191: Writing Better with Anne Janzer

By August 11, 2017Podcasts

 

 

Writing coach Anne Janzer provides principles, checklists, and pro-tips for better writing at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to overcome the biggest workplace writing problems
  2. The 6 questions to ask yourself before you start writing
  3. The best ways to get your points across without offending

About Anne

Anne Janzer is an author and writing coach who has worked with over a hundred technology businesses in her career. Anne has written three books on marketing and writing. Her latest book is called The Workplace Writer’s Process: A Guide to Getting the Job Done. It covers the things no one teaches you in writing class: how to set yourself up for success when writing on the job, how to collaborate with others on writing projects, and the secrets to creating effective content.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Anne Janzer Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Anne, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Anne Janzer
Hey, thanks for having me. I’m always delighted to talk to people about being awesome at writing on the job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Well, it’s such an important skill. So I’d like to hear maybe, first though, about one of your earlier jobs. You were scheduling auditions for opera singers. I just imagine something hilariously fun might happen within that context. Is that the case?

Anne Janzer
It actually was more run-of-the-mill than you might think. When I was a kid my mom decided that she was going to start a regional opera theater so my childhood was filled with cooking meals for conductors, and opera singers staying in the attic bedroom, and things like that. So scheduling the auditions was fun, it was interesting, it was something I did as a high school kid. But musicians are such wonderful people as a rule. Even opera singers, who maybe get a bad rep for being divas    , but it was fun. I enjoyed it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, I was wondering if any opera singers were trying to like really impress you somehow, or like the scheduling audition that wasn’t supposed to be scheduled, to try to persuade you or bribe you.

Anne Janzer
No bribes but I suspect there’s probably two things going on. So I’m a high school kid but I’m trying to, you know, this is in the days of answering machines, right? People didn’t have cellphones. So I try to leave a very professional-sounding voice mail, and I think they will call and leave a message or talk, and they would try to leave a very professional, “This is so-and-so.”

So probably, on both ends of the phone, were two people, each trying to sound much more impressive, and they were probably sitting in their sweatpants doing something. It maybe like too much exposure to the art of adopting a brand voice and tone and style though so it maybe it was a valuable lesson there, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued by all those topics. And so you’ve got a book The Workplace Writer’s Process which is releasing the day of our recording. So thanks so much for making the time on the big release day. That’s cool. And writing is so important and a skill often cited as something that professionals are lacking. So why don’t you just open us up and share, for starters, maybe some of the core principles or perspectives to bear in mind that orient us to this whole topic?

Anne Janzer
Okay. Yeah, and I feel really strongly about this topic and I spent my whole career basically working, much of my career as a freelance writer for different technology companies, and I will go in and do different projects and when things would go wrong, I think, “Okay. Well, how am I going to make sure that I don’t step into that problem again? How can I set myself up so I don’t run into that problem?”

And I ended up with a very robust set of processes that I would follow that helped me be successful. And it’s not rocket science. It’s taking a little bit of care. So if I have two core messages from this book that I would really like your listeners to absorb, one of them is this, that when you’re writing in a workplace, it’s a team sport.

So you might be a brilliant novelist or something, that doesn’t say anything to what kind of a writer you’re going to be in a workplace because it’s really about understanding other people’s needs, collaborating, working with others, so writing is a team sport. And if you want to be the most valuable player on that team, process is your secret weapon. No matter how well you write as an individual, what matters is how you set yourself up, how you plan and execute the things that you’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s handy as a bit of a frame to start with. And so when you say it’s a team sport, I guess I’m thinking about some scenarios in which we had a group of people writing something all at once.

Anne Janzer
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And I found that to be sub-optimal from my personal approach and desire to efficiently construct a meaningful message. So what do you mean exactly by a team sport? Is there a place for this group simultaneous writing or is that indeed sub-optimal like my instinct says it is?

Anne Janzer
Well, there’s a chapter on that because there’s sort of the group collaborative writing. There’s writing by a committee which is just probably never good. There’s true collaboration. But what I’m talking about is something different. What I’m talking about, so I’ll be brought in as an external writer to work on a project. But my success depended not just on how well I wrote but what happened in those first meetings where I really nail down what it was people were trying to do, what the objective was, who the audience was.

So when it actually came to the writing process, yeah, that was me sitting by myself somewhere writing, right? But everything that happened ahead of the time, ahead of the writing, there was collaboration and after the writing. If you write something and you never get it out of approvals or reviews then you’re not going to be successful.

Or if you write something, let’s say, that doesn’t need approvals or reviews but it goes out and your readers, the people that you’re trying to reach, never see it or they see it and they don’t get it and just miss it, you are not going to be successful. Your success as a writer depends on other people: the readers and the other people in organizations, if you’re writing on behalf of an organization. So that’s the sense in which I mean it’s a team sport.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so then can you lay out what are some of the biggest problems that lead to the teams losing, I guess, in effective business writing there?

Anne Janzer
The biggest, the single biggest problem if I had to pick one, is simply this – lack of planning. And we set off, in just most egregious case, sometimes people would hire me and say, “Oh, Anne, we need you to write three whitepapers.” I’ll say, “Okay. Great. So let’s talk about the first one. What’s the objective and who’s the audience?” And they say, “Well, we don’t know. We just need three for sales. Write them and then we’ll tell you.” “What’s your messaging?” “Write something and then we’ll do it.”

So there’s that sort of lack of planning. And then there’s also the lack of planning that happens when you just sort of are talking to someone and you assume that you know what they want, or they assume that you know what they’re talking about. And so you write something and what happens in the revision process is when the planning starts, and that’s just never fun.

So lack of planning and writing without regard for the effect that you’re trying to have on the reader. If you want to be effective as a writer you need an objective.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that sounds tweet-able and rhymes. There you go.

Anne Janzer
To be effective you need an objective. Exactly. There you. Because, otherwise, what effect are you having? You have no idea. You have to have an objective. So you need to plan first.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so it sounds like, tell me then, a planning really consists of arriving at clarity about a number of key parameters or answers to key questions there. So could you lay out for us some of your top questions or planning checklist?

Anne Janzer
I can. In fact, I love the checklist analogy. Like airline pilots use a landing checklist or takeoff checklist. You usually have a takeoff checklist. Before you write make sure you have answers to like six questions and it’s a simple six-step thing. What’s the objective of this thing that you’re writing? Who’s the target reader? You might have multiple audiences but you’ve got to pick one and aim for it.

What’s that reader’s reason for reading the thing? What’s their reason? Why would they even bother? What’s the format? What’s the review process? Does somebody have to sign off on it? Who are the stakeholders? And what’s the schedule? And if you can answer those six questions then you’re ready to write.

And if you’re doing something that is on behalf of someone having asked you to do it, if someone says, “Oh, Anne, can you write a blogpost?” or, “Pete, write a blogpost about our new product,” you make sure that you just… it can be informal, “Just to recap. I’m going to do a blogpost for the prospective buyer,” and just run them down and just make sure that everybody is in agreement before you start writing, and you will save yourself so much trouble down the road.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. I’m thinking about someone I know who was in a group writing situation, and when asked, they have a question associated with some of these matters, I guess with regard to the schedule and the review process, the response was, “Oh, it’s collaborative,” and it didn’t seem like a complete answer to me. So do you have any pro tips on if you’re not getting the clarity that you need how do you summon the diplomacy and the persistence to get what you need?

Anne Janzer
Yeah, it’s interesting. When you can’t get clarity on these things, and especially on the target reader or things like that, it’s a sign that you really need to get that hammered out before you write. It’s a sign that there’s some issue there. The schedule can be waffly because schedules change and they always do and maybe people just take that for granted but it’s still better to start out with that schedule in mind even if you end up abandoning it part way through.

My best advice is just try to keep bringing up, “Okay, before I start, this is my understanding of what we’re doing, right? And if you’re okay then I’ll go ahead.” Sort of a gentle persistence perhaps is the best approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So then that’s one key problem is the lack of planning. What is another key problem and solution?

Anne Janzer
So the other biggest problem that is particularly pervasive in the business world is the curse of knowledge. Cognitive scientists and behavioral economists talk about this as a term for our inability to forget, to un-know the things that we know. Once we’ve learned something we can’t remember when we didn’t know it, and it’s very hard to put ourselves in the perspective of someone who doesn’t know it.

Like a lawyer who talks to you and speaks in legal terms, and you’re thinking, “Why are they talking to me that way? I don’t know what habeas corpus is,” or whatever it may be. They just forget that you don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Or a consultant or an accountant or an engineer or a coder.

Anne Janzer
Yeah, and I think, to some extent, the greater your knowledge the heavier the burden of the curse of knowledge because you have so much more abstractions and concepts and terminology that you work with all the time, it becomes a second nature to you. And the issue is when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t share that same background as you.

There’s a psychologist, named Steven Pinker, at Harvard who studies language and human language and human brains, and he has a great quote, which is, “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers don’t know what she knows.” And there you go. That’s it in a nutshell, you know. And we all do it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so what’s to be done then if you’ve got the curse of knowledge?

Anne Janzer
Well, so we all suffer from it except rare individuals possibly. And, again, you might have guessed, but my answer to this again is process. Try to embed the reader in every stage of your writing process. So we talked about the planning process and that checklist. One of the things on the checklist was – two of the things – “Who is the target reader?” and “What’s their reason for reading it? Why are they even going to pick it up and bother?” Once you start thinking about the reader, you think outside your own head a little bit.

Another way to do this is to come up with and envision a person who is your target reader while you are drafting as if you are writing to them a letter. Try to bring them to your head. That makes it easier to get outside your head and remember that writing is essentially a two-part conversation – it’s what you’re saying and what they’re reading.

I worked with a woman who was in the HR field and was writing, and she was relatively new to the field so she immersed herself in that terminology but she was writing some texts for job applicants who were not applicants to HR but applicants to the larger organization. And she showed me what she has written and it was filled with a lot of HR jargon, it was filled with a lot of sort of complex things that you would read if you were talking to a lot of HR people, but the world outside was kind of confused.

So I asked her to try writing and just picture somebody else, not someone sitting around her at work but someone that might be a job applicant. She came back and she showed me what she had written, and it was wonderful. It was clear and it was engaging and it was warm and just crystal clear. And I said, “What did you do? What did you do to change your writing like this?” And she said, “I envisioned my teenage daughter as I was writing. I wrote as if I was writing to her.” And I thought that was fascinating how that transformed her writing because her daughter, she said, was smart but knew nothing about HR so she knew she couldn’t talk in those terms.

If you’ve been around teenagers you know if you’re condescending or use a lot of words they’ll roll their eyes and just like tune out, so she knew she had to be clear and to the point, and yet it was warm and affectionate too so it was very interesting. So that’s one way to add a little process to get outside your head, is to bring that reader there while you are drafting.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Okay. So we got problem, lack of planning, we got problem, curse of knowledge, and solutions there. What else would you zero in on?

Anne Janzer
I think if we can solve those two problems, and we all have problems with the schedules that shrink and I think a lot of problems in the workplace are due to basicness conceptions about writing, about the fact that people think, “Well, writing should take us long as it takes to get the words down on the paper, that’s how much time you need to schedule,” right? So we can squish the writer because 500 words you can write that in an hour, right? And really the writing process is larger, it’s planning, it’s thinking, it’s drafting, it’s revising, and these things need a little bit of breathing room between them, so that’s another problem is just sort of misconceptions about the writing process.

Pete Mockaitis
And any thoughts on addressing those well? Just to kind of make it very clear, what are the steps and how long they take?

Anne Janzer
Yeah, I think as a writer you need to be clear about your needs, be clear about your scheduling and say, “Okay. Well, if I can start this then I can have a draft on this day. I’ll need revisions. I’m going to need this much time to do revisions,” and just make the process and the steps clear and scheduled for them, and schedule in the little breaks and time that you might need. If you articulate it, people kind of say, “Yeah, okay. Sure, that’s what you need.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. And so then when you’re actually sitting down to write something and email a document, a plan, a job description, whatever it may be, do you have any pro tips on making that time as productive as possible?

Anne Janzer
Yeah. Well, the biggest tip, and this will make it not just as productive as possible but I hope as pleasant as possible, is to separate the drafting from the revising. Just give yourself permission to just write and explore and not have to finish it and revise it and make it perfect and send it. So commit to having two phases.

Commit to writing a draft and then returning to it to revise because then you shut out that, you know, we all have an inner critic in our head and we need that inner critic when we are revising, that’s what the revision is about. But it shuts us down when we’re trying to write. And so it’s shooting down ideas, it shuts down creativity. So just give yourself a chance to just write a draft with no pressure of making it perfect, and then come back and revise.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so now, one thing that I find is tricky in my writing is I’m doing email and I know what I want to say but the challenge is people’s feelings. So maybe, for example, let’s say someone sent over an agenda for a meeting, and I don’t think it’s good. I think, “This agenda is incomplete. I don’t know what this means or that means, what we’re trying to achieve here, what would we call a success. It sounds like if we enter into this meeting with that then people are just going to share a lot of facts and I don’t know if we’re going to reach any actual decisions or outcomes or anything worthwhile.” So that’s really what I think, right?

But, at the same time, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t want to, in any way, convey, “I think you’re dumb or bad or inadequate, and that you are just not valued in some ways.” And so I guess I kind of go, I have this tension with myself, between being sort of direct, clear, candid, blunt, “This is the thing,” versus thinking about the recipient’s feelings, emotions, and being hyper-conscious to not offend or just may feel terrible in some way with the writing.

So I don’t know if you’ve got any perspective on doing that better or quicker but sometimes I’m surprised that, I don’t know, a 200-word email would take an hour for me kind of get out, because, “Okay. I want to convey this but I don’t want to have it construed in any way as I’m a jerk who hates anybody or finds them inadequate.” So how do I do that, Anne?

Anne Janzer
Yeah, it’s tricky because even when we’re talking on this podcast, I have vocal inflections. I have a lot of clues as to what you’re feeling and what you’re saying. And when you just write, it’s standing on its own and it brings to, you know, the reader may, like you said, become offended at something that you may not want to. Although in this case it sounds like you sense that you’re angry not at the person but you’re angry at that agenda and its potential impact on your life, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Makes sense, yeah.

Anne Janzer
So I think, in this case, again dividing and conquering is going to be good. You should write a response and keep it in the drafts folder, do not send it yet, and then try to cut down to the most, return to it, take a break, get out and do something else if you don’t have to respond immediately. It’s probably best not to respond immediately if you have an emotional reaction to an email anyway, and see what the key points are.

“I’d like to see more action items. Do you think we should…?” and pull those out of the email. Because, I think, if you’re writing as you’re feeling, which it sounds like you probably were in your initial response, that’s what you wanted to do, you may have a lot of words in there that somebody will catch onto and become offended with.

And I think people are not offended if you’re concise and very specific to the problem. Not to them but to the problem, “My concern about this agenda is that it could easily turn into a long whatever,” or something. Keep the focus not on the person who sent it but on what’s going to happen on that agenda. But give it time.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like that. And so you said, “My concern about this agenda,” already helps sort of take away some emotional charge as opposed to, “My concern is.” It’s like, oh, it’s ambiguous. It’s amorphous. It could be offense to the person or the document.

Anne Janzer
Right. And this is true if you’re whenever you have disagreements with this sticky writing thing, a sticky email, remember it’s not about you and it’s not about them, it’s about the thing or the reader or the customer. Keep the focus at where it needs to be for the business objective and off the personal if you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so now, we’ve covered a number of things here. If you were to summarize, like if there were sort of one huge bang for the buck type action that would give us a lot of return with regard to improvement on writing, what would that thing be that we should do?

Anne Janzer
I really think it’s the planning checklist. If I had to pick one thing that I could get everyone I worked with to do it would be, “Take this little six-point checklist and do it the next time before I write anything, the next time you do something for work even if you want to write it like a LinkedIn pulse, thought leadership article, or whatever.” Take the six-point planning checklist and walk through it first before you start writing and it will make you more effective.

I know every time I shortcut it I regret it and my writing takes longer and I’ve got to retrofit things in. So that’s what I would share. I actually have on my website, I created a landing page that you can sign up and just download the checklist from the book. You don’t have to download the book, you can download the planning checklist, just print it out and use it, and that would be my biggest piece of advice.

That’s my mission. I’m on a mission. I’m on a mission to get people to write more but to think carefully about what they want to write and then write it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so with this checklist, you mentioned the six things, do you go into like sub-detail associated with the six things or…?

Anne Janzer
The book goes into details how you do it but I think if you just read it you’ll get an idea. It’s like, “Okay, we need to have an objective.” It goes into a little bit of detail in the checklist but it can be very simple. It can be, “What’s my schedule? Who needs to approve it? What’s the purpose? What’s this thing going to look like?” things like that. It doesn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t – a good checklist should be something that’s simple and easy to follow and everybody can understand. So that’s what I try to do there.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. Well, so anything else you want to share before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Anne Janzer
Well, if you don’t do the things, if you don’t settle these issues that are in the planning checklist before you write, often you’re going to need to settle them after you’ve written, and that’s just no fun, right? It’s no fun to have a completed work and then have the discussion come around, “Well, who’s really the reader for this?” or, “Wait. Why would someone read this?” It’s no fun to have those discussions afterwards.

And then it becomes very personal, and this person is right, and that person is wrong. When you have those discussions before you write, it’s about the reader and your needs, and then the review process becomes about, “Well, did we execute the thing that we were trying to do?” It becomes much simpler, so, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, in that case, Anne, can you start us off by sharing a favorite quote?

Anne Janzer
Favorite quote. So this one, I think I said I’m on a mission to get people to write more, and I hear this from people often that, “Well, you know, people have already kind of written about this. Why should I write it again?” And so this is my favorite quote, inspiring quote from Seth Godin, which is, “Sure, it’s been done before but not by you and not for us.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, alright.

Anne Janzer
It’s a good one, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Anne Janzer
That should motivate you.

Pete Mockaitis
I am fired up.

Anne Janzer
Alright.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Anne Janzer
Favorite book, that’s hard to ask because I love books and there are so many. But I think that your listeners, I would like to share a book called The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus, and it’s about creativity in both an individual and an organizational context. And what David does, which I love, is he takes our sort of standard operating assumptions about things and he shakes them around really hard up and down until insight falls out, which is what he has done in this, talking about creativity. So I think your readers might find it enjoyable and enlightening.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Anne Janzer
Favorite tool. I’m actually going to combine this with a favorite habit, if you don’t mind, because I think they go hand-in-hand.

Pete Mockaitis
Go for it. There’s a preparation. You looked at the checklist.

Anne Janzer
I did look at the checklist. I have a thing about checklists. No. So my favorite habit and tool, and this is something I do in my own writing, we all have things we do in our writing that are artifacts of how we think or how we talk, right? They might be words or phrases that we use. Maybe we say very or really or actually, and those words actually diminish what you’re saying. I just used it right there, you see, in speaking.

They actually, in writing, words like actually and very or some, they kind of ebb the strength out of your writing and your message. So I would suggest that you look for what your words are, and if you look enough of your writing, you’re going to find your own particular set of words. And then the tool, which you have handy right now, I’ll bet, is to use these search, a refine function in Word and look for those in your writing before you send it out.

I know I use the words some all the time when I write my first drafts, and then I do a global search and I look for it, and 95% of the time I do not need it which just weakens my writing, and I delete it. And, boom! I’m a better writer right there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you.

Anne Janzer
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
And, tell me, is there a particular nugget that you share with folks in your speaking, writing, exchanges that really gets people resonating, nodding their heads and taking notes?

Anne Janzer
Well, one that I find, because I hear it so much, I hear people say, “Well, I’m not really a writer.” People have a sense that you’re either born a writer or you’re not. And I’m sure that a lot of your listeners identify as writers but a lot of your listeners may be people who have careers which involve writing but they don’t really think of themselves as a writer.

And so to them I would say writing is a destiny that you choose yourself. You’re not born a writer or not. You write, and if you are a writer you think about intentionally becoming better at it. And if you do that, you’re a writer.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. Excellent. Thank you. And, Anne, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Anne Janzer
I have a website which is just my name AnneJanzer.com. And if you go to that website AnneJanzer.com/wwp, for workplace writer’s process, you can sign up for my list and get those planning checklist. You can then unsubscribe if you want, I won’t mind. My feelings won’t be hurt. It’s okay. It’s alright.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank for the provision. And do you have a parting challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Anne Janzer
Like I said, I’m on a mission to get people to write more. I would say take on, just stretch a little bit more. Take on another writing project. When you put this process underneath you it’s like a safety net, and so it’s okay to say, “Okay, now I’m going to not dive into the table when someone asks for a blog post. But I’m going to step up or I’m going to really put some thought and write a really killer project or plan, or project document,” or whatever it may be that you have to do. Put a little planning and careful thought into it and just see what that does for you in terms of how your writing can support your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Anne, thank you so much for this and taking the time today on release day, and I wish you lots of luck with the book and all you’re up to.

Anne Janzer
Great. Thanks so much, Pete.

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