Welcome to Better Writing Now

Thanks for stopping by!

Better Writing Now is a one-woman editorial and writing service.

I can craft compelling, well-written content or copy for your organization, help you polish your academic essays, offer feedback on your novel-in-progress, or guide you as you write your admissions essay and tell the story only you can tell.

My Philosophy

Vibrant writing is crucial for any company, organization, or individual. I’m passionate about effective communication: the right word, in the right place, for the right audience.

Sound interesting? Get in touch!

Email becker.erin.e@gmail.com to find out more. You can also find me on Twitter, about.me, Google Plus, and Linkedin.

About Erin 

With five years’ experience in publications and three years as a copywriter, I know the ins and outs of many different kinds of writing—from web content, to advertising copy, to academic essays, to cover letters.

My clients and publications have included: Washington Post-Newsweek International; AndesWines Media, a wine marketing firm in Santiago de Chile; Amperage, a full-service advertising agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; The Corridor Business Journal in Coralville, Iowa; Valle Cornejo Arquitectos; design firm Flores de Chile; and many individuals looking for help with translation projects and academic work, including students writing med school applications and scholarship essays.

In my free time, I write novels for kids. I love to work with other writers and am part of critique groups and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I’m represented by literary agent Kirby Kim at Janklow & Nesbit.

Check out my other blog to learn what children’s books can teach us about writing.

In summary: I spend my whole day thinking about words, so you don’t have to!

Feel free to browse the archives for writing advice, and do reach out with any questions you have.

– Erin

Three steps to better writing

cat helps with editing

Words? Forget words. This piece is definitely lacking cat hair.

There are a few small changes that can help you make huge strides toward clear, concise writing.

The only problem?

When you finally get to the stage where you can make these changes, you’re usually so antsy to get the piece off your desk that all you want to do is click send and be done with it.

So I’ve got a challenge for you.

When you think you’re finished, when your piece is polished, your argument’s in shape, your spellcheck’s been run…

When you’re all excited about being done, finally, when you’re you’re just getting ready to hit “publish” or “send”…

That’s the time to stop.

Don’t hit publish.

Don’t hit send.

Instead, put your piece away for a few hours and work on something else. Ideally, put it away for a few days, or even a week.

When you pick it up again, you have one job: tighten, tighten, tighten. Slash unnecessary paragraphs. Cut unnecessary sentences. Ditch unnecessary words.

In doing so, you’ll help your reader see the core of the point you’re trying to make or the story you’re trying to tell.

This process will make your writing clearer, cleaner, and more confident.

Here are some tips for how to do it.

1. Paragraphs

Start at the paragraph level—for novels and dissertations, you’ll start at the chapter level, but the concept is the same.

After taking a much-needed break from your piece, you can look at it with fresh eyes. Likely, you’ll notice something.

The “logical flow” of your plot or argument may not be quite as logical as you initially thought.

Why?

Often, writers base their structure on the order in which the thoughts come to them—the order that’s convenient for them as a writer. But usually, this order is not very logical for a reader.

So, how to fix this problem?

Reorder. Cut. Repeat.

Look at paragraphs that seem similar. Group them, then delete anything that’s too repetitive. Merge what’s left.

Then, reread. Is the logic working? Are there any paragraphs breaks that seem too jerky, places where the ideas or emotions don’t flow? Continue the process of reordering and cutting, then fill in any gaps with transitions, or a few new paragraphs, as needed.

2. Sentences

Once you’ve got your paragraphs working, it’s time to look at sentences. Especially in paragraphs you merged, you’ll likely see sentences that say more or less the same thing, just in different words.

Again, it’s time to reorder, cut, repeat.

Your strongest, “I’m-making-a-point-here” sentences should fall near the beginning or end of your paragraphs. Delete any that aren’t pulling their weight, that seem like fluff or distraction.

Don’t worry if your paragraph lengths end up being all over the place. A paragraph can be one sentence. A paragraph can be twenty sentences. Forget any arbitrary numbers you may have learned in school. The important thing is that each paragraph is essential, and each sentence, too.

3. Words

Here’s where you’re really going to make your piece stand out. Now that your sentences and paragraphs are in order, it’s time to make sure your writing is absolutely tight.

This is my favorite stage of revising. You get the feeling you’re reaching the core of something. You’re revealing the true meaning, which until now has been hidden beneath all the things you’re pruning away.

The words you’ll need to search for and delete depend a lot on your own style—your personal writing habits and what kind of filler you rely on.

Here are some typical things to cut:

  • Adverbs
  • Redundancy (“little baby,” etc)
  • Unnecessary transition words. “Then” can often be deleted or replaced with “and” for better flow.
  • Clichés and borrowed phrasing. If you hear it all the time, it needs to go.
  • Mixed metaphors. (Difficult, I know—I have a huge issue with this one!)
  • Overdone “voicey-ness.” A little goes a long way.
  • Repetition. Avoid using the same word many times in a paragraph, or in consecutive paragraphs.
  • Passive voice. “The ball was caught by the dog” = awkward. “The dog caught the ball” = just fine. Note: If you’re writing a research report, this voice will need to be used by you, and pity for you is felt by me. (Heh. Just kidding. Kind of.)
  • Unintentional rhyming. It just sounds weird.
  • Verbal hedging. “Sort of”; “somewhat”; “I suppose”; “kind of”; or their more academic counterparts like “one could claim”; “I would argue”; “it could be said that.” Disclaimer: Yes, these words and phrases have their place. But please use sparingly. And if you’re not willing to make some real, strong statements in your piece, you may need to re-assess why you’re writing it in the first place. 
  • Any words you’re not 100% sure about. I learned this the hard way on a high school paper, when I used “penultimate,” thinking it was a cooler way of saying “ultimate.” Nope.
  • Anything that’s clunky. Just cut it. If the words are clunky, your ideas will seem clunky, too. If you trip over a sentence when you’re reading out loud, it’s a good sign it needs to be re-phrased or deleted.

With these three phases of editing, your writing will be stronger, clearer, and much easier to read.

I hope these tips help you get your editing off to a good start for 2016.

Have questions or want to chat? Feel free to get in touch via email at becker.erin.e@gmail.com or Twitter.

Happy writing and happy revising!

– Erin

How to stop writing for free

You deserve to get paid.A million blog posts out there will tell you why you shouldn’t write for free. It’s unethical; it hurts the market for all writers; it furthers the myth that writing is a hobby rather than a career; generally, it undermines the profession.

We all know this. Yet it’s often easier said than done. When your uncle needs web copy for the new site he’s launching or your spouse’s friend needs a second pass on a cover letter or your BFF’s kid has this really important college application coming up, and could you just take a look, all of a sudden the line between a personal favor and a potential client can blur, fast.

In today’s content market, it’s not just the guy next door hitting you up for free work, either. There are the Huffington Posts of the world, too. These are the websites, magazines, and newspapers asking writers to provide content for free, on the assumption that the intrinsic value of having your byline out there is enough compensation in itself.

But exposure doesn’t pay the rent, as any newbie freelancer can tell you.

You’re working hard. You’re providing skilled labor and a service you’ve honed and mastered over the years. When someone expects you’ll just give it away for free––well, it’s awkward. And frustrating.

You’re a professional, and you make a living doing this. When people don’t get that, it can bring up all kinds of troublesome feelings, from discomfort to anger to self-doubt. And of course, all of this takes time away from your work. (Your paid work.)

Over the years, I’ve developed a method that helps me navigate these situations and focus on clients who respect and value my work.

Here are a few road-tested tips.

1. Have a rule, and stick to it.

I made a rule early on in my freelancing career: unless you’re in my immediate family, I won’t edit or write for free. This means there are literally four people on this planet for whom I’ll edit or write pro bono. (Aside from volunteer projects for non-profit organizations I love.) And even that is only when I have the time.

Absolutely no one else gets free writing. Even if it’s “good exposure,” even if it’s my buddy’s buddy, even if it’s a job that sounds interesting or fun. Sticking to this rule helps me keep boundaries clear, and keeps me from wading into any gray areas when a close friend asks for a favor. If you’ve already turned down another friend in a similar situation, you can use this as an example when explaining to a new client why you have to charge. “Sorry, man, it’s just my rule,” is a lot easier to hear than a simple, “No.”

2. Talk rates up front.

The earlier you bring up money, the better. Yes, it’s awkward! Awkward but necessary.

As writers, we’re typically not great at talking about money or driving a hard bargain. But the longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be to segue into, “By the way, I charge XX per hour” or “My rate’s XX per word.” Especially if this “client” thinks that rate is “free.”

Bringing costs up right away will make sure your client has time to look for another writer if they’re not willing to pay your going rate. Or, ideally, they’ll come to their senses and realize that they should invest if they want a quality product.

3. Professional organizations can help.

If I’m in a bit of a sticky situation, where a friend is hurt that I won’t edit something for free, or a media outlet is pressuring me to do some unpaid work, sometimes I’ll resort to passing the buck. If you’re a member of a writing, editing, or copywriting association or society, remember that these organization exist to further the profession. They surely don’t want you giving your work away for free. So if you find yourself in a tight spot with a potential client who doesn’t want to pay, simply let them know that as a dues-paying member of X organization, you’re not permitted to give your work away for free.

4. Think of the big picture.

And speaking of ethics…maybe taking on this one job for free won’t keep you from paying the bills this month. Maybe it seems like this magazine article would be a great opportunity for exposure, and you think you have enough money saved to hack it. Maybe you even have a spouse or a family member who can help you stay afloat financially while you’re taking on some pro bono work. But that’s simply not the situation for everyone. 

Every time you take on a free job, you’re removing one more paying client from the market. This hurts all writers. Remember: you may be able to make this work, but there are a whole bunch of writers out there who simply can’t. By removing paid work from the market, you’re shutting those voices out.

And by demanding fair pay for a hard day’s work, you’re helping all writers. So go for it––not just for your own good, but for the good of everyone who’s trying to make a living doing what they love.

Good luck––and happy (paid) writing!

This Thanksgiving, let feedback make you better

writing feedback thankfulThe other day I was heading out to meet a friend and brilliant critique partner who’d just read my manuscript.

“I’m off to Ali’s,” I said to my spouse. “She’s going to tell me everything that’s wrong with my book.”

He was horrified. “Uh, are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, confused. “I can’t wait.”

Here’s the thing: it hadn’t even occurred to me to be worried. And not because my CP goes easy on me, or I think there’s nothing wrong with my manuscript. Trust me, there’s plenty to work on. And as usual, my CP did an excellent job filling me in.

After years of critique groups and workshops and heaps of editorial feedback in professional, student, and personal settings (let’s not even begin to ponder the number of red pens spent in the service of correcting my comma usage), I’ve learned that criticism makes me a better writer.

I get it, though. It’s not always easy to hear all the things you’re doing wrong. Whether it’s, “Your brand voice is pretty much a Google ripoff”; or, “This magic system is really derivative”; or, “You need to learn about sentence fragments”; or, “This character seems less like a human being and more like a mashup of racist tropes,” feedback can be hard to take.

But we have to hear it. We have to hear it, and let it rattle around inside us for a while, if we’re really growing to grow. As writers. As readers. As human beings.

This doesn’t mean you need to make every single change your editor or agent or critique partner or even your boss tells you to. Remember that your work is your own and that frequently, critics notice symptoms, rather than the root causes.

Don’t just incorporate edits, word-for-word, suggestion-for-suggestion. Ask yourself, *why* isn’t this working? And you may arrive at a whole new revision idea—spurred by your editor’s thoughts, of course, but transformed into something that’s all your own.

To do this right, it’s essential to give your edits some time. Like broth in a Crock-Pot, it’s better when critiques have time to stew.

And speaking of cooking…

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for an incredible group of critique partners, beta readers, editors, colleagues, friends, and mentors, who have all helped me grow as a writer. You’ve held me accountable for every questionable comma, for every stale plotline, for every sagging character arc, for every…well, just for every semicolon. (I know. I’m trying to wean myself. Kind of.)

And to all writers out there looking to hone their craft: remember to listen. Listen to your editors, your critique partners, that colleague who proofreads important emails before you send them out. Feedback can sting, yes, but it’s a gift. A sting-y gift.

Critiques make you better. So, listen. Let them sit. Then take them and make them all your own.

Happy writing. And to my readers celebrating, Happy Thanksgiving, too!

–Erin

Three steps to “snappy copy”

Snoopy writes snappy copy.

Good writing is hard work. But “snappy copy” doesn’t have to be quite so hard.

Businesses often ask for “snappy copy,” usually for their web sites.

Brands know what they want when they use this phrase. They want to communicate clearly to their customers and potential customers. They want to convey a specific message in a few quick, succinct paragraphs (or less). They want prose that is readable, relatable. Maybe even cool.

But they have no idea how to get there.

It’s sort of this mystical thing, “snappy copy.” Everyone wants it, but no one seems to be sure exactly what it is. Here’s my answer: it’s not nearly as complicated as you think.

Brands don’t have to overhaul their company voice just because they’re speaking to customers online. In fact, they shouldn’t. If a brand has one personality on their web site, another on their sell sheets, and another on social media, that can be confusing, and even off-putting, to potential customers.

It’s true that readers have a shorter attention span online. A different brand’s content is just a scroll away. (And on social, just a slight shift of the gaze away!)

But you won’t keep a reader’s––AKA customer’s––attention by trying to sound hip, or throwing in Internet slang just for fun (if brands use “bae” or “af” or even “on point,” I’m usually just SMH). And despite the myth that less is always more online, if you don’t give your customers what they’re looking for, “short and snappy content” won’t get you very far.

Instead, you’ll keep your customer’s attention by doing three things:

  1. Speak in an authentic voice that’s true to your brand. This builds a reader’s trust by fulfilling the expectation you’ve already established through other touchpoints, or by laying the foundation for future touchpoints.
  2. Give them what they want. Remember that this human being is on your website for a reason. They probably want information. What is it? Are you offering it up in an easy-to-find, easy-to-understand way? This has a lot to do with user experience and web navigation, but it should also influence how you write. What questions are your customers asking? Are you answering them in an empathetic and simple way?
  3. Get to the point. This is the core of what makes copy “snappy.” Use short sentences. Don’t pile on clauses. If you’re typing a comma, ask yourself: could this be a period? Read and re-read several times, deleting every unnecessary paragraph, sentence, word chunk, and word.

I hope this begins to clear up the not-so-mysterious mystery that is “snappy copy.”

Best of luck to you in your writing and branding journey. Want to chat? Get in touch at becker.erin.e@gmail.com or on Twitter @beckererine.

The art of the interview: how to get quotes that sizzle

I collaborated with the Corridor Business Journal for their Women of Influence anniversary project. They’ve honored 87 women of influence in the last ten years, so this project meant one thing in particular: a lot of interviews. We’re going to press soon, so I’ve had the chance to look it over a few times now. I’m continually struck by the way good quotes can make or break a piece.

As writers, ideas are our raw material. When we’re telling someone’s story, a good chunk of those ideas come from quotes. How can we make sure those quotes are interesting, representative? How can we make sure they sizzle and spark?

Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.

delicious cup of coffee

Make your interviewee comfortable. A delicious cup of coffee can go a long way.

1. Show some TLC.

Make sure the environment is comfortable. If you’re meeting somewhere, paying for the coffee always helps. (Freelancers, always ask your editors to add this small but crucial expense to the budget!) If you’re on the phone, make sure connection is good and double-check that it’s a convenient time. Showing a little care will build trust, and the source will be more candid as your conversation begins.

2. Go further.

If you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to ask questions that no one has asked before. This way, you’ll get unique, fascinating content. You’re trying to craft a narrative out of someone’s life – but most people don’t view their lives as a narrative. For this reason, you often see connections they don’t. I asked one woman who’s been successful in business if her time as a musician influenced the way she approaches management. When she said, “I’ve never thought of that before,” I knew I was on to something.

3. Be willing to take a detour.

Sometimes, an interview goes in a direction that you never expected. And that’s great! Be ready to veer off that path you set, and you just might get your piece’s best quote. Often, the insights you glean when your interviewee soliloquizes on a random, unrelated topic will make for a more holistic understanding of their personality when you do get back on track.

4. Repetition is okay.

Many people don’t know how to speak to the media. Even business leaders are notorious for rambling, and a quote that sounds good in person can later look like an oversized, incomplete mess in print. Of course, we can’t edit what someone said – though it’s tempting, I know. But we can realize when we’ve got a long-winded talker on our hands, and help them slow down, focus, and say what they really want to say. Don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify, repeat, or condense. Your source will thank you later, when their words sparkle on the page.

I’ve written about empathy in writing before, and interviewing is, at its core, all about empathy, too. Put yourself in the interviewee’s shoes. If you remember why you’re there – to tell their story – everything becomes easier. Good luck, and happy writing!

– Erin

Reframing networking for the writerly mind

I’ve never liked the term “networking.” And when people talk about a “personal brand” or about “marketing yourself,” I cringe a little bit. Yet it’s something we do all day, every day, just naturally, whether we’re writers, business owners, students, or academics.

Networking

Networking doesn’t have to be painful, if you believe in the product you’re selling. (That’s you!)

Why talk about networking? I attended ImpactCR’s Siren Wednesday event — yes, primarily because I wanted to “network” with other young professionals in the area — but in a room full of friendly, engaging people, it quickly becomes less about exchanging business cards and more about getting to know some really great folks doing really great stuff, right here in Eastern Iowa. Sure, business cards exchanged hands. But it felt more like meeting new friends. And what’s not to like about that?

The experience got me thinking about some recent client concerns. Lately, I’ve been helping some students with personal statements, and they’ve gotten quite frustrated with the idea of “selling themselves” to a school. Why do they have to be little 18-year-old marketing reps? They’re too young and idealistic for that! Why can’t their accomplishments simply speak for themselves?

Here’s my answer: why not reframe the whole concept? If you really believe in the product you’re trying to sell (whether it’s applying to a school, writing a cover letter, or marketing a brand you believe in), then it shouldn’t feel contrived or disingenuous. You’re not a salesperson. You’re a communicator. And you’re spreading the word about something good.

Networking is much the same. If you have confidence in yourself — if you wouldn’t mind being your own friend, or your own coworker — then it’s not so much selling a product as it is putting yourself out there for new experiences, and new connections.

A bit less literary than my average post? Well, yes. But seeing the relationships between the literary and business world can be valuable. And making those connections could spur an insight in both fields.

So, writers: happy writing! And happy marketing, too.

What’s your language pet peeve?

We all have our language pet peeves.Image

My husband hates semicolons. (“Probably because I just don’t know how to use them properly,” he says.)

Many can’t stand the passive voice.

Some get irked by long, flowing sentences, while others find short ones too aggressive. 

Certain words can also be turn-offs. “Moist” seems to be the biggest offender, though “slacks” and “panties” are oft-cited, too.

(Of course, there are words such as “like,” “whatever,” and “you know” –– words we dislike because of their meaninglessness. Jargon and political-speak fall into this category. So does legalese. Those are still pet peeves, I suppose, but at least they make a bit more sense.)

By the way: were you annoyed by the last three sentences? Some people have a particular hatred for parenthetical phrases. There you go.

As writers, it’s important for us to pay attention to these pet peeves. Readers have them, and so do agents, and editors. One person’s “voicey-ness” is another person’s cloying prose. One person’s Emily-Dickens-esque semicolon usage is another person’s worst nightmare. (Which reminds me, I really dislike the word “usage.”)

One thing, it seems, is certain: you’re using “moist” at your own peril.

Over the next few days, I’ll be doing some informal research about language pet peeves. Check back next week to find out more.

Inspiration for Writers: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Never been published and needing some inspiration?

A Snicker of Magic

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd. Published February 2014 by Scholastic Press.

Check out the blog post “Long Live the Beedle” by debut writer Natalie Lloyd, who’s had great success with her first novel, A Snicker of Magic.

There are about a million things I liked about this book, but its rich Southern, Tennessee-magic texture tops the list. The prose reads like sweet tea. Magic and history hide around every corner.

And it’s so spot-on. Because isn’t that what it’s like to be a kid?

Lloyd charmed me with her prose, but I liked her even more when I stumbled across her blog. She’s heartfelt and so pleased that her book has inspired kids to carry out random acts of kindness, just like a mysterious do-gooder in her story, the Beedle. And when she talked about her influences, as a Tar Heel, I was fascinated to hear the Avett Brothers’ music had helped her find her voice.

Music, words, and the power of literature. This was just the pick-me-up I needed for a big day of revisions.

Happy writing, all, and as Lloyd’s protagonist would say, have a spindiddly day.