Archives for 2009

Rules for Being a Media Blogger

This was originally posted at the DeckersMarketing.com blog on May 28, 2009.

I was really honored to be selected as a media blogger for the Indianapolis 500 this year (I’m covering it at my Laughing Stalk humor blog). I’m sitting up here with a lot of local talent, although there are a lot of empty seats right now (I’m in Dennis Neal’s seat from WLW radio in Cincinnati).Indy 500 Media Center

I learned a long time ago that there are a couple of unwritten (and written) rules for media people. And if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for a sports team or major event, you need to follow these rules. They’re the same ones the big-J Journalists follow every day. (“Big-J Journalist” implies that these people are serious journalists who make their living writing and producing important work. These guys look down on bloggers, because we’re not serious or well accepted in journalistic circles.)

  1. Never geek out. You were probably invited because you’ve got a passion for writing and for the team you’re covering. However, you’re the media now. You’re not a fanboy who bumped into your favorite player at a McDonald’s. Play it cool, be mature, and don’t try to be their buddy. You’re there to get a story, just like the real Journalists (see, I even used a big J), so act your age and get it done.
  2. Never ask for autographs or photos. My friend Amanda, who writes Red Hot Mama, the Cincinnati Reds/National League Central fan blog, said she once tried to get some media credentials for a Reds game, and was told it would never happen. It seems the year before, they allowed a blogger into the locker room, but the guy geeked out and asked for autographs and photos with the players. The guy turned into a total fanboy and gave the PR staff the only reason they would ever need to not invite bloggers to cover the team again. Now, we can argue the Reds are missing some great PR and coverage, but until that PR director leaves, he’s willing to give it up to avoid the hassles and headaches.
  3. Blogging is not big-J Journalism. And it never will be if you don’t act like it. Sure there are writers like Chris Brogan, Jason Falls, and even political writers like Matt Drudge and the Daily Kos are all professional bloggers and speakers. They take their reputations and brands seriously, and work hard to make blogging an accepted form of media. If you’re going to be a serious blogger — and maybe we should start calling ourselves big-B Bloggers — write your blog as if you have a serious brand to promote.
  4. On the other hand, you’re not there to write fluff either. Don’t feel like you have to be the company yes man on anything. I was eating lunch today with a reporter who had also been a blogger for his newspaper. He wrote a not-so-nice post about one of the racers and his wife last year, and was griped at by the racer’s staff via email. While he is no longer blogging for his paper, he is still employed by them. He still writes critical pieces if he needs to, and realizes he’s not there to be the PR mouthpiece of the racers or their teams. The takeaway: if you find or see something that could be seen as negative, write about it anyway. Do it respectfully, and treat it like a big-J Journalist would. Write the facts, keep your opinion out of it, and be a professional.

Bloggers are still getting a bad rap from most of the mainstream media as being an unreliable source of news. And it will be, until we change our reputation and quality of work. That, and when the newspapers all go out of business, and network news is replaced by cable news and, well, blogs.

Until that time, as you grow your reputation and reach as a quality Big-B Blogger, practice journalistic techniques. Read books on newspaper writing (it’s still the gold standard of writing quality and ability), use Associated Press writing style, and study as many newspaper writers as you can.

But most importantly, for the love of God, don’t geek out.

5 Podcasts That Will Improve Your Writing

typewriterI’m a big podcast fan. In fact, I have nearly stopped listening to my radio completely, because I get most of my music online (I’m listening to WFPK 91.9 out of Louisville via iTunes as I’m writing this). And when I’m in the car, I listen to podcasts.

I have about 20 favorites that I listen to as I drive to and from the office, to appointments, or before I go to bed. I can catch all 20 within a week, and be ready for the next round when they come out. I’ve got podcasts about marketing, technology, science and archaeology, and even one on baseball history.

There are a few grammar and writing podcasts I listen to, which have provided some great lessons for improving my writing, answering a grammar question, or even correcting a grammar error (very rarely!). There are more than 70 different writing podcasts available on iTunes, but based on my past listening habits, and research, these are the best ones I found.

    1. A Way With Words: This podcast is also a call-in show on public radio. It’s my favorite on this list because the hosts, Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, take a simple, down-to-earth look at language and their love for words really shines through. They can give you the history of words and expressions, answer grammar questions, and even identify the regionalisms we all use and think everyone else already knows. You can follow them on Twitter at @wayword.

 

    1. Grammar Girl: Grammar maven Mignon Fogarty, author of the NY Times best-selling Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, gives quick grammar lessons on a single topic with humor and an easy-to-understand explanation. I was listening to the “Lay vs. Lie” podcast this morning, a grammar trap that still trips me up even now. I like Fogarty’s thorough approach to grammar education, and the fact that she’s not just limited to doing a single podcast. She has really developed her brand and self-promotion, including a weekly newsletter, tips only found on her website, and a second whenever-she-feels-like podcast about whatever writing or literary topics she feels like. (Bonus: If you want to learn about how to do self-promotion well, watch her every move and copy it.) Grammar Girl is also on Twitter.

 

    1. Grammar Grater: I have to admit a bit of snobbery here: I’m a fan and writer of audio theatre, so I’m not that swept away by the audio morality plays that open each episode. Having said that, I still think the Minnesota Public Radio group does some good work, and I have even learned to like some of their mini-plays. Grammar Grater is a nice folksy complement to Grammar Girl. In fact, the two podcasts will sometimes overlap in their topics (which sometimes makes me wonder if they’re in cahoots), which can lead to a very deep understanding of some of their grammar topics. I’ve learned things on this GG that I didn’t pick up in the other GG, and vice versa. So I make sure that these two are always in regular rotation on my iPod.

 

    1. Writing Challenges: David Morley, director of the Warwick Writing Programme at Warwick University, England, gives listeners a series of creative fiction writing challenges. His latest episode, “Murdering Your Darlings,” discusses the importance of rewriting and reading your writing pieces out loud to make sure the writing isn’t flat. It may be geared toward fiction writers, but I know several nonfiction writers whose work is just as gripping as a good fiction piece. So if you want to improve your nonfiction writing, don’t forego fiction writing advice. Add this podcast to your regular playlist.

 

    1. Writing Excuses: Another fiction writing podcast. Fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson, professional cartoonist Howard Tayler, and horror writer Daniel Wells talk about different writing techniques. I discovered this podcast researching this article, and I appreciated their fast-paced discussion of the technique. They do their podcasts in 15 minute bursts, “because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”

 

  1. Bonus: Other podcasts I listen to, which inspire my writing efforts, but aren’t writing-related: Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean (CBC Radio); Completely Burns, works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns in convenient podcast form (BBC Radio); The Moth, a storytelling podcast where the storytellers work completely without notes (podcast). I may preview these in another writing-oriented post.

My one complaint about some of the other 65 podcasts is that they only had a couple episodes (one podcast didn’t have any), while others haven’t been updated since 2008. There’s still some good advice to be had in those podcasts, just don’t get too attached to them.

9 Books That Will Improve Your Writing

Demian Farnworth over at CopyBlogger came up with a list of the 10 Books That Will Transform Your Writing. Ten books, that if you read them, will help your writing improve just by reading some examples of what is good, and then modeling them

A few of Farnworth’s 10 transforming books:

  • King James Bible
  • Barbarians at the Gate – Bryan Burrough and John Helyar
  • Complete Odes and Epodes of Horace
  • Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

While I’ve only read a couple of Farnworth’s recommendations, I have a few recommendations of my own. These are my own favorite books and the ones I read more than once just to get an idea of how I want my writing to look.

      1. On Writing – Stephen King. I’m not a big fan of writing books and try to avoid them whenever possible. But more than a few writing friends recommended this one. Stephen King talks more about the desires and itch to write, and how he pursued his love of writing, even when he was first starting out. His story is inspiring and makes believe I can be successful.
      2. Fool – Christopher Moore. Really, any Christopher Moore book will do. The guy is a comic genius and knows how to write humor that catches you off-guard and makes you laugh out loud. Moore writes off-the-wall, exaggerated characters who seem so natural in their setting, and their descriptions and his jokes seem so effortless. He doesn’t crowbar anything into his stories, they just flow.Cover of My Beautiful Idol by Pete Gall
      3. My Beautiful Idol – Pete Gall. Pete is a writer here in Indianapolis, and has such tight writing that, after I read the first chapter, I started working to tighten up my own writing. I typically don’t notice the quality of writing unless it leaps out at me, good or bad. I’m more carried away by the story. But Pete’s writing just grabbed my attention, and made me pay attention to the quality of the words.
      4. My Other Life – Paul Theroux. I read this novella in an issue of Granta, and became a fan of Theroux. I’m not a big fan of creative writing and the emotional angst anyone with an MFA feels compelled to flog, but Theroux is one of the few I actually enjoy. He’s got a mastery of the language that I wish I could reach.
      5. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut. Indianapolis’ son is a world-famous wordsmith whose mastery of the language shines through, even when he’s writing some of the weirdest stuff. While most of his novels are fairly weird, Breakfast of Champions turns the Weirdness amp up to 11 . But even in this opus of oddity, the brilliance of his writing is obvious.
      6. Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman. The Romantic poet sure knew how to turn a phrase. He and a few other of the Romantic poets are great inspiration when you want to capture the flavor of language, and tap into its rhythm and energy, read someone like Whitman, Burns, or Lord Byron to get the creative juices flowing.
      7. Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain. I worked in a restaurant for a few months when I first moved here to Indianapolis, and while I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen, I can tell you it’s hot, sweaty, unpleasant work. But Bourdain is able to make it sound glamorous, cool, and even enjoyable. If he can make kitchen grunt work sound fun and exciting, what can you do with your blog with his influence?
      8. The Naming of the Dead – Ian Rankin. You can actually pick any Inspector Rebus novel by this Scottish writer to get a look at what good dialog looks (he’s written 20 Rebus novels alone; he’s written 12 others) like. The dialog is tight, believable, and sounds like real people. I figure Rankin knows what he’s doing, because according to literary legend, Rankin lives on the same street as J.K. Rowling, who lives in a damn castle. If he made enough money to be her neighbor, he must be doing something right.
      9. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson. The man’s crazed drug and alcohol addictions notwithstanding, HST was a brilliant writer in his early days. His writing suffered as he slipped deeper into his addictions, but his earlier stuff was brilliant. It packed all the punch of a Chuck Norris movie, and was as tight as a drum. That’s because Hunter would write a series of ledes (newspaper talk for “lead,” or the opening sentence of a story), and string them together. Rather than having only one punchy attention-grabbing sentence, he had a dozen of them. If you want to add power to your writing, get the early Thompson works. (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is another recommended read.)

       

       

      Other writers I could have included, but didn’t — for no particular reason include — Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, Dick Francis. These writers are also great, and worth studying. I like them for their humor (Adams and Barry), and their ability to tell a good story (Adams, Francis). Plus, they all have a large body of work to draw from. Check any and all of these writers out and start learning from them.

How a Coffee Shop Used Twitter to Double Its Business

This post was originally published on February 3, 2009 on the DeckersMarketing.com blog, which will soon be closed down.

J.R. Cohen, operations manager for CoffeeGroundz Cafe (@CoffeeGroundz) in Houston, TX, used Twitter to nearly double his clientele, by using it to take advance orders from customers, thus flying in the face of everyone who has ever said Twitter can’t be used to make money.

Erica O’Grady tells an interesting story at the Pistachio Consulting blog about Cohen’s foray into Twitter, and how he used it to successfully grow his business.

Before he started, Cohen had never even heard of Twitter, but a customer talked him into trying it, and he soon had 1,000 followers on the micro-blog network.

It started on Halloween Day, 2008 when one of Cohen’s regulars Tweeted a drive-through breakfast order to him. This was hailed as possibly the first to-go order placed on Twitter, and Cohen began taking orders via direct message from his followers.

Cohen has become such a big fan of Twitter that he used CoffeeGroundz as site for a Tweetup for 100 Houston Twitterites – who bought food and drinks – which O’Grady says was the largest Houston Tweetup ever.

Houston Twitterati meet at CoffeeGroundz for a Tweetup

Houston Twitterati meet at CoffeeGroundz for a Tweetup

What about you? How do you use Twitter? Have you made money from it? Is there a way you could? Or do you have any suggestions from anyone else who wants to dive into Twitter?

From the Pistachio Consulting site
Erica O’Grady is the #1 Erica on Google – Most days :o) Currently she is a Social Media Consultant based in Houston, Texas (the damn near finest city in the South). You can read her blog at ReinventingErica.com or follow her on Twitter (@ericaogrady).

Want to Make Your Writing More Vivid? Use Metaphors

If you want to add some life to your writing, to give it breath and a heartbeat, use metaphors. They’re the lifeblood of any vibrant, vivid writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

I’ve been using metaphors in my writing with great success over the last several years. It marks a significant improvement in the quality of my writing, and I’ve garnered more and better opportunities. Whether there’s a connection between the two, I don’t know.

I’m a big fan of metaphors, and I like them better than similes. From the Greek, metaphora means to transfer or to carry over. It basically carries a comparison from one idea or item to another.

There is one difference between metaphors and similes: similes use the words like or as in them, metaphors do not.

Similes

  • Life is like a box of chocolates. (Forrest Gump
  • There was a great shout like the roaring of an airplane.
  • Similes are like metaphors, but only weaker.

Metaphors

I don’t like similes. They’re weak. They’re the pencil-necked milksop of literary devices. They say things are similar, but not quite that item. Life is like a box of chocolates, but not really.

Take a look at the last metaphor example: “Men’s words are bullets.” That’s a powerful phrase. It doesn’t say they’re like bullets, that they remind people of bullets, or “words can hurt people sort of like bullets can hurt people.” That’s just smarmy, wishy-washy pap.

“Men’s words are bullets,” on the other hand, makes you feel the the emotional damage that can be done by words, feeling the piercing, crashing power of a bullet fired from a large gun.

If you want to make your writing more powerful and add more life to your words, sprinkle some metaphors into your articles and watch what they’ll do for you.

The Best Way to Get and Keep More Readers

When I was in graduate school, I noticed that most of my fellow grad students, and our professors, loved to use big words and long sentences.

They tried to use the most complex words and sentences as possible in their scholarly works. Paragraphs were measured in linear feet, not number of words. And it was not unheard of to spend 12 – 15 hours writing a simple 10 page paper.

Not me, of course. I had cut my writing teeth at my college newspaper, so I wrote like a journalist: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. (Something that would send my 7th grade English teacher screaming from the room.)

I constantly got easy A’s on my papers, while the other students were getting B’s and hard-won A’s, and spending a lot more time on their work than I did.

It never occurred to anyone in the department that it was how I wrote that made the difference, not the quality of my ideas or the way I expressed them. I didn’t even stumble on this little revelation myself until many years later.

What I learned was, if you want to be read, write simply. Don’t be flowery or use $50 words. Write at an 8th grade reading level, or possibly even a 6th. That’s where most newspapers are written these days. TV news copy is written at the 4th grade level.

The American Marketing Association even backs me up on this.

In January 2008, authors G. Alan Sawyer, Juliano Laran, & Jun Xu published the study, The Readability of Marketing Journals: Are Award-Winning Articles Better Written?

In a word, yes.

Basically, they wanted to see if award-winning journal articles were written more simply than the non-winners (we call them “losers” outside the academic walls). They ran the text through Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level grader, and did a whole bunch of complicated stuff with statistics that I won’t even pretend to understand.

The Reading Level score corresponds to the grade of education of the reader it would take to understand it. If your score is 8.4, it’s suitable for an 8th grader. A 14.6 is suitable for a college sophomore. A score of 21 or higher is suitable for Stephen Hawking, although he may find it a little pedestrian.

Here’s what they found:

Of the 15 articles with the best readability scores, 13 of them were award winners. They had scores from 12.3 to 14.4. Of the 11 worst least readable articles, 9 of them were “non-winners,” and carried scores from 18.3 to 21.3.

(Their own article has a 13.98 Flesch-Kincaid score. This post has a 6.7. I guess I win.)

So why is a lower reading score so important? Are we getting dumber? Do we all have the attention span of a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds?

No, the reason is our mental bandwidth. Let’s face it, we’re all busy, harried, and are running eight things through our brains at once. And that’s on a good day. When we’re confronted with a piece of text, we want it to be as simple as possible.

Simple doesn’t mean we’re stupid, or that our brains are shutting down. It means we don’t have to devote as much time and energy to it. We can process the text easily, absorb the information, and move on. We can absolutely read something that’s long and complex. We’re all smart people, and we can certainly read something written at a 12th grade reading level. It’s just that people sometimes need the break from the long and complex. Simple writing gives that to them, and as a result, is more readily accepted.

Basically, if you want to win readers, stick with the writing style the newspapers use. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Most important information goes up front, least important goes last. Avoid needless words.

Otherwise, your readers will eventually get bored and go elsewhere.

(Note: If you’re a Mac user, and don’t have access to Word’s Flesch-Kincaid grader, you can download Flesh, the document readability calculator. I used it to grade this post.)

Photo: Peyri

Five Quick and Easy Blog Writing Techniques

Yesterday, I gave a talk about Blogging Basics for Job Seekers to our local Business & Professional Exchange organization, a networking group for people who are looking for new employment.

I tried to explain blog writing as simply as possible, but as I was talking, I realized there’s more than one way to skin that cat, so I thought I would assemble a few of my favorite blog writing techniques here. Use any of them when you’re stuck, not so much for what to write about, but how to write it.

  • Dear Mom: The nice thing about blogging is that it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s as easy as writing an email. And the important thing about blogging is that you make the subject matter as simple and easy as possible. “Easy enough so that your mother can understand it,” I tell people. So start your blog post like this: “Dear Mom, Let me tell you about this cool thing I learned today,” and then tell her about it. When you’re done, delete the salutation and opening line, and you’ve got your blog post.
  • What Can [Insert Movie/Song/Sport/Esoteric Trivia] Teach Us About [Industry/Job/Social Movement]: I very nearly wrote a post about “What Ultimate Frisbee Can Teach Us About Blogging” once (I was an avid Ultimate Frisbee player many years ago), but then I decided I hated those kinds of posts. Still, they’re very successful, and they do serve a purpose. They force you to do some lateral thinking, and find weird connections between your chosen song/sport/etc. and your subject matter. It also gives you a framework to start building the post, which makes the writing much easier.
  • Use the News: This one is especially important if you’re writing about your chosen industry or field. Find news articles in other blogs, trade journals, or even the mainstream news, and write a news-opinion piece about it. Talk about the basic details of the story, and then offer your opinion on how this will affect your industry, for good or bad. Spend about half your post summarizing the story (don’t forget to cite the article and link to it), and then the other half putting forth your own ideas.
  • Once Upon a Time: People love stories. We’ve been passing knowledge through stories since before we had a written alphabet. Storytelling is in our DNA. So rather than just put forth an idea in the most general, vague terms, tell a story about how you saw it used. Tell a true story, or make one up, as sort of a modern-day parable. If you need to, tell your story to someone out loud before you commit it to paper. You’ll find a story flows much more easily than just reciting dry facts and banging out 30,000 foot overviews.
  • Lists: Create a list of ideas or techniques, and give it a descriptive and persuasive title. People love lists, and they’re easily drawn to them. (Hey, it got you to read this far, didn’t it?) Plus it makes writing much easier. Rather than coming up with one really long idea, you can instead create five simple ones. A list will keep you focused and let you lightly touch on the different ideas you want to cover. Then you can expand each of them for later posts.

When you’re trying these techniques, don’t let them turn you into a word factory. Try to stick with the mantra, “one idea, one post, one day.” If you find your posts are getting too long, split them up into two different ideas, or make your post a two-parter.

Photo: plindberg