Archive for the ‘General Writing Tips’ Category

Hey writers! In case you don’t feel smug enough today, you might after Weird Al preaches all the grammar rules you already know.

“Why is everything so expensive?” Marge asks a store manager in an episode of The Simpsons. The manager replies, “Our product’s philosophy is that–” Marge cuts him off with, “Oh, we’re not rich enough to afford any product with its own philosophy.”

That’s brand storytelling done poorly, with the tangy aroma of pretentiousness.

When it’s done well, brand storytelling evokes customer emotions that enhance their perception of your worth. Duke Greenhill explains this in his Fast Company article, “The Real ROI of Brand Storytelling.” He cites an example of a snow globe that was bought for one US dollar. Writer Blake Butler then wrote a story about it, and the snow globe sold on eBay for fifty-nine dollars.

brand storytelling, perception, perceived value

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tell the beholder a beautiful story.

That’s My Story, and It’s Sticking to Me

Brand storytelling should not be read as an invitation to lie about your product. Don’t call the vinyl seating “rich Corinthian leather.” The goal is to tell the truth — while highlighting the human, emotional sides of your company or product. Okay, yeah, you might sell more cookies by saying elves baked them in a hollow tree. But most audiences want a more realistic tale.

Storytelling 101: We won’t remember “leather.” We’ll remember “rich Corinthian leather.” But don’t call it either one, if it’s really vinyl.

Chip and Dan Heath explain business uses of storytelling superbly in their popular book, Made to Stick. In 2007, excited by the Heath brothers’ tips, I brought the book to my superior in the marketing department. She read it and said, “Nice idea, but you can’t use storytelling in real life. There’s nothing applicable in here.” She pictured marketing as an endless series of spec sheets and competitive matrix check boxes and pricing decisions. Granted, storytelling requires effort and imagination. You have to proactively look for ways to apply it, and reject stories that don’t interest your audience.

Is the effort of finding and telling brand stories worth it? Of course. Unlike other innovations that spruce up your brand, telling your brand story doesn’t require redesigning the logo, changing the product, buying another business, or invading a new distribution channel. Like any great fable, storytelling is conceptual — it only needs to exist as ideas in the customer’s mind. But a good idea can seal the deal:

  • What is extraordinary about Toms Shoes? In my candid personal opinion, nothing. But Toms gives a pair of shoes to an underprivileged person when it sells a pair of shoes to you. Toms has built its entire brand around this powerful story, and reaped success and enviable awareness for it.
  • Have you ever bought an organic or natural personal care product that didn’t really work very well, yet you bought it again? Why did you? Because you want to participate in the story of good people saving the earth.
  • Haven’t you ever looked at products that seemed roughly equal, and selected one because it was made in your country? That sale was a tie, until story provided the tiebreaker.

Think You’re Boring? Think Harder

You might think that your product has no human story worth telling. But I promise you, you do have a unique, interesting story to tell. No company spontaneously generated itself, which means humans made it. Humans are story factories. Whenever we act together, we generate stories of commitment and sacrifice and conflict and failure and little deaths and resurrections. Besides, your company is still in business, right? Every purchase represents someone finding compelling value in your product.


if an organization has humans, it has stories.

Did your founders start the company on a dare? Did R&D fail numerous times before discovering the breakthrough that powers your product? Does your company have a statistically anomalous number of long-term employees? Is your organization the “only” or the “first” or the “longest-running” or “the underdog”? These examples may not apply, but the stories in your organization are there somewhere. You just have to look for them. Then you figure out how to tell them.

Depending upon your corporate culture, trying to get senior management to buy into brand storytelling can feel risky. Some bottom line-driven executives get squeamish as soon as you go beyond numbers, to the soft squishy humanities. But in times of limited resources for companies, storytelling costs you nothing. And customers aren’t buying your spreadsheet. They’re buying your unique value proposition, a very fancy term for “your story.” If you’re skillful, brand storytelling can turn a dollar into fifty-nine dollars.

Can it do the same for you? You’ll never know, until you try. End of story.

Who cares about saying what you mean as briefly as possible? You do, if you care whether anybody hears you in today’s crazy arcade of voice mails, emails, tweets, text messages, status updates, comments, and forums. Your audience is at least as busy as you. The longer your point takes, the more interruptions hit them.  The more you say, the less they hear.

If you bore us, this is the only way you’ll hold us. (Photo by Sidious Sid)

We once thought the Internet’s limitless space allowed us to write disregarding length. Oops. Today, when even “Too Long; Didn’t Read” has an acronym (TL;DR), concision means more than ever. Pithy is the new deep. Have a hard time fitting your message into 140 characters? Wait until you label the buttons and menus on your web site.

Brevity packs a punch. Per Strunk & White, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

I’ve taken this message to numerous audiences. Usually, it befuddles workers, who apparently believe adding extra words makes their emails importantier. But sometimes they merely need examples illustrating the point. That’s why I compiled this chart from real-life contributions to a corporate newsletter. It helped my colleagues stop padding their prose with turgid, useless bureaucratese.



 on a weekly basis  weekly
 has completed the development of  has developed
 Interim Report document  Interim Report
 over the course of the coming year  over the coming year
at present

at this time

at this present time

at this point in time

as of now

at this current juncture

for the time being

in this day and age

 at a later date  later
 for the purpose of  for
 as a result of  because
 is working to implement  is implementing
 in the event that  if
 which are of interest to the group  which interest the group
 provided a briefing  briefed
 produced a draft  drafted
 taken into consideration  considered
 was a participant  participated
 ensure the synchronization  synchronize
 includes a proposal  proposes
 issued a statement  stated

Let the Verb Be the Verb

The table above contains one blank line. The examples under it illustrate a problem I’ll call “nouning a verb.” You weaken your prose when you turn the verb into a noun, then add a “helper” verb to replace the real verb. Why say the chairperson “provided a briefing” to the Board? She briefed the Board. The opponents didn’t “outline a proposal,” they proposed. Let the verb be the verb. When you select the right verb, your prose has a stripped-down, muscular quality that busy readers appreciate.

Similarly, question all unnecessary “helper” words. Does it make a useful difference in the reader’s mind if the meeting began “a bit late” instead of “late”? No. If the session was “rather noisy,” just let it be “noisy.”

Nouns First

When you see the word “by,” that’s an indicator that — doh, I’m nouning a verb — that indicates you’ve taken the long path to your point. “By” is fine when you mean “near” (“the office by the mall”). Otherwise, a “by” cameo shows you can save words. Long way around: “This book is loved by parents.” Stronger: “Parents love this book.” Long and weak: “the report that was written by the committee.” Stronger: “the committee’s report.”

Writing short, clear, direct sentences? You rebel!You see this brawny, direct style every day in news articles. I once tried to explain the difference between active voice and passive voice to a social media coordinator who could not fit her sentences into tweets. I plucked a random news magazine off a nearby table and opened blindly to an article. It began, “Rebels took control…” Not “Control was taken by rebels…” Anyone can do this: Put the subject first, verb second, direct object last. Or, in lay terms: [Someone] [did something] [to something else]. This format yields clear sentences with solid impact.

If that clarity and brevity makes you feel squeamish, be a rebel. Rebels take control. Omit needless words.

The one man most responsible for making me dedicate myself to writing is Ray Bradbury.

I grew up as a bookworm in a strict Baptist household. Our twice-monthly pilgrimages to the local library inevitably ended with my straining to carry a tall stack of books from our beat-up Opel to my bedroom.

My dad scanned each title before I checked books out. Acceptable fare included lots of folk tales and fables, tame classics such as The Secret Garden, every Hardy Boys book, and an amusing series about Freddy the Pig.

By age 12, I had devoured every book in the juvenile section of the library. I wandered into the adult stacks, where I found a book entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes. Raised on stolid but innocuous fare, I felt dark shivers from the title alone. I had no idea this was actually a young adult book – to me, it represented all the thrills forbidden to my young religious eyes. I snuck it into the middle of that visit’s book harvest, certain it would fail to pass inspection. Somehow, it arrived home with me.

Bradbury’s ideas and writing voice blew my budding mind. I thrilled to Jim Nightshade’s struggle against Mr. Dark’s deceptions. I creeped out as Mr. Dark rode a gothic merry-go-round backwards to turn himself into an evil boy my age. The colorful prose seared itself into my brain pan.

As soon as I finished the book, I went, Who is this author? How dare the universe fail to tell me about him sooner? I went on a Bradbury tear, devouring Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country (and other short story collections) and, though it exceeded my intellectual prowess, Fahrenheit 451. In school, every author you’re pointed to – Twain, Eliot, Hemingway, et al – is dead. I felt delirious when I learned Bradbury was still alive and was still writing.

Compelled to become the next Bradbury, in seventh grade I attempted my first novel, a spy thriller unencumbered by any knowledge of how the world works. (Bradbury influenced me, but so did The Man from U.N.C.L.E., John Steed, and Mrs. Peel.) I gave it what I thought was a very ironically adult title: See the Corpse Run. When my dad gave me a big blank hardcover (the result of a publisher’s paper-and-binding experiment), I laboriously hunt-and-pecked my novel on a manual typewriter, then glued the pages into the hardcover so that I made a “real book.” I finished it in ninth grade, 97 proud pages long. My reading audience was my dad.

By age 15 I had sold seven or eight articles to very minor publications, but I thought I was king of the world because I got paid $25 for each of those articles. (One periodical even profiled me as “teen with a typewriter.”) I began high school and due to my published status, got put in a senior composition class.

This class required me to turn in a new story every Friday. The teacher kept encouraging us each to find our “unique voice.” That was the first time I’d heard that. I had no idea what my “voice” was. And I didn’t have time to find “my voice” – I was too busy expressing the million ideas in my head! So I copied Bradbury’s voice. I adopted entirely techniques I had subconsciously learned from him, such as setting atmosphere by personifying inanimate objects and giving them intentions. I wrote ironic flights of fancy very much in line with Ray’s (but a paltry echo of the master). By emulating Ray week after week, I aced the class. And I learned writing the same way he did: by writing.

Ray’s world seemed more vivid to me than the real world. Immersed in the Martian Chronicles, I remember watching America’s moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “Big deal. We’ll be on Mars in no time.”
I see Ray reflected today in other writers who draw no boundaries between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Would Stephen King be the brand he is today had there been no Bradbury? Would there have been Star Trek? Star Wars? The whole body of work by J. J. Abrams?

In writing this, I wanted to consult some of Bradbury’s works. I’m startled to see I no longer own any. But at the end of Fahrenheit 451, people have become books. To fool the censors, they have memorized entire works. A woman could tell you, “I am The Old Man and the Sea.” A teen could say, “I am The Odyssey.” In that same sense, I absorbed Ray Bradbury. He is in me: laced as an integral shining vein through my imaginings; a hand that touched the pottery wheel of my creative impulses. I never met him, but in the pages of his words, he met me — and set me alight.

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury

For the comments: What did you make of Ray? Or what other writer fired your imagination?

If you’ve got 10 minutes, this well-crafted documentary can inspire you.

In East L.A., a 9-year-old boy made his own DIY arcade out of cardboard, and persisted “staffing” it on weekends — even though he only had one customer. (Seriously, who’s going to go to East L.A. and play cardboard arcade games?)

But Caine earned his big day. Sure, there was a social media-savvy “angel investor” who helped, but payday would never have come if Caine had given up.

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

–Calvin Coolidge

If you’re a one-of-a-kind artist like Caine, keep going! Persist!

Due to my chic streak of geek, I love electronic gadgets. So I enjoyed this Forbes article on why Best Buy has created its own death spiral. For readers of this blog, I found the author’s zinging critique of corporate writing in the passive voice particularly illustrative. Here’s a sample:

The company issued a statement that read:  “Due to overwhelming demand of hot product offerings on during the November and December time period, we have encountered a situation that has affected redemption of some of our customers’ online orders.”

Let’s parse that sentence for a moment.  The company “encountered a situation”—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it acknowledges were “hot” buys.  This happened, inconveniently for Best Buy, during “the November and December period,” that is, the only months that matter to a retailer. For obvious reasons, the statement ties itself in knots trying to avoid mentioning that the “situation” occurred during the holidays.

The situation that Best Buy “encountered” has “affected redemption” of some orders.  Best Buy doesn’t fill online orders, it seems.  Rather, customers “redeem” them.  So it’s the customers, not Best Buy, who have the problem.  And those customers haven’t been left hanging; they’ve only been “affected” in efforts to “redeem” their orders.  It’s not as if the company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all.

It’s all so passive.  It’s also a transparent and truly feeble pack of lies.  Here’s what the honest and appropriate release would have said:  “Due to poor inventory management and sales forecasting of the most popular products during our key sales season, we can’t fill orders we promised to fill weeks ago in time for Christmas.”

The rest of the article fascinated me from a business perspective, and if you choose to read it, you’ll find a bit more deconstruction of passive writing. Larry Downes, the author quoted above, provides a textbook example of one reason readers despise the passive voice. Bureaucratic weasels use it to bury the truth under patronizing, pompous-sounding, multisyllabic doublespeak.

You can’t rock your readers’ world by condescending to them or lying to them. Therefore, tell the truth. And write it using the active voice.

Just as the hills of Austria will ever be alive with the sound of music, the web will ever echo with George Lucas causing more fan protests.

The latest hyperventilating arises from dozens of tweaks Lucas has made to all six of his Star Wars films, in preparation for their Blu-Ray release on September 16. Several sites chronicle all the changes.

In short, they’re ridiculous. In a scene where R2-D2 hides, Lucas has added a couple of digital rocks. In a scene with a Jawa, Lucas has made him blink. In another scene, he has added an unappealing merchant character to the crowd of extras in the background. In a climactic scene from Return of the Jedi, he has overdubbed Darth Vader yelling, “Nooooo!” And so on.

George knows what you're thinking: "Needs more rocks!"

By the standards of Lucas’ most rabid fans, these changes do not enhance the movies, but rather make them worse. But I propose to you that these changes are not worth making because they are too inconsequential to add or subtract from the overall experience. Seriously, did you ever watch Star Wars: A New Hope and think, “This scene would be great if only it had two more rocks”? Lucas’ odd obsession seems to have turned him into a modern-day Sisyphus, endlessly rolling digital boulders up the hill yet in his own mind, never reaching the top.

The bigger tragedy to me is that the later movies — paradoxically numbered 1, 2, and 3 — feature leaden, horribly-directed dialog, and possibly the worst “love story” ever committed to film. I seriously question the point of changing, let’s say, one thousand battle droids to one thousand and ten, while in the foreground the “love story” is making you roll your eyes and gag on your popcorn.

In spirit, though, I have been guilty of exactly the same thing. My recent experience with NaNoWriMo continues to resonate inside me, and right now I’m as fanatical about the dangers of over-revising as a recently-quit smoker is about second-hand smoke.

For your first draft, let this guy out.

Yes: the process should be, whether in fiction, non-fiction, or marketing communications, that on your first draft, you let your inner madman or child take over, and you write down every crazy idea you can, with little regard for quality. And yes, in a second pass, you invite Mr. Spock to take a cold, hard, Vulcan look at what’s there, and fix it.

Second draft: let this guy out.

The hard part for some of us is, And then you stop. So you can publish.

A saying attributed to various originators says, “A book is never finished, only abandoned.” At the time my first two novels were published, I felt that way. There was always one more sentence I could smooth out; one more adverb I could select more accurately.

But today I feel nothing but regret for the hours wasted on deliberations such as, “Is ‘glad’ the word I mean here? Or should I change it to ‘happy’?” Leaving poetry out of the discussion, these “glad/happy” changes are exactly like Lucas’s two extra rocks. They don’t make a difference.

You know why Lucas has time for such self-involved fiddling? Because he no longer needs to earn a living. Since you and I cannot say the same, we don’t have time for pointless tweaking. If you want to write full time, you need to think like a TV writer: make it as good as you can, as fast as you can. It’s a craft, not the ultimate artistic expression of your soul.

Each writer has to judge for herself or himself how much to revise, before reaching the point of overworking the text. Right now, I spend my days as a bureaucrat. If given the choice between writing one epic perfect work that takes my whole life, or writing a dozen really good books that let me quit the world of suits, committees, and fearful group-think, I’m going for the dozen.

In one of Lucas’ most derided revisions, he changed a key scene in A New Hope so that instead of Han Solo shooting first, Greedo shoots first. This one change sands off the rough edges that makes Han Solo’s character multi-faceted. It also ruins the arc at the end, where the smuggler we believe to be hopelessly self-interested and cynical has a change of heart and returns to help the Rebellion. Compared to the theatrical version, on the disc versions Han Solo is sarcastic but cuddly. Thus, second-guessing yourself may in fact turn your bold first instincts into dumbed-down conformity.

In my first marketing job, I was staying late one night to fine-tune our corporate newsletter to graphical perfection. My boss happened by and asked what I was doing. Thinking I was earning big brownie points, I said, “I’m staying late to make sure this page spread looks just right.” He looked puzzled for a second, then said, “Do you really think those extra hours will sell even one extra unit of our product? Because that’s all that matters.” I laugh now at how much that perspective blindsided me. I realized right then that, involved in my work, I had completely lost sight of what my audience cared about.

So as you write, what is your goal? Keep it firmly in mind as you revise. Do the revisions you’re making really matter? If your goal is to regularly knock out solid pro-level work, so you can earn a living, you’ll know when you’ve done enough. Ship it! If your goal is to endlessly indulge your obsessive and perfectionist side, well… knock yourself out rolling those digital rocks up the hill.