NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Writing Inside and Out
by Steve Bass, May 2002
Pasadena IBM Users Group

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I have a comfy spot on both sides of the fence. I get the pleasure of writing for a magazine that's big enough for me not to worry that I'll say something dumb. PC World provides tons of background support-first, second, and technical editors, copy editors, fact checkers, and even attorneys.

At the other end of the spectrum are user group newsletters. Writing in PIBMUG is more freewheeling. I can write about any topic, something that strikes me on the spur of the moment. (PCW wants a four month stack of story topics.) And unlike PC World, I don't have anyone watching my language, fretting over (and often removing) my voice, and roping me into a set amount of space. PC World's Home Office column is roughly 650 words, less the "Where to Buy," the spot where I supply details so the reader can get in touch with the companies I write about.

The 650 limit is a killer. If you do any writing, you know it's more difficult to write short, especially if you have to cram in humor, content, product justification and examples, one or two links, and the essential takeaway. The rule-and you'll see this in practically all computing magazines--is giving the reader something to do after finishing the column. I got lucky when they asked me to do the Home Office online version.

All the leftover material from the print edition-and there's always plenty- found a new home.

One other thing you might take for granted in a user group newsletter is the size of the article. When I put the Prompt together, I choose from countless articles, worrying about content but not size. For instance, you'll find "The Plain Truth about Casual Software Piracy" on page six. It's long but compelling reading, and something you'd never see in a commercial magazine. NWA-PCUG Editor note: This can also be found at: http://pcgroup.nwark.com/piracy52.htm.

Many of you don't enjoy writing, yet need to do it for work. So I thought I'd supply a few tips, things that will help make you sound better in letters, e-mail, and reports. (BTW, you're right-this is the takeaway...)

  • Talk into print: When I write, I try to take what I imagine I'd say to you and put it into words. I do it by quickly typing what I think, trying not to filter anything. (Filtering-or editing-comes later when I look over what I wrote.)
  • Write like you talk: You've probably noticed that I use lots of contractions-for instance, you'll, we've, let's. It's pretty casual and the way I speak. My guess is many of you do the same. I can visualize Joe Bohannon saying, "well, sure, but I'm not going to do that." And that's the point-that's exactly how he sounds and it'd sound ideal in print. Get the idea?
  • Write short sentences. I think readers have an easier time digesting short chunks of info. They'll also be more inclined to read-and understand-what you say. If you can't do it, write longer sentences and later, when you review your work, divide the long sentences into two or three short ones.
  • Write short paragraphs: They're the toughest thing for me to plow through. One trick is to stop every five, six, or seven sentences, take a breath, and start another paragraph.
  • Be active: For the longest time I couldn't figure out passive from active voice. Once I had it, writing became easier. If no one's taking responsibility, it's passive. "Mistakes were made" is passive. "We all made a few mistakes," is an active voice. It's almost impossible to write in the passive voice if you follow the next bullet.
  • Stay first: I write from the first person. It's always my viewpoint (yeah, I know, it's always about me). And that's the tone you oughta consider using. The reason is I can visualize you when I write and you can see me while you're reading.

Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World and runs the Pasadena IBM Users Group. He's also a founding member of APCUG. Check PCW's current edition at http://www.pcworld.com/resource/toc/index.asp and sign up for the Steve Bass online newsletter at http://www.pcworld.com/bass_letter.

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