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Words at Work

Powerful business writing delivers increased sales, improved results, and even a promotion or two.


You’ve got what it takes. You wouldn’t have this book in your hands if you didn’t want to learn more. When you apply the tools and techniques presented here, you will know how to organize information creatively (no tedious outlines!); cut the fat (editing tips and tricks); and write in a clear, conversational style that makes people want to read your writing.


Step by step


Whether you’re a CEO or VP of Sales, administrative assistant or customer-service rep, Words at Work is designed to help you get the words right in everything you write. Like those holiday cookie recipes that, with a little tweaking of ingredients, yield six or seven different types of cookies, the techniques in Words at Work help you write dynamic documents of all kinds—from blogs and books to reports and email.


While formats vary, the principles of well-written letters or blogs, for example, are the same as those for well-written reports or articles. You won’t get confused over one technique for letters, another for reports, and so on. Like my students and clients, you’ll feel confident you have the tools to write any and all business documents.


Words at Work is packed with benefits. As you work through the book, you’ll learn how to:


  • Overcome fear of writing. Break through writer’s block so you can jump-start your writing—and your results. Fear confuses us. It makes us procrastinate—the biggest time-bandit of all. It makes us give up, thinking if we’re so bad at writing, why bother trying to be better? But when fear is banished, when we understand how powerful good writing can be, incredible things happen.


  • Communicate and connect with a wider audience to build your business or career.

  • Achieve goals faster through well-written letters and email, reports and proposals, newsletters and blogs.


  • Build confidence. Right away, you’ll realize you’re already doing a lot of things right. Pretty soon, the tips and tools give you a new attitude about your writing.


  • Create new ideas. The writing process helps you tap into great ideas just waiting to be harvested.


  • Add extras for excitement. Learn techniques that set your writing apart.


  • Earn a promotion. Take time to write better, and someone at the top will notice. Text messaging? That’s just top-of-the-head stuff. Ditto most emails. Good writing goes deeper. And who knows? Maybe someone will post it on the Web, and you’ll get your 15 minutes (or more) of fame.


Ground rules


The rules are simple. To get the most out of Words at Work, here’s all you need to do: 


Keep writing. You’ll create a powerful momentum.


  1. Trust yourself. Please don’t tell yourself how bad your writing is. We all start out with weak writing—we make it better through rewriting. Which leads to …

  2. Understand that good writing is really good editing. This is so liberating. When I learned that some of the best writers edit their work as many as 15 or 20 times, I knew I could do it too. Don’t beat yourself up if your words aren’t brilliant from the start. It takes time.

  3. Persevere. When you hit a snag, be kind to yourself. (In spite of my plea to the contrary, you’re going to berate yourself. Whatever, keep writing.) Persevere with the process and keep using the tips and tools in Words at Work to create engaging letters, email, reports, proposals, articles, Web content, blogs—whatever you need to write.

  4. Ignore the ornery editor rambling around in your head. Mine still sits on my left shoulder and says the most unkind things, but I’ve learned to ignore him (till I need him). At this point, tell yours to take a hike (for now).

  5. Use this book like training wheels—pretty soon you’ll be rolling solo.


Now let’s get started …

Chapter One

Non Carborundum Illegitimus

My writing career started at the end of a gravel driveway lined with tall trees and sun-dappled daffodils. Although it was more than 25 years ago, I recall that day with the fiercest clarity: walking up to a massive oak door with a hand-forged handle, tugging on its surprising weight, and entering a world of art and craft, music and writing.


It was the most unlikely of places—just a speck on a map of the North Carolina mountains—but it was ripe with opportunity for me. With a pioneer’s passion, I’d moved from Atlanta to a far-flung community called Beaverdam. I was an eager participant in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, naïve about what was in store for me yet bold enough to face it head on.


Eventually, property disputes forced me to move from Beaverdam to a wide spot in the road called Hanging Dog. The old farmhouse was so cold the butter was softer right out of the fridge than from the dish on the breakfast table. That cold drove me out of the house into my warm truck to explore the region. I kept seeing signs for something called a folk school, and I finally followed the arrows to the John Campbell Folk School. That’s where I met the director who eventually asked if I’d like to learn public relations. To be honest, I should have answered, “What’s that?” Instead, I said, “Sure,” and took to it like ink to newsprint.


I wrote all kinds of things for the school: newsletters and press releases, articles and ads. Once I saw my first published article, I was hooked. (An overworked newspaper editor printed my press release verbatim. I was too green to know that wasn’t very good journalism.)


But after several years in the North Carolina mountains, I grew weary from the rigors of homesteading and holding down a full-time job. I was ready for a change from long evenings after work filled with chopping wood, harvesting beans, and putting food by. I loved each of those tasks, but collectively they left little time for the things I wanted to write.


I returned to Atlanta, where I quickly found that my writing experience carried as much clout as my sixth-grade penmanship award. The closest I got to writing was a clerical job at an ad agency owned by one of the maddest of the Mad Men. Ben had the persona of a cultured man but a heart of coal (at the very least, the black stuff ran through his veins).



It was a mean old place, like so many agencies. Egos clashed. Tempers flared. The top of the pecking order ruled, and I was at the bottom. I felt like a servant at a banquet, surrounded by a feast of color, words, and ideas that I couldn’t sample. But I was determined to keep writing, so I garnered the courage to ask Ben if I could submit some copy—written on my time and my dime.


He looked startled. Then amused. “You?” he asked, walking away, shaking his head.


I left not long after that, bruised and angry. For months, I fostered fantasies of accepting a trophy at the Addy Awards while Ben sat in the audience, stunned. Silly of me, really. I should have thanked him for galvanizing my spirit. I haven’t stopped writing since.



Nothing to fear but fear itself


While living on my farm, I discovered a lot of things about writing by observing nature. My favorite lesson—there is a season for everything—taught me that there is a time to plan, a time to work, a time to rest, and a time to reap the rewards of all that effort. It makes perfect sense. No one sits down and writes something brilliant. It takes time pondering and planning, writing and editing.


I learned that writing is more like picking blackberries than huckleberries. Huckleberries, heavy bunches hanging low in August, fall into your bucket with the slightest nudging. Every now and then that happens with writing—the words just tumble out. But more often, writing is like picking blackberries—thorny patches keeping your ideas just out of reach. But keep stretching, and you’ll get to the good stuff. Like that cobbler cooling on the windowsill.


Most of these obstacles boil down to fear. Fear of getting it “wrong.” Fear of not finishing. Fear of finishing. And there’s nothing unusual about that. Everyone feels—some more often than others—that fear of a blank screen or empty pad of paper.


Fear makes us think we have no interest in writing. Clients tell me they hate to write, but later I find that they’re afraid to write because someone—their boss, client, or even that ornery editor in their own head—is standing by to criticize. It makes us freeze, procrastinate, even clean our offices before we write. But when that fear is lifted, when people understand how important writing is to their careers and that everyone can learn to write, incredible things happen.


Understanding your fear of writing is one of the fastest ways to overcome it. (Once people realize they’re not alone, I see them change in as little as one hour.) Become aware of the critics inside and out. Stop worrying and fretting that people might pick your writing apart. Sure, some may do that. Those same people can also find fault with a warm, sunny day in December. Ignore them. Non carborundum illegitimus. Don’t let the bastards wear you down.


Plan more, write less


When Albert Einstein was asked how he’d go about solving a crisis if he had only one hour, he answered that he’d spend 55 minutes planning and 5 minutes executing. Professional writers agree. We know that we need to spend about 50 percent of our time planning, 20 percent writing and 30 percent editing. I’m not sure who held the stopwatch while we mulled over our projects, but those figures look right to me.


And planning helps you begin—which is the best way to overcome procrastination. Once you’ve got something on that blank paper or screen, you’re on your way.


To get started, ask yourself:


1.   Why is it needed?

2.   How much detail do I need?

3.   Who are my readers? Will they be reluctant? Resistant? Attentive? Passive?

4.   What level of understanding will they bring to my document?

5.   What do I want to teach them?

6.   Are they my superiors? Peers? Employees?

7.   What is their education level?

8.   What length do I need? (Long enough to accomplish your goals but short enough to hold interest.)

9.   Have I done all my research? Ask around. Get advice. Be a reporter—you don’t have to be a genius and come up with everything on your own.

10. What’s my deadline?


These questions will help you know what to include. If you’re really stumped—or you’ve got too many ideas racing through your head—we’ll soon explore Genius Generator, a great tool for getting your ideas down on the page. All those ideas swimming in your head can contribute to procrastination. You think, “I’ll start as soon as I’m clear on this.” Good luck! You can’t wait for clarity to strike—just get it down and then work to make your writing clear and concise.


Get organized


1. The rule of one


First, a cardinal rule of writing: Effective writing has one idea per sentence, one idea per paragraph, one main topic per memo, letter, or email. If you find you have more than one main topic—write another memo, letter, or email. You want to keep your readers engaged, not confused.


2. The right approach


Next, choose an organizational method that gets the job done right. You can structure your business documents—whether they’re letters and reports, newsletters or proposals—in a number of ways. Sometimes chronological order works; other times, you may want to use a point-by-point format. You can start in the present and use flashbacks to fill in important detail. (Here’s the deal today, it actually started 10 years ago …)


  • Most important first: This approach, which is the most common way to organize material, works well when writing letters, memos, reports, and proposals. Because you lead with your most salient information, you get to the point quickly and your readers know where you’re headed. As a result, they’re more likely to stay with you and remember your message.


  • Less important first: If you only remember one point from this book, I hope that’s “write to your reader.” Don’t just dump your information onto them. This organizing approach is a good example of respecting your reader—and, as a result, getting the results you want. Imagine how disastrous it would be if you started a memo telling your boss in the first sentence you need a raise. Or a new assistant. You’ve got to warm up your reader and build your case so that your request is a logical conclusion.


  • Chronology: This step-by-step approach can be pretty dry. It’s best reserved for meeting minutes, scientific reports, procedure manuals, etc. 


  • Bad News Burrito: When you need to give less-than-pleasant news or criticism, try the Bad News Burrito. Write something positive, deliver the news, then roll it up with something positive. It’s really just Psychology 101—and it can help you get the results you want. (This works especially well with employee evaluations.)


  • Compare & Contrast: This approach works nicely for planning reports, feasibility studies, sales reports and letters, marketing reports—anything in which you are making a case. State one side, then the other (e.g., advantages first, then disadvantages). Don’t volley back and forth as you write. It feels like a tennis match—that you lose because your readers are confused, annoyed, or both.


  • Broad to focused or vice versa: Knowing your audience’s level of understanding will help you determine which to use. For example, consider an article on grammar rules. If I begin citing specific rules (focused) without explaining how these rules can help a general audience accomplish their goals (broad), they’ll fall asleep on me. On the other hand, if I’m addressing English majors, they can appreciate the specific rules from the start.


Whatever approach you try, write from your heart—and to your readers. Talk to them like friends. As your sales jump and your reputation builds, you’ll see your writing fears gradually slip away and a strong personal style emerge.