July 12, 2013
Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing.
From the Department of Redundancies Department
My first MP&F blog post extolled the virtues of concise writing (When you write, keep it tight, February 4, 2010). One of the bullet points was about eliminating redundancies. The other day I stumbled upon an email I sent to the staff on the topic back in ’07, inspired by a list I’d seen. It still holds up, so here is the email:
Many of you have heard me say that an effective way to develop tight writing skills is to go through your copy and eliminate unnecessary words. If you can edit a 25-word sentence down to 18 words and not lose any meaning or effect, the shorter sentence will be better. Words such as “currently” can be eliminated about 95 percent of the time. In some cases, not only are words unnecessary, they create redundancies. I remember an old city editor almost having a stroke when a reporter turned in a story about an “armed gunman.”
Here are a few examples of common redundancies. Eliminate the word or phrase in parentheses:
bouquet (of flowers)
(completely, entirely) eliminate
depreciate (in value)
during (the course of)
each (and every)
evolve (over time)
fly (through the air)
grow (in size)
introduced (a new)
(live) studio audience
look back (in retrospect)
look (ahead) to the future
previously listed (above)
surrounded (on all sides)
(three-way) love triangle
(two equal) halves
vacillating (back and forth)
whether (or not)
June 21, 2013
By Roger Shirley, Editorial Director
One of the goals of a good writer should be to not raise questions in your copy that you don’t answer, a point I emphasize when talking to our younger staffers.
It’s something that was ingrained in me early in my career by a crusty old newspaper editor who had a tendency of mixing heavy doses of screaming and cussing with his insightful coaching.
I remember distinctly the day he called me over to the desk as he edited one of my stories. “Shirley, what the hell does this mean?” he asked with a snarl. I was about 12 words into trying to explain it when he interrupted me, yelling even louder, no doubt to send waves of fear through the other cub reporters within earshot. “Well, we have two options here. You can either add that to your story now, or you can get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and start calling 38,000 people to tell them what it means.”
Good writers anticipate the questions their readers will ask and answer them, whether it is in a news story, a news release, a letter to employees or a memo to a client. Good writers understand that, when they raise a question, they must either answer it or go back and write around it so as not to raise the question. (Sometimes, the latter just doesn’t cut it.)
If you say that “Tennessee has the second-highest consumption rate per capita of Chili Cheese Pups in the nation,” you had better follow that up with which state tops the list, because that is the immediate question raised. If for some reason you don’t know and can’t find out (unlikely in this digital day and age), then you must recast the sentence. “Tennessee has one of the highest consumption rates of Chili Cheese Pups per capita in the nation” works nicely. It generally makes the point, without raising the question.
The problem with not answering questions you raise, beyond the informational aspect of it, is that it often prompts readers to stop reading and to start bouncing around in the copy trying to find the answer – or worse, pay a visit to Mr. Google, never to return to your carefully crafted prose. And for a writer, few things are worse than losing the reader.
When self-editing your drafts, it’s important to try as much as possible to read them from a reader’s perspective and not a writer’s perspective, to ask the questions a reader would ask and see if you have answered them.
That’s easier said than done, of course, which is why there will always be a role for editors, crusty or not.
April 16, 2013
In a lunchtime Q&A session with MP&F staff members last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist David Maraniss said that writer’s block is often caused by a lack of research. (It is also caused by the prospect of writing a blog post about one of the best writers in the United States!)
David spent an hour discussing the writing process, and I am happy to share a few of the themes I took away from that time.
- Do your research; look for the compelling story that emerges from your research and then “unpack it” by letting one sentence or theme lead to the next. Don’t try to say everything at once.
- The challenge of navigating to the end of your story can be the most thrilling part of the writing process.
- If you are looking for examples of good writing, read Op-Eds in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday “Reviews” section.
- On longer writing projects, every hour you spend organizing your notes saves hours in writing.
- Try to stay one step ahead of your editor.
- John McPhee has proved that you can write an interesting piece about anything.
- When you are conducting an interview, begin by letting your subject unpack his or her brain. Chances are, she has been thinking about what to say. Give her a chance to say it. Don’t rush into your line of questioning.
What are some of your best practices for writing?
Not just what you say, but how you say it: Lessons from James Franklin, Sen. George Mitchell and David Goldhill
March 20, 2013
What do the CEO of the Game Show Network, the former U.S. Senate majority leader and an SEC football coach have in common?
More than I ever imagined.
In just the last two days, I had the good fortune to meet and listen to David Goldhill, the television executive, George Mitchell, the former politician, and James Franklin, the Vanderbilt football coach, speak to groups here in Nashville about issues ranging from health care to peace in the Middle East to building a successful football program. As a PR person, I was especially interested, not only in what these successful leaders had to say, but in how they said it.
- David has written a book about the U.S. health care system, inspired, sadly, by the death of his father due to an infection he picked up in the hospital unrelated to what had brought him there in the first place. He visited Nashville as part of the MP&F Speaker Series on Monday night.
- The first thing I noticed about David’s book was its size – it’s a hardcover book, but it measures just 7.5 inches by 5 inches, much smaller than the typical hardcover. I asked David why he had done that, and he said it was because he wanted the average person to feel that the book was accessible, something they could handle. A large book on a subject as seemingly complex as health care, he said, would turn off the very readers he’s targeting. I doubt David would have been invited to appear on The Colbert Report if his book was perceived as a wonkish, policy-heavy slog. Paying as much attention to the packaging of his important message as the message itself was a brilliant decision.
Sen. George Mitchell
- Mitchell was in town to speak to Vanderbilt students Monday night at the university’s annual Impact Symposium. The man’s list of credentials and achievements is extraordinary, and varied: Senate majority leader, peace negotiator in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the Balkans, leader of Major League Baseball’s steroid investigation, etc.
- All that said, the things that stood out to me the most about Mitchell were his disarming self-awareness, his modesty and his sense of humor.
- It was clear that Mitchell did not want the enormous gap between his stature and place in life and that of his student audience to have any sort of chilling effect on the students, to undermine his ability to effectively communicate with his audience and stifle conversation.
- So, while he talked about brokering peace in Northern Ireland, and encounters with presidents and dealings with Yasser Arafat, he also told stories about his modest upbringing, about working as a janitor as a kid, about how he felt inferior to his more athletically talented brothers. He told the audience that his wife had once reminded him that he had entered into one particular peace negotiation with zero expectations – and had met them!
- Above all, Mitchell came across as a real human being. I have no doubt that his audience was influenced to buy into his more important messages on controversial topics simply because he was funny, likeable and real. No doubt this approach to communication is a big reason why he was such a popular figure on both sides of the political aisle during his time in the Senate.
Coach James Franklin
- In his first two years as Vanderbilt football coach, James Franklin has accomplished things that have either never been done at Vanderbilt, or were last achieved back in the era of leather helmets. Back-to-back bowl games, a nine-win season, five SEC victories last year, a top-20 recruiting class, etc.
- Speaking to a group of freshman students last night, Franklin talked about all the important behind-the-scenes steps that had to take place in order to change the culture and perception of the football program, and to get his own players to believe they could achieve success.
- A lot of this, he said, came down to messaging: relentless, positive, consistent messages delivered by anyone and everyone who came into contact with his players. He knew he had turned a corner when his players – whether in interviews with the media or in conversations with teammates or coaches – were repeating those same messages about winning, hard work and attention to detail.
- Two other things about Franklin’s remarks stood out to me.
- One initially sounded a bit counterintuitive. He said leaders sometimes focus too much on goals. What’s more important, he believes, is process. In his first year at Vanderbilt, his team won six games, a pretty big achievement at the time for Commodore football. What if, he said, he had set a goal for the team to improve to seven wins the next season? Or even eight? The goals would have actually imposed a restriction on his team, a satisfaction that would have arrived too early. Vanderbilt ended up winning nine games. What was more important than setting a goal was to focus on the little things, the everyday processes that add up to success. The average play in a football game lasts just six seconds. He asks his players to be excellent for six seconds. Then another six seconds, and another.
- The other thing that impressed me was the enthusiasm and seriousness with which Franklin approached his opportunity to speak with the freshmen. He had just walked off the field from a spring practice session. These weren’t wealthy donors, potential recruits, important members of the university administration or faculty – they were “just” freshmen taking a class on Sports and Society. But Franklin prepared a special PowerPoint presentation just for them. He spoke and took questions for nearly two hours. He was emotional, motivating. He even took the opportunity to do a little coaching, telling one kid whose cellphone kept ringing to always remember, for the rest of his life, to set his phone to vibrate. Franklin said he tells his players to do backflips out of bed each morning, to embrace life with enthusiasm and to be excellent at every single thing they do. Franklin could have given less than his best when speaking to some freshmen. But he approached the task as if his audience was the most important in the world, and I don’t think there’s any doubt those kids will now be raving fans.
Follow Andrew Maraniss @trublu24
Follow James Franklin @jamesfranklinvu
Follow David Goldhill @david_goldhill
March 8, 2013
Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing.
The Joy of Discovery
One of the great things about being editorial director at McNeely Pigott & Fox is that all the young people think I know everything about grammar and word usage – to them I am a walking search engine, a male Grammar Girl, a virtual cornucopia of encyclopedic information.
Maybe I know more than the average bear (Google it, young’uns); but I don’t know it all, and that’s what makes it fun. The joy of discovery.
The other day an email popped into my inbox: “Hey Roger, what’s the difference between instantly and instantaneously?” “Hmm,” I said to myself, “that’s a good one.” Electric impulses careened around in my brain as I thought it through for a couple of minutes.
“Six letters,” I finally responded.
OK, I knew there was a difference – there had to be – I just couldn’t articulate it. I walked back to the Cave, home of our staff associates and interns and where the question had originated, and had a good discussion about whether and how the words differ. After going around in a few circles, we relented and looked it up.
It turns out that “instantly” means happening at once or immediately, while “instantaneously” means, generally speaking, happening or exerted with no delay in relation to something else.
Two thoughts here: I think it’s valuable to think about questions such as this, perhaps even have an actual conversation about them, before immediately asking our all-knowing friend Mr. Google. And when you learn something new, it’s best to use it in a sentence as soon as you can to try to lock it into your brain cells.
I instantly knew I didn’t know her name.
Freebird came on the radio and he instantaneously ran into the ditch.
A few days later, I discovered that “torturous” and “tortuous” are two different words with completely different meanings. I realize it’s obvious they are different words; but I had just never thought about it and, upon reflection, could not think of a time that I had ever used “tortuous” in a sentence, at least not correctly.
“Torturous” means exactly what you would think – of, related to or causing torture. “Tortuous” means having or marked by repeated turns or bends. (Of course, an after-dinner speech or the lead paragraph of a corporate news release could be both.)
I shot out an email to the staff to share my vocabulary discovery, and within a few hours, someone had left that day’s edition of the New York Times in my chair with a front-page cutline circled: Skeletal remains found in an English parking lot, including a tortuously curved spine, were confirmed as those of Richard III.
I was instantly filled with joy, which occurred instantaneously as I read the cutline.
March 4, 2013
In celebration of National Grammar Day, we propose that everyone take a minute to be thankful for those who care deeply about using the English language properly and have little patience for those who don’t.
Raise a glass to your editors and proofreaders and all the English teachers who tried to get you to understand what a verb phrase is and why it matters where that comma goes.
So why does grammar matter? Simply put, language is a tool that humans have invented to convey our thoughts to others in a clear way. As with all tools, over time we come up with new and better ways to shape them for our use. But, when there is one standard tool that we all know how to use, we all understand one another better. Enter: grammar. Correct grammar is the ideal, the standard, the bar. It’s what makes sure we’re using our language tool in a way that the most people, all across the country, will understand.
- Double negatives and verb disagreements: “He don’t know nothing.” OK. We know that certain verbs match certain nouns. And that “He do not …” isn’t quite right. We should say “He does not …” So let’s change that to “He doesn’t know nothing.” But, wait a sec. Since two negatives equal a positive, are we saying this guy does know something? It’s just so confusing. Using standard English to convey that thought would have kept us from saying just the opposite of what we meant.
- Misplaced (or missing) commas: “Let’s eat Grandma.” Whoa! Are we cannibals? If we all know the punctuation rule of setting off our addressee with a comma, we can ensure that Grandma knows we’re inviting her to sit with us at the table, not to be the main course. The comma in “Let’s eat, Grandma.” keeps our sweet grandmother from suffering unnecessary panic.
- Misused pronouns: “Me and her moved to the city.” The easy trick to use to make sure you’re using the right pronouns is to use each one separately: “Me moved to the city. Her moved to the city.” Suddenly, it’s glaringly obvious. And, of course, you should always come after the other person. One of the more rampantly misused pronouns is “myself.” This pronoun is always the object of a verb or preposition when the speaker or writer is the subject of the clause. Correct: “I did it myself.” Incorrect: “Bill and myself went down thar to the crik to do some fishin’.” Yep, that’s what you sound like when you use it that way.
- Dangling modifiers: This is one of the easiest mistakes to make and one of the easiest to avoid: Incorrect: “After standing in line for two hours, the ticket agent told us the show was sold out.” Correct: “After standing in line for two hours, we were told the show was sold out.” Just ask yourself who was standing in line. It certainly wasn’t the ticket agent.
- Its, It’s: Make yourself say “it is” every time you write “it’s.” If that isn’t right, then it is “its.”
November 19, 2012
McNeely Pigott & Fox is celebrating 25 years in business during 2012, and one of the ways we’re celebrating is by answering the 25 questions we are most often asked about our business.
Question 15: What are some of the common mistakes people make when they hire a PR firm?
By David Fox
One of the best questions we get asked is: “What are some of the common mistakes people make when they hire a PR firm?” When you get that question, you know there’s an understanding that “mistakes” can happen on both sides of the relationship. So here are a few pitfalls to avoid:
Mistake #1: Fuzzy expectations. Clarity is a beautiful thing. When you’re establishing a relationship with a PR firm, it is important to spell things out clearly from the start.
Begin with a clear statement of exactly why you are hiring the firm. What’s the goal? What do you hope to achieve? If you’ve gone through an RFP process to hire a firm, you’ve probably had to think through the answer and put it down in writing. That is a good first step. If you can explain clearly why the firm has been hired – not only the official reason but the cultural dynamics that led to the decision – you are giving your agency a huge gift. You’re giving them their marching orders.
Remember, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is, if a strategy is not in sync with your company’s culture, it will be the strategy that suffers. So if you have a strategy in mind when you hire an agency, be sure it is consistent with the company’s culture. And be sure your agency understands that culture on the front end.
Another place for clarity is in the area of budget. When you are beginning a relationship focused on communicating your good news, it can be an exciting time. But don’t let the excitement keep you from working to establish cost parameters and making sure everyone understands and accepts them.
Mistake #2: Lack of transparency. Like most relationships, a client-agency partnership is all about trust. You need to share all the information the PR firm will need to present your organization in the best light – in other words, they need to know a lot more than you want the rest of the world to know. It will then be up to the agency to use that information discreetly and wisely. If they fail, then they weren’t the right agency for you. But if you don’t share information openly with them, their chances of success are greatly diminished, especially if they are caught off guard.
Mistake #3: Taking only the advice you want to hear: One important value of an agency is its distance from the inner workings or your organization, which allows objective counsel. So take their advice, even if it’s not what you want to hear – even if it’s to talk to the media when you don’t want to.
Case in point: We represented a company that had reason to believe a local media outlet was biased against them. As a result, they had refused to talk to that outlet, and the resulting coverage they received was negative – thereby reinforcing the impression of bias. Our assessment, after reviewing coverage, was that the perception of bias was incorrect. We could see why our client had a concern; but we believed the media outlet would provide objective coverage if presented with information in an open fashion, and so we advised the client to visit the outlet. Reluctantly, they agreed. The result was a cathartic – and lengthy – clearing of the air between both groups, and resulting media coverage which was not only fair but extremely thorough and accurate, resulting in a happy client.
Ultimately, the worst mistake you can make is thinking your relationship with a PR firm will be mistake-free. Mistakes happen. Dealing with them is what good PR firms do best.