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Pulitzer-Winning Journo’s Creative Trick to Defeating Wobbly, Demented Prose

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.

How Passive Curation Works

Collection - Sheldon

As a writer you should be curating ideas nonstop. That is the essential mindset for exceptional ideas. Your life should be one about observation. Your senses always on.

You should be running your hands over the texture of a strange wall. You should cock your ear to a heated conversation between two German chess players. You should be chewing your arugula and feta slowly, thinking about how and why they work so well together.

This also means you should go on a Netflix TV show binge. Watch ten of the best anti-war movies. You should attend live lectures, listen to podcasts about astronomy, subscribe to a free college course at Yale through iTunes, and watch documentaries.

Whatever your heart desires.

Over four years ago I watched a documentary called It Might Get Loud. There is a scene in which Jack White is talking to the younger Jack White. He tells him, “You must fight the guitar. And you must win.”

I totally knew I needed to use that. Somewhere. Somehow. So I tucked it away, until two years later, when it fit perfectly with the opening of this article.

That’s passive curation at its best. And it works whether you are looking for the perfect opening, metaphor, or conclusion. It works for headlines, blog post images, or warm-blooded verbs.

The mistake you want to avoid, however, is being passive and reactive. Which I’ll explain in the next blog post.

The Essential Mindset for Exceptional Ideas

Hunter S Thompson Gun Cycle

Something similar happened to me last year when I was working on a series for Google authorship. I had my dense whiteboard outline finished, but I needed a hook.

Some uncommon theme to tie all the articles together. That theme appeared in the character of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

He would become the mascot of the series. Our ideal. Our standard. The shadow that swept across every paragraph.

And I stumbled upon this idea by following a rabbit trail that terminated on his entry in Wikipedia. I had no reason to read the article. But I was curious and bored.

Besides, I had a hunch.

It was a long entry, but Thompson is enough of a wild card to even make a Wiki entry entertaining. Fortunately I landed on what I was looking for in no time, a quote about obscurity.

I leaned away from laptop, looked at the ceiling, and smiled. “I found it. I can’t believe I found it.”

“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says, ‘you are nothing,’ I will be a writer.” Hunter S. Thompson

It was an accidental insight, a discovery I couldn’t control, but nurtured by way of constant curation. As if that is what my entire life is all about. The sieve engaged every moment of my waking day.

In other words, nothing is sacred. Swallow the world around you like a renegade sink hole. You just never know where you might discover your next big idea.

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?

You’ll Be Surprised to Learn the Source of Your Best Writing

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Ideas also emerge through interaction with the world.

Jeff Goins says the discipline of traveling to another country disrupts our comfort, educates us in other cultures, and can help us find new ways to solve old problems. That’s curation we can control. Then there are curation opportunities we can’t control.

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn says of his time in Stalin’s corrective labor camps, “Bless you, prison!” An experience that nearly broke this man granted him a knowledge of how “a human being becomes good or evil.”

His years of forced imprisonment became fields ripe for harvest.

Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Chances are you’ll never rot for a decade in a gulag. And most of your experiences won’t kill you or anyone close to you. But if you’ve at least made it to your twenty-first birthday, as Flannery O’Connor was fond of saying, then you’ll have a lifetime of material.

Don’t be afraid of the world. Or the people or circumstances you can’t control. Odd as it seems now, that junk will one day become your creative cache.

My Absurd Claim about Writing

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Some astronomers and philosophers make the grand, if not absurd, claim that we are ten thousand things, but one substance.

Perhaps ancient stardust.

I have my own absurd claim: behind one single article by a seasoned writer is the weight of one thousand books, one hundreds movies, hours of lectures, a litany of song lyrics, countless days of conversations, dozens of poems, and so on.

And it’s this sort of commitment to working, learning, and playing hard that separates the good writer from the great.

How far are you willing to go to be absurd?

The 5 Ingredients of a Great Marketing Story [Infographic]

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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).

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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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Hilarious New Twist to Reading What You Wrote Out Loud

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I got this idea from my daughter who was making us utterly crack up this weekend with her imagination. It wasn’t so much what she said. It was how she said it.

Rather how Ginger said it.

Ginger is the name we gave to the voice on Google Translate. My daughter was making Ginger say some of the most preposterous things.

For example:

Hello, I am a stupid machine. Do you still love me? It is good that you love me since I don’t care. I don’t have emotions. Tell me what I should say. How I should feel. See, I am stupid. What’s the weather like outside? How old is that cat? I have mental problems. Can you tell?”

If you read those lines … it just seems silly. Listening to Ginger say them, however, is a flipping riot.

Which got me thinking about that particular piece of writing advice that says we should read what we wrote out loud. This exercise is supposed to help you to hear if it makes sense.

So what if Ginger read your copy out loud? Give it a shot.

  1. Go to Google Translate.
  2. Drop your copy in first box.
  3. Translate in language of choice.
  4. Hit the speaker icon.

I experimented with a few posts … and it was funny. But very bumpy. She has zero emotion. Misses inflection. And stops halfway through on long posts.

Give it a shot with a short piece, and let me know what you think.

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