More Than A Writing Tip

Last night I saw an eye-catching video of a new invention. It was at best revolutionary and at least fun.
But that's not what the commenters said. I thought of the last line of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": "...and then they were upon her."
Almost every comment tore down the idea and the person who posted it, often with glee.
That's what people do, we get contrary.
Pardon my language, but that's a sh*tty way to live.
It's also a poor way to write, to think, and to conduct discourse.
WHEN YOU WRITE OR ANALYZE, recognize your own knee-jerk opposition, set it aside, then do this:
1. Focus first on what's uniquely good about the thing you're writing about.
2. If that's not possible, focus constructively on the motivation. You may hate the idea but you may share the goal. (For example, you may hate free-market medicine or socialized medicine, but most supporters of either path want people to get good care at affordable...
Continue Reading...

Avoiding the Talk Trap

When we write, we tend to focus on feelings and reactions. We list emotions and justify them. We look inside ourselves and we "mindread" others.

Stop that.

You're falling in the "talk trap."

Instead, observe and report. Describe what the reader would see, hear, taste, touch, and smell if he or she were there. Don't tell us what people "felt." You're not them. 

Instead, describe the environment so thoroughly that whatever someone in it is feeling... the reader might feel it, too.

When you see Charlie Brown walking with his head down, you know he's depressed. Would you rather read "Charlie Brown walked away hanging his head -- again," or "Charlie Brown looked depressed"? Which is more engaging?

To ask is to answer.

I call this the "talk trap." Avoid it. Don't draw conclusions on our behalf, give us facts that lead us to the conclusion ourselves. 

Writing like this is a foundational element of professional-caliber work.

Continue Reading...

Writers Have to Know This

#mindset Apr 27, 2021

If you want to be a writer, you probably have these two ideas floating around your head.

First, you think of a writer as someone who gets paid to write down their clever thoughts in clever ways.

Second, you dwell more on how it feels to have written something than you do on how it feels sitting down to write.

There’s a lot of illusion in that. It also explains why so many talk about becoming a writer and so few end up in this business.

I post frequently about the fun things I write: stage plays, screenplays, fiction, comic essays, scripts, jokes, my neuroscience book. Unless you knew me first as a speechwriter, that’s probably what you think of when it comes to my writing. Yet most of what I write is nothing like that. It doesn’t even have my name on it: I’m talking about op-eds, speeches, public relations material, editing articles for publication, and, lately, writing entire books in collaboration with other people.

The truth is that professional writers...

Continue Reading...

Two *More* Words... You're Using Wrong

#criticalthinking Apr 26, 2021

Big events are *historic*... but everything that happened before this second is *historical.*

Like this: The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" was a historic re-imagining of what pop music could sound like. Pop and rock music styles are otherwise well defined, and historical examples are everywhere on the radio.

Also, this example: Historically, most people have bought cars using a loan. It was a historic shift when many gave up loans for leases, saving a little money each month in exchange for surrendering accumulated value.

The historic/historical distinction is one you want to get right because the words mean significantly different things: they describe what is notable versus what is common.

Use 'em correctly and your writing gets sharper. More important than that? Your thinking becomes more precise, and that comes out in all you do.

Continue Reading...

Two Words You're Using Wrong

“Continuous” means “without ceasing.” “Continual” means “stopping and starting” or “regularly.”

You’ve been breathing continuously since you were born. You’ve been complaining about your college loans continually since 2007.

 On a hot day in July, your air conditioner runs continuously, but the bill for the electricity arrives continually, and all summer long.

Politics provides continuous embarrassment. Political campaigns, mercifully, evoke such a feeling only continually.

Here’s how I remember the difference: “continuous” contains an “s,” which is the sound in the word “ceaseless.”

Will knowing this distinction make a big difference in your writing? Not much -- by itself. But as you accumulate this kind of thing, your writing will become more confident and precise, and therefore more persuasive.


The best reason to learn this stuff? It improves not just the...

Continue Reading...

Writers Are Like Party Hosts

#quicktips Apr 19, 2021

A great writer is like the host of a great party. The host is primarily concerned that the guests are enjoying themselves and getting good things out of the experience.

A host avoids indulging him- or herself because a host's obligation lies elsewhere. By the way, that's not a bad thing. Attending a party yields one kind of enjoyment. Overseeing the party yields another.

When you write something, think of yourself as the host. It's not about you. It's about your guests.

(This splendid idea comes from Charles P. Curtis, Jr., a brilliant writer and thinker of the mid-20th century.)


Continue Reading...

My dinner with a celebrity

#speechwriting Apr 13, 2021

I remember a dinner many years ago with a celebrity I absolutely love, one whose name you'd know.

It was not what I expected.

This person spent the evening asking about me.

I was flattered, but I came away having learned none of the things I was curious to know about his fascinating life. I was actually a little frustrated -- he was *too* selfless, too kind!

There's a lesson in that for speakers and speechwriters.

When you've been invited to speak, it's because there are things about your life or your knowledge this audience wants to hear. Be gracious, sure, but tell 'em.

Whether it's the whole speech, a morsel to draw them in, or an anecdote to color a larger point, they asked to hear from you. So tell 'em.

Wanna read more? Check out my short essay:

Continue Reading...

Speechwriting? Before you turn it in, read it out loud.

#speechwriting Apr 07, 2021

You'll find a fountain of ways to improve your speech, once you hear it yourself.

Continue Reading...

Don't Play Where's Waldo With News Release Headlines

#pressreleases Apr 02, 2021

Reporters want to know whether this story matters to them. Your puzzles don't help. Just be clear.

Continue Reading...

50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.