“Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
— Paul O’Neil, former Time Inc. journalist

Stroke of editing

In which Ann audaciously takes on Jill Bolte Taylor’s bestseller

Jodie Foster is not planning to play me in the Sony Pictures movie of my life. Ron Howard will not direct the major motion picture version of my New York Times bestselling book.

HER BRAIN'S BIGGER THAN MY BRAIN But I still have some editing insights for the author of My Stroke of Insight.

HER BRAIN’S BIGGER THAN MY BRAIN But I still have some editing insights for the author of My Stroke of Insight.

I have never practiced neuroanatomy, especially after recovering from a massive stroke. Nor have I crafted an anatomically correct brain of stained glass.

The video of my TED talk is not the second most viewed of all time. I have not been named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world. Oprah has never called.

All of these things are true, however, of Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight.

So who am I to offer notes on Taylor’s book? Just a loving fan who finds Bolte’s story so compelling that I wish she’d presented it a little bit better. OK, a lot better.

So what can you learn from Bolte’s mistakes?

Lead with the lead.

The biggest problem with My Stroke of Insight — and with many of the business communications I review — is that it clogs up the top of the story with background.

The first chapter introduces Bolte before her stroke. And, while she sounds like an affable, interesting woman … who cares? (Let’s remember that Oprah didn’t call until afterthe stroke. The thing that makes Bolte interesting is the stroke.)

First line:

“I am a trained and published neuroanatomist. I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana.”

That’s not exactly opening with a bang.

But that’s a minor complaint compared to the next two chapters — a couple of dense, academic sections on brain science.

Don’t clog up the story with the blah-blah background.

Now, as your resident geek, I can get really interested in brain science. A great patient story and helpful analogies can make technical topics like, say, functional asymmetries of the human cerebral cortices more compelling and easier to understand.

Bolte has an amazing patient story: her own stroke! If she had woven the necessary brain science only throughout the narrative line, she could have shown and told, shown and told, shown and told — the textbook way to bring science to life.

I can think of half-a-dozen creative ways to do this. Among them:

  • Weave the science in throughout the narrative line. “I couldn’t have explained this then, but as the blood poured in over my brain, my consciousness slowed …”
  • Run a scholar’s margin next to the narrative to explain, side-by-side, what’s happening in the brain vs. what’s happening in her body and consciousness.
  • Use graphics and cutlines to illustrate what’s going on in the brain.

Instead, Bolte offers a two-chapter background section (that’s blah-blah-blah background to you, Ms. Bolte) before the first dramatic moment. Sample line:

“Scientists have been studying the functional asymmetries of the human cerebral cortices for over 200 years.”

Now, that’s making the kids take their medicine without a spoonful of sugar and before watching TV. Honestly, if this hadn’t been my new book club’s selection for the month, I wouldn’t have made it through this section.

What obstacles are you putting in the way of your stories?

The stroke

Finally, in chapter four, we get to Bolte’s story:

“[I] instinctively pressed the palm of my left hand firmly against the side of my face. … I thought how queer it was for me to awaken to such a striking pain. As my left eye pulsed with a slow and deliberate rhythm, I felt bewildered and irritated. The throbbing pain behind my eye was sharp, like the caustic sensation that sometimes accompanies biting into ice cream.”

The next nine chapters tell the wildly compelling tale of Bolte’s stroke, treatment and recovery. (The woman perceived herself as a liquid for eight years, yet ultimately recovered her career as a neuroanatomist, for gosh sakes.)

I just wish the editors at Penguin had done a better job of tidying and tightening up the story. Phrases like “I fathomed the gravity of my immediate situation” are stuffy rather than dramatic. And repeated exclamations like “I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept!” just obscure this story’s striking narrative bones with cheap drugstore makeup.

If you’ve got a great story to tell, exclamation marks and “Wows!” just get in the way.

The insights

Nearly half of this short book is really a separate book, the Oprah book, on what Bolte learned from her stroke. She learned some really, really interesting things. Among them:

  • Insights on how to heal. “Recovery can be derailed by hopelessness. … A lot of stroke survivors complain that they are no longer recovering. … We celebrated all my accomplishments. … The try is everything.”
  • Insights on how to treat people who are healing. “See that I am a wounded animal, not a stupid animal.”
  • Insights on how to live. “Since the hemorrhage, my eyes have been opened to how much choice I actually have about what goes on between my ears. … [P]eace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind. … There has been nothing more empowering than the realization that I don’t have to think thoughts that bring me pain.”

Again, I’d argue for incorporating these insights into the narrative, which Bolte did very well. Then — maybe — you’d add a single chapter at the end of the book summarizing and distilling these insights.

Instead, Bolte ran 10 chapters, including two appendixes, further outlining, exploring and elucidating these insights. That extra space allowed her to gunk up the book with “insights” like “When I am simply grateful, life is simply great!” and “My favorite definition of fear is ‘False Expectations Appearing Real.'”

I’d cut these chapters altogether or make them a separate book.

Don’t jump to the wrong conclusion.

Finally, Bolte closes with a little jingle she wrote to generate donations to the Harvard Brain Bank. (“Want to go to Harvard?”) It’s cute, and it’s important, but it doesn’t conclude any of the three pieces already in the book — the narrative about Bolte’s stroke, the insights she gained or the brain science. All it does is further jumble up this beautiful mess.

Build a solid structure

Want to master a story structure that increases readership instead of cutting it short?



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“The best writers tell not of a battle, but of a soldier, they talk not about governance, but about a deal, they discuss not a socioeconomic group, but a person and a life.”
— Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, in Writing to Deadline

Create local heroes

Hallmark Cards sees successes through its people

Are you communicating internally? Create local heroes.

That is, celebrate the people who are moving the company ahead. Let employees stand for the successes of organizational programs.

That approach not only recognizes important contributors to the organization’s success. It also illustrates what we think is important around here. It’s the Ann Wylie Rule of Internal Communications:

“The behavior we celebrate
is what folks will replicate.”

Show ‘what’s important around here.’

That’s what Hallmark communicators did when we created the Hallmark CROWN employee report — a look back at the successes of the year through the employees who contributed to them. We celebrated:

  • The team who figured out how to shave a penny from the cost of every envelope Hallmark produced
  • The account executive who coordinated a huge installation of Hallmark merchandise in just eight weeks
  • A packager who contributed to the community in Hallmark’s name
  • And a dozen or so other employees
EMPLOYEE POWER Hallmark showcases employee success stories to illustrate “what we think is important around here.”

EMPLOYEE POWER Hallmark showcases employee success stories to illustrate “what we think is important around here.”

The result? An IABC Gold Quill award — and the best-read employee report we’d ever produced.

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“Sometimes, users do read down an entire page. It does happen. Rarely.”
— Jakob Nielsen, king of usability

Don’t fall off a website cliff

Where visitors look now

Jakob Nielsen was not surprised.

In a 2010 eyetracking study, the usability expert analyzed 57,453 fixations, or instances when users look at something on a page. He found — once again, as he had so many times before — that people don’t scroll much.

In fact, he found that that people spend time looking:

  • Above the fold 80% of the time
  • Below the fold 20% of the time
TIME TELLS Visitors spend 80% of their time above the fold; just 20% below the fold, according to Jakob Nielsen's 2011 eyetracking research.

TIME TELLS Visitors spend 80% of their time above the fold; just 20% below the fold, according to Jakob Nielsen’s 2011 eyetracking research.

This finding echoes ClickTale’s scrolling research, which shows that visitors:

  • Scroll to some extent 75% of the time. (That means they don’t scroll at all 25% of the time.)
  • Scroll to the bottom of the page 25% of the time.
LET'S NOT GO THERE Web visitors scroll to some extent 75% of the time, to the bottom 25% of the time, and not at all 25% of the time.

LET’S NOT GO THERE Web visitors scroll to some extent 75% of the time, to the bottom 25% of the time, and not at all 25% of the time.

Bottom line: While creating long web pages is not a sin, it’s not a best practice, either. Break your copy into context-independent, self-contained chunks, then place each chunk on a separate Web page.

Reach readers online

Want to get the word out on the Web?

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“There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”
— Ansel Adams, American photographer and environmentalist

Avoid ‘brilliant images of fuzzy concepts’

Visitors tune out superfluous pictures

When BNSF Railroad put a photo of a train on its homepage, visitors ignored it.

Moreover, they had trouble finding the top stories they were looking for.

Visitors tune out irrelevant images.

And those images make it harder for visitors to find the information they actually want, according to a 2005 eyetracking study by Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice Coyne.

TRAIN WRECK Visitors ignored the train image, then looked around the page before landing on "Top stories," the section they sought.

TRAIN WRECK Visitors ignored the train image, then looked around the page before landing on “Top stories,” the section they sought.

What visitors saw

Readers DO look at images that:

  • Are related to the content
  • Are clear
  • Feature approachable people (those smiling and looking at the camera)
  • Feature areas of private anatomy

Readers ignore images with little information.

Avoid generic images.

So replace irrelevant graphics with useful ones or white space.

“For example,” Coyne said, “if an article is about a signature meal at a restaurant, say a tuna dish, display a scrumptious-looking picture of the plate of food. Don’t show a generic picture of a spoon and fork, as many sites do.”

PRIVATE PARTS Everyone in an eyetracking study looked at this picture of George Brett. Men, however, paid special attention to Little George.

PRIVATE PARTS Everyone in an eyetracking study looked at this picture of George Brett. Men, however, paid special attention to Little George.

Reach readers online

Want to get the word out on the Web?


Sources: Laura Ruel and Nora Paul, “Eyetracking points the way to effective news article design,” Online Journalism Review, March 13, 2007

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“It was an excellent workshop, very full of informative, practical best practice.”
— Christine De Delva, communications coordinator, ExxonMobil

Bring Ann to your team via teleseminar

Save on travel expenses with Ann’s virtual workshops

When you bring one of Ann’s workshops to your team via teleseminar, you can:

  • Save money. Save on travel costs — not just for Ann, but also for far–flung members of your team.
  • Involve more people. Anyone with a phone can participate, even team members located in other offices, cities, states or countries. HSBC, Novartis and Saint Gobain are among the companies that have brought their worldwide staffs together for a series of training sessions via a teleseminar with Ann.
  • Develop a series of training programs. Bringing Ann in for on–site sessions once a month or every Tuesday for six weeks just isn’t practical for most organizations. But it is affordable to host an ongoing series of teleseminars. That makes it easier for people to fit training into their schedules — and to process and apply what they’ve learned between sessions.
  • Schedule programs at your convenience. Ann can often fit in a teleseminar even when she’s not available for on–site programs. As Ann’s training schedule sells out earlier and earlier each year, teleseminars can give you much more flexibility in selecting training dates.

Most of Ann’s programs are available via teleseminar.

To talk about bringing one of Ann’s programs to your team, contact me.

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“Ann was fun, engaging and so knowledgeable. It is amazing to look at the marketing tactics I’ve used for so long and realize how ineffective they are. I’m sure this will change the way I operate as a communications professional in the future.”
— Katie Brindell, account executive, Capstrat

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.

COME ALONG FOR THE RIDE Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

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:

  • Ann Arbor, Mich.: April 18
  • Atlanta: Feb. 12-13
  • Austin, Texas: Nov. 7
  • Bloomington, Ill.: March 26
  • Chicago: March 5
  • Cleveland: May 7
  • Denver: Jan. 30
  • Des Moines: March 21
  • Detroit: April 17
  • Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Jan. 8
  • Honolulu and Kauai, Hawaii: Feb. 20-26
  • Kansas City, Mo.: March 6-9
  • Minneapolis: April 30
  • New York: June 26
  • Phoenix: Jan 15, May 15
  • Portland, Ore.: May 9
  • San Diego: Feb. 6-7
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 14

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

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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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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Please share this issue

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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For more info …

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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