Agricultural Communications, Purdue University
An electronic newsletter with communication tips and information


February 1999


Super Newsletters: Writing to Communicate

(This article is adapted from "Creating Super Newsletters: A Training Curriculum for Cooperative Extension Staff," Module 2, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, June 1997.)

Writing well is a skill--a learned skill. However, one of the characteristics that enables people to communicate well through their writing is flexibility. Flexibility allows you to creatively match your language and writing style to the audience with whom you wish to communicate. If you can do this, you've won more than half the battle. After all, the purpose of writing is communication.

One of the main challenges faced by many is that they write as they have been taught--academically. Generally, academic writing hovers at about a 13th-grade level. Yet over 50 percent of Americans (from all walks of life) read below the 10th-grade level. Learning to write well is often unlearning, or flexing one's writing style to fit the audience and the message. That doesn't mean we have to give up multi-syllabic words, compound-complex sentence structure, and complicated charts and graphs. They have their place: academic journals, meetings with colleagues, extra handouts for super-interested clients, etc. But even your peers may want to get your message easier and faster. Before you begin writing anything, ask yourself two questions.

* For whom am I writing?

* What do I want them to learn/know?

I'll continue this topic next month.

If you have questions, please e-mail me, or call me at 765-494-6946.


E-Commerce--Letting Electrons Do the Walking

From amazon.com to ebay.com, e-commerce, buying off the Web, is hot. Let's look at some of the benefits of e-commerce and some of the ways it may change how we offer information to our customers.

The main benefit of e-commerce is convenience. Instead of slipping into the car to go purchase items, customers can now slip into a chair at a computer. After hitting a few keystrokes, it's just a matter of waiting for the item to appear on the screen or arrive in the mail. Other benefits of e-commerce include time savings, cost, and being able to buy things available no other way.

The product/currency of Extension has always been knowledge and information. This information is, and will continue to be, offered in the traditional methods such as paper publications, videos, etc. E-commerce offers our customers new options.

Using e-commerce causes three things to happen.

With the added opportunity of e-commerce comes added responsibility. We need to determine what our customers want and will want, and give it to them. We need to think about new projects with an eye toward how they'll translate and be perceived on-line. We also need to master the technology that makes these opportunities possible and to prepare our infrastructure.

What would e-commerce be without the exchange of money? Before we can expect customers to enter their credit card numbers, we in Extension need to give people the information they need in the ways they want it. Finally, we need to learn what people are willing to pay for and how much they are willing to pay.

Despite glowing pictures painted in magazine articles and TV ads, e-commerce is not a sure bet--yet. In order to be successful, we need to capitalize on our strengths, such as our reputation and the quality of our information.

In time, our customers will come to expect more from us on-line. If we don't meet their needs, someone else will. Remember, the next site is only a few keystrokes away.


Fast-Finger Directory

File this one under what my daughter would call "Duh."

One day a county educator was in my office when we decided to call another county office. I used the Extension field staff directory to look up the number. It's the directory at: http://www.admin.www.extension.purdue.edu/field/fs/countyoffices.html.

He immediately said, "Gee, I wish I had that fast of a connection to the Internet."

I said, "You can search the directory that fast."

What he hadn't noticed was that I searched the directory from a file on my computer desktop. Once a month or so, I get on the Internet and copy the key directories that I want into word processing files. I keep the files in a "Directory" file on my desktop.

Now looking up someone's name, title, e-mail address, office address, and telephone number is as easy as double clicking and doing a "Find." This is a simple, but easily overlooked communication tip I hope will help you as much as it's helped me since I discovered it.


Grammar Trap: Datum vs. Data

Strictly speaking, "datum" is a singular noun meaning a piece of factual information. "Data" is the the plural form. Both words are of Latin origin.

If you're writing for an academic audience, particularly in the sciences, "data" takes a plural verb.

Example: The data are persuasive.

But all the rest of the time and for all the rest of your audiences, my advice is to go with the flow and treat "data" as a singular noun.

Example: The data is persuasive.

Go with the flow? "Agenda" was once a plural noun, and so was "opera." But no one writes an "agendum" for a meeting anymore or goes to an "operum." Language changes over time (despite all that "grammar trappers" like me do to stem the tide), and, where "datum" is concerned, the change is occurring.

Remember what Jane Wolf Brown talks about this month in "Super Newsletters: Writing to Communicate"? Flexibility is the key to communication, and it's time to flex on "datum."

Thanks to Harvey Holt, Forestry & Natural Resources, for suggesting this topic. And thanks to Patricia O'Conner's "Woe Is I" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996) for the nugget about "agenda" and "opera." If there's a grammar (or usage) trap you'd like me to discuss, or if you have a tip that will help the rest of us avoid one, please let me know.


We want to hear from you.
Do you have a communication question?
Do you have a comment on this issue of "On Target"?
If so, please e-mail any of our writers or On Target's managing editor, Kevin Smith.

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