“The Princess Bride” 20th Century Fox
As a writer, I sometimes get reader mail.
Most of it relates to typos. Some of it relates to disagreement or additional viewpoints. On occasion, I even get fan mail—how lovely.
As for typo-related mail, most of that is really nice. “Hey, Blake. Enjoyed your story on [insert popular story here]. Noticed a typo, however, and thought I’d share.”
Some of it gives me the benefit of the doubt. “Hi, Blake. Perhaps your spellcheck mistakenly changed ‘espoused’ to ‘expelled’?”
“No, kind reader,” I’ll reply. “My bad diction stuck again. Thanks for keeping me honest.”
Still, some of the mail I receive is unforgiving. As if my mistakes should disbar me from contributing to mainstream media. As if I should master English before using it to articulate a point, tell a story, answer a question, or inspire change. Continue reading…
The following was updated and adopted from a hired-speech I gave to a group of 50 portfolio CEOs and senior partners in June 2015 at the headquarters of NEA, the world’s largest venture capital firm.
Since 2005, I’ve written for half of the top 20 U.S. media publications and dozens of Fortune 100 companies as a featured contributor, branded storyteller, and retained content advisor. In that time, this is what I know for sure: marketing is the way you let people know you exist. Content marketing is the ongoing explanation for why they should care.
As a discipline, content marketing (or brand journalism, executive editorial, and thought leadership) is important, because it allows companies to persuade highly-informed buyers in an increasingly noisy world. Not only is it the fastest growing marketing strategy in recent years, it’s also the most effective for supplying search demand, engaging target audiences, enabling messaging, and satisfying the buyer’s need to read and inform themselves before making a purchase.
What surprises people most that engage me? Here are the top five: Continue reading…
Courtesy New Line Cinema
“Hi, human. I sell this thing (in my case writing) for a living because I believe in it. It’s benefited myself and others you may know. Are you the right person to pitch? If no, do you know someone who is? If yes, is now a good time?”
I’ve been writing full time for 10 years now. Much of that time, if not half of the time, is spent asking people if I can write for them. In that sense, I’m either a writer who knows how to sell, or a seller who knows how to write.
Either way, I’ve followed the above pitch for the last decade. I don’t know if it’s the best sales approach, but it’s worked alright for me, and it’s one I feel is the most respectful.
Know a better way?
As someone who’s written hundreds of articles for fancy publications, I’m often asked the best way to land free publicity.
Outside of knowing when you have truly have something that’s noteworthy and knowing which audiences are most likely to find your something relevant, my colleague Josh Steimle recently wrote about the subject for Entrepreneur; specifically how to get great PR in 15 minutes per day.
Josh was kind enough to interview and quote me in the article. This is what I said: “Indirect PR pitches are the best way to increase your chances of a media placement. Rather than talking about yourself, explain a larger trend that might interest the journalist or publication you’re pitching, complete with stats, anecdotes and data.
“Your contribution should be only part of the story. Doing so not only makes the press’s job easier but demonstrates greater objectivity, further increasing your chances of a placement.”
In my experience as someone being pitched, that approach leads to a lot more placements.
Since we’re on the subject, now go watch Ace in the Hole, All The Presidents Men, State of Play, and Spotlight—all good if not remarkable movies on journalism.
I haven’t read George Orwell‘s six rules for writing since 2005, the year I started blogging and freelancing for Aol. Today Sarah Stanley reminded me of them, and I think they’re tops. Tops, I say!
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Numbers 2–5 have served me well in my career (i.e. concise language that everyday humans can understand). I’m guilty of number one, however. When on deadline adages accidentally spill sometimes.
I’m mixed about number six. Although admitedly the more noble thing to do, snark, harsh criticism, and emotional writing helped me find an audience early in my career. It’s cheap but it works. Maybe four out of six is good enough.
Because gratitude is scientifically proven to boost our happiness, the good people at Highbrow explain how to write a gratitude letter:
Close your eyes and think of someone who did something important for you that changed your life in a good direction but who you never properly thanked. It could be that you’re really grateful to a teacher who inspired your love of acting and who persuaded you to try for drama school when everyone else was dead set against it. Maybe you’d like to thank your boss or a colleague for helping you with a particularly tricky project at work. Or perhaps you choose to write a friend who helped you through a tough time… Describe specifically what they did and what influence it had on you. Let them know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did.
Twentieth Century Fox
When I was nine years old, I saw Big starring Tom Hanks. It’s a movie about a boy doing young-at-heart things in a grown-up’s body. That and being employed to have an opinion on (i.e. review) toys.
At the time, I thought it was the coolest movie ever made. I still think it’s pretty darn cool.
In reality, my work as a writer over the last decade is not unlike protagonist Josh Baskin’s. I get paid to have an opinion and ask a bunch of questions. I tinker with ideas, learn from those who are smarter than me, and slay the dragon of misinformation with research as my shield and a keyboard as my sword. Continue reading…
I recently finished Highbrow’s excellent 10-day course on inventions that changed the world.
In keeping score, half of the cited inventions quickened the sharing of information (writing, printing press, telephone, personal computer, internet). A third hastened our transportation (steam engine, automobile, airplanes). One marginalizes or maximizes physical dominance, depending on who owns more of it (gunpowder). And the last one lengthens our days (light bulb).
Interestingly, every one of these inventions involve some element of speed. The speed of a bullet. The speed of light. The speed of travel. The speed of knowledge. That’s why the world moves at an increasing rate. Our greatest inventions all involve speed.
Even this century’s greatest inventions largely involve speed. How fast you can get new or old music to your ears (iTunes, Spotify). How fast you can get answers to questions (Google). How fast you can connect with friends and family (Facebook, SMS). And how fast you can see the latest cat videos (YouTube).
Of course, many of these inventions involve size, frequency, and power. But when it comes to bigger, stronger, better, and faster—always bet on faster. It’s the future. And it’s likely what the “next big thing” will do more than others.
Hemingway aboard his boat off the coast of Cuba (1950)
As compiled by Highbrow:
- “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
- “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
- “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
- “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
- “I drink to make other people more interesting.”
- “As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”
See also: My review of Old Man and The Sea
Howard Gossage was revered for his copywriting skills
Most people don’t know the difference between copywriting and editorial copy. I write the latter, which is generally understood by plebians as long-form “magazine articles.” The former is short-form and widely used in advertising and marketing to persuade someone to buy a product or influence their beliefs.
In any case, I usually don’t copywrite in a technical sense. I sometimes get asked to but usually decline. Unless, of course, Nike asks me to, which they did last year. Here is that story. Continue reading…
courtesy frank bourassa
What a story. What a character.
Wells Tower writes for GQ: “Frank paid a few visits to the U.S. Secret Service’s website, which, handily, offers an in-depth illustrated guide to serial numbers, watermarks, plate numbers, and all the other fussy obstacles to the counterfeiter’s art. ‘I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’ll go big or go home.'”
At the turn of the decade, the Canadian ended up printing more than $200 million in twenty dollar bills — an elephantine amount compared to most counterfeiters. “If he’d printed a measlier number of millions, he would have lacked a big chip with which to bargain for his liberty,” explains Tower. “He would certainly have been jailed longer. In other words, had Frank not gone big, it could have been quite a long time before he’d have been free to go home.”
Superb read. I highly recommend it.
courtesy: snow family
I don’t remember everything I read this year. But excluding short-form literature, these are the books and essays that impacted me most: Continue reading…
I’ve been working my way through some of history’s best-rated science fiction novels. And “no,” I don’t distinguish sci-fi from fantasy.
Overall, I find the technical language of books such as Hyperion, Shockwave Rider, and others with ridiculous covers—the kind Gentlemen Broncos makes fun of—too distracting to enjoy. Reading them feels like work. It’s almost as if the author wants me to decipher or decode the language before understanding it. It’s why I abandon many of these books, including The Hobbit. After all, I read to enjoy or educate myself—not learn a fictional language.
When they’re not using overly technical and distracting language, sci-fi novels often finish in confusing or unpoetic form, as is the case with Ender’s Game, an otherwise clever book. Now, I haven’t completely given up on the genre. I still have Dune, Starship Troopers, 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, and others on my list.
My faith in the genre skyrocketed today, however, after reading the first chapter of Planet of the Apes. It’s one of the best opening chapters I’ve read of any genre. It’s so captivating, I dare any imaginative mind over the age of 10 to read the first chapter and desist. It’s humanly impossible. Try it yourself if you don’t believe me, for free even.
That’s how you pull someone into a novel. Bravo, Pierre Boulle.
UPDATE: After finishing the book, I now regard Planet of the Apes as masterpiece literature—from beginning, middle, to the very ironic ending. Five stars out of five.
I don’t like academic writing. It’s mostly nonsense.
A few years ago, I said as much to my father who works in academia. Despite my insensitivity and lack of tact, I stand by my belief. Not because I’m incapable of admitting when I’m wrong. But because academic writing’s verbose language, impersonal tone, and dispassionate delivery ultimately fail to engage readers.
In other words, “Academics are really good at writing books that only academics will read, but they’re not very good at making anyone outside of academia care,” says Jared Bauer, co-creator of Thug Notes, in an interview with Huffington Post. “Teaching isn’t easy, so I’m not trying to shame teachers for not trying more radical approaches to literature education,” he adds. “But at the very least, I hope (our) show makes teachers realize that a student won’t volunteer their attention. The teacher must seize it.”
As I debated with my father that day, for writing to succeed, it must capture the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t, the writing won’t get shared, influence can’t happen, and the opportunity to learn is squandered, even among scholars. There’s no point to that kind of writing other than to serve as a reminder of how not to write. Continue reading…
I got an unexpected royalty check from Denmark last month. Apparently some Dane liked one of my stories enough to make a bunch of copies for their organization to read. In route through foreign and U.S. copyright law, the specific story and organization that used it were lost unfortunately. But I’m grateful just the same — for the recognition as well as compensation.
Five years ago, I “pivoted,” as they say in business. I went from writing feature stories primarily for top 20 news media to writing features stories for Fortune 500 companies as an embedded journalist and content advisor.
Landing a new client typically goes like this: They like my pitch and ask for more info. I send it to ’em. We talk. They like what they hear and think I can grow their audience with a fresh voice.
Over time, however, some of those clients let that voice rot. Continue reading…
I don’t know the scientific name, but I’m one of the lucky creatures that possesses an insatiable curiosity. As such, I use the Internet not only for work-related and entertainment purposes; I use it to satisfy every conceivable whim I encounter within my immediate environment on any given day.
For example, I often ask myself, “I like this song—I wonder where this band is from?” Or, “What other films has this director made?” Within seconds, Wikipedia has the answer. Last week, I overheard someone mention the country of Chad—a mystical place in west Africa. “Why haven’t I ever heard of this place?” I thought to myself. An hour later—thanks to Google—I was entrenched in all things Chad and was prepared to write an introductory discourse on the republic to attentive undergrads.
But as with all things in life, too much of anything is unhealthy. Except for maybe air guitar, chocolate cake, and dancing. But I digress. The trouble is we’ve reached a point with personal technology that it is so accessible, so immediately gratifying, and so demanding that digital indulgence is no longer just affecting information junkies like me. It’s affecting everyone. Continue reading…
A long-time Smooth Harold reader — and by long-time I mean four days — writes:
Dear Smooth Harold,
I’m looking forward to the book you’re writing, but your fans want to know: What technology are you using to write a book about life/tech balance?
Yours in blogging,
Hi David. I’m writing the book in iA Writer. I’ll also require electricity to turn my computer on, an internet connection, and working plumbing. Does that answer your question?
As for the book, I’ll be launching a website, newsletter, and maybe even a podcast soon with sample chapters and the process I’m going through to ensure the book gets maximum visibility (i.e. the best agent, publisher, and distributor my idea can buy). So stay tuned. And by that I mean keep refreshing this page every 30 seconds for the next several weeks.
Thanks for writing.
If there’s one writing habit I simply adore, it’s seeing a writer use “back in” when referencing previous years or months.
For example: “Back in 1845…” or “Back in December.” In such instances, the leading “back in” solidifies my otherwise horrible sense of time. Without that “back in,” I’d be completely lost.
Just today, reading a cryptic “In 1997” left me utterly confused. Since I have no concept of past, present, or future tense verb usage, I wasn’t 100% certain the writer was referencing history.
Worse is when a concise writer references a previous month without the oh-so-enlightening “back in.” After all, it’s not like the reader can assume you’re talking about a previous month, especially since you didn’t also reference a year. Case in point: Is “In July” talking about past July or next July? It’s ambiguous. I mean, next we’ll be asking writers to say “next” when referencing the future. It’s unheard of.
So remember writers: Never assume a reader understands chronology. As such, always say “back in” when referring to the past. It’s not wordy or presumptuous at all.
“I don’t read novels. I’m a novelist, but I don’t read. I don’t like reading. I love comics. I love reading comics. I can still read comics and write… But I come from a TV background.”—Gears of War 3 writer Karen Traviss, via Tom Chick
Nice to hear. For a while there I thought high-profile video games would start hiring writers who liked reading. Talk about dodging a bullet.
I often read the following: “the tragic death of so-and-so.” I don’t mean to be insensitive, but when is death not tragic? Loss of life is always tragic, right, so why dilute the adjective? Agree, disagree? Should writers call death “tragic” or just call it “death”?
Credit: Lindsey Snow
Blog reader Derek Bobo asks via email:
I was wondering when and how you made the leap of faith to work for yourself. When did you know you were safe financially? What was the deciding factor, etc? I’m right on the brink but can’t seem to get myself to take the leap of faith.
Excellent question. Here’s my answer:
Nearing the end of Out of Africa (review forthcoming), I couldn’t help but notice how author Isak Dinesen used a lone “fortune” as opposed to the more popular “good fortune” when she wrote:
“Natives have such a feeling for, and faith in, fortune, that now, after one success, they may have begun to trust that all was going to be well, and that I was to stay on the farm.” p370
By using fortune alone, which itself implies success, Dinesen caused me, the reader, to pause and consider what she wrote, rather than skimming a cliche. You too can add more meaning in writing by avoiding clutter adjectives, which dilute the meaning of words. A good reminder.
If millions of lifeless blogs and apologetic “sorry for not updating” posts were any indication, blogging isn’t for everyone. And if you’re hoping to make a national name for yourself as an amateur wordsmith, you’re about 3-4 years late to the party.
For everyone else (people with opinions, writers, pundits, and social networkers) regular blogging is still a worthwhile pursuit, provided you have something original to say. It can be used as a platform to start a career in writing, it can influence others, and for some, even subsidize a mortgage or provide a modest living.
I find it comical (not to mention anti-competitive) then when a blogger from the popular Silicon Vally gossip rag encourages lone stars to throw in the towel on blogging. Dumb. That’s like a used car salesman saying there’s no money in automobiles. While I admit blogging is over-saturated, it’s in no way a dead end. And it’s certainly more pervasive than Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.
Here’s an oldie but goodie.
Hugh Gallagher won first prize in the humor category of the 1990 Scholastic Writing Awards for the following essay. He allegedly used it to get into NYU and graduated from the university in 1994. To call his work humorous is an understatement to say the least (via Educated Nation, thanks Robert). Continue reading…
According to Dictionary.com, “diffident” is an adjective describing someone who is:
1. lacking confidence in one’s own ability, worth, or fitness.
2. restrained or reserved in manner, conduct, etc.
Good word. Will have to use it more.
“Not all :) as informal writing creeps into teen assignments,” reads a clever AP headline. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s nothing to LOL about: Despite best efforts to keep school writing assignments formal, two-thirds of teens admit in a survey that emoticons and other informal styles have crept in… “It’s a teachable moment,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew. “If you find that in a child’s or student’s writing, that’s an opportunity to address the differences between formal and informal writing. They learn to make the distinction … just as they learn not to use slang terms in formal writing.”
First of all, I love how avant guard the Associated Press was in using that playful headline in a formal news report. Secondly, I whole heartily agree that there’s a time and a place for informality. That goes for speech as well.
I saw Me and My Girl last night — a play that takes place in 1920s England. The performance was entertaining (a bit stale at times), but I really enjoyed the English… which got me thinking of the funniest British words. They are:
- Bollocks. Figurative meaning: nonsense. Technical meaning: testicles. Codswallop is a less-descriptive substitute.
- Trousers. These are what Americans call “pants.” We understand the former term, but you’d get ridiculed for using it.
- Blimey. Is there a cooler way to say “wow” or “holy crap?” I think not.
- Salad-dodger. Quite possibly the funniest word I’ve ever heard for a fat, obese, or overweight person. Continue reading…
I’ve had several discussions this past week on the best way to interview someone in the name of journalism. Here are my thoughts, methodologies, and best practices when trying to extract pertinent information from key individuals.
Realize you’re interviewing a human being with feelings. It’s imperative that you are courteous and respectful even if you completely disagree with the person or they have a tendency to spin everything (spin frustrates accurate information, so that can be discouraging, I know).
Ask straightforward questions without context when possible, e.g. “Why did X happen?” as oppossed to “Given blah, blah, blah, and yada, yada, yada, why did X happen?” When you must use context, be sure to be as objective as possible when prepping the question.
Be fair. I know an individual that walked straight up to a Sony executive and asked him outright if the executive thought his employer was arrogant. The executive scoffed at the question and immediately walked away leaving the reporter with nothing more than an eye roll to report on. Bad idea. Bad approach. And definitely not fair. Even if someone shows heavy signs of what you’d like to reveal, you have to come at those questions sideways like, “What do you think about X?” in which the interviewee will most likely make known your hypothesis to be true.
No hints! When reporting, please don’t drop sparky hints. You’re readers aren’t retarded, and collectively they are much smarter than you. When it comes to straight news, just report what happened piecing together the story in chronological order while distilling information in inverted pyramid form so readers can ditch a story when they like.
View the interviewee as an asset. Remember that the interviewee has information you want access to. Use tact in getting said information so your audience can make an informed decision.
Anyone else have thoughts on interviewing for information? Comment if you got ’em.
Write a lot. Then buy this book. Or vice versa.
Don’t let the name mislead you—The AP Guide to News Writing will help you become a better writer of everything except maybe books. This quick and worthwhile read is full of helpful tips, professional counsel, and practical ways to further flex your prose.
Humility is the most admirable trait a human being can posses. I’m convinced of that. It enhances all other personal qualities, and it motivates me to be a better individual, both professionally and personally.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a story for GigaOM. I was proud of the piece. I thought it was well covered, well written, and pertinent to my audience. Then I saw my editor’s edit. Wow! He completely transformed the copy into a much more vibrant and personable article. Granted, my points remained, he just sizzled them up to make the reading much more enjoyable.
He then emailed my article to our publisher for dissemination and — while CC’ing me on the email — said I did a great job on the piece without mentioning his sizable renovations. We could have easily shared the byline, but instead he just made me look ninja good without asking or wanting any credit in return. I was humbled by the experience, and realized I could do so much more in helping others prosper without recognition or payment. So yeah, do your best to try and make others look good.
When I’m not helping companies flex their web muscle, I enjoy writing. I got my start as a independent blogger here on Smooth Harold. From there I started a few other blogs which later secured professional gigs on larger blogs and traditional websites/magazines. But I’ve been spoiled as a blogger as I’ve never had to deal with editorial overrides until recently. In case you didn’t know, bloggers ARE the editors for virtually every online publication. We decide the headline, angle, tone, image, and word use. It’s rather liberating. :)
I wrote my first “non-blog” article late last year. The editor kept my headline and whatnot, only changing a few words here and there. The changes were very minor and even added some clarity, so I didn’t mind. A few articles later, a different editor at another publication restructured a few sentences of mine after I sent in my final draft. Though I disagreed on a few of his changes, for the most part, I was fine with them. Especially his copy edits to the headline which were better than my original. So it was all good.
Today, however, I sent in an article that was getting published in a few hours. I really liked my tone, word selection, and to an extent, my okay-headline. Shortly after, my editor (read: boss) sent back a radically and controversially angled version. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and to make matters worse, I disagreed with the new-found premise. His headline was sure to foster more link-bait, but at the expense of what I thought was “a stretch” of a story. I sent back my differing thoughts to which a compromise was made. I then updated my story under his direction adding additional clarification to his edit, and the article went live.
After reading the my piece in published form, I went back and decided that I liked my original piece better with its accompanying angle and tone. In hindsight, I think it would have been better received. The take-away of all this? It’s nice to have your cake and eat it too as an experienced craftsman. Any Smooth Harold readers out there ever experienced the same? I suppose I should have seen this coming, as paying clients always have the last word, despite your creative opinion.
Pick the Brain has abridged George Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing. All together now:
Don’t use cliches. We’re all guilty of this, but avoid them at all costs. Writing should evoke emotion. Cliches are cozy expressions that humans don’t internalize, thereby no emotion is felt.
Be concise. Wordy thoughts don’t sound intelligent, well-structured sentences do. (If I hadn’t written #1 above, I’d say “Less is more,” here.)
Strip out filler words. Trim the fat from your sentences. Never use two adjectives when one will do.
Use active voice over passive. The man wasn’t bitten by the dog (passive), the dog bit the man (active). It’s shorter and more forceful that way (Latin-based languages do this very well).
Avoid trade jargon. If you want your ideas to spread, avoid technical jargon in favor of an everyday word.