Typos Can Be Costly

September 14th, 2011

I’m a neatnik. I like everything to be in its place, and in written material, typos and spelling errors drive me nuts.  Now there’s evidence that beyond being sloppy and annoying, such mistakes can repel customers, especially in the world of online marketing.

According to a report on BBC News, an analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half. Poor spelling harms a website’s credibility.  Marketing Profs, in an article about the BBC report, says that misspelled words can cause people to withhold their personal information and credit card numbers because they’re worried about fraud. When marketing messages hit my inbox containing typos or strange syntax, I delete them right away, fearing the email is a scam or virus carrier.

Everyone’s fingers hit wrong keys sometimes. But failing to use spell check and proofread your copy can have worse consequences than embarrassing you. If you’re trying to sell or promote something, it can cost you business.

Creativity and Success

June 23rd, 2011

This week I volunteered at an arts camp for kids. I handed out sandwiches and wiped off tables and absorbed the children’s joy as they painted pictures, took photos, and improvised dance moves. Leaving my comfort zone and entering a room packed with 33 squirming grade schoolers spiked my energy level in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Now I’m thinking about how I can better apply my writing and marketing skills to help others. I learned a lot this week, but here are the two best take-aways:

  •  Stirring things up–new places, faces, activities–stimulates creativity.
  •  Applying your talents to help others succeed is the real meaning of success.

The camp’s founder, Rob Levit, made the latter point in a pep talk with the kids, and he demonstrates it every day . A jazz musician and artist, Levit founded a nonprofit organization, Creating Communities (http://www.creatingcommunities.net) that seeks to connect all kinds of people and improve their lives through the arts. What a creative idea.

Abrams’ Mystery Box

June 13th, 2011

The blank page can be intimidating. Why not think of it as a “mystery box”? 

This suggestion comes from writer, director, and producer J.J. Abrams in his lively 18-minute talk on TED, the nonprofit group that sponsors annual conferences featuring the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers. Decades ago for $15 Abrams bought a box containing $50 worth of magic tricks, which he’s never opened, and he loves the way it represents possibility and potential. As you write you wonder what comes next and you answer questions–which is akin to solving mysteries.

Listening to Abrams, who co-created the TV show Lost and directed he movies Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, and Super 8, got me thinking about creativity in a different way. I need to focus on the excitement of producing something rather than the fear that my effort will fall short of my hopes.

The blank page–a mystery box waiting to be filled. 

There Must Be a Harder Way

May 18th, 2011

Where have I been? Working too much!  Not writing my blog, obviously.

I’ve had some big projects, technical writing and project management mostly, that leave me too tired at the end of the day to write for fun. Last night, after 10 hours at the computer, I sprawled on the sofa and caught up on a week’s worth of newspapers.

One article talked about the Mt. Airy U-Pick Farm a few miles away, where customers have been harvesting their own strawberries for 30 years. Until I read it, I’d never thought about how tough it is to grow strawberries. Heat, storms, weevils–the crop faces many threats, and some years the yield is so meager that customers are turned away. The family who owns the farm works year-round for a one-month harvest. Their motto: There must be a harder way.”

That could apply to freelance writing, too.  Earnings can be low and hours are long. Just the other day someone offered me $50 to research and write a feature article for a website, which would amount to about $6 an hour, or $1.25 less than minimum wage.  When I’m in the midst of a project, I’m often at the computer on nights and weekends.  And I’m constantly worrying about where my next assignment is coming from.

But when it comes right down to it, I love what I do. No matter how challenging an assignment is, I feel great when I see the pieces come together.  The result isn’t fragrant and delicious like a ripe red berry, but it’s my own kind of fruit.

A Harder Job Than Mine

August 27th, 2010

 

I love today’s joke on the New Yorker page-a-day calendar. One guy says to another: “It’s not a word I can put into feelings.” It’s so funny to me that when I first saw it in the magazine, I clipped it out and taped it to my wall.

Why does it tickle me so? It involves a kind of wordplay, a touch of absurdity, and the element of surprise.  How many times have I said, “it’s not a feeling I can put into words”?  Yet words are my livelihood, and using them to convey information, descriptions, thoughts, actions, facts, and emotions is what I’m paid to do.  As hard as it is to put a feeling into words, imagine if my job were to put words into feelings! Thinking about that makes me laugh.

Remember to Use the Dictionary

June 5th, 2010

Do you know the meaning of the word “stromuhr”? It’s an instrument for measuring the velocity of blood flow. And if someone asked you to spell it (and you weren’t reading it here), would you know how? 

Me neither. But it was the deciding word this year in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, won by 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio.  Spelling is hard for some people. Others, like Anamika, have a knack. When I was a 7th grader in upstate New York, I beat 400 classmates in my junior high spelling bee and found myself on the auditorium stage with two 8th grade boys, battling it out in my blue glasses, purple dress, and red shoes. Finally, I misspelled a word I knew perfectly well–library–accidentally leaving out the second “r.”  What confusion–and relief–when the buzzer sounded and I was dismissed.

I don’t want to win awards for my spelling, I just want to spell things right, and if that means looking something up in the dictionary, so be it. A misspelled word in a business letter, report, or other document is like a stain on your shirt, a hole in your sweater. It suggests you don’t pay attention to detail. Or maybe you don’t care how you come across.

I think the secret to good spelling is good reading. If you read a lot, you notice how words are structured, you pick up new vocabulary, and you get a sense of prefixes, suffixes, roots, and rules.  Train yourself to identify words you tend to misspell. For years, I would write “develope” instead of “develop”–as if an invisible force compelled me to add an extra e that I consciously knew didn’t belong. I learned to watch out for words I found troublesome. Spellcheck is a  big help, but it doesn’t find everything–especially homonyms (words with the same sound but different meanings). If you’re not 100% sure how something is spelled, look it up. 

On a recent assignment I noticed that my colleagues tended to mix up “complimentary” and “complementary.” The first has to do with expressing praise or providing something for free. The second means making something whole. If you write, “We offer complementary services to enhance your shopping experience,” you mean that your services help round things out. Mistakenly spell it “complimentary” and you say your services are free..

We can’t all be spelling champions like Anamika, but we can proofread our work carefully, watch out for words we tend to misspell, and use dictionaries whenever we’re in doubt.

Don’t Be Vague

May 26th, 2010

I do a lot of original writing, but a good share of my work is revamping other people’s material to make it more crisp, clear, and powerful.

Today I tackled this sentence: “After you complete your interview, it’s good practice to follow up with the hiring team to thank them and ask additional questions.”  Great advice, but the sentence demonstrates two problems I often run into when editing other people’s work.

1.  Too many unnecessary words. Why not say this? “After your interview, follow up with the hiring team to thank them and ask additional questions.”

2.  Vagueness. What is meant by “follow up with?” I’m not sure whether the author is telling people to call, send an email, or stop by. 

Use as few words as possible to make your point, and be specific so you don’t leave readers scratching their heads.

Paying Attention

May 20th, 2010

I get lost in my head too much. I fail to notice interesting things around me because I’m thinking about how I’ll tackle an assignment, planning what to pick up at the grocery store, or worrying about whether my IRA funds will ever grow back to where they used to be.

When I can shut down my mind, there’s so much to look at.

And looking is important, because powerful writing includes the right touch of detail. Yesterday, driving to an appointment, I watched a twenty-something in a blue tie and yellow rain slicker pop wheelies as he pedaled a mountain bike over the Spa Creek bridge. Gold pansies and purple petunias spilled from baskets hanging over Main Street’s historic brick storefronts, brightening an overcast day. A red-haired mom in black spandex jogged past, pushing a green stroller and trailing a chocolate lab puppy on an expandable leash.

Those few details put you onto the scene–and it’s surely more interesting than me fretting about my to-do list.

In April I noticed a robin’s nest in the plum tree near my guestroom window, at eye level.  When the momma disappeared to find food, I glimpsed three eggs the color of Caribbean water. The next week, pink dabs of skin appeared, which soon grew grayish fur and poked the air with open, yellow-rimmed beaks. I loved watching their mother inject chewed worms (or whatever newborn robins eat) into their relentless mouths.

Some days I forgot to look. Friday, after a hectic week, I dashed to the window and was relieved to see the mother feeding the babies,now plump and coated with fluffy feathers.  I always feel a pang when a nest I’d once seen pulse with life is suddenly empty.

Before dusk I sat on the porch with a glass of wine and, bluump, a young robin landed on a bunch of irises, then hopped and flapped to the porch railing. It looked at me and flew toward a tree. I leaned out to check the nest and another bird fluttered away, then another. The mother swooped, guarding them, perhaps, and then busied herself bringing food to the three separate trees where they perched.  

For the first time, I’d witnessed the whole cycle, from egg to chick to departure. Maybe I’m getting better at paying attention.

Giving Thanks to Writers

May 17th, 2010

 

I’ve been a big reader my whole life. Can’t imagine an existence without books, and I’m so grateful for all the things writers produce that add pleasure to my life: movies, poetry, plays, articles, great TV scripts.

So why don’t I thank writers more often?

Do I take their work for granted?  As a writer myself, I know that good writing is hard. The easy part is coming up with an idea. The hard part is carrying out the research, spending hours at the keyboard, looking at your work critically and cutting, reorganizing, and polishing over and over. Taking an idea and turning it into something that informs, entertains, or moves other people is rarely fast or simple to do.

On Mother’s Day I read “Talented and Gifted” by Steve Hendrix in the Washington Post Magazine, and it touched me so much I had to write and thank him. It’s about his mother–a divorced single mom who died when he was a young teen–and the lasting impact she had on students during her two years as a fourth grade teacher. He hit upon many themes that resonated with me: the power of teachers and mothers as well as loss, creativity, resilience, and pluck.

Add newspapers to the list of things writers contribute to my life. Sure, they contain bad news, but they keep me in touch with the world and sometimes they bring joy. I can go without coffee in the morning, but not without the newspaper.

It’s disheartening to see periodicals close down and newspapers grow thinner. According to Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, despite a sharp drop in the paper’s circulation (13.1% for the six months ending March 31), the Post will survive because of its high market penetration and affluent, educated market. I’m glad to hear that, and I hope that the great work journalists do will continue to be valued.

Me, I’m going to start thanking writers more often.  Because what would readers like me do without them?