Generation IM – along with the boomers who are copying their speed-communication style – are losing jobs, contracts, and freelance assignments because of poor writing habits. Roger Shapiro, founder of Mitchell Rose, an advertising firm at 2500 Brunswick Pike, knows this for a fact. He regularly receives resumes and cover letters riddled with grammar and spelling errors and lacking in basic organization – from would-be copywriters! And these are some of the better resumes. Others give absolutely no hint of what kind of job the applicant is seeking. "Sales, administration, copywriting? I often have no idea," says the business owner.
"People write based on IM (instant messaging) abbreviations," he says. "You ask a direct question and don’t get an answer you understand. That can be fine between two kids going to the movies, but in business the issue can be a $10,000 contract."
Shapiro has just written a book, "Write Right: 26 Tips to Improve Your Writing Dramatically," in response to what he sees as a growing communication problem. He talks about the book on Friday, August 19, at 12:15 p.m. at a meeting of the Princeton Rotary at the Princeton Hyatt. E-mail Maria Romaro at Marimi426@yahoo.com for more details.
"I’m a wordsmith," says Shapiro. He recalls that he was first paid for writing at age 17, when the Randolph Reporter, a newspaper in his hometown, saw his work in his high school paper and asked him to cover town events. "This guy was paying me to do what I loved!" he exclaims some 27 years later.
With a new school year about to start it is worthwhile to mention that Shapiro credits his affection for the written word to an outstanding teacher. His freshman newspaper advisor "made it clear that words affect people and motivate them," he recalls.
His passion for words ignited, Shapiro earned a degree in public relations and journalism from Utica College (Class of 1983). His first post-graduation job was as a reporter for the Echo Sentinel in Warren. He began the transition to PR with a copywriting job for Hayden Publishing. Further training came during a stint with Dunn and Bradstreet in Murray Hill, where he was involved in everything from writing direct mail copy to writing speeches for executives.
At Dunn and Bradstreet, where his duties included hiring and training young writers, he began to see the roots of some communication errors. "Twenty-two-year-olds would not interrupt a meeting to ask the meaning of a word," he recalls. Rather, they plowed ahead, despite the fact that there were holes in their understanding of the writing projects they were to undertake.
He founded his own agency, which takes its name from his daughters’ middle names, in 1997, and observed an escalating number of writing errors coming from all sides. His part-time work as an instructor at Mercer County Community College provides him another window on the world of Communications 2005. Asked whether the breezy style – often omitting any well articulated statement of the writer’s intention – is likely to become the accepted norm, he gasps "I hope not!"
While he is discomforted by the writing that passes across his desk and lands in his E-mail, Shapiro is not a cranky wordsmith in the style of William Safire, who decries poor usage in his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine. Sanguine by nature, he is quietly confident that good writing will prevail, and means his book as a relatively painless guide.
Write Right is slanted toward those who work in the advertising and PR fields, but includes the basics of clear communication that nearly every job requires. "It is not a book on how to get the ‘big idea,’" says Shapiro. Neither is it a grammar guide. It is meant to be a hands-on guide companion, guiding its users, step-by-step, toward clear, cogent, concise writing.
The book is organized into short chapters. Shapiro doesn’t want readers to digest it whole, but rather to work it one chapter at a time. Make the changes in just one chapter, and writing will improve, he guarantees.
His system is relatively painless, but does require some effort, and lots of practice. "Writing is a skill, just like any other skill," he says. Here’s how to master it:
Eliminate prepositions. Remember, Shapiro’s background is in writing ad copy, and he is writing for those who need to craft pithy, forceful messages. That said, he declares that if anyone has the time to incorporate just one of his tips into everyday writing, this should be it.
"No other tip immediately and dramatically impacts your copywriting quality," he declares. Questioned about using "impact" as a verb, he says that the word, not too long ago strictly a noun, is an example of how widespread usage can make an outlaw use of a word respectable.
Prepositional phrases, on the other hand, are perfectly acceptable from a usage point of view, but are just dead weight when a message needs to be communicated forcefully – and therefore should be tossed out en masse.
He gives this example: "Our product was ranked number one in independent customer surveys." That’s the "before." He spiffs up the sentence by recasting it as "Independent customer surveys rank our product number one."
Notice that the latter sentence, in addition to being more forceful, contains fewer words. That compression is key in advertising, and is important in writing of all kinds – leading the reader right to the point.
Pre-write. A great writer moves more cautiously and incorporates a deep pre-writing process, writes Shapiro in his book. He goes on to say that "even when you are your own ‘client,’ writing a report for management, pre-writing matters."
The pre-writing process should include asking questions, understanding the assignment, reviewing content, evaluating obstacles, clarifying opportunities and objectives, and researching.
Yes, yes, Shapiro acknowledges, all of this is elementary. But do you follow all of the steps? Or do you just jump to the keyboard?
"Think about it," writes Shapiro. "When you do not fully understand what you want the reader to do when she is done reading, how can your copy possibly direct her to take that action?"
Be bold. "Always remember," writes Shapiro, "you are writing words to sell, motivate, and promote. So be brave, stand up, and make your message bold." He commands that you skip any equivocation and omit all disclaimers. "Leave it to the lawyers to water down your copy later," he says. "But start your writing striving for greatness."
His advice for doing this includes using action verbs, writing in active voice, mixing short, punchy sentences with longer, supportive statements, using colorful descriptive words, and highlighting unexpected points that surprise the reader.
Keep the ‘you’ focus. He recounts that a colleague once decorated her office with a poster screaming "Nobody Gives a Damn About Your Product." People, Shapiro has come to learn, care chiefly about themselves. The persuasive writer must keep this in mind.
"Your content and word choice must reflect the reader’s perspective," he writes in his book. "When a company’s marketing literature is all about its business and not the reader, it fails to connect and it fails to sell. It can bore the reader, and it lacks clarity in terms of what you want that person to do, think, or feel. A reader-centric approach, on the other hand, improves your writing. It focuses on the person’s issues and relates the company’s capabilities to those issues.
"When writing is about the writer instead of the reader, it fails."
Respect your readers. Shapiro stresses that motivating readers is a key job for every writer. It’s impossible to connect with – let alone motivate – people you do not respect. Show respect through writing, he suggests, by saying please and thank you, using first names, avoiding exclamation points unless you really want to yell at someone, showing appreciation for your readers’ time by getting to the point quickly, and avoiding jargon. This latter, in his opinion, comes across as elitist.
Eliminate the word count mindset. It’s not quantity that matters. Again, Shapiro insists that the message must take precedence over everything. "No matter what you are writing, you should rarely write to a word count," he says in his book. "Write until your words achieve your objective." Writers who stress over word count tend to focus more on numbers than on results.
Word counts create several problems, says Shapiro, including these: "Writers who come up short throw away their pre-writing findings and insert unnecessary or gratuitous content. Writers may abandon powerful editing skills that decrease word counts and increase readability. Writers who come up long risk editing down to a prescribed number…and stopping."
Says Shapiro: "When you write right, you could produce a sales letter five or more pages long and have it generate results. Or you could write a five-word TV spot. When you focus on the objective, audience, and use, the word count becomes a crutch you can discard."
Proofread. Yes, everyone knows that it’s important to proofread. But it’s a difficult skill, and is especially hard for good readers, who actually see only every fifth word or so. This is so because an experienced reader often knows what is coming next, anticipates it, and thinks that is what he sees. Shapiro has a nifty idea for counteracting this tendency. "Read backwards," he says. "It’s the best way to catch misspelled words, because your eyes will not gloss over what you wrote."
A firm grasp of the basics of clear writing are important for career advancement and for reeling in work. And there is one more reason to value writing skills. "A 2004 study by the National Commission on Writing found that firms spend $3.1 billion on sending employees to remedial writing classes," says Shapiro. While that number shocks him, he is substantially more affronted by the fact that state governments spend $221 million a year to teach those skills. "That’s our tax money!" he says.
The good news here is that it appears that anyone with a firm grasp of the mother tongue, and an idea of how to manipulate it to persuade others, is way ahead of the game.
Getting E-Mail Under Control
How do you set up your meetings, send quotes to your clients, submit proofs of your presentation to your boss, and let your administrative assistant know that you are not amused by her latest aberrant behavior? By E-mail, of course. It’s the way business at all levels is conducted – and chronicled.
"E-mail is now the de facto institutional memory for organizations," says David MacRae, owner of InfraStor Technologies, a data storage company that recently moved from 69 Tamarack Circle to 338 Wall Street, Research Park. MacRae offers systems backup and recovery, disaster recovery systems, and systems integration of Storage Area Networks (SAN); he connects large data storage devices to servers and workstations. His clients are medium to large-size organizations looking for cost-effective ways to manage storage from a central resource. "We take a consultative approach," he says, designing the storage solution, customizing it, and providing equipment, software, installation, and training.
While InfraStor helps companies with all of their burgeoning information storage needs by providing consultation, hardware, and software, it is increasingly fielding requests for help with out-of-control E-mail.
"The software for E-mail storage has only been around for about three years," says MacRae, who founded his company in 1998, "but we are just now seeing the demand." Companies in all kinds of industries are asking for help in corralling the wildly-proliferating E-mail. "It’s finance and government," he says, "where you can easily see the need, but it’s other businesses to, where the need is not so obvious. Really, it’s everybody."
A graduate of the University of Toronto (Class of 1965), from which he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1972, MacRae began working in industry – for Colgate Palmolive and then for Allied Signal – when people still wrote proposals on paper and sent them via U.S. Mail.
While paper is far from making a list of most endangered office supplies, it is E-mail that is seeing the real action. Bids and counterbids fly around all day, along with disciplinary warnings, threats of legal action, and internal memos on the progress of everything from multi-national projects to the upcoming company retreat in Hawaii.
Employees use their E-mail folders as filing cabinets, and are abetted in this squirreling activity by ever-more-powerful E-mail programs. "Ironically," says MacRae, "programs like Microsoft Outlook make things worse." By providing easy-to-use file folders, the program, and others like it, make it a snap to create all sort of categories in which every sort of information can be stored.
The problem, MacRae points out, is that this information can be very difficult for the employee to find a year or two down the road. A far greater problem is that his supervisors may not have access to the information, and even if they do, they may find it impossible to make sense of it, or to find E-mails referring to a specific project or issue. "And if the employee leaves, all bets are off," says MacRae.
This is a problem on any number of levels, one being legal liability. "The courts don’t accept ‘We can’t find the information’ as an excuse," says MacRae. A company can be legally liable if it cannot provide the back-up to prove that, say, an employee was warned that her conduct was unacceptable or that the sub-contractor was told to use a certain grade of concrete. "You could go to jail," says MacRae, laying out the worst case scenario.
The solution to runaway E-mail is a company-wide system. When InfraStor consults with a client, it begins with a needs assessment. How many people are sending E-mail? And what kind of E-mail attachments are they sending? If there is lots of video or there are many large maps, more storage space will be required.
After MacRae gets an overview of a company’s needs, he is set to install a combination of hardware – generally there needs to be a separate server – and software.
The next step is establishing policies. Many companies, and especially those in fiance, government, or healthcare, will probably want to insist that every E-mail sent or received is retained on the central server, says MacRae. The company then needs to decide how long it should keep different types of data. This decision is now most often left to the employees themselves, and can result in arbitrary, and potentially harmful, destruction of valuable information.
When the system is in place, it should be easy to run a database search that will turn up every single E-mail received or sent that refers to a specific person, project, event, or timeframe.
It is clear that cyberspace will never be fully tamed, but lassoing E-mail is a step in that direction that many companies are moving to the top of their tech to-do lists.
InfraStor Technologies Corp., 338 Wall Street, Princeton 08540. David M. MacRae PhD, president. 609-683-8844; fax, 609-683-9664. Home page: www.infrastor.com
New Information Resource Examines The Common Man
Why was all commerce traditionally considered women’s work – and when did it turn around? Who was happier, those who built China’s Great Wall or those who built Egypt’s Great Pyramids? Finally, what was the fairest and most popular taxation system ever to hit the Americas – or anywhere else?
Search for these intriguing answers in traditional history texts and nonfiction tomes and you will probably come up dry. Most of us have been raised on volumes that depict history as a list of kings carving empires. Dutifully we memorize the wars and the treaties, yet we never learn if the average Revolutionary War or Civil War soldier was mustered out to a better or worse life than the one he was living when he was pressed into service.
But the Greenwood Publishing Group of Westport, Connecticut, believes that the real drama of history lies in Everyman’s daily life struggles. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life portrays what that neglected 99 percent of the world’s people hoped, ate, wore, used and, sang. Compiled in 1999, this six-volume, 10,000-page set, along with 34 other volumes from Greenwood’s "Daily Life through History" series has now gone online for the annual fee of $595. It is a vast, alluring and quite daunting resource that includes museum tours, primary documents, vetted weblinks, and continuous updates. Princeton Public Library cardholders can access it for free from their home computers.
Princeton reference librarian Susan Darkhosh acts as guide through this database. A former teacher, Darkhosh received her MLS degree from Rutgers University and for the past three years has been plying her second career at Princeton Public Library. Darkhosh notes that on second Thursdays at 1 p.m. the library offers a continuing series of "DataBytes" workshops for its many databases. Or you can simply phone in any question imaginable to the reference desk at 609-924-9529, ext. 3.
"If there were ever a resource to excite learning in anyone, this is it," states the Library Journal. Greenwood Daily Life Online is not merely an unimaginably vast compendium of knowledge, it is exhaustively cross-indexed in an enticing manner. You can set searches up by time, region, or contrasting nations, and then compare domestic, political, material, intellectual, economic, and religious practices. Were your 18th century Scottish ancestors frugal for moral reasons, or was it because they were earning about one-fifth the annual wage of the average English person?
Women to the front. By covering both genders and all age groups, Greenwood Online helps give women a little more prominence in history. In answer to the first question listed above, women naturally took over the role of commerce as soon as men became breadwinners.
Men, unfettered by the brood, could venture beyond the home area, go off to hunt, and later farm. Women, as breast-feeding mothers, had to remain close to the hut to nurture the kids. And as any mother can appreciate, these early moms needed work that could be performed inside and that could be interrupted at a moment’s notice. Thus women took on the production of weaving – the ancient world’s most valued asset.
Countless letters of transactions, all signed by women of Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Egypt outline trade terms for varying loads of textiles. They ran the negotiations, oversaw production, hired workers and slaves, and sent their husbands out on journeys with exact instructions. When the shekels rolled in, these weaving moms banked and accounted for them. In ancient Greece, when a maid was instructed to get her little moneymaker moving, her mistress was telling her to get her hands flying faster across the loom.
Exactly when men elbowed their way into the primary role in commerce is a matter of debate. Some say the switch came in ancient Rome when the trade routes became so long and extended that the same people who were facing the perilous journey (menfolk) began to act independently and to dictate business terms. Others argue that it came with the Medieval development of agribusiness. Still others insist that the advent of industrial age made families financially dependent on the salaried male.
Cross cultural attitudes. Generalizations are, of course, the fools gold of history. After all, it seems unlikely that every serf was merry in merry old England (To see if it got merrier, Greenwood compares Chaucer’s 14th century England with Queen Elizabeth’s 16th century.) Yet with some fun browsing, one question leads to another and the history-hunter of any age can gain some real insight. Using the cross cultural index, some interesting patterns emerge, as shown by answering who was happier, those who build the Great Wall or those who built the pyramids.
The Great Wall was about as popular as Homeland Security after 9/11. For centuries Hun and Mongol tribes had raced their war horses across the steppe, plundering China’s western regions at will. Qin, China’s first emperor, after consolidating his holdings in 214 B.C., ordered that all previous frontier walls be consolidated into a single fortified wall. This not-so-great wall was enhanced several times until under the Ming Dynasty, 1368 to 1644, the Great Wall we see today was finally finished.
The people who raised this monumental 4,163 mile edifice, labored under conscription and the lash. Poor engineering caused constant collapses. In fact one of China’s most touching laments was the song of Meng Jiangu, wife of a laborer who died in such a construction accident. Alas, in the end, this desperate attempt to hold back a continent of invaders never quite succeeded.
The Great Pyramids at Giza, on the other hand, were built by a people at peace. No enslaved Semite ever hauled these stones. Rather, Pharaoh’s final resting place was constructed by hired Egyptian citizens in the off season, after the solitary drudge of Nile-side farming was over. The rulers saw the pyramids as a way to keep the people busy. In turn, the common folk received the chance to gather and work in communities and to dine on the rare delicacy of meat – frequently roast hippopotamus. (No, it does not taste like chicken.) The fireside revels at day’s end are legend.
Exactly why people long at peace, like those of the Easter Islands and Egypt, tend to devote themselves to such huge and laborious monuments is a revealing topic of study. Search under "Island Madness."
By subject – by time. If you are a fan of, say, religion, economics, intellectual development, or one single aspect of the daily life, the Greenwood Online database accommodates and can lay your interest out across time, cultural, or regional lines.
So what was the most fair and popular system of taxation? Click on economics, run through the regions and historical time settings, and you will doubtlessly stop at the 15th century Incan Empire. Every Incan annually paid a mita – or service tax, which lasted from one to three months, depending on current need. During his stint, the Incan would join community members and go off to rebuild roads, repair temples, or make new fortifications while chewing of the cocoa leaf. Depending on your skill sets, you might serve as anything from a scribe to stone carver to grunt laborer.
Additionally, while capitalism was the standard, goods were doled out by the Incan state according to need. Households were rationed based on what they already owned and it was claimed that no Incan could hide so much as a pair of sandals from his government assessor. While the system seems overly totalitarian, it is interesting to compare well-fed Incans of the 1400s with modern Peruvians, who have more freedom, but, in both city and countryside, have too little to eat day in and day out.
All the facts in Greenwood Life Online have been scrupulously checked. And while scholars seeking a deeply-focused research tool may not find this tool adequate for every project, the database is so comprehensive that most all adults will find it broadening.
– Bart Jackson
The Princeton Public Library, like many public libraries, offers the opportunity to do database searching from home computers (www.princeton.lib.nj.us). At Princeton, the online databases include all those offered by EBSCO Host – a journal database, Business Source Elite, health databases, Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, and an image collection, among others.
Also available online are the Gale Biography Resource Center, Gale’s Literature Resource Center, and InfoTrak, which has the full text of the New York Times from 2000 to the present. LearningExpress Library has an online learning platform with dozens of practice tests including law enforcement, GED exams, SAT preparation and civil service exams.
Databases that can be used in the library include the full text of Dow Jones/Factiva (which archives all major publications) and the New York Times archive of images of each newspaper from 1851 to 2001. Using the library’s access can save money: If you were to order an article from the Wall Street Journal’s website, you would have to pay $4.95. The New York Times website is free for one week, but after that you would pay from $1.60 to $3.95 per article.
As tech columnist Stephen Manes points out in Forbes (August 15), many of these databases are not available on the Internet, and so Google and the other search engines cannot reach them. And if you will be using the databases over the long term, set aside the second or fourth Thursdays at 1 p.m. for the DataBytes workshops. In September the workshop will cover LearningExpress Library.
The next tech-related talk at the Princeton Library is "Listening to the future: MP3 and Audiobooks," on Tuesday, September 6, at 6:30 p.m. Brian Downing of Recorded Books will describe the service you can use to download digital audiobooks. Call 609-924-9529.