The Code of the Ghostwriter

Row of Ghosts

Ghostwriters have their own unwritten code of ethics and practices.

(Or at least, we wrote it down, but like most ghost articles, no one knows who did it, so we can’t find it.)

Ghostwriters need a code of ethics and practices they live by. A short list of things we’ll do and not do in service of our clients. Based on my own work as a ghostwriter, as well as talking to other ghosts, these are the four main tenets of our profession.

1. Ghosts are heard, but never seen.

GhostwriterYou may read our work, but you’ll never know it was us. The ghost writer is there to attach the words to someone else’s stories. The sports star who spins a good yarn, but can’t write a grammatical sentence to save his life. The politician who’s too busy to spend six or eight hours a day writing down her life. The CEO who spends 14 hours a day running a global company, but doesn’t have time to send emails, let alone write a 200 page book.

So the ghostwriters do it. We don’t talk about it, we don’t get credit, we don’t get mentioned at awards time. Sure, we might get a small mention in the foreword, but it’s pretty rare for people to know who the ghost is. Some won’t even admit it, like whoever wrote Snooki Polizzi’s books.

2. Ghost writers should charge a fair price.

The price you charge needs to be fair to other writers as well as your clients. If you undercut your prices, and do the work for 20% less than your competition charges, you’re not only hurting yourself by leaving money on the table, you’re hurting the entire industry.

And what if the tables are turned. Some hack charges 20% less than the going rate, and your new client now expects the same price? Not only do you have to match it, but you may even have to beat it. Imagine going from $75 for an article to $60 to $50, all because you were too timid and your self-esteem wouldn’t let you charge enough to actually make it worth your while.

3. We’ll never reveal our clients without their permission.

Clients hire us because we agree to be heard, but never seen. They are paying, not only for our writing talent, but for the expectation of silence. That means we have a standing order to never tell anyone who we work for, because it means exposing a secret the client didn’t want to share.

If you want to be able to tell people who you work for, you need permission from your client to share that information. Otherwise, just don’t tell anyone.

4. There are some professions that should never use ghostwriters.

Academics, journalists, researchers, and students.

These people should never hire ghostwriters, and ghostwriters should turn down the work, because it could damage your own reputation. Using a ghostwriter in these situations is unethical, because these are the professions who are expected to do the work themselves. Using ghostwriters constitutes plagiarism, and these are the professions where plagiarism is a huge deal.

Ghostwriting is a profession for people who don’t have big egos that need to be stroked or warmed in the spotlight of recognition. But while a good ghostwriter may be quiet and unnoticed, they have the skills and experience to get the job done when no one else can do it.

Photo credit: Matthew Hurst (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Free Download of My Chapter from Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems

About 18 months ago, I was asked by authors Markus Ståhlberg and Villa Maila to contribute a chapter to their book Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems.

The book consists of 35 separate chapters written by 35 different social media experts from around the world. Ståhlberg and Maila asked, pleaded, and cajoled all of us to turn in our chapters, which they then wrestled to the ground and turned it into a heavy book about the marketing ecosystem. It’s not just online marketing, and it’s not a lot of “you should measure Return On Engagement” or “I’m the Chief Awesome Officer!” bullshit that litters the social media marketing book world.

Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems coverThis is a smart book written by smart people, talking about marketing in general, as it develops and revolves around brands, whether it’s traditional media, online, mobile, and even retail point-of sale.

With dramatic changes in consumer behavior – from online shopping to the influence of social media – marketers are finding it harder than ever to coordinate, prioritize and integrate the latest interactive channels into their overall brand-building strategy. With the emergence of the truly interactive consumer, marketers need to scrap the traditional TV-centric strategies and build their own multichannel ecosystems centered around digital channels and supported by traditional media.

Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems examines a fundamental game changer for the entire marketing industry – the seismic shift from a single TV-centric path to an interactive multichannel ecosystem that puts digital technology at the core of marketing strategy. With separate chapters on the remaking of marketing, the rise of the digital brand, conversion optimization, m-commerce, searchability in a multichannel world and predictive marketing, this book shows how marketers and brand managers can react positively to changes in consumer behavior, building customer responses and loyalty via the full spectrum of digital media.

Co-authors include Felix Velarde, CEO of Underwire; Sundeep Kapur, Allied Solutions; Cam Brown, CEO of King Fish Media; and my good friend and Branding Yourself co-author, Kyle Lacy, ExactTarget.

The book finally came out this winter, and I did what every other contributor probably did — flipped to their own chapter. I read it, I skimmed through several other chapters, tried to find typos in Kyle’s chapter (sorry, force of habit), and tried to make sense of everything in the book.

Like I said, this is a smart book. It’s packed with information — not just long blog posts, but analysis, strategies, and ideas that mid- to upper-level marketers need to know to help their brands be successful in a fracturing marketing ecosystem. This is beyond “DO TWITTER!” cheerleading. It’s heady stuff, and it’s written by the leading experts in their field.

If you’re interested in a free chapter, Ståhlberg and Vaila have allowed me to make my chapter — “What Really Counts In Metrics” — available for free download. you can download it here.

The Right and Wrong Way to Promote Your Personal Brand

Kelly Blazek letter to Menkota

One of the rules of personal branding is to help other people. If someone asks for help, you give it. You don’t keep score, expect a return favor, or hold it over their head.

And you certainly never, EVER scream at the other person or make them feel like a schmuck for looking up to you or hoping you’ll take five minutes to help them.

But Cleveland communication pro, Kelly Blazek, broke that rule when she sent several furious emails to young professionals who asked for a connection and subscription to an email job board she offered 7,300 other Clevelanders.

Diana Mekota received one after asking to be included on Blazek’s email list, and to connect with her on LinkedIn.

Apparently you have heard that I produce a Job Bank, and decided it would be stunningly helpful for your career prospects if I shared my 960+ LinkedIn connections with you — a total stranger who has nothing to offer me. Your invite to connect is inappropriate, beneficial only to you, and tacky.

Your invite to connect is inappropriate, beneficial only to you, and tacky. Wow, I cannot wait to let every 25-year-old jobseeker mine my top-tier marketing connections to help them land a job. Love the sense of entitlement in your generation. And therefore I enjoy denying your invite, and giving you the dreaded ‘I Don’t Know’ [NAME] because it’s the truth.

Oh, and about your request to actually receive my Job Bank along with the 7,300 other subscribers to my service? That’s denied, too. I suggest you join the other Job Bank in town. Oh wait – there isn’t one.

Kelly Blazek letter to MenkotaShe wrote at least two other hateful emails to people who she believed were not good enough for her network.

Blazek’s responses are wrong on so many levels, and she says she knows that now (after she got blasted on social media, and her emails became an international story). She wrote an apology, and I’m inclined to believe it, but I think she’s damaged her reputation pretty soundly. There’s even a move to have her stripped of her 2013 Communicator of the Year award from the Cleveland chapter of the International Award of Business Communicators.

How Good Networking Is Actually Done

When you reach a certain position, whether as a professional, speaker, author, or any other visible role in your community or industry, you have to acknowledge that you got there with the help of a lot of other people. You asked people for help, and they gave it. Or better yet, you didn’t ask, but received it anyway.

People who reach these stages are often excellent networkers. They love sharing and helping others achieve their goals. Good networkers do it without thinking, bad networkers either don’t do it at all, or do it with many strings attached.

Good networkers operate from a few foundational principles.

  • Your network should never be closed. While there are problems with having it be too big, there’s a lot more to be said against making it exclusive. You’re not a celebrity, and your friends aren’t movie stars and rock stars. There may be connections you protect from casual introductions, but that doesn’t mean you completely shut everyone out.
  • Blazek blasted Mekota as being “a total stranger who has nothing to offer me.” Good networkers believe everyone has something to offer. But to say a person has no value? That’s one of the worst things you could tell someone. Each of us has something to offer the world, and sometimes our job is to help others realize what their gift is.
  • “Nothing to offer me.” Good networkers never expect the other person to have something to offer them, because networking is not an “I’ll do for you only if you do for me” relationship. If you expect a quid pro quo exchange, people will soon grow tired of you. Keeping track of favors makes you stingy, and no one will want to help you at all.
  • And while you should never be rude, you definitely shouldn’t leave evidence of your rudeness. Not only does it make you less of a person — remember, we’re supposed to be our best selves — but your rudeness will be shared for everyone to see. In just a few short minutes, Blazek undid 10 years of hard work, all because she thought she was too good to help, and that they were beneath her.

Blazek has since closed down her Twitter account, LinkedIn account, and her WordPress blog. But in her wake, another Twitter account, @OtherNeoJobBank (“Oh wait, there is one”) has stepped up and is sharing job openings around the Cleveland area.

Mister Rogers Knows Networking

In the words of my hero, Mister Rogers, “I hope you’re proud of yourself for the times you’ve said ‘yes,’ when all it meant was extra work for you and was seemingly helpful only to someone else.”

The people who taught me about networking all modeled this idea. They said yes, even when it meant extra work for them. So I do the same for others; I do what I can to teach them to do it for the people who will come to them one day, asking them for the same help.

Networking is never about paying back. It’s about helping others achieve their goals, and teaching them how that’s done. Because one day, when they’re established and have reached the next level of their career, someone will ask for their help.

The lessons they teach and the help they give, will be a reflection on me, which is a reflection of those who taught me, and those who taught them. I hope they understand the long line of giving they come from, and continue to carry it on.

The Legend of John Henry Versus the Steam-Powered Content Driver

According to legend, John Henry was a steel drivin’ man, digging tunnels in the mountains in West Virginia. He was the best there was. He would rear back with his hammer until it touched his heels, and drive steel spikes into the rock with one mighty blow, so the holes could be filled with dynamite, and the tunnels could be dug out. No one could work as fast or as well as John Henry.

One day, the big bad bossman told John Henry that he was going to be replaced by a steam driver, a monster of a machine that could outwork any man. John Henry told the boss that no machine could beat him, and he would die with a hammer in his hand.

John Henry statue

The John Henry statue in Talcott, WV.

A race was set up between the two, man versus machine. The steam driver drilling holes into the rock, and John Henry slamming spikes home with his hammer. The two combatants went at it so hard and so long, no one knew who was going to win that day.

Once the whistle blew and the time ended, not only had John Henry won the battle, but the machine overheated and exploded from all the effort. A few seconds later, John Henry’s heart gave out, and he died the winner, still gripping his mighty hammer.

But while John Henry proved he was the better man, progress never stops. The machine was fixed, and the workers were still replaced in the end.

The Machines Are Still Coming

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the content shock and how we were going to be flooded by cheap, poorly-written content that was going to make it harder for good content marketers to get their stuff actually read.

Except now it’s worse.

While writers have only had to worry about competition from other humans, now it’s computers that are able to write. And if anyone is going to be creating the content shock, it’s going to be machines that can turn out articles in seconds and minutes, not hours.

This is what worries me. Not the poor writers who blob together a few sentences that would barely pass high school English. But the machines that can actually do an acceptable job of it.

I worry about companies like Automated Insights or Narrative Science, creators of software programs that can automate writing. Automated stories like Narrative Science’s stories for Forbes about earnings previews of publicly traded companies. Or Automated Insight’s mechanically generated stories for fantasy sports leagues. All output is based on algorithms and formulas, and is built on the principles that made Mail Merge so cool in the 1990s.

Just dump in the data, hit the button, and the algorithms will select language from a vast dictionary of phrases based on differences in scores. Once you’re done, you have a fact-based article about how one team fared against the other, how this quarter’s results are better than last quarter’s, or what your web analytics actually mean month over month.

While this automated writing can be mechanical and soulless, it still falls into that “mediocre” category that people have come to accept (they’ll accept it because we’ve been conditioned to by all the crappy writing that’s come before it from people who don’t give a shit about the quality of their work).

And the machines are improving.

The content created by computers now is much better than what was being plopped out just a few years ago. In a few more years, it could get better, which would be worse for human writers. Kris Hammond, CTO and co-founder of Narrative Science, told The Atlantic that it’s “theoretically possible for the platform to author short stories,” although The Atlantic author believes it will never match the soul and emotion of a human-generated story.

(Does it matter? By all accounts, 50 Shades of Grey was a badly-written piece of shlock, but still earned nearly $100 million in 2013. So much for the soul and emotion of human writing.)

Combining a slackening of acceptable standards with an improvement in robot writing, and this is where a majority of the content flood is going to come from in the next five years. Hammond once told Wired magazine that 90% of the content on the Internet will be generated by automated writers by 2027.

While I worry that it means fewer humans will be writing content, Hammond says that’s not the case. Instead, it will be because the machines are generating more and more articles than ever before.

And that’s where Schaefer’s content shock is going to come from.

The John Henrys of the written word are facing the new-fangled steam drivers, and it’s about to get ugly. As people, especially decision makers, lower their expectations about what’s good writing, that means they’re more willing to accept bad writing, or wooden not-quite-human writing. It means that people will blindly accept writing that wouldn’t have passed muster 50 years ago, but is considered “good enough for who it’s for.”

I hope it doesn’t mean we’re going to die with a pen in our hands.

Photo credit: Gene1138 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Five Best Blogging Service Providers in Indianapolis

Lindsay Manfredi plays guitar

It’s a great exercise in humility and a test of your ego to answer the question, “who are the five best blogging service providers,” and being told you can’t name yourself.

(Of course, anyone from Indiana would know better than to name themselves. Hoosiers are a humble people, after all.)

But who would I name as good content marketing/blogging service providers? After all, I should know this community and industry fairly well.

As I thought about the question, I thought back to my friendships that I’ve established over the years, and the people I’ve shared ideas, projects, and even clients with. And these are the five people and companies I would pick as five of the best blogging companies in central Indiana (in no particular order).

  • Metonymy Media: President Ryan Brock has made it a mission to hire only creative writing graduates, which is good, since creative writing as a professional pursuit is difficult. But it also makes Metonymy great story tellers. If we do face an impending content shock, then the storytellers are going to be the ones who win. He’s also managed to grow Metonymy into a sizable agency with several professional writers, and taught the city of Indianapolis what “metonymy” actually means. Ryan is also the founder of Indy WordLab, a writers’ meetup I attend nearly every month.
  • Lindsay Manfredi plays guitar

    Lindsay Manfredi. Seriously, how can you not be impressed by someone who has her own band?

  • Raidious: CEO Taulbee Jackson and I wrote The Owned Media Doctrine together last year, and I ended up learning a lot from him about content marketing on the enterprise level. They treat their content marketing efforts like a newsroom focusing on each day’s stories, being able to provide content to clients within hours, not days. Raidious also ran the Social Media Command Center for Super Bowl XLVI, a practice that every Super Bowl has adopted since then, and will continue to do so.
  • Lindsay Manfredi: She was one of the first bloggers I met when I started in this business, and I’ve learned a lot from watching her work. She was also willing to give advice when I needed it, and I’ve even referred a couple clients to her. Plus I love her energetic writing style — it matches her in person energy and the energy she brings to the stage when she’s playing live music around the city.
  • Digital Relevance: I’ve known Jeremy Dearringer since Digital Relevance was Slingshot SEO, and the company was just three guys doing SEO work for corporate clients. They’ve suffered under Google’s different algorithm changes, but have managed to pivot and become a content company that does SEO. They’re still one of the biggest tech employers in the city, and I’ve known several people who have worked at Digital Relevance (and Slingshot) at one time or another. If anyone knows SEO better in the Midwest, I haven’t met them.
  • Jackie Bledsoe: I first met Jackie during the Branding Yourself book launch in 2010, and have helped him as he learned about blogging and the professional copywriting life. He has parlayed his hard work into becoming one of the premier bloggers on fatherhood and family, writing for several family-related websites and publications, interviewing several celebrities, launching a podcast for couples, and is even working on an educational series that may turn into a book and speaking tour.

Those are the five people who I look to for my own inspiration and ideas of what I should be doing in running my own business. I try to learn from their creativity, their storytelling, work ethic, attention to technology, and energy. Hopefully I’ve been able to take something from the best of each of them and incorporate it into how I work.

Will You Survive The Content Shock?

Lightning

We’re about to be deluged with a flood of content of Noah-esque proportions that could get so bad, we may have to actually pay people just to read our work.

At least that’s what Mark Schaefer is saying.

He says we’re about to enter a period of content shock, which is going to render content marketing unsustainable as a marketing channel.

Lightning

Of course the volume of free content is exploding at a ridiculous rate. Depending on what study you read, the amount of available web-based content (the supply) is doubling every 9 to 24 months. Unimaginable, really.

However, our ability to consume that content (the demand) is finite. There are only so many hours in a day and even if we consume content while we eat, work and drive, there is a theoretical and inviolable limit to consumption, which we are now approaching.

This intersection of finite content consumption and rising content availability will create a tremor I call The Content Shock. In a situation where content supply is exponentially exploding while content demand is flat, we would predict that individuals, companies, and brands would have to “pay” consumers more and more just to get them to see the same amount of content.

I won’t lie. This scares me a bit. Basically, small content marketers who produce good work are going to be buried by Sturgeon’s Law.

(Scifi author Theodore Sturgeon once said “95% of everything is crap.” Actually, he said “crud,” but I like “crap” better.)

Still, in an age of the Walmartization of everything, there are experts and artisans who have survived the onslaught of cheap plastic crap cheapening their work.

If you want to survive the content shock, here are a couple things you need to remember.

You have to write better than everyone else

As much as it pains me to say it, you have to “write good content.” (Even though I still say it’s a stupid strategy.) But it can’t just be “good,” it has to be awesome.

Because most of the content that’s being put out by content marketers around the world is at best, just awful.

The Internet is already one example of Sturgeon’s Law, and we’ve managed to survive that so far. All this means is that there’s going to be more crap, and we just have to figure out a way to stay in the 5%, or even 1%.

The written word has been commoditized over the last few decades. Excellent writing was cheapened by pretty good writing, as publishing got cheaper. Pretty good writing was diluted by good writing, as people started blogging. And good writing is now being weakened by mediocre writing, as more businesses jump on the content train, and marketers will accept content from anyone and everyone who has a basic grasp of the English language.

If you want to outperform the flood, you need to be better than the mediocre crap that’s being passed off as “content.” You need to be better than the hacks and flacks who are calling themselves writers, just because they can construct a grammatical sentence.

You have to start “social media marketing” again

Plenty of social media veterans have stopped talking about “social media marketing” in favor of the new flavor of the day as being — inbound marketing, digital marketing, mobile marketing, blah blah blah — but businesses are only just now recognizing “social media marketing” is a thing.

But the content flood means that building relationships and being seen as an influencer is going to become important, even as it becomes more difficult. If nothing else, people will read your work because they trust you and know that you give them valuable insights.

If people buy from people they like, they’re certainly going to read stuff from people they like.

Lately I’ve been seeing a number of people inflating their Twitter and LinkedIn followings as a way to fake influence. They’re chasing numbers and growing their counts, but they’re not actually doing anything important or valuable.

That’s not influential, that’s just stupid.

I will never follow anyone with 20,000 followers and only 1,000 tweets. I can’t believe those 1,000 tweets are so awesome that 20,000 people shrieked “I have to be a part of this!

High followers + low tweets = you cheated. It doesn’t mean influence.

There’s no secret to being influential. You need to start building it three, four, five years ago. If you didn’t, don’t scam your way to the top. Slog it out like the real influencers.

The content shock may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t survive it. It means you have to work harder, write better, and be more trustworthy than everyone else. It means adding followers one and two at a time, by building genuine relationships with them.

Let all the hacks and fakers flail away at an ever growing mountain of utter crap. Stick with your own little patch and grow it by by bit. It may not be huge, but it will certainly be more effective and appreciated than those who muddled their way through and never actually contributed anything.

Photo credit: Luke Zeme Photography (Flickr, Creative Commons)

My Social Media and Content Marketing Predictions for 2014

Peyton Manning

It’s the annual end-of-year-what’s-happening-next-year prediction time, something I have proved to be very bad at ever since 1997, when I got pissed at the Indianapolis Colts for cutting quarterback Jim Harbaugh and bringing in some hick rookie from Tennessee to take over a playoff contending team.

Peyton Manning

This guy. It was this guy.

But I’m going to keep trying, because as my fantasy football record shows, there are people who are even worse at making predictions and they still get to keep their high-paying TV jobs. Apparently a 3-for-10 success rate is good enough in baseball and sports predictions, so if those idiots can make it, I’m certainly not giving up.

Here are my three social media and content marketing predictions for 2014.

1. Facebook’s and Twitter’s replacements will be born in 2014

I’m not saying Facebook and Twitter are going to die, but I think people are getting sick enough of their shenanigans that the networks that come after the two giants will be born in 2014. We just won’t realize what they are until a couple years later, when there’s a frog-in-slowly-boiling-water migration to the two newcomers. Keep your eyes peeled for Twitter alternatives next year and claim your favorite username while you still have time.

Part of me still hopes App.net could be Twitter’s successor — I even put $50 into their Kickstarter campaign in 2012 — but I haven’t used it enough to know how well it’s doing.

2. SEO professionals are going to continue to suffer

Google is never as happy as when they’re messing with search engine optimization professionals. The last three years of SEO changes have seen the end of many strategies that the cheaters and spammers employed to trick Google. The latest nail in the SEO’s coffin iteration of Google’s algorithm, Hummingbird, not only made high quality content a requirement, they also stopped reporting keywords, making it harder for SEOs to know why people came to their site in the first place.

These changes are going to continue until the only thing an SEO professional is good for is reading the analytics reports (and there are software packages that can make pretty dashboards with the click of a button). 2014 isn’t going to let up on them either. Look for another major shift in Google’s algorithm, and the continued closing of SEO companies that refuse to make the switch from code chaser to writer/video producer/audio engineer.

SERPFruit screenshot

This is a screenshot of SERPFruit’s analytics dashboard. Just connect it to your Google Analytics and get simple charts for your organic traffic.

3. Content marketing will become the new trend

Remember when everyone was clamoring for social media? Ah, those were the heady days. When a 26 year old could get hired as the VP of social media at a fast food chain, and when interns and recent college grads were handed the keys to the most public-facing communication channel a company had. Media had not been that much of a Wild West frontier since the very early days of radio when anyone with a transmitter could call themselves a radio station.

Now that everyone has calmed down about social media, and it’s becoming just another marketing channel, it looks like content marketing is becoming the Next Big Thing. There are companies, websites, and entire conferences dedicated to content marketing, and we’re starting to see predictions like three Fortune 500 companies will hire chief content officers. That does seem a little specific — what’s next, chief video officers? Chief analytics officers? Remember, a Chief ____ Officer is one of the most senior executives in a company. A Content Marketing Director seems more likely — but it does illustrate how important companies will realize content is to their marketing efforts.

It also means there’s potential work for all the professional journalists who have been losing their jobs at the newspapers and magazines. My only hope is that the same people who were hiring the college kids to run their social media marketing will actually take the time to find the best writers, and not assume that everyone who was born with a computer on their lap knows how to write.

Look to see an increase of content marketing production hires, as well as an increase of content marketing spending by CMOs, not only to the detriment of traditional marketing, but maybe even social media and (hopefully) SEO as well.

Okay, maybe “predictions” is a strong word, but based on the trends of 2013, I can only assume that numbers 2 and 3 are going to continue in the new year. Pay close attention to history, kids, because that’s where you’re going to learn your most valuable lessons.

By my count, I’m 6 for 10 in my social media predictions over the past three years, which is twice as good as the football pundits who rumble about their picks every Sunday morning. I’m hoping this year’s predictions can boost my total, thus helping me forget my Peyton Manning flub 16 years ago.

Weird Habits To Improve Your Writing Skills

Professional baseball players have any number of superstitions they follow to improve their game. They have lucky underwear or a special charm. They don’t change their socks when they’re on a hitting streak. And no one talks to the pitcher throwing a no-hitter.

I’ve developed some of my own weird habits as a way to improve my writing. My ultimate goal is to make my writing as direct and succinct as possible, and I am always trying different techniques to achieve the desired results. Here are three habits I’ve developed over the years as a way to improve my writing.

1. No Orphan Words

In typesetting lingo, widows and orphans are leftover words in a paragraph or page. Widows are the last line in a paragraph that appears on the next page. An orphan is a single word on its own line at the end of a paragraph.

When I’m using my laptop’s word processor, I will often rewrite entire paragraphs just to get rid of that one trailing word. The orphan isn’t actually a problem in itself, but by eliminating it, I make sure my sentences are as tight as they can be.

2. No Sentence Longer Than The Page Width

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona TypewriterBack in the 1980s, my friend Bruce Hetrick was the communications director for the mayor of Fort Wayne, and often wrote his speeches. Since he wrote them out on the typewriter, his practice was that no sentence could be longer than 6.5 inches, the width of a single page with one inch margins. He would then rewrite it and lay it out so the mayor could read it (larger type, wider margins), but the original text had to conform to Bruce’s line length rule. This made the mayor’s lines short and easy to say, rather than long sentences that required stopping for a breath in the middle.

This is another sentence tightening technique you can try. By getting rid of extraneous words to make your sentences fit a single line, you can keep everything drum tight. I’ve tried this when I’ve done speechwriting, but I tend not to worry too much about it for my regular writing.

3. Use a Typewriter

I bought an old manual typewriter several months ago, a 1956 Smith-Corona Super-Silent, and started writing my newspaper humor columns on it. Not only is it much slower going — I have to use my index fingers to jab the keys — but there are no delete keys, no copy and pastes, no rearranging paragraphs. I have to yank the carriage return at the end of every line, and there are typos galore.

Everything I do on the typewriter is deliberate and requires forethought. On a computer, I can type and think at the same time, because I type fast. While I’m writing this sentence, I’m already thinking about the next three.

But with a typewriter, it’s much slower. I type out a sentence and because I type so slowly, I can’t think about anything else. I have to sit and think about what comes next. Imagine taking 5 – 10 seconds between sentences before you write the next one. Then when you type it, you either have to follow the direction it’s going to take you, or you have to go back to the beginning of it and start X-ing out the sentence and typing a new one.

While it hasn’t changed my overall writing habits, using a typewriter is causing me to use some different writing muscles that I haven’t used since I was 14 and would play around on my parents’ electric Smith-Corona.

My wish as a writer is to sound more like Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, or Mike Royko, all masters of the short, powerful sentence. These three writing habits have helped me work toward that goal, although there’s always something new I can do.

What are some of your writing habits? What do you do to improve your writing? Leave your ideas in the comment section so I can steal them we can discuss them further.

Bad Content Is Worse Than No Content

Sign that says I Would Have Preferred a Blank Wall Rather Than This Great Piece of Shit

Yes, that’s right. You’re actually better off to have no content whatsoever on your blog than to put up bad, or even mediocre, content. That’s because bad content will drive people away forever.

Jake Athey’s recent post on The Next Web, Bad content is worse than no content: How to create stuff that doesn’t stink argues that customers will judge you and your website based on the content they find.

Visiting a website with filler content is a lot like walking into a living room and finding a coffee table book like “Extraordinary Chickens” or “United States Coinage: A Study By Type.” As a visitor, you’re under no obligation to read either book, but you have to question the judgment of the person who chose them.

Sign that says I Would Have Preferred a Blank Wall Rather Than This Great Piece of Shit

You can see the original French version of this billboard here.

As Kyle Lacy and I said in Branding Yourself, you’re better off not being on a social network than only being on it sporadically, because it shows you’re not committed. A complete absence, while not desirable, is understandable.

So how much worse is it that your bad content, even regularly-posted content, is worse than not being on there at all, or even on it sporadically? How bad does it have to be that “no content” is preferable?

In his post, Athey offers three tips to creating good content:

  1. Set a measurable goal.
  2. Give your visitors what they want.
  3. What can we offer that nobody else can?

The underlying idea of Athey’s article is that everything needs to be well-written or well-produced. As he said, “anyone can produce Web copy, infographics, videos, slideshows, white papers, blog posts, cartoons and interactive gizmos – but not everyone can do it well.”

Doing it well is going to give visitors a reason to show up. Being “good enough” is no longer good enough. Good enough gets you the bronze. Winners do it well.

Content First, Design Second

Remember, content is not filler. It’s not the stuff you drop in once you’ve got your beautiful design all finished. Content is the whole reason people come to your website. They want to read, see, and hear what you have to say about your product or service. They’re not there to see your color scheme, font choice, or layout.

If you put content first, and design second, everything will fall into place.

Your content has to:

  1. Be well-written. This above all else: to thine own words be true. You can’t just write like a high school student. Don’t use too many words, or needlessly big words. Use proper spelling and grammar. Writing is not one of those “good enough” activities. Your content needs to be awesome. Don’t trust your content creation to someone who doesn’t have a passion for words. You may even want to hire a professional, because mediocre content can actually lose you money. (Consider it an investment.)
  2. Be interesting. I can take the most boring, tedious idea and write it perfectly, but it will still be boring. Boring content is usually overloaded with stats, overly technical, or uses enough qualifiers and jargon to make a scientist squeal like a 12-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber. Unless you’re writing an academic paper or journal article where that kind of writing is actively encouraged, focus on writing to a general audience. Make your writing accessible.
  3. Use stories. You’ve heard it over and over in content marketing articles, but it bears repeating. Stories make points better than stats and concepts. As the holidays are coming up, pay attention to the nonprofit fundraising letters that come to your house. Every single piece will tell a story about a single adult/child/organization that needs your help. The story is the hook that gets you interested. Convey your information with stories first.

(Yes, I realize I’ve completely left out the infographic designers and video and audio producers from this list. I’m a writer, I do words. If you want something on infographics, videos, or podcasts, read back through the list and anywhere you see “writing,” put in your favorite medium.)

The Internet is so saturated that we’re at the point where bad content is toxic, and mediocre content is enough to drive people away. That means stop worrying about publishing every day, because you’re not giving us great or new ideas, you’re recycling the old ones. Publish when you have something interesting to say instead, and people will stick around to see what bit of awesomeness you’re sharing.

Focus on creating only the best content you can be proud of, something that you’d be willing to share if someone else had written it. If you can’t be proud of it, don’t publish it.

Photo credit: Urban Artefakte (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Ain’t No Party Like a PERQ Launch Party

Employee in PERQ collaboration space

If you’re involved in the Indianapolis tech startup scene, you already know about Verge, the startup community made up of entrepreneurs, programmers, and investors. We come together once a month, hear a few pitches from some exciting new startups, drink beer, eat pizza, and network with new people (and old friends).

Tonight was an especially huge night for Verge, because we were being hosted by PERQ, the new company formerly known as CIK Enterprises. They were hosting us because they were launching their new corporate identity and look. This was a mega launch party, the size of which I have not seen in Indianapolis in my nearly six years of doing social media and tech stuff.

PERQ was created when CIK consolidated several different companies they owned, and created this new enterprise. The previous three companies served clients in the newspaper, automotive, and retail industries. Because of this consolidation, they’re combining all forces to create a new marketing technology solution — FATWIN — to offer “business-branded games, contests, and sweepstakes with direct mail, email and advertising campaigns to attract in-store and online traffic.”

I first became acquainted with CIK and one of their companies, Tri-Auto Enterprises, when I worked at a local direct mail company years ago. In fact, I bumped into my old boss on the shuttle ride over from the parking lot, who was there for the PERQ launch. He hadn’t heard of Verge, so I was able to fill him in on what it was all about.

Employee in PERQ collaboration space

See? At first glance, you probably thought it was a real bookshelf too.

Not only were they launching a new company with new branding, they had a new look to their office. Everyone who attended got the grand tour of the office, including the conference rooms (complete with Legos for brainstorming, or at least looking creative), the open concept desks, the giant warehouse space turned meeting and collaboration space, the gym and weight room, and even the video broadcast booth. The whole building is so big, they even have Razor scooters for people to ride, like some sort of inter-office scooter share program. TKO Graphics created several of the wall decorations, including a gigantic bookshelf wall that I kept mistaking for a real bookshelf when I saw it from the corner of my eye.

All in all, it’s a gorgeous new space, and I kept wishing I worked there just because it looked so awesome. I might even be able to, because according to their press release, the company plans on hiring 30 new employees to deal with all their new growth and to help promote their new FATWIN technology.

FATWIN is an interesting new product that lets people enter promotional contests held by different companies using the service. From what I can tell, I can either join a company’s FATWIN promotion, or I can join FATWIN and join different companies’ promotions from there. My data is used only by the companies whose promotions I join, and they don’t sell it to third parties. From a data privacy standpoint, I appreciate this approach, because I can give my data only to the companies of my choosing, and not have to worry that some fly-by-night company is going to start spamming me two weeks later.

According to the FATWIN website:

FATWIN is a resource for people who love to win. It’s for people who love to play games, love to enter promotions, and hate to sign up for free stuff over and over again. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible — and for you to have a great experience while winning great prizes and discounts from your favorite brands.

For more information on PERQ, you can visit the website at . You can also follow them on Twitter at @perqmarketing.

Photo credit: PERQ