking big and writing big.
Nothing to fear but…
While living on my farm, I discovered a lot of things about writing by observing nature. My favorite lesson—there is a season for everything—taught me that there is a time to plan, a time to work, a time to rest, and a time to reap the rewards of all that effort. It makes perfect sense. No one sits down and writes something brilliant. It takes time pondering and planning, writing and editing. I learned that writing is more like picking blackberries than huckleberries. Huckleberries, heavy bunches hanging low in August, fall into your bucket with the slightest nudging. Every now and then that happens with writing—the words just tumble out. But more often, writing is like picking blackberries—thorny patches keeping your ideas just out of reach. But keep stretching, and you’ll get to the good stuff. Like that cobbler cooling on the windowsill. Most of these obstacles boil down to fear. Fear of getting it “wrong.” Fear of not finishing. Fear of finishing. And there’s nothing unusual about that. Everyone feels—some more often than others—that fear of a blank screen or empty pad of paper. Fear makes us think we have no interest in writing. Clients tell me they hate to write, but later I find that
they’re afraid to write because someone—their boss, client, or even that ornery editor in their own head—is standing by to criticize. It makes us freeze, procrastinate, even clean our offices before we write. But when that fear is lifted, when people understand how important writing is to their careers and that everyone can learn to write, incredible things happen.
In Chapter One, I mentioned a season for everything. That certainly applies to ornery editor (OE). Who’s that? As if we don’t get enough grief from bosses and know-it-alls, most of us carry around this voice inside our head, the one making annoying—even crippling—remarks like, “This is really bad. You’ll never get this article sold. Man, how can you keep doing this? You ought to quit!” And, of course, he picks on your first drafts. While I learned that I can’t make my OE go away, I’ve trained myself to ignore him while I’m writing early drafts. That’s essential. You need the space to experiment
and try again. Keep your OE as far away from the writing process as possible. Otherwise he’ll do his best to make you give up or churn out something tried and true like everyone else. But I also learned that I needed to let my OE back in during my editing process. That’s when he just might have something valuable to say. “That’s too long. That doesn’t feel right. Something’s clunky. I don’t think your readers will understand that. Can’t you find a more exciting verb than ‘is’?” I can’t tell you how often, when I felt tired or lazy, I’d ignore his promptings—usually an uneasy feeling in my gut about a certain paragraph—only to have an editor criticize that very paragraph.
Tools of the trade
I learned a lot from … journalists and copywriters. I enjoyed picking up the paper and reading their articles. And once I realized how much journalism meant to me, I set about learning all I could from them. So, let’s explore some of the best techniques journalism offers to writers in the business world.
This journalist’s tool looks like an upside-down pyramid—with the tip pointing down and the broad base at the top. It’s a great icon to keep in mind as you organize anything you’re writing—from a letter or e-mail to a report or newsletter article. It looks like what your document should look like—stacked right from the beginning with the best stuff on top and winding down to a well-rounded finish.
Six Wise Men
The Six Wise Men are classic reporter questions: who, why, what, where, when, and how. With some exceptions, they all need to be answered to make your document complete. I use them as a safety net—if I’ve answered all six in my writing, I feel confident that I’ve covered all the bases.
The inspiration for deconstruction struck while I was visiting an art museum. The text panel explained that Degas and Cassatt applied for permits to the Louvre to copy the Great Masters. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that it was okay to copy greatness. Wasn’t that cheating? Weren’t we taught in school never to copy? For writers, doesn’t that edge dangerously close to plagiarism? Eventually, though, I realized that deconstruction, like artists at the Louvre, was simply an exercise, not a finished product. Degas and Cassatt developed their own unmistakable styles—they just wanted to practice techniques and prime their creativity at the same time.
We learn by example, by mimicking greatness until it feels natural to us. To translate that for writing, instead of envying other writers, I needed to take a closer look at what I admired about their work. I needed to study greatness. While teaching myself to write, I spent hours poring over books and magazines. I made copious notes of how the writers handled their information. I earmarked pages until the magazine didn’t close right.
Today, as a business writing coach, I help people break off their love affair with six syllables when one works even better. I’ve read some paragraphs so convoluted I had to ask clients to explain what they were trying to say to their readers. When they start talking, their thoughts come out fresh and clear. I stop them before they forget what they just said and tell them, “Put that down!” I keep a file of bad examples because some of them are unimaginable. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.
1. “The purpose of this report is to clarify the communications endeavor we discussed and further develop the necessary components for review by the board, inasmuch as…”
2. “The process, if accelerated through the strategic channels in the allotted timeframe, will leverage our deployment as an immeasurable uniqueness in the marketplace.”
Relax. Be yourself. Use plain English. Write in an open, honest style. Don’t try too hard. Conversational writing is in. Large words and convoluted sentences don’t get the message across. Just talk to your readers. In turn, you’ll increase sales, eliminate misunderstandings, and achieve goals faster.
WIIFM - What’s in it for me?
That’s what all readers are thinking, consciously or not. And you’ve got 10 seconds to convince them you understand their needs. It’s easy to talk about yourself, your products, and your services and assume that readers make the jump to how those features will benefit them. They don’t. First, you need to ask, interview, and watch so you understand what they want and need. Then, you need to write to them, address their needs, concerns, and problems. As a result, you’ll grab their attention and keep them engaged.
How to get where you want to go
Think of your writing as a bus making its way through traffic. All the best words and phrases are on board, along with your features and benefits. And the proper use of commas, periods, and dashes (like road signs) are making the ride smoother for your readers. But who’s driving the bus? If it’s you (the writer), that bus is headed in the wrong direction. Put your reader in the driver’s seat, and that bus is speeding toward the results you both need. As you let the reader drive your bus, you’ll share benefits and results they care about (rather than all the features you’re so proud of).
Telling tales for fun and profit
Observation is one of the best ways to develop stories. Pay attention to anecdotes in everyday life—and write them down. (Your memory really isn’t as good as you think.) As a reporter, I’ve honed the skills of looking and listening. I eavesdrop at restaurants and on buses (and hear the most amazing things). One of my favorite observations took place on the highest summit in Georgia, Brasstown Bald (4,784 feet). Ten years later, I used their exchange for a lead in an article about wildflowers.
Two women walking in the woods stopped to investigate a shock of red against the muted forest floor.
“What’s that?” one asked.
“Oh, nothing,” the other said. “Just an old wildflower.”
I overhead this exchange almost 20 years ago, but I still can’t believe my ears. They stood before petals of red, dew-dotted emerald leaves, pistils laden with gold, fragrance as sweet as the senses can register—a flower that had returned year after year through too much rain and too little, through winter’s cold and summer’s heat. And they dissed it?
Listen to what your customers, employees, bosses—whomever you’re writing to—have to say. Eavesdrop. Ask questions. What do they like? What would make their lives easier? In a perfect world, what do they hope you can deliver? Shape your documents to respond to their needs. Remember that our biggest task in business writing is to write to our reader, not just dump our information on them. Stories increase your readers’ ability to grasp your information. Instead of deadly diatribes or boring PowerPoints, share stories, scenarios, situations, and case studies.
"As a professional, I have had the opportunity to read and use the wisdom from many self help books and the key is finding one that is timely, doesn't demean and is immediately useful. McDaniel achieves this by teaching you the process from beginning to end, including the little used rough draft and self-critique. In order to become a good writer, you need to become your audience. McDaniel shows you how to see your writing through the eyes of others, how to target your audience and how to make more out of less."
--Jeannie S. Saunders
“I just got the book yesterday and what's wonderful about it is how grounded in real-life experience it is. No hocus-pocus or hokum. It's going to be very valuable resource for those who want to improve their business and professional writing. And it was a nice refresher for me too! (I'm a professional writer/editor).”
"A must-have for anyone who aspires to be a better writer -- whether it's to improve your performance on the job, land a better job, create snappier copy for your website, or write everyday communications without embarrassing yourself (or your company).
This is NOT a grammar book or a dry-as-dust business textbook. Words @ Work breaks new ground by showing you how to overcome "writer's block" and organize your thoughts before your start writing. Then, once you've released a free flow of ideas, the book guides you through an editing process that shapes your message into an effective finished draft.
What surprised me was how entertaining and inspiring this book is. Lynda McDaniel uses stories from her own working and writing life to illustrate each chapter's key concept -- whether it's about unleashing your creativity, or learning to avoid "corporatespeak" to find your authentic writing voice. It's as if Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" merged with Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" to create something quite fresh: a guide to using your creative ("right-brain") powers to write more effectively in a rational ("left-brained") business world. "
--Gina E. Willis
Lynda McDaniel's WORDS @ WORK VIRTUAL BLOG TOUR ‘09 will officially begin on Nov. 2 and end on Nov. 27. You can visit Lynda's blog stops at www.virtualbooktours.wordpress.com during the month of November to find out more about this great book and talented author!