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I like the show On My Block a lot, so it was a kick to cover it for the ICG Magazine. During the interviews, I realized I had some great stuff about the importance of diversity and inclusion. I pitched a straight Q&A on the topic to the editor, and it was accepted. After additional interviews, I had the finished piece. I'm really proud of it.

Stand and Deliver

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"What's one simple thing I can do to write better fast?"

I get this question a lot and my answer is always the same: Cut.

three gears from The Word Factory logo

Ann Handley says everybody writes.

I say everybody overwrites.

Ann Handley says "everybody writes." 
Margot Lester says "everybody overwrites."

In fact, Poynter's Chip Scanlon estimates that we all overwrite by 15-20%.

Yes, all of us. Professional tweeters and caption writers. Skilled novelists and TedTalk presenters. That person you hold in the highest regard as a writer. Everybody.

We all overwrite because writing is processing. And processing isn't streamlined out of the gate. Extra words and clunky constructions are part of our thought processes. Writing is like thinking out loud, only on a keyboard or with a writing utensil.

The processing is necessary work. Good work. But it's work that gets us only part of the way there.

Getting from good to effective takes pruning and shaping.

Quick tip for better writing: Cut 20%

The first step to being a more effective writer, or maybe the only step when pressed for time, is to search and destroy that 20%. Lop off anything that doesn't need to be there, that gets in the way of your point and that slows down readers' comprehension.

I know. It feels too easy. Or too unfocused. Or like you'll dilute your work.

Trust me and try it. Ok?

My mom's cherished loppers and clippers. Gardening tools, but also metaphorical editing tools.
These gardening implements are useful editing tools as well.*

Here's how to execute the 20% Rule: Take the total word count of your draft, figure out 20%, prune toward that target.

  • Delete extra adverbs and other modifiers like very and really.
  • Combine or divide sentences to boost rhythm and flow.
  • Zap unnecessary intros and qualifiers (I think and in conclusion can be axed without negative impact)
  • Jettison clichés (at the end of the day, drill down are common)
  • Replace lazy verbs with hard-working ones that describe both what's happening and how it's happening (examples: boost, zap, jettison and axed).

The result: tighter text that conveys ideas efficiently.

The 20% Rule has been my go-to min-bar revision strategy since I learned it 2003 at a writing workshop with Mr. Scanlon. There was widespread skepticism when he dropped this nugget on the crowd. Then we tried it. Instant improvement.

Now it's your turn. Try it on the next thing you have to write. I wager you'll get similarly good results.

Bonus item: It's also a good tactic when someone thrusts a piece of writing in your face (or in box) and says "Can you take a look at this for me?"

* These implements belonged to my mother, an avid gardener and ruthless pruner. She was known (only to her family) to move through the neighborhood under cover of darkness shaping up and cutting back unruly shrubbery. While I don't go that far (very often), I share her love of pruning both my yard and my writing.

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CEO Activism: Pride Month

A lot of businesses leverage Pride Month to slap rainbows on their stuff and ride the feel-good wave. That's the corporate equivalent of slacktivism if you ask me.

Yeah, I like a rainbow image as much as the next CEO (like the short vid I shot in the Castro BART station, above). But I don't post it here just to draft off the zeitgeist. LGBTQ+ rights is a cause I'm active in every month of the year.

As an agency, we donate technical support like writing and editing to organizations working to advance the LGBTQ+ agenda. We present at capacity building workshops to encourage advocates and staffers in finding their voices and communicating effectively. We sponsor events to reduce costs and raise awareness for charities. As a CEO, I pen op-eds and campaign letters to help other business leaders understand the issues, change their policies and join me in advocacy and support. I show up for lobby days and marches, and I write some checks.

Margot Lester at NCAAN's HIV Speaks on Jones Street event
NCAAN's annual lobby day (that's me back row left)

So, yeah. Pride Month isn't just a marketing opportunity for us.

It matters to me because people I love are being discriminated against by government and corporate policies. And this is wrong.

As business owners, we need to do more than leverage the rainbow for 30 days a year or change the bathroom signage to be more inclusive.

  • Make sure your health insurance policies cover drugs and procedures that support the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ employees.
  • Offer domestic partner benefits.
  • Look for and address any biased or discriminatory behaviors between co-workers, management and staff, and clients/vendors -- and especially in HR staff and hiring managers.

The Human Rights Campaign has a good primer for creating an LGBTQ+ friendly workplace.

I know this walking of the talk may not be easy for some employers. You may well turn off some customers, suppliers and others by taking a more obvious stand on these issues.

Here are my stylish folks preparing for the opening of our store in 1968.
Here are my stylish folks preparing for the opening of our store in 1968.

Back in the late 1960s, my parents lost customers at our gourmet store because some gay guys worked in the deli. The older set in our college town didn't cotton to the idea and even one of my grandmothers refused to be served by any of the guys. And it wasn't like we were a big store with enough revenue to not worry about losing sales. The margins in any kind of grocery store are tight -- even in the gourmet zone. Every sale counted for us. But what counted more for my parents was doing the right thing even if it meant we had to hustle to save more, spend less until word got out that we were a welcoming business (a term that didn't even exist) and we got a new clientele of people who shared our values. Take that, grandma!

While I wish everyone could go as all-in as I have, I get that maybe you can't. Do what you can. Provide the support and safe spaces you can at your business. In a day and time when our LGBTQ+ friends and family are under siege by government officials at every level and ill-informed private citizens, even little things make a difference.

Of course, promoting LGBTQ+ rights isn't just good for the soul. It's good for the bottom line, too. Even the notoriously conservative U.S. Chamber acknowledges the upsides in its report, Business Success and Growth Through LGBT—Inclusive Culture.

So this Pride Month, I invite you to up your game. For those you on board with the cause, identify one more thing you can do, or do more of something you're already doing. If your support is more passive, look for that first step to being more active. It's good for you, good for your business and good for your community.

Three LGBTQ+ organizations we support (and invite you to support, too):

North Carolina AIDS Action Network - donate

Equality NC - donate

The AIDS Monument - donate

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handwriting on a page

A friend's brother recently contacted me for help creating a letter of interest for a new job.

This is something I help clients with a lot. It's hard to write about ourselves -- even professional writers struggle with that. It's even harder when we have a huge opportunity on the line.

I explained my process:

  1. We talk about why you want the new job, who the audience is (including allies, obstacles and unknowns among the search committee or hiring team) and what the potential objections, questions and concerns they may have. We also have a discussion of voice, which is crucial to standing out from other similarly credentialed applicants.
  2. Next, we inventory the core concepts you want to convey, and the details that flesh those out.
  3. You take this back and start writing.
  4. Together we revise the first version to make sure the ideas and details are clear, the voice is correct and the objections, concerns and questions are addressed.
  5. You take another swing, read it aloud a bunch of times, and we collaborate on one more set of revisions.
  6. Then we work on the opening and ending (we save these for last so we have a compelling opening to set up the letter and a strong finish to end it).
  7. Finally, we have a proofreader check for errors.

One reason I go over the process on the opening call is to make sure I'm selling what you want to buy.

In this case, what my friend's brother was looking for was someone to write the letter for him.

The difference between a writing coach and a ghost writer

That's not coaching, that's writing. And it's a service I don't offer. My desire, as a writing coach, is to develop clients' capacity for effective communication. That doesn't happen if I do the work for you. It's the old, teach someone to fish adage.

But maybe more importantly, especially for a letter of interest, is that this is your future we're writing for here, not mine. This letter needs to be yours. Of you, by you. My job is to help you think it through and tune it up. But you bring the voice and do the work. That's how you get an document that's authentic and effective.

If you want to up your executive communication skills and write a great letter of interest, call a coach. If you want someone to write the letter for you, don't waste your time with a coach. Call a résumé and cover letter writer.

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Writing memos is a core competency for most of us. Yet we don't get a lot of targeted instruction in how to create the missives effectively.

That's why a lot of my writing coach clients approach me for guidance on writing better memos. One recent client had been working in a small production company where most of the communication was done face to face. After being recruited to a very large production company, Shari* discovered the group relied primarily on memos, in part because several people worked in the field. She wasn't confident about her writing skills and wanted to up her game before starting the gig.

A laptop and notebook illustrating a post on memos from writing coach Margot Lester of The Word Factory

Shari had a couple challenges I see in a lot of people's writing: lack of confidence and poor organization.

Big Memo Writing Problem #1: Lack of Confidence

When we don't feel confident about the subject matter or our status in the organization, we often develop writing habits that actually undermine us. The most common issues are:

Lots of qualifiers or disclaimers: We pad our writing with words like may, might, could, when we're not totally sure about our ideas or when we don't want to appear arrogant or overly sure of ourselves. A lot of folks also have the habit of saying "I think" when we really know. Again, this telegraphs that you're self-conscious (at best) or you can't defend your ideas (at worst). Shari used these tactics so much in her early memos that it was easy to wonder if she really was the expert everyone at the new company thought she was. These tactics sow a seed of doubt in the minds of our readers, and while it does make us seem less snobby, this technique also makes us seem unsure of ourselves, which doesn't build confidence in others. The fix: Go through your writing and circle/highlight any conditional, qualifying or disclaiming language you find. Sometimes you can just delete those terms. In other cases, you can rewrite the statements so they're more confident and straightforward without seeming uppity.

Unnecessary Tee-ups: Another thing we do when we're insecure about our ideas or status is use tee-ups to ease the reader into the big idea. But these phrases do nothing but get in the way. Here's an example:

  • Tee-up: At the end of the day, we need to produce more shows for children in the 2-5 age group.
  • No tee-up: We need to produce more shows for children aged 2-5.

Shari's writing was full of tee-ups, which made the readers have to work harder to get to her strong ideas. It also made it more difficult for busy coworkers who liked to skim or scan memos instead of reading word for word. The Fix: Start by looking at the first words of each paragraph, and the first words of the final sentence in each paragraph. This is where tee-ups most often occur. Sometimes, these statements serve as necessary transitions, and you should keep those or rewrite them. But for the ones that are just getting in the way, cut them out!

Big Memo Writing Problem #2: Poor Organization

This is a serious killer that's easily avoided. A lot of us write to process our thoughts and ideas. This tendency bears itself out within paragraphs or sections, or through the entire piece. I'm not advocating stopping this, but promise me you'll do a careful, ruthless revision before you go any further.

Paragraph/Section Organization: Shari had a ton of good ideas, but they didn't show up until the end of paragraphs or sections -- because she was writing to get her thoughts together. All the "thinking" got in the way of "communicating" because her readers didn't need to see her work (as they used to say in my math and accounting classes). And in the few instances when "how did you get there" would be helpful, she still had too much detail. The Fix: Go through your memo and find the most important ideas. Then consider the details that are of most value to your readers. Maybe you can just move the big idea to the top of the section. Maybe you need to add some new details or delete/tighten up the ones you have.

Memo Organization: Often, the way we structure drafts isn’t the way our audience wants to consume them. Sometimes, it's the way our brain is processing them. Other times it's because we tackled the sections separately (I do this a lot when feeling stuck or overwhelmed), which doesn't seem weird to us because we have all the logic in our heads, but crushes our readers who usually don't. And when our readers can't follow our logic, our memos are useless and we look bad. The Fix: Basing organization on our audience’s needs allows us to build information logically. Sketching out a rough running order before drafting can help. Figure out the sections you need, then number them in an order than flows from one concept to another and provides enough information to helps us understand what comes next. Draft in that order, then read it through to see how it feels. If you sense the logical flow is off – you might sense the text is jumping around too much or realize that one section needs to come earlier to establish correct context for another section -- move stuff around until it's a smooth journey to your logical conclusion. If you can, ask someone else to read the piece specifically to help you get the organization right.

Get detailed tips on organizing your writing.

Use this information to write better memos and have more of an impact at work.

* c'mon. You know I wouldn't use her real name.

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