You get a call from Bob, your favorite client. He’s upset by a press release you sent out that has several mistakes in it, grammar and mechanics as well as content. The press release looks like a rough draft, and now it’s been distributed through all the newswires and publications. Bob depends upon you to make him look good, and writing is a big part of that. What can you do to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again?
Since you work virtually, you communicate most often through email and the written word. When you talk with people on the phone, there’s tone, pitch, speed, and volume to convey meaning. When you talk with people face to face, add in body language, eye contact, and gestures. Just your words, though, account for only 7% of the meaning you’re trying to convey. That other 93% comes from the visual and vocal communication cues you use. What this means is that most of the time you rely on these strong visual and vocal muscles to get your meaning across. And, if you’re not doing a good job of that, you usually get immediate feedback from your listener. When you write, you have only the word muscle to work with.
As a VA, you need to communicate with your clients. First of all, you represent your clients to their customers. Basically, to your clients’ customers, you are the client. Your words need to be professional and mistake-free. Additionally, some of the tasks you do for your clients probably involve writing. For example, your client may have an E-zine, which presents a whole host
of writing needs. He may want you to edit, write, and proofread. If he’s Internet-savvy, he may ask you to submit his E-zine articles to article directories, which require a description, summary, keywords, and author biography. Unless your client has a ton of free time on his hands, all of that writing will be left up to you.
Suppose your client offers in-person workshops and teleclasses. She depends on you to write up the description she will use in her marketing materials and on the website. You may also have to design flyers and hand-outs. What does a mistake on those do to your client’s image?
One VA who works with non-profits and boards of directors writes proposals, procedures, and bylaws. These aren’t just quick reply emails to a client. Organizations will be using procedures and bylaws for years to come. They need to be clear; there can be no confusion over meaning. Good writing in a proposal can make the difference between the proposal being accepted or being passed over.
Here are the top ten writing challenges VAs have and surefire fixes for each.
- Spelling poorly. This is probably the easiest challenge to overcome. If you’re not a spelling bee champion, use the tools at your disposal. All word processing programs have a spell checker. If you’re composing something in a different program or on a web form, write the text in Microsoft Word first to catch any spelling errors. Then copy and paste into the other program or web form. There’s no excuse for misspelled words.
- Using the wrong word. Sometimes this is as simple as mixing up easily confused words like affect/effect, principal/principle, they’re/there/their, it’s/its. Keep a cheat sheet of those word pairs or triplets that give you trouble and refer to it frequently. For a quick fix, look up the word in your word processor or on dictionary.com. Take the time to make sure the words you’re using are the words you mean to use.
- Writing with the same word too often. Here’s an example: “I never knew what I wanted to do with it, and I remained unhappy with it.” “It” appears too much, and the writing is left flat. Replacing one of the “it” instances or rewriting completely removes the flatness and doesn’t call attention to the duplication. Go through your writing every so often and read carefully, looking for duplicate words.
- Unconsciously relying on word crutches. Everyone has his or her word crutches, words that just pop out of the keyboard or pen all the time. My main word crutch is “so.” I want to start every paragraph with “so”; I think it helps with flow, but in reality, my writing looks amateurish. Be aware of your crutch words and find other ways to do in your writing what you think those crutch words are doing.
- Using cheap words. Remove these words from your writing, and your writing will immediately be more polished and professional: really, just, so, nice, pretty, very, there is/are, that, which, who, try/tried to, sort of, kind of, I think, it seems.
- Writing in passive voice. Passive voice is weak and lessens the impacts of the words. Passive voice includes using “being” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had, do, does, did, may, might, must, can, could, should, would) as well as a thing receiving the action. Think of the difference between “He threw the ball” and “The ball was thrown.” You’re more able to picture a “he” throwing a ball than a ball being thrown. Active voice allows us to “see” the words, which is more powerful for the reader. Look for being verbs and passive verbs where something receives the action, and replace with strong action verbs.
- Telling instead of showing. Some sentences are just downright boring and lifeless. Take this example: “The event was wonderful. The food was great and nicely displayed. The speakers were wonderful, and the other attendees were good, too.” What do you get from these sentences? We’re told that the food was good and nicely displayed. Give your sentences life by being clear about what you’re trying to express, and then put that what into words. If you want to tell your readers how great the event, food, speakers, and attendees were, describe the display tables, the information you learned, how the food tasted, what the speakers talked about, and what effect the speeches had on you. Write so that your readers feel as if they were there. Show them; don’t just tell them.
- Proofing badly or not at all. First, proof for different things at different times. Spend one time through a piece checking facts. Check again for misspellings. Proof a final time for run-on sentences and basic grammar errors. If you try to do all your proofing in one fell swoop, your mind has to think about the piece on several different levels, and it can’t do that. Concentrate on one area of proofing at a time. If you’re not confident about your proofing skills, use a style manual like the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook or take a grammar class. Do not rely on Microsoft Word’s grammar checker.
- Lacking self confidence. Your writing skills may be good, but if you don’t have confidence in them, that lack will show through. Blog, journal, write articles, compose poetry or song lyrics. Just like any skill, you have to practice it to gain confidence. Sometimes it’s even as simple as writing what you know. What do you know? Well, you know about being a VA! You may have a niche, specialized skills, industry knowledge, or a hobby that you’ve been doing for years. Write about that, let your confidence in your experience show through, and your writing will be the better for it.
- Failing to write in a client’s voice. A client has his philosophy on how his business should be run, how customers should be treated, and how potential clients should be responded to. You’ll be an even better VA if you can not only understand each client’s philosophy but also communicate (and that includes writing) in your client’s voice. Study what words your client uses and how he phrases his ideas. Imitate that phrasing and use the same words, and you perform the ultimate service as a VA: you lengthen your client’s reach and increase his impact. Instead of one of him, two of you work in tandem.
What image do you want your clients to have? Professional, polished, proficient? Or careless, casual, and incompetent? How you write can have an impact on how your clients are perceived. Not only does writing well affect how you perform, it also affects your actual relationship with your clients. Write well. When you do, your clients will trust you even more, and your client/VA relationship will thrive.