Final day for free books – March 27

Today (March 27) is the last of a 5-day run where all my books are free on Amazon for Kindle. Get them all here (click title or cover for the Amazon page):

LIFELIKE
For teens and adults
Have you ever loved someone who could kill you with their paintbrush?

Jewel’s artistic talent is like magic, as if her brush were a witch’s wand, not a simple painting tool. She thinks she could surpass the old masters, if she could only escape her parents’ plastic existence. When she’s finally out of high school, she flees to San Francisco and a fresh start.

What she doesn’t know is that her talent is fueled by an untamed and dangerous magic which makes her an unwilling threat to the people she loves. When a mysterious, alluring art teacher promises to train her to control and harness that magic, Jewel puts her future–and her body–into his seductive hands. She soon discovers she’s not his first pupil, however, and as she learns the truth from the girls who came before, Jewel is faced with a terrible choice: Give up painting and spend her life running away, or risk her life–and her very soul–to destroy the man she’s fallen in love with.

SEMPER – first in the “New Eden” trilogy
For teens and adults
Three hundred years after nuclear war destroyed most of the Earth, Southshaw exists as a lush oasis in a desolate, charred world steeped in radiation. The Ancients were able to keep out the mutants and preserve Southshaw’s mountain valley, establishing a peaceful and thriving community built on faith and simplicity of life. Technology is forbidden, as the pursuit of knowledge is believed to have led to the nuclear apocalypse twelve generations ago. It is Semper’s duty to manage the community and provide spiritual leadership to Southshaw’s citizens.

Dane is in line to become the thirteenth Semper of Southshaw. On the eve of his sixteenth birthday, however, he finds that the ghost stories from his childhood and the frightening tales of mutants in the north are not just legends. But the legends are not entirely true, either. And suddenly he’s faced with a choice he never expected to make: should he take his place as Semper, obeying his cruel uncle and twelve generations of Southshaw Truth, or should he follow his heart and risk exile and death to unearth the real truth? An exotic huntress, a mythical ghost-man, and a tailor’s daughter hold the keys to his answer. And to the survival of Southshaw–and possibly all of humanity–itself.

FORSADA – second in the “New Eden” trilogy
For teens and adults
Lupay isn’t afraid of fighting, but what can one girl do against an army? Thousands of Southshawans, whipped into a war frenzy by a fundamentalist demagogue, are poised to sweep in and crush her home of Tawtrukk, and Lupay is powerless to stop it.

Or is she?

Driven into hiding and pursued even into the depths of the mountain, Lupay and her friends do their best to resist. But resistance won’t withstand the onslaught forever, and ultimately Lupay must choose: flee into the radioactive barrens of the Desolation, or rise up and fight fire with fire, like the legendary Tawtrukk warrior queen, Forsada.

FREDA – final book of the “New Eden” trilogy
For teens and adults
In the aftermath of war, false friendships, failed loyalties, and new alliances make truth difficult to see clearly. The battle for Tawtrukk is over, but the madman that started it all has escaped, and now he has instructions for detonating the nuclear bomb that stood dormant in the Southshaw chapel for thirteen generations. If he can’t be stopped in time, Freda will have to find some way to lead the survivors to a new home over the mountains, into a land she’d always been taught was an uninhabitable wasteland of smoldering radiation.

Cryptic clues left by Southshaw’s Founders three hundred years ago suggest that the land may not be as desolate as everyone thought, but can those clues be trusted? Can Freda unite the bitter, angry remnants of the Southshaw, Tawtrukk, and Subterra peoples? Can she get them to follow the clues when many think they lead to death instead of to the paradise Freda believes they promise?

THE BAD LIE
For 3rd to 6th graders
Jay had hoped to spend the summer after fifth grade at his dad’s in New York, but instead he’s stuck in boring day care while his mom works and his friends bike around and have fun. Jay’s weekly bright spot is the day care’s golf outings at Fair Elm Country Club on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Although his cool friends make fun of him for being in day care, he likes golfing with Becca, a smart girl on the fringe of the popular group who’s really helping him improve his putting. When his friends convince him to “have some fun” one night with their bikes, things turn bad. Jay’s efforts to stay out of trouble backfire, causing even more problems and almost destroying his friendship with Becca. On the verge of starting middle school, Jay has to choose: He can either lie and keep his popular friends while avoiding punishment, or he can own up what he’s done and win back Becca’s respect.

We shouldn’t have to flatten the curve

I’m a healthy person. I have a healthy family. Only once in 10 years have we even come close to hitting our annual deductible.

Yet conservatively speaking, in premiums alone I’ve contributed over $125,000 to the healthcare system over those 10 years.

Now I’m sheltering in place, can’t see family and friends, can’t travel, can’t go out to bars, can’t watch soccer or basketball on TV, can’t imagine the horrors that my friends with small children are facing with school closed probably until the fall.

By now we all know why this is necessary: Flatten the curve so as not to overwhelm the medical system’s ability to treat people. I’m not an asshole; I don’t want people to die because they can’t be treated.

But it should not have to be a choice between hundreds of thousands of deaths and destroying the economy.

Look, Congress, I really appreciate that if I miss work because I get the virus, you’ll help me with 2 weeks of sick pay.

But what happened to my $125,000 from the last 10 years?

In America, we buy “health insurance.” But there’s a problem: the health insurance industry is not a healthcare industry; it’s in insurance industry. Insurance is about minimizing financial risk, which means eliminating anything that looks like unnecessary spend.

As President Trump famously said, “I’m a business person. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

Health insurance is an insurance industry, not a health industry. It’s run by financial people, not health people. It squeezes the healthcare providers until what society gets is minimal acceptable capacity, at maximum allowable price. It squeezes out redundancies and contingency systems for catastrophes because at some level of catastrophe, insurance becomes untenable. It makes more sense for the insurance company to go bankrupt than pay out.

I always hoped I was getting more for my $125,000. I hoped those premiums were propping up the world’s best healthcare system, with the best equipment and staff… and the best capacity. I always thought I was getting something more like the green line:

Notice the area covered by the two curves is roughly equal. Social distancing, sheltering in place, and plunging America into a recession won’t stop people from getting infected. It’s all designed to keep our healthcare system from getting overwhelmed, which would lead to more deaths.

But where did my $125,000 go? And why did my 401(k) drop 30% in the last three weeks? And why are people I know getting laid off?

All because Americans have been frightened into believing the myth that government-paid healthcare will be inefficient and lead to unnecessary deaths, so a private insurance industry can keep their shareholders happy?

America, it’s time for a different system.

The magic that makes Charities@Work the best CSR employee engagement conference every year

If you’re employed in CSR, D&I, or employee engagement, commit now to attending next year’s Charities@Work conference.

The 2019 conference hit the Times Square Westin a couple weeks ago, and it was my first time attending without also being on the corporate advisory council. I have been a regular at many of the CSR industry’s conferences, and this is the best for employee engagement practitioners, hands down.

Why? Two words: BECAUSE REASONS. Okay?

Advisory Council chair Michael Carren

If you want to know what was on the agenda or how the panels went or who the speakers were, there are other pages for that. I’m going to share my personal observations and try to explain the magic that I feel makes this conference special.

No corporate chest-thumping

The worst thing is to pay for a conference and spend two days listening to the big sponsors drone on about how awesome (yet irrelevant to the audience) their company’s CSR programs are. The Charities@Work sponsors pay in not because they’ll get a bunch of self-indulgent stage time, but because they know the talent and creativity in the room will be inspiring, challenging, and innovative. The sponsors are paying to keep this incredible forum from turning into just another mostly-pointless business trip, and to ensure that someone is helping push the profession and the field forward.

Real, unvarnished discussion

The pre-conference workshops are unique in my experience. A lot of conferences offer workshops, but I’ve found most to feel contrived—more dedicated to the methodology of the workshop, or the production of a preconceived outcome, than to the creative, inclusive, and challenging dialog that Charities@Work creates space for.

“Shark Tank” judges being judgy

These workshops are designed with a bit of intentional chaos built in because the organizers know that even the newcomers to CSR bring fresh ideas, new perspectives, and pointed questions.

Old friends and new friends

Although I think the 2019 conference could have had more space in the agenda for networking breaks, the after-hours networking events more than made up for it. More important, however, is that the conference comprises a mix of old pros who have known each other a long time, and new pros who might be networking at a CSR conference for the first time.

Networking at Starbucks Reserve Roastery.

We’ve all been to conferences where everyone huddles up in their own little established cliques. This is great for catching up with old friends, but it’s awful if you come alone or hope to broaden your network.

Charities@Work feels different to me. Every year I’ve met several new people that I’ve kept in touch with. There isn’t anything structurally different about this conference that fosters this networking; it’s the underlying culture of the event and the attitude of the staff and advisory council that run it.

Everyone’s voice matters, and everyone has things to say

BEST. PANEL. EVER.
Jillian, Jerome, and Erin. Best panel ever.

I had the honor of moderating the last panel of the day, and even with three stellar panelists in Jillian Mershon, Jerome Tennille, and Erin Gollhofer, I was worried that we’d face an audience overwhelmed and exhausted by the day’s packed agenda. So, intentionally, I warned the room up front that I didn’t want a Q&A session so much as I wanted people to take the mic and share their own thoughts. What happened was, for me, kind of magical: while a few people looked ready for a nap, dozens of people wanted to share their insights. The energy and inspiration had been building up all day, and people were eager to speak, to share, to interact.

At other conferences, I’m always eager for the last panel to end. It didn’t feel that way at Charities@Work 2019.

And those are my reasons. Not because I learned actionable tips to run CSR programs (I did). Not because I learned new things from well-known professionals (I did). Not because I got to lead THE BEST PANEL EVER (I did). But because of the underlying culture and inclusiveness and electricity and creative space and welcoming attitude that makes this conference special.

So commit yourself to attending next year. Set aside some budget to sponsor. And if you have questions or things to add to my thoughts, comment here.

Remind me, where do I look this up? #EditingPony

Do you ever want to reply to emails with, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Or, “Thanks for asking me about that. If only you had some way of finding it out yourself.”

Or,”Hey there’s this new thing called the internet. You should check it out.”

Please don’t be the person who makes me want to send you those replies. Because all of them basically mean, “Look it up yourself.”

When you’re sending an email or other written correspondence, stop yourself if you

  • … are beginning the email with, “Remind me…”
    This means you’ve already been told, but you think your time is better spent by having me look it up for you than by you looking it up for yourself. This is a great way to make your coworkers feel disrespected and resentful.
  • … are including or attributing a quote from memory
    As Mark Twain never said, “I’d rather be misquoted than languish in obscurity.” If you are including a quote from literature, history, or culture, it’s worth your time to get it right.
  • … are referring to historical facts
    You may have heard everyone you know talking about the Bowling Green Massacre, but if you’re referring to it in print, you should spend two minutes looking it up first to get the details right.
  • … are presenting data
    I’ve been guilty of giving estimates from memory in informal emails from time to time, but once these estimates are in the wild, they can grow to become more “real” than the actual truth in people’s minds. If that happens, these informal inaccuracies can haunt you. Don’t go from memory; look up the numbers. (And don’t send a note to a coworker asking them to remind you…)

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Number one #WorkplaceGiving campaign 9 years running. Two million #volunteer hours. #MicDrop

I started my first job out of UC Berkeley in July, 1989, working as a tech writer at Boeing on the B-2. Six companies and 14 years later, on February 23, 2003, I was hired full time at Wells Fargo to work in community affairs. Today is my 15th anniversary as an employee. That means that sometime in the last few months, I officially passed the point where I have been a Wells Fargo employee longer than I have not been a Wells Fargo employee since graduating college.

 

Me accepting a national Summit award from United Way CEO Brian Gallagher (um… 2011?)

Five years after being hired, I was promoted to manage the team and then, along with dear friend Melissa Buchanan, I co-led the integration of Wachovia’s and Wells Fargo’s employee giving and volunteer programs. The next year, 2009, the employee giving campaign rose to United Way Worldwide’s #1 ranking in the US for the first time ever.

This week, Wells Fargo announced that our workplace giving campaign was recognized as #1 in the US for the 9th year in a row… every year I’ve managed the group. Also, in 2017 our volunteer program recorded over 2 million hours for the first time ever.

I’ve been privileged to work with an incredible team of wonderful people–each one brilliant, dedicated, hard working, high integrity, and overflowing with compassion. It’s hard to leave such a team of people I respect deeply and am proud to call my friends, but it’s time for me to “lose sight of the shore” to discover new oceans. I will enjoy an enduring pride for all I helped build at Wells Fargo, and I know I will take a wealth of knowledge and experience into whatever I build next. I go into a new, as yet uncharted, adventure with tremendous gratitude for all the wonderful people I have worked with the last 15 years, and all the opportunity and memories the company provided.

My Wells Fargo team in 2015

Why you use the passive voice

Do you ever find yourself writing this

An email was written and sent to me by my coworker, and it was marked as high priority.

instead of this

My coworker sent me a high priority email.

Don’t worry. We all do it, and I’ll explain why in a second. But only one time in 10,000 should you actually send the first one.

The photograph of the picture that was painted by Editing Pony was taken by me.

 

The difference between these two sentences is that one is in passive voice and the other in active voice. If you don’t already know the difference, go learn, then come back.

My favorite reasons for avoiding passive voice are

  • Passive voice almost always uses more words. Although words are not a limited resource, your audience’s attention is.
  • Passive voice is usually harder to decipher because we live in a “Joe called me” world, not an “I was called by Joe” world.
  • In business writing, passive voice can erode the reader’s trust because they may think you’re trying to direct attention away from the real subject and verb. Most of the time, that’s exactly what’s happening.

In the first example, the email takes center stage, and the sender and recipient are secondary. In the second example, your coworker is telling you something, and email is just the mechanism.

Why do we write in passive voice?

I’ve only found three reasons people write in passive voice. First, they think long, wordy, circuitous sentences sound more intelligent and credible. (The opposite is true.) Second, they are trying to deflect accountability by moving the spotlight away from the agent. Third, they don’t understand the point they’re trying to make.

Here are a few examples from recent emails I’ve received. Do you have examples? Share them in comments.

An estimate has not been generated by the sales team.

The writer thought their audience was most interested in the cost, so they focused on the estimate and its status. This may seem logical, but the reader would still more easily understand

The sales team hasn’t generated an estimate.

In business writing, when you bury accountability in a grammatical labyrinth, people trust you less. Why are you letting the sales team off the hook? Have you followed up with them, or are you just waiting for an estimate to magically appear?

Challenges were created by not having a process in place to identify issues prior to launch.

Here’s an example where the agent doesn’t even appear in the sentence. Who was responsible for creating such a process? Was it one person or many people? And what should bother us here: that there was no process, or that issues weren’t identified in time, or that challenges resulted? Clearly, this example is taken out of context, but now I have to read a lot more just to understand what this sentence is trying to imply. And I’m also on high alert because I may need to work very hard to see the real meaning through the word fog.

Joe should have identified these issues before launch.

Far less ambiguous. And, although it may seem more aggressive to call Joe out like that, it’s actually less unfair to him because now Joe has something to respond to. Joe can agree with or rebut the second statement, but he can’t do anything at all with the first statement.

Write in active voice

For 2018, commit to writing your business communications in active voice. If you find yourself writing circuitous sentences where the agent is not the focus, ask yourself why. Is it because you aren’t clear on your message? Clarify your message before writing the email. Is it because you are afraid of blame falling on someone? Sometimes deflection can be useful, but be aware people will see right through it or be confused by it, and either they will trust you less or ask questions to get at the point anyway. Is it because you think the focus really should fall on the patient rather than the agent? Passive voice can be a useful structure in this case, but it should be the very rare exception in your writing. Almost always you can be more clear and concise with active voice.

Write courageously. Don’t hide your true meaning behind the verbal fog of passive voice. It doesn’t sound more intelligent; it just confuses and distracts.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Don’t rewrite. Okay? Just… don’t.

Proposals, “what went wrong” documents, even status updates. These and lots more come through your inbox, written by others and given to you to pass along to management, decision makers, or others. When I get these, I always proofread before sending along. After all, my name will be on it even though I’m not the author.

My team are all good writers, but every document can be improved. Here are some edits that may occur to you as you review.

One of these is helpful. Guess which.

Only one of those four is helpful, though. Which one? I’ll give you a few minutes to think it through.

If you didn’t say the last one, then we can’t be friends anymore.

What do the first three have in common that make them not just unhelpful but actually counterproductive? In each, you’ve acknowledged that the communication does its job, but your ego has declared, “That’s not the way I would say it.” You now have a choice: Approve the document with minor edits, or rewrite the document the way you would have written it?

If you’re unsure of the right choice, here’s a handy flowchart for you:

How to decide whether to rewrite or not

The objective of business communication is to communicate business things. If the document does its job and is not grossly offensive in how it presents itself, then leave it alone. Make minor edits–clarify where necessary, fix usage and grammar, spell-check, etc.–but do not rewrite.

Rewriting a document that is already competently written accomplishes only negative things:

  • You waste your own time.
  • You make the author feel their time was wasted.
  • You make the author feel their voice is unheard and their work is unappreciated.
  • You confuse people about who now “owns” the document. It’s no longer the original author’s, but it’s not yours either. Who responds to questions?
  • You set yourself up to get crap that needs to be rewritten in the future, because who wants to put a ton of work into something that’s just going to get reworked anyway?

Certainly, some situations may require rewrites. A draft written by an engineer that needs to be reformed in the corporate voice for public use, for example. This is where professional communicators need to step in and command the output.

You all know me by now as someone who cares deeply about the written word. Much of the time in business, however, your time is better spent elsewhere than rewriting a competent document into a (marginally) more competent document.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

You want to help. What can you do?

CBS news posted a terrific article illustrating why giving money is so much more effective than giving stuff (or worse, organizing your own collection drive) after a disaster. But you want to help. Can you do anything more than just text ten bucks to Red Cross?

You sure can. Things you can do now:

  1. Donate to American Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Team Rubicon, or other disaster relief agencies.
  2. Donate to long term recovery. United Way of Greater Houston is a great option as they will know how and where to apply funds during the years of recovery after the news crews have left. Consider donating to other organizations that provide job training, child care, access to health care, education, and help with clothing, housing, or food.
  3. Prepare yourself, your family, and your community for a disaster locally. If you’ve got kids, have them help. Learn the locations and phone numbers of your local relief agencies.
  4. Give blood if you can. Your blood won’t help people in Houston, but donated blood has a short shelf life, and your local supplies always need replenishing.
  5. Put a reminder on your calendar for six months or a year from now to check in on recovery efforts, and to see if it might make sense to hold a collection drive or fundraiser then, or to join an onsite volunteer effort.
  6. Donate and volunteer locally. The best way for a community to recover from a future disaster is to build a strong, thriving infrastructure with the services in place to help when help is needed.

Also, please don’t forward those stories that go viral after every disaster. You know the ones… about the 8 year old who organized a collection drive of Pez dispensers, or teddy bears, or school supplies. Heartwarming and full of love, but ultimately not terribly effective.

And do not even think about going to the disaster area to help unless you are trained in disaster response and are mobilized by an aid organization. Seriously, no matter how willing and able you are, you will only add to the number of people burdening the water, food, security, transportation, and sewage infrastructure. Stay out of the way of the experts, but help them by giving money they can use to do their jobs efficiently.

Wrangling your fat, aimless cows into useful writing

All writing starts with ideas, just as all stampedes start with cows. Good writing wrangles those ideas into a herd, then spurs them into motion. Weak writing plops those ideas down in ones and twos on the page, like cows milling about a pasture.

Ideas in your writing should be a lot more like a stampede than a pasture dotted by aimless, fat cows. Stampedes surge. Stampedes roar. Stampedes have no time for bullshit. You don’t forget a stampede, but if you wander around pastures you’ll probably end up with poop-covered shoes.

Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede
Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede

How, then, do you wrangle your ideas (the fat, aimless cows) into a strong piece of writing (the stampede)?

Note to self: Next installment of Editing Pony should be about not torturing metaphors.

In business writing, a good example for this lesson might be a languishing project that you inherit. Such a project is likely to have

  • multiple participants who aren’t personally accountable for the ultimate objective
  • multiple dependencies blaming poorly understood external factors
  • lots of meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent trying to remember where we left off last time

These are listless cows, wandering about a pasture.

What the project does not have is focus, direction, or momentum. You can provide it with a tight project directive, created with three simple actions:

1. Gather the herd

Happy cattle dispersed into small, separate groups rarely stampede. When spooked, they just run a few feet and settle back into grazing. Your first step is to bring everything together into your own corner of the pasture. To do this, create four lists:

  • Deliverables
    What needs to be created, by whom, and for what purpose? (e.g., Frank write a data entry app to capture names at the event.)
  • Dependencies
    In order to create those deliverables, what needs to happen first, and who needs to do it? (e.g., Marketing needs to provide the data specs to Frank.)
  • Gaps
    Where dependencies and deliverables don’t have a name attached, call them out. Or if a critical step has been previously unidentified, list it here. (e.g., Frank has the wrong development tools for the target platform.)
  • Actions
    What immediate actions need to be taken, by whom, and by when are they needed? (e.g., Mary call Marketing to demand the data specs, by Friday.)

What don’t you see above? You don’t see executive summary or background. You don’t see templated document structure. You don’t see any “how we got here.” That’s all a waste of time. Spend a sentence or two on the ultimate goal of the project if you must, but no more.

In other types of writing, the same principles apply. The lists may be different, but you still need to put all your points together in one place and see where they connect, see the dependencies, and identify the gaps. It’s nothing more than simple storyboarding, really, but it’s shocking how often people skip this step and jump right to composition before they know what they’re writing. Which leads to crap output, or to “writer’s block.”

In high school essays, for example, this step forces the student to forget about “the paper” and focus on the points, which ultimately leads to better citations, stronger arguments, and a more complete product. In fiction, this step may identify themes, characters, major plot points, and timeline.

2. Thin the herd

When a project has stagnated or your ideas have been muddled, you’ll probably spend too long making the lists in step 1, and the lists will stretch out, full of rambling description. Kill all that crap. If a deliverable is not absolutely necessary for project success, eliminate it. If someone claims a dependency on a vague external event, nail that down or reject the dependency.

Send 'em packing!
Send ’em packing!

The goal in this step is to find and break those circles of discussion that keep folding in on themselves. Someone always calls for “another meeting to discuss it,” or someone whines about an external dependency no one in the meeting has accountability for. Stampedes can be stopped by turning the front cows back into the herd; get rid of the slow, easily frightened cows that are likely to thwart your stampede.

The output of step 2 should be a terse, tight set of lists free of needless description. A document that shows only those things that need doing, who has to do them, and when they have to get done. If an item doesn’t drive to your ultimate goal, cut it.

Again, this step is critical in other writing. In high school essays, this is where structure is imposed on the arguments. In fiction, this is where you fill in plot holes and get rid of extraneous scenes and characters; for some authors this looks like an outline.

3. Direct the herd

In our project example, it’s time to kick the team into action. But don’t just toss the project plan out to the group; connect individually with each person assigned to a deliverable, gap, or action. Avoid sending anything to the whole group–that wastes the time of the uninvolved and gets ignored by people who need to act. Where gaps exist, assign people to fill them. Where dependency delivery dates don’t support the project, get them tightened. You’ve now got a document that shows why.

With these simple steps, you’ve taken a stagnant, aimless project and pointed everyone in one direction. You’ve told them exactly what they need to do and when it’s needed. You’ve eliminated the pointless and extraneous, and you’ve illuminated the gaps. And really, all you’ve done is what any good writer does.

If your project is huge, or you’re writing a novel, this set of techniques nests and scales. I do this before I start a novel, focusing first on the entirety of the plot arc. Then as I write, I do it again for each major section, and then for each chapter within each section. The same could be done for a project or a research paper. All my novels were written this way.

Conclusion: Not all metaphors work

I really was hoping that my cow stampede metaphor would carry me through this post, but it kind of stinks. Even though I’ve been to a rodeo in Texas, inside I’m just not cowboy enough, I guess.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Don’t subject me to this. Please.

Everyone gets too many emails every day. A good subject line helps organize and triage the inbox so we don’t get overwhelmed.

Then WHY OH WHY do you still send emails with these remarkably stupid and useless subject lines?

  • Thanks
  • Following up
  • Quick question
  • Checking in
  • Hey
  • Got a sec?

Ok, that last one at least passes one (maybe two) of the five tests for an adequate subject line. The rest tell me nothing about the email, but they tell me the sender did not give any thought to how I interact with email. These are the opposite of clickbait. Clickbait infuriates me with its tease–I know that the article won’t live up to its hype-saturated headline–but I sometimes can’t help myself, and I click anyway.

These subject lines infuriate me with their lazy uselessness, yet I know I must read them, even if they turn out to be throwaway nothingness. Because behind these vapid subjects may be a critical business task. There’s no way to tell.

So. Five rules. Here they are:

  1. Tell me what’s in the email
    “Quick question” may hint at it, but I have never in my life met a quick question that had a quick answer. My day is a constant barrage of incoming problems, and I cannot triage effectively if I don’t know what you’re emailing me about.
  2. If it’s time-sensitive, say so
    Add something like URGENT: to let me know that this requires attention now. The priority flag in most email programs like Outlook help, but adding this will make it unambiguous. Better: add the timeframe. NEED TODAY or NEED BY JUNE 16 makes it easy to triage and makes it pop out if it scrolls below the fold.
  3. If it requires action, say so
    Correllary to the prior point, ACTION REQUIRED: at the beginning of a subject line lets me know that something needs to get done. An approval, perhaps, or a compliance step that may be holding up the project.
  4. If it requires my attention specifically, say so
    If you send an email to 100 people with ACTION REQUIRED and only one of them needs to take action, you deserve a time out. FRED ACTION REQUIRED lets everyone know that Fred is on the hook, but the rest of us have a need to know. Maybe to make sure Fred does his job.
  5. Be unique
    Once four different people emailed on different topics, all with the subject line “Following up.” Soon, more than twenty emails clogged my inbox with the subject line “Re: Following up”. Most were reply-all “thanks, great to meet you, too!” One thread was about a timely, critical problem. Guess how much time I wasted wading through the sludge to handle the real problem.

It should go without saying that not every email is TIME SENSITIVE ACTION REQUIRED red-flag emergency.

Editing Pony is watching. Don’t be THAT person.
Please do not be that person.

Also, when writing subject lines, assume the recipient has a smaller screen than you do. “Following up on the meeting about action required time sensitive stuff” will show up on a phone as “Following up on…” Entirely useless and very difficult for a busy person to track effectively.

Good communication is not about how you say something; it’s about how the recipient experiences it. Too many people treat writing email subjects like picking the color of an envelope. Marketing experts know, however, there’s an art to designing the packaging in order to get the recipient to care about the contents before they even open the package. Junk mail is often designed to look overly important, to get you to open it. Well designed packaging lets you know what you’re getting before you open it, and helps you manage your inbox effectively.

Pay attention to the subject lines of emails you send and receive over the next week, and note how you and others respond to them. Do you have tips on writing good subject lines, or examples of really bad ones? Share!

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.