Tag Archives: writing

Big Ideas Begin with Writers

By Erica Dix, former BIW Writer

They say that you can do a lot of different things with a degree in English. Some routes are obvious to everyone, like becoming an English teacher, or going on to law school. However, many students choose English because they have a passion for writing. Of course, not everyone is cut out for writing the next great American novel, so what’s an English major to do?

The fact is, writers are in high demand, and bringing creativity to writing is a truly marketable skill. As an English major, the important thing is to know that your writing is valuable, and to explore where it will be valued.

I enjoyed learning about great literature and critiquing fiction, but I never guessed it would translate to the world of marketing communications. However, in English class, we are taught to come up with big ideas, create content from prompts, and analyze text for meaning and direction, which is exactly what is necessary to be an effective writer who can create engaging content for websites, blogs and more.

Enter Big Ideas Writing

While I was a student at DePaul, I was lucky enough to intern at my mom’s company, Big Ideas Writing, a marketing strategy and content marketing firm. I learned the basics of freelancing, and how to work independently.

One of the toughest skills I learned was how to focus myself and stay motivated even when the boss isn’t around, and you are working at home, surrounded by distractions. I learned to meet deadlines despite the allures of Netflix or the constant barrage of unanswered texts and emails. I also learned that people who are good writers have many job titles like Marketing Strategist, Social Media Manager, Project Manager, and Communications Specialist.

Every person with a liberal arts degree can turn those essay-writing skills into a great career in marketing communications if they are willing to learn a few things outside of the classroom. Here are some practical, tangible skills that Big Ideas Writing taught me, that many businesses are looking for right now.

How to write a press release. Like the iambic couplets I studied in Shakespeare class, I learned to write press releases within certain parameters to convey information in a specific way. Press releases are designed to provide information to the media, and they have to be as straightforward and informative as possible, all within a word limit. Being able to write within a very specific set of rules can be very rewarding, and hone your creativity.

How to create social media posts for business. Companies like writers who can put together a creative Facebook, Instagram or Twitter post. When you write for social media, you have to be brief, pointed, and keep your eye on the prize: increased exposure for your client. Like the essay outlines we are taught to create in English class, social media calendars and posts help us hit the objectives of our campaign and organize our ideas into relevant content.

What SEO keywords are and how to use them. Search Engine Optimization is not something that they teach in English class, but if you have a way with words, knowing a little about SEO can get your digital content found on the internet. As English majors, our attention to detail in grammar and style makes us experts at inserting SEO keywords in a natural way.

How to write a “share-worthy” blog post… like this one! In the classroom, the professor that we English majors write for is a captive audience. With a little creative problem-solving, writers can produce an informative, persuasive or disruptive blog that reaches the public and generates those views, likes and shares. Creating online content will bring your writing into the 21st century!

How to edit my own work. Everyone likes to imagine that their first draft is perfect, but anyone who rereads their first draft the next day will realize that it’s not. For many writers, that journey begins in college where professors have students rewrite essays. The novice writer is easily frustrated by revisions and criticism, but by graduation, English majors have the humility and patience that it takes to revise like a pro.

How to always look for new opportunities. Having no boss sounds like fun… until you realize that you have to become your own boss. If you’re too easy on yourself, you will never meet deadlines and strive to be your best. The only way to succeed in freelancing is to be disciplined and passionate. Never stop searching for your next project, always promote yourself, and think from the client’s perspective. Figure out what clients need, and make it available to them.

Speaking of looking for opportunities, I am currently on the hunt for my next big one. I sadly say goodbye to Big Ideas, but the skills that I learned while working there are ideal for work with a marketing agency or association, preferably one in science, medical or environmental issues. I have always had a mind for science, and minored in Environmental Studies, so I am especially interested in work that is related to science and health. I also live in Chicago and am interested in loop locations. You can check out my work portfolio here. I will always be thankful for the lessons I learned at Big Ideas Writing, and I am excited to launch a long and prosperous career in content writing and marketing.

If you are interested in referring me for a position working in content writing, please email me at erica@bigideaswriting.com.

Why You Should Avoid Passive Voice

In my daily editing, I am always amazed at the commonplace use of passive voice over active.  Many people think it sounds more formal, or makes them sound more knowledgeable, but in most cases, it really hinders reading. The passive voice reorders the sentence, so the most important noun comes last. It makes the sentence longer and often more confusing. For example:

Active: The copywriter promoted the book.

Passive: The book was promoted by the copywriter.

We see here that by writing in the passive voice we have extended the sentence by two words, and if you read the two sentences out loud, you will probably agree that the second one sounds clunky and harder to understand.

One of the most common places you see passive voice is the law profession. Why? Mainly because they are always discussing how something happened to someone. Someone is always being acted upon, rather than simply doing something. This is because in legal language, emphasis is everything. If you are trying to persuade a judge or jury of a person’s guilt or innocence, the main focus of each sentence has to be clear and deliberate.

Active: Smith took the money, unbeknownst to my client.

Passive: The money was taken by Smith, unbeknownst to my client.

On the other hand, lawyers can also use passive voice deliberately to sound less accusatory.

Active: The suspect perpetrated the crime.

Passive (preferred in legal): The crime was perpetrated by the suspect.

It can also be skillfully used in cases where there is a multi-part subject in the sentence and the reader could use the verb up front to make it more understandable.

Active:  Tax credits based on current state laws, alimony for the spouse as per the divorce decree and co-custody of the children pending the court order are included in the mandates of the proposed bill.

Passive:  The proposed bill is to mandate tax credits based on current state laws, alimony for the spouse as per the divorce decree and co-custody of the children pending the court order.

In writing for a general audience, however, the passive voice really doesn’t add much meaning to a sentence. It just makes it more complicated. In smaller sentences the change seems small, but passive voice can make a big difference in the comprehension of more complicated sentences, like this one:

Active: The talented copywriter promoted the book with expertise.

Passive: The book was promoted well by the talented copywriter with expertise.

A writer’s goal should be to sound more knowledgeable, or to make fancier sentences. In reality, effective writers try to keep things short and concise. Eliminating the passive voice will give your writing three key factors:

Clearer meaning, which is the whole point of communication, right?

Shorter, and shorter is better, because people are more likely to take the time to read it!

Easier to read, because passive voice will clean up your sentences and make them more memorable to readers.

If you compose with Microsoft Word, you should know that the spellcheck can help you identify and change passive sentences. It is hidden, but well worth the effort!

  1. Under “File” menu, select “Options.”
  2. Select “Proofing” and scroll to “When Correcting Spelling and Grammar in Word”
  3. Change box with “writing style” to “Grammar & Style.”
  4. Select “Settings” and find and click the box for “Passive Sentences” under style. Click ok.
  5. If you have not already, you can check the box next to “Mark Grammar Errors As You Type” so that you will be alerted to any times you write a passive sentence.
  6. Click “OK” to return to the Word Options window.

So next time you are writing or editing your document, ask yourself if the subject of your sentence is performing an action (active), or if an action is being performed upon it (passive). Is active voice making the writing clearer or is writing made clearer by using active voice?

If you are having trouble eliminating the active voice in your writing, or you want to see how a professional touch can make a difference in your content, contact Karen at  Big Ideas Writing today.

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon

Inspired by the old George Michael song, this week the Big Ideas Writing blog is taken over by our summer intern, Erica Dix, who educates us on …what else? Commas! 20140607_182708

Some of the most common grammatical errors are comma-related. Very few of us can name all of the comma rules with certainty. They are more than just a pause in the sentence, they actually serve a purpose! Here are the ten main uses of commas and how to use them well…with or without the chameleon.

  1. Commas are used with dependent clauses, when the sentence begins with a word such as although, when, because, or if. Like this:

Although chameleons like the sunlight, they are careful not to overheat.

However, they are not used if the dependent clause comes second.

Chameleons are careful not to overheat even though they like the sunlight.

 

  1. Commas are used before a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

The chameleon was blue, but he soon changed back to green.

 

  1. Commas can be used to separate adjectives when an “and” can be used between them, for example:

He was a slow, steady chameleon who was skilled at climbing trees.

..which would be written without a comma as:

He was a slow and steady chameleon who was skilled at climbing trees.

 

  1. Commas can be used after introductory phrases, such as consequently, nonetheless, etc.

However, the chameleon wasn’t at the top of the tree yet.

 

  1. A comma is used after a direct address to someone.

Chameleon, where are you going?

 

  1. Commas are used to separate a phrase in quotations.

I’m going to find my friends,” the chameleon replied.

 

  1. Use a comma when referring to dates…

The chameleon’s birthday is June 21st, 2015.

and places…

Chameleon City, USA

 

  1. And when you are indicating an exact renaming…..

The chameleon, named Jeff, was very intelligent.

 

  1. Commas are used with clauses that contain unnecessary information (nonrestrictive), beginning with “which/who”.

The chameleon, who didn’t know how to read, continued to climb.

The information between the subject (chameleon) and the verb (continued) does not affect the meaning of the sentence and needs to be offset with a comma. However, if it is a clause which contains necessary information (restrictive clause) that begins with “that/who”, a comma is not necessary.

The chameleon that was in a hurry continued to climb.

The information in the clause “that was in a hurry” describes (and often identifies) the subject and affects the meaning of the sentence. It does not need to be offset with commas.

 

  1. The Oxford (Serial) Comma

Yes, we would be amiss if we didn’t mention the dreaded Oxford Comma. The Oxford comma is used at the ends of lists before the word “and”. Many writers and publications deliberately eliminate it but here in the United States, the Oxford Comma is widely acknowledged as grammatically correct.

With Oxford Comma: The chameleon eats lettuce, carrots, and spinach.

Without Oxford Comma: The chameleon eats lettuce, carrots and spinach.

I hope this answered some of your comma questions, and got you thinking about how you use this important piece of punctuation. Leave a comment if you have any of your own tips and tricks about commas. And if you are ever in need of a look at your comma use in something you’ve written, contact us at Big Ideas Writing!

Your Stance on the Oxford Comma: In or Out?

content-writing-oxford-comma

Do you embrace the Oxford comma in your writing or banish it? As a freelance content writer, I want to know.

The Oxford comma gained fame and recognition for its common usage at the Oxford University Press. For those of you who don’t know, the Oxford comma is the comma preceding the word “and” at the end of a list.

It looks like this:

                                                                         We brought hamburgers, hot dogs, and pickles.

Now let’s take it out:

                                                                         We brought hamburgers, hot dogs and pickles.

No harm done there. But if you take away the Oxford comma, we can have some pretty hilarious results, as shown by this clever cartoon from a  humorous grammar blog.

oxford-comma

Another famous argument for the Oxford comma is the following example:

“I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

In the olden days when I was learning to write, I was taught to disregard the Oxford comma. My children in high school today tell me they are taught it is optional.  So do most people use it? Actually, a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans showed that the results were close, with  57 percent of the vote loving that comma and the other 43 percent regularly hitting the delete key.

Today my freelance content writing and business writing is reviewed by many, many people before it’s posted or printed. …people from all different backgrounds and writing sensibilities.  Some bat for Team Oxford, others blackball that pesky comma.

In most cases, whether or not I use the comma comes down to the style I am writing in, and in many cases, the specific preferences of my clients, who may or may not be bound to the Microsoft Word grammar checker as their “punctuational mentor”.

Curiously, while the Oxford comma may seem trivial compared to other important world matters,  if you’ve ever created a business or internal publication with an eclectic team, you will find out quickly where people stand on its usage. If you are an Oxford-hater and omit it throughout the first draft of the company plan, then Tom goes comma crazy, putting in Oxfords everywhere he can on the Google doc, you find out quickly that Tom is an Oxford-lover.  And he obviously didn’t go to my grade school. .

If Tom is on your team, and your Microsoft Word isn’t catching places where you’ve overlooked the Oxford, remember that the setting can be easily changed.

Access  File>Options>Proofing, then selecting “grammar and style”.

oxford-comma-setting

Then select “always” to make sure Word always checks for the comma.  The default is “don’t check”.

Grammatical-writer

So, when a style is not specified, and someone else reviews your work and messes with your commas, you have the choice of fight or flight. So tell me, do you fight for the Oxford comma?  Is it worth fighting for? Is it better to go with majority rule, or is it purely a matter of circumstance?

Do you have a strong preference?   Leave me a comment and let me know. And be sure to give me a call if I can help you with writing something for your business…with or without the Oxfords!