Writing tipsThursday and Friday saw me in downtown Toronto at IABC‘s two-day writing conference, which featured a number of well-known presenters who have wowed audiences at IABC’s international conferences. Here are some of the things I learned/was reminded of/realized/found notable:

  • John Sturtevant said the most important goal in writing is to be clear. Readers are thinking “Is there anything here of value?” Help them find the value by asking the questions they would. One of the best questions to answer is “So what?” The answer to this is the story readers want to hear. The best response you can get from readers is “I want to know more.”
  • Don Ranly is passionate about good writing. (I had the privilege of introducing him, which was just a little out of my comfort zone, so it was good for me, I suppose!) Among the tips I took away from the two sessions he led: Find a person and use him/her to start your story, whatever it’s about. There’s no reason to ever be boring (For example, could this be any more boring? “On the morning of January 6, a major winter storm hit.”). People remember facts better when they are told in a feature style vs. the inverted pyramid (who, what, when, where, why all in the lead). Use similes and metaphors to liven your stories.
  • Listening to my iPod on the train going back and forth, I was reminded that musicians are great at using similes and metaphors. Two examples: “Pale as a lightbulb, hanging on a wire” (Tragically Hip) and “My love for you is deep as a coal mine” (Sam Roberts).
  • Ann Wylie also has great advice for writers. Among the tips: Writing should deliver more gain (value or reward) with less pain (less effort required to read). Translate features of the product or program you’re talking about into advantages (why they are important) and benefits (what’s important to the reader), and lead with the benefits. Use the “skim test” on your writing, which means can the reader figure out the gist of your story by scanning the headline, subheads, list, photo cutlines etc.? The “palm test” is the online equivalent of the “dollar bill test” — a palm or bill placed over the copy should always encounter elements that break up the copy, such as headings, subheads, photos, pull quotes, lists, links and so on.
  • I’ve done it before, but oh my, commuting is no picnic. I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to walk my dog (under the stars, as it was still dark) before showering, dressing and rushing to catch a train. Wearing jeans and bare feet in my home office beats getting dressed up (ouch, even low heels are hard to wear for 10 hours). I knew this, but was reminded that I don’t like to rush to get to a certain place for a certain time every day.
  • I do enjoy getting out and meeting new people. IABC conferences are great for this because your badge clearly identifies you as a communicator; all you have to do is introduce yourself.
  • Transit authorities make assumptions that don’t help non-commuters.
    Exhibit A: On day #1, I could have caught an earlier train but the board inside the station said the eastbound train I wanted was on track 2. The train already in the station was on track 1. When it pulled out, I realized it too was eastbound. Regular commuters knew the train already in the station made every stop on the way to Toronto, while the next one was an express making no further stops. I still don’t know why it wasn’t listed as eastbound.
    Exhibit B: Switching from train to subway, I had to move out of the flow of commuters to first figure out how much the subway fare was, then count out my change, then merge into the traffic to get through the turnstile. One small sign attached to the fare box was all that showed the fare required. There didn’t seem to be an option if you didn’t have the right fare.
    Exhibit C: Getting off at the right subway stop, I couldn’t find any clear signage to tell me which direction I should exit; of course I chose the wrong one.

Overall, the two days were great and I highly recommend getting out and fine-tuning your skills at whatever kind of sessions are appropriate to what you do!

Image: “Iamnee” and FreeDigitalPhotos.net.