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A Creative Trick for Mastering the Art of Conversational Writing

Warhol Bus Sunglasses

Speaking is a natural act. Every single human being has the ability to do it. And at a very young age. The reason why says cognitive scientist and linguist Stephen Pinker is because we have a language instinct.

We master this instinct as we imitate sounds made by mom and dad, brother and sister, nana and popo. Soon we are forming one word sentences, then two and three words sentences, and, at around age two, we are demanding to put our seat belts on ourselves while “you worry about yourself.”

Writing, however, is another story.

Man has an indistinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write. – Charles Darwin

Because writing is a recent invention (roughly 5,200 years old), it’s not instinctual and has to be encouraged and taught. And for anyone who has learned to write — or teaches young writers — we all know that’s not easy. Writing is hard because it is not natural. And this unnaturalness usually shows up in wobbly, demented prose.

This can be overcome, however, by writing with a conversational tone. In other words, writing like you speak. But funny thing is … when we sit down to type out a post or book or sales letter … we tighten up, balk, and blame the weather-breakfast-horoscope.

There are several reasons for this.

One, who wouldn’t stall when faced with the reality that, unlike spoken words, written words become permanent public fixtures once we publish them? From that moment onward we face criticism and ridicule.

Not so with speech. Its transitory nature makes it pretty tempting to pop off what ever is on our mind with little fear for fallout. How often have you, six months or six years down the road, said, “Dang, I wish I’d never said that”?

The other reason we get stiff when we think about writing is that it really is not a natural act. Unlike the act of speaking, where you are face-to-face with another person, when you sit down (or stand up if that’s your thing) to write, you’ve entered the land of make believe: you have to pretend like you are talking to someone when you’re not. We call people who do that lunatics (eccentric if they have a lot of money in the bank).

And that weirdness renders some creative, but wooden and dense prose. “I have an indispensable attraction with the fabric enveloping your hip region.” You mean you like her skirt?

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Leonhardt (now editor of NY Times’ The Upshot) was no stranger to  wordslaw when he began his career. So for several months he wrote all of his rough drafts in Yahoo Mail instead of Microsoft Word and trained himself to be a plain-spoken writer. And it’s probably safe to say he imagined he was in a conversation when he wrote those rough drafts.

Of course, instead of writing a rough draft, you could use your phone’s voice memo or software like Dragon Naturally Speaking that turns voice into text. Again, just pretend you are talking to someone else. By the way, nice side benefit to this approach is you’ll naturally work in your own voice and style into your prose.

And don’t forget to read what you wrote out loud. (For a funny version of this advice, see this.)

Want some more lessons on how to write clear or concise copy? Then see 9 Ways to Write Clear Copy and 6 More Exercises to Help You Write Concise Copy.

Do This to Break Your Weakness for Bad Writing

Warhol Limo Window

A lifestyle of curating ideas is one where you purposefully choose to read books and articles that will fill a commonplace book. Which means you should be reading like a mad man (or woman).

Even if it means reading the same thing over and over again.

William Faulkner wrote a short story called “Pantaloon in Black” that I cannot stop reading. It is in his collection Go Down, Moses. I’ve only read three other stories in that collection — “Pantaloon in Black” is that seductive.

The main character, sprawling in grief after his young wife dies, is in constant, self-destructive motion. Always striding, lifting, drinking. Thus, the plot is a fluid, manic current.

Unstoppable and fatal.

It is a wonder to read. And I want to write like that. But better.

As Steven Pinker says and research suggests, studying the classic style will break you of your weakness for corporatese, academese, bureaucratese, and legalese — in other words, wordslaw.

The question is: how far are you willing to go for the right word?

The 5 Ingredients of a Great Marketing Story [Free Poster]

Story Header

More than a year ago, Sonia Simone wrote the defining piece on how to create a great marketing story.

The article summarizes what we believe at Copyblogger … and describes what we try to do with each article we write, podcast we record, and so on.

In honor of such a great article, Copyblogger Media designer Lauren Mancke and I thought it was high time we convert Sonia’s article into a sleek poster in the style of the outstanding storytellers from the era of silent films.

So, print it, pin it, but whatever you do … use it. Click here to download a PDF of the infographic, which is suitable for printing and hanging near your workspace when you need to see it most.

The Amazingly Simple Anatomy of a Meaningful Marketing Story [Infographic]

What’s your marketing story? How does your marketing story capture your audience’s attention? Why is it meaningful for your readers? Do you use these five elements or additional principles?

Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

6 Ways an Empathy Map Can Make Your Headlines Even Sexier

Map Color

We all have our pet formulas. The go-to sources we love for great headline ideas.

For some it’s a swipe file full of head-turing advertising headlines. For others it’s scanning the headlines of their favorite magazines. Still others work their way through a set of templates like Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks or Copyblogger’s Magnetic Headlines.

My old-standbys are the fifth chapter in a rugged copy of Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples and the four Us (unique, ultra-specific, useful, and urgent).


But write long enough and you’ll exhaust these sources and start looking for alternatives. Something to add a little juice to your headlines.

Having been in this business for nearly fifteen years I’ve worn out quite a few alternatives. And I’ve seen quite a few problems crop up, too. [Read more…]

Alienating Your Audience? Your Reading Habits Might Be the Problem, Study Says

Reading on a Kindle

Recent research suggests that reading Faulkner might make you kinder, gentler compared to reading Clancy, Gladwell, or nothing at all.

The results make sense.

Literary fiction is bent on perceiving reality through the eyes of the characters. Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is a good example. Darl, Dewey Dell, Jewel, Vardaman, Cash, and so on, tell the story of Addie Bundsen’s death and burial from their point of view. Whether you can trust their POVs only adds to the suspense.

Popular fiction, on the other hand, chooses to put a high premium on the plot, with the main character getting the meat of the development. You see life through his or her eyes, but the stakes are often so high that little attention is paid to their interior lives.

By the way, I find this research ironic. Novelists in general tend to be anti-social. This paradox is stretched when you realize that a good novelist is also empathetic to the human condition.

But do literary novelists really care?

Their listening ability, one that isn’t beyond overhearing conversations not meant for their ears, is for selfish purposes. To get the story. The novelist isn’t a social scientist looking for ways to improve the human lot (for the most part).

He just needs material.

Like when Quentin Tarantino, as screenwriter, the modern equivalent of a novelist, overheard the notion that “Sicilian’s have nigger blood” and knew he had to use it. He found the perfect place in the conversation between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance.

And try to interrupt a novelist in the middle of his work. You will have your head removed. Try to engage a writer at dinner, and he will be dull, absent (unless he is lights-out drunk). Ask her out for coffee, and she will refuse.

So isn’t it funny that this cranky deadbeat whom we call a novelist can possibly help people navigate the emotionally sensitive waters of, say, a blind date or funeral or even blogging? I think it is. But what do I know … I’m as socially inept as they get. What do you think?

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Do This to Come Up with New Ideas

Bend in the Road

Some times I wish I’d not published a certain article on my site (or a guest blog) so I can publish it on Copyblogger.

While I’ll reach the largest audience there, the wait list is long, meaning I’d be sitting on more ideas than I’m comfortable with.

The conclusion I’ve come to is this: that that content is out there is a good thing. It is territory I’ve already covered.

I covered it out of necessity. The schedule demanded it and the audience needed it.

Now, I can move onto something else. A new challenge: how to write something without repeating myself. How to repackage an old idea so it seems new.

One of my greatest fears (outside of obscurity) is going stale.

Publishing what I write on a regular basis forces me to stay fresh. To limit over thinking and encourage more writing. It forces me to come up with new ideas.

And even if I don’t always succeed, I’m still practicing.

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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.