“The secret of good writing is simply reading.”
Avi Wortis, award-winning children’s book author
Make a mentor of your favorite writer
Did you ever take your mom’s toaster apart to figure out how it worked?
You can do the same thing with writing.
It’s called modeling the masters: studying the best writing out there for technique, form and process, then incorporating what you’ve learned into your own copy. It’s the best way I know to polish your skills.
To get started, choose a piece of writing you love. Then take it apart and put it back together until you understand why you like it and what the writer did to make it that way.
In my clip file, for instance, I have a short piece about Las Vegas from Time magazine. I collected it for a single sentence:
“Lounge music may be to the symphony
what Velveeta is to cheese — but hey! —
it’s all part of what make Las Vegas great.”
Take it apart.
Here’s what I love about that passage:
- The analogy format (blank is to blank what blank is to blank)
- The word “Velveeta” (cheesy brand names are always fun)
- The full sentence with an exclamation point between the dashes
Identify the template.
So now you know what to do: Write a sentence with two comparisons compared to each other, a cheesy brand name and a full sentence with an explanation point between dashes in the middle. The template looks like this:
“Blank may be to blank what (funny brand name) is to blank — hypershort sentence! — something.”
Put it back together.
When I asked participants in a workshop to model that passage, they came up with:
“Youth hostels may be to the Hyatt what love beads are to diamonds — but hey! — it’s all part of what makes your Adventures Ltd. vacation great.”
“Facilities Management may be to corporate America what ‘Baywatch’ is to ‘Masterpiece Theater’ — but hey! — facilities don’t manage themselves.”
I’m not really sure that second one works. But I do know this: You’ll see me write “something may be to something what ‘Baywatch’ is to ‘Masterpiece Theater'” before the year is out.
Try it yourself.
Now I’ve got one for you to model — this passage from Loren D. Estleman’s The Midnight Man:
“It was one of those gummy mornings we get all through July and August, when the warm wet towel on your face is the air you’re breathing, and the headache you wake up with is the same one you took to bed the night before. Milk turns in the refrigerator. Doors swell. Flies clog the screens gasping for oxygen. Everything you touch sticks, including the receiver you pick up just to stop the bell from jangling loose your tender brain.”
Take it apart. Find the template. Then use the template to write your own passage using Estlemen’s techniques.
Email me the best Estleman by April 21, and I’ll send you a little surprise.
Make Your Copy More Creative
Want to communicate better with creative copy?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a creative writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a “Make Your Copy More Creative” workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to make your copy more creative in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next “Art of the Storyteller” webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s learning tools on storytelling, metaphor and human interest. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find creative copywriting tipsheets at RevUpReadership.com.
“Facts tell, stories sell.”
How to get stories in an interview
“Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?”
These questions are journalistic tools that can help us find stories — or condemn us to a lifetime of cranking out just-the-facts-ma’am pieces.
To do more of the former and less of the latter, shift focus. When you’re interviewing for story, Richard Zahler of The Seattle Times suggests, reframe the five W’s. Let:
- Who become character
- What become plot
- When become chronology
- Where become setting
- Why become motivation
Using this approach, “what,” for example, is transformed into questions like:
- “What happened next?”
- “What were you thinking when …?”
- “What made you say that?”
Those questions can lead beyond just the facts to fascinating anecdotes.
Master the Art of the Storyteller
Want to put the most powerful form of human communication to work in your very next piece?
If so, please join me at PRSA’s April 14 webinar, “Master the Art of the Storyteller.” In this program, you’ll learn to identify, develop and tell stories that illustrate your points, communicate your messages, and sell your products, services and ideas. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- Where to find stories to illustrate and cement your key points
- How to get people to bring you their stories
- The key question to ask during an interview to elicit juicy anecdotes
- A seven-second rule that will help determine whether your material is really an anecdote
- How “WBHA” can help you find anecdotes in the making
- The secret to organizing your material into a powerful story
- The best and worst places to start an anecdote
- A quick, easy-to-use template for building an anecdote
“Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work. You must cut the meat into little pieces.”
Jon Ziomek, professor at the Medill School of Journalism
Encourage readership by making them tight
When researchers for The Poynter Institute looked into what makes people read online, they found that one key predictor of attention was paragraph length. Researchers wrote:
“The bottom line is that stories with shorter paragraphs got more than twice as many overall eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs. These data suggest that the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages reading.”
Are your paragraphs too long? Here are three ways to make them tighter:
1. Hit return more often.
This may be the easiest single thing you can do to cut the clutter in your copy.
I know, I know. Your third-grade teacher taught you that paragraphs were one unit of thought. They are. Just as your entire piece covers one idea, your sentences are units of thought, your words each express a single idea — heck, even the syllables each convey a concept.
You just need to see your thoughts as smaller, more discrete units. David A. Fryxell, former editor of Writer’s Digest, recommends that you hit return when you need to:
- Change topic
- Make an aside
- Present a quote
- Shift time or place
- Emphasize a key point
- Explain a subsidiary idea
- Offer an opposing viewpoint
- Change the rhythm of your piece
- Move to the next item on your list
Great guidelines. But the only real rule is that you place your curser after a period before you hit return.
2. Tweak it.
Look for ways to shorten your paragraph by cutting sentences, phrases and words.
3. Break it with bullets.
If you have a series of three or more items, break them out of the paragraph in a bulleted or numbered list. Bullets not only break up a paragraph, but they also cut words by eliminating the need for transitions.
That’s especially important online, where readers skim even more than they do in print. In one test, usability expert Jakob Nielsen made a Web page 47 percent more usable when he made the page more scannable with subheads, bold-faced lead-ins and bullets.
Cut Through the Clutter
Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a “Cut Through the Clutter” workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to cut the clutter in your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next “Cut Through the Clutter” webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s “Cut Through the Clutter” manual. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of “Cut Through the Clutter” tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
“Facebook is clearly more effective for B2C businesses and LinkedIn is clearly more effective for B2B businesses.”
Melissa Miller, HubSpot inbound marketing specialist
Beats other social media channels for customer acquisition
That’s according to the latest findings from HubSpot’s 2011 State of Inbound Marketing report. The study surveyed more than 600 professionals about their company’s marketing strategy.
While both B2B and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies acquire customers through all of these channels, Facebook is more effective for B2C companies, LinkedIn for B2B companies.
Some industries are more effective than others using LinkedIn. Companies in these industries found LinkedIn highly effective:
- Communications and media
- Banking, insurance, financial services
- Professional services and consulting
LinkedIn, blogs bring in customers.
But take the industry and segment out of the equation, and LinkedIn still scores better than Facebook or Twitter at customer acquisition.
How are you using this powerful social networking site to interact with other professionals?
Reach readers online
Want to master the art of writing for the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. And find Ann’s out about Ann’s upcoming webinars on writing for the Web and social media.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Web writing learning tools. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
“Rev Up offers one the best values for the dollar for any publication that I’ve subscribed to. There’s not a lot of theory — just tons of useful advice.”
Robert Anderson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
One of our brilliant clients just signed her entire company up for our Rev Up Readership newsletter.
Now communicators and other professionals who write for business have access to the monthly writing tips via the company’s writing wiki. They use the tipsheets to polish their skills, roll out the brand voice, improve their communications — even settle bets in the approval process.
When your whole team joins, you can use Rev Up Readership to:
- Launch discussions in team lunch-and-learns
- Assign readings for brown-bag staff workshops
- Improve staff coaching sessions
- Prepare for or follow up after on-site workshops
- Encourage individual professional development
Now you can save up to $200 per person with group discounts on RevUpReadership.com Gold memberships. Gold members receive the newsletter, access to our archive of more than 2,000 writing tips, Visual Thesaurus and more.
Just need the newsletter? Contact Ann, and we’ll send you a proposal for your group.
“Ann rocks. She’s the teacher we all wish we had in school, and we’re fortunate to learn from her now.”
Eric Morgenstern, president and CEO, Morningstar Communications
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Asheville, N.C., on May 5. “Think Like a Reader,” a half-day workshop for the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association
- Chicago on June 7. “Put Your Copy On a Diet” and “HEY! Grab Attention In the Age of Information Overload,” two breakout sessions for Ragan’s Corporate Communicators Conference
- New Orleans on July 24. “Make Your Copy More Creative,” a series of breakout sessions for the Agricultural Media Summit
- New York on Nov. 4. “Writing That Sells,” a full-day workshop for PRSA
- Washington, D.C., on May 13. “Writing That Sells,” a full-day workshop for PRSA
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Asheville, N.C.: May 5
- Boston: June 23
- Chicago: June 7
- Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
- Columbus, Ohio: April 26
- Istanbul: Sept. 17-Oct. 2
- New Orleans: July 24
- New York City: Nov. 4
- Oklahoma City: April 19-20
- Portland, Ore.: Aug. 1-30
- Washington, D.C.: May 13, June 14-15, Nov. 15-16
- Wilkes Barre, Pa.: May 17
Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Writing and editing advertising, brochure, magazine and white paper copy for Mediware, Multi Service Inc., the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Saint Luke’s Health System and Stinson Morrison Hecker
- Presenting workshops for VSP (Vision Service Plan), Qualcomm, PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators/Kansas City, the Oregon School Public Relations Association and the Washington School Public Relations Association
- Coaching Unum communicators
- Presenting webinars for PRSA
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
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