Melissa—when motherhood could kill

On the older side of the cemetery here, they don’t make you do math. Instead of a born and died date, gravestones list the age of the deceased and the year he or she died. And that’s how I met Melissa, who passed away in 1836:

Aged 22 years, one month, 28 days

I often talk about the power of specificity. Does that specificity hit you in the gut like it did me?

The almost-eroded engraving on Melissa’s white marble obelisk identifies her as “consort of” the man whose taller stone stands to her left. A tiny obelisk between them hints at the cause of Melissa’s death.

Since Melissa’s time, we’ve made great strides in helping mothers survive. In 1917, about 6% of mothers in this country died from complications of childbirth; 90 years later that figure had dropped to 0.12%.

But in the last 25 years, maternal mortality has rocketed back up in the United States, even as it declined in the rest of the world. Indeed, tennis great Serena Williams, who can surely afford the best healthcare available, almost died after giving birth to her daughter. (Apparently doctors treat people of color differently, even if they’re billionaires. Or other doctors. But that’s a subject for another day.)

maternal mortality is highest in US

If our elected officials had any sense of shame, that headline—from a piece jointly reported by NPR and Pro Publica—would have sparked a “war on maternal mortality,” with a Maternal Mortality Czar to hold the stakeholders accountable for winning.


Or perhaps people in the administration just read the data and thought, “Hey—we’re #1!”

Of course, ending access to safe, legal abortion will only exacerbate the problem. And should the president succeed in adding another justice to the Supreme Court, that’s exactly what will happen.

Women dying in childbirth; women dying as they try to avoid childbirth.

How many more Melissas will die before we pay attention to women’s healthcare needs?

What a freaking waste.

I’ve invited my friends to donate to Planned Parenthood in honor of my upcoming birthday. But don’t do it for me; do it for Melissa.

Authenticity connects (and it doesn’t take much)

How many words does it take before an audience connects with you? It only took one word for me to connect with Stanley today. One word—not even a full sentence. That’s the power of authenticity.

People around here tend to go on at length about themselves, or they’ll opt for platitudes that could apply to anyone: “She will never be forgotten by those whose lives she touched.” “Beloved husband, father, grandfather.” And I’m thinking, What about “son”?

Oh—I should probably mention that when I say “people around here” I mean the folks whose gravestones I read when Fenway and I stroll through the cemetery in our temporary backyard. You can learn a lot from a gravestone. Or not.

“She will never be forgotten by those whose lives she touched” brought out the copyeditor in me. A) it’s a weak construction because the writer used the passive voice, and B) “by those whose lives she touched” seems redundant. I mean, the only people who could remember her would be people she’d met, right?

I’d opt for “We will never forget her.” Or maybe something to explain how she “touched” people’s lives—her volunteer work, or her openness—heck, the famous burritos she brought to every potluck. That would bring her to life much more (pardon the expression). And you’d wouldn’t be reading the same thing on every other gravestone.

Stanley’s authenticity

Did Stanley look like this? Civil war general Ambrose Burnside, by Mathew Brady – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpb.05368.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, Link/w/index.php?curid=6498996

So what was it about Stanley’s gravestone that captured my attention? I smiled the minute I read it—not, I imagine, a common reaction in a cemetery—and I kept smiling for the rest of the walk.

Stanley had one of those large stones—maybe even an obelisk; they’re popular with the died-in-the-19th-Century crowd. Lots of room for a lofty paean to his greatness. But under his name and the years of his birth and death, his family had engraved just one word:


His nickname.

Sounds like a childhood nickname—and old Stankey lived a fairly long life. To me, that says he had a great sense of humor and a healthy appreciation for irreverence, which his loved ones clearly shared. It made me want to know more about him.

Now, I’m not saying you have to reveal embarrassing information about yourself to connect with your audience. If I were Stanley, I wouldn’t want my audience wondering what kind of “stank” my nickname referred to.

But share something relevant about yourself, something to distinguish you from the parade of corporate clones your audience may be used to seeing. Give them a way to connect with you and you give them a way to remember you—and your message. That’s the power of authenticity.

Just ask Stankey.

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Passive verbs can do real damage — Jackson Katz

I’ve always hated passive verbs. But this week, a man I’ve never heard of named Jackson Katz gave me another reason to loathe them.

Did you notice or read about the social media hashtag #metoo this week? Apparently the campaign predates social media—activist Tarana Burke created it 10 years ago as a way of connecting with survivors of sexual abuse. But it acquired its # this week, revived by the furor around Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuse of his power and his penis.

Soon, it seemed like every woman with a social media account had shared her experiences of sexual harassment and/or abuse, with the easily searchable #metoo connecting them us—yes, #metoo—in a digital web.

And then something came across my Twitter feed—an excerpt from some writing by Jackson Katz.

Jackson Katz wrote this

I’ll type it out for those of you who can’t see the graphic:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather tahn how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Thank you, Jackson Katz

I’m a word person—been one for a long time. And I’m ashamed to say I never noticed this.

The language we use to describe abuse, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment completely erases men—who are in most cases the perpetrators of the above-mentioned actions.

I’ve written before about writer Josh Bernoff’s tip for rooting out passive verbs: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” and the sentence still makes sense, you’ve got a passive verb.

Let’s put one of Dr. Katz’s examples to the test:

 We talk about how many women were raped last year [by zombies.]

Nope. Zombies aren’t raping women—for the most part that would be men. And if I remember my middle school biology correctly, it’s 100% men doing the impregnating. Why do we continue to use language that absolves them of responsibility?

I always encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs. Today I especially encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs we use when we talk about women. Shine the spotlight where it belongs—on the people creating these various “crimes against women” and perhaps we can create a more just and equitable society. One word at a time.

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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.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level or three? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about improvement.

David Sedaris and the Story Safari

David Sedaris
David Sedaris on the radio in Boston, Photo by WBUR , CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favorite storytellers, David Sedaris, has published his diaries. Well, selections from the first 25 years of his diaries. At this writing, I’m still stranded metaphorically on the side of a desert road with him—he seems to have hitchhiked his way through much of the late 1970s. So I can’t report on the rest of the book. But I loved the Introduction.

Sedaris talked about his long-time practice of carrying a notebook:

“…a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that atrike me, not in great detail but just quickly. The following morning I’ll review what I jotted down and look for the most meaningful moment in the previous day…”

In other words, every day is a Story Safari for David Sedaris.

What kinds of things does he capture in his notebook?

“It could have been seeing an old friend, or just as likely it could have been watching a stranger eat a sandwich with his eyes closed. (That happened recently, and was riveting.)”

You never know what treasures you’ll pick up on a Story Safari. Some you may never use; others will turn out to be the perfect anecdote to illustrate a difficult point. But unless you write down the stories as you notice them, they’ll disappear in the fog of grocery lists and old phone numbers that envelops everyone’s brain eventually.

What did David Sedaris call his new book?

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that while I’ve praised the book, I haven’t yet told you its title. That’s a Story Safari on its own:

“Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries, I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it.”

Notice the details Sedaris gives us—as well as the one he left out: Why was he picking up trash by the roadside? Was it some sort of community service, or was he just doing a service for his community? At any rate, he told a friend about the £5 windfall and she informed him that by spending the money, he’d committed a crime:

“In the U.K., if you discover something of value and keep it, that’s theft by finding.”

Theft by Finding seemed the perfect title for the book, which (he says) documents other people’s feelings and behavior far more closely than his own.

I suspect to find the results of many fascinating Story Safaris in this new David Sedaris book. I can hardly wait to read them.

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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.

“Be in love with the process” — thanks, Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins
By AkaiAkai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Picking up his Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins exclaimed:

“Be in love with the process, not the result.”

I’ve been catching up with the Oscars on my DVR (I was too sore to get out of bed last night to watch them live). It’s nearly 6:30 on Monday night and I didn’t have a blog written for—well, when you’re reading this it will be “today,” so—today. But a commitment is a commitment, so here I am at the old laptop.

I am definitely not in love with the process of healing from this operation I had five days ago. But like Mr. Jenkins, I am in love with the process of writing. And with the result, too: my 308-day writing streak (I’ll hit 308 as soon as I’m finished writing this). Sense of accomplishment, blah, blah. I’ve written about all of that before.

But I know that’s not the kind of result Barry Jenkins was talking about. He meant, don’t sweat over your laptops trying to write an award-winning screenplay: just write your truth.

“Just trying to drill down and get that right…If you create something that’s distinct and unique, you get a genuine, visceral reaction out of the person receiving it.”

Barry Jenkins offers great advice for filmmakers…and speakers

Even if you never write a movie—heck, even if you never see a movie—you’d do well to take Barry Jenkins’s advice seriously. Create something original. Create something true and your audience cannot help but feel and respond to your truth. Not with polite applause, but with a “genuine, visceral reaction.”

Visceral reactions stay with people—I still remember the visceral reaction I had to James Baldwin, the first time I encountered his words. I’d never heard anyone speak so bravely.

I’d seen the musical Gypsy at least five times before I saw Patti LuPone take on the role, and when she finished her big number in the second act, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Visceral reactions don’t get much more literal than that; I even emitted a small “oof” in the stunned silence after she finished.

I digress…or do I?

I saw the LuPone Gypsy nearly a decade ago; my James Baldwin memory is about three times as old. But both made an impact on me; both remain fresh. When you speak your truth, when you convey honest emotion, you give people the most precious gift possible.

Would you like to write like that? Would you like to leave that kind of emotional legacy when you speak?

Just listen to Barry Jenkins: Love the process. Drill down as deeply as you need to do to get it right. Not because you’re aiming for any accolades; just because you honor yourself and your audience enough to do the best damn work you can, every damn time.

Start your own process—or get some support for an ongoing writing streak. My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts March 13th.

Simplify – when good advice goes bad

It’s almost too late to talk about New Year’s resolutions but I had to draw attention to this one: “Simplify,” the writer says. Great advice!

But did the writer didn’t stop there? Sadly, dear readers, she didn’t. She complicated “simplify,” adding three other points and thereby not only stomping on her message but contradicting it pretty thoroughly.

simplify - my new year's resolution

Yep, it’s always lovely to find oneself quoted in an article. In this case an interminable round-up of resolutions from business owners. Scroll down. Nope, keep scrolling. I’m in there somewhere.

In my defense, I was responding to a query from Help a Reporter Out. Would the reporter have noticed a one-word response? I don’t know. I can only hope that anyone who does scroll down far enough to find this does not fully understand the meaning of the word “simplify.”

Simplify: Priority vs. Priorities

Once upon a time, Greg McKeown tells us in his book Essentialism, the word “priority” was only used in the singular. Our ancestors recognized that you could only have one thing that you do prior to others. (I feel like I’ve written about this before, but a search of my blog comes up empty.)

Now in the age of multitasking, the only time we use “priority” in the singular is when we’re getting on an airplane. Who hasn’t been annoyed waiting for the “priority boarding” to finish?

When I opened up my planner for this lovely new year, I noticed a box at the top of the page: “This Week’s Focus.” In the past, I’ve been tempted to stuff it like a Thanksgiving turkey. This year it gets one thing. One thing a week. One word a week, if I can boil it down that far.

Today’s word—maybe I should see about making a tattoo of it: Simplify.


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Name Those Euphemisms!: Not a game

Yesterday I wrote about the public relations thesaurus, an imaginary repository of euphemisms. If you want to use a euphemism to sell your company’s cheap airline seats, go right ahead; in the end, the only thing you’ll damage is your company’s reputation.

But as someone—maybe Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—said, “Your right to free speech ends at my nose.” Or something like that. (Okay, I paraphrased—the real quote is much clunkier, but have a look if you like.)

In the political realm, euphemisms can be dangerous. In the 1990s, the Serbs in the multicultural former Yugoslavia got tired of fighting their Croat neighbors. So they started killing them instead. Genocide? Oh no, no—nothing like that. “Ethnic cleansing.”

Beware the clunky two-word term that replaces a perfectly serviceable single word. But politicians—er, “elected officials”—don’t like people to think they’re genocidal. And because they called their policy “ethnic cleansing,” journalists and others followed suit. And everyone slept snugly in their beds (except the Croats).

Euphemisms like "ethnic cleansing" kill people. The guy with the pot belly inspired it.
Head of the Serbian Radical Party leads a rally in Belgrade, August 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Fun fact!—the guy who came up with the idea of “ethnic cleansing” held a Trump rally in Belgrade this summer. See how diverse the crowd was?

We’ll be seeing more euphemisms in the U.S.A.—the “Euphemism-S.A.”—under the Trump administration. Like “alt-right,” a new term in most of our vocabularies.

One journalist friend of mine wrote that alt-right “sounds like an indie music festival.” She suggested we call those folks “right supremacists” instead.

I’d go for “white supremacists.” On the plus side, it’s immediately recognizable; no one will wonder what it really means. On the minus side, it’s sadly not inclusive enough. Some of the people these partisans feel superior to—LGBT and Jewish people leap to mind—also come in white-skinned versions.

And Steve Bannon, primary mouthpiece of the alt-right white supremacists, is not a dangerous racist, misogynist, homophobic anti-Semite. Nope. He’s “controversial.” Good to know, CBS. Very enlightening. For significantly more accurate descriptions, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “A Field Guide to Identifying a White Nationalist.”

Join the euphemism police

If you care about language, and justice, and, um, not killing people just because they’re different than you, then join me in the Euphemism Police. Help people understand the power of euphemisms to normalize the unthinkable: It’s not homicidal hatred, it’s an “alternative” view. It’s not genocide, it’s “cleansing.” Doesn’t that sound cozy? I mean, who doesn’t want a cleaner home?

Wherever you stand on the genuine, important issues facing our country, please do not let our language become another victim of politics. Call out euphemisms wherever you find them. Translate them into honest English. And let’s have an open discussion about facts.

Discover how to say what you mean and mean what you say. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th, 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

Ad libbing: Leave this to the professionals

Sometimes ad libbing works—you know, getting carried away in the moment and going off script—and sometimes it leads you seriously astray. So this post carries a warning label:

Ad libbing is for pros only. Seriously.

Bill Clinton made a bad debut on the national stage, delivering a long and rambling, universally panned, nomination speech for the Democrats’ 1988 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Remember him? Exactly.

Clinton has given some absolutely forgettable speeches. He’s also given one of the best speeches I’ve heard in the last 10 years. How am I sure it was so good? Because four years after he gave it, I can still remember the feeling I had listening to it. It was like watching my Mets on their way to clinching the pennant: Even before he’d finished speaking, I knew it was going to get President Obama re-elected. It was a winner.

And much of it was unscripted. According to Dashiell Bennett (no relation) writing in The Atlantic, “[A]s an exasperated TelePrompTer operator found out,” the four pages of text given to the media “was really just a guideline to what Clinton actually wanted to say during his 49-minute address.”

As the Washington Post described  it,

After listening to him march through endless policy details, the crowd in Charlotte seemed to tire, and as he continued well past 11 p.m., the TV audience certainly may have drifted off. The speech went on and on and on, likely sending all but the fawning media off to bed. Clinton, let it never be said, is a disciplined speaker.

Editing or ad libbing?

The folks in charge of the convention tried to avert the never-ending speech by editing President Clinton’s prepared remarks. Was he ad libbing or did he just edit the deletions right back in, from his prodigious memory? In either case, the speech planned for 30 minutes (and that’s already 10 minutes too long for most audiences, in my opinion) grew nearly 60% longer.

Seriously, do not try this at home. Or at your next speaking gig. Conference organizers will be rightly miffed if you try. Very few people are as eloquent—or as irreplaceable—as Bill Clinton, and chances are you are not one of them. So write a tight speech and stick to the script and the time frame you’ve been given. You’ll deliver it better, too, if you’re not worried about ad libbing your way through.

This analysis from The Atlantic—which recently resurfaced on my Facebook newsfeed as a “memory”—shows exactly how Clinton’s written and spoken texts differed. And there’s a lot we can learn from it.

Like this passage, which exemplifies the thing I loved most about the speech as I watched it. He explained not just what would happen, but why it would have a positive impact on the American people:

Bill Clinton's additions and deletions in 2012 Convention speech

The “Explainer-in-Chief” added specifics (in green) and deleted a redundant reference, which is stronger placed at the end of the sentence anyway.

Below, he turns a passive verb active—no zombies here!—and added language that brings the issue to life more vividly.

Bill Clinton turns passive verbs active and adds detail

But here’s where the green additions really start flowing.

Ad libbing or editing? Either way the details make the speech come alive

Details! Yes, details take time—but without them, how flat would this passage be? Look again at what he was supposed to say:

When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between these two extremes.

It’s fine as far as it goes, but does it tell you anything about why cooperation works? About what cooperative government can produce? About the benefits to regular people when government works cooperatively? No, no, and no.

How did it play?

Mallary Jean Tenore, who at the time was managing editor of, summed up the reaction this way:

While called it “a fact-checker’s nightmare” and others criticized it for being too long, there’s something about Clinton’s speech that made it stand out: good writing.

(I added the emphasis.) See her analysis of the “10 rhetorical strategies” that make the speech work. I’d talk about them myself, but this is fast becoming the blog equivalent of a Bill Clinton speech.

Three things for you to remember here:

  1. People who seem to be ad libbing may not be. So don’t try it yourself!
  2. Interpolate a word or two if you must, but don’t add whole paragraphs on the spur of the moment.
  3. Respect the conference organizer’s time limits. Unless you’re a) Bill Clinton or b) prepared to not be asked back.