The Book Is Here! ***bonus dog photo***

Nicely Said is shipping now, and everyone has received their preorders. Nicole and I did a quick Q&A with Peachpit about some of the topics we covered in the book. You can buy it almost wherever books are sold. And here it is on Goodreads. And here's the cake edition.

Mark Llobrera already wrote this nice post about it, and I could just hug him. 

 Leon says "Buy my person's book!"

Leon says "Buy my person's book!"

I haven't read the book since it came out. I'm struggling with the fact that the thing is published, so I can't edit it anymore. Every time I open it, I panic and close it. I'm scared to find mistakes or things I wish I could change. There's a stack of copies on my desk right now, and I've been giving them the side eye for a few days now. I know what I need to do.

I'm so happy to put it out into the world, though. Nicole has been a wonderful writing and editing partner, and she took on the project management side of things. When I was struggling to stay on top of book stuff and my full-time job, she was formatting templates in Word (god bless her), replying to emails from our publisher, maintaining our outline and publishing schedule, and texting me encouraging things like "We are writing a good book!" and "Be nice to yourself." I'm also grateful to our friends and colleagues who read early drafts and told us what they thought. In the book, we talk about the value of early readers. We all get too close to our writing, and asking people you trust to read your work with fresh eyes can be transformative. It certainly was for us. Friends, we properly thanked you in the back of the book, so here I'll just give you this hug: 

(/◔ ◡ ◔)/ 

My Favorite Editing Tip: Read It Aloud

I read everything I publish out loud. Last week I read several chapters of the book aloud and made a bunch of tiny changes in the process.

Here's what reading your work out loud can help you do:

Catch errors. You can scan something a hundred times and still miss an error. But when you read out loud, you can't help but stumble over typos and missing words.

Improve your flow. Reading out loud helps you write in a way that reflects your speech patterns and generally makes you sound more human.

Soften your sentences. As you read aloud, pretend you're talking to a real person and ask yourself "Would I say this to someone in real life?" Sometimes our writing makes us sound stodgier or colder than we'd like.

Next time you publish something, take the time to read it out loud. It's also helpful to hear someone else read your work out loud. You can ask a friend or coworker to read it to you, or even use a text-to-speech tool. Give it a try! This little trick can really transform your writing. 

Announcing Nicely Said

I’m so excited to tell you that Nicole Fenton and I are writing a book together. It’s called Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose, and it will be published by New Riders in June. We’re almost halfway through the first draft, and I can’t wait to share the book with you.

That beautiful cover is by my friend Alvin Diec.

We’re trying to write the book we’ve both wished we had throughout our careers. It will cover topics like voice and tone, talking to different audiences, addressing touchy subjects, creating flows, understanding your readers, writing with teams, and making style guides work.

Nicole is a dream teammate, and cowriting has been a delightful experience so far. It’s perfect for people like me, who are writing on the side. I’m also lucky to work for a company that not only supports projects like this, but encourages them.

We’d love to know what kind of topics would help you, so please say hi (@katekiefer, @nicoleslaw). And if you’d like to get occasional updates on the book, peeks at our progress, and probably some pictures of my dog, sign up for my TinyLetter.


Writing With Experts

“Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”

-William Zinsser, On Writing Well

I manage MailChimp’s blog, but I personally write as few posts as possible. It’s not because I’m lazy; it’s because I’m not usually the expert in any given situation.

Many writers, editors, and editorial directors work with people we affectionately call “subject-matter experts.” They’re the ones who didn’t major in English or journalism and don’t know an em dash from a hyphen, but they’re total champs at their jobs. In tech, they’re the designers, the data scientists, the engineers. They may not be professional writers, but they’re the exact right people to share their work.

With our help, our beloved experts can become confident and capable writers. We just have to commit to the process and give them the tools they need.

We also have to let go a little. I used to be afraid that if I gave other people too much control of the words, if I admitted that writing isn’t always that hard, then my job would become obsolete. It’s an understandable fear that came from a real place, but if my job ever becomes obsolete, it’s not going to be because my coworkers started blogging.

Of course there are certain types of communication best left to people who identify as writers, and of course knowing your ABCs does not make you a good writer. But when it comes to business communication—blogging, in particular—I think most people can learn to write clearly. Professional writers and editors can facilitate that. 

Empower them

The first step is acknowledging that you’re probably not the best writer for every job. If you ask me, a blog post analyzing patterns in data is more meaningful coming from a data scientist with an intimate knowledge of the process. A post about an app is more interesting coming from the person who made it. That’s why we invite all MailChimp employees to contribute to our blog.

Find the people who have more insight than you do, and give them space to communicate their own ideas. You could sit down and ask them a bunch of questions and turn that into an article, but you might not even know all the right questions to ask. Separate the subject matter from the writing, and let them tell you what’s important. Brainstorm with them, talk about angles, and help them figure out how to translate their ideas to the page.

Make them feel comfortable

Many of the people we work with aren’t trained writers. They've never been paid to write anything. They might be intimidated by the mere thought of writing. It’s a lot of pressure! Part of our job is to make them feel comfortable doing it.

Give them the tools they need in order to go forth and write, but don’t load them down with more information than they need. Plopping a big, fat style guide on a coworker’s desk and saying “memorize this and then write me something” is only going to scare them off. Instead, make style guides available for reference only, and focus on teaching new writers what they really need to know. At MailChimp, our voice and tone guide is required reading, but our traditional style guide (we use the Yahoo! style guide) is not.

Another way to make them feel comfortable is to meet them where they are. If you force new writers to adopt your systems and processes before they even put pen to paper, they might stop while they’re ahead. If someone wants to sit down and bounce a few ideas off you, sit down with them. If someone wants to send you a draft of their first post in the body of an email, let ‘em. Once they get settled, you can introduce them to the official publishing process.

Give them credit

Give your blog contributors a byline whenever possible. I think it’s rude to interview an expert, ask them for notes, translate their thoughts to the page, have them look over the article when it’s finished, and then put your name on it. It happens all the time though. That kind of process is bad for morale, and it doesn’t make people feel inclined to pitch in again.

When you’re working with people in other fields, consider how much they care about their work. They have reputations too. They want to impress the boss just as much as you do. So give them a platform to share their knowledge. It’s fun for them, and it’s obviously good for your company.

When someone writes a great post for your blog, tell them what you like about it! Share it with their team. Blogging might be just another part of your day, but for new writers, it's an exciting accomplishment.

Teach them

I’m learning to be a teaching editor. The small changes I've made have improved MailChimp's content and better prepared our writers for the future. Here’s how my editing process used to look: I assign something, you write it, I edit it, and you don’t see it again until it's published. In those days, I could get a blog post edited and ready to publish in a few minutes. It made my life easier in the short term, but it didn’t make anyone’s writing better over time.

Now I practice collaborative editing, inviting writers to participate in the process whenever I can. When someone sends me a draft, I read through it at least once before making notes. If it’s in good shape and just needs some editing, I jump right in. If it needs major changes, or if I think we should scrap it and go another route, then I stop by the writer’s desk or ask them to stop by mine. We talk through the problems and come up with a solution together. Sometimes that means rearranging the structure, and sometimes it means stopping where we are and brainstorming ideas for new directions.

When I have a draft ready for editing, I work in Google Docs or Editorially (though if it’s a blog post that’s in good shape, I put it right into WordPress Admin). I leave comments where it makes sense, instead of making changes in the doc. I don’t add a comment for every typo or rewording—if it’s just a matter of preference, a small tweak, or a mistake that probably won’t come up again, then I simply make the edit and move on. But if it’s a structural fix, a habit I've noticed from the writer, or an otherwise teachable moment, then I make a quick note about what needs to change and why.

Writers get a little better every time when they have to understand any significant edits and improve their own drafts. And the writers who get excited about the editing process rarely make the same mistake twice.


On Helping

 As content strategists, writers, and editors, we ask a lot of questions every day. It’s part of our job. We ask practical questions about websites, words, and sentence structure. We ask hypothetical questions to get people thinking. We ask uncomfortable questions, and we ask questions we don’t really want to know the answers to. But there’s one question that has enriched my relationships, improved my work, and led to more interesting conversations than any other:

“How can I help?”

In our world, there’s a lot of focus on the content strategist as hero or fixer. And sometimes we do swoop in and fix things. We clean up messes and clear up confusion. Those are important capabilities to share and explore, as long as we still feel the call to be helpful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not solving problems independently. For the most part, our jobs rely on other people doing their jobs. There’s no content to plan without a business that needs a website. There’s no website to fix without writers and designers and developers. Our clients, teammates, and bosses are all solving problems, too. We’re part of an ecosystem. It needs us, but we sure need it.

In the process of evaluating content, we often get the chance to ask big questions and start important conversations about organizational values and business goals. I love it when that happens! But whether or not those conversations have a lasting impact depends on a lot of factors: Who are we talking to? What does this business need? Who else is in the room? How are they feeling right now? In this role, we’re facilitators. The process can end with real change, but it starts with people who are willing to change. We don’t do any of this alone.

I love a good problem to solve. Give me a sloppy page or vision for a website, and I’ll take it on as my own. I like setting goals and seeing them through. Honestly, I also like the validation I get when I accomplish something on my own. But sometimes my perspective on the problems I’m trying to solve is too much about the act of solving the problem. That’s dangerous, because the focus is on me and my capacity to fix things—not the people I’m trying to help, the thing I’m doing to help, or even the impact of the thing I’m doing to help.

Going into projects with the attitude that we’re going to fix everything diminishes our chances of fixing anything. We can reflect on what we bring to the table, or we can talk about processes, outcomes, and all the things we can accomplish together. I’ve written and talked about the value of empathy for our readers. Corey Vilhauer has written and talked about empathy for our clients and teammates. Sara Wachter-Boettcher says it all starts with vulnerability. But I think this is worth saying, too: We’re not the only empathetic ones. We’re not the only ones who work well with others. We don’t have special superpowers disguised as strategic skills. The best web designers I know have taught me lessons in empathy, and any good manager knows that working toward a shared vision starts with understanding individuals. Sometimes our most empathetic move is simply supporting them.

There are so many ways we quietly help people in our day-to-day work. We spend hours upon hours working on articles and entire websites that will have someone else’s name on them. We spend more time editing blog posts than it took their authors to write them. We labor over content audits and style guides, and then we just have to cross our fingers that someone will actually use them. We perform extensive research and make careful recommendations, but at the end of the day, acting on those recommendations is someone else’s job.

When we really want to help, we go out of our way to be flexible and adapt to different people’s styles. Most of us are working across departments or companies. They all have their own systems and workflows, and though it’s tempting to better organize other people’s teams in a way that makes sense for us, sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is meet them where they are.

As helpers, we have to be willing to learn new skills for the sole purpose of making someone else’s life easier. For me, that has meant things like learning markdown to improve our team’s workflow, reading design books so I can better communicate with my coworkers, and asking questions in public that are maybe a little embarrassing for me. For someone else, it could mean attending a conference, figuring out how to make a spreadsheet do math, or tagging along on user interviews. This kind of intentional learning rewards us so deeply. We don’t get any glory for it, but it improves our work, builds trust with our teammates, and shows us our own limits and shortcomings.

We also have to be willing to do things that don’t necessarily fall within the confines of our job description. For some content strategists, this means writing and editing. We work with content every day—we should not be reluctant writers. For others, it means getting people who don’t like to be in rooms together, together in the same room. Some of our most delicate work happens behind the scenes, during conversations in conference rooms and hallways. That stuff isn’t in the job description because it’s intrinsic. It should be a given. Lisa Maria Martin calls it a "salty, ever-present undercurrent" to our work. Our relationships and breakthroughs don’t produce measurable results, and we don’t get to print out emotional progress reports and say “Look what I did!” But those conversations help, so we sit down and we have them.

I work with a bunch of smart people who know things I don’t know. Some days, the best I can do is listen and help them. And I’m ok with that.