What made me want to visit Alabama

Martin Luther King Jr. / AP file photo

I’ve never wanted to go to Alabama. Until now.

I started reading “A march into history” by Scott Vogel of The Washington Post because of the subhead, believe it or not:

“Alabama women who lived it help give a 21st-century spirit to the civil rights struggle.”

The black-and-white photo showed only males, so I was intrigued by the idea of a story about strong women previously unrecognized by history.

It’s an article about why you should visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum and research center. But in several strokes of pure genius, Vogel treats it like a feature story.

Instead of, “The museum features the desk at which Martin Luther King wrote his plans for the bus boycott,” you read, “She shows King’s office in the basement, then allows me a peek – not part of the public tour – at the blond wood desk on which he planned the Montgomery bus boycott.”

You’re there, taking “a gut-wrenching trip” through history that the writer makes personal.

Think about Vogel’s approach the next time you write a press release or newsletter article.

Here are three links to the same story, in case one doesn’t work:

Indianapolis Star

Seattle Times

Miami Herald

What’s the most over-used word in organizational copy?

lazy guy on computer

Is the organization you’re writing about “unique”?

Please say no.

Here’s an example of the way too many writers overuse the word:

“Keep Indianapolis Beautiful’s internship program is unique because we are able to match the needs of students with our needs.”

Is Keep Indianapolis Beautiful the only organization that can make this claim? No. Hence, no uniqueness.

But besides lazily relying on an overused word, the writer did this organization a disservice by missing an opportunity.

By interviewing a few interns and finding out just what their experiences were like, the writer could have used testimonials and intriguing copy to draw potential interns in.

The interns, employees and volunteers at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful ensure our city retains its natural beauty. As the Web site says, “Trees make the world a better place.” I wholly agree; my husband and I are still mourning the loss of our beautiful ornamental pear that snapped in a recent windstorm. We lost a friend.

So, KIB, wake up your writer and tell your story.

P.S. Have you planted a tree in your Marion County, Indiana, home or business? Register your deed and help KIB reach its goal of 100,000 new trees by 2017.

Our visceral reaction to being called cowards

US Attorney General Eric Holder (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US Attorney General Eric Holder (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. called us “a nation of cowards,” afraid to speak frankly to each other about race in America.

In this blog, I won’t discuss whether or not I agree with his assertion. (I do.)

Since this blog is about writing, it’s his use of such a provocative word as “coward” — and the reaction it engendered — that I want us to talk about here.

Is there a lesson we can apply to our own writing?

Let’s say Holder had used the kind of politically correct, passive, “safe” language many of our CEOs try to insist we use. He might have said, “We are a nation of people who are reticent to talk to each other about such sensitive issues as ethnicity.”

Or maybe, “Our hesitancy to offend each other makes honest conversation about some issues difficult.”

Probably a passive sentence would be required: “Discussions of race are not generally accepted as polite conversation.”

If Holder had used any of this language, would we have paid attention? Would any of us be discussing his speech — and, more imporantly, about whether we talk to each other about race? Would the issue have gotten any notice at all?

I say no, it wouldn’t have permeated our consciousness.

So, am I advocating the use of inflammatory language in your organization’s materials?

Not inflammatory, but thought-provoking. Active. Honest. Authentic. Loaded with verbs, and devoid of the passive voice. Only through speaking clearly and honestly will your audiences – customers, donors, clients, etc. — get to know you and your organization.

And only then will they start to remember you.

Descriptive writing puts you in the jungle

Monte Reel, writing for The Washington Post, brilliantly described the surroundings as two trackers, Marcelo dos Santos and Altair Algayer, sought contact with a man believed to be the last surviving member of a Brazilian tribe: 

Altair, clutching his rifle with one hand, twisted through a tangle of ferns. It was the peak of the dry season in 1998. They called this a rain forest, but it hadn’t even sprinkled here in 60 days. Insects swirled within the streaming bars of light that penetrated the canopy of jatoba trees. A papery rustle accompanied each footstep as he hiked deeper into the forest.

Look at “it hadn’t even sprinkled here in 60 days.” Lesser writers may have written “They called this a rain forest, but it was bone-dry here” or “but no precipitation had fallen here in two months.”  

How about “Insects swirled within the streaming bars of light”? How vivid is that? Much better than “Altair could see insects in the light that streamed in.” 

“A papery rustle accompanied each footstep” makes you feel right there, doesn’t it? I’m so glad we didn’t read “Leaves crunched with each footfall.” 

Reel knows how to write for reading.