Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When it Comes to Copywriting Clients, One Size of Writer Does Not Always Fit All

Remember Johnny Cochran's famous line about the glove during the O.J. Simpson murder trial? He had a point.

As a copywriter I consider myself a generalist--no particular industry/area of expertise, able to write about a broad range of topics and for a variety of industries or fields of endeavor with a few exceptions. But as general as I am, and as many clients I am able to work with, I have to say that sometimes, you just can't please 'em all. And sometimes, that one-writer-fits-all-clients simply doesn't fit.

I was contacted several months ago by a lovely person who is starting a new endeavor with a business partner. Could I write the copy for their new website? Sure, would love to, sounds great. But it wasn't.

Aside from the fact I did not adhere to my own process for writing website copy (having the client complete a questionnaire to gather necessary information/input, provide competitor websites as reference and identify competition in the marketplace), our writing relationship has teetered on disastrous. I blame myself for not managing the process and for not stepping out of it in time. It simply was not a good fit. We got stuck in a morass of confusing messages, stream-of-consciousness input, direction that shifted a few times; the client did not even have a company name when I dove into the project. After four drafts and about four hours of phone time and copy review, I gave up. I could not for the life of me capture their voice--the heart of the problem, I believe. I was lost in a sea of too many changes and could not find my way back to their USP, their brand promise, their mojo.

 

What Would Donald Trump Have Done?
What I should have done, after the second go-round, is politely fire myself from the project. I have since done so, asking a colleague to handle any further edits because at this point, I can't see straight! (The website developer has had similar issues with the client--they don't know what they want until they see it, many revisions, no clear direction ...)

Because it is so important to me to have happy clients, I did not charge her for a lot of the work. She paid me up front to write four pages of copy, which was the original scope of the project; I'd written two others and edited (heavily) an additional two pages at no charge since I could see this was not going so well (although I have to say, to their credit, they have been very gracious and kind on the phone). After a point I advised the client to rewrite what I gave them in the way they wanted and I'd tweak and edit it to make sure it reads well. I was gratified to see they did use some of my copy throughout, and I gave them back their edited pages. At this point I have no clue where the project stands and I'm afraid to ask. But I am relieved to not suffer through any more changes and I am betting they're also relieved to not have to explain, once again, what they are looking for that they aren't seeing on the page.

So word to me and to the wise: If you're not a good fit for the client or the copy, move on! Replace yourself with someone who is a better fit, and you'll all be happier. I know I am.

Friday, December 26, 2014

How Lack of Marketing Communication Killed Off a Favorite Restaurant

A restaurant we used to frequent monthly recently closed. Although we were saddened we were not surprised.

The restaurant was part of a chain, located in a busy shopping mall; it appears this particular concept had been acquired by another company, spun off somehow. It had several stores from Boston to New York but our local place was the last one in our area (several remain in Massachusetts, one in Rhode Island).

I could make a a case for the change in ownership being the core of the downfall and yes, the blame ultimately lies with the owners ... and their marketing missteps that led to the restaurant's closure. I think the managers we spoke to would agree.

The issue lies in the company's lack of marketing and communication with customers. Plain and simple.

Having been patrons since the restaurant's opening many years ago, we were very familiar with the menu and had our favorites. We went one night late in the spring and discovered that everything had changed. Whole new menu, a different (and ridiculous and downscale) pizza presentation, checkered cloths where white tablecloths had been. What the hell? We never saw anything in the local press about a big change coming (an ad would have done the trick); the Facebook page was relatively dormant, nothing on Yelp ...

As soon as we were seated a manager came over, almost apologetically, to ask if we were aware of the menu change and to go over options. A few of our favorite entrees (only a few) were retained as transitional dishes--offered as specials--while the rest of the menu had been overhauled (with fewer choices we would want to eat). Prices were higher in some cases (making the rectangular pizza on a half sheet pan even worse than it already was). We were very disappointed.

We tried a few things and left dispirited. The meal was just OK and our reasons for going had vanished.  The questions we had were: Why was there no news about this big change? How come we never saw an ad in the local newspaper about this? I am a loyalty card holder ... why didn't the company send letters to card holders announcing the menu change?

I took to the restaurant's Facebook page and lodged my complaints. No response.

By chance, a few months later, we decided to try it again. Lo and behold, things were fairly back to "normal." The menu was still more limited but many of the former popular dishes were back (not all). The stupid pizza presentation was gone. We were gladdened but once again, there had not been any inkling in the media that this had taken place; we discovered this by chance, effectively stumbling upon this switch. So therefore, unless a customer had loved the other change (not many did, the manager told me people were complaining and sales were plummeting) or like us, were willing to give the place another chance, why would anyone go back?

Well clearly, not enough people did. And because of no communication, no one knew it was "safe" to return. We tried to go one Sunday in November and the place had closed early due to lack of business. When we returned last week, a notice was posted on the door that the restaurant was officially closed for good.

This could have been averted with some marketing communication.
1 -- Alert your loyal customers that change is coming. As I mentioned before, I have a loyalty card (spend a certain amount of money and get a gift certificate to the restaurant). It would have been very easy for the company to contact all loyalty card holders with a heads up (even better, invite them into the menu process with a survey).

2 -- Inform the public of your news with--you guessed it--a news release. This is true news, I am sure the daily and weekly papers would have run something on this.

3 -- Run large, noticeable ads in local media announcing the makeover and menu change. This could have brought in new customers who'd never sampled the place before or who had been there years ago and now have a new reason to try it. It also would have alerted current patrons to the changes to avert nasty surprises.

4-- Use social media to make your announcement. The restaurant easily could have published the new menu on Facebook among other platforms.Great way to test the waters before taking the plunge (and eventually, drowning).

5 -- Speaking of social media, make sure the people working your accounts understand the importance and value of customer interaction. Social networks are by nature interactive and customer engagement is the name of the game. Big fail on their part.

Communication is a key element to any business' success and lack of it can spell failure. How do you stay in touch with your customers about changes or updates you're making?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Writing a Press Release? AP Style Matters

Writing a professional news release that the media outlets will take seriously is serious business, but it's not difficult. I've written before about making sure your news is actual news, that it is something the press and/or the listeners/viewers/readers will want to know about, as well as reasons to write a press release. 

Here are a few tips on how to write a press release the way a public relations writer would do it, with adherence to AP Style (the Associated Press Stylebook is readily available and is an excellent resource/guide for all matters of news-related reporting).


NOTE: These days, being the era of the digital and SEO press release, you should make sure to include keywords in your headline and in your supportive subhead that are also included in the body of your release.
That being said, here are some handy helpers and this list is by no means complete.

1. Give the editor what she needs to know in the Five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Pack this information in the top part of your press release in case the very busy editor or reporter who is reading it is skimming and needs to move on to the next 1000 in her inbox. 

2. Get to the point quickly--don't make anyone read a few paragraphs before they figure out what your news is. Your headline and supportive subhead should telegraph the main premise and key talking points and your Five Ws should follow as immediately as possible. 

3. Titles are not always capitalized! GRRR ... this one always makes me just this side of loony. Clients always think a job title is capitalized. I have no idea where this misconception comes from. In a press release, the person's title (unless it is honorific or formal) is only capitalized when it precedes the person's name (Principal Figgins, Executive Director Caryn Starr-Gates) and is lower case after the name (Figgins, principal of McKinley High School or Caryn Starr-Gates, executive director of a whole lotta nuthin'). 
Formal titles, such as Senator, President, Princess are capitalized and appear before the person's name. There is a lot to read up on in the AP Stylebook about this.  


 4. You only use a person's full name the first time it appears, after which you use only the last name (usually; a few exceptions exist). So when I write about Dr. Arnold Pepper (that's Dr. Pepper's first name, right?) I would write, "Dr. Arnold Pepper, the lead scientist on the soft drink project ..." and later on I would write, "Pepper reported that Starr-Gates said she felt there was something really yucky about that soda and that she always prefers selzter."

5. Write out some numbers, use digits on others. All ordinal and cardinal numbers first through ninth and one through nine are written out; move to numerals at 10th and 10.

6. Don't use first person. It's not "I" and "we" unless those are used in quotes in the story. It's news, written in the third person. Using first person will immediately tell the recipient, "I'm an amateur." 


7. Months that have more than five letters in them should be abbreviated. See the AP Stylebook for how to abbreviate those pesky long ones.

8. Postal abbreviations for state names (and the way they are written) are not the correct state name abbreviations for news releases. Some are the same, as it turns out but not all. Writing a letter to grandma in Tennessee? Write TN on your envelope but if you are talking about news in that state, write Tenn.

9. Spell correctly and punctuate correctly. Proofread that release before you hit "send." Remember that in American English, commas and periods go INSIDE the quotation marks. 

Although it makes me sad, serial commas are not used (I love me some serial commas). This is not to say that your feature article or book that you are writing according to another manual of style (hello, Chicago!) should not be peppered with serial commas; just not in your AP-style news release.

10.  Most book /magazine titles are in quotations. Don't italicize these. And not everything is put in quotes (reference material for example). Look it up in the "AP Stylebook."

11. Give the document some space. Many people double space their press releases, a throwback to the days of old when releases were mailed or faxed and editors needed room to edit. I usually space my documents at 1.15 to make them easier to read.
Joe Friday
12. Make sure your facts are straight. No sense making stuff up and then get caught in a lie or in spreading misinformation. You'll get blackballed in no time! If you know who this dude is and why I stuck his photo here, feel free to share that in the comments.

Here's a final tip: hire a professional writer to help you strategize, develop a newsworthy angle or bring out your real story, and write a professional, AP-style press release that won't be deleted before it's read! 

If you'd like me to review something you're working on, send it to caryn@starrgates.com.


  • Cover the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. A press release functions as the hook to get an editor's attention. However, even if you have her attention, if you do not cover the necessary information, she will still find something else to print. The five Ws tell the editor the importance of the information presented.
  • 2
    Start with your main point. In journalistic writing, the main point, or overall topic, needs to be at the beginning. If the editor has to dig for it, he will find some other press release to print. You can also underline your main point by including a sample headline.
  • 3
    Look carefully at your use of dates and numbers. For example, ordinal numbers first through ninth have to be spelled out, while anything 10th and over uses numerals. the same applies for cardinal numbers one through nine, with 10 and higher written as numerals. Dates and years use numerals. All months with more than five letters, such as January, are expected to be abbreviated.
  • 4
    Go over your punctuation. It is important to remember to use one space after the period. Also commas and periods go inside of quotation marks, and serial commas are not used. That is, if you have a list of items, you do not need a comma before the last item: "This is a list of one, two and three items." Some writing styles do require a comma after the "and."
  • 5
    Check names and titles. The first time a person is introduced, you must use her first name and full title. Formal titles, such as President or Senator, must be capitalized and appear before the person's name. Informal titles such as deputy secretary of government agency are in lowercase and can appear either before or after a person's name. After first use, only the last name is necessary, except in cases where two people have the same last name or the name is mentioned in a direct quotation.
  • 6
    Double check and double space. When you finish writing your press release, double space the body of the release in order to give the editor space to edit the piece as necessary. Also, double check all your facts, including grammar and spelling, to ensure you are putting the best possible face on your company.


  • Read more : http://www.ehow.com/how_8029607_write-release-proper-ap-style.html

    Saturday, August 16, 2014

    Why Everyone Deserves Their Privacy -- Even on the Internet



    I have not written for a couple of months (too busy writing other people's blogs, seriously!!) but Robin Williams' passing has had me thinking about this issue a lot in the past week.

    These people are not related to us, they are not our close personal friends. Of course, as so many people were, I was saddened to hear Mr. Williams had reached the point where suicide was the better option. It is sad for anyone to be in that place.

    But as we know and see, when something happens to a celebrity, the Internet lights up, newspapers fills pages with stories no one really needs to know; these people's private lives become a completely open book. I don't think that's fair.
    Besides, many people commit suicide daily, people we don't hear about nor about whom we lick our chops over news stories or go trawling for lascivious updates. I know, they are not public figures, they do not have millions of fans, but their end is every bit as tragic.

    Facebook is crowded with everyone's "RIP Robin Williams." People are posting links to countless articles all saying the same thing -- he was depressed, he left this world by his own hand -- and there seems to be some kind of horrible fascination with the details, like rubberneckers when passing a bad accident on the highway (another situation I do not understand. Move on people, nothing to see here ...). It was somewhat the same situation when Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose a few months ago; a great (and troubled) talent gone much too soon by our account.

    I get that when this happens to a public figure, it is an opportunity, for the greater public good, to create more awareness of the medical or mental health issue that could potentially benefit others who suffer from these conditions (addictions, depression, physical disease). But it all begs the question: When is enough, enough?

    I think the 24/7 media coverage of their lives is intrusive and who among us would want that kind of scrutiny?

    And then there's this ...
    Many media types have already excoriated the Daily News for its usual classless style to run the yellowest of journalism's front page story about Mr. Williams' death (check it out, you'll vomit a little in your mouth).

    Bottom line for me: the details of these people's deaths are not our business (excepting criminal investigations or something related to the public good). Nor are the details of their personal lives. I found it repugnant that Robin Williams' wife felt obligated to reveal her husband was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's disease ... of what use is this private information to anyone who is not related or affiliated with him in some way (certainly none of us are)? Why is anyone's personal medical diagnosis of concern to the public? Not to mention, media reports (journalism) should be fact-based reports, not histrionic editorials designed to feed the public's frenzy for "dirty details."




    What's Up With Those Trolls Anyway? 
    The anonymity of the Internet opens the door for terrible behavior by people who clearly have too much idle time and nothing constructive to do. I have written before about some bad behavior on LinkedIn but that's just stupid communication; trolls can be destructive.

    Trolls are people who post inflammatory messages, often off topic and disruptive, on blogs, chat rooms and forums, and social media feeds. We've all seen them, the hostile diatribes from people no one knows, the creepy or inappropriate posts that incite upset and anger. Their primary goal is to rile up the readers and although they often succeed, the best way to treat their posts is to delete them, report them, or rise above with humor and good taste (never sink to their swamp-thing level). Trolls want a good argument but deserve a good whack upside the head (to put it politely).

    And now the Internet trolls are at it in the Robin Williams issue, aiming their disgusting, disruptive and destructive comments towards Williams' grieving daughter on Twitter. She has deleted her Twitter account because of this activity. There is a good story in the New York Times about this abhorrent behavior that's taken over people's comment boxes, Facebook feeds, Twitter accounts and more.

    Problem is -- there are no true rules for Internet etiquette. Grown-up, stable citizens of the world understand that decency, acceptance of different perspectives (delivered respectfully), and true sharing of opinions with productive discourse can be a fruitful way to hold a digital conversation and even build relationships and community around a shared interest or cause. But when trolls enter the picture, lives can be marred and in some cases ruined. Consider the cyber bullying that has led to teenage suicides; it's a different kind of trolling as far as I'm concerned.

    Is there a way to monitor and control this? Not yet but I hope there will be soon. In the meantime, I question society's need to creep into celebrities' lives and nosh on the sad details of their personal struggles. It's all sad enough without us strangers clamoring for more. Leave their families and close friends and associates to grieve in private. Nothing to see here.

    Sunday, June 1, 2014

    Why Monitoring Your Online Presence Matters





    I had a really strange experience about two weeks ago with a local restaurant, its owner, and the venue's digital presence. Not to mention its phone.


    My region of the NJ Association of Women Business Owners had a dinner program booked at this restaurant for a Wednesday evening. The reservation was made a couple of months ago. A few days prior to the event, I called the owner's cell phone (she had given a couple of us that number) to give her a head count and to confirm. It went directly to voice mail, which was full and not accepting any messages.

    Being a person of the modern age I decided to check the website for the restaurant's phone number. The website was gone, poof, down, not found, 86'd (to use a restaurant term). Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland would muse. I called information for the phone number and dialed; no answer. By then I was assuming something bad was going down.

    I did a bit more online digging and came upon the restaurant's Yelp page. The header proclaimed that several Yelpers reported the location was closed. Suspicion confirmed.

    It was further confirmed when I went to the restaurant's Facebook page and saw it had not been updated for over a year. What would you think?

    Another NJAWBO member also tried calling the two phone numbers and also got no answer. I shared my digital detective work with her and we agreed it was unfortunate that the restaurant had closed, and that we were not told. We canceled the meeting. I decided the next day to call the restaurant again because it seemed so weird and guess what? An employee answered and said the owner would be back in about an hour. What?! Further confusion prevailed.


    Imagine our surprise when the owner called my friend a little while later to get the details for our dinner! Huh?!
    I eventually spoke with the owner and explained to her that after a full day (or more) of not getting any answers, of a voice mailbox that was not accepting messages, an absent website and a Yelp obituary (not to mention the abandoned Facebook page) that we thought the restaurant was closed. It is not. The owner explained that it had been closed for a couple of days for renovations but not permanently closed. She did have some lame excuse about not answering the phone because of the construction (I didn't get that connection).

    When I told her about the absent website she said something about it being updated. I explained to her that you don't take down a perfectly serviceable website just because you are updating your menu! Wait until you have the new site ready before you take down the existing one.

    She had no clue about the Yelp post -- nor about the super-negative reviews that are posted there. So on top of the poor decision to take down the website prematurely, she was not monitoring what customers have been saying about her restaurant and there were definitely some comments that could have used some crisis communications responses.

    When the issue of the Facebook page came up, she told me the prior owner's daughter had put up the page and would not make her an admin on the page, so it was in a state of suspended animation. She can't even take it down. I don't know why someone would abandon a page and then not give the new owner the permissions necessary to manage it (although I doubt there would have been much in the way of management there). But this was another nail in the reputation coffin.

    She did assure me they are working on new menu items, they are open for business, and encouraged me to come by soon to check out the new dishes. I felt like telling her she needs me to check out her online reputation and help her clean that up!

    What went wrong:
    1. The public had misinformation about the restaurant's status due to errors of omission (no signage or outgoing voice mail message stating the reason for the temporary closure). Some simple old-school communication tactics would have served the place well. A sign in the window and an outgoing telephone message explaining "we're closed for several days for renovations" would have saved them our business and would have avoided totally incorrect information on Yelp. That Yelp obit is now gone.
    2. The website person took down the existing website for no good reason, feeding speculation about the restaurant's closure when coupled with the "no one's home to answer the phone" situation. As noted above, don't take down the old website before launching the new one. If you do, put up a simple "new site under construction" page for the time being so people don't make wrong assumptions. By the way, there is now a non-functioning Wordpress site up in its place with some pretty pictures, no information or copy, and lots of contact boxes.
    3. The owner had no idea there was any conversation on social media about the restaurant and therefore was not responding to negative comments/reviews or correcting the misinformation out there about its demise. If you own a business, check the search engines for your name and see what's going on out in the cyber wilderness before reputation disaster strikes.
    4. No one had been attending to the Facebook page for so long, it gave the appearance of being abandoned (the page and the location). Either keep the pages updated or take them down; otherwise it gives the impression that no one's home. Their page is still abandoned. By the way -- please make sure you engage with your audience on your social pages. If people are allowed to comment there and they post something that warrants your attention, talk to them. Social dialogue is a great way to build audience and enhance your digital cred. 
    These individual problems all added up to a very big one for this business and all of them were avoidable, had anyone been paying attention to what was happening online. Mind your social accounts, keep your website up and functioning, and check on what people are saying about you out there. Don't let this happen to you!

    Wednesday, April 23, 2014

    Blog Posts: How Long is Long Enough?

    I'm writing this today in response to a post in a LinkedIn group that brought up the issue of blog post length. There was an article cited about this and we were asked our opinion on the question of what is the right length for a blog. I suppose the issue of frequency is also at play here but as someone who barely writes on her own blog (my last entry was just over two months ago!) I am not going to go there today.

    Disclaimer: I am not an SEO expert or practitioner, I'm a copywriter. All views expressed here are the opinions from a writer's point of view (albeit, someone who writes loads of online content and pays attention to trends and pesky algorithm updates, and learns a lot from the digital gurus I work with). I can recommend several trusted SEO experts if you need a referral.

    What to Write
    A company's blog (web log) post is your company's online diary so to speak -- a valuable tool for communicating your expert opinion, positioning you and your key employees as leaders in your field, sharing pertinent and helpful insights that your customers or clients can use to improve their operations -- you get the idea. If you are writing blog posts for SEO purposes, to improve your search results, and to drive traffic to your website, you need to have relevant, engaging content for the search engines and your readers; topics should be of intrinsic value and of interest to humans.



    In my humble opinion, short posts just for the sake of throwing something out there are a waste; they probably don't have much in the way of interesting or informative content and to me, they feel gratuitous and somewhat spammy ("Uh oh, I'm supposed to post something so here it is: something/anything/blah blah blah").

    I'm not talking about using your company's blog as another avenue to stay in touch with your clients for a quick announcement or important update, especially if they know to go there for these communiques (such as: our office is closed, remember to file by Friday, event registration ends today). This is actually a great client contact channel for pertinent information on the fly, but it's not a blog post.

    Blog Length
    Search engines need quality content and enough of it to deem your blog worthy of search results . . . as do your readers. There is no magic word count for this but too short is not going to cut it. That in itself is a highly subjective sentence. There is a good study on blog post length and search results that I found on SlideShare; you can view it here.

    Business blog posts are articles, and as a copywriter who writes a lot of these for clients, I will say this: however long I need to state my case and make my point is how long my blog posts run. Some people say 400 words is a good target; I've written blog posts that are between 400-500 words and others that are closer to 800. There were not wasted words, the articles were researched, and the posts were not over-written. I don't believe there are any rules around this issue and it depends on your subject matter and your audience.

    If you plan to post frequently, perhaps articles on the shorter side make more sense for you (400-500 words). If you post infrequently, or write about technical topics that need more space (and words) to unpack, longer (1000-1500 words) is probably better for your topic and your readers. There are no rules. (Suggestion: If you plan to write something over 1000 words, you might want to look for opportunities to submit articles to publications seeking more in-depth, longer content, unless your audience is one that expects and reads long articles on a regular basis).

    I lament, balk at, and fight against the adage that nobody reads anymore, no one has time, people want short snippets instead of articles with flow and substance. People will read what matters to them. That being said, there are ways to meet these accepted "truths" head on. Providing useful links to your sources help to trim down word count; you can bring up the point, make a statement, and direct the readers to the source for more details (much as you would in an email newsletter). I also suggest breaking up longer pieces with bold subheads and call-outs to draw the reader's eye and provide snippets of information. However, to me the bottom line regarding blog length is:
    • Write an article that is interesting and relevant to your audience. 
    • Make it as long as you have to in order to deliver helpful information to your audience.
    • Don't get hung up on capricious limits like 150 words or three paragraphs.  Who made that up?
    Do you agree? What are your thoughts about blog length? Please share them in comments.



    Wednesday, February 12, 2014

    I Was Leading a Class on Creative Journaling When Suddenly ...

     
    I was recently asked by an executive of an account I work on to lead a class for seniors as part of the organization's lifelong learning program. I was flattered and said "yes" although as a copywriter I was not sure what I could teach. My contact suggested "creative journaling"and I agreed.

    I don't keep a journal and barely remember to update this blog but after a little research I had my outline done, a two-page handout for the class, and some ideas for our discussion. I showed up with pads and pens as a dozen senior citizens waited to find out about how to start and maintain a creative journal.

    The class started out innocently enough. I explained the difference between keeping a diary and undertaking this journaling, and shared some idea-starters and topics. We talked about creative expression and personal expression. I said that one area to journal about is your worries or concerns, things that bother you; to write that letter that will never be sent. That's when things took a very meaningful detour for us all.

    A woman raised her hand and shared that when her now-deceased husband was spiraling ever downward into dementia, she, in her despair or frustration or rage, cursed him out. With tears in her eyes, she said that to this day she feels guilty about this; what should she do? "Well," I responded, "this could be a great example of that letter that never gets sent. Why don't you journal about your feelings that day, how you felt in that moment, and express your regret about the event? It will help get it off your chest. When things go unexpressed they get a life of their own and you need to let it go. But more important, you have to cut yourself some slack for being human." I hope that she writes that journal entry and instead of beating herself up, gives herself credit for hanging in there during a terrible time on her life.

    I got back on track and we talked about forming a writing group, akin to their knitting club or book club. Some more topics were discussed. Other hands went up. Clearly, the idea of letting go of their troubles in some way (verbal expression being the preferred option that day, it appeared) was opening up a floodgate among my "students."

    "No matter how hard I try I can't seem to ..."
    "I'm having trouble forgiving myself for ..."
    "I wish I didn't always feel ..."

    It was at this point that I started counseling my elders on choice. How we all have a choice about how we act or feel about anything; we just don't always recognize that at the time. In the moment we react but if we take a breath, stop and think, we realize we might not be able to change the situation but we always have a choice about how we will be about it, or what we will do with it. This engendered some more conversation; not everyone agreed with me, saying they can't do it alone. I countered that they didn't have to, sometimes we need professional help or family support to address an issue. We talked, honestly and openly.

    I gave the class another short writing exercise and many were eager to share their entries. After some reading aloud for the group, another hand went up.

    "We are here together in this community but we did not come here together. We are not all from the same backgrounds or have the same interests. I try talking to people and no one wants to talk; I try to make friends but it's not working. I always feel so lonely."

    Oh boy. A two-parter. What happened to our writing class? Good thing I think well on my feet.

    "There are two kinds of people, the ones like you -- the outgoing connectors-- and the others who are afraid. Many people are afraid, they won't reach out first, they need more time to warm up. As many people get older their worlds get smaller. You see that, right? So don't be discouraged; just keep trying to connect. Use the ideas from this class as your entree. Find shared interests, talk about something on your mind. It will happen." The woman seemed somewhat mollified.

    "As for loneliness," I continued, "being lonely is part of the human condition. We can be surrounded by loving family and friends and still feel lonely at times; we can be married to someone for 50 years and have periods of loneliness." There were several nods of assent in the room on that one.

    "Find someone in this class who you can share your journaling with," I said.

    At the end of the hour, several people asked when I was coming back, which was very flattering. Our group therapy session/writing class had just been getting started, it seemed. I gave out my business cards and told them to call me with ideas for their journal entries or if they got stuck. It had been a cleansing experience for some of them and a powerful hour for me to be able to give something so unexpected to them.

    Then the old man who'd been sitting silently in the back of the room shuffled up to me as I was packing up. He had tears in his eyes.

    "I never told anyone this before," he started. I looked straight at him. "I was part of the third landing party at Normandy." Oh no, I thought, this is going to be very bad.

    "By the time we got there, the first two landing parties were all dead or dying," he said in his sad voice. "A young boy was calling out for his mother, he was shot up and bleeding. I sat next to him and put his head in my lap." Now he was crying. "He called out, he thought I was his mother. And then he died. I had his blood all over my uniform." I fought back my own tears as he told me this.

    "I have nightmares about this, I cannot get this scene out of my head. Almost 70 years and I wake up at night thinking about this. I can't take it anymore, I don't know what to do."

    I looked at him, this sad old man who wants to forget the horror of that beach in Normandy. I said, "You gave a dying young man the comfort he needed. That is a very great thing. He was lucky and did not have to live with this memory but you do. Take this pad and pen and keep it by your bed so when you wake up in the middle of the night, you can write about your feelings."

    He thanked me and walked out slowly. I said my goodbyes and find myself sitting here, journaling about the experience that so moved me.

    So if someone asks you to lead an adult education class for seniors some time, be careful of what your topic is and which floodgates it might inadvertently open for you. And have your journal and pen handy.