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6 Ways an Empathy Map Can Make Your Headlines Even Sexier

Map Color

This article originally published on the Mention blog.

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).

TAM-1

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

john-cage-paris-1981

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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This eBay Project Proves Stories Increase an Object’s Value

kneelingman-2-550

Take the quasi-anthropological Significant Objects project. It started with the hunch that “stories can add measurable value to near-worthless tchotchkes.”

Journalist Rob Walker and writer Josh Glenn bought cheap trinkets at thrift stores and garage sales, paired each object with a writer (such as Jonathan Letham or Nich0lson Baker), who then wrote a fictional story behind that object.

A photo of the trinket and the story were then published on eBay. Here’s how some of those items fared.

Nobody in their right mind would pay more than a dollar for these items.

So why were people bidding these insignificant objects up on eBay? Especially since there is no shortage of both meaningless and worthless things to buy on eBay in the first place?

Stories.

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