Staying Focused

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I have been an editor and writer for more than 20 years, and I have worked from home for the last 6 years. Sometimes I am super-productive and honestly, sometimes I do too much fiddling around. But I always meet my deadlines and aim to create high quality work.

Here are a few thoughts on how to focus and be productive, for any kind of work situation:

Know yourself. My best time for productive, creative work is in the morning. When I am organizing my daily tasks, I make sure to focus on the projects needing the most brain power earlier in the day. Writing, editing, and my best thinking happen in the morning. Later in the afternoon I can do more administrative tasks – planning time, invoicing, following up on emails. Once you discern your most productive times, then arrange your work schedule as much as possible to follow your natural rhythms.

Know who you are working with. I work with clients and co-workers across multiple time zones, and I also work with people in my own time zone who work varied hours (for example, the mom who submits her writing projects around midnight and the graphic designer who works after his triplets are in bed). So as deadlines approach, I want to make sure I respond to people with appropriate timeliness, so we can keep a project moving forward. I also may push a deadline to be one day earlier, to allow for the lag of different times when people are able to respond.

Think of projects and deadlines in terms of a day, week, and month. It is obvious that I need to focus on what is due today, and what is due this week. But I also regularly review the deadlines that are a month or two out – because they quickly become today’s deadline! If I have an article that is due in six weeks, I don’t necessarily have to start writing the article yet, but I do need to take a few minutes to email people who are providing input for the article. If I need to schedule an interview, I would much rather have the luxury of providing a few weeks of options to schedule the person I am interviewing, rather than scrambling to get an interview done the day before I have to write the story. Five minutes spent on an email today will save me stress and rush a month from now.

Pace yourself. Figuring out when to take breaks is also part of staying productive. Our brains and bodies need to reset and move. I try to set mini-goals and use short breaks as rewards. I may decide to edit 10 pages, then walk into the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Or finish an hour of tasks and then step outside for a breath of fresh air. Too many breaks definitely reduce productivity, but too few breaks can also impair our work. A short break can introduce fresh thoughts and renewed vigor into our work. When I am writing, I try to get at least a first draft done before my afternoon walk break. I will often have an idea while I am walking that will solve some problem or improve the article for the second draft.

Minimize distractions. This is obvious advice and hard to implement at times. I have turned off most notifications on my phone, because I don’t necessarily need to know when a new headline is posted or when someone likes a social media post I have written. I do manage social media for a client, so part of my work is staying up-to-date and responding. But that doesn’t mean I have to respond every minute. On days when a post is active, I can still take breaks between checking. And most of the distraction is not from work-related social media, but from “interesting” but nonessential information. If I feel the need to check on news or social media or any other non-work-related information, I can put that into my break time, between productive times of work. Some days the best thing I can do for both my work and my soul is to pause and let go of the “need” to know everything always.

Staying focused and productive is a process. By evaluating what works well for us, and changing patterns that are not working, we can continue to improve our work habits and the quality of the work we send into the world.

Alphabet Soup: When to Spell Out Acronyms

An acronym is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term. Acronyms can be quite useful in communications, because they convey information quickly and efficiently to those who are in the know.

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However, acronyms can also be a barrier and make people feel like outsiders if they don’t know the meaning of the acronym.

Recently I read a promotional email that encouraged me to click through and listen to a two-minute radio program. The email kept using an acronym for the name of the organization, and I had no idea what the acronym stood for, so it didn’t feel like an invitation to me but a barrier. Since I was curious, I clicked through to the website and even there it was very hard for me to find the meaning of the acronym and the focus of the organization. I became more frustrated and then stubborn. I was only motivated to keep clicking because I am curious about language, not because I wanted to know more about the organization. So the acronym was a barrier to me.

If the email had been to members of the organization, then perhaps a definition of the acronym would not have been necessary. But the purpose of the email was to introduce the organization to new people, so the use of the acronym didn’t help bridge the gap for a new audience. My frustration could have been alleviated by a small note at the bottom of the email, defining the letters in the acronym.

Sometimes acronyms become so commonly accepted that they actually become new words, and a definition is no longer necessary. For example, when I was researching this blog post, the word “laser” was listed as an acronym. That surprised me because I think of “laser” as a scientific term that has a general meaning to a non-scientist like me. I didn’t know that the word was actually composed of the first letters of a phrase that describes the technological concept. In the 1950s, the new technology of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation was described by the acronym “laser.” Clearly an article in 2020 describing laser surgery would not need to spell out this acronym; it has been a word for decades!

In between a common acronym-turned-word such as “laser” and an unclear acronym with no apparent meaning, there are many acronyms that are part of regular language. As a writer or editor, spelling out the acronym on first use is a good way to promote clarity in communications. For example, in discussing NATO, which many people would recognize as an international organization, the first mention could include NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

The practice of spelling out an acronym on first use means everyone is on equal footing with a clear definition, not left wondering and trying to remember the underlying meaning of an important term.

IDK_acronym

If you are wondering about the graphics with this post, “DIY” means “Do it yourself” and refers to crafting and home projects. “IDK” is a casual expression often used in texts that means “I don’t know.” Clever and useful acronyms, for those who know what they mean!

Who Said It? Attribution Matters

By Carla Foote, Fine Print Editorial

Attribution is ascribing a work or remark to a particular person. With the popularity of pithy sayings on social media, it is tempting to quickly Google a list of quotes from a famous person, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. or even Jesus.

mlk didnt say it_updateHowever, these quickly “sourced” quotes are not always accurate. Here I have placed “sourced” in quotation marks to show sarcasm. Careful sourcing involves finding the original speech, book or other setting for the actual words being quoted. Google “sourcing” can involve a few clicks to find another person who says that a quote is accurate, even if the sources are not reputable or research-based. Simply noticing that many people attribute a particular phrase to a famous person doesn’t mean that person actually made the statement. Volume isn’t veracity in sourcing.

There are several ways that sloppy attribution of quotes can go wrong: Either the person didn’t actually say what is being credited to them, or they might not have said it in the way that it is being used in the shortened version.

While the internet can contribute to questionable attribution, it also makes the words of famous people accessible for research. I can actually listen to the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963 to the people gathered for the March on Washington. Or I can read the text of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech from August 8, 1942.

The third Monday in January is a national holiday in the United States, honoring the January birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a civil rights leader who played a significant role in the fight for racial equality in the U.S. He was assassinated in 1968. As a preacher and a national leader, his writings and speeches are extensive. Quotes from Dr. King are indeed inspirational. But in the midst of sharing inspiration, accurate attributions are important.

In 2019, on the holiday celebrating Dr. King, I saw two instances of a quotation that I was curious about. The idea sounded good, but I hadn’t seen it attributed to Dr. King before, so I decided to dig in a little and verify the accuracy of this attribution.

The quote is: If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.

When I first read the quote, I have to admit that it sounded a bit like Mother Teresa to me. But that was based just on style, not any research. A quick Google search revealed several instances attributing this quote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (one in a speech by the President of an Ivy League University). But a number of attributions were to Napoleon Hill, a new name to me.

So who actually said this first?

In the 1928 book, The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons, Napoleon Hill said, “If you cannot do great things yourself, remember that you may do small things in a great way.” I found the actual book online and saw this quote on page 113.

It is possible that Dr. King quoted this phrase at some time during his many speeches and sermons. I did not do exhaustive research on all of his speeches and writing. Wikiquote is not a perfectly reliable source, however, it does catalog many specific quotes and their sources from books and speeches. Working backwards from Wikiquote, it is possible to find the actual source document for attribution. Searching the Wikiquote page for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not reveal the “small things” quote. But Wikiquote is not exhaustive.

Another good source of attributions is LibQuotes.com, whose motto is “Don’t quote it if you can’t source it.” In searching their site, they reference the “small things” quote as coming from Napoleon Hill. That’s how I found the name of Napoleon Hill’s book, and a few more clicks lead me to the actual text. Each quote on the website includes an “i” icon for more information and points to the original source. A writer or editor can then pursue the source document for verification.

Perhaps this work seems tedious, but attribution matters. And since the famous historical figures have plenty of strong, well-sourced material to choose from, if you want an inspirational meme for social media, pick something that is traceable to a reliable source!

Of course, beyond the issue of accuracy, there are a flurry of memes for particular holidays and events. In addition to considering the source for a quote, consider the context and your own voice. Are you pulling together a meme to join popular trends? Or is it core to your work and voice? But perhaps that’s another topic for a blog – to meme or not to meme?

In my research for this article, I found some interesting sources and articles on attribution and quotations.

Writing Short

Conversations among writers, editors and publishers about the state of publishing often turn to the short attention span of readers. While I understand the concern and realize that complex topics take more than 140 characters to develop, there are benefits to short, focused content.smartphone

Writing short forces the writer and editor to carefully focus the main idea and judiciously choose words, as extraneous details are cut. This results in clear, direct content.

Writing short gives the reader a clear takeaway. Rather than wading through multiple examples and ideas, the reader can access one memorable nugget.

Writing short allows space for additional graphics to carry a message. While writers and editors might consider themselves “word” people, they are communicators. Words and graphics together communicate. By keeping content short, there is space for graphic elements to reinforce the message.

Looking back at magazines I edited more than 10 years ago, word count on a page was often 800 – 900 words for an 8-1/2″ x 11″ page. Now my target is 500 – 600 words per page with much more space for graphic design. Did people read every word of an 800 word article and remember it all? Does the reader even notice that the content is shorter?

Short, focused content communicates! This blog is 215 words.

The Art of the Apology

Have you done something wrong and need to apologize? Whether an apology is in the professional setting or a personal setting, sincerity and brevity are keys to delivering your apology.

Keep your apology brief – state the infraction and express your deep regret. You can add any policy or personal changes that you are going to implement to keep from repeating the infraction, but never make excuses or blame others. Just apologize. Period.

Sincerity is important in an apology – but the way people receive your apology is based on established trust (or lack thereof). So the believability of your apology is judged over time. If you are apologizing for a repeated behavior in the past, is there any evidence that your pattern has changed? If not, then people won’t believe that you are sincere in your apology. And if future actions repeat the infraction  you apologized for, then people will assume your only regret was in getting caught, not in the actual action.

Keep brevity in mind, especially when giving a verbal apology. Just because someone gives you a microphone and 2 minutes, there is no need to keep going on and on. State your infraction, express your regret, and lay out your plan for moving forward.

Note: An apology for a mistake is different from a disagreement over opinions. See a previous post for responding to feedback.

 

 

What’s Your Angle?

TSA is in the news regularly now, with the summer travel season heating up and lines increasing at many large airports. Media outlets, along with social media, are sharing pictures and videos of long lines waiting to get through security. But how accurate are these reports?

I was at the Denver airport on the Friday before Memorial Day. My daughter and son-in-law had a 2 hour layover, and we were going to meet for lunch if the security lines weren’t too long. I had been watching the security time page on the airport website all morning, seeing times from 15-25 minutes, which didn’t seem excessive. When I arrived at the airport at 10:30 am there was NO line at one of the security checkpoint and a short line at another.

We saw a news reporter and camera person shooting out toward the side with the short line. I wondered out loud, “There’s no line on the other side. Are they going to take a picture of that side too?”

The reporter heard my remark and said, “You’re right.” camera angle

Later, when I headed back to my car, the tripod was empty on the side with the line. I do hope they went to the other side to film as well, to show a more accurate representation.

Angle matters – in visuals and in text. What if the photographer above is doing a photo essay about the treeless prairie? By shooting toward distant fields with his camera and omitting the shot of trees behind him, he can tell one story, but not the whole story.

Many of us still believe the old adage that “cameras don’t lie.” But even before digital manipulation, photographers had the ability to adjust exposure on film. And the photographer chooses how to frame the image, which impacts the “truth” displayed.

Writers and editors have the same power over the text, in choosing what it include and exclude for a story.

I am curious what story was transmitted regarding security lines at the airport. My guess is that short lines were not interesting enough to make the news, but perhaps the reporter and camera person waited around until the lines were longer, in time for the 5 p.m. news!

 

Custom Content

A recent client project involved taking a magazine with national distribution and creating custom content for specific geographical areas. We created 5 issues for major metropolitan areas, plus a “general” issue that mailed to everyone else.

Custom content is an efficient way to hone a message for an audience segment. While this client chose to customize based on geography, you can customize content based on any attribute in your database, such as age or gender segments.

The Process

Customizing content begins with a strategy, not logistics. While there are many logistics involved, the overall strategy has to drive the editorial and design decisions. As we began the planning process, we met to affirm the purpose of the magazine and to consider how the magazine strategy would be strengthened by custom content.

Once the strategy was in place, then logistics were the focus. We generated several potential scenarios, getting bids from the printer and mail house. Eventually we settled on creating custom content for the first two and last two pages in the magazine. This gave each issue a custom cover and inside story, along with custom content on the inside back cover and back cover promotional space.

Another project I worked on had custom content for an insert, with the regular magazine going to the membership audience and the magazine with the insert going to the leadership audience.

Flow

ATL coverWhile the magazine team is aware of all the different custom components, the reader of the magazine only sees one version. So the editorial and design flow between the custom content and the core content has to make sense to the reader. The team dealt with content in chunks by custom issue; but we also had to consider the editorial and design flow between the custom pages and the core pages.

After our first issue with custom content, we decided that we had to draw more attention to the custom content on the inside back cover, so the reader would realize that along with a feature story on page 2, there was additional geographical content at the end of the magazine. In addition, some issues included a custom promotional space on the back cover, and others have featured a consistent back cover between all versions.

Measuring Results

The client can measure engagement by geographical area, based on responses they get from readers. For other custom content projects, reader surveys or online engagement can measure response.

Variety of Applications

There are many ways to make custom content work to accomplish strategic objectives. Custom content can take the form of a single custom page, such as a cover, back cover or advertisement. Another project might feature a custom insert or center section. Custom content has long been a tool of large organizations, but it can easily be applied to accomplish the goals of any communicator.

Jargon

Every industry has its own language. Using expressions that are familiar to your audience is an important part of effective communication. However, sometimes such language also excludes. Content that is meant to connect creates distance when the jargon isn’t readily understood.

How much jargon to include?

The primary consideration for any communication is to consider your audience. If your audience focus is seasoned professionals and your language is common in all professional communication in your industry, then industry-specific language is appropriate. If your audience includes newcomers to your industry, carefully consider whether jargon is inclusive or distancing.

In addition, consider the purpose of the communication. If your content is designed to reach broadly and draw people on the fringes of your field, then opt for plain language that is widely understood.  Industry regulars will still understand your content, and newcomers will also connect.

Abbreviations are definitely industry-specific, but an editorial rule of thumb is to spell out abbreviations on their first usage and include the abbreviation in parentheses. This will clarify meaning and avoid any misunderstandings.  And it is possible that some abbreviations that you consider widely understood might have different meanings in other settings. Spelling out abbreviations provides clarity.

When I am editing content with industry-specific language, I highlight anything that isn’t clear to me. It’s up to the client to decide whether to eliminate jargon to make the meaning widely apparent, but my preference is always clear language that is broadly understood.

The Censor in Your Mind

I was struck by a line in the obituary for Simin Behbahani, an Iranian poet. “The danger, she knew, was in doing the censors’ work for them, by heeding the voice in her mind that had begun to warn her: ‘Don’t write this, they won’t allow it to be published.'” (The Economist, August 30, 2014, p. 78)

To be honest, I was unaware of Simin Behbahani prior to the news of her death. But I am thankful for her voice, and the voices of so many writers who have been compelled to share their thoughts from countries and cultures that attempt to squelch honest human voices. One of my favorite movies of the past few years is Wadjda (2012), written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female director in Saudi Arabia. Her work is both praised and condemned for addressing taboo topics. Wadjda is the story of a young girl coming of age in Saudi Arabia who pushes against the restrictions of being female; she wants the freedom to ride a bicycle, like the neighbor boy.

Those of us who write from cultures that value freedom of expression have no idea of the actual risks that creative voices encounter in being true to their calling in the midst of real restrictions. However, I wonder if everyone who engages in creative work is in danger of listening to the censor in her mind. Whether it is the novelist who wonders if his characters are too religious or too secular or too assertive or too much of any one quality that might offend some segment of society, or the artist who puts paint to canvas and reveals a juxtaposition of symbols that pushes the boundaries of acceptable society, each is in danger of self-censorship.

The dangers to creatives in some cultures are physical and potentially deadly, and I don’t want to trivialize the risks they take in sharing their voices. But even for those in freer societies, the danger of listening to the censor in the mind is benign sameness and safety. We are in danger of creating books, plays, movies and art that won’t get banned by any committee, but these works  won’t make people wonder and think and question and grow.

Language that Connects

“Thanks for keeping our park clean.”

This affirmation is posted on new signs at the entrances and exits to a local park. The park has suffered in recent years from overuse, including excess drinking and trash left after weekend parties. The parks department has increased enforcement of existing rules and also invested in new signage to communicate with park users.

As I took my regular walk around the park, I pondered the plea on the sign and wondered if changing the word “our” to “your” would make a more compelling connection with the park visitors. Subtle difference, but perhaps enough to change the emotional connection based on language. “Our park” can refer to the space that belongs to all of us, every visitor to the park. Or “our park” can sound like the park belonging to the city officials, distancing language, especially on a sign that includes a very long list of rules. What if the sign said, “Thanks for keeping your park clean”?

Perhaps an even more compelling sign would be to appeal to the positive emotions of the park users: “We all love this park. Let’s show the love and keep it clean!”

Most reasonable people don’t throw trash in their own yards. So if the parks department can convince the park visitors that this park belongs to them, then perhaps park visitors will be more invested in the upkeep of the park. It would be nice if people didn’t leave trash in public spaces, but the sense of ownership seems to increase the likelihood of good behavior. I don’t throw trash in my own yard because I don’t like looking at trash. The task for the parks department is to convince people that the park is their own personal yard, and they have a vested interest in keeping it clean.

Emphasizing “you” in communication makes the language more connective. Because even though people should care about the public good, they tend to be focused on their own personal interests above the good of the community.

What kind of sign do you think would be most connective?

 

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