Category Archives: Writing and Editing TIps

7 Tips for Interviewing Sources Via Email

No matter what writing project I work on—an article for magazine, a blog post for a university website, or even researching to write a book—some sources just prefer to answer interview questions via email. While interviews in person or via the phone are usually preferable, you can still glean some great information from an interviewee’s email.

Use these tips to get the information you need from sources when interviewing via email:

1. Keep it short and simple. The cardinal rule of journalistic writing is important when interviewing via email. Keep the questions you email direct and concise so your source can easily understand what is being asked and doesn’t get confused.

2. Add simple prompts. To make sure you get some specifics, you can add a few prompts in parentheses after the questions to direct the source to provide the relevant details you need. So a question may look like this:

Tell me about your background (such as education history, past jobs, etc.)

or

Tell me about your childhood (your parents’ occupations, siblings, lifestyle)

3. Ask the same question in different ways. Sometimes the way you ask a question can make a huge impact on an interviewee’s response. A source may write a one-sentence (or one-word) response to one question, and write three paragraphs in response to another. If there’s key information you need from a source and you’re concerned he may be hesitant to share it, altering the way you frame a question when you ask it could yield better results.

4. Limit the number of questions. Focus your questions on the key information you need. Do research before you talk to the person (search for the source on Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) so you know the basics of his background. That way you can simply confirm the factual info you find quickly, and focus more of your questions on the meat of the interview topic. Also, make sure you don’t have such a long list of questions that it intimidates the source.

5. Always end with an open-ended question. Some of the best information I’ve gotten from email interviews comes when I ask this question: Is there anything else about X topic or your experience that you’d like to share? This is a great catchall question, so if you didn’t ask something specifically, but the person has more she wants to share, she has an opportunity to share it.

6. Follow up. Once you receive the interviewee’s responses, reply via email to thank her and let her know if you have any additional follow-up questions, you’ll be in touch. This is important because sometime a source may provide a short or incomplete response to an important question. You can send an email to follow up and ask for more specific details. For example, if he mentions an event he participated in, you could follow up and ask him what his role was in the event, where the event was held, the event’s official title, and when the event took place.

7. Give the interviewee a deadline. This may be the most important thing you can do. Everyone is busy, and your source is, too. If you give a source a deadline to reply, it gets your email on her schedule so she can plan her time accordingly. And if you don’t hear back from the source by the deadline, it gives you a good opportunity to follow up without sounding too pushy.

Remember, sometimes email interviews can be a really great thing—like when you’re working on deadline and the source has no appointment times in his schedule, but can write responses while waiting at the airport. Other times, it can create challenges—like when working on a profile of a person that requires a lot of background detail and personal stories to showcase the person or topic.

Use your best judgment on which story types or interviewees would provide good information via email versus stories or interviewees that may be best to speak directly to via phone or in person.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. She frequently writes and edits copy on higher education and genealogy/family history topics. She is the author of the Unofficial Guide to FamilySearch.org. Twitter: @DanasCreative

 

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Tips for Writing More Compelling News Stories for College Websites

Higher Education News StoriesI see this all the time. Universities who intend to showcase their school via “stories” on their website, who end up posting award, achievement, and event announcements instead.

It’s often a fine line between writing a dry announcement because the administration requests it and writing a compelling news story that will generate interest from media outlets and social media posters, as well as spark the interest of prospective students and their parents.

What can you do to rev up your news stories on your website and make them more compelling?

Start with the headline. Think about the stories you like to read online. What would be more interesting to read—a story with the headline “Student Receives XYX Fellowship,” or “XYZ Fellowship Winner Studies New Technologies for Wind Energy”? Use a more descriptive headline, but still try to keep it concise. The headline can help you focus the story.

Focus on people and their stories. Avoid writing about “things”—events, awards, etc. Instead, write about people. When a professor wins an award, don’t write about the award. Write about the professor. Who is the professor? What is the professor passionate about? What did she do to win the award? Why did the professor do what she did? What is unique or interesting about this professor, her teaching style or her research?

Find a fresh angle. The angle is key in writing compelling stories. Challenge yourself (or your staff) to identify what is unique or compelling (i.e. why someone else would care to read the article) and focus the story around that angle.

For example, if your college always posts the same story each year—perhaps a story on fall enrollment or a story on spring commencement—try to find new angles each year. For fall enrollment, tell the amazing story of one of your new students or create a photo-style feature of students moving into the residence halls and use captions to tell the enrollment story.

Differentiate between events and news. Know what constitutes a news story or a Calendar of Events listing on your website.

The headline for a recent “news” story on a college website was “Gospel Choir Christmas Concert.” This website also has an Events section on it homepage. Where should information on this concert go? Should the information have been placed in an Events listing instead of the News section? The headline isn’t very descriptive (for example, is it just announcing the event or is it giving you some other background or behind-the-scenes information about the event?).

If the main purpose of a post is to give the details of an event, consider posting it only in your Events section. If there’s a story behind the event you want to tell—perhaps how students are preparing for a concert—then the story would be a news story.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. She frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics. Twitter: @DanasCreative

The Most Overused Terms in College Marketing

frequently used wordsOver the years, I’ve seen numerous lists of words overused in press releases or other marketing materials. Today, I’ve come up with my own list of terms I see overused in college recruitment marketing brochures, advertisements, and websites.

If you really want to set your school apart from others, avoid using these words and phrases that others use.

  1. Small class sizes (most overused!)
  2. Hands-on (often used in phrases like hands-on research, hands-on experience, hands-on education)
  3. State-of-the art
  4. Cutting-edge
  5. Unique
  6. Innovative
  7. Personal attention (also personalized attention)
  8. Rigorous academics
  9. Award-winning (usually pertains to faculty or the overall university)
  10. Conveniently located
  11. Quality education

In most cases, adjusting the copy slightly can help you avoid these overused terms.

Give concrete examples of the “hands-on” work students do in a laboratory or classroom. Tell me what supercomputer or specific top-of-the-line microscope you have instead of telling me you have “state-of-the-art” facilities or labs. Provide examples, quotes, or anecdotes that show experiences that differentiate your college’s offerings from other colleges, rather than just calling your services or offerings “unique.”

Additionally, if you’re looking for words to replace these overused ones, check out Rhyme Zone, an excellent free online thesaurus that provides not only synonyms, but also related words. Even if you don’t use any of the words they suggest, it may help you brainstorm and provide the creative inspiration you need.

How do you avoid using overused terms in your marketing materials? Leave a comment on this post or tweet me @DanasCreative on Twitter.

Image credit: Created courtesy of Wordle.net


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics. Twitter: @DanasCreative

College Marketing: Finding a Voice That Speaks to Today’s Teens

Teen voiceBefore a recent campus visit at a small liberal arts college campus for a copywriting project, a colleague of mine and I discussed how to find the right voice to speak to prospective students in high school.

She confided in me that she recently went to a local bookstore and picked up stacks of magazines, including Seventeen for girls and, for lack of a better option, a skateboarding magazine for boys. In the past, I had done a similar thing: looking to magazines that targeted at teens to discover catchphrases and study the tone of voice used.

When we met with a group of current college students—mainly freshmen and sophomores—of the campus, our eyes were opened when we asked them what magazines they read.

Magazines?” they said. “I don’t really read magazines. But I do go to a lot of websites.”

Of course this would be their answer. These students are part of the new crop of Generation Z students: the digital natives. Their answer reminded me that those magazines targeting teens are written by “old folks” like me, too, who are trying to be the voice students want to read.

So how do you capture a voice that high school students want to hear? Read what teens are reading. Go to websites where teens go. And find content written for teens, by teens.

According to Niche, Inc., which had high school students in the Class of 2014 rank the websites they use most often, a few of the most popular websites among teens are:

Other studies show video-sharing site Vine and photo-sharing site Flickr increasing in usage among teens.

If you’re not familiar with these sites, check them out. You may learn something about the teenage audience and their interests—and you can then adjust the voice and style of your copy to better speak to them. It also could inform your decisions on where to spend your online marketing dollars.

Image credit: Courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics. Twitter: @DanasCreative

Best Blogs for Freelance Writing Newbies

Freelance BlogsWhen I first started freelancing I turned to blogs of men and women who had “been there, done that” to get advice on starting my freelance business. Today, I continue to read many of these blogs to stay inspired and to be up-to-date on the conversations others in my field are having.

If you’re a newbie freelancer, here are a few blogs I have found useful and you may, too:

1. Make a Living Writing. This blog by Carol Tice was a great help when I was first starting out, especially her posts about setting freelance rates, what different markets pay, and transitioning to a career as a full-time freelancer.

2. The Renegade Writer. When I was a summer editorial intern at Family Circle magazine, I remember fact-checking articles written by Linda Formichelli. I enjoyed her articles, and afterward I started seeing her byline in tons of places. I wanted to write for magazines like she did. When I was considering quitting my day job and becoming a full-time freelancer, I read Linda’s books The Renegade Writer and Query Letters That Rock (both co-written with Diana Burrell). I started reading Linda’s blog, too, which has even more practical advice for freelance newbies.

3. The Well-Fed Writer. Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer was another book I read before getting the courage to make the leap to full-time freelancing. The book is kind of a no-nonsense guide of how to land copywriting work, and the freelance rate information in here was yet another super-helpful resource in helping me to determine my freelance rates. His blog has equally great advice.

4. MediaBistro. This site has lots of blogs, based on your interests in the media world, but what I found even more helpful than the blogs here were the site’s How to Pitch articles for tips on pitching story ideas to different magazines. It helped me land an article assignment from a magazine I hadn’t written for before. In my opinion, the MediaBistro subscription fee is well worth it.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics.

Tools of the Trade: 5 Essential Tools This Freelancer Can’t Live Without

Writing ToolsWhen I began to do freelance writing and editing full-time, I thought all I’d need was my laptop and an Internet connection to do my work efficiently. The longer I have freelanced, the more tools I’ve discovered to help me be a more efficient and productive writer and editor.

Here are five of the tools I now can’t live without:

1. Evernote. I first heard about Evernote Web Clipper from a genealogy magazine I frequently write and edit articles for. The editors there loved this free tool, and now so do I. It provides a great way to save articles you see online and organize them. It helps me keep any info I use as source material in a safe place where I can find it again if editors need it for fact-checking. It also gives me a single place to put items I see that spark story ideas I want to pitch later.

2. My all-in-one printer. I didn’t realize how important an all-in-one printer/scanner/copier was to my business until my old all-in-one stopped working. All of a sudden one day, it wanted to eat the paper instead of print on it. After a few nights of online research, I ended up purchasing an Epson WorkForce WF-7520. It has an auto document feeder (great for scanning and copying), prints double-sided sheets of paper, and prints on 11×17 paper.

Even though I read the dimensions of the printer online, its large size still surprised me when I unpackaged it (my husband has nicknamed it Big Bertha), but despite the desktop space it hogs, I love it! It has made my life easier since I got it. Scanning is quicker. I save paper by printing on both sides of a sheet. And I don’t have to squint to read miniscule type when I need to print and proofread book or magazine spreads.

3. Google Drive. Early on as a freelancer, I had a computer crash scare. My motherboard had to be replaced, but luckily all the files on my hard drive were safe. Since then, I became more diligent about backing up my files. I put all current project files on the Google Drive, so I can access them anywhere. That way, if my computer crashes again, I won’t lose days of work and can continue working while my computer is in the repair shop (or while I shop around for a new computer.)

4. Dropbox. I use Dropbox often for getting large files (like photos for stories) to my editors. It’s way better than sending dozens of emails with super large attachments. And it’s free.

5. Pandora. Let’s face it: writing in a room by yourself can get very quiet, sometimes eerily quiet. When it gets too quiet or I need a little energy or creativity boost, I turn on a Pandora channel. The music provides good company, and helps the words flow from my fingertips to my Microsoft Word document.

Do you have any tools you use every day to help make you more productive? Post a comment or tweet me on Twitter @DanasCreative to share your favorite productivity tools.

Image credit: Image by aopsan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net; alterations by Dana’s Creative Services


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics. Twitter: @DanasCreative

 

Editor’s Perspective: The Right Way to Treat Titles

Book TitlesRecently, a client asked for my advice on how to treat book, journal, and article titles in her organization’s communications materials. The question came after some debate within her organization on whether certain titles should be in quotation marks or italicized, and how that formatting would reflect on the organization’s competence and brand.

So what is the right away to format book titles? Well, a post from Writer’s Digest (yes, I did just put that magazine title in italics), has the right answer: it’s up to you, but you (and others at your organization) need to stick with whatever format you choose.

For example, the AP Stylebook encourages using quotation marks for book titles. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends italicizing titles of books, pamphlets, periodicals, newspapers, plays, movies, and TV programs. It also suggests using quotation marks around titles of articles, poems, songs, and TV episodes.

In my experience working with magazine and book publishing companies and university communication and marketing offices, most organizations use the Chicago Manual of Style way for titles, even if they normally adhere to AP style. In fact, all five universities featured in my recent post on editorial style guide examples follow this approach.

It’s okay to have exceptions like these in your editorial style guide. That’s why it’s important to have an editorial style guide specifically tailored for your university or company and the unique editorial situations you encounter.

Overall, what matters more than being right is consistently using the same style (and exceptions) in all of your external and internal communication pieces (website, magazine, brochures, e-mail blasts, etc.). And, if the exceptions are in a written style guide, it helps to have that guide to show anyone who questions your editorial style decisions.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics.

Editor’s Perspective: Why Hire an Editor?

Hire an EditorThe work that editors do is sometimes undervalued. Of course, as a professional editor, I may be a little biased, but if people could see the work that goes on behind-the-scenes—before a brochure, a book, or even a website is published—they would see the amazing contributions editors make. (Heck, before I post these posts, they go through several iterations to get them just right.)

If you’re on the fence about whether to hire an editor for your next brochure, book, website, blog post, or other writing project, consider these five reasons why hiring an editor is worth it.

1. To get a better product and save time. Whatever you’re writing, after you have an editor review it, the copy should be in an even better state than it was before. An editor may even save you time in the long run, since you don’t have to spend time reviewing your writing for the umpteenth time.

2. To catch errors you might miss. This may seem obvious, but good editors have a keen attention to detail. They see things the writer may not see. With a fresh pair of eyes, an editor will catch any typos you may have overlooked, word usage and spelling errors your word processor’s spelling and grammar check didn’t catch, and gaps in the information presented.

3. To ensure your readers will understand what you write. A good editor will approach your work from the vantage point of your target audience. For example, if you’re writing for teens, but reference the “Saved By The Bell” TV show or “CD-ROMs,” an editor can kindly suggest using more appropriate examples the audience can relate to. If you’re writing for genealogy beginners and you use the acronym FHL, the editor may suggest spelling out the full name of the Family History Library on the first reference so the reader knows what the acronym means.

Plus, if a sentence (or paragraph) just doesn’t make sense, an editor can suggest a way to rewrite it so readers can understand what you’re trying to say.

4. To focus your writing. Sometimes when I write, I do so much research and get so much great information that I just want to put it all in one article. It’s difficult to leave great stuff on the cutting room floor. But overloading a communication piece or article with too many words or too much information could dilute your message and its impact.

An editor can take an objective look at what you’ve written and then suggest places where you can make it more concise, where the focus needs to be shifted to have a greater impact, or where you can re-organize paragraphs to help the copy flow better.

5. To ensure consistency. You’ve seen me blog about consistency and editorial style before, but this is key in creating professional-quality communications materials or publications. For example, do you want to use email or e-mail? Should quotations be attributed with said or says? Do you capitalize job titles?

An editor can make sure the voice and style is consistent throughout your digital or print publication.

Interested in hiring an editor? Contact Dana’s Creative Services to discuss your project and your editing needs.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics.

College Marketing: 5 Editorial Style Guides to Model Yours After

Style GuideA couple of weeks ago, Dana’s Creative Services shared information about why having an editorial style guide is important. It’s not just large universities that have editorial style guides—colleges of all sizes have style guides to ensure their communications and marketing pieces have a consistent style and voice to support their brand.

Today, I’ve found five examples of college and university style guides that you can use as an example when creating your own style guide. If your university doesn’t have editorial style guidelines (or if you’re hoping to update your university’s guidelines), you can use these as inspiration.

1. Iowa State University. This university’s editorial style guide is part of its overall visual identity system that supports its brand. The guide addresses items like acceptable abbreviations to use, how to capitalize academic and administrative titles, formal names for departments, words to avoid using, and capitalization rules.

2. Saint Leo University. Because of this university’s multiple centers across the country, it’s important its staff at all locations adhere to a consistent style to support the university brand. This comprehensive style guide addresses standard descriptions of commonly used terms; key university messages; punctuation; official terminology for university buildings, landmarks, and center locations; and commonly used acronyms.

3. University of Missouri. This university established its writing and editing guidelines to help “ensure clarity and cohesion while reinforcing Mizzou’s distinctive identity.” The editorial style guide include an A-Z list of common terms and word usage (such as adviser, not advisor), info on how to write good captions and headlines, and tips for finding facts about the university, interviewing sources, and fact checking articles.

4. Beloit College. This Wisconsin college’s style guide covers commonly used terms, names and descriptions of campus facilities, how to list alumni graduation dates, and more.

5. Swarthmore College. This Pennsylvania college’s style guide includes guidelines on everything from academic degrees and student organization names to punctuation usage and class note style.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics.

Editor’s Perspective: Why Editorial Style and Consistency Matter

Style GuideIs it health care or healthcare? E-mail or email? How about a Web page or a web page? These are just a few of the terms I see used in varying ways from client to client and publication to publication.

As an editor, one of my pet peeves is inconsistency. In some cases there’s no “right” way to write or edit something, and that can lead to inconsistency. One way to improve consistency of word usage, punctuation, spelling, and more is to create an editorial style guide for your organization or publication.

Why is it worth spending valuable time creating a style guide? Here are five reasons.

1. To make a good impression. Many of the details editors look at—placement of commas, whether a word is capitalized or not, etc.—may seem trivial. But when all of those items are used properly, it helps you make a good impression to your target audience. Your audience will never see your actual style guide, but they’ll see the results of it in your high quality, professional print and digital publications.

2. To set the tone. An editorial style guide can help you determine the style and tone used in all communications materials your company produces. If you want an edgy voice, it can address that and provide suggestions for terms or usage of certain terms to achieve the voice you want. If you want a more formal voice, a style guide can address that, too.

3. To empower you and your staff to make decisions. For most companies and universities I work with, there’s an approval process that most communications pieces need to go through. Sometimes individuals reviewing a communication piece will focus on the content, while other times they’ll focus on the details. If you have a style guide, and a colleague asks you to make a change such as add a comma or capitalize a word that shouldn’t be changed, you can rely on your style guide to back up your decision not to make the change. It shows others you’re making decisions based on a set of standards, rather than making decisions based on your own personal preferences.

4. To address usage of unique terms. The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style cover a lot of style issues, but they don’t cover all terms you may use. By creating your own editorial style guide, you can address any editorial items unique to your industry or company that aren’t covered by a standard style guide. For example, one university I work with uses healthcare as one word in all instances; another uses it as two words (health care) when it’s used as a noun, and healthcare (one word) when used as an adjective.

5. To ensure accuracy no matter who is writing or editing. Editorial style guides for my university clients often include information on how to talk about different degrees (e.g., Master of Science vs. master of science vs. master’s degree), names of campus buildings, and more. The guides help to make sure that all people creating copy across the university are using the same terms. When staff turnover occurs, it’s easy for the next person to pick up the guide and make sure they are using the appropriate names and terms in all communications pieces they produce.


About Dana’s Creative Services

Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics.