Word Wise: Johnson and Johnston at Intelligent Content Conference 2014

Tom Johnson Interviews Marcia Riefer Johnston at the Intelligent Content Conference

Editor’s note: As part of his report, “Videos and Reflections from the 2014 Intelligent Content Conference,” blogger and technical communicator Tom Johnson interviews Marcia on the importance of writing skills in today’s techno-savvy world. We’ve provided the transcript below, along with a link to Marcia’s turn-the-tables interview with Tom.

Tom: Hi. We’re at the Intelligent Content Conference in San Jose, and I’m talking with Marcia Riefer Johnston. Marcia, tell me, what was your workshop about, and what led you to present on that?

Marcia: My workshop was—and is, because I still do it, and I love to do it—called “Write Tighter.” It has a long subtitle, and I do that on purpose because tight writing is more than just short writing. It has to do with saying everything you need to say but not anything more.

I love to do this workshop as part of the Intelligent Content Conference because there’s so much talk here—exciting talk—about the technology, the power of all the tools, and yet, as we’ve heard Sarah O’Keefe say so often, the quality of that content has to be there to begin with. And it often is not. So you can do all these cool things with the tools and the technology and pump out your content in ways we couldn’t even conceive of a few years ago, and if you aren’t addressing quality first, it’s pointless. It’s wasted effort.

I like to balance out all those voices talking about the part of intelligent content that’s related to the tools and the technology by speaking to the quality issue and helping people who maybe never learned it in school. Or maybe they aren’t writers by trade, but they find themselves having to write blog posts, or having to write proposals for their business. They’re hungry for “How do I do it? How do I do it well? How do I make it engaging and powerful?” I feel like I learned those things, and I have a lot to offer that people value, and it’s an exciting opportunity for me to make a difference and contribute.

Tom: How do you measure good writing and quality? Because I think a lot of people feel like they’re A-quality writers or they produce great content, but it’s very subjective, right? So how do you measure that in a more quantitative way or objective way?

Marcia: I did something different this time with this workshop that I’ve never done before to get to the quantitative question. But before I address the quantitative piece, I want to say that the most important way to measure whether your content is effective—and in my case I’m dealing with text, specifically—is to get humans reading it and giving you feedback. There are tools out there that can generate reports of what grade level your text is hitting, and they’re moderately useful—you may discover that your sentences could be shorter, things like that. But to truly get useful feedback, you have to have humans reading it. Otherwise, there’s no quantitative way to say, “Yes, this content is good.” That, for me, is the most important way of measuring—to get real, human feedback from as close as possible to your target audience.

But I did something quantitative this time that was a lot of fun with our workshop examples. We did ‘befores’ and ‘afters.’ People took their own writing and then used our techniques that we talked about and crunched it down, deleted words, made it tighter. And I had a spreadsheet that counted the words before, counted the words after, and instantly said, “You just reduced your word count by twenty-one percent. If you were translating this…”

And then I multiplied twenty-five cents a word as a ballpark and said, “If you were translating a document full of sentences like this, and you reduced them all by twenty-one percent, multiply that out over twenty-five languages, you’ve just saved your company three million dollars.”

Tom: What techniques do you use to make writing tight? Do you just cut out the adjectives? What strategies do you use to get more brief?

Marcia: I have developed one slide of flag words that I look for. Most writers will say, “Oh, yeah, I know that. I’ve seen that.” It’s nothing new. But I like to remind people of how dramatically better their writing can be if they’re scrupulous about going after those words. And the most important one—the one thing I want my workshop-ees to remember—is to look for be-verbs, like is, am, are, have been, will be, being. Those words are often culprits in weak sentences, sentences that readers are going to fall asleep over, or they’re going to move on to the next web page. If you start seeing those words, you’re going to notice, “Oh, I could say that in half the words with an active verb that hammers my point and gets readers engaged.”

So, that is my top tip, and I’m giving it to you today, free, Tom. No charge. Be-verbs. I’m telling you. It will change your life.

Author’s note to those of you picking out my be-verbs here. I’m looking for a real-time speech editor that enables me to edit words on their way from my lips to listeners’ ears. Anyone got an app for that?

Tom: Do you recommend any kind of spell-checkers that are out there? There’s Acrolinx, there’s Grammarly, there’s even Word’s spell-checker. What do you use, or do you just go off your own mind? How do you catch all these be-verbs and other problems?

Marcia: I had a suggestion come to me from someone who was in my workshop. And by the way it doesn’t matter which tool. I love them all, and I especially love Acrolinx. They are amazing. But this person from my workshop, having seen my list of key words, trigger words, flag words, she went back—she’s a marketing director—she went back to her work life, and she emailed me later and said, “I now go through my stuff in my Word documents, and I search for be-verbs, I search for ly words,” and all down through my list—which, by the way, is available on my website in a Slideshare of my presentation, so if anybody is interested, it’s HowToWriteEverything.com.

Once you get through the first part of the presentation, there’s one slide that has a list of those words on it. And she searches for those words in her word-processing software. That takes you out of thinking about your content—of reading what you’re saying—and simply, “Oh, I have a whole lot of be-verbs in here.” It gets you to an easier point of editing out those things. She thought enough of that strategy that she put into her Amazon review about the book. For her, in marketing, one of the things [she found] most helpful was to find ly words, or adverbs, which marketers love and which often weaken their text.

Tom: Do you recommend when people write that they don’t focus on style and grammar and other details, and that they focus on that in a second stage? Or do you recommend that from the beginning they implement every good practice?

Marcia: I think it’s impossible to do both at once. My brain quickly goes back and forth between generating and editing, generating and editing. So I’m kind of catching things and editing as I write. But I think that it’s most helpful to just let stuff come out. Your first draft is just going to be full of all the words that I say [to] look for and get rid of. But if you’re constantly editing yourself, you almost prevent the ideas from coming.

When you write, do you just let stuff flow, and then go back later.

Tom: Yeah.

Marcia: I think that’s a smart way to do it. That way you don’t prevent ideas from flowing. You just want to let it all come out. And then go back through and be ruthless on yourself.

Marcia_interviews_Tom_JohnsonTom: To wrap up here, you mentioned HowToWriteEverything.com. Do you want to just mention your book, too? You have a book that kind of is a companion to the site, right?

Marcia: Oh yeah.

Tom: And tell people how they can get it.

Marcia: The book is called “Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them).” It’s available on the website. You can get it, of course, on Amazon. It’s available in Kindle, it’s available on Google Play, it’s an ePub, it’s a Mobi. I have one web page—there’s a “Buy” tab that lists all the places and all the formats.

Tom: Thanks, Marcia.

Marcia: You’re welcome.

Link to the audio file (10 minutes)

Editor’s Note: Both Marcia and Tom are well-known in the technical communications world, through many speaking engagements and writing for their individual blogs.  Tom often interviews luminaries for his podcasts, and Marcia decided to turn the tables and interview him.  Here’s the link: Marcia interviews Tom Johnson at the Intelligent Content Conference.

Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia has run a tech-writing business for ... a long time. The author of "Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)," she taught tech writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program. For more, see howtowriteeverything.com.

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