Outlining Your Way to Success

It’s astonishing how people resist developing an outline before writing a white paper! “I just want the ideas to flow,” they may say. Or, “I want it to sound natural!”

Trust me, as someone who has written white papers on a multitude of topics: your ideas will flow and sound natural if you plan for them to flow and sound natural. In other words, if you develop an outline. Here’s why:

  1. An outline lets you shine. You never do your best work “off the cuff.” Even if you’re very familiar with a topic, you can forget an important point if you just sit down and start writing. (I have an outline for this blog post to be sure I hit each point I want to discuss!)
  2. An outline creates structure. How many times have you started explaining something, only to realize three steps in that you forgot a key point? An outline charts the course so your readers don’t get lost.
  3. An outline makes you memorable. You know how authors often start all their points with the same letter, end them with the same sound, or (as in this blog post) format them the same way? That is called “parallel structure.” It helps readers follow the points easily and remember them. An outline puts all your key points in front of you at once so you can consider whether to use parallel structure in your paper.
  4. An outline show you gaps. When you make an outline, you can see at a glance where you may need to add examples, exercises, or explanations.
  5. An outline streamlines writing. If I tell you to write 2500 words on a topic (a fairly standard word count for a white paper), you might feel overwhelmed. But if I tell you to write just 500 words on each of the four main points in an outline, plus a short introduction and a conclusion, that makes the work a whole lot more manageable. (And if your outline includes sub-points, it becomes easier yet!)
  6. An outline gets you to your goal. Ever read a white paper and wondered afterward what the point was? You don’t want your readers to feel that way! By outlining your white paper first, you can guarantee that you accomplish your purpose for the white paper.

So the next time you want to write a white paper … outline your way to success!

The Problem with Great Service

“What differentiates you from your competition?” is one of the key questions I ask my clients. Almost invariably among their responses is the answer, “We offer great service.”

The problem with great service is that everybody claims to offer it – whether or not they actually do!

So do you not want to tell people you offer great service? Of course not! But you have to give the claim real value and weight – and that comes by answering the additional questions, “How do you offer great service? What does great service from your company look like?”

For example, great service may mean …

  • You always get a real person when you call – not an endless voicemail system.
  • Your point person is the chief engineer in charge of the project, not a junior account representative.
  • You have unlimited email support or access to a Facebook Q&A forum when you purchase our product.

Remember: “service” by itself is a vague, ambiguous word. People want to know one thing: “WIIFM” – What’s in it for me? Answer that question, and you will do your clients a great service!

Becoming Your Own Editor

Are you looking to improve your writing? Here’s a simple tip that can make a world of difference:

Read your work aloud.

That’s it. Well … not quite. There’s a second part:

Listen as you read.

As you read your writing aloud, pay attention:

  • Is it easy to read or hard to read? Hint: if you’re gasping for air, you probably have some run-on sentences!
  • Is it understandable or confusing? Hint: anytime you hesitate, you want to figure out what made you pause.
  • Is it interesting or is your mind wandering as you read it? Hint: if you’re bored, your audience will be, too!
  • Is it paced well or is it rushed or dragging on? Hint: if it is rushed, you will feel dissatisfied; if it is dragging on, you will feel weighed down.
  • If there’s humor, does it sound funny when you hear it spoken out loud? Hint: get a second opinion on humor!

You may want to record as you read, then listen to the recording. Or, you may want to have someone read the piece to you. Oftentimes, you can pick up on the above items even more easily by listening to someone else as they read. (And since they’re reading it “cold,” they are more likely to read it as your target audience would.) Notice if they stumble over word choice or sentence structure, pay attention to where they hesitate or if their eyes glaze over, and – of course – ask for their honest feedback as to whether the piece made sense and achieved your goal.

Read aloud and listen. It’s a tip everyone can try – with immediate results!




10 Key Questions to Ask Before You Begin Writing Your Book – Part 3

This is the final installment in a three-part series on the questions to ask before you begin writing your book. Be sure to check out the first post (covering Questions 1-3) and the second post (on Questions 4-6) in the series.

Now, on to the final four questions!

7. Who is my audience?

“Everybody” is not the answer to this question! You might say you want to profile your target market. I prefer to phrase it as creating a portrait of your ideal reader because the word “portrait” reminds us that we are talking about people here – not about some abstract. So what do your ideal readers know about the subject? What do they need to know? What do they want to know? Why would they buy your book? What is going to grab their attention? Can you identify their demographics? Psychographics? Lifestyle? Goals, dreams, pains? The better you know your audience, the better the book you will write!

8. What tone and style would I like to use?

Once you know your audience, you will be able to answer the question of tone and style. Some markets will prefer a personal, conversational style. Others will want a lot of information and a scholarly approach. A different segment will want copy that is quick and scannable. Remember: there is no style that is “perfect ” for every book, just as there is no book that is perfect for every audience. Your subject matter, your goals, your personality, and your audience will suggest an appropriate tone and style.

9. How long do I want my book to be?

You can certainly just start writing and when you reach the end, stop. The finished product may be 100 pages or 400 pages. But you may find it helpful to figure out ahead of time the approximate length you would like for your book. After all, if you are going for a quick, scannable style, it may not make sense to have a 350 page tome. On the other hand, an in-depth treatment of a topic might require nothing less. Determining the final length of your book will also give you a general guideline as to how long individual chapters should be.

10. Will I need a marketing plan or a marketer, or can I handle both the marketing strategy and implementation myself?

Don’t forget about the work that happens post-writing! For your book to be a success, you will need a marketing strategy and time and effort for implementation. If you can work that end yourself, that is excellent. But if you can’t (either because you lack the knowledge, expertise, or time), then plan on bringing in an outside resource to assist you. Either path will require an investment, but good marketing is crucial to your ultimate goal: having people read your book!

So, having gone through these 10 questions, here is one more … are you ready to write?



10 Key Questions to Ask Before You Begin Writing Your Book – Part 2

This is the second in a three-part series on the questions to ask before you begin writing your book. The first post in the series (covering Questions 1-3) can be found here.

Now, on to the questions … starting with Question 4:

4. Why me?

Why are you the perfect person to write this book? What are your credentials and qualifications? Books are a great way of promoting your credibility, true … but only if you have the knowledge, experience, and expertise to back it up! A general rule of thumb: you are most credible when you talk about something you know inside-out and backwards.

5. What’s my point?

You need to go beyond “I want to write a book” to “I want to write a book about THIS.” Whatever “this” is should be something you are passionate about, something that is compelling to your target market, something that meets a need, something that is different in some way from similar material already on the market. Consider writing an elevator speech for your book: what would you say to people to tell them what your book is about and why they should read it?

6. Am I willing to put in the time?

Books take time. I know there are “write a book in a weekend” and “the secret to breezing through your first book” seminars touted all over the web. I’ve written many books – spanning everything from a short 40-page ebook to a 400-page novel. Trust me: writing a book takes time. It takes time whether you write it yourself or hire a ghostwriter (since you’ll need to provide the ghostwriter with all the content, and read and edit the manuscript). So ask yourself: Am I willing to put in the time? If I want to write it myself, how good a writer am I? How fast do I produce quality material? How much time am I willing to commit? Will I put aside concentrated time to write my book, or do a little bit every day, or write when I have a spare hour?

Stay tuned … final questions to come in Part 3!

A Tangled Web

How many websites have you …

  • clicked into, only to immediately click out again?
  • wandered through aimlessly until you finally left in disgust?
  • found interesting, but not compelling?

You don’t want any of the above scenarios to describe a visitor’s experience with your website! So here is one of the primary keys to avoiding the “tangled web” syndrome:

Set a goal for each page and write to achieve that goal.

Notice that I didn’t say, “Set a goal for the website.” You should do that as well, but that is probably a broad goal such as “make sales,” “establish credibility,” or “generate leads.” It is the individual pages and these smaller, specific goals that make the overarching objective a reality.

Let’s take three examples common to every website:

First, the Home page. A primary goal of the Home page of your website is to answer the question “Am I in the right place?” It is not to spill all the myriad details about your company, forcing people to scroll on and on and on. Give people enough so that in the second or two their eyes sweep your home page, they say, “Ah-ha! This is what I am looking for!”

If someone is in the right place, then your Home page has a secondary goal: to answer the question, “Where do I go from here?” Don’t leave people hanging! Imagine yourself walking into a building for a conference. You know you’re at the right location because of the huge banner hanging above the main entrance. But once in the lobby, where do you go for the seminar you signed up for? There are four hallways – which one do you go down? Your Home page needs to provide clear direction for all the different visitors who come your way.

Next, let’s look at the About page. Let me tell you what doesn’t work: giving a history of your company from the dawn of time. You will yawn people to death. Instead, use your About page to answer the question “Why should I choose you?” This changes the focus of the About page from facts to benefits. Might you still want to point out that you have been in business for 20 years? Sure – but do so by stressing your longevity or your reputation or your expertise. These are benefits that excite people’s interest. The facts back up the benefits.

Finally, turn to the Contact page. So often, I simply see the company contact info. Period. But the goal of the Contact page is to prompt action. A phone number and web form doesn’t cut it! Re-cap for people why they should contact you: it might be the final push necessary for them to pick up the phone or send an email. Would you want to lose a sale just because someone lost their momentum at this absolutely crucial juncture?

Take Action!

Take a look at your website. Can you identify the goal for each page? Or, to position it another way, what does each page accomplish? If you can’t readily and clearly answer those questions, it’s time to re-think the copy!

10 Key Questions to Ask Before You Begin Writing Your Book – Part 1

Books are great marketing tools. They establish your credibility and help you leverage your knowledge to bring in new and repeat clients.

But I have seen too many people frustrated when it comes to books … writing them, printing them, marketing them. You want your book to work for you; and to do that, I recommend you spend a little time answering 10 key questions:

1. What are my goals and objectives for the book?

This is not about what you want to write, but why you want to write it. What do you want to accomplish? Be specific: Do you want to sell the book as a revenue source? If so, how many copies would you have to sell at what price point(s) to realize your financial objectives? Do you want to use the book as a lead generation tool to bring in new clients? If so, how many clients are you aiming for?

2. How do I want to produce the book?

Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, print and/or ebook? Be careful to explore all the pros and cons of each. For example, with traditional publishing – if you can find a publisher (no small feat these days) – you may have to wait up to 18 months before you see your book on the shelf. Self-publishing can be done in a fraction of the time. With traditional publishing, the publisher usually handles proofing, layout, cover design, etc. With self-publishing, every task falls in your lap (though with a good self-publishing company, they’ll walk you through it step by step). Do your research, and pick the production method that will best help you meet your goals and objectives.

3. Am I willing to make the financial investment?

Don’t think otherwise: writing a book will cost you money. Even if you have a traditional publisher, you will have to put money into marketing your book, because unless you’re a bestseller, the publisher won’t put much (if anything) into marketing your work. Other routes may require you to invest in a ghostwriter, editor, proofreader, layout, cover design, printing, distribution, etc. Determine what your budget looks like. Weigh the ROI.

Stay tuned … more questions to come in Part 2!

De-Cluttering Copy

Have you ever visited a website where the pages ran on and on like the Dead Sea Scrolls? Read a white paper that appeared to have everything including the kitchen sink shoved in it? Skimmed through a book and found your eyes crossing because the author went off on a hundred tangents? I can sum up what happened with the copy in two words:

No editor.

An editor has a hard job: we have to question everything, asking: “Does it fit? Does it make sense? Does it work?”

You see, an editor does more than correct grammatical errors and awkward sentence structure. An editor is also responsible for making sure that the piece – whether it is a website, a white paper, a case study, a book, a direct mail letter, etc. – does its job well.

That means we may have to:

  • Encourage the author to cut information that they love, but that doesn’t add value.
  • Analyze the logical flow and progression of the piece and make recommendations  as necessary.
  • Challenge examples, quotes, statistics, etc. if they do not adequately support the point under discussion.

The result is the same as when you spend a day cleaning out the closet. It’s attractive. It’s orderly. It’s effective. And that is good copy!

Short is Not a Virtue

As a ghostwriter and book coach, I have found that there is a recurring theme among businessfolk when it comes to writing books. “I want it to be short,” I hear over and over again. “Short and sweet. People are pressed for time. They don’t have time to read anything long and involved.”

Now, if you’re talking about direct mail, short and sweet is essential. If you are blogging, you don’t want to ramble on ad infinitum. And website content? Scannability is the name of the game.

But books? When people pick up a book, they want information. They want to learn something they didn’t know, discover an approach they can use, gain insight they can leverage. And that, my friends, may take some time.

If you try to be short for the sake of being short, you may run into the following pitfalls:

  • Skipping. You assume a knowledge base your readers don’t have, so you skip important topics entirely. The result? Reader confusion.
  • Rushing. You touch on all pertinent topics, but each one only gets a cursory treatment. The result? Reader frustration.
  • Skimming. You don’t have enough space or time to ever get deep into your topic, so you just skim along the surface. The result? Reader boredom.

The purpose of writing a book is to deliver value. That’s your primary goal, and one that should dictate everything else about the book, including tone, style, structure … and length.

Does that mean that books should never be short? Of course not! Short can work magnificently well – in the right place. Just remember: short is not a virtue. Short only works if it delivers true value.


The 7 Deadly Sins for Websites

Your website is your public face. It will often be the first place people ever hear about your business. It is definitely the place they will turn when they are deciding whether or not to purchase your products or services.

Too often, businesses commit one of these seven deadly sins on their websites:

  1. Have copy that rambles on like the Dead Sea scrolls.
  2. Talk about product features, but never discuss benefits.
  3. Assume the target market understands their business.
  4. Focus copy on themselves, rather than on the customer.
  5. Make it difficult for visitors to navigate their site.
  6. Neglect to provide a prominent call to action.
  7. Fail to optimize their copy for the search engines.

Fortunately, you can easily avoid every one of these seven deadly sins with professionally-written, search engine optimized web copy.