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This Metaphor Perfectly Describes How a Serious Writer Revises

Magical moment on Christmas afternoon

Editing a long document is sort of like shoveling snow off a sidewalk while it is still snowing.

It begins with a foot of snow (you dump a rough draft on to the blank page). You start to shovel (edit) down the sidewalk (page). You reach the end of the sidewalk (page), wipe your brow with your cap, and look behind you.

My goodness, you didn’t realize it started snowing while you were still shoveling (it hardly looks like your editing job put a dent in your rough draft).

You must keep shoveling. Pushing. Smoothing out the transition from one point to the next. Otherwise you have a clunky document. You have fragments stitched together. You have outsourced web writing.

A great document is seamless. A country road that rolls over the hills and bends through the turns like the landscape has known nothing else.

It feels effortless. Yet, is anything but.

Image source: magical moment one Christmas afternoon

How to Reduce the Despair of Your First Draft


Your idea stretches out to the end of nowhere. One hundred words? One thousand?

That’s just one decision among many you must make before you write. And just one more decision that adds to your anxiety.

Fail to figure this one out and your idea sits idle. Deserted. Should this indecision persist, over time you’ll accumulate a storehouse of hollowed out concepts. Your very own creative blight.

Fortunately, scaffolding can help you avoid this mess.

Scaffolding is a notion I learned from Zadie Smith, the novelist, during a 2008 commencement speech given to students at Columbia University’s writing program.

The lecture is called “That Crafty Feeling” and you can find it in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

She said when writing a novel (but this can apply to articles, blog posts, or even sales letters) you should use a framework. She called it a scaffolding. And she said why:

Use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey.

In other words, give it parameters. Create an endgame goal. Artificial or not.

But what sort of parameters?

  • This could be Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey.
  • A mock up of the twenty-seven chapters in the New Testament.
  • The frustrating narrative scheme Calvino devised in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
  • Your favorite number, say seven (where you limit your blog post to only seven paragraphs, sentences, or words).
  • A model of the number of days in a year.
  • A formula like Problem-Agitate-Solve.
  • The five acts of a play.

Your choice. However: you must always remove any trace of the framework. You must make it your own.

For instance, you could use the 5 Ws to work through your first draft. Let’s say you wrote a piece about why you no longer drink.

In a normal setting you would open with the who. You re-arrange it to open with the why. And in the body you blend the four others (plus the how) into a list of examples, so that each entry you listed what you drank who you drank with, where you drank, how you drank, and when you drank.

  • I drank dollar cranberry vodkas to excess on Tuesday nights in an empty dance club.
  • I drank wine spritzers to excess in a hotel room on Wrightsville beach during summer break with people from high school.

You can mix up that formula to kill monotony. Then you close it out with a conclusion.

When someone reads your article they won’t read it and think you are using  the five Ws, unless she trains her eyes on it.

Speaking of training your eyes, what framework did I use to write this post?

Image source: Scaffolding

I Tested a Hemingway Short Story on the Hemingway App. Here’s the Result


On this day, in 1961, Hemingway killed himself. Consider this a tribute of sorts.

So there’s this new browser app that allows you to write/drop content into a text box and click “Edit” to determine if your writing is “bold and clear.”

It’s called Hemingway.

  • Yellow highlight means long, complex sentence.
  • Red highlight means dense, very complicated sentences.
  • Blue highlights indicate adverbs (remove them).
  • Purple is for words that can be more simple. (Purple prose, get it?)
  • Green marks passive voice.

I ran The Efficient Writer: A Blunt Guide through it, and the grade was a seven.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 9.42.39 AM.png

You should gun for anything lower than a ten.

As you can see, I had one hard-to-read sentence (which was a quote), two very-hard-to-read sentences, and one passive sentence.

For kicks I thought to test one of Hemingways short story: Clean, Well-Lighted Place. You can see the results in the image below.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 9.30.09 AM.png

Here were other short stories I tested.

“Indian Camp”

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.08.21 PM.png

Only one sentence was hard to read, no really hard sentences to read, but seven adverbs (you should use fewer than twenty-three!), ten words that could be simpler, and nine passive voice sentences (aim for fewer than thirty-one!).

“Hills Like White Elephants”

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.09.10 PM.png

Then I noticed something about the results. Turns out the score is based upon a ratio of word count because …

“Snows of Kilimanjaro”

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.10.14 PM.png

This story scored a 29, 59, 59, 22, 22 … which might look like this did a whole lot worse, but this was a much longer story (about ten times longer) … and so the number of hard sentences you can write, so on, goes up.

Moral of the story: Yes, Hemingway passes the Hemingway.

Give the Hemingway app try (and the writer, too, if you don’t know his work), and see if it doesn’t make your writing bold and clear. Report back here before the end of the day.

This post originally posted here.

Internet Memes: A Blunt Guide

Warhol Afro Wig

Internet memes: a piece of content spreading online from user to user and changing along the way.

There are number of things about the web that make me want to stick a fork in my eye.

Monster valuations for social apps. The social apps themselves. And of course the people who fall over themselves about said social apps.

Memes are NOT one of those things, however. The reason is because it’s possible to mock everything you loath about the web with a meme.

And other things, of course.

Why the popularity of internet memes

In the February 2013 paper Makes a Meme Instead, Linda Börzsei at the Utrecht University writes:

The information overload of the current media does not permit long engagement with one piece of news, as the next hour will supply with many new ones. The Internet meme (and its popularity) is a poignant illustration of this condition.”

Like most news, most memes are “fleeting, malleable, immediate.” One image lasts until the next. Witness the ridiculous spike and decline of search interest on any given meme. Fleeting, malleable, and immediate come to mind.

A meme, in other words, becomes a web-peculiar shorthand that communicates a certain momentary cultural sophistication. Look at this text exchange between a gentleman and the woman who cheated on him.

It’s fair to say he won, in the manner of memes.

But memes also support arguments. They prove, in a charming manner, a point you want to drive home. In this sense SEO consultant A J Kohn deserves tribute for his effort to infuse levity into a topic that would be boring to all but the wonks.

Memes are a vocabulary. A mode of communication. And the new political cartoon. (Sarkozy anyone?)

People who create memes are smart

The average blogger has been mascot for the democratic spirit of the internet for years. Memes, however, are giving it a run for the money because memes allow us a mode of engaging in the world of ideas without having a blog.

Thus the emergence of meme-friendly sites like Reddit, 4chan, and Tumblr. These become havens for our iconoclastic variety of humor (some would say “community,” but, you know … see the first sentence of this article).

And, yes, while it may be hard to believe, people actually put time and energy into creating memes. So what was once passive enjoyment has turned into active involvement in creating (and adding to) the joke — because we now have the tools.

The barrier for many of us, however, is that you need a brain.

And resist this as much as you want (I did), there is a creative genius behind a meme. As someone on the internet said once, “the ability to piece together meaning from a discontinuous set of images is the act of a higher intellect, not a lower one.”

Take the meme genre “advice animals.” The blend of a color wheel and a penguin (original image taken by nature photographer George F. Mobley for National Geographic, no less) is, for some I must admit, silly.

But it’s not easy making that connection, let alone getting that image to the point where it becomes a true meme. That doesn’t happen until we learn that the penguin is socially awkward. Then we bust a gut, and a meme is born.

Bizarre, you say, but creativity nonetheless.

Most memes are anonymous

And this is where we come to an interesting turn in the history of memes. See, those who create memes are part comedian, part cartoonist. And almost always forgotten. That’s the nature of a meme.

Side note: I’m always tempted to write “great meme” but resist for the simple fact that a meme, by nature, is great. A meme has gone viral. Anything else is just a lonely image sitting on someone’s hard drive.

Since there is not an easy approach to attribution, meme creators run the risk of being forgotten. The site Know Your Memes does it’s best to find origins. But that’s hard to do. Especially since most memes are macro — like Socially Awkward Penguin or Ermagard.

What I mean by “macro” is once the image and template (or snowclone as those in the know would have you say it) is set, variations multiple and spread across the web. The original is often left behind, buried. This is just one consequence of radical openness.

But we don’t really care. We giggle like school girls, and then add to the noise.

And, of course, in the also very meritorious spirit of the web, only the funny survive. It’s the last meme standing that finds its way onto our Facebook streams and into our email inboxes and across our blog posts. And even then, we are off to the next meme, the next social site.

Oh, what we do to express ourselves. I guess there is more than one way to skin that cat.

The Guest Blogging Approach You Should’ve Been Using All Along

Laptop Open Notebook

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to get an article published in The Atlantic Monthly your strategy would’ve been simple: write an article, type out a cover letter, fold the pages, and stuff in an envelope.

Lick a stamp and drop in the postal bin.

If you were lucky, sixteen weeks later you would have received a reply that went something like this: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

You’d be left on your own to figure out what went wrong. Was it the spelling? Lame idea? Poor execution? All of the above, certainly, but in the end it would boil down to authority. Swagger. Did you have any?

If you were like me, the answer is no. You were only eleven years old and still chewing on crayons. You had some work to do.

We all start at the bottom
[Read more...]

Starting a New Blog? Assume Nothing


Darren Rowse, founder of Digital Photography School, wondered if a post on how to hold a camera was too basic. Was his audience more sophisticated than that?

He took the risk, wrote the post, and it became one of his most popular.

When it comes to content marketing most of us overestimate the sophistication of our readers. That’s not a condescending thing to say. Even in a saturated market like weight loss most interested readers don’t know the basics.

And sometimes what we do know is flat-out wrong or more complex than we think.

As fitness authorities will tell you, losing weight can not be reduced to “burn more calories than you consume.” There is more to it than that.

Thus, if you are starting a new blog, start with the basics. This lays the foundation for your advanced work. Never, however, abandon the basics.

You will experience reader turnover. Every blog does. And your new readers need to be taught for the first time — or simply reminded in a fresh way — of the basics.

Share your thoughts on Google+.

The One Sentence about Net Neutrality You Need to Email the FCC (Now)

Apple Laptop

As an online writer I’ve got an honest interest in an open internet. A free internet. The advantages it affords to a recluse writer are enormous (not having to knock on doors, for example).

All that could disappear if the new net neutrality rules proposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) become law.

In summary, the FCC intends to allow some ISP providers to charge different rates for fast and slow lines. Those with deep pockets will experience faster service while those without will be directed to slower lanes.

You, no matter who you are, probably have an interest in this issue as well. Especially if you are a Netflix subscriber. [Read more...]

The Perfect Illustration for Anyone Who Wants to Write Great Copy


A good story begins with a character in conflict, amplifies that conflict so life is miserable, and then ends with a resolution …

Even if that means a happy ending in an opera where every character is knifed to death.*

Good copywriting also begins with a character in conflict …

As a copywriter you amplify that conflict so life is unbearable, and then end the story with a resolution (think subscribe to an email newsletter, listen to a podcast, or purchase a physical product).

Look at the copy forumula PAS for an example of what I mean.

PAS stands for Problem-Agitate-Solve. You start with a meaningful ProblemAgitate it so it is unbearable … and then trot out the Solution.

Who is the main character in your copywriting story? Your customer, the reader.

And of course they should see themselves in this drama.

Fortunately, in this drama, nobody is knifed to death, and, on average, everyone lives happily ever after. Depending on how well you write, of course.

Which reminds me …

Want more copywriting advice? Pick up a free copy of Copywriting 101: How to How to Craft Compelling Copy.

*Those are my daughter’s words.


My Failed Month on Medium

Failure Inc

Funny story: not long ago our CFO at Copyblogger went rogue on us. He published a post on our private company Google+ community telling us how much he loved Medium.

Within minutes we were roasting him.

His crime? Digital sharecropping. Sean is an oddball among oddballs, but this was out of character. Did he get a hold of some bath salts? Why in the world would he suggest that we create content on rented land?

Sean, true to nature, held his ground, and even published a post on Medium. Then his love for the platform quieted down.

Close the book, move on. Not so fast. [Read more...]

What Exactly Is the Plight of the Average Blogger?

Stop Dreaming

Mike Elgan is an established writer. He’s been a technology jounralist for over 25 years, even started his own magazine … and now is a paid opinion columnist. On any given day you might find Mike blogging from Eastern Europe or Southern Africa. I mention all of this to state that Mike is not your average blogger.

When Google+ launched Mike doubled down on the social site and pointed his own blog there — and now is the spokesperson for Google+ diet. His entire online life begins and ends there. He still publishes outside of that, but you will get a bulk of his writing only on Google+.

I recommend you follow Mike on Google+. You won’t be disappointed. What I won’t recommend, however, is that you follow Mike’s advice to abandon your blog for Google+.

Let me explain. [Read more...]