just how useful are copy editors?

Three articles approach the question from unique yet complementary angles:

John McIntyre, “Evaluating Copy Editors,” from You Don’t Say:

“If you happen to oversee copy editors, one of our nation’s fast-dwindling resources, you might be interested in some suggestions on how to evaluate their performance. If you are a civilian, unclear what copy editors do, apart from filing for unemployment insurance, this post will suggest to you what is being sacrificed at the publications you read. “

John White, “3 Ways to Make Your Subject Matter Experts Think,” from How to Hire a Copy Editor:

“Why would you run the risk of antagonizing a customer or engineer who is doing you a favor by allowing you to pick his brain for a white paper or case study?

This writer is smart enough not to try to impress the interviewee with her knowledge of the business or technology. She doesn’t need to know more in those fields to make the interviewee think.

It’s all in the three questions she poses them to explain it.”

Ruth Samuelson, “A Missing Sense of ‘Place’ on Acker,” from the Washington (DC) CityPaper:

“Behind every article, there a few—sometimes many—fact-checking dramas you’ll never catch wind of in the final draft.

You think your story’s done. Then, you spend two hours selecting one word. Seriously.

Case in point: . . . “

field report: documents to go for iphone (updated for 1.1)

IPhone and iPod Touch apps for creating and editing business documents have surged to the top ranks of the App Store’s popularity charts. This is good news for freelance writers who work in the field and who like to travel light.

Over the course of the next few entries I’ll be reporting on my field tests of some of my favorite apps. These won’t be full-blown reviews, but rather brief and complementary summaries of the highlights (and lowlights) of each app that revealed themselves while I put them through their paces.

First up is the long-anticipated DataViz Documents to Go for the iPhone app.

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word diagnostics

I’m always looking for useful analogies to convey how good editing can improve advertising copy, web features, white papers, and other written communications. This morning I was reading an article about medicine and it hit me that what editors do when revising a piece of written work is analogous to what doctors do when diagnosing a patient’s symptoms.

Like a living organism, written copy is a complex system of interactive elements that can be rendered “unhealthy” by the presence of errors in spelling, grammar, or logic. A good editor, like a good doctor, knows how to read the symptoms — for example, “this doesn’t sound right, but I don’t know why” — and can suggest corrections that will restore the piece to optimum health. 

Let’s take a look at how you can apply the four cornerstones of diagnostic medicine to make your writing all better.

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new momentum for plain language in government

House and Senate committees are currently reviewing two bills that call for federal agencies to use simpler, clearer language in public documents. Both H.R. 946, the “Plain Language Act of 2009” and S. 574, the “Plain Writing Act of 2009” have been proposed in order . . .

As reported by the Center for Plain Language, this is the second go-around for these bills, which were introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in the House and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in the Senate. The previous attempt to pass similar legislation in 2008 led to its passage in the House, but the Senate version did not make it out of committee for a vote. If passed, the legislation would require federal agencies to ensure that their public documents in print and electronic form are written using language that can be understood by their intended audiences — that is, the general public.

So what is “plain language,” and what does it mean for you?

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freelance writing tips from an advertising master

If, as Ernest Hemingway once told a reporter, the one essential tool of a good writer is “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector,” then Bob Hoffman, CEO of Hoffman/Lewis advertising in San Francisco and St. Louis, possesses one of the most finely-calibrated, jewel-movement, brass-cased crap detectors in service today.

Hoffman’s blog, The Ad Contrarian, covers today’s advertising scene. He offers cogent advice based on over 30 years of experience in the ad business. He doesn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, and doesn’t mind saying why not. Hoffman believes that advertising “has one simple purpose: to find something interesting to say that will make someone buy your stuff.”

Hoffman’s free book, The Ad Contrarian: Getting Beyond the Fleeting Trends, False Goals, and Dreadful Jargon of Contemporary Advertising, is the distilled essence of that principle, both in format and in content. Here’s a quick review that I hope will convince you to order your own copy and read it in a single sitting, and then go apply his insights in your own writing.

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slogans that sell the sizzle

Recently, in preparation for an interview for a magazine article, I visited the website of the interviewee’s organization to get some background information. In particular, I wanted to make sure I understood the organization’s mission; it’s a useful reference point for framing interview questions.

Unfortunately, the mission statement that I found on the “About Us” page didn’t tell me a thing about their mission. It was one of those focus-grouped slogans full of vague buzzwords that promised to deliver intangible things in response to undefined needs. The site design was very clean and professional, but what, exactly, did they do?

I found myself mentally cringing at the thought of getting more of the same during the interview. I was in need of choice quotes and piercing insights, not abstractions wrapped in vapor.

However, to my relief and even pleasure, the interview turned out to be one of the best I’ve had in a long time. The interviewee used sharp, lucid, and concise language to convey information and offer insights. Not only did I get my choice quotes, by the end of the interview I knew what the article would look like — hook, lede, and sinker. Writers live for interviews like that.

Afterward, once I had finished cleaning up my notes, I found myself pondering the power of clarity. Had their website been my only point of contact with the organization, I would buy ventolin hfa online have walked away with a very different opinion about their capabilities. What makes for a good slogan?

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do your proposals listen to your clients?

Accept or DeclineSuccessful proposals demonstrate your skills and capabilities to prospective clients. But superior proposals convey more than just facts and figures — they also demonstrate that you are listening to them.

The people reading your proposal want to know not only whether you can complete their work on time and on budget, but also whether they think you’ll work well with their team. Whether you can ask and answer questions. Whether you really understand what they want to get out of this project.

Somehow, your proposal has to convey this message along with the staffing charts and budget tables.

Sure, you could just salt the text with trite phrases such as “we listen to our customers.” But with a little bit of good writing, you can turn your entire proposal into an example of your responsiveness. Here are some proven tips for putting that into practice:

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cheap as free

PeanutsThis morning I received an e-mail with the subject line “Job on Computer in July,” from an unfamiliar name. I’m used to receiving cold-call e-mails from prospective clients, so I opened it up and took a look:

Good Day,

We offer a part time job on your computer.

Job Description:

We will provide you with the texts and you will correct the texts as an english speaking person and send them back to us. Just correct grammar and spell mistakes, nothing else.

Ah, a work-at-home scam. Of course. I get plenty of those. Just out of curiosity, I kept reading to see how much they pay — assuming they do pay.

Oh, they pay, all right . . .

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don’t be a writer

stacked blocksI read an interesting post on Write to Done this morning offering tips on how to break through writer’s block. The first tip: remind yourself that you’re a writer.

While I generally find the advice on WTD to be both useful and on target, I have to disagree with that particular tip (the rest were pretty handy). Regular readers know that I don’t call myself a wordsmith; but it might surprise you to know that I prefer not to call myself a writer either.

No, I don’t eschew the term in favor of buzzwords like “communicator” or “content provider,” either. When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t tell them that I’m a writer.

I tell them that I write.

A pedantic distinction? Maybe — but it’s a distinction that can clear up the crippling paralysis of writer’s block once and for all.

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time management for freelancers

Screengrab of Apimac Timer ProFreelancers who manage multiple projects understand the importance — and the difficulty — of effective time management. But simply dividing your day into discrete blocks isn’t enough.

Writing, editing, and designing all require different mindsets; jumping straight from one type of project to another — say, from carefully proofreading every word in a technical report to staring at the wall for an hour while an article composes itself in your head — wastes more time than it saves, as you try to adjust your frame of reference from one to the other.

Through trial and error, I’ve developed two-step a time management technique that seems to work well. Try it and see if it works for you.

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