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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

Scaffolding

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

hemingway

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.

Tricks to Capture Ideas (Without Using Your Hands)

Brains

It’s funny. How we forget things. Sublime reflections and exalted ideas. Like they were never even there. But if they were so sublime and exalted, why did they not remain with us?

And it’s funny how we fear losing these ideas. The lengths we will go to preserve them. The legends are legion.

Keeping waterproof slates in your shower. Talking into your phone’s voice memo while you pump gas on a dusty August day. Scribbling in your tiny notepad in the dark of night so you don’t wake your spouse. In the morning light, however, the handwriting is illegible. You might have well been drunk.

I know. I’ve done it.

The first four of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writing are all about preserving your work. That’s forty percent. The other rules, the ones devoted to the craft of writing, have to share the remaining sixty. Think about that.

The premium we place on ideas.

But at what point do you draw the line when it comes to stopping what you are doing to record an idea: how many times do you interrupt the family dinner? The mowing of the lawn? The cross-country run?

Not to mention, there’s the risk you may interrupt the full blossoming of an idea if you prematurely stop what you are doing to write it down.

Well, this is what do you do when you can’t — or don’t — want to stop to write down an idea: either memorize it or concoct a narrative around it.

Let me show you how these work.

Memorize the idea means nothing more than repeating it until you burn it in your memory. Perhaps it was a cute little sentence that will be perfect for opening up an article. Repeat it over and over again. Just like you would memorize any other fact.

Concocting a narrative means nothing more than allowing the idea to unfold. For instance, the roads I run on are surrounded by woods and farm fields. We are outside of city limits. We are in the country. And people shoot guns in the country.

I don’t go a day without hearing a shot fired. Somewhere far away, of course. Maybe they’re scaring away a coyote or banging a quail. Nevertheless, near enough to send my brain into a creative rampage. And the only way I can corral these ideas is to embed them into a story — with vivid milestones.

When I get home I take a shower and eat breakfast. When I finally sit down at my desk I open one of my notebooks, mechanical pencil in hand, and use those milestones to walk my way back to the original idea.

By the way, the last three posts were inspired by this podcast.

Image source: Brains

Blank Page? Pillage the Cutting Room Floor

Drive In Movie

Johnny Depp, based on his performance in the television crime drama 21 Jump Street, acted in Oliver Stone’s anti-war movie Platoon. This included two major dialog scenes with William Defoe. Those sections of the film, however, fell to the cutting room floor, victim of Oliver Stones’ ruthless editing.

This is not unusual.

Directors cut scenes for many reasons: a subplot doesn’t push the story forward, a scene disrupts pacing, or the director has entirely too much material (see Malick’s Thin Red Line).

Deleted scenes aren’t thrown out. Instead, they are labeled and stored for later use.

Writer, you, too, have deleted scenes. Content that hits the cutting room floor. Don’t give up on it. Repurpose it.

  • Fish through cut material when looking for new ideas.
  • Keep a series alive with related chunks from the past.
  • Resurrect once two-bit content when the topic finally becomes hot (for whatever reason).

And where do you find your cut material?

  • Look through your revision files on WordPress (section just below your text editor).
  • Label Word documents different versions as you rewrite.
  • Dig through old emails to find older versions of your documents you sent to a friend or editor.

Who knows, you might find an idea you once thought lost.

Share your thoughts on Google+.

Image source: Valley Drive In Theater

How to Find All Those Good Ideas Lost in Your Head

Smith Corona

We hoarde ideas so we don’t have to deal with the blank page. And we accumulate, store, and organize those ideas.

Some of us are better at this than others. If you are like me, then you are a vacuum. Nothing is sacred. You swallow the world around you like a renegade sink hole.

Books, articles, videos, movies, songs, images, conversations. The best of us can’t keep up with it all. It is the back of a cereal box at breakfast. An American Scientific article in the bathroom. A TED talk while you sit in your dentist’s chair.

Then there’s the stack of notebooks. The stack of notecards. Napkins and sheets of paper covered with drawings, concepts, and objectives stuffed into a leather legal portfolio.

Yet we still stare at the blank page. Disabled in the face of so much material. Material that seems, after re-reading, weird at best. Wasn’t there something more profound than this?

Possibly it is still in your head. Buried. All you need to do is kick up the dirt. By picking up your journal or opening your laptop and writing: “I had this idea. Now it doesn’t seem very good, but there was something else … oh, yeah ….”

A page later and a catalog of good ideas are marching toward you. A page later and a catalog of ideas are forming a circle around you.

Here’s the moral of the story: trust the process. The mind engaged will pillage the ideas in your head. It’s an act of discovery. And the act of writing initiates it.

Share your thoughts on Google+.

Image source: Smith-Corona

How to Deal with Critics

Hell

Publish long enough and you’ll eventually run into them: critics.

They can haunt your thoughts. Dog you around every comment section you turn. Make your life hell to the point you might even wonder if publishing was even worth it.

Here’s how to deal with them so you don’t wallow in that despair.

Medication

The Hunter S. Thompson approach. The Cat Marnell problem. Not recommended.

Anonymity

When you hide behind a pseudonym, that persona, not you, absorbs the heat. Until you are found out. This could be fun. Or it may simply bring out the monster in you.

Ignorance

Deny criticism. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Calcify in your broken ways.

Assault and battery

Unleash enormous energy on every single person who dares defy you. Repeat until they disappear. Employ approach number one to cope.

Sharpshoot

Select your target carefully. Respond to those who are the most meaningful by article, comment, or email. You are doing well if you are listening.

Amplification

Do not respond directly. Instead, tackle the critique obliquely. Listen, evaluate, and expand in another article. Explore. Use criticism to grow. See The Efficient Writer.

Rejoice

You are striking a nerve. You are getting attention. And it might just be meaningful. See above.

Your turn

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Image source: hell

How You Begin a Sentence Matters, 1946 Study Says

five words in bad neon

And how you end a sentence, too. What is in the middle, not so much.

We know this from some studies that flushed out a couple of effects you are probably familiar with.

The first one is primacy, and it refers to our tendency to remember items at the beginning of a list. For example, read the following words:

  • wanweird
  • pluvial
  • williwaw
  • punnet
  • mot
  • slake
  • wayfarer
  • contiguous
  • coxcomb
  • farceur
  • hibernaculum
  • schmaltz
  • fiddlesticks
  • cathexis

Now, without looking at the list, how many of those words do you remember? Write them down if it helps.

More than likely you will only remember the first word. Maybe the second. Chances are you’ll also remember two or three words at the end of the list (which is known as the recency effect).

What you won’t remember are any of the words in the middle.

Furthermore, studies suggest you’ll always remember more words from the end of the list than from the beginning simply because those are the last words you read. Thus, recency.

Together primacy and recency make up the serial position effect, a term coined by German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus (1850 – 1909). This can be seen in the serial position curve:

Serial_position

In 1946, Solomon E. Asch upped the ante with studies that evaluated the impact the position of words had on people. He shared these results in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. The study we care about involves how we position adjectives to describe a person.

Read the following two sentences.

  • “Steve is smart, diligent, critical, impulsive, and jealous.”
  • “Steve is jealous, impulsive, critical, diligent, and smart.”

These two sentences contain the same information. However, when a group of participants were given the first sentence, they reported “Steve” in a positive light. The group given the second sentence? Yep. They reported “Steve” in a negative light.

The uses for this should be obvious (Frank Luntz anyone?)

Thirty years later William Crano decided to sharpen the distinction the impact order has on meaning. His studies uncovered additional effects, particularly with the use of adjectives:

  • Change of meaning hypothesis: Early adjectives establish an expectation, which the reader then filters all the subsequent adjectives through.
  • Inconsistency discounting: Adjectives presented later that don’t match earlier expectations are downgraded.
  • Attention decrement hypothesis: Early adjectives wield considerable influence than later ones.

These conclusions are important when it comes to persuasive writing for several reasons.

For instance, we often bury critical information regarding instructions in the second or third sentence of a paragraph. Most people only read the first sentence of a paragraph. And of that first sentence, because of the unbreakable law of the web, most people only read the first half before moving on.

In such cases, primacy is more important. But there are times when recency is just as important.  Take this long-winded sentence from Lisa Miller’s 2012 article “Listening to Xanax“:

Twenty years ago, just before Kurt Cobain blew off his head with a shotgun, it was cool for Kate Moss to haunt the city from the sides of buses with a visage like an empty store and for Wurtzel to confess in print that she entertained fantasies of winding up, like Plath or Sexton, a massive talent who died too soon, “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven.”

That it ends with “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven” is not an accident.

Decisions had to be made when crafting that sentence. Guaranteed it did not flow from Miller’s mind in the published form. It was a piecemeal affair, an experimentation with effect.

And this is the craft of writing. The creativity that can’t be rushed.

Drop me a comment here.

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
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What Creativity Must Mean to a Copywriter

Bridge Lights

Christian Menn. Jenn Muller. Eugene Figg. John Roebling. Joseph Strauss. Santiago Calatrava Valls. Charles Alton Ellis.

Civil engineers who built beautiful bridges. That worked.

This is why I bring this up:

Great copywriting, in its way, is not unlike engineering. Engineering can lead to art, but when it does, the art must flower on top of dozens, even hundreds, of practical considerations.

No one will deny that the catenary curve of a bridge is a lovely and sweeping thing. However, the bridge is built for a purpose other than art; it must conform to engineering principles; and we know that it will stand.

A pure artist might design a much more wonderful and aesthetic bridge; but it might not withstand hurricane winds, or the pounding of thousands of heavy, eight-wheel trucks.

From pages 85-86 in Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves.

Albert Lasker. Mel Martin. Eugene Schwartz. Robert Collier. Victor Schwab. David Ogilvy. John Caples. Maxwell Sackheim. Bill Jayme.

Like Reeves, these were copywriters who wrote beautiful copy. That drove results.

This is the point. Advertising comes in two flavors: artistic and mechanical.

One obscures the message and is judged by its originality. It conforms to principles of art. The other clarifies the message and is judged by performance. It conforms to principles of copywriting.

One is a monument. The other is a tool. One is meant to attract attention at a distance. The other is meant to absorb traffic. To steer readers into action.

In other words, it is meant to work. Share your thoughts on Google+.