The best piece of writing advice I ever got came from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut:
“If you want to be a great writer, be a great date for your reader.”
After all, think about the characteristics of an ideal date: Fun. Fun-ny. Engaging. Emotional. Interesting. Stimulating. Memorable. And if possible, includes Skyline Chili.
These things HAVE to happen if you want to get the other person to like, know and trust you.
And these things HAVE to happen if, at the end of the date, you hope to get a positive response from the other person to your … ahem … Call To Action.
So, Casanova, here’s the question:
As a writer, how great of a date are you for YOUR readers?
Nobody calling you back? Not getting enough literary kisses? Here’s a list of twenty-two strategies and practices to create more engaging, more interesting and more stimulating writing.
1. Write like you talk. People will listen. So, make it sound natural. No need to give your thesaurus a workout just for the sake of sounding smart. If it’s not a word you use regularly, trash it. Have you read this piece aloud yet?
2. Don’t “try” to be funny. The moment you do, you aren’t. As it says in the Tao, “Any over determined action produces its exact opposite.” Also, don’t use “jokes” in your writing. It’s amateur and transparent. Instead, let your natural hilariousness shine.
For example, think about the things in your life that are inherently humorous. Then incorporate that into your writing. Simple as that. And remember: Just because you quote a bunch of funny people doesn’t make you funny. It makes you lazy. What aspect of your life makes you funny?
3. Nobody cares about you. They really don’t. Sorry. They don’t care about your amazing story how you overcame childhood adversity. They don’t care about your family or your kids or your dog or your trip to Belgium. People don’t care what you’ve done – they only care what you’ve learned; AND, the how the immediate, practical application of what you learned will help them make more money. Period. Is the purpose of this book to actually help the readers or to sell more books?
4. Use every emotion. Just like a good speech, every piece of writing should make people feel happy, sad, glad and mad. Run the gamut of emotions. Don’t be afraid to share funny stories that have poignant lessons. Or to write about serious topics in playful ways. Think of your writing as a seismograph. Be all across the board. It’s more engaging. How many different emotions are you evoking?
5. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Think back to the most boring, uninspiring, coma-inducing professor or teacher you ever had. Write a list of all reasons why. Then honestly ask yourself if your writing style reflects any of them: Is your voice monotone? Are you using enough line breaks? Are you making good use of italics, underlining, bold, all caps and other structural elements?
6. Architecture. Most writers don’t get it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a PhD. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Fortune 500 CEO. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time author. It doesn’t matter if you’re a computer geek blogging in your parents’ basement.
If the ARCHITECTURE of your writing sucks, your writing sucks.
By “architecture” I’m referring to the creative design and page presentation of a piece of writing. Here’s an easy way to find out. It’s called “The Squintmus Test.”
1. Grab any book, magazine article or blog post.
2. Stand back about five feet.
3. Squint your eyes to about 50% closed.
4. If the entire page blends together into one long, run-one sentence, that’s poor architecture.
5. Or, if certain phrases, sections and chunks stand out and break up the page into discernible chunks/modules, that’s quality architecture.
Notice anything about this blog post that makes it easy to read? Why aren't you doing that on your blog?
7. Give yourself permission to escape structure. Poor architecture is usually a self-imposed limit set by the writer himself. Several factors cause this:
o He is afraid of breaking the rules.
o He approaches writing with a writer’s eye, not a designer’s eye.
o He writes how HE wants to write, not how READERS prefer to read.
o He thinks changing the structure of a sentence, a page; a paragraph (or even an entire book) is off-limits, improper or ineffective.
o He hasn’t been exposed to enough examples of effective architecture. He (or his editor) is former English Major Anal Tightwad who spent WAY too much time reading Elements of Style.
Just go read Gitomer and you’ll see what a I mean. How easy on the eyes is YOUR writing?
8. Trim the fat. Give people the guts. The meat. The content. The lists. The strategies. Remember: You are a filter. People are DYING for someone to cut all the crap out for them and just give them the good stuff. In the words of Elmore Leonard, "If you want to write a great book, just leave out the parts people skip."
Example: I remember reading a 300-page treatise on creativity last year. The book was pretty solid, yet laborious. The funny thing was, when I reached the final section, the book concluded with a summary section called, “101 Practical Tips for Being More Creative.” It was the best part of the whole book. So, my thought was, “Why wouldn’t the author just make the whole book like that?” Are you trimming enough fat off your writing?
9. Talk to your readers. Literally. Act as if you were in their cubicle right next to them. Use parenthesis and italics to represent writer/reader dialogue. (Isn’t it fun when writers do stuff like that?)
Yes. The answer is yes.
And it’s not only fun, it’s engaging. And approachable. And cool. And rare. You don’t want to be boring, do you? Didn’t think so. How many readers are you losing because they don’t feel like you’re talking directly to them?
10. Read writers who write like they talk. Godin does. Klosterman does. Notice how they start and end sentences. Watch their line breaks. Observe their word selection. What did you read today?
11. Don’t be one-dimensional. Some people maintain such a limited worldview and openness for activities and experiences outside of their scope of interest that is mars their ability to relate to their readers in a healthy way. Bor-ring. Check out this fantastic list on how to become the most interesting person you know. How many readers is being boring costing you?
12. Be a story distiller. But, you can’t just tell the story. Because that’s not enough. So, when your story is over, don’t just move on to the next story. First, figure out the lesson(s), universal human experience/emotion, practical take home value and Call to Action. Read this helpful article on how to extract take-home value from your stories. How does this story help people make money?
13. Insert your passion into everything. Embed your passion into the page. You will engage, excite and inspire readers because that’s what passion DOES. Do your readers know what you’re passionate about? How does that passion make your message more digestible?
14. Take people back in time. In the movie Ratatouille, there’s a great scene where the snobby food critic skeptically takes a bite of Chef Remy’s special dish, expecting to be disgusted. To his surprise, when the food hits his lips, he instantly flashes back fifty years to his childhood as a French peasant. He pictures his mom, his home, his family and his humble beginnings.
When the flashback ends, a tear forms in his eye as he scarfs down the rest of dish with absolute delight.
Hmm. I wonder what types of emotions YOUR stories evoke? I wonder how effectively you take your readers somewhere else?
15. Draw dating parallels. Think back to the WORST date you ever went on. Then jot down all the reasons you never called that person back again. Then honestly ask yourself if your writing style reflects any of those reasons: Are you boring? Did you talk about yourself the whole time? Did you forget to ask questions? Did your stories have no point? Did you forget about the “Call the Action” when the date was over?
16. Dance with language. Give yourself permission to spice it up. Don’t worry, your English teacher will never find out. Here are a few structural elements that will help you do a little verbal jitterbugging:
o Intentionally spell words wrong to prove a point. Don’t be a know it all. Dare to be dumm.
o Write shorter sentences. They get read.
o Throw in the occasional foreign word. Approachability comes from the Latin apropiare which means, “to come nearer to.”
o Use multiple hyphens. This works well when you want to E-M-P-H-A-S-I-Z-E a word.
o Go Charlie Brown style. AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!
o Intentionally overuse periods. This. Slow. Readers. Down.
o Use CAPS LOCK for emphasis. Listening is also about what you DON’T say.
o Use single hyphens and extra vowels for authentic sounding dialogue. Mary, that steak was dee-licious!
17. Make fun of yourself. It makes your writing more approachable. Self-deprecating humor neutralizes conflict. It’s a key indicator of emotional intelligence. It defuses an otherwise tense or difficult situation. It combines modesty and likeability, while at the same time demonstrating that confidence and self-assurance.
What’s more, you avoid offending or alienating your readers. If you’re not currently incorporating self-deprecating humor in your writing, give a try. If you’re anything like me, there’s probably an endless river of material. Are you making fun of yourself enough?
18. Read Dave Barry. Nobody in the world is a better date for readers. And he won a Pulitzer. Hmm. Interesting. I wonder what more engaging writing could do for YOUR career?
19. Use questions strategically. Yes, asking questions is the perfect way to be a great date for your reader. But don’t ask TOO many questions. One of the hallmarks of amateur writing is the rapid-fire succession of a bunch vague, unchallenging, non-penetrating questions that do nothing but take up space because the writer couldn’t think of anything creative or original to say. Instead, consider the following architectural options of effective questioning:
o Quote/Question Compound. After making a powerful quotation or statement, come back with a penetrating question that hits your readers right between the eyes:
Oscar Wilde once said, “The only thing worse than being talking about is NOT being talked about." Who’s talking about YOU?
o Paragraph Single Closer. Make your case for a few sentences and then stick the landing with a Composite Question:
Anonymity is bankruptcy. If you want to get noticed, get remembered and get business, you need to be That Guy. The Man. The Go-To Person. Not the expert but the PERCEIVED expert. What are you known for? What are you known for knowing? And by WHOM?
20. Brand your language. Here’s something your MBA course didn’t teach you. Here’s something you won’t read in most bestselling marketing books: The #1 most overlooked personal branding hotspot is your language.
Be sure your writing regularly includes Personal Sayings/Isms, Sign-Offs and Exit Lines, Signature Expressions/Phrases, Mantras and Calls to Action. For a handy, step-by-step guide on branding your language, check out this killer post, or for an entire website dedicated to branding your language, check this bad boy out. What words do you own in your readers’ minds?
21. Try out your truth. In my writing workshops and coaching programs, I define writing as “slicing open a vein and bleeding your truth all over the page.”
So, just like an engaging dinner date where two people honestly reveal their realities to each other, your challenge as a writer is to bring that reality to the page. Not “thee” truth – YOUR truth. Because that’s what people want. Not another quotation from Einstein or Rumi or Jack Welch. YOU. Are you quoting yourself enough?
22. Engage immediately. Die Hard, The Matrix & Terminator. What do all these movies have in common?
Answer: Awesome chase scenes.
In fact, that’s where the term “cut to the chase” comes from. See, viewers don’t care about character development and plot structure. They paid nine bucks to see Bruce Willis drive a stolen car off the interstate and into a helicopter, then miraculously survive with nothing but a few scratches and grease marks on his trademark white undershirt.
So, as a writer, the question you have to ask yourself is: “What’s the ‘chase scene’ in this piece of writing, and how can I get there as fast as possible?”
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Well, I had a really great time tonight!
I hope we can do this again sometime.
Now, about that kiss...
LET ME ASK YA THIS...
Are you a great date for your reader?
LET ME SUGGEST THIS...
For the list called, "26 Ways to Out BRAND Your Competition," send an email to me, and I'll send you the list for free!
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That Guy with the Nametag
Author, Speaker, Coach, Entrepreneur
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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The best piece of writing advice I ever got came from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut: