Here are articles on writing

Use An Editor!

If you want to produce extremely high-quality work, it may be wise to find someone to help. It’s hard to be objective about our own work. Almost by definition, we believe if we did it, it must be good. But yet, sometimes an objective eye can help us take our good work to the realm of greatness. The objective eyes I’m talking about belong to editors.

Editors ROCK! When I’m writing a Get-it-Done Guy episode, my natural sense of humor comes out. My natural sense of humor was developed doing comedy improvisation with college audiences. “Decorum” is not high on the list of words you would use to describe my first draft material.

Fortunately, there’s a very dedicated editor at Macmillan publishing who reads my drafts. She sends them back with paragraphs circled in red pen. In the margin, she writes notes like, “If you say that, the FBI will open a file on you, start wire-tapping your phones, and put you under 24-hour surveillance. Again.” While most people would enjoy free protection services, I find it cramps my style when I go out clubbing. So I rewrite the paragraphs she highlights, this time using Goldilocks and the Three Bears as the central metaphor of my piece. My editors approve, and another Get-it-Done Guy episode is born.

Editors come in many varieties. Some editors can make sure your humor is appropriate. They can make sure your text flows, that you don’t repeat yourself, and that your points build on one another. Copy-editors handle editing the details. They double-check your spelling, your grammar, and your punctuation. I was a copyeditor for the school newspaper when I was a student at Harvard Business School; I need to give my marketing staff a special therapy budget, so they can deal with me.

If you have to write reports, pamphlets, or anything where quality matters, get yourself an editor. It doesn’t have to be a professional, a colleague who writes well may be all that’s required. If you’re worried about letting your coworkers see your work before it’s polished, find a friend who has the write skill set, but works at another company. You can be an outside helper for each other, without worrying about work-in-progress-quality work getting out to the people in your company.

If you’ve never worked with an editor, give it a shot. You’ll discover that having an extra pair of eyes double-check your work can often produce something better than either of you could have written on your own.

Marketing vs. Sales vs. Copywriting vs. Design

I’ve recently noticed that many entrepreneurs hire a “marketing person” and then end up with someone who doesn’t do what they expect. Sometimes it’s because they didn’t realize what “marketing” means. Other times, it’s because the person they hired didn’t know what marketing means. Here is a quick guide to understanding the difference between professions that are distinct, separate fields, but get confused, because the titles are so often misused:

Marketer. A marketer decides what market a product will be sold to, how the product will be described to make it stand out from its competitors (called “positioning”), and how it will be priced. A market is a broad set of people who might want to buy the product that can be reached by the company. “Every adult over the age of 25” is not a market, because there’s no way to reach every adult over the age of 25. “Single women between 18 and 35” is a better market because there are magazines, TV shows, web sites, and other venues where members of that group hang out. Those places—often called “channels”—are how a company can reach that market.

A marketer also chooses the message to send to a market. Whether to say “We’re the lowest cost pony rental service in town” or “We have the only purple pony east of the Mississippi” is a marketing decision. The first message will appeal to members of the market who care about price. The second message will appeal to customers who care about … purple.

Salesperson. Marketers deal with defining the product. Once the market is identified, the salespeople actually go out and convince people to buy. The marketer decides, “We’re selling private jet memberships to corporate CEOs.” The salesperson drives out to the country club, finds a CEO, and says, “Would you like to buy a private jet membership?”

Note: the “junk mail” and “spam” professions are often called “direct marketing.” Those professions are rarely marketing; what they are is sales-at-a-distance. Very few people I’ve met who do direct marketing spend much time defining their market and competitive strategy. They spend their time selling.

Copywriter. A copywriter writes the text that will appear on a web site or in an advertisement. Text must accurately represent what makes a product unique and appealing to its target market. Knowing takes a marketing perspective. If it’s ad copy, it must also persuade. That’s a sales perspective. The text must also be clear and well-written. That’s a writing skill. You’ll do best with a copy writer who has good writing skill, and the perspective appropriate to the piece being written. A website “about us” page may require a marketing perspective, while a product sales landing page might require a sales perspective. Don’t assume the same person can write both kinds of copy. Also, don’t assume that a good salesperson or marketer can write good copy. They’re separate skills.

Designer. A designer makes things look good, and creates a certain feel using visual design. The designer will choose your website layout, your fonts, and so on. Designers need to know enough about your site to create the mood you want. That mood, however, is usually decided by the marketers, and it should send the right signals to the target market. Marketing would decide “We want a cartoony, happy feeling because we believe that will appeal to single women between 18 and 35” or they would decide “We want a professional, elegant feel to appeal to single women between 18 and 35.” The graphic designer would then create a look, feel, illustrations, etc. to make that impression.

These are different skills, and they often require different people to get them right. But when you get the right marketing, powerful salespeople, killer copy, and a great design, you’ll build a much stronger, more powerful business than you would otherwise.

An NLP hint on writing and emotion

NLP has taught me a lot about how people experience words. By carefully considering your words, you can change the whole mood that people get left with.

I recently posted a Facebook update: For those that missed it, here’s my popular ‘Modern Vacation’ video spot (don’t worry – just 36 seconds!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gt0Bs0frEnM

Once I’d posted it, I re-read it and realized it used language poorly. The evocative words in the post are:

  • popular
  • worry
  • just 36 seconds

As people read each word, they access the meaning of that word and any associated feelings unconsciously. What then comes to mind is a gestalt of those meanings and feelings. How’d I do?

  • popular – evokes ideas of something desirable
  • worry – evokes the sense that something’s wrong
  • just 36 seconds – implies that it’s fortunate that there’s not much of it

Once through the reflection process, it makes sense to ask what feelings I’d like to leave the reader with. Excitement, curiousity, and a desire to see the video would be a better frame of mind for the reader. Here’s my rewrite:

For those that missed it, here’s my popular ‘Modern Vacation’ video spot (the best 36 seconds you’ll have all day): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gt0Bs0frEnM

Try reading both versions back-to-back and notice which images and feelings each one leaves you with. It’s subtle, but it has an impact. When you’re writing a longer piece of writing (like a podcast episode or an article), what you write will move people through a series of images and feelings. Think carefully about the sequence! The emotions you evoke may be positive (desire) or negative (fear), but if it’s negative, you probably want to lead somewhere else, like hope or resolution. The feelings people have when reading your material get connected to their concept of you. That’s called branding.

Go forth. Write with emotion. And make sure the emotions leave people in a good place. Giving people nice emotions is good for them, and you’ll find it’s good for you, as well.

How to Write an Audio Ad

It’s fascinating having an ad-supported podcast. I’ve developed a good sense for what does and doesn’t work in audio, and for how people respond to the spoken word. Every word counts. Word order counts. Phrasing counts. And looking over some of the scripts that would-be advertisers have proposed suggests some of the copy-writers would benefit from knowing how human beings process spoken information. With audio, work less and you’ll get a bigger result.

Brevity—not length—is what’s important! People only remember the last 5-10 seconds, so a 30 second ad is useless unless it provides actual value to keep people listening. Some ads try to tell a multi-minute story or just try to jam as many features into the ad as the dialog can handle. Listeners want benefit to them; they’ll fast-forward, otherwise. Start with your benefit to the listener and make your ad short. People will be willing to listen, and they’ll get the message.

Your last few words are key. If people only remember the last few seconds, then whatever you want them to remember belongs at the end of your very last sentence. End on your call to action. Phrase it so your very last word is the URL you want people to visit. In a podcast, people listen on the run, so you need to make it easy for them to remember that one thing when they get back to their desk. If you say your URL and then keep talking, your next sentence will knock the URL out of your listener’s short-term memory!

Simple, simple, simple. People don’t remember multiple points. We want people to remember our ten key features, or our three requests. They won’t. One message is all you can do in a spoken ad.

Short. Repeat. End on action. Short. Repeat. End on action. Short. Repeat. And end on action.

Don’t use price to choose a computer!

As you know if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I own both a Mac and a PC. I’ve been a PC user since MS-DOS-only machines. Two years ago I switched to a Mac after having to do three complete disk wipes + reinstalls on my Windows machines (two desktops and a laptop) in the space of six months. I continue to own both systems, and am often astounded at the lack of business thinking people betray when they shrilly scream their throats raw about how much more expensive it is to own a Mac than a PC. Here’s my response. I’m approaching the question like a business person and will try to show why, for me, it’s not even a close comparison.

If you’re a pure home user, my points may not apply to you. If you run your own home business, however, read this carefully.

A friend (“Murgatroid”) just posted this to Facebook: My friend wrote: Linux is cheaper than Mac…I’m gradually migrating to Ubuntu for my everyday stuff.

I was horrified at this penny-wise, pound-foolish decision. Here’s my response:

Murgatroid, if you’re looking at cost, my guess is that you consider maintaining your system to be a fun leisure activity. If not–if you think maintenance is part of your business–you need to take a good, hard look at how you value your time. Your time is not free and in an economy like this, spending it networking, establishing a reputation, getting your name out there, and doing billable work is far, far more valuable than using your time to save a few hundred dollars on a computer.

I find “cost of computer” discussions to be void of business logic. You’ll use a computer for 3+ years (if not, you’re buying a toy, not a business device), and for many of us, it’s our #1 most important work tool (with our phone a close second). Over three years, you’re probably paying about 66% less per day for your computer than you pay for your cell phone or cable TV, even if you have a top-of-the-line computer.

“Ok,” you say, “but what about the price difference between PCs and Macs? PCs are still cheaper than Macs.” Although a case can be made that Macs and PCs are comparable when you factor in the configuration and performance details, let’s pretend a  Mac costs $500 more than an equivalent PC. Fine. Over 3 years, that’s 45 cents/day. If you save a single day of your time in increased productivity or decreased maintenance costs over that entire three years, you’ve more than made up the difference.

I’m sure Ubuntu is a great choice for you. Not being a techie, I have found most of the free software to be incomprehensible when it comes to installation. I never get to the point of being able to try it because the learning curve just to find and install it defeats me much of the time.

Download these 16 different subsystems from 9 different open source archives. Make sure to use “uhbykgu -gye” to install them and not “uhbykgu -gyf” as you normally would. If you’re using the Glorp CC#% compiler, try using “-ggg” to enable the advanced infrastructure option, but only if you have a ZZTOP 234/8 Motherboard.”

In short: if you factor in the cost of my time, the cost of ongoing maintenance, and the learning curve of open source, for me, it’s a no brainer that the Mac is the best business decision by a wide margin.

A random price breakdown of factors people rarely consider.

The software bundled with the Mac alone easily makes up for a big chunk of the price difference. iPhoto, iMovie, Mail, Address Book, and iCal all come bundled on the Mac. While Windoze has a few bundled pieces of software, I haven’t found them as functional or speedy as the Mac applications. For my main productivity apps, Mail, Address Book, and iCal, there’s simply no comparison. You’d need to buy Outlook or Office to get that functionality on Windows.

To get the full Office equivalent on the Mac does require a separate purchase. A five-seat license of iWork ’09 (so you can run it on all your family Macs) is $99. One copy of MS Office for Windows is $379.95 for a one-seat license of the standard edition. I’ve used the iWork applications for two years now and once over the initial learning curve, I can produce everything I can with Office, only typically it’s faster and looks prettier.

Upgrades are cheaper. Apple users bitch about paying $100 for an upgrade to the Mac OS. A first-time purchase of an iWork family license is 25% cheaper than a single-user upgrade for Office. If you ever plan to upgrade, your Windoze is racking up $$ much faster than your Mac.

Software updates are smoother. If you’ve followed me on Twitter, you know I’ve twice had Microsoft Update apply some critical update and destroy chunks of my system. I’ve never had that happen with Apple. It doesn’t mean it won’t someday, but the Microsoft updates seem to do it once a year or so. Walking in to a busy workday to discover my computer needs 3 hours of maintenance to recover from a security update is not fun.

There’s far, far less maintenance. I once had brief responsibility for administering a network at my first job, and I got in the habit of keeping logs of all computer downtime, the reason, etc. Even my one remaining Windows machine–on which I install no new software, I spend more clock time each month doing maintenance activities of some sort than I’ve spent in two years on my two Macs. There’s simply no comparison. (“What do you mean disk space is low? I don’t use this machine and I cleaned up disk space a month ago? Oh. Poking around, I see the Windows Update patch installer has gradually accumulated 5Gb of installer files. Are these safe to delete? … research, research, experiment, experiment, pull hair out …”)

For enterprises, the math may be different. If you have to remotely administer a gazillion machines, maybe it really does make sense to use Microsoft enterprise-wide management tools. But that’s if you look at the cost of maintenance as hours-of-IT-staff-time only. If you factor in user downtime, user frustration, mysterious lost files, etc., your total enterprise-wide cost to own those Windoze machines still may be comparable.

Geeks are different.

Some people loudly cry, “But I just do the maintenance myself!!” Yeah, yeah, yeah. And your opinion is irrelevant to the other 99% of the population. If you happen to consider maintaining your Windoze or Ubuntu to be leisure activity, then that’s fine. But don’t pretend that your situation compares to those of us who want nothing more than to leave our computers on a desert island forever so we can get on with our lives.

People who have to pay for maintenance typically pay $80 for a program installation and rates that go up from there for anything serious. That doesn’t include the expense of shipping or driving their computer to the repair place and being without it for days while they diagnose and fix.

And that doesn’t even begin to account for their time. Because for most of us, fixing our computer does not bring time, money, or happiness to us. That means it’s an expense, pure and simple. Time I spend recovering from Windows Update is time I’m not doing work that would bring me income, or playing with things that would bring me happiness. If you’re self-employed, unless what you do is extremely low-wage, it’s almost never a good business decision to fix your own computer if it will take more than an hour or two to diagnose and fix, even if you’re capable of it. Over my 10+ years of Windows ownership, I gradually noticed that most of the time, any problem that took more than two hours to track down and fix would ultimately take days. I adopted a new policy: if I can’t find and fix it in two hours, I simply bite the bullet, wipe the hard drive, and spend the 12 hours it typically takes to reinstall, reactivate, and reconfigure my Windoze. Yes, it takes out a day (thus sucking up enough lost productivity to pay for multiple Macs), but at least it doesn’t take out a week, which is what it used to take with Windoze.

In short: for me as a business user, the Mac is cheaper. The software is much cheaper. The upgrades to the software are cheaper. Plus, the saved maintenance time is super-low.

Observations about my writing process.

I’m learning a lot about my own writing process. Headphones and isolation work nicely. But other than that…

Process drives both word count and quality.

I’ve tried dictating and transcribing. I like it, and can generate tons of text very quickly. It requires a lot of editing before it’s even up to first draft quality. My spoken humor is different from my written humor, so it often requires rewriting, and speaking the punctuation screws with my ability to improvise.

I’ve tried composing directly at the keyboard. This gives me the happiest first drafts, but it’s much slower than dictating.

Humor is hard to do consistently.

Depending on my mood (and probably the levels of various neurotransmitters), my humor levels vary widely. Some of my tips are, in my humble opinion, brilliant and funny. Others read like an encyclopedia.

At this point, I’m concentrating on getting through the rest of my first draft, and humor levels are dropping. I’m much more information-oriented. I’m hoping—really hoping—that on my first cleanup rewrite, my humor kicks back in.

I always wondered why famous comedians had staffs of writers. Now I know. It’s hard to generate that much humor consistently.

Writing a tips book is like writing many small 1-or-2-page books.

Writing a tips book is tricky. Since each tip is basically standalone, with a loose overarching structure holding the whole book together, it’s like my mind sees only one tip at a time. Today, I discovered I’d done essentially the same tip three times without noticing. I spent this morning trying to merge the three into one coherent whole. If you buy the final book, the tip about “Manage Relationships in all the Right Media” is the final version.

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who has been helping out with my pleas for feedback and assistance. I appreciate the support!

Writing is hard hard hard hard hard!

I’m now late on finishing the first draft of the book, and I’m appalled at how far I have left to go. I based my estimations of how fast I could write on various client writing and things I’d done recently. The book is totally trashing those numbers.

One of the biggest problems seems to be that when I have a conceptual framework, I can write about it, apply it, and generate lots and lots of interesting content. In this book, though, I have lots and lots of random tactical tips. They aren’t linked by any framework or underlying concept, so each chapter, though short, feels like writing a whole separate book. My brain is not happy about this.

For example, if I’m writing an article on how to give feedback, there’s a mental framework I use about saying something positive, giving clear measurables, etc. I can write a chapter about it by giving examples, telling stories, and going deeper into each point. I can then write follow-on chapters by going even deeper into subtle variations on the basic situation, times when feedback is tricky because there are political or romantic implications, etc.

But when I’m writing two pages on giving feedback, followed by two pages on how to write an email subject line… I go to all the work of creating framework and examples for feedback, skim the surface, and then have to purge my brain and start all over with the email chapter.

I tried conversationally creating chapters by just talking about individual tips, but even in that context, I find myself needing to pull together a framework while I talk. My dialog comes out incoherent.

This very blog post is a great example. it’s taken me all of five minutes to write, and it has one underlying concept: writing this book is hard because it’s a mismatch for my cognitive style. I could keep going, most likely, with more examples, exceptions, and possible suggestions I’d give a coaching client who had this same problem. If I could sustain this rate, I could have the book done in three days.

With no underlying concept, though, this would be two sentences long.

Gotta run. The book chapter I’m working on … is currently just two sentences long.

Does humor work in large doses?

Quick question… In my podcast, I use a lot of humor. The humor is almost always tangential to the actual point. After all, how funny are file folders? Not very. But file folders being used as emergency underwear? Er, hilarious.

Work Less and Do More is shaping up to be a book of a great many chapters or sections, each of which has a concrete tip. As I write, I’m having doubts about the humor-to-content ratio. In the podcast, about half the content is humor and attitude, and half is content. In a book, this seems too high on the humor for me.

Do people want more humor or more time spent on the content? Content seems pretty dry to me, but then, humor can feel overbearing if it’s hundreds of pages.

What do you think? You’re (hopefully) going to be my readers. Your thoughts appreciated!

Organizing an 80,000 word book: my current process and thoughts

Writing a Get-it-Done Guy episode is easy. I have one main point and usually 2-5 quickie subpoints. The whole episode fits in my head at once and it’s easy to try out different phrasing, etc. Also, since I’m writing the script and reading it back, talking through a concept out loud works well. It gives me a nice article that will sound good when read as a podcast.

An 80,000-word book is different, though…

read more…