Category “Writing”

So you’re thinking of starting your own technical writing or content writing business?

Monday, 3 December, 2018

I recently had the opportunity to talk about my STEM career path in two different spheres – one was an article on the BCIT website and another was at a recent BC Tech and Discovery Foundation Aspire to Tech workshop. These opportunities really got me thinking about what a journey it’s been and how much I’ve learned along the way (through definite trial and many an error), and I realised that there are lot of things I can share now that I had no clue about when I was starting out, and that may help you if you’re  just getting started in a career as a technical writer or content developer. Read on…

Tip #1: Think About What Sets You Apart

We all have something that can shape what we offer to our clients and our audience. Think about your background, your studies, what you excel at. If you’re a career changer, how can what you did before this change work to your advantage? I often have students in my Writing for the Web class (part of BCIT’s Technical Writing program) who have degrees and experience in other fields, so I encourage them to look at what subject matter expertise and transferable skills they have, along with their writing skills. For example, you may have worked in the finance or medical fields, so these would be excellent areas to look for clients in, because you’ll bring not just the writing talent, but the industry knowledge with you.

Tip #2: See What’s Already Out There

If you’re not sure what kinds of contracts are out there, what client you might suit, or specifically what skills you might need to take on clients, then do your research! Google Technical Writing jobs or Content Writer jobs (+ your area). Look at job descriptions, the type of companies and industries hiring, and get an idea of salaries to figure out what you should charge as a contractor/freelancer (you can also use PayScale to help you with this). You can get a sense of whether you need to take a course, brush up on a skill, etc. Also take a look at your competition. What are they doing well? What can you do differently or better? And see Tip #1 🙂 

Tip #3: Build a Portfolio and Self-Market

You may be working in a technical (or other kind of) workplace currently that needs better writing – for their website, their general documentation, marketing, etc. Offer to do some of this (but try to get it to be within your job, not as unpaid extra work on top it) so that you can build up portfolio pieces. Look for websites that may be looking for articles (just be sure you aren’t under valuing yourself, but doing some articles for free at the beginning can be good for building your online presence). Set up a blog and write, write, write!

Use all the free online marketing tools you can – namely LinkedIn and Twitter. These have great search engine rankings, so they will help get your name out there. LinkedIn also has a publishing tool, so you can write and contribute articles there (also don’t be afraid to use the same content across these – use Twitter to promote your blog posts or online articles; post your blog posts or articles on LinkedIn as posts on your profile – saves you time and drives readers to your writing). LinkedIn Jobs is also very useful for looking for clients, as you can often find contract work this way. There are also other sites like Upwork that allow you to find freelance jobs. 

If you can’t afford to set up your own website yet, then at the very least, put together a PDF of your services, with your contact information. This was a highly valuable piece of advice that a career coach and friend gave me. That way, you can email your PDF to potential clients without feeling embarrassed that you don’t have a website**. I also found that when I sat down to do this, it actually motivated me to set up my website, so I ended up not having to use the PDF and instead got my website done. 

** That said, get a website ASAP 🙂 (see Tip #5).

Tip #4: Volunteer (and Network)

I know that everyone always says that you need to network when you’re looking for a job, but I believe there are more creative ways to do it than just attending networking events. Try volunteering. You don’t have to give all your time up for this, but this is an excellent way to build relationships and, in so doing, build your networks. Talk to people. Tell them what you do and what you’re looking for. Print up a cheap business card with your name, LinkedIn URL (if you don’t have your own website), and your email and phone number. Attend events that include people that aren’t just your competition. My volunteer efforts helped me meet people who became or referred me to my first clients. I didn’t have the budget to join a formal networking group, and when I was starting out, something like a BNI group didn’t make sense, because I didn’t have a network to refer others to, but do what feels right and what makes sense for you. 

Tip #5: Do Trades

When you’re starting out running your own business, see who you know that you can do trades with for services (often referred to as “contras”). Make sure that you know the value of what you offer, and draw up a proper letter of agreement (you can find templates online). For example, a friend of mine who is a talented graphic designer created my business cards for me, and in return, I rewrote and reworked her resume. Another friend of mine generously helped with set up my website and designed my logo (and didn’t even ask for anything in return!). Think about what you need and what you can do in exchange. 

Tip #5: Build Partnerships

Something that was invaluable for me what I was starting out was to build a relationship with a graphic designer who ran her own business. It was a completely logical fit, as she was able to advertise “full service” offerings to her clients, and then sub-contract the writing work to me. This way, I built my client list and portfolio, earned money, and built a great relationship with a talented designer. It was win-win! 

Tip #6: Ask for Help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Do informational interviews. Get advice from experts like the fabulous folks at Small Business BC. Start following people who might be potential clients or partners on social media (but keep it professional). 

And finally…

Trust that you can do this! Keep learning, keep writing, and know that although it will take time to build up a client list (I didn’t want to believe it but it’s true what they say about it being about 5 years to build up a business), you will. Running your own technical writing business or content writing company can be incredibly rewarding – terrifying at times – but I can safely say that I love what I do. 

Do You Know Your Audience & Purpose?

Tuesday, 5 May, 2015

I know I’ve written about this topic before and probably talk about it just as much to anyone and everyone (students, friends, clients), but when I think about what is most important in communication, for me it always comes down to two central elements:

  • do you know who your audience is ?
  • are you clear on your main purpose?

Without in-depth knowledge of these two elements, you can’t formulate any form of coherent, well organized communication, nor can you succeed with that communication. To me, this applies in a business context as well as  a personal context.

3D Movie AudienceFirstly, you need to think carefully about your audience and conduct an audience analysis, whether in your head, on paper, in a mind map or scribble. You can do this in a very formal way, using demographics and psychographics, but a lot of it is common sense and putting yourself in that person’s shoes.

See if you can answer these types of questions:

  • what does my audience already know and not know about this issue?
  • what does she expect from me in terms of tone, formality, language?
  • what are her information preferences (e.g. does she prefer a phone call to an email?)
  • what are her biases? likes and dislikes?

The more you can pin down exactly who you’re communicating with and what they need and like, the easier your job will be. Sometimes, though, we have no clue who our audience is. In that case, do the best you can with making an educated guess based on the person’s job title (and don’t forget that a sometimes a simple Googling or a quick look on LinkedIn can yield a lot of information).

Once you have some clarity on who your message is for, you then need assess the point of your message. Ask yourself:

  • what is the main idea I need to get across to my reader? what do I need her to know/do/think?
  • what type of detail supports that main idea? what doesn’t?
  • will it make sense to the reader as is or do I need to include more background?
  • will anything change if I send this message?
  • is there a specific action I need her to complete?
  • is the timing right?
  • what can I take out to keep the message concise but clear?

When you can start to make a habit of this type of process, I can guarantee you’ll find that it makes creating the message so much easier, and you are more likely to get the response you want because you’ve anticipated objections or questions. You’ve also packaged the message in a way that takes your audience into account in all aspects (from information to organization to language and tone).

When you have absolute clarity on what you’re trying to achieve, your audience will too.

(and you’ll be surprised how often it can get you out of doing the dishes 😉 )

Geraldine

 

 

Confession: I am a writer

Friday, 8 August, 2014

Here’s my big, dark secret: I am a writer. There. I confessed.

Writing and ReadingIt’s funny how often I don’t tell people this when they ask what I do. I say things like “Oh, I teach business communication and technical writing, and I run a copywriting and editing business.” And yes, it’s not like I’m claiming I’m an astronaut or elephant wrangler… or an axe murderer. It’s  pretty much the same thing, but I never straight up say I WRITE. I am a writer. I hide behind “instructor” or “entrepreneur”. I never make the shameful, out-loud proclamation that I am actually a writer of (fledgling) novels and poetry (published), along with websites and brochures and pretty much anything you need words for. It’s like I’m ashamed to say it out loud because isn’t everyone writing  a novel? Don’t only angsty 16 year olds and angsty 16th century people write poetry?

In my heart and soul, I am writer and a teacher. It doesn’t matter what I teach or what I write, this is who I am and what I am. I love words. I love their music. I love their ability to sting (not when aimed at me though, of course). I love that they can make one smile, laugh, cry, fume… Words! Black scrawls on a white page. Sticks tracing in the dirt. Finger paint on a cave wall. WORDS. I don’t know what drives me to write. I don’t write enough. I sometimes write too much. Often I write crap. But when I look at when I’m really, truly happy, writing is a big part of that.

I recently wrote about the anxiety of writing and did in a less direct way confess that I’m writing stories, but I’ve realised I need to be far bolder. I changed my LinkedIn profile description to Writer.  I’ve done the same on Twitter. I’ve also started talking about my writing plans more. And I’ve actually started doing more writing. I am currently working on three things: a manual for my web writing class (this is more academic but no less interesting; just a little easier in a lot of ways because it’s not quite the same as creative writing), a children’s story, and a full novel. I don’t want to share the plots of the latter two, mainly because I’m not entirely sure where they’re heading, and I’m still shy about it, but I AM at least telling people more. I’ve also started making time for these projects (not as much as I’d like, but still, it’s better than nothing) and have deliberately lightened my teaching and project load to do so. Writing a novel

I’ve realised that a lot of it boils down to anxiety. What does it mean if I really put myself out there and do something I feel I was born to do? And then – GASP – I fail? or (even worse?) succeed? The horror! But if not now, then when? My soul needs the nourishment. Creativity is just a part of who I am, and I’m starting to be okay with that…

Speaking of creativity, something else I’m really enjoying that is helping my creative juices is a drawing class. It’s been a wonderful way to do more drawing, but I find it also sparks my imagination and is helping me think more about my writing work. Of course I’m also working on client projects and trying to blog more (failing miserably but hey, this is better than nothing)… so it’s words, words, words but also shapes and light and shadow – helping me think more about my ideas, looking at the world in different ways, as well as working on positive habit building.

So, yes, I am a writer. And I’m okay with that.

Plain Language and Clear Communication

Friday, 18 October, 2013

Last week I had the fortune to attend the Plain Language Conference (PLAIN2013) that was held here in Vancouver. I have to admit that I had never heard of the plain language movement, but after this great event, I certainly do now.

I met a lot of very interesting people from different backgrounds, including one of the plenary speakers, the highly entertaining and informative Dr Neil James who is the Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation based in Australia. In essence, the conference was an opportunity to meet and hear from plain language advocates. So just what is plain language?

Plain language is also often referred to as clear communication, and as these names imply, focus is on trying to craft easy-to-read and consume documents. The following is a slide from Dr. James’ presentation and it explains it in more depth:

Definition of Clear Communication

 

 

What was enlightening (and reassuring) about all the talks I attended is that I realised that this is what I am trying to teach my students and also trying to apply to the work I do for my clients. I just didn’t know it had a support group.

Although there was a volume of information, all the talks I went to taught me something new, and I came back inspired and more confident in what I do. I especially enjoyed a talk by Rachel McAlpine, an author, teacher, trainer, and generally all round fabulous person. She spoke about her experiences as a writer, trying to bridge the gap of what she calls “joy writing” with “work writing” and how one can feed the other. It was a good reminder of needing to slow down, feed one’s passions, and not let the ‘everyday’ get one down. Good life lessons.

Some of the ideas and information I absorbed included information on  rethinking how people read (getting rid of this polarization of good and bad readers and adding an intermediate level), needing to accommodate mobile users, and being aware of the stories of those around us.

I came back brimming with ideas and inspiration, a ton of excellent resources, a great sense of reassurance that I know what I’m doing, and  some new friends to top it off.

For more inspiration about plain language, you should check out this TED talk by Sandra Fisher-Martins, titled “The Right to Understand” and you can also access speaker videos, presentations etc, from the PLAIN2013 website.

Geraldine

 

 

 

“Suiting Up” Your Language

Monday, 29 July, 2013

Image of Edited GraffitiA video a friend recently sent me in which Stephen Fry decries “pedants” had me thinking about language. While I would not describe myself as a grammar Nazi (others apparently do 🙂 ), and as much as I delight in the deliciousness of language (particularly cuss words; yes, I know, a filthy habit), I do still think there is a time and a place for good grammar and professional writing skills.

I have definitely become aware of amusing or infuriating mistakes in the world around me more because it is part of my job (not to make them, of course, but to correct them). I have also become more aware of the decided decline in correctness. And then there’s the fact that I’m constantly torn between Canadian and British/South African spelling…. But most disturbingly, I have become more aware of how little people seem to care about the impression this all makes on others – particularly in a business context.

I was grabbing a coffee on my way to work today and I overheard the manager of the coffee shop interviewing a candidate. I couldn’t believe how many times the interviewee said “like” and “whatever”. Even for a coffee shop job (and perhaps even especially for a coffee shop job where you deal constantly with the public),  sounding professional is vital. The interviewee came across as very young and not particularly clever as she answered the manager’s questions. While I am sure the young lady is perfectly capable, she really didn’t seem it in her answers.

I do not mean to infer that this is only a problem with the young. And I do know that given my profession, I am perhaps more acutely aware than others, but I see this sort of informal/haphazard/unprofessional communication in both the written and the oral communication around me. Heck, even on the evening news… and even in the communications I receive at work (at BCIT and through my own business, as well as in other previous situations). When I was helping to find a candidate to replace me at my job at Wordtravels, for example, I was astounded at how terrible the spelling, grammar, and general writing skills of the applicants were – and this was for a writing and editing job!

I’ve read so many reports that say hiring managers will not call someone for an interview if they see even one spelling or grammatical error in a resume or cover letter. I’ve spoken to professionals who say they will not promote someone who doesn’t have excellent written and oral communication skills. And yet the more we use social media, texting, the tiny predictive text keyboards on smartphones, and even email as our primary tools of communication, the worse we seem to get.

I’m not sure what the cure is, but it’s vital to remember that just as people’s first impressions can come from what you look like, they can also come from what you sound like. And you always need to adapt your message to your audience and context. So while you’re putting on that business suit for your job or a job interview, don’t forget to “suit up” your language too.

Geraldine

What Is Writing?

Monday, 21 January, 2013

Typewriter - copyright Geraldine EliotSomething I struggle with a lot is creating the time to spend on my own writing; on the creative writing that fuels me or on the journalling that keeps me sane. I find myself making excuses for not setting a per diem writing word count or for not just sitting down and doing it. And I beat myself up if I’m not blogging regularly, and yet I always  say to myself “I’m a writer”.

That got me thinking.

What does that mean? Yes, it’s what I do for a living (both teaching web/business writing and my Meerkat copywriting), but what does that really mean? Sometimes I feel that it’s not an accurate reflection of me, because I’m not really doing enough writing other than for clients (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE doing that), but does that make me a writer? What is writing? What is writing to me?

For some, writing is a confessional. For some, writing is a secret hobby (teenage diaries being scrawled in the half dark; bad angsty poetry written by moonlight). For some, writing is what keeps them feeling alive – it is meditation, inspiration, and income. Or it is simply a mundane task that has to be completed every day at work.

And for me, I think it’s all of the above sometimes – or has been in different stages of my life. But one thing that will never change is my love of words. And how good I feel when I am writing – whether for myself or a client.

So I guess I can call myself a writer and I just have to not doubt that that is what I am. Who I am.

Geraldine

Grammar Nuts – a Cartoon

Wednesday, 17 October, 2012

Cartoon about GrammarWhile I’m posting some great cartoons, I came across this one on Facebook. Unfortunately I don’t know the source, but it includes a link to The Plain Language Programme, so I’m going to assume that’s the original.

 

Writer’s Block… Blame the Pencil

Wednesday, 17 October, 2012

I came across this great Savage Chickens cartoon that made me giggle. I was feeling especially glum because I had finally done some new creative writing and then ended up losing it all on my silly computer, so this majorly cheered me up.

Now it’s the blank screen and the keyboard that do us in….

Cartoon about Writer's Block by Doug Savage

Five Tips for Better Business Writing

Saturday, 16 June, 2012

5 Tips for Better Business WritingEmail dominates our lives, often as much in a personal capacity as a business one. Unfortunately, sometimes the bad habits we’ve developed in our more informal correspondence creeps in to our business messages, and this can have disastrous consequences.

If you pay careful attention, however, you can avoid common gaffes when writing business emails:

1. Know Your Audience… But Do Something with that Knowledge

I came across a great quote by Pablo Picasso the other day: “Action is the foundational key to any success”… The number one rule to any business communication or business model is to know your audience. However, this knowledge is useless unless you actually do something with it.

As much as you can, use any possible information (or educated guesses you can make about your audience) to shape, organize, and influence your content. Choose language that your reader will understand, and explain any terms they may need to know but won’t be familiar with. Focus on relevant information only. Always think about how your reader will feel, and subsequently act, upon receiving your message.

And make sure that by the end of your message, you’ve  anticipated any possible questions or objections and included information to answer these before the reader has to respond and ask you, including anything that will help overcome their resistance easily.

2. Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More…

With the sheer volume of email, the kind of multitasking now needed in the business world, and the sort of technology-related short attention spans we now seem to have, people don’t have time to read long messages, nor are they likely to do more than skim even a medium-sized message. So once you’ve written your message, go back and slash it.

Cut out unnecessary information, keep sentences short and simple, reorganize paragraphs for the biggest impact, and place your main ideas at the beginning – at the message, the paragraph, and the sentence level. Get rid of those trite sounding “business” phrases. Get rid of “fillers” like “There are” or “I am writing to tell you” and remember that less is always more in this case.

3. Design an Easy-to-Read Message

Somehow, even though we know what we don’t like in a message, all of those things fly out the window when we write to other people. Nobody has time to spend wading through a long email with no sense of what’s important and what’s less important. White space, paragraphing, bullet points, and numbered lists are your friends, as are headings.

Headings in an email? Yes! Why wouldn’t you use any possible method you can to ensure your message is not only read, but understood, and then acted on? Use bullet points only for your most important information. Use a numbered list for a sequence that must be followed in order.

But don’t overuse themse You want the reader to have a visual sense of what is important, but don’t overwhelm them with so many lists that they can’t focus. If you use headings, ensure they are descriptive and relevant, and don’t use them in a very short email – it’ll just look weird.

Ensure your paragraphs are short and that your message is well spaced, with an easy-to-read font.

4. Proofread Your Document… And Evaluate Its Success

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to read a message that is riddled with grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors, or “text speak”. Ensure you’ve done a proper spellcheck, that you’ve read and re-read the message, and double-check that you’ve included any necessary attachments.

And then ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have I actually said what I mean?
  • Is my main idea clear?
  • Is the next step obvious for the reader?
  • Will I get the response I want?
  • Is my message easy to understand?

Before you hit send, ensure your message is professional, well-designed, and easy-to-read.

5. Follow Up on Your Message

Weeks go by and tThings slip down the ‘To Do’ list , with no response from your reader… Even the best thought out and written business messages can sit unread, purely because of a lack of time on the part of the audience.

If you are sending an urgent message, then you need to ensure you’ve given the reader a clear deadline for response. Don’t assume that just because someone has a smart phone or iPad that they are constantly checking their email. If you don’t hear from them, then you have to follow up. Also, don’t expect someone to respond within minutes or hours of sending your message – wait until a reasonable amount of time has passed before you check in with them.

And sometimes you just have to pick up the phone… Don’t use email as something to hid behind, use it as you would with any tool – carefully and only for its intended use.

Geraldine

Barriers to Communication

Sunday, 29 January, 2012

Sometimes, despite careful planning, a well crafted message can be misunderstood or misinterpreted or, perhaps worst of all, ignored.

One of the issues I find these days is that people really just don’t seem to have any listening skills, nor do they actually read all of what has been written. I have experienced both of these problems many times. For example, in my classes I can repeat instructions several times and put them in writing, and students still do not listen properly and end up doing the wrong thing (to their detriment). And I’ve also written very clear, well structured business emails (after all, it’s my profession so I have to show I can practice what I preach!), and still I get a response that indicates the person has not properly read anything I have written.

Sigh…

So what can we do about it? Unfortunately we can’t control others (oh for such a power!), but we can keep ensuring we construct well organised and thought out messages, and allow for feedback and questions. Sometimes, too, all it takes is a deep breath and a lot of patience. Something I learned a long time ago, because of the torture I experienced from certain teachers, is that if someone doesn’t understand something and they ask you to explain it again, explaining it in exactly the same way will not help, because the person did not understand you the first time.

We also have to be aware that communication is a process, a cycle from sender to receiver and back again, so we have a responsiblity to others to listen to them carefully and to read things slowly and with attention. This can save us time and unwanted issues.

So, it takes practice, patience, and sometimes, a healthy sense of humour to stay sane and ensure you overcome any barriers to communication to get your message understood and get what you want.

Geraldine