It’s Day 4 of my latest 5×15 Writing Challenge; my writers have almost earned themselves a nice donation to global literacy nonprofit Room to Read. Through Day 3 we’ve got a completion rate of 100%—the highest I’ve ever had for one of these challenges. I’m thrilled to help so many people discover the joys of daily writing.
His post reminded me of all the things I loved about blogging daily. And all the things I’ve missed since I stopped a little over two months ago. I still write every day: today’s Day 640. But, well…Here’s the comment I left on Josh’s blog:
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After I used some of his material in my Writing Unbound curriculum, several of my writers followed my, um, lead in subscribing to Bernoff’s blog. One of them asked for my opinion on his lede vs. story piece.
So, should you start with a story or a lede? Yes.
And thanks to Josh Bernoff for bringing it up.
Lede or Story?
“The best way to hook an audience is to start with a descriptive story. The best way to get people to read what you write is with a descriptive title and a few summary sentences…”
My writers glommed onto the concept of the lede the minute I introduced it. They immediately wanted to know all there is to know. (I love my writers; they’re a lot like me in that respect.) Story they understand. But the idea of starting with a story—well, that’s often hard to wrap your head around when you come from an academic or business background.
I had defined lede as the first sentence of a piece of writing. Of course, that’s both incomplete and inaccurate; Bernoff offers a much more accurate description. Ledes mostly occur in journalism—when you need a start that’s crisp, engaging, and fact-filled. Blogs require ledes too, especially if you worship the Gods of SEO. And if you care about getting noticed in the free-for-all that is the internet, you need to consider SEO when you’re writing.
But the rules of SEO (mostly) help you create and sustain interest in your message. Your reading audience can disappear in an instant by turning the page or, more likely these days, swiping on to the next story. You need to grab their attention as quickly as you can—with a memorable lede—and reward them by giving them whatever else it is they’re looking for. If that’s analysis, then analyze. If it’s facts, then make with the facts. You can tell a story too, but it will have to be a short one in a short piece or it might overwhelm the rest of your content.
If you have the luxury of writing a longer piece—a feature story in a magazine, perhaps, or a speech—then by all means, open with a story. But you still have to grab the audience’s attention from the outset. And that requires—well, if not a lede then a sentence as catchy as one.
I haven’t written about this earlier, under the principle that when your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, you don’t take away the gun. But Senator Mitch McConnell’s decision earlier this week to use declarative sentences in his denunciation of his colleague Senator Elizabeth Warren is just too delicious to pass by.
“A declarative sentence (also known as a statement) makes a statement and ends with a period. It’s named appropriately because it declares or states something.”
I’m sure my current readers all know exactly what Senator McConnell “declared” or “stated” about Senator Warren. But blog posts have a long life. So for those of you reading this years from now, long after the generation of women who’ve had the last sentence tattooed on various parts of their anatomy have died out, I’ll recap.
Speaking on the Senate floor during a debate about the nomination of a Notorious Racist (and current Senator) to be our Attorney General, Senator Warren began to read a letter written three decades ago by civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. King was not impressed with the character of the notorious racist—perhaps because of his notorious racism—and she said as much. Back then, he had been nominated to be a federal judge; that nomination failed. But potato/po-tah-to: what’s disqualifyingly racist for a judge in the 1980s is apparently just the right attitude for the Attorney General in the current Republican administration.
So Senator Warren was reading this historical document into the record when she was shut down for breaking an obscure Senate rule about speaking ill of a colleague. Fun fact: the rule was apparently created back in the early 20th century to protect a senator who—incidentally—favored lynching black people when they tried to vote. I don’t know about you, but I could do with a whole lot less irony in politics today.
If you’re saying something idiotic, don’t use declarative sentences
Anyway, to the declarative sentences in question. McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, was called upon to explain why his colleagues brought this dusty old lyncher-protecting rule out of the closet. He replied:
She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
“an adjective, adverb, noun, or verb that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision.”
I’ll bet Mitch McConnell wishes he’d obfuscated the Warren explanation. Obfuscated prose doesn’t end up on tattoos or T-shirts or protest signs. “Nevertheless, she persisted” is going to hang around McConnell’s neck for a long time, like the stinking, decomposing albatross in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner“—the daily reminder of a selfish, pointless act.
Seriously, if you’re going to say something idiotic, don’t say it in the most memorable way possible. Not just one declarative sentence, but three in a row. And don’t use such a poetic cadence—short sentence building to longer sentence, building to the final sentence with its four almost equally accented syllables: a drumbeat of declaration.
McConnell could not have offered a clearer example of how to make your message stick.
“Strict Father” says
But look at McConnell’s words again. They’re not just any declarative sentences, they’re the declarative sentences of a father chastising a misbehaving child. Why are you grounding me? That’s so unfair!!! And the father answers, “You were warned. You were given an explanation.” Okay, so I don’t know any fathers who’d find “nevertheless” tripping off their tongues. But you get the idea.
McConnell spoke that way because that’s how Conservative Republicans speak. That’s how they view the world, how they process information.
Of course, Senator Elizabeth Warren is a fully grown adult; a Harvard Law professor; head of the panel that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and, since 2012, one of McConnell’s colleagues in the United States Senate. She’s also a woman, the nearest analog to Hillary Clinton left in the political arena. So they silenced her, and then offered an explanation that treated her like a miscreant child.
You might call it “dog-whistle sexism”—people who ascribe to the strict father school of government will hear the echoes of a parental rebuke in his words. They’ll absorb the message that Warren is too childish for her opinions and actions to matter.
Q: I write articles all the time. What’s the difference between that and book-writing?
A: Books have more words in them.
Of course I’m being facetious. My questioner knows what the difference is between article-writing and book-writing. But it’s also true: unless you write articles for The New Yorker, your book will generally have more words.
I think what she really wanted to know was: How do you take 20,000 words to say something you could say perfectly well in 2,000? And the answer to that question is—you don’t. You use the 2,000 words as the seeds to build something bigger.
Now, not all seeds sprout equally. Some of them will turn into beautiful flowers—but if you’re telling a story about herbs, the flowers will be useless. So repot them and stick ’em back in the greenhouse for the next thing you write. (Okay, I’m officially out of planting metaphors now. Not Nature Girl, remember?)
But some of the ideas in your original piece will be perfect to expand. So figure out how they would fit in the expanded arc of the story and expand them.
Story arc: essential tool of book-writing
You thought only movies and TV shows have story arcs? Think again.
The novelist Kurt Vonnegut may have been the first to represent the archetypes of stories graphically.
1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
Now, I could write about story arcs all day. But they’re tangential to the point I’m trying to make in this blog. So let’s repot that idea and stash it in the greenhouse for another day.
The “fat outline”
The reason I brought up story arcs is that to turn an article-length piece into a book, or to create a book out of thin air, you need to know where you’re going. And then get there. Story arcs take your reader on a journey—and if they enjoy the journey, they will tell others. If your book seems like an unconnected series of things slapped together for no particular reader, you’ll have a hard time keeping a reader’s interest.
A “fat outline” will help you sketch out your storyline. If you hadn’t heard the term before, I’m relieved—neither had I until I ran across it in this post by Josh Bernoff, one of my favorite bloggers.
Even though I didn’t know it had a name, I create “fat outlines” whenever I have a long, research-heavy piece to write. Basically, I just paste everything I know about a certain aspect of the topic into a Word doc. (I’m trying to teach myself to use Scrivener, but I haven’t made the transition completely yet.)
I create footnotes at this stage, too. Nothing worse than having a client ask, “Where did you find this data point?” Where, indeed—since you’ve read about a million things. And at least 63% of the time, you can never find the original source again. [Footnote: I made that statistic up; based on my experiences before I started footnoting my notes, it’s probably higher.]
Bernoff also calls his fat outline a “zeroth draft,” which I love. Does that paint the picture for you? Basically, it’s as close as you can get to writing without actually making sentences of your own. And if it looks too short for book-writing—if your zeroth draft turns out to be less than zero—go back and see which seeds have sprouted usefully.
When your outline has grown as fat and contented as an old housecat, you’re ready to get down to the business of book-writing.
Josh Bernoff, who specializes in sniffing out and calling attention to “weasel words” and outright bull in corporate and political writing, has created a list of writers’ resolutions. He’s pegged them to the new year, but they’re well worth your attention any day.
He gives a couple of shout-outs to the fine art of editing. We writers either do too much of it (editing while we write—no faster way to kill your creativity) or too little. Bernoff points out that probably the greatest volume of writing any of us does occurs in emails. But who edits emails? Even I don’t, mostly—and I am fully aware of the power of the second draft.
I’m not going to go through all of his suggestions—please read the blog post yourselves. But I want to highlight the final one of his writers’ resolutions because I think it may be the most important:
10. Write to create action, or don’t write at all.
Every time you write something, ask, “what do I want the reader to do?”
If the answer is “I don’t know,” or “Nothing,” then delete, don’t send, don’t publish.
Business writing exists for one purpose: to create a change in the reader. So don’t waste time writing anything that creates no change.
Writers’ resolutions: When not to write
That “or don’t write at all” may be difficult if you’re a corporate writer whose boss is breathing down your neck, wondering where the draft is. After all, it’s your job to write, isn’t it?
Well, it’s part of your job, certainly. But the other part is to work with your speaker, or whoever’s name goes in the by-line, to hone the message. And that includes making sure the message is unique, contains a call to action, and makes sense.
We’ve all encountered clients who believe that every word they speak contains pearls of wisdom, when all they’ve done is string together a series of clichés. I once asked a guy who ran a mutual fund what made his fund unique. In my memory I see him puffing up his chest—he was proud of his work, proud to explain it to little old me. And he unleashed a paragraph of unmatched profundity. He thought. He deflated quickly when I translated: “Oh. You mean, ‘Buy low, sell high.'”
Beware of jargon and what my old boss used to call $5 words—I’d up that to $50, what with the way education costs have soared. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. In my experience, if someone says something you don’t understand, there’s at least a 50% chance that they don’t understand it fully, either.
Resolve to use your powers for good
Writing is not just a job; it’s a responsibility. We shape people’s perceptions of the world around them. We can use tools of our craft to create honest narratives and arguments, or to skew and shape them to fit a dishonest agenda.
I think the most important writers’ resolution is honesty. Let’s all recommit ourselves to using our talents to make the world a more decent and honest place in 2017.
Plain talk isn’t easy to find in the business world. Or in politics, for that matter, though I suspect that’s another blog post.
In any setting, most people have no trouble saying what they mean—as long as they’re just talking to each other. But turn on a recording device, or try to capture their thoughts in writing, and the Obfuscation Instinct kicks in. All of a sudden, those clear thoughts become very opaque.
You can find examples of this trend daily at my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff’s blog, Writing Without Bullshit. But I’m at the other end of the funnel—trying desperately not to produce anything for my clients that’s worthy of Josh’s consideration. What’s a writer to do?
Stay outside the bubble. You’re most valuable to your client if you can maintain the perspective of an external consumer of this message.
Keep focused on the objective. Especially when they’re writing about a subject they might consider controversial, clients may fall back on meaningless platitudes. Remind them of what they want this communication to accomplish. And remind them that platitudes do nothing but put the reader to sleep.
Don’t settle for what’s possible. Does your writing go through a number of staffers before it gets to the ultimate client? I feel ya. Staffers often believe their job is to eliminate friction points; that’s where the platitudes come from. Stick to your guns; you have the client’s best interest at heart. If a staffer says, “I don’t think the lawyers will let this pass,” counter with, “Why don’t we run it by the lawyers and see?” Sometimes you’ll hit a lawyer who understands what you’re trying to do.
I once went back and forth for with a partner at a big law firm about something I was writing for our mutual client. Five email exchanges and a phone call later, we were both happy. I thanked him for sticking it out with me and he said, “I understand. It’s the opening line of the piece—it’s important to get that right.
When your client has something challenging or sensitive to say, nothing’s more important than plain talk. In those cases, we writers have to give them something more than great language—we have to give them courage as well.
There’s an art to public relations writing. And it’s something we should all be aware of, especially now.
When I joined a P.R. shop for about four years in the early part of this century, I quickly learned that I was going to have to choose my words from an alternate thesaurus.
For instance, politicians—no, we never wrote about politicians. People don’t like them, so they became “elected officials.” Well, I thought, it’s a clunkier phrase. But it’s not inaccurate. After a month or so, the words practically typed themselves.
Bernoff’s bullshit-free rewrite of United’s press release reveals that the “choice” travelers make with the Basic Economy fare involves not adding on, but subtracting:
“If you buy one of these tickets, you get no space in the overhead bin, no choice of seat (you’ll probably end up in a middle seat), you can’t sit with your family, and you’ll get no credit towards frequent flyer status levels. And to make sure everyone else knows you’re a cheapskate, you’ll board last, after everyone else.”
When public relations writing becomes our default speech
In the business world, the public relations department is among the last defenders of the truth. PR professionals don’t set policy, but they explain it. Sometimes even defend it.
And that’s where we really need to remember a responsibility that runs deeper than whatever we owe our employer. Our responsibility to our language, the tools of our trade. Our responsibility to use the actual, transparent meaning of words to convey the actual, transparent truth of the matter.
Bernoff’s suggestion, with my added emphasis:
“I think the PR person in this situation ought to push back. They should rein in the superlatives in the press release, like United’s ‘outstanding network’ and ‘great customer service’ (really?). They should make the facts clearer. And they should advise their clients and colleagues that the image of the company suffers long-term when it makes choices that create a poorer customer experience and pretend that it’s actually an improvement.”
Whatever battles we fight—with “elected officials,” with corporate executives, with the media—we must use words honestly. Because if we allow words to lose their meaning, as I’ve written before, what will we have left? How can we convey ideas when people stop believing the words we use?
I was surprised when my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff suggested that zombies can help us write better. Okay, that’s not exactly what he said—I’ll get to that in a minute—but that was the clear implication.
I’m not generally a fan of zombies. I always leave the room when the spousal unit turns on The Walking Dead. And if I should happen to walk by, whenever I happen to walk by, the only dialogue I ever hear is “Aaaarrggghhh.” I would love to see a script. Do the writers spell it differently to indicate different emotions? Do zombies even have emotions?
You know what else doesn’t have emotions? A sentence with a passive verb. That’s one of the reasons passive verbs are the verb of choice for people who don’t want to admit anything. They’re trying to bore us to death:
One linguist has dubbed this the “past-exonerative” tense. Nobody trots it out when they want credit for something. You’re not going to find any politician solemnly intoning, “Tax breaks were given.” Or, for that matter, a parent saying, “A trip to DisneyWorld was planned.”
No! You call a press conference, you hire a marching band, you win the Super Bowl and shout:
“We’re going to DisneyWorld!”
There’s emotion in that sentence; the exclamation point practically demands inclusion.
To write better, write with emotion—and active verbs
Writing designed to move people to action requires emotion. Emotion turns a string of words into a story. If you’re not conveying emotion, if you’re not telling a story, no one will remember what you’ve said or written. And you want people to remember your words, right? If not, why are you writing them?
And that brings us back to zombies, and to my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff. Josh and I both campaign actively against passive verbs. My weapon in this fight is a little something I call my “$100,000 Writing Lesson”—and I will send you a copy free of charge if you click the link.
Josh’s weapon, presented in an amusing infographic on his blog, is an easy-to-remember exercise. If you find yourself wondering whether a verb is passive or active, just insert two words at the end of the sentence. To wit:
Mistakes were made by zombies.
When you add a subject (zombies), the sentence makes sense. So we’ve identified a passive verb—and possibly an actual line from The Walking Dead.
We’re going to DisneyWorld by zombies!
The sentence already has a subject, so adding another to it turns it into nonsense. An active verb! And a trip to DisneyWorld! (No, actually, I’m in San Diego right now.)
Thanks to Josh and his zombies for showing us all how we can write better.
I learned a valuable lesson about wasting time from my elementary school Math teacher, Mrs. Milliren. If you were unlucky enough to stumble into her class late, she made you do arithmetic. In your head. In front of the whole class.
“How late are you?” she would demand. You’d look at the clock in horror and answer sheepishly, “Three minutes. I’m sorry, Mrs. Milliren.”
“And how many people are there in the class?” Fortunately—given the next step in Mrs. Milliren’s equation of punishment—my school kept classes small.
Then she would say, “You have just wasted three minutes of time for the 14 people in this class. How much time have you wasted?”
Woe to the newcomer who spat out, “Three minutes.” Mrs. Milliren’s veterans knew the answer she expected: You’d wasted three minutes for 14 people, a total of 42 minutes. Even a 10-year-old knew that was serious time.
Is poor writing wasting time for your people?
I’ll spare you the suspense: the answer is Yes.
How much time do your people spend reading reports full of convoluted reasoning? Or overly long emails without clear calls to action? Or mission statements that sound like someone put a personal development book in a blender and pressed “chop”?
How much time do they spend listening to speeches that don’t relate to their work or directly address their challenges? What percentage of those speeches lack clearly articulated messages?
How much time do they have to take away from doing what you actually hired them to do and devote it to writing—something they struggle to do well?
Add up all that time and multiply by the number of people in your organization. I won’t be a hard-liner like Mrs. Milliren: You may use a calculator. Heck, ask Siri do to the math.
I just want you to see that good communication skills are not optional—unless you’re okay with wasting time and money.
Nothing has been able to derail the traveling circus that is Trump’s presidential campaign. Violence at his rallies? The story seems to blow over in a day. Threats to fire any members of the judiciary who disagree with him? [Crickets.]
But the story of Melania Trump’s plagiarized convention speech—that has legs. If there’s one topic members of the media feel passionately about, it’s plagiarizing. So you can threaten to deport people until the proverbial cows come home, but steal another writer’s work and you’re asking for trouble.
It reminds me of an expression I learned from Warren Buffett—though someone else may have said it first—”Never pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel.” (Note how I both sourced the quotation and allowed for the possibility that the source I cite may be incorrect. That’s how it’s done, folks.)
This is far from the Trump campaign’s worst gaffe, but it does expose many of the campaign’s weaknesses. I can’t imagine a major speaker at a political convention—heck, even at a big corporate event—who’d be allowed onstage without having several people vet the speech for consistency of message, at least. They haven’t let Melania say more than a few sentences at other events—yet they let her take the podium at the Convention with no oversight, no rehearsal? Nobody outside the family heard that speech before she gave it? With any other candidate I would say that’s hard to believe. But Trump’s campaign has been literally unbelievable, so who knows?
Today they trotted out a sacrificial lamb named McIver. But—whoops—now they’re not just in trouble with the press; they’ve run afoul of the Federal Elections Commission for using a corporate staffer rather than a campaign staffer to write the speech. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza wraps up the growing mess here.
So if McIver wrote the speech, Trump is guilty of allowing his company to make illegal campaign contributions; if Melania wrote the speech she’s guilty of plagiarism. Either way, the Trump campaign seems in desperate need of adult supervision. See Josh Bernoff’s wonderful explanation: he says it’s a classic case of Hanlon’s Razor – a phenomenon I’d never heard of:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.