“If the shoe fits, steal it.”
— One of Ann’s writing students

‘Obstinate popinjays swarm the airwaves’

Communicators model Loren D. Estleman

Last month, I invited readers 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.”

MODEL CITIZEN What can you learn about writing from Loren D. Estleman? Plenty. (Photo by Mark Coggins)

Eleven communicators took me up on the challenge, delighting me with their results and, I hope, picking up some new writing tricks in the process.

Modeling the masters is a great way to polish your skills, practice your craft and come up with new techniques. Here’s how it works.

Take it apart.

The first step in modeling the masters is to take the passage apart to find a template you can model. There are at least three ways to do this:

1. Identify the beat. One of the first things I notice about this passage is the rhythm created by the long and short sentences. So you have to consider sentence length. Here’s that pattern:

45-word sentence. Three-word sentence. Two-word sentence. Seven-word sentence. 21-word sentence.

2. Look at the language. Another way to model the masters is to study the language and meaning in the passage. John G. Ackenhusen, creative director of Mission Solutions at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, nailed this when he noticed the:

  • Descriptions of “unpleasant physical sensations”
  • Second person. Putting the reader in the position of experiencing those sensations is definitely part of the code here.
  • “Anachronistic metaphors.” Nice catch, John! We usually write metaphors moving from target to base: Ann [target] is a snake [base]. But here Estleman flips that structure, making the metaphors feel backward: “The warm wet towel on your face [base] is the air you’re breathing [target].” It’s a fresh technique to notice and steal.

3. Explore the structure. My favorite way to model the masters is to deconstruct the sentences into a pattern I can follow, making kind of a fill-in-the-blanks model. Here’s the pattern for the Estleman passage:

It was one of those [adjective noun] we [verb during timeframe], when the [adjective, adjective, noun metaphor] on your [something] is the [noun] you’re [verbing], and the [noun] you [verb] with is the same one you [different verbed another time]. [Noun verbs] in the [noun]. [Nouns verb.] [Nouns verb the objects verbing] for [noun]. Everything you [verb verbs], including the [noun] you [verb] just to [verb] the [noun] from [verbing] your [adjective noun].


Put it back together.

Taking it apart is the easy stuff. The second step is to reconstruct the template using your own words.

The winner, Washington, D.C.-based communicator Leslie Jewell, takes advantage of Estleman’s first-sentence pattern to express the relentlessness of partisanship. Notice the rhythm of the three middle sentences and the creative use of the passive voice in the second. Best of all, though, is that extended metaphor with internal rhyme in the third. Wish I’d written that.

“It was one of those die-hard partisan battles that arises whenever there are too many stridently naïve freshman on the Hill: where the ‘overthrow the regime’ fanaticism becomes choking gridlock and the arguments you listened to on the nightly news are the same ones you’re force-fed with your cereal the next morning. Fingers are pointed. Tempers flare. Obstinate popinjays swarm the airwaves pecking at their competition. Everything you hear, read, watch about the insipid bickering sinks into your ears, eyes, brain like dirty tar, including the informationless workforce messages sent to your inbox in reluctant acknowledgment of the annoying human costs of legislative extremists.”

Well done, Leslie. Estleman should be modeling your writing! Congratulations — and watch for a package from Amazon. I’m sending you a copy of Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon, another creative writer.

And thank you to the rest of the contestants for playing along and making my day. I hope you learned some new techniques from modeling Estelman’s passage. I know I’ve learned some tricks from reading yours.

Write like NPR, The Wall Street Journal or your favorite author

Joan Didion does it. So did John Gregory Dunne. And W. Somerset Maugham.

They studied the world’s best writers, learned their techniques and adapted those techniques to their own work.

You can do it, too. In Model the Masters, my latest writing workshop,  you’ll learn to turn your favorite writers into personal writing coaches. We’ll cover a seven-step system for finding mentors among the world’s best writers, then you’ll practice modeling the masters yourself. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Become a better reader: It’s the best way to become a better writer
  • Avoid ‘creative incest’: Get out of your own backyard
  • Read like a writer: Look for technique
  • Clip, dip and rip: Create an library of masterpieces to model
  • Find the DNA: Figure out the code
  • Take ‘modeling lessons’: Learn your favorite author’s tricks
  • Stuff your toolbox with techniques: Adapt — don’t adopt — others’ approaches

To bring this workshop to your team, contact me personally.

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“People use the Web. They read paper.”
— TJ Larkin, founder of Larkin Communication Consulting

‘Settle in’ vs. ‘search and destroy’

Print’s best for understanding

Headlines in communication journals moan and whimper:

  • “Is Print Obsolete?”
  • “If Print Is Obsolete, Why Won’t It Go Away?”
  • “Print Still King”
  • “They’re Finally Killing Print”
  • “Reports Of Print’s Death May Be Greatly Exaggerated”
  • “Is The Employee Publication Extinct?”
  • “In Rousing Defense Of Print”

And, my favorite:

  • “Dead Papers Walking”

But don’t kill off paper yet. It boasts a superpower that electronic media doesn’t. And that’s a force that communicators can’t afford to work without.

Paper’s strength is comprehension.

“People use the Web,” says TJ Larkin, founder of Larkin Communication Consulting. “They read paper.”

How people read

Reading on paper creates a state of consciousness known as flow, says Condé Nast’s Scott McDonald, who has a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard. That term comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where he describes getting lost in an “optimal experience.”

Use print for complexities, ‘think’ pieces.

When The Wall Street Journal launched a redesign in 2006, publisher L. Gordon Crovitz explained the roles the two versions of the newspaper would play:

“Your print Journal will be a daily oasis of context, perspective and knowledge, while WSJ.com will be the ultimate source of what’s-happening-now news.”

Paper is best for understanding unfamiliar, long or complicated information. Think “paper” when you want to help readers understand:

  • The CEO’s vision
  • The state of the industry
  • The new software program

“Graze the latest news and chatter on the thrilling new medium that literally plugs you into the world. And when you want a long, thoughtful read, pick up a magazine or book,” writes William Powers in “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal” (PDF).

When not to use print

Don’t choose print over electronic media because of demographics. Age is no longer much of a digital dividing line, says the Pew Charitable Trust.

(You should see my 85-year-old Dad watch YouTube on his iPad. And you should see my 3-year-old niece take and email photos with my iPhone.)

And if you’re not trying to help people understand?

  • The Web is best for finding.
  • Face-to-face is best for getting buy-in.

Learn more about media characteristics.


Sources: Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W. W. Norton & Company; June 7, 2010

L. Gordon Crovitz, “What Is Changing — and What Isn’t — In The Wall Street Journal,”The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 4, 2006, p. A-17

TJ Larkin and Sandar Larkin, “What Each Channel Does Best: Web, Paper, Face to Face,” IABC 2005 World Conference, June 28, 2005

William Powers, “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal” (PDF), Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Discussion Paper Series, 2007

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“Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”
— Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize-winning novelist

Communicate, don’t decorate

Creative copy can attract or distract

Creative copy is powerful. It attracts attention, helps people learn and remember — even makes them more creative, according to the research.

But the power to attract may also distract readers from your main idea. If your “seductive details” don’t illustrate your key points, they can:

  • Draw attention away from more important ideas (Luftig & Greeson, 1983)
  • Disrupt text processing (Garner, Gillingham & White, 1989)
  • Cause readers to forget the important information while remembering the interesting stuff (Baird & Hidi, 1984)

“Interesting but unimportant information frequently disrupts the learning of more important ideas,” writes Suzanne Hidi, associate member, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Centre for Applied Cognitive Science.

Avoid ‘Visual Vampires.’

Call these interesting but unimportant elements “Visual Vampires.” That’s PreTesting’s term for images that attract audience members in television ads but that don’t draw them to the product.

PreTesting is a Tenafly, N.J., company that gauges consumers’ reactions to ads by measuring their “saccadic” eye movements, or how fast their eyes vibrate.

Ads featuring men with wacky, red, pigtail wigs (Wendy’s), dogs wearing dentures (Citi) and an exotic woman stretching (Hormel) all grabbed attention. But they failed to keep it long enough to for viewers to read the copy or hear about the products.

Build an argument.

So take a tip from Hemingway. Ask, are your creative elements architecture, helping you build your argument? Or are they interior design, just putting wallpaper over your message?

If they’re interior design, they could be distracting readers from your key ideas. Instead, support your abstract, important ideas with concrete, interesting material.

Remember: It’s not enough to make your copy interesting. Our job is to, in the words of James Fallows, author of Breaking the News,make the important interesting.


Sources: Suzanne Hidi, “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning,” Review of Educational Research, Winter 1990, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 549-571

Kenneth Hein, “Beware of Visual Vampires, Warns Measurement Firm,” Brandweek, Nov. 26, 2007

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“The tools I need for my work are paper, tobacco, food and a little whisky.”
— William Faulkner, Nobel Prize-winning American author

Do writing tools matter?

Last typewriter factory (sort of) closes

Tears welled and teeth gnashed last month after the world’s last office typewriter factory — Godrej & Boyce in Mumbai, India — announced that it would close.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE How do our writing tools affect our writing? (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

(The last portable typewriter factory, Swintec in Moonachie, N.J., is still cranking them out. Swintec survives on prison contracts for clear typewriters in which inmates can’t hide contraband, as well as the occasional model for filling in birth certificates and other forms.)

As for me, I couldn’t be less nostalgic about the passing of the typewriter. I haven’t missed ribbons or Wite-Out® since I sat down in front of a Vydec CRT screen in September 1979.

One look at the dot matrix orange type on that flickering charcoal background, and I was hooked.

Still, the loss of the machine that’s helped writers compose their prose since the 1870s did prompt me to ponder writing tools and their effects on writing:

Does how we write,
I wondered,
affect what we write?

To answer this question, I turned first to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In addition to probing how the Web is rewiring the human mind, Carr also takes readers on a brief tour through the history of writing.

Scriptura continua creates the scribe.

It all started with scriptura continua (that’s Latin for continuous script), an early form of writing that used no spaces or punctuation marks between words or sentences.

Scriptura continua was tough to read — and even tougher to write. That’s why Classical Greek and Latin writers often outsourced the actual reed-to-papyrus process to professional scribes. Face-to-face dictation reduced writers’ urge to reveal TMI, which cut down on erotica and tell-all memoirs.

Word spaces lead writers to write …

But when word spacing and punctuation were introduced in about 1000 AD, the physical act of writing got easier. Writers picked up their own pens and started putting words to the page. The result, Carr says:

“Their works immediately became more personal and more adventurous. They began to give voice to unconventional, skeptical, and even heretical and seditious ideas, pushing the bounds of knowledge and culture.

“Working alone in his chambers, the Benedictine monk Guibert of Nogent had the confidence to compose unorthodox interpretations of scripture, vivid accounts of his dreams, even erotic poetry — things he would never have written had he been required to dictate them to a scribe. When, late in his life, he lost his sight and had to go back to dictation, he complained of having to write ‘only by voice, without the hand, without the eyes.’”

… and edit.

Writing themselves, “with the hand and the eyes,” authors could edit their copy carefully for the first time. (Something that’s a little difficult with dictation.)

Writers could also for the first time see their manuscript as a complete piece. That allowed them to eliminate the redundancies that had plagued literature during the Middle Ages.

As they refined their words, writers also refined their ideas. Their arguments became “longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging,” Carr says.

The typewriter tightens prose.

Flash forward a few hundred years to 1714. That’s the year Englishman Henry Mill created the concept of the typewriter when he filed a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.”

It took more than 100 years to perfect Mills’ idea. The first successful commercial typewriter, introduced in 1870, was Danish pastor Malling Hansen’s “writing ball.” If a porcupine and a Remington had a baby, the writing ball would be it.

Nietzsche’s mother and sister gave the German philosopher one for Christmas. He hated it. But Nietzsche, an early adopter, did learn to compose using this new technology. As he did, Carr writes, his copy became more dynamic:

“One of Nietzsche’s closest friends, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed a change in the style of his writing. Nietzsche’s prose had become tighter, more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power — its ‘iron’ — was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.

“‘Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,’ Köselitz wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, ‘my “thoughts” in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.’

“‘You are right,’ Nietzsche replied. ‘Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.’”

T.S. Eliot had a similar experience when he started typing his poems and essays instead of writing them by hand, Carr reports:

“‘Composing on the typewriter,’ [Eliot] wrote in a 1916 letter to Conrad Aiken, ‘I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon. Short, staccato, like modern French prose. The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.’”

In 1957, Jack Kerouac adapted the 100-plus-year-old writing tool when he set a 120-foot scroll of paper behind his typewriter and fed the leading edge under the roller. Over the next three weeks, he banged out a single-spaced, paragraph-free novel about a series of cross-country trips he’d recently made.

Kerouac edited On the Road heavily before it was published. But in 2007, publishers released the original manuscript to commemorate the novel’s 50th anniversary. Reviewers found the unedited version to be a “dazzling piece of writing for all of its rough edges.” Stripped of the “sort of eager-beaver poetizing” of the edited version, they said, the novel felt “much more immediate and even contemporary.”

Plus, they cooed, in the unedited version, “Kerouac’s jazzy voice is unimpeded by pesky commas.”

Word processing spawns debate.

Less than 10 years after Kerouac’s experiment with Benzedrine and sheets of drawing paper he’d taped together, the next evolution in writing tools commenced. That was the year IBM introduced the MT/ST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), the predecessor of the modern word processor.

Almost immediately, writers began debating whether composing by computer could possibly be a good thing. Today, an earnest few even clamor for a return to writing by hand.

Shari Wilson, a college English composition teacher, for instance, says college students write better by hand in class than when they compose essays on computers on their own. With computers, she writes in Inside Higher Ed, they get distracted by the mechanics — margins, fonts, line breaks — instead of focusing on writing. Moreover, writing by hand, she believes, may bring writers “closer” to their work.

She doesn’t have to convince crime novelist Richard Price, author of Lush Life. As he told NPR’s Terry Gross:

“It’s too easy to fiddle, and you’re under the illusion you’re working, when basically you’re vamping because you can do all of this stuff. I think I’m going to do this in, you know, Swedish Helvetica, and maybe this would look good in Diablo or whatever the hell that is.

“So you spend like two hours, and you haven’t done anything on the book. When before this, I was always handwriting on a legal pad. And you couldn’t fool around when you’re doing handwriting, like go back and change this and that. It was just too labor intensive, and it sort of forced you to go forward.”

And Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and other novels, agrees. He says:

“A pen connects you to the paper. It definitely matters.”

What’s next?

So where do we go from here?

New technologies are already influencing writing, Carr reports:

  • PowerPoint. O’Reilly Media recently published a book about Twitter created in PowerPoint. And Jennifer Egan used the presentation software to write a chapter of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
  • Social media. It’s only a matter of time, Carr writes, before we’ll subscribe to services that update our e-books with comments and revisions added by fellow readers.
  • SEO. Writers and publishers will optimize book pages and chapters for Google rankings, Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, told Carr. “Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers,” he predicts. “Chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank.”
  • Smartphones. The three top-selling Japanese novels in 2007 were written on mobile phones.

As for me, I can barely compose a tweet, let alone a novel, on my iPhone. But should the day come, I believe we’ll embrace that skill well before the last laptop factory shuts its doors.

One thing we know for sure: Our writing will be different for it.

What about you? How has technology affected your writing? Let me know.

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“I was hesitant to spend an entire day away from my desk to sit in another training. [Ann’s workshop] was worth every minute.”
— Sylvia Gregory, communications manager, VSP

Ann’s touring schedule

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:

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.

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Where in the world is Ann?

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:

  • Baltimore: Oct. 25
  • Boston: June 23
  • Chicago: June 7
  • Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
  • Istanbul: Sept. 17-Oct. 2
  • Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 28
  • Omaha, Neb.: June 1
  • Nashville, Tenn.: Oct. 11
  • New Orleans: July 24
  • New York City: Nov. 4-9
  • Orlando: Oct. 16-17
  • 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.

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