So what’s the second sentence? — Frequent Questions

Q: I see you want me to write about how important issue X is. So what’s the second sentence?
A: […]?

I love my clients, I really do. But for a while there I had to trot that question out at pretty much every meeting I had with one of them. Until the day they started asking it themselves. (I was so proud.)

You see, they always wanted me to write about Issues of the Day. Usually, about how Important they were. And Good, very Good.

But it’s hard to make that a particularly interesting read:

Company X supports baseball and apple pie.

So I came up with that question:

“What’s the second sentence?”

It got ’em every time. But it started a conversation, and out of that conversation we’d usually find a story or two. And a point of view. On a good day for me, that point of view might even have an edge, something vaguely approaching conflict, if not controversy.

what's the second sentence?Because that’s what you need when you’re writing op-ed essays or other pieces designed to persuade. You need a point of view—preferably one different than someone else’s point of view.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard pretty much those same sentiments coming out of my car’s speakers today. One of my favorite podcast hosts, the always insightful Joan Garry, was interviewing master storyteller Alex Blumberg.

Another way to ask the second sentence question

Blumberg cut his teeth as a producer on the radio show This American Life and now runs podcast juggernaut Gimlet Media, so he knows from telling stories. He and Joan talked for a bit about how to frame stories about issues—Joan’s core audience members run nonprofits, so they always have issues to talk about.

Blumberg said that sometimes he’d have producers come to him and say things like, “I want to tell a story about poverty,” for instance. And he’d say:

“Okay. So what are your questions about poverty?”

You can see why I liked the guy.

Usually, they hadn’t thought that far. Just that poverty was Bad and they wanted to show that

But who doesn’t know that already? So if you want to talk about the issue, you have to find a fresh angle. You have to ask questions. You have to think about the second sentence.

As Blumberg said (I’m paraphrasing, I think):

One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that because they’re talking about an Important Issue, people will automatically pay attention.

So what’s the second sentence? Figure that out and you’ve got a shot at creating a memorable piece of writing.


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Explaining and losing — show, don’t tell

“…there’s a saying in politics: ‘When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

I just finished reading Al Franken’s book, the modestly titled Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. (It’s a joke; he’s a short man.) And it seemed to me that his old political saying also applies to writing.

“When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” When you explain something to your readers, you lose their attention, you lose their capacity to retain your information. If you’re explaining in your marketing materials, you lose the sale.

“You should eat the steak at Joe’s” vs. “Joe’s serves a steak so tender that I barely needed the knife; once it hit my mouth, it practically melted away on it own accord.”

Which sentence makes you hungrier? And can you tell I had an excellent steak last night? (Though not at “Joe’s,” which exists only in my mind.)

Details! They’re what make Joe’s steak so juicy. And as soon as you hear them, you start to assemble the details into a picture in your mind. It may be a prettier picture for a carnivore than for a vegetarian, but even vegans will subconsciously create a story around Joe’s steak and file it away in their minds.

So let’s see how much you retained—without looking back at the previous paragraphs…

Think about Joe’s steak

What are the first words that pop into your mind?

Explaining vs. making an impact

Explaining makes us writers feel like we’ve accomplished something. There! I told them!
And that’s fine, if the purpose of your writing is to make you feel better. But if you’re trying to get other people to take action, explaining might not cut it.

For instance, some people think marketing means, I’ll tell everyone they need to join my program if they want to be a better writer.

Explaining Writing Unbound, the ideas, skills, and support you needBut effective marketing isn’t about explaining; it’s about showing. So instead of saying, “Register for Writing Unbound and improve your writing,” I might say something like:

Have you ever wished you could dial down the volume on the critical voices in your head and just write?

Most readers will be shouting, “Oh good God, yes!” So I might continue along the lines of:

If you just shouted, “Oh good God, yes!” – hey, I’ve been there too. I know how essential that skill is for writers, so dealing with your critical inner voice is one of the first things we tackle in my Writing Unbound program.

Explaining—”register for my program and improve your writing”—doesn’t invite the reader in. Also, “improve your writing” is a pretty generic claim. In marketing, specifics don’t just help readers paint a picture in their minds, they also make the readers feel like you know and care about what they’re going through. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve succeeded; I know you can, too.

Al Franken’s right: “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It’s true in politics and in “real life,” too.


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Details pack emotional punch — a song for a Sunday

Today’s songs—yes, two!—come to us via Malcolm Gladwell, whose glorious podcast Revisionist History has returned for a second season. His examination of “The King of Tears,” country music songwriter Bobby Braddock, demonstrates that details pack emotional punch like nothing else.

details pack emotional punch
Braddock knows details pack emotional punch

Few of my readers may be aspiring country songwriters. But whatever genre we write in, we all want our pieces to pack emotional punch. Because that’s what gets them remembered. And—say it with me, folks—”if you don’t want to be remembered, why are you writing in the first place?”

To get at what’s different about country music, Gladwell compares a classic country hit to Mick Jagger’s song “Wild Horses.” Jagger wrote the song while keeping watch over his girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, who had overdosed on heroin. He’s determined not to leave her side: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

Details pack emotional punch

It’s a powerful statement, and visual too. Jagger overcomes the cliché by turning it into a literal promise, vowing that he and his love will ride those wild horses, “someday,” when she’s recovered.

Gladwell compares that song of undying love to one of the lachrymose ballads that were Bobby Braddock’s stock in trade, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

He said “I’ll love you till I die,” she told him “You’ll forget in time”
As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind

He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you”

Every couplet here offers us a detail about the man, his feelings, his sentimentality. Because of those specifics, we don’t just learn about the man. We see him, we have empathy for him.

“Wild Horses” gives us a fact. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” paints a picture. You may not know the latter song right now, but I guarantee that after listening to Gladwell’s podcast, you’ll never forget it.

My favorite version of “Wild Horses” is Susan Boyle’s. Go figure. And for the country song, George Jones sang it first. But I give you Randy Jackson, singing at George Jones’s memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry. But really, you should listen to the podcast first.

Lyrics about Paris — two songs for a Sunday

lyrics about Paris
By Zinneke – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

One of my favorite lyricists, Yip Harburg, wrote a detail-rich song that’s become a classic: “April in Paris.”  Not only had Yip never been to Paris, he’d never left the U.S. of A. He wrote the lyrics based on a close reading of travel brochures.

Yip’s lyrics contain only two details describing Paris. In the verse he writes, “The tang of wine is in the air.” I have no idea what that means.

But in the chorus, an indelible description:

April in Paris
Chestnuts in blossom…

As I understand it, you can see lots of flowers blooming in Paris in  cold, rainy April. But the chestnut trees generally wait for the warmer weather towards May.

Even though it’s not quite an accurate description of Paris, the details of the chestnut trees in blossom captured the imagination of travelers everywhere. Lyrics don’t need to be packed with details to resonate.

Lyrics — Imagination vs. Facts

Contrast this with Cole Porter’s song “I Love Paris.” Unlike Harburg, Porter had actually been to Paris. He could run circles around Harburg with facts about Paris. Do you get a sense of how he felt about it from these lyrics?:

Every time I look down on this timeless town
Whether blue or gray be her skies
Whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears
More and more do I realize that

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris
Why, oh, why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.

What does that lyric tell you about Paris? Nothing—except that Cole Porter loves it. Or, since he wrote this for the Broadway musical Can-Can, that the character singing the song loves Paris. But it’s just a list song. A fairly boring and lazy one at that (“drizzles/sizzles”—doesn’t do much for me).

Want to profess your love? For me it’s not in the repetition, it’s in the details. Notice the beauty, describe the beauty. Don’t just wear your sweetheart down with a million I love yous.

Details make the story sing

Yesterday I wrote about the classic song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Written in 1908, it remains a staple of baseball games today, sung in every ballpark at almost every game, for nearly 50 years now. While stories vary on when and where the song made its first appearance in a game—go down this Wikipedia rabbit hole if you like—one thing about the song remains indisputable: the songwriters had never been to a baseball game before they wrote the song. So what makes it ring so true for baseball fans everywhere? Details. Details make any story sing. Even those without music.

In this case, actor and lyricist Jack Norworth saw an ad for a baseball game while riding the New York City subway one day. Always on the lookout for fresh material, he wrote the song for his wife, Nora Bayes, to sing in their vaudeville act. When you know the lyrics to the verses, the song makes much more sense sung by a woman.

For the record, the music was written by Albert Von Tilzer, and it remains his only apparent claim to fame since Wikipedia describes him as “the younger brother of songwriter Harry Von Tilzer.”

The chorus, the part of the song that’s remained ubiquitous in ballparks at least since 1971 (though it was sung during the 1934 World Series), is full of the details that evoke nostalgia and pride in baseball fans everywhere. Yet lyricist Jack Norworth never saw a baseball game until 1940—more than three decades after he wrote the song.

Details paint the picture

How do you describe something you’ve never seen? Pile on the details, as many as you can find or invent.

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” First sold in ballparks in 1896, Cracker Jack had become a baseball staple by 1908. The specificity of the brand name—vs. the generic “peanuts”—makes this detail come alive.

I don’t see Cracker Jack in the stores as much as I did when I was a kid—maybe I’m not looking in the right places—but I expect we’ll be seeing it in baseball stadiums until they switch over to 3D digitized games we watch through VR headsets. Wikipedia notes that the Yankees tried replacing it with a different coated popcorn treat in 2004 but “after a public outcry” switched back to the brand in the song.

“Root, root root for the home team”—it doesn’t take genius to imagine that’s what fans do. But people are always happy to have happy activities mirrored back to them.

details
Public Domain

“One, two, three strikes, you’re out”—Yes, a novice could get these details from the rule book, or from any news account of a game. But could Norworth have imagined how much satisfaction fans would get from mimicking the umpire like this?

At Mets games, the singalong is “led” by Mr. Met, our oddly disturbing baseball-headed mascot. When you create a mascot with a baseball for a head, how many fingers do you put on his hand? Four, of course: Three so he can count out the strikes in the song, and a thumb to tell the opposing batter to take a hike.

With songs and with mascots, the genius is in the details.


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History, small and large — the storytelling of Jimmy Breslin

History documents the major players: kings, presidents. But as feminist historians have reminded us over the last several decades, if you document only the major players, you miss the lives of tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people. It may seem strange to segue from feminist historians to Jimmy Breslin—the brash, gruff, journalistic legend who died this weekend. Breslin was no feminist. But he did have an eye out for the lives of people who often get passed over: the working stiffs.

Jimmy Breslin, newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner
Photo: Mario Cabrera, AP

Looking at the world through the eyes of the people historians and other journalists ignored, Jimmy Breslin saw so much more than world events; he saw stories. If you want to know about the impacts, large and small, that those events had on actual human beings, read Breslin.

Here’s the lede from a story he filed in 1963:

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast.

Just two adjectives in that 40-word sentence—three, if you’re going to insist that the hyphenated “three-room” counts as separate words—but you can already see the guy, right? You have a sense of his life. Toward the end of the first paragraph, Pollard’s boss does indeed call him in to work, saying “I guess know what it’s for.”

And then the second paragraph, presented here in its entirety, delivers the kicker:

He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Jimmy Breslin captures details

It seems like Breslin documents every blade of grass around the gravesite.

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it.

“That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”

And then in the second half of the piece, he shows us what became of Pollard’s handiwork. The pivot comes with this sentence:

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacqueline Kennedy started toward the grave.

Breslin seems to observe the events not from the press pool, but from the street:

She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes.

And when the procession finally arrives at Arlington, back to Clifton Pollard’s territory. He wasn’t at the ceremony, Jimmy Breslin tells us:

Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral. He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.

“They’ll be used,” he said. “We just don’t know when.”

Stories are not about words

It seems safe to say that journalists turned out hundreds of thousands of words about the assassination of America’s handsome president. But only one journalist told us how the earth sounded when they dug his grave. Told us how the guy in the khaki overalls felt “honored” to give up his Sunday for this purpose. Only one journalist took us to the hill behind the gravesite and let us stand there with the “cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men…saying prayers out loud and choking.”

Jimmy Breslin told stories. Stories are not about words strung together—Breslin understood that better than most. Stories are about details strung together. Details that make events come alive for the reader who can’t get any closer to the action than the words in the paper.

Breslin’s gone now. Who can find the details that make up a great story?

Maybe you?


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How can I learn critical thinking? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I learn critical thinking?
A: Don’t rely on other people for your answers. (Does that include me?)

I didn’t learn “critical thinking” when I was growing up. My high school would never have taught anything so pedestrian as that. No—but we did learn to think critically. I think the school probably saw that as its highest calling—far more important that stuffing our heads full of Shakespeare or frog-marching us through The Aeneid in Latin.

The school’s unofficial mantra, memorably drummed into us by one of our teachers, was:

“We worship at the Shrine of Text.”

Translation: Don’t believe what anyone else tells you. Go to the source—the primary source—and make up your own mind about it says.

What is a “primary source”? Thanks to the Ithaca College library for this definition:

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources.

The other kind of source we rely on in forming opinions is a “secondary source”—again, from Ithaca College, and again my own emphasis added:

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research.

The world is full of secondary sources these days, and very many of those sources are full of—what’s that technical term? oh yeah—shit. So the first thing we need to do is figure out if the secondary source has any motivation to lie. Or, conversely, any incentive to tell the truth.

learn critical thinking

from an infographic created by SpringboardStories.co.uk

Learn critical thinking: Who said it and why?

Imagine an academic who claims he has evidence that Shakespeare was an alien from another planet. We don’t just say, “Well, he’s got a Ph.D.—he must know what he’s talking about.” No—look into his motivations.

Did he just write a book called Shakespeare, Phone Home? Do spiking his book sales and goosing interest in a movie adaptation give him motivation to lie?

Or maybe he really believes it’s the truth. That brings up another set of maybes: Maybe he’s uncovered revolutionary information; maybe he’s a nut-job. Sorry—a “Dr.” Nut Job.

How do we figure that out? We see if other credentialed Shakespeare experts will back up his story (though you have to think that’s a long shot). More likely, they’ll either expose his financial motivation or convince us that he wears tinfoil hat under his mortarboard. At that point, it’s up to you, the consumer of this news: Does his profit motive cloud the facts? Do his delusions disqualify him as an expert?

The 24/7 news cycle has sparked an explosion of secondary sources. As my Texan granddaddy used to say, “There’s more shit in the air these days than a cow pasture in a tornado.”

Well…My granddaddies were both New Yorkers. One never traveled west of Ohio, as far as I know; the other never made it past Brooklyn. And they would never in a million years have said “shit.” But it’s a good line, isn’t it?—as long as you don’t look too closely into the backstory.

And that pretty much sums up the state of much of the “news” we receive these days.

Keep asking questions

We must all learn critical thinking. And that means we must all become experts at asking questions.

Question the information you receive until you find media outlets you trust: media outlets that rely, to the greatest extent possible, on primary sources.

Look at whether the outlet has a vested interest in the outcome of the story, whether it relies on credible, credentialed experts. Whether its journalists—and their experts—back up assertions with actual facts. And in case you’ve forgotten:

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”—Merriam-Webster

After the November election, U.S. News & World Report published a story headlined “Avoid These Fake News Sites at All Costs.” The first six on the list are satire-based sites—as I pointed out months ago, the absurdities being committed by our leaders do make it harder to tell satire from facts. But U.S. News & World Report labels the majority of the other outlets on the list as “propaganda”—including InfoWars, a site that our current Republican president is known to rely on.

It’s probably too late for him to learn critical thinking, but there’s still hope for the rest of us.

The Global Digital Citizen Foundation put together a handy infographic of questions to help us learn critical thinking skills. You can download it here. And if you want to teach critical thinking skills to your children—that seems to be the sweet spot of the Global Digital Citizen Foundation—check out their simplified infographic. It ends with a reminder that applies to people of any age:

Knowledge is a journey you do over and over again.

The need for critical thinking never ends. Bon voyage!


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Mangled translation – one of my pet peeves

When words threaten to lose their meaning, those of us who care about such things have to be scrupulous about our use of language. Mangled translation has always been one of my pet peeves.

So when I got an email from the smart folks at TED Talks with this in it, I socked it into my idea file for a future blog posts. The future has arrived.

mangled translation leaves people with the wrong idea about Descartes' most famous saying

There’s a reason cogito, ergo sum is “routinely translated as ‘I think, therefore I am.'” It’s because that’s what René Descartes meant when he wrote those words.

Funny how that works.

Go back to the source and you’ll find Descartes actually wrote, Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

Geary’s mangled translation relies on an alternative meaning of agitare—one that makes absolutely no sense if you return to the source.

But let’s go back to the original original source—because Descartes wrote and published his Le Discours de la Méthode in French before he translated it into Latin; he wanted his work to reach the widest audience possible, and no one much spoke Latin outside of academia or the church. The French is not as compact, not as bumper sticker-ready as the Latin. But bumper stickers were not in wide use in 1637:

…si je doute, je pense, et si je pense, je suis.”

If I doubt, I think, and if I think, I am.

Shake things up with mangled translation

James Geary may be peddling mangled translation but I like the point he’s trying to make. Why were we put on this earth if not to shake things up? Here’s how I would rewrite to preserve both Descartes’ intent and Geary’s point:

The three most famous words in all of Western philosophy—Cogito, ergo sum—are routinely translated as “I think, therefore I am.” But it’s possible to read that another way, too. Because the root of the Latin word cogito is the verb agitare—which does indeed mean “to put something in motion” or even to shake. So you might think of cogito, ergo sum as meaning, “I shake things up, therefore I am.” In fact, that’s the meaning I’m going to adopt today. I don’t expect much pushback from Descartes about this; he’s been dead for 367 years.

You get to the same point. But you bring truth along with you. And especially these days, truth should travel with us wherever we go.


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Leftovers: Some post-Thanksgiving thoughts on words

Leftovers—most refrigerators are full of them today in the U.S.

Yesterday, we and our family and friends feasted on turkey and all the fixin’s. Today we’re left to contemplate the deep questions of life. Like, does putting stuffing between two pieces of bread make it a sandwich? Can pumpkin pie count as a vegetable? And why didn’t Aunt Millie take that green bean casserole home with her?

Leftovers represent choices

The good thing about having leftovers is it means you exercised some restraint at your Thanksgiving dinner. You may have eaten until you were full, waited an hour and then eaten some more. But you didn’t eat everything. You made choices.

Making choices is a good discipline for writers, too. No matter what you’re writing, you can’t put everything in.

This isn’t just an issue of space. Even in the vastness of the internet, where no publishing costs or physical limits constrain us, it’s best to serve up your ideas in bite-sized chunks.

The human stomach may expand when we eat a big meal, but the mind can really only handle two or three ideas at a time. Try to shovel in more than that and your audience will shut down. And that’s true whether your audience is reading or listening, but of course the readers have the luxury of re-reading, highlighting key passages, of—to stretch the Thanksgiving analogy—digesting your ideas over an extended period of time.

I once had a client hire me to write newspaper advertisements for his cause. (Quaint, isn’t it?) He had written the first ad himself and while he made solid arguments, it looked like something your crazy uncle would have come up with. And you practically needed a magnifying glass to read it all—even though the client had bought a full page of the newspaper. That’s a lot of words.

Needless to say, the ads I wrote were much more concise. I focused each on only one of the issues he’d raised in the mega-ad. And (regular readers will not be surprised) I told stories to illustrate the impact the issue in question had on people like the newspaper’s readers.

At first, this confused the client: What about the other issues? You can’t leave them out—they’re important. I reminded him that he’d bought a series of ads, and had many more weeks in which to lay out his case for each issue. I wrote six ads, focused on six issues, and he ran them in rotation for a year or so.

So don’t stuff your writing full of ideas. Especially if you aim to persuade your readers or get them to take action, just serve them a small but tasty meal, one they’ll remember fondly.


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[snappy title to come]

Every piece you write—whether it’s a speech or a magazine article—should have one main idea. You might be able to hang a few secondary ideas on it, like ornaments on an exceedingly sparse Christmas tree. But, and this is especially true for a speech: The more you say, the less they’ll remember.

So—one idea. And I find the best way to keep me focused on that one idea as I write is to give my work a title. You will not find me writing a Commencement speech called “Things I’ve Learned in My Career.” That’s a mess just waiting to happen. What “things”? What are the two or three stories that stand out most for you in your career, especially as you think about talking to the kind of audience that listens to a commencement speech? What theme connects these stories? Dig deep enough and you’ll find it.

Everything I write gets a title. Even if it’s never going to be published, even if it’s for the most internal of internal audiences, I give it a title. “Springing into Action: A report to the Board on our 2nd Quarter Performance”—a CEO would never read that at the start of a Board presentation. But the title helps me shape the material I have to work with into a cohesive whole.

And if the theme of the piece hasn’t made itself apparent to me before I start writing? Then I start with “[snappy title to come]”—which manages to be amusing and reassuring at the same time. So far, it’s worked. Once I plunge in and start rooting around in the material, I always manage to find a theme waiting for me to discover it.