Corporate and technical writing,
marketing material, non-fiction books
Here are 28 stories about projects I've done. Some of them may make you slap your forehead. Each problem is a real example, but I've had to guess at the way people broke the news to me. Those aren't exact quotes -- just my best recollection. I start with a troublesome brochure.
How to lift a generator
We need a much better brochure!
.... Manager of a portable-generator factory
He'd had an advertising agency produce a brochure for him. The aim was to open up the market for the company's portable generator by selling it to farmers. That was who the brochure was for -- farmers.
The brochure was printed and ready to use, but the Manager of the generator company went cold on it. It was all wrong, he realised. I looked at it and agreed it was a strange effort. The cover showed a 'farming scene'. Presumably that was the idea. But how were those surreal zigzags in the sky (very unusual lightning?) supposed to help sell the generator? And do farmers' daughters usually carry a generator from place to place, as two of them were shown doing? Unless they were supposed to be women farm hands? And do such people usually wear bikinis? Do they usually look like flawless models?
No, no, no.
My headline for the new brochure was simple: Does your generator pass these seven tests? Followed by seven questions that mattered most to farmers, with the most important question first ("Can you lift it?"). Then a short answer to each.
On the back were some specs, for the more technical farmers. And the graphics? Just a good photo of the generator! That's what the company was selling.
It worked perfectly. The approach had come out of my brainstorming meetings with the Manager. I'd made sure I understood what mattered to the farmers. Then the brochure more or less wrote itself. No fancy language. Just what the machine was, what good it would do them, what ways it was a bit better than other portable generators. The brochure was like a good-natured neighbour, giving them the lowdown, no pressure, talking at ease.
The refuseniks and the softwareOur operators are refusing to use a software system that cost us millions to develop. Some of them say they're using it, but we can see they aren't. We want a manual written that will get them to use it, somehow.
I listened to what the operators had to say. How did they see the system? It was artificial-intelligence software that was supposed to help them make decisions in running a high-volume filtering process.
Then I broke certain hard news to the Senior Engineer: because of the way the system had been presented to the operators, and some mishaps in getting it set up, the operators now had a hostile opinion about it. Very. It had become a tradition to ridicule the system and never use it.
Yet I saw a way to fix things: it was in each operator's interest to use the system. It would save time and sweat. The figures were there to prove it, but the operators didn't know that. And they hadn't been trained properly in using the system. Some of them didn't know the basics, and none of them knew how to get the best from it.
I wrote this up for the operators, in a plain-talking way. ("We know you distrust this thing, but look...") They all swung around and started to use it. In a few days they'd proved to themselves it was better than the old manual way.
The Senior Engineer had the pleasure of watching the plant productivity rise steeply.
PGP + CAD = MONEYI want to tell mining companies in Western Australia about my service: drafting work, done cheaply in India, with files sent over the Internet. How can I reach the right people in mining?
....A businessman from India, living in Australia
I first checked this out with a few of my mining clients. I wanted to know: would this thing fly? Would they be willing to send their CAD files to India to be worked on -- never mind if it's cheaper or not? Answer: yes, if the security seemed OK.
I suggested to the Indian businessman that I write a four-or-five-page letter -- detailed, informative, very straightforward. And that he send it to a carefully chosen list of people in mining. A business-to-business direct marketing mailer, with a professional tone, covering all benefits and possible objections.
I also helped him set up a PGP encryption system -- otherwise he couldn't guarantee security over the Internet. The letter also explained how his people in India would keep the files secure while they worked on them.
The little speech that couldI've got to give a speech at the opening of a railway facility. The Minister of Transport and some important clients will be there, and I need to get this exactly right.
....General Manager of a mine
He'd been a client of mine for years. His briefings are always a model: all the background documents are carefully organised in a D-ring binder, with index tabs. A pleasure to work with. I like his briefings, and he likes my speeches.
The railway speech went fine, he told me.
Selling statistics to engineersWe've been trying to lift the statistical sophistication of our engineers, and we drafted a manual for them. They just throw it away! Maybe you can come around and see if there's some way to make this work?
....Group Statistician in a global company
In one way, this turned out to be no different from many marketing jobs: I first had to find out what the market 'thought', then work out how to 'sell' whatever the client was selling -- in this case, advanced statistics! I told the Group Statistician I'd like to spend a chunk of his budget interviewing some of the people he'd sent the draft manual to, and to some others he'd like to send the revised one to (if I got that far). A novel idea to him, but he OKed it right away.
The people I talked to told me what was wrong with the draft manual: it said nothing about what good it might do them in their jobs, there wasn't enough connection between the theoretical stuff in the beginning chapters and the practical examples in the following sections, there were no tables in the back that could be used to follow through the examples -- and used later in their own work -- and on and on.
I re-wrote the document. I fixed everything that anyone had complained about, or had made a positive suggestion about. I made sure the language itself was as clear as the topic allowed. I also suggested better ways of laying out the pages -- more white space, for example.
This edition worked. Engineers kept it. They used it. It seemed to make everyone happy.
Well, it should have worked: it was their book, in a way -- exactly what they said they wanted.
A park for lazy crocodilesWe've got the job to produce a tourist brochure for a crocodile park. The owners want some original text written about the lifestyle of crocodiles. You'd need to research it, then write up some interesting stuff.
The sort of assignment that can change your view of life. To quote from the brochure I wrote: "The only time a male crocodile 'wastes' energy is at mating time. He swims around the female, splashing and showing off, blowing amazing quantities of bubbles, and slapping his loved one with his heavy tail."
The terrible tenderWe've been working on this tender, and we can see it's still no good. We're almost out of time.
....Disgruntled writing team
Here was a tender for a construction project worth half a billion dollars. (Yes, billion.) The draft wasn't in a uniform style, because it had been written by several people. It wasn't very readable either. There were places where it didn't even make sense. There were also irritating duplications. In other places, information seemed to be missing.
The document was more than a hundred single-spaced pages. I worked on it over two weekends and a public holiday.
And yes. They won the contract.
Machiavelli's Annual PlanI need to start pulling together my Annual Plan for the Board. I need your help again.
He'd known me for a long time. He knew I'm good at keeping my mouth shut. Some of the considerations in his Annual Plans are so involved that even Machiavelli might have taken a few deep breaths.
My job: listen critically, as an outsider. Then make any suggestions I could, and help him word the document.
Hot blood and cold waterPeople are getting pretty upset. But they don't even know the facts! You think you can write the facts in a booklet, to calm them down?
....A group of managers
The agitated people were employees in an isolated company mining town. A strike seemed to be looming -- mainly about their water costs and housing.
I flew there and talked to people. Or rather, I mainly listened. What I heard wasn't so bad: they were unhappy about things they could get fixed, just by asking. Except they didn't know they could ask, or what the procedure was. (So the managers were right -- the employees didn't know the facts.)
But a couple of their grumbles were different: like the notion that their water rates were too high compared to ordinary towns. So I peered at a lot of statistics. Right, their rates were higher if they used a lot of water, because they got into the steep part of the rates curve. The curve was arranged that way to stop water being wasted. (Dry country, this place.)
I wrote all this up in a no-nonsense booklet (a pretty thick one). Which did the trick. Pax.
Months later, on a flight to the mining town for a different job, I had the pleasure of watching a new company recruit spend the whole flight reading the booklet -- reading with so much interest it might have been a thriller. A writer rarely gets to see something this gratifying.
Leaky water tank?I've had a lot of trouble with crazy ad people, but I gather you're different! Can you come around here and talk to me about writing a little press ad?
Could I resist? I wrote a single-column display ad that went into farming newspapers all over Western Australia. The headline: Leaky water tank? Followed by a no-hype ad of about 70 words, set in a small font. No pictures. Cost? Maybe $50 a week. And the entrepreneur sold around $2000 worth of water-tank liners, week after week, month after month, without ever changing a jot of the ad.
The entrepreneur became a regular client, and for much bigger jobs.
The slow way to win an awardWe're thinking of applying for an Engineering Excellence Award. We've got four weeks to get in an application. Is that enough time?
.... Civil Engineering Department Manager
I said no. Not enough time. But pointed out they could defer the application for a year without any penalty. Why not apply for the same award the following year? Then there'd be time to make a first-class job of it. They agreed.
Their project had sparkling engineering features, and these technical achievements had to be explained to a judging panel with both lay people and professors on it. Both types of minds would have to be catered for.
I studied the award rules, phrase by phrase. And looked at the award submissions that had won the year before. Then read boxes of background material about their project (a $300m manufacturing process) and talked to the design engineers who'd done the work.
I wrote a submission that I thought would give the company the best shot at winning. It included a video that may have been a corporate first: no music at all.
The mud below, the publicity aboveWe've organised for hundreds of volunteers to plant trees, but haven't been able to get any publicity by issuing press releases. Maybe you could write an article that some magazine might publish?
....Environmental scientist at a public utility
I wrote an article that put the tree-planting into a much bigger picture: the genuine menace of rising salinity in the State. An airline in-flight magazine published my 3500-word article. It was the lead article, and more than half of it was about the volunteers from the public utility and their tree planting.
A powerful clap of publicity for a good cause.
Department-to-Department marketingWe can't convince our peers in Operations to do something our way. Because they won't, we both waste time doing things the hard way. Can you help us sort this out? I mean, write something?
....Department Manager in a chemical-processing plant
Engineering wanted Operations to spend more time on front-end design work.
First I checked what the Operations people thought about the idea: I just asked them, face-to-face. "No way, we're too busy, a waste of time, etc."
But I did manage to find some sunlit patches of common ground between the two Departments. I pointed out those, then branched out and showed how Engineering's idea would save Operations lots of hours every year. I wrote it in a formal report. I simply made a good case about it.
And hey, the Departments started working together the way Engineering wanted. Both saved themselves much time.
The annual smart report cardI want our Annual Report to be useful as a marketing document. We've been trying to write it that way and can't do it.
....Managing Director of a company that designs and manufactures smart-card electronics
Oh, one other thing: he wanted it done in four days to meet a printing deadline. I flew in, met him, listened hard, then wrote -- and re-wrote -- hard.
I may be able to take some credit for large international sales the company made in the following months.
Some engineers learn to writeCan you do something about lifting the writing skills of my engineers? You should see the sort of letters they write to our clients! It's hurting us.
....Managing Director of a national engineering consultancy
I had taught courses before in Plain English, so I worked out a course. I looked through a sample of their reports and letters, then centred the course on the problems I found. As usual for writing courses, about half the people improved a great deal, about a quarter improved noticeably, and the last quarter -- try as they might -- just weren't wired right and never quite got it. But an improvement in three-quarters of the staff meant far less editing load on their managers.
Legal adviceOur lawyers say our isolation and work-permit procedures need to be re-organised and re-written, because some responsibilities aren't clear enough. We might be liable if something ever went wrong. Someone at the Institute of Management recommended you.
....Safety officer at a chemical plant
I agreed, once I'd studied the documents: "man or beast couldn't understand this!" The documents needed to be taken apart, the labyrinth of links and responsibilities followed through with painstaking care, and then everything put back together in a way that was readable.
I sent in a proposal for doing it. That was checked by the company's lawyers. They gave the nod, and I reworked the fat document over a period of months.
Putting it simply: you're wrong!We've got a contractor who's claiming nearly a million dollars extra, because of the way they're interpreting our contract. We're about to get into arbitration and I want to present the best possible case to the Arbitrator. We've got to win this! I want you to re-write my lawyer's screeds, and work in some other material I have, so our case will come across better.
He'd been a client for years and he trusted me with very confidential jobs. He'd been impressed, he told me at one stage, by the way I managed our office security, with strong encryption, and documents going into a shredder once they were no longer needed for reference.
Reading the correspondence and memos between the two parties in dispute, it was hard to make perfect sense of it. They'd been squaring off for months, each contradicting the other, until the layers of contradiction got too deep for them to understand.
When I couldn't follow something that my client's lawyer had said, my client got his lawyer to clarify it. This filtering gradually cleared up the obscurities on my client's side. In the end, I wrote a case for my client that was easy for the Arbitrator to understand.
The Arbitrator slashed the contractor's claim so much that my client was positively sunshiny.
It has bean newsWe're a medium-sized accounting firm, sixty people, and our marketing consultant says we should be putting out a newsletter to our clients. You've been recommended. You interested?
I wrote the text for the newsletter for more than two years. Then -- as I warn in my website pointers -- exhaustion set in among the accountants charged with supplying fresh information. It just got too hard. End of newsletter. (But two years is good going, so they deserve kudos...)
Curing sick lettersWe send out the stiffest, most unsympathetic and bureaucratic letters to employees who get sick or injured! You know, as we 'guide' them through the whole Workers Compensation system. We have stacks of these letters, for every possible thing that happens. Can you re-write the letters and make them more friendly?
....A new human-resources manager in a minerals company
Not a difficult job, compared to some I get. Except to figure out what the original letters meant in some parts.
Safety never hurt anyoneWe're working out a training course for a comprehensive new safety system we're putting in, and we need someone to write all this up.
....Manager of Health and Safety for a large mine
It took months. The system covered everything from safety goggles to spectacular disasters. I made the course clear, memorable and -- where suitable -- entertaining.
YumWe're going to send a Christmas hamper to our employees. There's a little card that goes with it, and we need some wording that will sound OK for everyone.
....The personnel manager of a company with 3000 employees
It didn't take me long, and he was pleased with it. It was the smallest job I've ever done. Two lines of skilful Christmas cheer.... well, good.
How to make laws into bookletsThere's a new law that's going to come into effect, governing landlords and tenants. We need someone to read the draft legislation and put it into plain-English booklets.
....The Public Relations Director at a
As it turned out, no parts of the draft legislation were hopelessly hard to understand. (Hard, yes. Hopeless, no.) It was pretty clear for draft legislation.
I first put myself in the position of a tenant, and read the legislation from their point of view. Then wrote text for their brochure. Then repeated the process for the landlords and wrote that brochure.
The client only wanted text from me. Someone else put in cartoons and did the layouts. When I saw the booklets later, I was charmed: very friendly looking.
Well, it worked for McDonald'sWe're ready to franchise our business system across the country, and we need a lot of documentation written for potential franchisees.
....An accountant, one of the owners of a recruitment service
He wasn't wrong about "a lot of documentation." It turned out to be a complicated job. In writing the procedures for him, many questions popped up. Things were missing. There were cases and events that hadn't happened to the owners in running their recruitment service, but things that could happen. Policies and fixes had to be put in as we went.
An expensive exercise (fat document). But worth it for the owners: they sold franchises all over the country.
The graphics book without any picturesWe need a little book written about corporate image, to help promote ourselves nationally.
....Owner of a busy, way-up-market design group
He paid for a researcher. She got me books and technical reports from all over the world -- about colour, design psychology, and much else.
Away we went. It took about three months to
work out an approach and draft the text. They
used the text for years, and of course did
their own graphics for the book.
Don't tell anyone, but we're good at PRIt's such a relief to find someone who talks sense about the web! (And I've talked to a lot of people.) Can we set up a meeting?
....A client service manager at a large PR firm
I ended up writing most of their website for them -- and they're wall-to-wall with able writers. Why did that happen? Because they felt "too close to it all." Which they were.
I put in lots of examples on their website about the tough problems they solved and how they fixed them. (Sound familiar?)
Thou shalt notI told our lawyers I want this written in plain English. I told them I was asking you to do it.
.... Manager of a mine
He handed me a 60-page draft: a new contract between the mine owners and the engineering contractor who operated the mine. They'd had years of trouble with the old contract, like trying to agree on what some of it meant.
Reading the new contract, I slammed into a few paragraphs that were dense as stone. What could they mean? I asked around. But no one knew! Everyone thought that someone else "must know". The clauses had been dragged along, maybe with a wince, from the old contract.
Solution? Cut them out!
I next flew to the mine (making a spy-story landing at a secluded airstrip). For a day I laboured through the document with engineers and managers. Was everything in the document meant to be there? And hardest: what might have been overlooked?
I then had a scribbled-through, scratched-out contract, stiff with legal writing and buttressed with engineering phrases, and flowering with yellow sticky notes. The next thing was to turn it into plain English.
I started by getting rid of the word 'shall'. It was everywhere, like pen flourishes in an ancient scroll. A lot of shalls disappeared because I re-wrote the contract in the present tense. (It's OK to do that, because the Law is "constantly speaking".) The surviving shalls meant "you have to do this" -- and I turned each of those into a "must".
I cut down expanses of weedy phrases. "Give consideration to" became "consider". "Until such time as" became "until". "In the event of" became "if". "Hereby" was simply chopped. (You can chop out a lot.)
But some words you can't cut, no matter how ponderous and off-putting they sound. They have an exact legal meaning and there aren't any equivalents in everyday speech. So words like "indemnify" stayed put. And there are certain subtleties of construction to keep an eye on -- explained in a plain-English-for-lawyers reference book I've come to trust.
The lawyers and engineers checked everything. I made it easier by putting in a long alphabetical index. They could find every reference to "dust-suppression" for example, no matter where the phrase popped up in the contract. The index was so popular it became part of the contract.
The engineers liked the whole contract. So did the manager who hired me. And if the lawyers weren't truly enthusiastic, they didn't complain out loud. They were too well-bred and progressive.
The plain-English contract was signed. It has been used as planned, by anyone who needs to refer to it -- lawyer or not.