5 Ways To Improve Your Writing in the New Year—and Every Year


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In 2014, Jeffrey Tucker wrote an article on Foundation for Economic Education’s website provocatively titled “Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions.” Alas, for some reason he published it in the middle of summer, missing a marvelous opportunity to make December 31st revelers pause over their champagne flutes and consider the onrushing year. Most of the piece deals with a self-help book written in the early 20th century by one Henry Hazlitt, a volume that showed readers how to fix a deeply held desire in their minds and turn it into an achieved goal. Tucker noted that Hazlitt “advises us not to make vast numbers of resolutions. Make far fewer, and never out of disgust or passion. Resolutions should be realizable and rational, made with careful thought. Never forget that obtaining goals involves giving up easier paths and instead choosing the more difficult route.” According to Hazlitt, the crux of achieving one’s goals involved counting the cost, completely accepting it, and refusing to reconsider a resolution once you’ve settled on it.

The title of Tucker’s essay makes more sense now, doesn’t it? But I’d like to take a little issue with both the article’s tone and content: Resolutions don’t have to be as difficult as it makes them seem. Take the goal of improving your writing, for instance. If 2017 finds you hoping to hone your compositional skills, take heart! I have five simple strategies that will make the words you put on paper seem to sing.

Tip No. 1: Give it room to breathe. How many times have you pounded out an important email only to notice some glaring error after the replies begin to pour in? We’ve all experienced it. Unfortunately, we’re likely experience it again due to the way the human mind works. In an August 9, 2013, article for The Guardian, Yuka Igarashi notes how the mind corrects for errors as you read, skipping over errant repetitions, egregious misspellings, and scrambled word order while still automatically piecing together an author’s intent. It’s an amazing mental feat—and yet it leaves us prone to making howl-worthy mistakes. “This is one part of being an editor that no one much talks about,” Igarashi says. “Sure, you have to know your way around commas and colons. You should have a feel for the nuances of syntax and the rhythm of sentences. You want to be sensitive to a writer’s intentions and a reader’s attentions. But you also need to be able to look at a page without using your brain. Put another way, you need to be able to look at words in a way that goes against everything your brain would naturally do when it looks at words.”

In other words, everyone’s writing is prone to accidental errors, and our minds are made in such a way that it’s distressingly difficult to catch them. Encouraging, huh?

Okay, okay, that’s not the whole story. Massive books, newspaper exposes, and even humble blog posts manage to get published largely error free. What’s the secret? Well, part of it lies in giving a piece a little room to breathe. After you’ve completed a project, step away from it for a while, preferably for a period that’s long enough for you to forget its specifics. You’ll be amazed at how errors leap out at you once familiarity starts to fade. Reading it out loud also helps focus your attention.

Tip No. 2: Scrub out silly errors. Quick: Did those vacationers enjoy their or they’re trip? Is it spelled grammer or grammar? Does that comma go before or after the conjunction? Should your holiday card come from the Johnsons or the Johnson’s? These are simple little linguistic situations, but they trip people up all the time. During my undergraduate studies, I had an literature professor who would bump the grade of any student making a single spelling error down to a C and automatically fail those who flubbed three or more words. His rationale was that there’s no excuse for incorrect spelling in the age of Microsoft Word and Merriam-Webster.com. He was right. Today, though, the downside is more dire. Instead of receiving an unpleasant mark on a paper, we risk being thought stupid and then ignored. So make sure your nouns and pronouns agree. Remember that irregardless isn’t a word. And don’t forget that you couldn’t care less. In other words, memorize a few of the most basic grammatical rules and put them into practice.

Tip No. 3: Push away passive constructions. Even the most intelligent authors sometimes struggle with passive constructions. Rather than jumping straight into the grammar itself, allow me to offer an example with two sentences. Here’s the first: “These are things that many of us struggle with in our current lives, but the good news is that we don’t have to.” Here’s the second: “Many of us struggle with various things in our current lives, but fortunately we don’t have to.” Can you see the difference? The first sentence feels a little floaty, unmoored, adrift. You can thank the passive voice for that. In a nutshell, the passive voice takes the object of an active sentence and uses some form of to be to make it the subject. Note, though, how the second sentence seems more grounded. That’s because it includes two good, solid verbs and a pair of proper subjects. Now I know that diving deep into the Stygian depths of Correct Grammar can drive the well adjusted almost irrevocably mad, so don’t worry too much about this tip. The occasional passive construction is fine. (See what I did there?) But when you find some version of to be in your writing (i.e., is, are, was, were), try replacing it with an active verb. Viola! Your writing now magically has more punch!

Tip No. 4: Vary your sentence structure. Not only do accomplished writers avoid an overabundance of passive constructions, they also know the importance of varying the way in which they write. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the advice of late author Gary Provost:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

As Provost said, writing that stays in a rut soon start to bore. So don’t settle for the same old sentences. Mix things up. One could spend a lifetime learning the intricacies of the English language, but start with Provost’s advice on length, folding sentences of all sizes into your writing. It’s a simple way to keep readers on their proverbial toes.

Tip No. 5: Take advantage of another’s eyes. Remember my first tip, how I urged you to give a piece room to breathe? Here’s the sad truth I neglected to tell you: It’s probably not going to be enough. Only the most stolid scribes can steel themselves for the bloody work of real revision. Faulkner may have killed his darlings, but most of us only manage a little bruising.

So what’s a writer to do? Enlist the aid of others. In the past, I’ve praised the practice of having someone give your work a thorough thrashing, and I’d like to do so again. The fact of the matter is that disinterested third parties stand a greater chance of sussing out weak spots and outright errors. The text is fresh to them. They lack an emotional connection. And (if you pick the right people) they care about your success more than your feelings. So let a thousand beta readers bloom. Your writing will only be better for it.

In detailing these five tips for improving your writing, I’ve spilled a fair amount of virtual ink. By now you may find yourself thinking, “Well, this seems fine in theory, but I have a job to do. I’m busy. And this sounds like a lot of work.” You’re right, at least in part. So as Hazlitt counseled nearly 100 years ago, count the cost. Examine the benefits. And only then take the plunge. I, for one, think it’s worth it. These five tips really aren’t particularly difficult to implement. Copy comes easier with better compositional habits. And people take notice of prose that pops. Resolve with me to have better writing this year—and every year.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Paddy)

Everyone’s Output Benefits from a Thorough Working Over

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Back in July, I penned an article entitled “The Pen-and-Paper Remedy: One Parent’s Screen Solution” for Story Warren, a creative-parenting site. It’s something of a personal narrative about how I tried to woo my seven year old away from video games by introducing him to pen-and-paper roleplaying. (What can I say? We’re a family of unrepentant nerds.) Read the whole thing yourself if you’d like, but know that I don’t want to discuss the subject material itself per se. Rather, I want to talk about the process of actually writing it.

Writing is such a variable process. Some days words seem to simply sluice from your pen in a Niagara-like geyser. Other days it’s as though you’re chipping away at a hunk of granite. With a piece of celery. In the dark. But no matter how self-assured you may feel, good writing rarely makes its way to directly from the author to the reader in its virgin form. It needs to be pruned, trained, and shaped into something straight and true—no matter how you feel about it the first time around. Just look at what I did to “The Pen-and-Paper Remedy” in moving it from first to second draft:

Understand that I was pretty proud of this article from the get go. It had an interesting hook, some nice illustrations, and decent organization. But a few examples sprawled well beyond the space required to get the basic point across. Some appropriately pithy sections lacked any sort of stylistic punch. A quote from an expert in pop culture ended up seeming entirely extraneous. In the end, it all translated into the same process—excise, revise, rework.

The problem is that most of us don’t expect writing to function this way. We think our words will spring from us like Athena leapt from Zeus’ forehead, mature and unblemished. Yet that rarely happens. In her humorous writing manual Bird By Bird, the inimitable Anne Lamott explains that …

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.

On a related note, Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism reports how journalist Richard Ben Cramer once happened upon famed author Tom Wolfe as “he was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments … and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look … And I thought to myself, ‘God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.’”

The takeaway is this: Whether it’s an email or an epistle, a pamphlet or a poem, back-cover copy or a full-fledged book, you’re going to need to beat it up yourself or hire a professional to do so. In fact, if you see the need yet have a hard time letting go of your own prose, the latter option might prove the most useful. But understand this: Everyone’s output benefits from a thorough working over.

Three Reasons Why New and Established Authors Need an Audiobook

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For years, ebooks have been considered the salvation of the publishing world, a democratizing force allowing untold numbers of armchair authors to easily reach the reading public, and a kind of digital Bodleian Library for archiving all sorts of rare written material. All of those things are true—mostly. But the real reading revolution is one no one ever saw coming: It’s the audiobook. Now more than ever, both established and aspiring authors ought to consider the importance of the auditory. Following are three reasons why you should think about having your text recorded as an audiobook.

Reason #1: Audiobooks have gotten dramatically cheaper.

My earliest memories of audiobooks (or “books on tape,” as well used to call them back in the day) involved picking them up from various Cracker Barrel restaurants during our annual summer vacations. That chain of country-cookin’ eateries had locations stippled throughout the American South and featured books on tape for rent at spinning stands next to its cash registers. Pick one up in Florida, return it at South Carolina for a partial refund, and grab another for the remainder of your trip. Back then, renting was the way to go. Your average book on tape retailed for anywhere from $60 to $100, and even listening to it was a chore. You had a big brick of a box stuffed with cassettes, and good luck if the previous listener forgot to rewind.

Those days are long gone thanks to the advent of smartphones and MP3s. As Anthony Goff, vice president of Hachette Audio notes, “Everybody has an audiobook player in their pocket at this point. It makes that much easier for the masses to try it.” Doing away with physical packaging has made audiobooks both easier and cheaper to purchase. Instead of having to break a Benjamin for that book on tape, today’s audiophiles can spend $15 to $30 for average-length titles and $50 to $60 for popular tomes that cross the forty-hour-long threshold. There are even monthly subscription services that start at $9, and music streaming service Spotify is offering a handful of curated classics for free. What’s more, it’s all available with push-button ease.

Reason #2: Publishers and retailers increasingly see the value in audiobooks.

Consumers aren’t the only ones responding to the digital revolution. Publishers are getting in on the game, too, and no wonder. Most audiobook listeners are affluent professionals with plenty of time available during their commutes, and such availability is reflected in the sales numbers. A recent report from the American Association of Publishers shows that downloadable audiobooks are the industry’s fastest-growing segment, with sales growth of more than 26% in 2013 and 28% in 2014. Supply is also rising to meet that demand. The number of audiobooks available in 2011 was roughly 7,000, but by 2013, it had jumped to 35,000. Retailers haven’t been shy about the trend either. Audible, iTunes, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, Oyster, Skybrite, Penguin Random House Audio, and Audiobooks.com all offer pay-to-purchase or rental audiobook services.

Reason #3: Audiobooks are easier to produce than you might think.

Creating an audiobook might seem a little intimidating to authors, for whom writing is mere words on a page. Take heart, though: You don’t need studio time, Hollywood contacts, or a professional payroll. There are plenty of places to which you can turn as a manuscript’s rights holder to make your title sound great. Professional services such as Voices.com, Voice123, VoiceJockeys.com, and Audiobook Creation Exchange all specialize in audio and narration work. You can also find good voiceover talent at multi-disciplinary sites such as Guru, Fiverr, and Upwork. Finally, you can always hire an independent professional who’s willing to sign a solid contract. But no matter where you get your talent, make sure you read the fine print first. Some services include exclusive distribution clauses and royalty-sharing agreements in lieu of flat-fee payments. These are necessarily bad options. Just make sure they fit with your book, your budget, and your overall selling strategy.

Make or Buy: What’s the Best Way for Your Business to Get Content?

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I’ve learned a lot of valuable things during my MBA studies, not the least of which is that there are two ways a business can complete its value chain: It can make the various links or it can buy them. It’s an important and underappreciated dynamic, and in an August 25, 2006, article, Conor Dougherty of The Wall Street Journal illustrates how it works while reporting on the craft beer industry:

[T]he bigger problem is getting the hops in the mix before they’ve spoiled. Victory Brewing Co. contracts a refrigerated truck to collect hops from a grower in upstate to New York then drive straight back to the brewery in Downingtown, Pa. Come fall Russian River Brewing owner/brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo gathers about a dozen friends and family members to pick hops on a quarter acre plot a few miles from his brewery in Santa Rosa, Calif. … And for brewers who don’t have their own hop farm, this often means paying to have fresh hops sent overnight, multiplying their hop tab.

The make-or-buy decision matters for businesses, because each option imposes its own unique cost—namely time or money. And nowhere is that more evident that with content writing.

When it comes to creating website copy or pumping out blog posts, many businesses default to the “make” option. After all, who knows your business better than you and your employees? But an equal amount also forget that content writing requires a substantial investment in both expertise and effort. Not everyone knows how to craft compelling copy, and not every manager wants to commit a salaried employee to content creation. In some ways, keeping content in-house allows for the most control at the greatest expense.

That being said, the “buy” option has complexities all its own.

If you don’t want to worry about managing people, services such as Textbroker, Scripted, and Copify offer low-cost, push-button content writing. All you have to do is send out a short description of what kind of content you want, and someone from a pool of approved writers types it up within a short window of opportunity—bing, bang, boom. These services are easy to use and work great for straightforward, cookie-cutter assignments. But their inherently low pay (sometimes as little as a fraction of a cent per word) tends to draw less-skilled authors who lack serious writing experience. There’s a reason why freelancers sometimes derisively refer to them as content mills.

Hiring a freelancer directly through a third-party service can alleviate quality concerns. Upwork, Elance, Freelancer, Guru, and other similar outfits offer worldwide talent pools, user reviews, online portfolios, work verification, and secured payment options. Of course, they also introduce problems of their own. Since they have a global reach, you may find yourself inadvertently interacting with freelancers who have, er, flexible work and personal ethics. The bidding process, wherein various freelancers pitch their talents to you, can prove time-consuming. And learning each site’s proprietary interface often makes even the simplest tasks a proverbial pain.

The final option is to hire a content writer directly. If finding and vetting a content writer all on your own sounds time consuming, well, that’s because it is. You need to ensure that you’re dealing with someone who’s competent, professional, and responsive. That means surveying portfolios, reviewing testimonials, requesting sample work, and comparing contracts. But a good freelancer can provide excellent work again and again at a fraction of the cost of a full-time employee.

The good news about the make-or-buy decision is that there’s no one right answer. Each business has different needs, and any of the options can work well given the correct set of circumstances. So shop around. See what works best for you. And feel free to email me with any questions you might have.

Five Steps for Writing a Great Speech

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Why in the world would I discuss speechwriting in an inaugural post on a blog about content writing and narration? Well, as online composition becomes more colloquial, the rules for creating good content and a winning talk increasingly overlap. Also, you’ll find plenty of commonality between penning high-quality narrative material and great speeches. But the biggest reason is an imminently practical one. From board presentations to a best man’s toast, a product pitch to a personal introduction, most people will need—no, wait, strike that—have to talk to in public at some point. So, here are a few steps to make the process easier.

1) Don’t wing it. During an old college chum’s wedding, I watched the maid of honor attempt to improvise her speech. That’s a dicey enough proposition on its own. Unfortunately, the bride happened to be the woman’s sister, which meant the speech quickly veered off into murky family history. The maid of honor waxed expansive about her childhood desire to boil alive the stray pets her sibling had adopted down the years. The audience responded—just with disgust and confusion. Improvisation is difficult enough for professionals, let alone amateurs under public pressure. So prepare beforehand. You can make an expository speech, using a simple outline to guide you. You can talk from a manuscript, where every jot and tittle is written down. Both approaches have their downsides. The former can lead to bloat and the latter to a wooden tone. But they’re easier to manage than no plan at all.

2) Know what you want to communicate. Remember those old thesis papers you had to write in high school? They might’ve been a pain, but they taught a valuable skill: Keep the main idea front and center. Lead with it in your speech. Close with it. Repeat it regularly in between. But before you can do that, you need to have a concrete idea of exactly what you want to communicate. Boil your main point down to a single sentence, write it on a note card, and refer to it as you compose your speech.

3) Make it pithy. Note that I’m not saying a speech should always be short. Yes, brevity is usually a virtue in our Internet-addled age. Still, short doesn’t always feel that way. Consider music. Though I enjoy both folk and hip-hop, Gangstagrass’ “Long Hard Times To Come” starts feeling endless to me around the 60-second mark. Conversely, I can punch the repeat button on Andrew Peterson’s ten-minute-long “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone For This” without a second thought. The key is to not waste a second of the listeners’ time, to make each creative choice an intentional one that somehow furthers your stated goal. The next point helps too …

4) Keep your structure strong. No one enjoys a dull, plodding speech. Similarly, it’s hard to like one that meanders all the way to the moon and back. Variability within boundaries keeps the proceedings interesting. This little, bullet-pointed essay is an example of a strong structure. Similarly, you can always follow the classic three-step outline of introduction, main body, and conclusion. Just make sure to include strong transitions so each section flows into the next.

5) Get technical. The four previous points are the bedrock basics of speechmaking, the absolute essentials you need to keep your audience from nodding off. But mankind has employed oratory for millennia, and there are still plenty of tricks you can learn. If you want to delve more into the speechwriter’s craft, consider picking up a technical volume such as Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric. The differences between epimone (repetition of phrases), chiasmus (structural reversal), and ellipsis (intentional omission of words) might seem academic at first. But they can lend a surprisingly practical punch to your presentations.