Business Matters: Is Marcia Riefer Johnston Stalking You, Too?

Last September, I had an eerie experience of posting a comment on an STC blog—and the comment appeared with someone else’s name on it. We finally straightened it out, but that started a random, lovely, productive relationship with Marcia Riefer Johnston.

In the flurry of emails about the technological glitch, I learned that Marcia was finishing her book Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and was readying it for publication. She told me that all of her chapters had been born (my term, not hers) as blog posts. What a great way to prewrite, I thought. I have always taught my students to prewrite and draft shorter chunks or text rather than put off their writing until they “have time” to write the whole, huge report or article. Marcia, I thought, is a good model.

The next thing I knew, I’m planning to take my 38 Intercom “Business Matters” columns from the last 9 years and compile them into a book of survival advice for freelance technical communicators. I’m not sure that I would have conceived of this notion without my conversations with Marcia. So we started emailing again, and Marcia told me what she had originally planned for converting her blog posts into a book:

Two years ago—TWO YEARS AGO—I set out to bundle up my blog posts and call the compilation good. I planned to put out a little book that I could sell online and stuff into Christmas stockings. Fortunately, my husband had the courage to say: “Honey, why don’t you rethink your goals? You have more in you than that. What you have right now won’t hit anything out of the park.” It took me a few days to let his words in. Boy, am I glad I did. Whether the resulting effort blasts anything over any walls remains to be seen, but I’m content in knowing that I’ve given it my best swing.

Not me, I thought. My columns are already in PDFs; I’ll just throw on a front and back cover.

And so I found a publisher—Richard Hamilton of XML Press, a prince of a guy. Marcia must have been stalking him, too, because the next thing I knew, he had convinced me to revise and update all the chapters and add some fresh material—basically, to give up my life for the next nine months. And he told me to get book-marketing advice from … Marcia.

Is she stalking everyone?

When Word Up! came out in May, I wanted to see if she had hit her home run. She had. In fact, three home runs.

Word Up! offers advice on three levels:

  1. Grammar help: Clear explanations of difficult topics such as hyphenation, who vs. whom, and painful personal pronoun pairings (such as her and I).
  2. Writing help: Valuable advice to energize your writing: “Want one tip, a single bloat-busting strategy guaranteed to energize your sentences? Dump to be” (p. 13). She provides splendid examples. And I’m wise enough to take her advice. For example, a few sentences above, I originally wrote: “I wanted to see if it [her book] was a home run or not.” After reading her chapter “To Be or Not To Be,” I revised that to read, “I wanted to see if she had hit her home run; she had!” That’s stronger, don’t you think?
  3. Linguistic musings that provide better explanations than did my heroes, Quirk and Greenbaum (A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English): I have never seen a clearer exposition of the difference between prepositions, verb particles, and adverbs than her chapter “You Don’t Know From Prepositions.” Unless you are a closeted linguist, you might not really care, but at least you’d find the chapter fun and easy to follow.

However, I would like to challenge her chapter, “The Last Word.” She quotes many experts including Bryan Garner, Strunk and White, and William Zinsser, who all insist that the most important point should be placed at the end of the sentence, paragraph, or document, and she provides many of their examples. Placing the most important point at the end may work well in essays, fiction, and political speeches, but I would argue that technical and business readers want to know the “bottom line on top”: What is the point? Why am I reading this? What lies ahead? Don’t give me a mystery novel; tell me what you are going to tell me right at the beginning.

The glossary is superb.

I’m sure that Marcia is still stalking me. I’m blocking off the next year or two and fighting off the urge to start on my next book, Marketing Bingo, before Business Matters is ready to release. Maybe then Marcia will leave me alone for awhile.

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