Tag Archives: Writing

When Writing Doesn’t Feel Right

In 2000, I was taking a modern history class taught by a professor who relished a great debate.  As it was still before the Bush/Gore presidential election, one day he split the class in two and instructed Bush supporters to one side of the room and Gore fans to the other.  We were all geared up to defend our favorite candidate’s positions, and then the prof threw a curve ball: we were going to have to debate for the candidate we opposed; Bush supporters for Gore, Gore for Bush.  The class cried foul–how were we expected to do this? And, why?  Why?

I knew the answer to this question even then, though I didn’t like it.  More than a decade later, I recalled the memory of this debate while sitting at my desk in the office several weeks ago.  It came to mind while I was staring at a blank Word document trying to decide how to begin an employee communication the content of which I found abhorrent.

Here I was, years into my career, back in a classroom trying to defend Al Gore.

That’s one of those things about being the corporate messenger; sometimes you don’t get to deliver the message you want.  Sometimes you get to create messages that make everyone cheer, and other times you have to stomach the decisions that have been made above you and find a way to neatly package them in a way that makes them palatable for everyone else, too.

I’ve had to do this many times throughout the years and it never gets easier.  You have to find a way to resolve your personal beliefs with your professional responsibility and somehow also make it sound good, polished…and natural.  I think all writers have to find their own paths to making these types of assignments work–everyone has a different way of meeting the deadline.

I’m the type of person that loves a challenge and exploiting that in these situations is the only way I get it done: from a writer’s perspective–other than overcoming writer’s block–there really isn’t a greater challenge than penning something that is completely opposed to everything you think is right and good.  But hey, writers need paychecks, too, so we accept these assignments, manipulate words the best we know how and worry about hating ourselves later.  And, with the right bottle of red wine, sometimes later never comes.

Because, at the end of the day, you are just the messenger.  You don’t have to carry the weight of making the decision, just the weight of making people believe it was a good one.  And the fact is, people can think for themselves–they can read between your lines.  No matter how hard I worked to speak in favor of Mr. Gore, President Bush still won that one.


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I’m in the midst of the worse case of writer’s block I’ve had since 2004.  I don’t usually get writer’s block–I count myself fortunate for that–so I’ve never really developed any methods for getting through it.  I thought I’d give blogging a shot in the event that writing something, anything, would help me drag myself through the black pit that is currently my creative brain.

I’m supposed to be writing a script for a three-minute internal communications video.  THREE MINUTES.  That’s IT.  I’ve written much longer scripts!  I’ve written ridiculously longer stories, reports, chunks of novels, etc.! 

Here’s the root of my problem: one of my writing quirks has always been that I can’t write anything else until I have my lead, my first line, the epic beginning of whatever is to follow.  I don’t have an opener for this and it’s clogging up everything else that’s swimming around my head.    

I suppose this is an occupational hazard.  Accountants don’t come into work and forget how to navigate their spreadsheets.  Yet here I sit, the writer unable to write. 

Was it Hemingway that said he most feared a blank sheet of paper?

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A Short Note on Grammar

In the last three hours I’ve encountered 11 instances of two of my biggest grammatical pet peeves.  I have many grammar peeves, but these two are in the top five, and so I seek to correct them here in the hopes that perhaps one person will read this and stop committing these offenses.

1) “Over” and “more than” are not interchangeable. 

“Over” pertains to spatial relations, while “more than” relates to numbers.  So, you can fly over the Pacific Ocean, but you cannot have over 40 pairs of shoes.  However, you can have more than 40 pairs of shoes (and I suggest that you do). 

And if you need more evidence that these words should not be used interchangeably, consider this: people frequently use “over” where they mean “more than,” but I’ve never seen anyone use “more than” where they mean “over.”  For example, “I flew more than the Pacific Ocean.”  It doesn’t work. 

2) Company names are singular and should not be referred to with plural pronouns. 

For example, “Neiman Marcus has a beautiful store, and I especially enjoy their shoe department.”  Wrong.  This is the correct version:  “Neiman Marcus is a beautiful store, and I especially enjoy its shoe department.”

I understand the impulse–it’s associating a company with its people, but that doesn’t make the usage correct.  Singular nouns get singular pronouns!

Well, enough on grammar–it’s more than 70 degrees outside, and I’d like to head to Town Square Las Vegas to enjoy its outdoor shopping environment in this excellent weather.  😉

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Say What You Mean, and I love DiorShow

In journalism school, I was taught to write very simply–tell the story; get it done.  That doesn’t mean write uncreatively, as there are plenty of ways to present the facts in a way that is compelling to a reader.  What it means is don’t try to dress up your language; don’t try to sound impressive.  Don’t use big words for the sake of using big words.  Ask yourself “so what?” after you write something–why are you telling the reader what you’re telling them?  Why should they care?  In some ways, this is more difficult than it sounds.

This same philosophy needs to be more universally applied to marketing copy.  I can’t enumerate how many times I’ve read marketing copy that makes no sense.  In some cases, it can be difficult to identify a subject and a verb in these flowery constructs!  I have to read the sentence or paragraph over and over and over again to begin to get a hint of what the writer was trying to say.  I understand why this happens, and to me it’s a mark of inexperience–a copywriter trying to prove himself.  He’s trying to sell his product and thinks that if he strings a series of bombastic adjectives together he’ll make his point in an impressive way and that he, in turn, will be impressive.  I encounter this type of copy on a daily basis and it’s hollow–it doesn’t move me because most of the time I can’t understand it (and I have a large vocabulary!).  If the copy isn’t connecting to me–a writer, a PR/marketing professional–it certainly isn’t going to make an emotional connection to John Q Public and, thus, they aren’t going to buy much of what’s being sold.

I keep a copy of an excellent and witty column by Michael Skapinker published in the Financial Times in 2003 about this very topic.  I’m citing this column specifically, because it featured a hilarious example of this type of copy, though it comes in the form of a quote by Edgar Bronfman, who was about to become Warner Music’s chairman when the column was published: “We are going to need to see a rebalancing of the appetite for music through channels that are not currently commerce enabled.  We see this growth coming.”  WHAT?  What does this mean?  Can anyone say?

Onto some actual marketing copy.  This isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but I found it this morning and it’s what inspired this blog.  I was surfing the Web site of one of my favorite stores this morning, Sephora, and was reading a description of a Dior mascara I haven’t tried, the DiorShow Extase Mascara.  (I’m going to break for a moment and say that there is no better mascara than the original DiorShow, I’m not kidding.  In fact, if you’re female, you should stop reading this right now, go buy a tube, and come back to this post later.)  Everything was going fine until this sentence: “The spherical-shaped Black Pearl Pigments create a 3D volume effect and the exclusive Metamorphosis Powders expand in size by up to 50% after application.”

The whole sentence sounds kind of ridiculous–does anyone else get the impression that this stuff came down from Krypton in the same pod as Superman?–but it was the “3D volume effect” that really got me.  What is a “3D volume effect” exactly?  My lashes, last time I checked (which was when I applied DiorShow this morning…go get some!), were already 3D.  I’m touching them right now, just to be sure, and, yep, they’re still 3D.  So, is this stuff claiming to make my already 3D lashes more 3D?  Or does it presume that I don’t realize my lashes are 3D and is trying to trick me into thinking they’ll become 3D when I use this mascara?  Or is it really only providing 2D volume, but it has the effect of 3D volume?  In which case, do I really want it?  I’ll tell you what I want: mascara that provides a 4D volume effect.

The point here is that this sentence isn’t clear.  The description, as you can read for yourself, would have been fine minus this sentence (I’m not going to touch that bit about the brush being inspired by tiered dresses).  So, the writer should have found a way to describe this “3D volume effect” in plain English or just cut it entirely.  Sure, in plain English the mascara might not have sounded like something that would morph my lashes into such a state that one bat of the eyes at old Clark Kent would have him down faster than kryptonite, but at least I’d have understood what this product really does.

I’m reminded of an old rule I learned in journalism school: if somebody died, you write that they died, not that they passed away.  The euphemism is unnecessary–it’s merely dressing up something that happened for no good reason.  Save the extra words for where you really need them.  Save the extra words to answer the “so what” question.  And take some time to choose words that have real meaning to your audience; words that will resonate with them…not words they have to look up in the dictionary.  String these simple words into simple sentences that a reader only has to read once to understand.  That’s how you will win work and sell products.  You’ll be surprised by how effective simplicity can be.  And by how awesome DiorShow mascara is.

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Filed under Beauty, Writing

Number One

This isn’t my first blog, and probably won’t be my last.  Welcome to my musings on life, the universe and everything.  (Thanks, Douglas Adams, for giving me such a perfect summation of all that I’ll endeavor to cover here.)  Mostly it’ll be musings on writing, politics, food and fashion, with a helping of customer service rants (because I do those really well) mixed in for good measure.

I’m a Chicago-born twenty-something who has lived in Las Vegas a few years longer than expected, but my heart really belongs to D.C.  I’m a writer who mixes it up with some marketing/PR, the occasional corporate teaching of business writing and public speaking, and limited (very limited) graphic design.  I am, at times, a cynic, frequently humorous (dry, like a good martini), and always a capitalist.  I can’t stop myself from pointing out irony, and I drink tea, not coffee.  Also gin, but not scotch.

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