Tag Archives: writing 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

Using LinkedIn to Generate Alumni Stories: Part 2

In my last blog post, I provided tips on how to find alumni information via LinkedIn to generate alumni story ideas. Today, I’ve got step-by-step details on how to find alumni employment data to use in your higher education communications and marketing materials.

FINDING ALUMNI EMPLOYMENT INFO ON LINKEDIN

LinkedIn

LinkedIn college alumni employment data

Step 1: Go to your college’s LinkedIn page. (If you don’t know your school’s LinkedIn URL, do a Google search for your college name and the word LinkedIn.)

Step 2: At the top of the page, two graphs will appear that show employment data. The data is based on information in LinkedIn profiles of your alumni. One graph shows company names of the top four companies where your alumni work. The other graph shows the top four most popular job titles for your alumni. (Note: If this data doesn’t appear right away, click on the Home tab under your college’s name.)

Step 3: Click the More link under either graph of data. This will take you to a page with one additional category: Where They Live. It also will show you expanded data so you can see more than the top four most popular places where alumni work and job titles that alumni have.

Step 4: Use the arrows by the graph results to see even more data, including where they studied (so you can see what, if any, graduate schools your alums have attended) and what alumni are skilled at.

Step 5: Use the data you find in marketing pieces. For example, use information on where alums have studied to show which prestigious graduate schools your alums have gone on to attend. Or, use information on where they work in recruitment brochures to say our alumni are employed at X, Y, and Z companies.


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

 

Using LinkedIn to Generate Alumni Story Ideas: Part 1

Finding alumni success stories to share in alumni magazines, online news stories, and recruitment marketing materials can sometimes seem like a daunting task for college communications professionals. But with all the social media tools at your disposal, it’s never been easier to find out what alumni are doing.

The next time you’re asked to find alumni story ideas turn to LinkedIn first. On LinkedIn, you can see aggregate data on companies that hire the most alumni from your school, and you can search by your college name to find alums and check out what they’re doing today. Here’s how.

FINDING COLLEGE ALUMNI ON LINKEDIN

LinkedIn

LinkedIn alumni search results

Step 1: Log in to LinkedIn and click on Advanced Search. The Advanced Search box will give you several options of information to enter. In the School box, enter your college’s name.

Step 2: The default results will show you people from your school who share your connections. To search all of LinkedIn for alumni (not just your connections), check the All box under the Relationship section to the left of your results.

Step 3: To review results, click on each page of results or the Next button. If you’re looking for a specific type of alum (such as a recent alum who’s been in the workforce less than 5 years, or an alum working in the financial services or hospital/health care industry), you can narrow results using the categories on the left: Current Company, Industry, Past Company, School, Years of Experience, Function, Seniority Level, etc.

Step 4: Before you use information you find here, contact the alumnus or alumna to confirm the information is up-to-date. If one alum’s job or company sounds interesting, contact him or her to schedule an interview so you can learn more and get a story for your website or alumni magazine, or get a quote for a recruitment marketing brochure.

In my next blog post, I’ll cover how to find alumni employment data on LinkedIn.


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

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: 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.

College Marketing: The One Question to Ask When Writing Student and Alumni Profiles

QuestionsThe most common articles Dana’s Creative Services writes for college and university alumni magazines, websites, and blogs are profiles. Some students, faculty, staff, and alumni open up immediately and share tons of details, while others are men and women of few words.

After reading an article on “secrets to stronger feature articles” in a recent Writer’s Digest magazine issue, I came up with an idea for a question to start profile interviews. So far, it’s worked wonders to capture great details about the lives of alumni and for getting great background information on what motivates faculty to research and teach in their chosen field.

The first time I tried asking this question at the start of an interview, I learned about many of the major moments in my interviewee’s life. The student, who was a retired military veteran in his mid-50s enrolled in an online degree program, told me how visiting an orphanage on a community service mission during his military years led to his decision to pursue an online degree in social work. He also told me how an experience at age 11 contributed to his decision to pursue a degree in social work, too. I learned all of this—and more—because of one question.

So, what was this seemingly magic question? I asked him, “How did you get to where you currently are in your life journey?” Try it the next time you write a profile. Or let Dana’s Creative Services interview a student, faculty, or alum from your story idea list and write the profile for you.

Image credit: Stuart Miles/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.

Editor’s Perspective: 3 Common and Easily Correctable Writing Mistakes

Editing checklistA large portion of the work that Dana’s Creative Services does involves editing other people’s writing. Through editing work for various clients over the years, Dana has noticed many common mistakes that writers at all organizations make. Whether it’s a book project or a marketing brochure, the same mistakes occur.

A quick proofread of the initial draft is all most clients need to correct these common errors (and possibly reduce editing time and cost). So to help clients improve their first drafts, Dana is sharing the three most common writing mistakes and how to easily look for and correct those errors:

Spelling errors. This may sound like the most obvious mistake—even too obvious—but Dana sees spelling errors all the time. Run a spell check of your document before submitting it to an editor. Because spell check isn’t 100 percent accurate, Dana also recommends quickly scanning the document to catch any glaring spelling errors that spell check doesn’t catch.

Too many spaces. Most editorial styles usually require one or two spaces between sentences, but Dana often sees two or more spaces between sentences or even extra spaces at the beginning of paragraphs. These extra spaces can easily creep in, but it’s simple to remove them, too. Just do a Find and Replace in a Microsoft Word document. In the Edit menu, select Find, then Advanced Find and Replace. Insert spaces into the Find field, and then put the correct number of spaces in the Replace field.

Comma placement. AP style omits the comma before the word “and,” while Chicago Manual of Style retains the comma before “and” in a series. If you know your organization’s style, you can do a Find and Replace for , and if you want to remove it, or a space and the word and ( and) to find instances where it may need to be added.

Of course, any editor (including Dana’s Creative Services) is happy to correct these mistakes for you—and also help you perfect your copy to best speak to your target audience.

Image credit: digitalart/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.