Book Review: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Book Review: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

As a part of our required readings for the social media writing class at Quinnipiac, we were required to purchase and read On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. This was a terrific book.

On Writing Well covers a multitude of issues that writers can face. Zinsser gives writers the freedom to occasionally break some rules, or at least to bend them. Moreover, he gives reasons why one type of construction might work better than another.

William Zinsser
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

What’s Important

For Zinsser, the start and the end pack heavy punches. On Page 54, he writes,

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he’s hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead’.”

Not only is this good advice for fiction writing, it’s excellent for report writing and for writing for the web. How many times have we had to slog through a ton of prose before getting to the good stuff? How many times have we tried to hang in there when we’d rather be doing anything but tackling an opaque garbage can full of prose?

Active Versus Passive Tense

Many writers are told to prefer active to passive tense when writing. Zinsser explains why, on Page 67,

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.”

A little over the top, maybe, but it does get the point across.

Don’t dance around your subject. Be bold. Be clear. Be terse.

Review: 5/5 stars.

Book Review: The Yahoo! Style Guide

Book Review: The Yahoo! Style Guide

The Yahoo! Style Guide. For my social media writing class at Quinnipiac University, we were required to purchase this book and use it as a reference.

However, instead of just referencing the guide as needed, I read it from cover to cover. And it is a fantastic guide.

Writing Online

So for most people, the act of writing online seems to mainly consist of ejecting words and hoping that they will somehow collide in a manner that is coherent or at least semi-understandable. The Yahoo! Style Guide, instead, serves to provide some well-needed guidance.

Book Review: The Yahoo! Style Guide
Cover of The Yahoo! Style Guide via Amazon

Rather than displaying seemingly antiquated grammar rules, the guide provides logical explanations. Hence as the guide says on Page 50,

“Scan an article reading only the headlines. If you can understand the flow and substance of the story, your content passed the test. If something seems confusing, you may need to rewrite the headings or even reorder some paragraphs.”

So to my mind, this makes infinite sense. Consider how quickly we all skim articles and newspapers these days, whether online or in dead tree format. Headlines and graphics grab our attention. Perhaps they are more fraught with meaning than they should be, but those are the current rules of the game. Therefore, writers on the Internet need to understand that headings, image captions and the like are important to the human reader.

In addition, and unsurprisingly, these elements are also important to machine readers, e. g. search engine bots.

Worth the Price of Admission

And then on Page 4, the guide talks about eye tracking. Yahoo! has surveyed users, and they have come up with an understanding of a general pattern as  to how people browse websites. Here’s what they said:

  • “People scan the main sections of a page to determine what it’s about and whether they want to stay longer
  • They make decisions about the page in as little as three seconds
  • If they decide to stay, they pay the most attention to the content in the upper top part of the screen”

So you’d better get your pages and posts in gear, and pay particularly close attention to headings and the content that sits above the fold. Because the guide shows you the way.

Review: 5/5 stars.

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… And Facebook for All

… And Facebook for All

At least, that’s what Mark Zuckerberg would want us all to think, wish and feel. I can understand that, a desire to make a website about as universal as possible. Once the site stopped being exclusive to collegians, the inevitable business model was to universalize it. And Facebook, today (although that will probably change), has about the best chance to become a truly universal web experience as any site.

Universality

Facebook for All
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, are you on Facebook? About 1.6 billion users are, as of this writing. But, wait, not so fast. Is that number truly accurate? Absolutely not. After all (and for different reasons), my husband and I each have more than one account. Do you? Even if you don’t, I bet you’ve got at least one friend who does, and probably lots more.

And that is perfectly all right, and is absolutely permitted by Facebook (although they’d like to change that).

Why Facebook?

Facebook’s main purpose (in case you’re just coming into the light after a few years on a desert island), is to sell advertising. Its offshoot purpose is to connect people, of all stripes, for free. But it’s those connections that sell the advertising.

There’s a lot else to it, at least on a general basis. But it’s still a valuable business tool for any Social Media Marketing Campaign.

The Best Parts of Facebook for Social Media Marketing

Facebook’s main virtues, when it comes to your business, can currently be divided into three basic areas:

  • Personal pages and peripheral connections to same
  • Company pages and groups and peripheral connections thereto, and,
  • Offsite connections back to Facebook

By “peripherals”, I mean all the extra stuff that goes along with Facebook, and not computer hardware peripherals.

Next: Your Facebook Profile Page

Facebook for All

Google+ Tips to Quickly Boost Results

Google+ Tips to Quickly Boost Results

Tips to Quickly Boost Results. Rebekah Radice of Canva offers some great ideas for how to improve your engagement on Google+, a social platform that even a lot of experienced social media managers can find rather confusing and daunting, and hard to break into.

Google+ Tips to Quickly Boost Results
Google Plus (Photo credit: ivanpw)

Images

It should come as no great shock that images are key. But that is true for pretty much all social media platforms these days. Posts without images are just contributing to the enormous tidal wave of text that we are all dealing with, all the time.

The 800 x 1200 size is optimal for Google+.

Share Fun, Inspirational and Educational Content

Well, sure, that makes sense. For most social media platforms, the mix should be of fun and smart content, with a smattering of inspirational. If your business is angel flights for children, you’ve got no shortage of inspirational content. If it’s The Daily Show, you’ll never have to hunt around for fun content. And if you’ve got Harvard to promote, you can get educational content.

Then there’s the rest of us.

But Radice has some great ideas for engagement, printed here in their entirety –

  • “Share your thoughts, expertise, mission, vision and values.
  • Give a nice shout out to your favorite blogs and websites.
  • Share inspirational thoughts, funny quotes and timely news stories.
  • Share other peoples content with context around it.
  • Don’t post and run away. Interact, connect and engage!
  • Be grateful. Thank people that share your content.
  • Be personable and share details about your business in a fun and interactive way.
  • Follow people within your industry and niche and create a conversation. Get to know them, share their content and spread the good word about their business. This creates reciprocity and more meaningful interactions.
  • Repurpose your content. Just because it’s old to you, doesn’t mean it’s not new to someone else.”

Optimize Your Profile

This includes adding details about what you do, links to your other online content, and sprucing up your profile/logo image and cover image.   The 2120 x 1192 size is optimal for Google+ cover images.

Return to Your Buyer Personae

Why are people on Google+? And how can you align your strategy, and what you provide, to what they want, need, and crave?

Don’t forget about Google Plus.

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Supercharging Your On-Line Presence

Supercharging Your On-Line Presence

Supercharging? Yes! This post is a riff on the February 2011 edition of Law Practice Today

About a thousand (er, twenty) years ago, I used to practice law. And,

supercharging
LinkedIn pen (Photo credit: TheSeafarer)

of course, things were far different then as opposed to now. But I have retained some of my old interests and connections, and would get the paper version of the ABA Journal for years after I had hung up my shingle.

Once a lot of that started to go online, I renewed my interest in any number of facets of law practice, in particular how it collides and dovetails with the Internet and, these days, Social Media.

Viral Marketing Gone Wrong

And I have seen enough tone-deaf Social Media campaigns (Able2know is rife with laughably bad viral marketing attempts, for example) to see the need for a publication like Law Practice Today to try to clear up some misconceptions and get lawyers going in a good — or at least non-harmful — online direction. What is great about this article is that it doesn’t just apply to attorneys.

Get Your Own Domain Name

The first point made in the article is: You need your own internet domain name. Well, yes. And it continues to surprise me when companies and individuals who are attempting to make a splash (or at least not appear to be totally out of it) online don’t do this. C’mon, people, domain names are cheap! Go to GoDaddy and buy one! You can direct WordPress to be posting through a domain name that has naught to do with WordPress. This is not too tough (hell, that’s what I’m doing with my blog), or you can hire someone to do this. It’s a lot, to me, like buying business cards with your actual name on them versus cards that just say “Lawyer”.

Rejuvenate Your Website

The next point is: Rejuvenate Your Website. No argument here. Stale websites are as appealing as stale bread. I am not saying that you need to update every minute or every day or even every week but I see an awful lot of abandoned blogs and websites out there — or at least they appear to be, as their most recent changes occurred in 2010. That means it’s been at least nearly two months since anyone changed them. Surely there is news, or at least even cosmetic changes would give one’s readership/potential clients a feeling that someone was minding the store.

Use a Good Profile Picture

Point number three is: Your picture is worth a thousand words. A good picture is, well, good. You might not be able to afford to hire a professional as the article suggests. That’s okay if you at least get a decent photographer friend to take a lot of pictures. How many? How’s one hundred? Lighting varies. You might not smile perfectly the first time. Your tie might be crooked. Your hair might be flying in your face. You might not be looking directly at the camera. There are any number of reasons why a photo can go wrong. And get your pal to snap photos of you in various places, doing various things, so long as they are germane to the site. For a lawyer, that could be in the office, or in front of a courthouse or in front of the office building or with colleagues or alone. After all, with a good hundred photos, you might end up with several usable ones. If there are choices in different locations, you can use them to make different points on your site.

Fill Out All About Me and Profile Pages

Point number four is: It’s All About Me. That is, create an “About Me” page. There’s a place to put a photograph or two, eh? It doesn’t have to be long, but give it a little personality. Be sensible, of course. This is probably not the place (assuming you’re a lawyer) to tout your ninja skills. But if you play tennis or have two kids or are from Omaha, by all means, those things are perfectly fine here. Otherwise, you’re just nameless, faceless Joe or Jane Lawyer — and I, as your prospective client, can find a million of them.

Give Visitors Take Aways

The next point is: Give visitors something to “take away” from your blog. Me, I write articles and I allow the reprint rights. So if my experiences can help you, then by all means reprint my articles, and I wish you well, so long as you respect my rights in the matter.

Work on SEO

The next point is: Build a (Free) Google Profile. Here’s mine. Meh, I’m not so sure it helps me so much, but that’s probably also because I’ve made SEO efforts elsewhere. Still, for an SEO beginner, or someone with a limited budget, this is easy and free and it takes nearly no time.

Here’s another point: Make Sure You Advertise on Google Local. I felt no need to do this, but I’m not trying to push ecommerce directly through my site and blog. Your mileage will, undoubtedly, vary.

LinkedIn

Next point: Be LinkedIn. Hell yeah. Here’s my LinkedIn profile. Yes, I will link to you – just send me a request. Also, I have found that LinkedIn is an excellent way to get to know people attending an event with you. If you can get a hold of the guest list in advance (and with Eventbrite, evite and others, you can), look those people up on LinkedIn. Hey, you might have something in common with them, their photo might be up so that you can recognize them and they might be someone you’d like to know, either personally or professionally.

Gather Business Intelligence

Then there’s the penultimate point: Use Social Networks To Gather Business Intelligence. People share all sorts of stuff these days. Want to know if someone is moving? Going on vacation? Selling their business? Changing jobs? A lot of that information is out there, free for the taking. And other things are out there, if you know how to dig. I’m not suggesting that you turn yourself into a creepy stalker but if a possible client is tweeting about buying land, and you’ve got a real estate practice, well, do I really have to connect the dots for you?

Tell People the News (About You or Anything Else of Interest)

Here’s the last point: Be the Evening News. The idea is, broadcast youtube-type stuff, either your own or pass along others’. Agreed, but I wouldn’t overdo this, particularly not at the expense of other types of content, which are generally easier for Google to index (and for you to get an SEO bounce from). But by all means, if it adds value (there’s a big if right there. I adore the Old Spice Guy but he does not help me on my site), add it.

The bottom line, I think is: don’t be afraid. Yes, the Internet can bite you. But it can also be quite a good friend to you

supercharging

Social Media Continues its Relentless Pace to Try to Make You Stay Put

Social Media Continues its Relentless Pace to Try to Make You Stay Put

It’s a relentless pace out there. And much like the holidays accelerate the end of the year, and we suddenly look up on January 7th or so and wonder just what the hell just happened, social media is continuing to not so much reap the whirlwind as to be the whirlwind. But at the same time, there’s an effort afoot to slow down and control the whirlwind.

Twitter

Social Media Continues its Relentless Pace to Try to Make You Stay Put
English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Case in point: Twitter‘s recent changes are designed to keep people on as long as possible. They do this by embedding media more directly and making it so that you don’t have to leave Twitter’s embrace in order to enjoy a clip or a photograph. So far, so good. But shortened URLs allow for more malware exploits. It’s like one step forward, a step back and another one to the side.

Facebook

Facebook, yet again, looks to change its layout. The profile is going to become richer and provide more information. This may or may not be useful to users but it will certainly keep them on longer. At least, that will happen in the beginning, when it’s a novel concept.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is adding Signal to make it easier to track even more of the social media avalanche – and, of course, to try to keep people on LinkedIn as long as possible.

What these changes have in common, other than, perhaps, novelty for the sake of novelty, is the desire to keep people on site as long as possible. Put some tar down, and have us all stick, at least for a while.

So while the Internet spins ever faster, and social media sites attempt to keep up, their overall strategies seem to try to slow us all down. Will it work? Is it a foolish dream to think you can keep people around with such tricks, such slick bells and whistles?

Lack of Content

What disturbs me is that there’s not a lot of content happening. And it would, could, should make me want to hang around. Instead of hiring writers to improve things, or rewarding good current content providers, each of the big three sites is instead pursuing a software solution. But what’s the sense in hanging around a site if the content isn’t compelling? Or are we, instead, merely getting the sites that we, perhaps, deserve?

Hence here’s what happens if my Facebook friends list is dominated by people I went to High School with over thirty years ago. Their status updates and my wall are dominated by news of their birthdays, their children and their careers. But isn’t that what’s to be expected? And if I instead tip my list in a different direction, and it’s suddenly dominated by the people I work with or diet with or do artwork with, the news is going to be different.

Comparison to Reality TV

One thing about Reality TV is that it’s anything but real if it’s at all successful. Because people just, generally, don’t lead terribly interesting lives (yes, you too, gentle reader). We pick up the dry cleaning. Or we bicker over the remote. We forget to buy sausages and make do with hot dogs. And around and around and around we go. And all three of the big social media sites, when we are not following celebrities and businesses, are really just a big agglomeration of Post-It Notes whereby we tell each other to grab milk on the way home. For “Reality” to be compelling at all, it’s got to be unreal, and scripted. It must be turned into this fight or that rose ceremony or this other weird pancake-making challenge.

The big three social media sites, when you strip away the celebrities and the companies, can be a boatload of errands or a standard-form holiday letter. You know the kind, where you’re told little Suzie has taken up the clarinet. Over and over ad infinitum.

No wonder we need software solutions to keep us there.

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Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, a Book Review

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith seems to be one of those books that everyone tells you to read when you want to go into social media marketing. And it’s that sort of a wholesale recommendation that sometimes, frankly, makes me nervous. After all, how many people have read it? Are they happy with what they’ve learned? Or is the work somehow coasting on its reputation?

Usefulness

Cover of "Trust Agents: Using the Web to ...
Cover via Amazon

But it doesn’t seem to be. Instead, I think there’s useful information in there — and it’s information that doesn’t seem to be found in the other social media books I’ve been reading lately, in particularly Cluetrain Manifesto and Groundswell. There’s more practical nuggets in here, more like in The Zen of Social Media Marketing. No great shock there – Chris Brogan is the coauthor there as well.

How so?

Too Many Delays

One of the issues with books (you know, pulp and paper books, not electronic ones) is that they take so long to be produced, and then they can become obsolete or at least out of date rather quickly. It can almost seem like buying a new car — once you get it out of the dealership, it’s depreciated a good thousand dollars. And, once many books are published, they’re suddenly obsolete.

But Trust Agents doesn’t care. Instead, it forges ahead with practical, specific tips. If they go out of fashion or become obsolete, head to the website for an update. Or, if you prefer pulp and paper, there’s always a later edition.

Basic Principles

The gist of the book consists of six basic principles:

  1. Make Your Own Game – e. g., break the mold and experiment with new methods. This means you’re going to occasionally — gasp! — fail. So you do. Get over it. Pick yourself up and try something else. Safety and sameness aren’t really going to get you anywhere. At least, nowhere good.
  2. One of Us – be one of the people. Be humble and be accessible. This means blogging. It means letting your hair down every now and then when you tweet. Of course it doesn’t mean foolish oversharing or putting out things that are going to really harm you (“Had fun at the Crack House last night!” — uh, no)
  3. The Archimedes Effect – use leverage. That is, got something that’s working? Then use it to push and promote the next thing. Think of it like the spinoff to a sitcom. Laverne and Shirley was originally a spinoff of Happy Days. The first succcess was, absolutely, used to generate the second.

More Ideas

  1. Agent Zero – be the person in the center of the connections. This does not necessarily mean that you have to be the center of every conversation. It’s just — everyone seems to know someone (or know of someone) who is like this. Oh, talk to Gwen. She knows everyone.
  2. Human Artist – be polite and gracious to people. This may seem to be like a no-brainer to most, but, sadly, it’s not. Thank people. Tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them. Follow up. If this means creating a tickler file to remind you to contact people, then do that. True story — the first time I heard the term “tickler file” was in 1984 when I was working on Joe Biden‘s Senate Campaign. And it made sense – you followed up with voters (in those days, it was via phone call or postcard or letter, and sometimes via an in-person visit) because you knew that, even if their support was unwavering, that they had busy lives pulling them in a million different directions. This continues to be true if not far truer these days.
  3. Build an Army – e. g., as you become the person in the middle of all of the connections, and the one who does the followups, your time will start to fill up. You’re going to need help, so link up with other people who can be social hubs and follow-uppers. This does not relieve you from thanking people, but it does help you to continue to keep in touch.

Details

There are, of course, a thousand little details that go along with these. The specifics include things like using Google Alerts to check on how often your name shows up online, and looking at AllTop and Technorati for blogs to follow. Grab an RSS feed so that you can get through more blogs with more speed.

But be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were trust agents. You cannot take a shortcut and metaphorically substitute canned vegetables for fresh ones here. Cultivate this and pay attention to it. Much like a garden, your hard groundwork will pay off beyond your wildest expectations.

And you can even leave your extra lettuce on my front porch.

Rating

5/5

 

The Numerati by Stephen Baker, a Book Review

The Numerati by Stephen Baker

Numerati?

The Numerati by Stephen Baker remains a fascinating work about sensors, technology, data mining and where it’s all going when it comes to our privacy.

Cover of "The Numerati"
Cover of The Numerati

 

And it ends up all about data, about collecting, refining and interpreting it. People are, well, a bunch of fish in a bowl. Or, if you prefer, hamsters on a wheel. We are lab rats, we are subjects, we are collections of bit streams. We are … information.

And the kicker is that, put together enough things about us, and conclusions can suddenly be drawn.

Conclusions

Let’s say I go to the same grocery store every week (not a stretch – I really do). And I buy fish every single week. What if I buy, say, tuna steaks 70% of the time, and swordfish the other 30%? Am I automatically a tuna lover? Or am I simply scared to try something new? Or am I getting to the fishmonger when everything else is sold out?

And what happens if a coupon is introduced into the mix? Does my tuna consumption go up to 80% if you give me $1 off per pound? However, that’s not too much of a victory, seeing as I normally buy it anyway. Will a $1 off coupon entice me to buy more pricey salmon instead?

Ideas But Not Gospel

The data gives its interpreters (Baker refers to them as the Numerati, which sounds a tad like Illuminati and perhaps he means that) ideas. However, it’s not really a slam-dunk. Or, at least, not yet. Hence essentially the Numerati bucket you. So I am a tuna buyer. And I am a sometime swordfish buyer. And I am also a Caucasian woman, in her (ahem) fifties, married, no children, living in Boston.

So far, so good. And when the data are all herded together, when the bits and bytes of our lives are aggregated, this may very well have a lot to say about us. Because it might be a predictor of how I’ll vote in the next election. Or perhaps it will show how I’d use a dating site if I should ever need one in the future. Or it may even tell whether I’m likely to become a terrorist.

Border Collies and Data Goats

The data matters, but, to my mind (and to Baker’s as well, it seems), there are not only herds of data but there are also nagging outliers. And these constitute the Border Collies amidst all the data goats. Perhaps I am buying tuna to feed to a cat. Or maybe I buy it with the intention of eating it to improve my health but, alas, never get to it and it goes to waste every single week.

So consider this case: a sensor is placed into a senior citizen’s bed, to determine whether that person is getting up in the morning. And, let’s say we also collect weight data. Because a sudden dramatic rise in weight would indicate the possible onset of congestive heart failure. And let’s say the senior in question is a woman who weighs 150 pounds. Your own mother, maybe. Day one: 150 pounds. Day two: 158 pounds. And then day three: 346 pounds. Day four: 410 pounds. Golly, is Mom really that sick?

Maybe Mom’s dog is 8 pounds. Okay, that explains day two. But what about days three and four? Maybe Mom’s got a boyfriend.

Or maybe she’s got two.

Messy Feelings

When I had the occasion to meet Stephen Baker, we had the opportunity to talk a bit about these squishy, messy feelings. Sure, our hearts are in the right place. And we want Mom to be safe and healthy, and we can’t be there. She might live in a warmer climate, and we cannot (or won’t) leave our cooler climes. Or the job opportunities may be no good there for us. For whatever reason, we are here and she is there. So we want to be aware, and caring and all, but in our desire to gather information and protect her, what else are we learning?

If Mom is competent, and single, and protecting herself from STDs, we truly have no business knowing who she spends her evening hours with. Yet this technology makes this possible.

And if we have any sense of the future at all, we have to think to ourselves: what happens when I become Mom’s age? Will my bedroom and toileting habits potentially become a part of this huge bit/byte hamster wheel lab rat canary in a coal mine data stream? You betcha.

Worrisome?

It is often said that only people who have something to worry about in their private lives are the ones who are worried. Everyone else should be fine, blithely giving up their warts and preferences, their virtues and secrets, to all who ask.

I say bull. I like my secrets. And I like my hidden life. And I’ll be damned if I give it up, even in the name of health, diet, voting, national security or even love.

A terrific read. I highly recommend this book.

Rating

5/5

 

Social Media Marketing by Liana Evans, A Book Review

Social Media Marketing by Liana Evans

Social Media Marketing by Liana Evans was a book that I might have read a little too late in the semester. In all fairness, I read this book toward the end of my first social media class at Quinnipiac (ICM 522).

KD Paine and Liana "Li" Evans Liana Evans
KD Paine and Liana “Li” Evans (Photo credit: wordbiz)

Hence it felt like I already knew a lot of what was being written, but that was likely more a function of timing than anything else.

Sorry, Li.

Been There, Done That

The book is interesting. However, I had just read a ton of other works about very similar work, strategies, and ideas. Therefore, it ended up being maybe one book too many. And it ended up an optional read, anyway. Furthermore, other works seemed to have said it better. And these days, books just do not get published fast enough to take proper advantage of trends and new insights. Blogs, in general (although not always!) end up more current and relevant.

Possibly the best takeaway I got from the book was when Evans talked about online communities, particularly in Chapter 33 – You Get What You Give. And on page 255, she writes –

    • You need to invest your resources
      • Time to research where the conversation is
      • Time and resources to develop a strategy
      • and Time and staff resources to engage community members
      • Time to listen to what they are saying, in the communities
      • Time and resources to measure successes and failures
    • Giving valuable content
    • It is similar to a bank account
    • Don’t bribe the community
    • Rewards come in all fashions
      • Research who your audience is
      • Give your audience something valuable and/or exclusive
      • Don’t expect you’ll know everything
      • Listen to what your audience says
      • Admit when you are wrong
      • Thank your community

Finally, much like we’ve been telling people for years on Able2know – listen before you speak!

Rating

4/5