At Bold Type, we’re fortunate to know a lot of incredible writers—university professors, communications professionals, authors, and entrepreneurs. These experts have taught us so much about writing effectively, and we want to share their advice and insight with our network. We hope you’ll enjoy learning from these pros in our new Q&A series.
Our first expert is Sharon Armstrong, founder of the Trainers and Consultants Network. Sharon started the network—a free source for quick and competent referrals—after a long career in Human Resources. Over the past 17 years, she has assembled a wide array of specialists, including HR consultants, organizational development (OD) specialists, trainers, coaches, and keynote speakers. Along with co-author Barbara Mitchell, Sharon wrote The Essential HR Handbook, one of the bestselling management guides to HR ever published. The 10th Anniversary Edition, covering all the changes and developments in the field over the past ten years—from “wearable” technology to the paperless HR office to the workplace repercussions of the #MeToo movement—is an essential book. Read on for Sharon’s take on the professional value of strong communication (and the Oxford comma).
Bold Type: What does your job entail, and how is writing important to that?
Sharon: Most jobs, if done well, depend on good communication. I am on email all day communicating with clients who need trainers and consultants to complete important projects in their offices. I have to read their request carefully, ask for clarification if necessary, reach out to consultants in my network to determine if their backgrounds are suited to the request. The clearer the writing, the quicker I can help an employer.
When it comes to writing books, I often say that I’d rather give birth than do another one. (The most recent one was my fifth.) But every now and then my agent calls me with another idea for a project, and sometimes I can’t resist. Even though The Essential HR Handbook has paid my co-author and me royalties over the years, I don’t write books to make money. If I did, I would’ve been consigned to the poorhouse many years ago. But they are useful in terms of establishing your reputation, getting publicity, and building your brand. I agree with whoever said that “a book is like a business card that never gets thrown away.”
How have you seen professional writing change during your career so far?
I’ve seen a lot of changes. There’s more writing hitting us in the form of newsletters, tweets, and LinkedIn postings. It seems as if messages are being distilled but are coming more frequently. There’s a lot to digest.
When it comes to the book business, there’s more self-publishing than ever before because of the direct access to readers provided by Amazon and other online retailers. This is both a good and bad thing, in my opinion. It’s good because it provides a platform and a voice to many writers who might otherwise have never gotten past the “gatekeepers” in the past, i.e. agents and editors. But it’s bad because the gatekeepers had an important role to play. When you bought a book in the old days, you knew that someone other than the author (and his mother) thought it was well-written, useful, and worthwhile.
For you, what makes something “good writing”? What makes something “bad writing”?
I like writing that is clear, direct, and conversational in tone. Good grammar is less important to me than good thinking. Bad writing is usually the result of the writer not having a clear idea of what he wants he wants to say ... and not willing to take the time and effort to make sure he is saying it simply.
How do you edit your own work, especially if you’ve been staring at something for a long time or feel over-familiar with the content?
This is an easy question. Just put your writing aside and let it simmer for a while. If you’ve got a day or two to spare, stick it in the bottom shelf and don’t look at it. When you take it out a few days later, the mistakes, misspellings, awkward sentences, and other problems will jump out at you like a jack-in-the-box.
How does good (or bad) writing impact a professional’s personal brand?
I might go so far as to say it’s the most important factor. You’d be amazed at the number of speakers, trainers, and consultants I see who can’t concisely explain in writing exactly what service or benefit they offer their clients. Some of them are quite talented at what they do, too. But they just can’t put it in words. The usual problem is too many different ideas in a single sentence, too much jargon, too many buzzwords and trendy phrases. I don’t want to hear about your darn “passion,” for example. Tell me what you can do for me!
Which Social Media channel interests you the most right now, and why?
I’m a huge fan of LinkedIn. I think it’s a critical business tool. It provides a way to connect with like-minded professionals in your field, provide relevant content of interest to your connections, and get the word out about your services to potential clients. I have 8,000+ LinkedIn connections, and I’m on there every day. I also do a daily tweet on Twitter to tell my followers what our network of speakers, consultants, trainers, and coaches is doing on any given day. Facebook? It’s a time-waster, in my opinion, although it’s good for cute photos of cats and dogs.
An individual, publication, or brand with a writing style that you admire?
I love my husband’s writing. He has a novel coming out in the Spring – The Don Con (www.thedoncon.com). Please pardon the shameless family promotion.
One bad habit from school writing that you wish people would give up?
You can solve a multitude of writing sins simply by eliminating passive sentences and getting rid of the word “that.”
One book on writing that everyone should have on their shelf?
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
Finally, your feelings about the Oxford Comma?
I’m a serious, avid, and devoted fan of it!