Paintball in the cemetery? Details matter.

details matter
Black headstone with “paintball splotch” – just to the left and behind the headstone flanked by American flags

How much do details matter? Quite a lot if you actually want your audience to understand what you’re doing.

I thought about that during this morning’s walk in the cemetery. I’ve always felt sad passing one headstone—it looks like someone hit it with paintball gun. There’s a giant blob of white on one side of the black granite stone, with white streaks running down from it.

I haven’t noticed any other acts of vandalism—unless you count family members planting tinsel whirlygigs around grandma’s grave—and I wondered why no one had bothered to clean it up. It felt disrespectful to me.

Today I took a closer look at the stone.

details matter —headstone painting of deer in a forest

It’s not vandalism; it’s art. Well, at any rate it’s not vandalism.

The splotch turns out to be sky; the drips are birch trees. The family of deer, invisible from a distance, look out at the viewer. Is it my imagination, or does Daddy Deer-est have a disgusted look on his face?

The view from afar does not match the up-close reality. Or to put it another way: details matter.

Details matter in writing, too

From time to time, I’ve written corporate applications to those “best companies in the world” surveys. Details matter there too. A lot.

My clients would ask me to write about this nifty program they have, so I’d ask them for information. I’d get PowerPoints explaining the need the program filled; I’d get one-sheets outlining the steps people needed to take to access the program. I’d get everything except the detail the contest sponsor specifically requested: how do the employees feel about it. How did it improve their lives at work, if indeed it did.

Sometimes the thousand-yard view is not the most illuminating. In the case of the contest submission, I’d always want to zoom in closer. Not to the details of how the program works—that’s important to the company, but not to the end user. No, I needed to get a microscopic view of the program. How it works at the smallest, most personal level.

If my submission were this headstone, the contest sponsor would need to see the deer. Everything else is just background noise.

Are you writing what your audience needs to know? Or are you writing what you want to tell them? Sometimes a Venn diagram of those two perspectives would completely overlap; other times, they might barely touch each other.

When in doubt, write for your readers. What do they need to know? Tell them that consistently. Show them the whole picture, because details matter.


Join me on August 22nd in Los Angeles as we look at the details of the remarkable Getty Center. We’ll spend the day finding and talking about stories—and you’ll get some one-on-one coaching time with me too. Details here.

Home runs & humor — it’s all in the perspective

Casey Stengel knew humor — and baseball
By R on en.wikipedia – From en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here, Public Domain

Humor or heartache?

“The fans love home runs,” said Casey Stengel, the first manager of the New York Mets. “And we have assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

Classic. It’s one of my favorite baseball quotes—I love it so much, I don’t care whether he actually said it.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball closely, Stengel knows that the fans prefer home runs when their team hits them, not when their team’s pitchers give them up. So is this humor or tragedy? It’s all in your perspective.

Even today, more than half a century after Stengel’s time, the Mets remain a team that lives and dies by the home run. More the latter than the former, this season. Once again, the Mets have “assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

This almost total reliance on home runs infuriates me. I’d much prefer to see my team advance around the diamond one or two bases at a time. It’s not about one person shining; it’s about the entire team pulling together to succeed.

Humor, the “home run” of writing

You have a brilliant sentence. I mean, so witty and concise it makes Oscar Wilde look like a second-grader. The problem is, it doesn’t quiiiiite fit the rest of your piece.

What do you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Move your “home run” to the Outtakes file. Maybe it’ll make a great tweet someday, but right now it’s derailing your piece.

Now, I’m not saying you can never use humor. But your wit must serve the interest of your reader, first and foremost. That’s true of every word you write, by the way—you must always focus on adding value for the reader.

If your humorous remark fits the theme and advances the story you’re telling, by all means leave it in. But if it only serves to make you look clever…you’ve got to take one of the team. Hit a single instead. Don’t interrupt the flow of your prose, not even for a laugh. Unless you’re writing a standup comedy set, your audience expects—and deserves—something seamless.

Allow your sentences to work together like a great baseball team. The “fans” may cheer less, but your readers will appreciate you more.


I wrote this piece while watching the Home Run Derby, perhaps my favorite event of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. Would you like to discover how to find stories in the wild like this and use them in your writing? Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in LA this August.

Goats 4 Sale—sometimes you need more words

a goat pausing in mid-mealThe other morning I passed one of those signboards with changeable plastic letters. It read:

Goats 4 Sale

Not surprising. There are as many farms around here as there are Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston or Starbucks in New York City. Which is to say, one on every corner and a couple in between.

What stopped me was the fixed part of the sign. Atop the wooden frame that held it in place the business owner had painted the word

Taxidermist

Which made me reconsider just what kind of goats they had “4 Sale.”

How low can you go?

I wrote last week about Stanley, who captured my attention with just one word. But conciseness may not always be the best option.

I have no doubt some would-be goat owners will pass right by the taxidermist’s For Sale sign. They want a goat to milk; not one to dust. I mean, I imagine taxidermied goats need the occasional dusting. The 19th century owl we had as a class mascot through my middle- and high-school years definitely collected his share of airborne detritus. Fun fact: how do you dust a taxidermied owl? With a feather duster, of course.

Anyway, half the people who venture in to buy a goat are bound to be disappointed in the merchandise. And there’s no telling how many potential sales the shop loses to its confusing sign.*

*Okay, it’s possible it’s only confusing to me. I cannot think of a single reason to buy a taxidermied goat. Unless a local high school needs a mascot.)

Are you confusing your audience?

To haul us all back on point: What does this have to do with business writing?

You may be perfectly clear on the benefits of your company’s nifty new program. But you’ve been working on it for six months before it rolled out. You know it backwards and forwards; you’re used to it.

Think about your communications from the point of view of someone coming to it fresh: Have you explained all of the nuances, translated all the jargon? Have you made it as easy as possible for them to figure out exactly what kind of goat you’re trying to sell them? If not, they won’t buy. And that would be baaaaaaaad.

(Sorry.)


Want to learn how to find stories like this in the wild and use them to make your work more unique? Join me in LA on August 22nd for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the one and only Getty Center.

Who’s it for? A Story Safari™ from the cemetery

I’m writing this in the midst of a cemetery. Well, in a house in the midst of a cemetery—a quirky and wonderful AirBnB space. And, yes, the neighbors are quiet.

And every time Fenway and I walk through the neighbors’ yard, if you will, we find a new story. So you can expect a fair number of tales from the grave in the next few weeks.

So what’s a Story Safari™ from the cemetery about? You might expect I’ll be writing about the lives these people lived—and there are apparently some famous folks buried here, though I haven’t found them yet. But the more I walk around, the more I think that cemeteries aren’t about the dead people.

The grave sites closest to my building host more recent guests, and the simplicity of their headstones stands in marked contrast to the decorations surrounding them. American flags, of course—some of these graves also have brass military placques, like the ones you’ll find in a military cemetery. But also seasonal decorations. Pinwheels and butterflies and…well, see for yourself:

a decorated gravesite in the local cemetery
I blurred out the names to protect the family’s privacy.

Those look like solar-powered lights on either side of the headstone. So the deceased doesn’t stub a toe on the way to the bathroom?

But I don’t mean to be snarky. We all express our grief differently and we should be free to do so without being judged.

What makes this a Story Safari™?

What I’ve written above is a story.

What alchemy turns it into a Story Safari™?

First, lift it out of its actual context. I mean, unless you work for a funeral home or a headstone carver you probably don’t have a lot of occasion to write about cemeteries.

But what do you write about?

I write about writing, most often business writing. So I ask myself, do I ever come across things in the world of business writing that seem more embellished than they need to be? Things that are more about the person doing the writing than about the people who’ll be reading or hearing it?

Do I? Only about every day. Full disclosure: Sometimes I even do it myself.

The family that puts frogs and tinsel and solar powered lights on grandma and grandpa’s grave—they’re the real audience for all of that frou-frou. They’re doing it for themselves. And if it makes them feel better, that’s what matters.

But when you’re writing for an audience, you have an obligation to write for them. It’s not about you, not if you want to connect with the audience, not if you want them to remember and act on your words.

So what frou-frou do you add to your speech? Where’s your tinsel, your frogs? Do you ever go out of your way to drop a name? Will you take time to tell a story that boosts your ego, even if it has no real connection to the topic? Do you spend too much time talking about you—or your company—instead of focusing on the audience’s needs? Are you onstage to solve a problem for them, to fire them up to action? Or just to collect another venue to add to your speaker’s bio.

Every word you write must add value for your reader or listener. So leave tinsel and the frogs at home—this is not about you. Tell them the story they need to hear, drive them to the action they need to take, and they’ll remember and appreciate you for it.


Interested in learning more about how to find and tell stories? Join my one-day Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Pop culture references: they need to make sense

I love pop culture references. Especially in unexpected places, like business speeches or otherwise serious-minded articles.

I’ve written before about my favorite pop culture reference, courtesy of the brilliant Adam Gopnik. He begins this New Yorker piece:

“Falling, yes, I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” Paul McCartney sang on June 14, 1965, a memorable high-water mark in musical history, when, on a single day, he recorded that first bluegrass-rock standard, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”; the throat-shredding early-metal model “I’m Down”; and then, in dulcet tones, the most covered song ever written, the ballad “Yesterday”—all within a few hours, with a little help from his friends. Some of us think there hasn’t been as good a musical day since.

It’s a fascinating bit of pop culture history; new to me. And engaging enough that I kept reading the piece even as the very next paragraph revealed that this was not going to be a piece about the Beatles—far from it. (I won’t give it away here.)

So please use a pop culture reference when it makes sense for your topic. That doesn’t mean it has to have an obvious relationship to your subject: Gopnik’s Beatles history does not and that’s part of what makes it so delightful. But it does mean that before you’re done, it has to make sense to the reader.

Pop Culture Beauty Salon

pop culture, kryptonite
Kryptonite: Art by Gary Frank. Fair use,

That’s easier to do when you put words around your pop culture reference—or, better yet, sentences. And if that seems obvious to you, it did not to the proprietor of a beauty salon I passed the other day in Connecticut:

Kryptonnite Beauty Salon

What message were they trying to send?

Women, be so alluring that your man will be powerless before you!

What kind of fun is that? And then I saw further down on the storefront the words “Unisex Salon.” So:

Men, we’ll render you completely useless!

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the message I’d want my hairdo to send.

Story Safari

The salon misspelled the name of the substance, but in double-checking that I discovered that kryptonite takes many forms. Pink kryptonite can even turn you gay (later adjusted to “change your gender” which is not nearly the same thing. But I don’t expect political correctness from an action comic book).

And while it debilitates people from Superman’s planet, Krypton, when we Earthfolk encounter it, it can give us superpowers. It can even supercharge our pets, albeit for only a day. (Don’t tell Fenway.)

Perhaps that’s what the salon owners were thinking. Kryptonite connoisseurs, they expect their idea clients to be similarly conversant with the many uses of the imaginary mineral.

Probably not the best business plan. Unless their ideal client is super-villains, in which case they’ve probably cornered the market.


Join us on a Field Trip to the very appropriately named Getty Center in Los Angeles, August 22nd—we’ll spend the day looking for stories in its gardens, architecture, and art. More information here.

Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears

I’ve been reading a lot about fears lately. Not intentionally. But the subject keeps coming up, so clearly it wants to be written about. I guess by me.

Fear #1

I wanted to give myself a break and read something funny, so I chose Paula Poundstone’s book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. I enjoyed her writing so much, I even stuck around for the Acknowledgments. And there it was, staring back at me from the page: fear.

I don’t know how anyone writes for a living. Every writing session is a deep dive into a sea of self-doubt.

If that’s the kind of fear that keeps you from writing, change the subject. Write about something you don’t care quite so much about. Or if you can’t change the subject, change the style: write it from the perspective of a five-year-old. Write it in poetry—in limericks.

Write something that makes you laugh. How can you doubt yourself when you’re laughing?

I do, however, have personal experience with Poundstone’s next observation:

“Once I get going, it can feel exciting and rewarding, but I often have to lure myself with the promise of Butterfingers or raisin toast as a reward for writing progress. It’s a really hard job and can cause weight gain.”

My toaster gets quite a workout when I’m writing for some clients. I think there’s an inverse relationship between carbs and confidence. The more I have of the former, the more I lack the latter.

I need to work on that.

Fear #2

After the Poundstone book, I turned to a book on writing, one I’ve been looking forward to: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.

I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when…

“As with everything I’ve ever written, I start out paralyzed by fear and frustration.”

Many people mistake fears for writers’ block. But you see? Paralysis is just a natural part of the process. Karr continues:

“The tarantula ego – starving to be shored up by praise – tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true things standing in line for me to say.

Ts’ok. That’s why God gave us delete keys.”

I think you can definitely expect a separate blog post about Karr’s use of language. She’s a poet as well as a noted memoirist. And apparently she fights fears as well.

A few pages later, she clarifies: this paralyzing fear isn’t about writing, per se—it’s about how readers will perceive her writing. She gets the Willits, in other words. But not about whether she’s writing well; about whether she’s fairly representing the other people who appear in her life story:

“The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night. I always tell my students that doubt runs through me every day I work, like the subway’s third rail.”

Okay, let’s cut Paula Poundstone a small break here. After all, her “search for human happiness” is part-memoir. Maybe she’s deep-diving in the same part of the ocean as Mary Karr.

Fear #3

Okay, I don’t really have a third writer to quote here; I just thought “Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears” sounded like a nice title.

I could throw in something from the always inspirational Elizabeth Gilbert, but I’ve written about her work before. If you deal with fear and you haven’t read her book Big Magic, don’t even talk to me.

Well, I have read Big Magic. Several times. But I still get scared. And sometimes I feel paralyzed—not generally about writing. About marketing.

And I’ve heard all the stuff. How it’s just an exchange of information. How you can’t make anyone buy something they don’t want to buy. My latest coach just reminded me it’s just another form of storytelling. And Lord knows I know how to do that.

Doesn’t matter. Every time I run a marketing campaign, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a very narrow diving board—the highest one they have at the Olympics. Maybe even higher. And I’m diving into a pool the size of a teacup. Is it any wonder I get scared?

Liz Gilbert says to talk to your fear-monster. Mine even has a name: MarProk—Marketing Procrastination. But if I forget to give him an alternate assignment before I start marketing, there he is all up in my face talking about the joys of toast and sleep (sequentially, not together) and how little the world needs whatever I’m selling.

Just right

So here’s a reminder to you—and to me—that Goldilocks did eventually find a bowl of porridge, a chair, and a bed that were Just Right for her.

Damn! I just remembered how the story ends. The three bears return home and scare her off. Hmm. Not the metaphor I was looking for.

Time for a quick rewrite:

Keep going and you will find writing work that sustains and feeds you (porridge rather than Butterfingers).

You will find the support you need to do that writing. And comfort in the work, too (the chair and the bed).

And when the bears show up, don’t try to change their nature. It’s their job to be bears; find a way to peacefully coexist with them. And get on with your job:

Write.

Reading about Writing: “Just the Funny Parts”

The only word-related thing I like better than writing is reading—especially reading about writing.

Nell Scovell has written a brilliant, moving, and inspiring book about the writing she’s done, for TV mostly. Just the Funny Parts also offers some advice about writing that happens to agree with things I tell my writers all the time. So don’t take my word for it—listen to Nell Scovell:

“Writing is not what you start. It’s not even what you finish. It’s what you start, finish, and put out there for the world to see.”

“There’s an old saying that ‘a writer writes.’ but that’s just the start. A writer writes…a lot…and then shares that work with others.”

Or, as Austin Kleon says—right in the title another book you should read if you haven’t already—Show Your Work!

As a writer, Scovell also apparently loves reading about writing. She quotes John Irving: “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Irving writes novels, but that’s true for us in the nonfiction world as well. “Noticing”—which I call going on Story Safari™—enlivens our writing, takes us beyond the spreadsheet the client handed us and opens up the possibility of metaphor.

The final bit of wisdom I’ll share today comes from Barry Kemp, who was Scovell’s boss when she wrote for the sitcom Coach.

“Writing,” Barry said, “is not an act of creation. It’s an act of choice.”

She means that you choose what your characters do and say. And that’s true. But you also choose to sit there and make words come out of your fingers. You choose to create.

Read Nell Scovell’s book. And then write…write a lot…and push your work out of the nest so people can enjoy it.

First draft – sometimes Hemingway is wrong

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Everyone’s first draft is sh*t.”

Or perhaps someone else said it and it just sounded so much like Hemingway that the attribution stuck. In any case, it’s mostly true.

Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes a first draft can be brilliant.

The secret to first drafts—well you can find it right in that adjective: they’re first. Which automatically implies that there could well be a second, or third. Or, if you’re like one old client I miss not one bit, a 27th.

If everybody agrees that the first draft can (and likely will) change, then you get to throw all sorts of outlandish ideas into it. Make it the first draft of your dreams.

With new clients, I always send the draft with a note, something like:

I threw some unexpected stuff in here, but if it seems like too much—hey, it’s a first draft.

With older clients, I often skip the caveat. And mostly they’ll play with me. Being bold on the first draft—and the client’s complete buy-in on the idea—won me my Cicero Award for best speech on diversity. You can read the story here.

First draft, second draft

Sometimes, though, even a longstanding client will push back. Not ten minutes ago, I opened an email expecting it to be full of praise for my brilliant, hysterical, and admittedly unconventional approach to a standard business topic.

Oh the client loved it, alright. But they don’t feel they can publish it.

Sucks? Sure.

But I still remember how elated I felt when I finished writing it and hit send. I felt creative; I felt free.

And, you know what? I still do.

Let your creativity loose on the first draft—it may be your only opportunity. And if the client pushes back, well, it’s their work in the end. And they’re paying you to be creative, whether they realize it or not.

If your first draft doesn’t fly, put your fabulous idea in your Outtakes folder and move on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let this sit over the weekend and then rewrite on Monday.

And who knows? Maybe Hemingway will be right about my second draft.

730 — yes, every damn day

I had not intended to blog again today. I wrote a post yesterday and I’m trying to get away from posting daily—although I still write for 15 minutes every day. Yep, every damn day.

Anyway, I hadn’t intended to blog today. Yesterday’s post—weighing in at a hefty 900+ words—took me far longer than my 15 minutes to write. Ate a good chunk of my morning, in fact.

But when I woke up today, Facebook reminded me that last year on this date, I had dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant with some friends—celebrating the one-year anniversary of my writing streak.

“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. “If it was a year ago today, then that must mean today is…”

Yes indeed.

every damn day
I’ve written for 2 full years—730 days!

The anniversary sneaked up on me, which might make you think my writing habit is pretty well integrated into my life.

You’d be—well, not exactly wrong, but it’s not quite as easy as the graphic makes it look. Especially the last couple of months, when I’ve been writing a big project for a client. I get to the end of a day of writing, grateful to power down the old laptop, only to realize that I haven’t done my 15. The commitment I made two years ago was 15 minutes of writing for myself, not for a client. Those days, when there’s not much left in my brain, I just journal. I figure it counts.

So what have I gotten out of this?

I moved forward with some aspects of my business I’d been putting off. Honestly, I think they scared me. But if I only had to write for 15 minutes…okay. That’s how the streak started.

I blogged every damn day for well over a year—maybe 18 months. (I’m on hiatus at the moment, but I may return.) Sometimes I had so many ideas that I could bank a week’s worth of blogs in advance; other times I just sat down at the keyboard and started typing, hoping that whatever came out would be at least semi-lucid. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Eventually I even dethroned the woman who’d always taken first place in a Google search of my name—”Elaine Benes.” She’s now a sidebar. Whoo hoo!

Elaine Bennett, not Elaine Benes

What can writing every damn day get you?

Well, what do you want?

Do you want to become a better writer?
I can almost guarantee it. In fact, many published writers swear that writing every day is essential to growing your skills.

Do you have an idea pinging around your head that wants to get out?
It’s scary to say you want to write a book. I know. When I decided to write one, for months I couldn’t say the b-word without air quotes. If you think “writing a book” has to mean shutting yourself a way for days on end—well, how attractive is that? If it means writing for 15 minutes a day, well, after a week you’ll have written for nearly two hours. After a month (one of those 30-day months, not freaking February), you’ll have written for seven and a half hours! And lived your life, too.

Do you want to get your work out in the world?
You may wonder what that has to do with writing every damn day. I’ll tell you: if you’re holding back because you’re afraid your writing is somehow flawed…honey, you don’t know “flawed” until you’ve written every day. Some days it’s golden, other days it’s, to put it politely, a pile of manure. But the Dutch have an old saying I love:

“Shit is not a holy thing, but from where it lies there come miracles.

Every bit of bad writing you produce gets you that much closer to producing good writing.

I’m on a mission this year. I want to help more people start and maintain their writing streaks. It’s more fun when we do it together. Fill in the Contact form and let me know how I can support you.