Don’t bury the lede – lessons from the cemetery

You may not know how to spell it, but you’ve all heard the word lede. As in

“Don’t bury the lede.”

The lede (not “lead”) is the most important piece of information in a piece of journalism. Wiktionary adds an important piece of information about the spelling—intended to avoid confusion with the lead (metal) used in setting newspaper type.

Everyone cites Nora Ephron’s example—from her high school journalism teacher—who spun out a long story about the teachers taking a day off the following Thursday to go to some state-wide conference with the Governor (or something). He asked the students to imagine they were writing that story for the school newspaper: what’s the lede?

Surely the “most important” information in that story is that their teachers would be meeting with the Governor, no?

Not for a student audience: the most important detail is “No school on Thursday.” If that’s not the first sentence of the school newspaper’s story, the writer has buried the lede.

gravestones. hopefully no buried ledesBut on my stroll through the cemetery yesterday, I came across a literal case of burying the lede.

There’s a gravestone for a woman named Anne. I’ll call her Anne Surname #1.

What does the stone tell us about Anne?

She’s identified as wife of Peter Surname #1, who died in the 1930s and of Samuel Surname #2, who died in the 1950s.

When did Anne die?

That’s an excellent question—in fact, it’s not a stretch to call it the lede in the story the gravestone tells. But apparently no one thought to answer it.

Yep, the only info we have on Anne is her name—no, not even that—her first married name and her two husbands’ names.

Everybody knows the lede?

Do you find it hard to believe that no one—not the family, not the gravestone-carver—noticed the missing information? I don’t.

How many emails have you received inviting you to events or webinars…but neglecting to tell you when those events might be happening?

When you’re writing for an internal audience at your company, it’s easy to forget details. Maybe not the lede—hopefully not the lede—but many times internal communications tell you what a new program is, but not why it matters to the reader.

Don’t assume that everyone knows. Within your team, maybe. But if you’re trying to reach a wider audience, make sure to get an extra set of eyes on your draft. Have someone who’s not involved in the program give it the once-over. And then answer any questions they have.

I only wish we could do that for Anne.


Unbury your ledes and discover the keys to writing great business writing. No, that’s not an oxymoron. Register for my Writing Unbound program; next class begins in Fall 2018.

Permission to stink — the art of bad writing

Usually my writers slide their assignments under the virtual door of my Facebook group/office just ahead of our next Writing Unbound class. But this week—this week they jumped on the assignment. I think they started writing before the video even finished playing. What was this compelling exercise? Create some bad writing.

bad writing

Bad writing is the thing we writers fear most, right? So I gave them permission to stink.

They came up with some creative work—clichés piled on top of each other, unsavory images rendered in such detail you would think they were composed of pixels instead of words. But I have to say, each of their pieces had some redeeming features.

We writers are always deciding that our writing sucks. But it turns out bad writing is pretty darn hard to do—even when you’re explicitly trying to do it. I hope they remember that the next time they think they’ve created it by accident.

My own bad writing

I once wrote a sentence so bad, so inappropriate for the speaker and the audience, so full of purple prose—well, maybe not exactly purple, as you’ll see. Still, I couldn’t hit delete. I didn’t want to lose such a vivid metaphor…but I also didn’t want to lose my job. So I pasted it into a document all by itself and I printed it out and tacked it to the wall behind my computer monitor.

My very macho client was speaking about the fall of Communism (it was the early ’90s) and I wrote something like:

“…and every day it seems new countries are being born. Like all births, it’s a messy process…”

He would have made history—the first Wall Street titan to deploy a placenta metaphor. Instead I got the first entry in my outtakes file.

Bad writing can be liberating. I’m sure I’ve written lots of stupid or inelegant sentences since then. But I don’t think I’ll ever again write anything quite so bad. And yet I’m still here. Still alive. Still making words appear at the mere touch of my fingers.

If you think you’re writing badly, lean into it. Write worse. Make it as god-awful as you possibly can. And then have a good, long laugh.


 

Golden brandcuffs — the downside of commitments

golden brandcuffsYou’ve heard of golden handcuffs? They’re a series of payouts timed over a long period—the corporate world’s way of keeping key executives from straying. I don’t have golden handcuffs keeping me here at Bennett Ink. But I do seem to have forged myself a pair of golden brandcuffs.

I was taking some Me Time on Sunday evening. I’d just spent an exhausting three days at a conference. Valuable stuff, but my mental gastank was pinned on E.

Despite that, after the last session ended I had to pound out a speech for a client. I had definitely earned that baseball-watching time.

Maybe, I found myself thinking, maybe that two hours I spent writing for my client could count as my 15 minutes for today? That’s not the commitment I’d made to myself 538 days earlier—I’d promised to count only non-client writing. But I was mentally fried. And there was baseball on the television machine.

And then I saw that Julia Wu, one of the writers in my Writing Unbound class, had posted a piece in our Facebook group and on her Medium blog. A meditation on what makes a brand. The brand examples she cited included this one:

“A writing coach who centers her business around the word daily: daily practice and daily publishing.”

And off the couch I got. So what if it’s a tie ballgame? The Cubs had a 50% chance of losing it, and did I really need to see the Cubs lose again?

Choosing the golden brandcuffs

Now, obviously I forged these golden brandcuffs all by myself; I choose to write and publish daily. But Julia Wu’s salute to my daily habits came at an interesting moment.

The coach I was working with this weekend insists we should spend no more than two hours a week creating content. Although I’ve only committed to 15 minutes a day, I probably average something closer to 30; the longer posts may creep up to an hour. So I’m at upwards of 3.5 hours of content-creation—not counting marketing emails and my Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.

Of course, I could always blog on my own time. Problem is, when you’re a solopreneur, every minute is your “own time.” And this quarter I’m trying to spend at least 20 hours a week having a—what’s it called?—life.

Still, it’s not every day you build a recognizable brand. Maybe it’s worth investing the extra time to maintain it?

I don’t know. What do you think? Scroll down and let me know.

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Writers’ batting order—creativity leads off

writers' batting orderAs I said goodbye to the 2017 baseball season yesterday—well for my Mets, anyway—I got to thinking about the magic of the batting order.

You want your swiftest runner batting first. Second, you want a player likely to move that runner along with a base hit or a well-placed bunt. In the third spot, you want someone who can deliver a big hit. And to make sure the opposing pitcher doesn’t pitch around Mr. Big Hit in the third slot, you want a cleanup hitter (the fourth slot) who can reliably hit the ball out of the park.

And then I got to wondering—well, the Mets were down 6-0 in the fifth; there wasn’t a lot of game to care about—I got to wondering what my writers’ batting order would look like. This is what I came up with:

Creativity
Confidence
Commitment
Communication

How I set my writers’ batting order

Some people might flip the first two batters. What do you need first: Creativity to generate the idea? Or confidence to get you to the computer? That would make for a lively discussion if there were a literary equivalent of the sports bar.

But I put Creativity first because you can have all the confidence in the world—not that I’ve encountered many good writers who have all the confidence in the world…But theoretically you could have all the confidence in the world when you sit down at the keyboard, but if you don’t have an idea how are you gonna make those words appear on the screen?

So Creativity leads off on my team. But then you absolutely need Confidence next. That’s what gets your butt in the seat. What keeps your fingers pounding the keys, even when you’re writing badly. Because not even Confidence bats 1.000. Confidence reassures you that even if you have an off day—hey, even the best hitters only reach base about a third of the time.

Commitment’s up third. Confidence may get your butt in the chair, but Commitment keeps it there. And keeps it coming back every day. Whether or not you want to—it’s not up for debate; you’ve made a commitment.

Those three Cs set the table for the fourth one, the one that pays off all this hard word: Communication. You get to share your ideas, your creativity, with the world.

You’re not going to hit a home run every time—and if you expect that you will, you’re in for a big disappointment, my friend. But if you do your best, “take your hacks” as they say in baseball, you have every reason to be proud.

But you have to step up to the plate. You have to try. So stop reading this and write something. Yes, now.


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

Ignoring the Willits — another 90-Day Writing Challenge in the books

no Willits allowedIt’s only been a month or so since I introduced you to the Willits, surely the most annoying creatures on the planet. The Willits always pop by unannounced—generally about two or three sentences into whatever I’m writing. And they don’t just tiptoe in. They announce themselves loudly, asking unanswerable questions:

Will it move anyone?
Will it be coherent?

And, of course—always—

Will it sell?

I called these unanswerable questions. They’re also completely irrelevant.

How will your audience receive you work—will it move them? will they buy it?—you have about as much control over that as you do over the wind. The middle question—will people understand your writing—you have a modicum of control over that one. But you don’t have to think about it—in fact, you should never think about it—until the first draft is done and it’s time to revise.

Writers ignoring the Willits

A dozen writers entered the 90-Day Writing Challenge that wrapped up yesterday. One of them never started; two of them dropped out in the first week. The rest navigated life and the Willits as best they could. And, believe me, life and the Willits threw everything but the kitchen sink at these people.

Two writers finished the full 90 days; a third completed her commitment of writing Monday through Friday for 13 weeks. One writer made it all the way to 70 days before life intervened—and then started a new streak the very next day. Another writer missed the full 90 by two days. Together, they raised $610 for their favorite charities in the U.S. and abroad. And they did something important for themselves. As one writer put it,

“It is amazing the benefits I have got from doing this – not just writing but positivity, focus, clarity and peace of mind.”

Positivity, focus, clarity, and peace of mind—the Willits hate those things.

Willits, Willits everywhere

Even if you write every day as I do (Day 522 yesterday), the Willits will still pop in. But they’re much less likely to stay if you have a goal, a commitment—to yourself, to your client, to a class. If your attitude is I’ll write this when I feel like it, the Willits will hijack your attention in a heartbeat. So set yourself a goal that matters—and pound your NO WILLITS sign firmly into the front lawn.

Staying on course is always easier when you have a supportive community. That’s one of the reasons my Writing Unbound course combines live group discussions with watch-at-your-own-schedule videos. Click the link, fill out the application, and let’s talk. If you need a Willit-free zone, we can help you create one.

Are you ghosting yourself? — Frequent Questions

Q: Are you ghosting yourself?
A: Ghosting? No…I’ll get back to those unfinished pieces one of these days.

stop ghosting yourselfMany of the writers I work have had trouble finishing their writing. They’re not happy with their first draft—or their third—or 20th—so they put it away. Maybe they really do intend to get back to it “one of these days.” Or maybe they’re just ghosting themselves.

In case you’ve been out of the dating market for a while, the Urban Dictionary tells us that “ghosting” is:

The act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone the subject is dating, but no longer wishes to date. This is done in hopes that the ghostee will just “get the hint” and leave the subject alone…

In the world of writing, that might translate as putting the manuscript in a drawer (if you’re old school) or deleting the shortcut from your computer’s desktop.

In dating, the ghost avoids a mature conversation with the “ghostee” about the problems between them. Those problems might well be insurmountable. Or they might be completely fixable—given the right information and support.

It’s the same with writing.

Ghosting yourself vs. working through the problems

When you ghost your writing, you avoid the same uncomfortable question date-ghosters hate asking:

Is it you or is it me?

It’s You (the writing): might be the wrong topic, a topic that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of treatment I’m trying to give it. Maybe that blog post or magazine article really does contain all I need to say on the subject. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble turning it into a book.

Or

It’s Me (the writer): Maybe I’m just not good enough?

That is one scary-ass question.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to answer it honestly—a whole lot more than it does to “misplace” your unfinished pieces in the back of your hard drive—ghosting yourself.

But Is it you or is it me? is not the kind of question you can answer in isolation.

People who care about their dating partners won’t ghost them; they’ll have a frank conversation and find a resolution to the relationship.

If you care about yourself as a writer, you’ll do the same thing. Find a class to build your skills. Find a writers’ group to get feedback from people you respect. Pay attention to how your work lands for other people. As I wrote the other day, that’s the only way to find out if you’re any good.

Writing or dating, it’s hard to do on your own. But when you step out of your comfort zone and allow someone else in, that’s when magic can happen.


Build your skills and get the support you need in one of my personal coaching programs.

A writing lesson from Kiersey Clemons

writing lesson
Kiersey Clemons, from her Instagram account

Kiersey Clemons is not a writer; she’s an actress and singer. And although she looks quite fetching in the various outfits InStyle magazine photographed her in for their September 2017 issue, what really caught my attention was a little writing lesson embedded in the interview.

The interviewer notes that Clemons “loves to write.” But:

“I’ll never know if I’m good.”

Why?

“It’s kind of like acting,” she adds. “You don’t know until you do it and people validate you.”

A writing lesson we all need

Yep. You can’t act in a vacuum. I mean, you can but it would feel really cramped. And airless.

If you’re all alone in a room, can you act? Maybe. But I think the more common description of that activity is “talking to yourself.”

You can act onstage without an audience. Generally, that’s called rehearsing. Or maybe filming a movie.

But no matter how much you rehearse, things change once you have an audience. The audience laughs and you hold for an imperceptible moment to allow them to enjoy it. You hear sniffles spreading throughout the theater and you know you touched people’s hearts.

Audience reaction causes the other actors on stage with you to shift their performances slightly too. You shift with them, dancing together with the words setting the rhythm.

Nope. You’re not an actor until you’ve done it in public—whether that’s on Broadway, on a Hollywood soundstage, or onstage in your church hall.

And you’re not a writer—not really a writer—until you’ve done that in public, either. And I don’t mean stationing your laptop on a table in some hipster latte joint. I mean putting your work out in the world and letting people read it.

“You don’t know until you do it and people validate you,” young Ms. Clemons says.

But what if I’m no good? That’s probably the thought that’s been holding you back.

But what, I would counter, if you are good?

I’m betting Kiersey Clemons is a fine actor. She certainly has a very healthy view of creativity.


Develop your writing skills with a supportive guide. Join me for Permission to Write, my program for shy writers.

Don’t you know you’re a good writer? — Frequent Questions

Q: Don’t you know you’re a good writer?
A: [incoherent mumbles]

Full disclosure—today’s Frequent Question doesn’t come from a reader. But it’s definitely a frequent question: Mine.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve worked with start out thinking they can’t write. And again and again, I find myself asking them some version of the question above.

Their answer, sadly, is usually some variation of No. Nobody ever told me. I had no idea. Are you really sure? You’re not just saying that?

One of my challenge writers posted a beautiful piece to our Facebook group—an insightful essay about creativity and how it takes many bad ideas to generate one good one. Brené Brown would have been proud to write that. So would Seth Godin.

And then in the last paragraph, she called herself a “wannabe writer.” I wanted to cry.

good writer

Another of my writers called herself “a non-writing aspiring writer.” Hard to imagine how that could be true since the “non-writing” writer wrote those words in a writing assignment!

It’s interesting, this need people have to deny what they are doing while they’re doing it.

I mean, if I took violin lessons I wouldn’t call myself a violin player the first time I picked up the bow. But I wouldn’t call myself a “wannabe” violin player either. No matter how squeaky my “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” might be (memories of that 3rd grade Christmas concert still sting), I was playing the damn violin. And if I’d kept at it, I bet I’d have gotten better at it.

The writing you do today may not be as good as the writing you do two weeks—or two years—from now. Or it may be every bit as good. We all have occasional flashes of brilliance balanced my much more frequent flashes of mediocrity. That’s the way creativity works.

But you don’t need someone to anoint a writer. It’s a verb. You want to be a writer? Write.

Everyone wonders: Am I a good writer?

Look, I don’t mean to give you more sticks to beat yourself with. So you’ve wondered if you’re a good writer. Who hasn’t? But please, please, please don’t let that stop you from writing.

Every time you make words come out of your fingers—on a keyboard or with pen and paper—you are writing. And it’s a verb—remember? If you write, that makes you a writer.

Self-confidence deserts everyone from time to time. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic:

“Creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it.”

If you haven’t read that book, go buy it and spend just 15 minutes reading it right now.

Because you need to hear things like this:

“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”

Of course, as I see it that’s not 100% accurate. You do need permission from one person: Yourself.

And that’s one of the main emotional issues we tackle in Writing Unbound. Getting out of our own way, giving ourselves permission to use and develop the talents we have. Claiming the title of “writer” because—say it with me: It’s a verb.

I write.
We write.
Therefore we are writers.

So here’s the first thing I tell the people in Writing Unbound: Whenever you start to write something, put these words at the top of the page:

I AM A WRITER.

Eventually you’ll believe it. And then you get to modify that sentence:

I AM A GOOD WRITER.

Just keep writing every day. Don’t let anyone stop you.


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

“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


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What makes a great lede great?

You want pressure? Try to write a lede for a piece about writing a great lede.

My resident critic swats away every phrase I think of. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal in my head, like Navratilova vs. Graf at the 1985 U.S. Open (still the best tennis match I’ve ever seen). Steffi seemed on the cusp of beating the then-best player the women’s game had ever seen. And Martina’s superhuman ability threatened to become merely human. I remember screaming at the television, almost with each point.

Ah…nothing like a good digression to take the pressure off. Okay, ledes.

I found this lede in an article by Chris Smith on VanityFair.com:

"Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan"—a great lede

The lede paragraph is supposed to summarize the key points of the article. But is this piece really about Robert Mueller’s melanin? Or his work schedule?

No, it’s about Robert Mueller’s inexhaustible pursuit of Donald Trump. But I love the laid-back opening; it mirrors Mueller’s image. Cool. Indefatiguable. The exact opposite of the central figure he’s investigating.

Break the rules to make a great lede

“Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan.” It’s not a classic lede—it breaks the all the rules of a lede for a news story—and that’s exactly what makes it a great lede.

It pulls you up short. Say what? It’s like walking past a person in a business suit wearing a gorilla head. You can’t help but notice the incongruity. You want to know why it’s there. And so you keep reading.

In a newspaper article, the lede paragraph needs to sum up the story for readers who don’t have time to keep reading. But in a profile or a magazine article, the lede needs to capture the readers’ attention and draw them deeper into the story. We may think about Robert Mueller’s work, but who thinks about his skin? It’s an incongruous detail.

Now, incongruity is great, but only in small doses. You don’t want to become the writer who starts every piece from an odd angle. Or an outright digression (see above).

Well, I didn’t actually begin with the digression, did I? That might alienate the reader. You start reading an article about the best tennis matches of all time and you end up with an instructional piece about ledes. Tennis fans would be pissed off and the writers—well, they might have skipped this post altogether. And see what you would have missed?


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