How to Learn and Understand Anything

Jon Barney is an up-and-coming writer in the Orlando, Florida area (originally from Lafayette, LA, and has a lot of big ideas about a lot of things. Jon says he has an amazing wife and two kids, and he “loves the hotel restaurant industry and corny jokes,” which makes him a man after my own heart. Jon has an interesting process about he does a deep dive into any idea, process, or event that interests him.

We live in the information age. You can access the entire world from anywhere. Add in 24-hour news feeds, posts, tweets, snapchats, marketing and you are flooded with information.

The problem we face is overload. There is no way possible to download all the information thrown at us. Our brains are like sponges, absorbing information, but it reaches a saturation point. How much water can a full sponge soak up? None. Our brains operate in the same way — if we can’t fit new information into our brains, it gets swept away, and we move on to the next piece. Or we stop taking information in altogether.

Want to learn how an internal combustion engine works? Break down the process and redefine complex terms.

Want to learn how an internal combustion engine works? Break down the process and redefine complex terms.

To understand anything, turn on your childlike curiosity. When I was a kid, I was super annoying (some would say I still am) because I always asked “Why?” Every answer I received led to more and more questions.

After my mom said “Because I said so, that’s why” a thousand times, I realized my parents didn’t have the patience or knowledge to satisfy my curiosity. Instead, they sent me to school to let someone else deal with me for a while. I kept going off on tangents because the “broad overview” we were getting wasn’t enough. I wanted to dive into each subject, but knowing everything about American history doesn’t help you pass math. To satisfy my curiosity and keep my grades up, I had to learn to understand ideas at lightning speed.

I learned from that experience how important questions are. You have to ask the right questions to find the right answers. We all know that, but do we actually do it?

Think about these two questions “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” Which one is easier to answer? The right question leads you to the key concept in the shortest amount of words. To find the right question start with the 5 basic ones: who, what, where, when and why. Answering those will help you create a more specific question and help you find your meaning.

Break Things Down to Their Smallest Digestible Parts

Let’s say I want to know how an engine works. I go through the 5 basic questions to form the right question. Who designs engines? What is an engine? Where do they make them? When was the first engine built? Why did someone invent the engine? The answers are difficult to understand because they are written by engineers for engineers.

I take all the research I’m doing and find any words or processes I don’t know and redefine them. (Good thing I have that Google Dictionary in my pocket.) Next, I remove technical jargon and insider slang from anything I’m reading and replace them with synonyms I already know. Using words you already know frees up your brainpower to search for meaning in the idea instead of being a dictionary.

You have all of this easy to understand information but not enough memory hold every detail in. Use the KISS formula — no, not painting your face — Keep It Simple Stupid.

How do you do that? Think of a deck of cards as your information, and break it down into groups. You know there are 52 cards, 26 of each color, 13 of each suit and 4 of each value. You have to do the same thing with information and go for the lowest common denominator.

It’s actually a complex process to understand and find meaning in things. You draw on all your life’s experiences, memories, emotions, opinions, life situations, and influences just to come up with something you can understand. That’s a lot of mental computing just to see if the story about increasing oil prices will affect you.

Making It Simple Makes It Stick

I mentioned breaking everything down in common language terms earlier for a reason: There is no point in having all the knowledge in the world if you can’t share it.

I had a sales job for a while, but not very long because I was terrible at it. I couldn’t sell water in the desert. One day my sales manager explained why I wasn’t selling anything.

“Jon, no one understands what the hell you are talking about. If you can’t explain it to a 5th grader don’t say it to your prospects!”

I quit eventually because I was tired of not eating, but I also learned two important lessons. Test your pitch on someone first. And big, fancy words are nice for term papers or to impress your snobby friends at the coffee shop, but they don’t help people understand complex ideas. Teaching someone else locks the information in your brain by building mental short cuts.

Understanding anything is simple if you can remember: to be annoying, ask smart questions, play cards and that no one cares if you know what sesquipedalian means.

Photo credit: Mj-bird (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Skip the Fancy Apps: You Don’t Need Special Tools to be a Writer

I love to hassle my artist friends about the cost of producing their art versus mine:

“Do you ever think about how you need a $1000 camera to make your art, but I can do mine with a pencil stub and back of an envelope.”

And then I get escorted from their exhibition, and they don’t speak to me for months.

I’ve had several discussions with photographer friends — all professionals who make their living behind the lens — about whether they could produce high quality work with a cheap point-and-shoot camera or needed expensive equipment. They all agreed, good equipment made life easier, but their (breathtaking) skills let them overcome the shortcomings of the cheap equipment.

And so it goes with painters, sculptors, potters, jewelers, and furniture makers. Professionals can do a lot with cheap tools, but they really shine with high-quality tools and equipment. (Conversely, an amateur armed with the best tools doesn’t have the skill to match the professional using poor tools.)

Writers Don’t Need Special Equipment

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona TypewriterThat’s the great thing about writing. Our work doesn’t improve with our tools. We don’t need hand-crafted pencils made from reclaimed barn beams and carbon fiber bicycle wrecks. Or pens with comfort grips and high-tech synthetic ink. Or frictionless paper that glides under our hands. (Although this Ogami stone paper is unbelievably smooth!)

A writer really can get by with a golf pencil and the back of an envelope. A writer writes; everything they do happens in their brain, and gets translated onto paper.

It’s the same on the digital front. There are no special apps that make us better writers. No apps that make our words shine or turn them into magical ideas.

Sure, there are plenty of tools that claim to be writers’ apps. Tools that shut off Facebook and tools that hide your entire laptop screen. But what can they do that a simple “I’m not going to use Facebook for the next two hours” self-promise cannot?

(Said the guy who checked Twitter three times in the last hour.)

There are minimalist writing apps that strip out all the bells and whistles of Apple Pages or Word. But you can also get TextWrangler for Mac or Microsoft Works for free, or just plain old Google Docs.

There’s even Scrivener, but that’s more of a workflow/information management tool. It’s great for large bodies of work, like a master’s thesis, novel, or screenplay, but for anything less than 1,000 words, it’s like taking a moving van on a quick run to the grocery store.

There are other tools, like RhymeZone.com and Thesaurus.com, but they’re not writer-specific. And don’t get me started about Evernote. I love Evernote, and have the pro version, but you can’t swing a dead cat/mouser/tomcat/grimalkin without hitting an article that lists Evernote as a “must-have writing app.”

What CAN Writers Use?

Don’t get me wrong. These are all fine apps, and I use several of them. But these aren’t must-haves like a photographer and his camera, or a painter and her brushes.

If you want special writing tools, get a basic notebook and a decent pen, and just start writing. Or pick the word processor and laptop you’re most comfortable with. Whether you handwrite everything, or you have a 21″ HD computer monitor and bluetooth keyboard, you’re going to get your best work done with the tools you feel comfortable with.

I’ve written in small grid-lined Moleskine notebooks with a Pilot G-2 gel pen for 12 years. I’ve pounded on a 60 year old Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter, and an 80 year old L.C. Smith & Corona Silent. I’ve used Apple’s word processor (AppleWorks, ClarisWorks, and now Pages) since I was 20. I’ve played with different writing apps, including Facebook blockers, minimalist writers, and even Scrivener.

But none of these made me a better writer. None of these improved my writing or my efforts. Sure, some of them were more efficient, but you measure good writing in results, not efforts. No one cares about the process, just the finished product.

In the end, no tool will make you a better writer. Apps can improve the process, but they don’t improve your skills. While we can argue that better tools make better paintings/photographs/sculptures/tables, a better word processor doesn’t make a better story. Focus less on the tools you use, and more on your process, and everything will fall into place.

The Seven Mudas (Wastes) of Content Marketing

Lean Manufacturing, which spawned America’s Agile business movement, is based on a Japanese management philosophy. It was further developed by Taiichi Ohno as part of the Toyota Production System. Ohno identified seven different areas of waste, and said that if companies could solve these problems, they could improve profits and productivity.

One of the tenets of the Lean Philosophy is to avoid mudas, or wastes. In manufacturing terms, these are the different pinch points that have an impact on the manufacturing process. For example, Inventory means you’ve tied up a lot of capital in having extra raw materials or finished products on hand, which crunches your cash flow. Over-processing means you’re putting more time and energy into each unit than you will see in profits.

While the Seven Mudas are applied primarily to manufacturing, they can be equally applied to content marketing. They are Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-Processing, Over-Production, and Defects; they spell TIMWOOD.

Transportation

Transportation is one of the Seven Wastes of Content Marketing as well as Manufacturing.

This is an example of the Transportation muda. Products can get damaged during transportation, which wastes time and money.

What it means: Every time you move raw materials or a finished product, it can be damaged or lost. You also have to pay for each time you move it with labor and equipment costs, but those don’t add to the value of the product.

How it applies to content marketing: If you edit your content by committee, if you have layers upon layers of approvals, if you have a system that does not trust two grown adults to write and edit a piece of content, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy. The Transportation muda is the time and resources wasted by passing a piece of content between three or more people who need to approve before it can be published.

How to solve it: Set up a system where one person writes, one person edits, and then it gets published. If you require a third person’s approval, these are symptoms of a bigger inefficiency. You presumably hired intelligent, responsible adults, and if you can’t trust them to make intelligent, responsible decisions, that’s a management problem, not an employee problem. Before you ever start a content management program, create an understanding of what you can and cannot discuss on your blog or social networks.

Inventory

What it means: Storing up raw materials or completed products. They don’t make you any money, and won’t until you sell it, which is wasted capital and labor. This is the problem that just-in-time inventory systems usually fix.

How it applies to content marketing: Storing up a lot of articles in advance can cause publishing problems because you either have to pay your writers up front (tying up capital), or you could lose the content because other issues and industry changes arise. You’ve paid for all of this great content, only to bump it further down the publishing queue until it’s out of date or completely forgotten.

How to solve it: Don’t store more than one month’s content in your inventory, because you never know when your editorial calendar is going to change. Instead, revisit your editorial calendar once a month, and make sure you’re still on track.

Motion

What it means: Similar to Transportation, Motion is about the movement of workers and machines. Too much motion makes people prone to injury, and machines are prone to damage from wear-and-tear through continual motion.

How it applies to content marketing: I’m going to reverse this one. The problem with a lot of content is over-automation. It’s a lack of motion. People look for the shortcuts and easy way out. But you’re sitting on a comfy chair, typing on a computer, and the only thing that actually moves are your fingers and wrists. What kind of shortcuts in life do you actually need for this job?

How to solve it: If you want good content, it’s going to take some effort on your part. You’re going to have to read, research, edit, and practice. You’re going to have to be creative, and come up with new ideas. You can’t automate this, and you can’t take shortcuts. Don’t copy-and-paste tweets into Facebook status updates. Write something different for each channel, and take advantage of its uniqueness.

Waiting

What it means: The opposite of Motion is Waiting. If products are not being transported or made, it causes delays in the line. Delays mean employees are Waiting, which means you’re paying for non-performing labor.

How it applies to content marketing: Waiting is often caused by a bottleneck in your creation process. Either your writer is too slow, or your editor is taking too long. Maybe they have too many projects, or they don’t have enough work. Or you have way too many meetings. (Or you completely ignored me on the Transportation thing, and your compliance department is taking their own sweet time.)

How to solve it: Look at your content staff’s typical productivity, and see what they can normally handle on a good day. If they have less work than that, you need more clients/projects. If they have more work, you need to more people. But don’t create busy work just so they have something to do. Focus on high quality first.

Over-processing

What it means: Doing more work than is actually needed. This not only has the problem of extra Motion, but it also adds additional labor costs.

How it applies to content marketing: Any. Committee. Ever. Do not assign content creation to a committee. The fewer people involved, the better.

How to solve it: Content creation should be between the writer and the editor. (Of course, dont’ forget the client, if you have one.)

Over-production

What it means: Sometimes called the worst muda, because it creates so many other problems. If you work ahead, you have a problem of Inventory. You have to move the product to its Waiting place, which means more Transportation. More production means more Motion. Plus, you run the risk of creating more Defects.

How it applies to content marketing: Don’t confuse this one with Inventory, although they’re two sides of the same coin. Inventory has its own problems, but Over-production is the process of getting to that point. Are you adding bells and whistles to every piece of content? Are you repurposing old content to the point that you’re just copying-and-pasting, and slapping a different title on it? I see this when a marketer turns a blog post into a podcast into a movie into an infographic into an ebook into a one-woman show at their local fringe theatre festival. It’s tiresome and more than a little lazy.

How to solve it: Figure out what your readers want, and give it to them. Focus on creating original ideas, backed by original research, and make everything the best it can be. Rather than recycling and repurposing that content into 17 different forms, pick one or two and stick with it. Repurposing only contributes to the content shock.

Defects

What it means: In manufacturing terms, Defects are broken products that result from bad materials, poor employees, and even problems of Transportation and Motion. Remember, it’s not just poorly-made products; it’s also a unit you stuck a forklift through during Transportation.

How it applies to content marketing: These are your typos, your grammatical errors, misused punctuation, and so on. While a misplaced apostrophe won’t waste a blog post, it can affect your credibility. I’ve seen articles on websites that claim to have strict editorial controls, and they demand excellence from their writers. And yet, I’ve seen misspelled and missing words in their work. So much for “excellence.” These are also articles with bad information, poor research, poor logical arguments, etc. And don’t even get me started on just plain old terrible writing.

How to solve it: Work with professionals. Hire professional writers and editors. Don’t just pass it off to the younger staff because it’s “that new-fangled online stuff.” Pass it off to them because they love to write. Pay for training for your staff, give them opportunities to develop further, and help them get better at their jobs. Or, just outsource the work to the pros.

Did I miss anything? Any descriptions you would agree or disagree with? Any interesting stories you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below, and let me know how you would describe your own Mudas of Content Marketing.

Photo credit: Astrid Groeneveld (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Eight Simple Rules for Using Apostrophes

I hold two punctuation marks near and dear to my heart. So dear that I want to get a tattoo of them (if my wife would ever let me get one).

They’re the comma (specifically, the Oxford comma) and the apostrophe.

I want to get a big comma on my right shoulder. Then, when I stand up, it will be an apostrophe.

Apostrophes. Well, ONE apostrophe.

See, it could be a comma OR an apostrophe. Now that’s a double duty tattoo!

I want this for two reasons: 1) I believe in the spirit and intent of the Oxford comma, although I recognize that some people believe the Oxford comma is optional and unnecessary. These people are dangerous and you should avoid making eye contact with them.

2) On the other hand, the apostrophe has specific rules and usages which have been carved into stone and were brought down with Moses during a second, less well-known, trip up Mount Sinai.

My friend, Casey Valiant of Signarama Evansville, challenged me to write this blog post (three years after he challenged me to write a post, “Five Things Miley Cyrus’ Tongue Can Teach Us About Business“), so I came up with my eight simple rules for using apostrophes.

(With apologies to Bruce Cameron.)

1. Apostrophes are never, EVER used to pluralize a word.

It’s not DVD’s, CD’s, laptop’s. If you ever want to put an apostrophe before an S to show that you mean more than one, please wrestle yourself to the ground until the urge passes.

2. There is only ONE exception to rule #1.

And that’s to pluralize single letters. The Oakland A’s, the Model T’s.

But you don’t use it pluralize decades, like 70s and 80s.

However, some editors want you to use it before the decade, to show the “19” is missing: I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.

Finally, don’t use it for combinations of letters and numbers, like “iPhone 5Cs.”

3. Apostrophes are used to show contractions.

“It is” becomes “it’s.” “I am” becomes “I’m.” And even “I would have” becomes “I’d’ve,” and looks goofy.

Also, remember, “would have” becomes “would’ve,” not “would of.”

4. Apostrophes are also used to show possessive.

The man’s shirt was on fire.
The woman’s skirt was caught in the front door

And you put apostrophe-S on the end of plural words that don’t end in S.

The children’s recess was interrupted by the meteor storm.
The gentlemen’s picnic was interrupted by the geese’s mating rituals.

5. Its/it’s is a right bastard.

This the one possessive that violates rule #4. Its (without the apostrophe) is possessive, even though every other possessive word in the known universe has an apostrophe.

It’s is a contraction, and not the possessive version of “it.”

It’s weird, I know. No one said the English language made sense; it’s an ever-changing tapestry of illogic and uncertainty.

6. You MAY or MAY NOT use ‘s on words that end in S. It depends.

Depending on whether you’re American or British, there are rules about which one you follow:

American: I love Dr. Seuss’ books.

British: I love Dr. Seuss’s books.

This is true for plural-and-possessive names too.

American: The Bensons’ peanut-and-olive sandwiches are the best I’ve ever had.

British: Eww, what is wrong with you?!

Some Americans prefer the ‘s on words ending in S, but they’ve been known to consort with people who dislike the Oxford comma. They are morally suspect as well.

This is one area where you can choose your preference. It’s just important that you pick one style and stick with it. Be consistent.

But if you chose s’s, I wish you luck in the future. This is your life now.

7. Apostrophes are used to show glottal stops.

Say “button” without the “tt” sound. Sounds like “Buh-Un,” right? That’s a glottal stop; you’re stopping the air flow in your glottis or vocal tract.

You typically don’t see this used in regular words, but you would see it used in proper names.

For example, the “Shi’Ar” alien race from the X-Men comics, uses the apostrophe to make the glottal stop sound. “She. Arr.” You also see apostrophes-as-glottal-stops in the written Klingon language.

Well, you might, Poindexter. I’m sticking with my comic books.

8. There are stupid exceptions that make me want to set my hair on fire.

One thing that always frustrated me when I was writing Branding Yourself was my editor’s insane insistence that we had to write do’s and don’ts, and put the apostrophe in do’s for “consistency’s sake. It looks balanced.”

“Consistency can go have sex with itself,” I suggested, but was overruled.

These days, I still leave the apostrophe out of “do’s,” but now it looks like “dos and don’ts,” which is Spanish for “two and don’ts.” So, thanks for that.

My point is, there are occasional exceptions which are used either as institutional style, but if you follow them, you’d better make sure you can make a case for violating the other 7 rules.

“Because we said so,” is not a good case. Although it was pretty persuasive at the time.

 

Those are my 8 rules for apostrophe use. Where do you stand on this somewhat-misused and misunderstood punctuation mark? Did I miss any? Or did I get one of these rules wrong? Let me hear from you in the comments below.

Photo credit: Andreas06 (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

LinkedIn Etiquette: No, I Don’t Want What You’re Selling

As I connect with marketers on LinkedIn, I’m reminded about what Gary Vaynerchuk once said about high school kids and relationships.

They’re always trying to close on the first date.

I’ve lost count of the number of people on LinkedIn who wanted to connect with me, only to turn around and immediately email me with whatever they’re selling.

It’s happened to me for nine years, and I can tell you exactly how many people I’ve responded to with any interest: zero.

I see most people who sell to me on LinkedIn as snake oil salesmen (and women)While I’m not an avid LinkedIn user, I do check it a few times a week, respond to non-sales messages, and will even reach out to a few people for connections.

But I hate it when people I’ve never met try to sell to me on something I never said I needed.

I mean, maybe if I expressed some interest in a particular service, or I publicly lamented about a problem I was having, then I might be interested in what these marketers and salespeople have to say. If I say I hate WordPress because it’s so hard to figure out, or if I gripe that managing my accounts takes too long, then I would expect to hear from WordPress designers or accountants.

(By the way, I’m good on WordPress and accounting. No problems there.)

But when they contact me about their web design, mobile app design, or SEO services, it’s clear they never even read my website, let alone my profile.

When they DM me on Twitter — “Hi, , thanks for connecting! Here’s a free ebook I wrote, which has nothing to do with anything you do for your job!” — I write a similarly-worded message, and invite them to visit my own humor website. I even told a few I would be willing to listen to their sales pitch if they did it. I rarely get a response, which makes me wonder if they read their DMs.

While some people over-connect on LinkedIn, trying to amass as many connections as they can, I take a more reserved approach. I’ll reach out to people I’ve met before, and connect with them. However, I’m less reserved when it comes to accepting connections, because I don’t know if any of them are readers or have bought one of my books. Rather than appear rude, I’ve accepted the connections, only to get a sales message less than 12 hours later.

The Facebook Problem

The problem is easy to identify on Facebook. I think we’ve all gotten these messages. Depending on your gender, a young woman or young man with only two photos on their profile will send a friend request. They’re not in your friend network, except for maybe one mutual friend. Their profile only has one or two photos, slightly sexy, but not overly provocative. And you have no idea how you would know this person.

You only have to accept a couple of these to realize this is some form of spam. The account either changes to porn, or you’re bombarded with private message communication requests. After a couple of these, you learn to ignore friend requests from anyone who does not know several of your friends of both genders.

(Helpful hint: Guys, it’s a telltale sign — and also a little creepy — when a 20-something woman’s only friends are men in their 40s and older.)

We have the same kind of problem on LinkedIn. So many people fail to change their “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn” message that most people just accept it. I used to be more picky, and would only accept people who had updated their message. But I decided I was fighting a losing battle, and gave that up.

As a result, I fall prey to every salesperson who’s using LinkedIn to scope out their next cold call. Rather than trying to build a relationship or gauge my interest, they’re immediately pestering me for phone meetings and conference calls.

An accepted connection on LinkedIn does not mean I want to be sold to, especially when that’s the first communication I get from you. Not even a “hi, thanks for connecting.” Just a “Hi, we provide the identical service hundreds of other people have contacted you about.”

If you truly want to become a potential partner or vendor, take the time to gauge my interest and my needs. Provide me with useful information that will help me do my own job better and make my life easier. Share information, provide valuable content, and prove yourself to be someone who’s smart, knowledgeable, and capable of doing what you claim.

Don’t try to sell me in your very first communication. That’s a guaranteed “No.”

Photo credit: Carol Highsmith (Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, Public Domain)

Should You Publish on LinkedIn, Medium, and Other Publishing Sites?

Marketers seem to suffer from the Shiny Object syndrome more than most. They’re distracted by the newest, shiniest toy dangled in front of them. Seriously, my dog gets less distracted when I jangle my keys.

Content marketers are just as bad. I’ve seen people jump on Medium, LinkedIn, Ello, This, Inc, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Huffington Post, only to jump back off weeks later.

They’re all looking for that elusive publisher, that one tool, that will solve all of their marketing and publishing problems.

If I publish on LinkedIn, people will read my stuff.

If I publish on Ello, people will buy from me.

If I publish on Medium, I’ll be a star.

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful ThingsHere’s the secret none of those publishers will share: they’re not doing anything special.

They don’t do anything more than any other publisher is doing.

Oh sure, Medium created an app for people who like to think deep thoughts over soy lattes, while LinkedIn is reaching a huge business audience because Richard Branson and Gary Vaynerchuk publish there. But Medium is not the message.

These are still just publishers. They don’t have Magical Publishing Fairy Dust that makes people read your work. You do.

Don’t Build on Rented Land

For years, I’ve said you need your own place to be the central hub of your social media and personal branding. You need some place to send people, some place that is yours and yours alone. Some place that you control, aren’t at anyone’s mercy, and aren’t subjected to the fickle winds of the market.

That’s your blog.

That’s not a spot on Blogger or WordPress.com. (I had a client blog get shut down years ago without warning, because Blogger didn’t like our outbound links. Two years’ of content, gone in an instant.)

That’s not your Facebook business page. (Facebook pleaded with everyone to launch a business page, only to shut down their reach unless you pay up.)

That’s not This.cm. (They shut completely down on July 31.)

That’s not LinkedIn, Medium, or Ello. (Read the previous three paragraphs.)

It’s your blog on your server with your version of WordPress. (Or, God help you, Joomla or Drupal.)

You have no control of your content when it’s on someone else’s site. You can’t stop them from deleting your content, limiting its reach, or shutting down completely.

But if it’s on your blog, you’re in control. It’s your site, it’s your content, and you get to say what you want.

If you still want to use those other sites, go ahead. Just post to your blog first, wait a day or two, and then post to those other sites.

That’s because you want your content to get all the Google juice. If it’s published first, Google will see it as the canonical material. If it’s not first, Google won’t even notice it.

It’ll be like me at my high school dances all over again.

(Secondary publishing: the high school band nerd of content marketing.)

But, even that won’t sprinkle the Magical Publishing Fairy Dust on it.

IT’S STILL ABOUT YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK!

Social media is the thing that separates average writers with huge networks from great writers with small networks.

If you don’t push your content on social media, people won’t see it. If you don’t promote your work, no one will read it. If you don’t tell people, they won’t care!

Regardless of where you publish, you need to tell as many people you can about your work. They don’t care where you’re published, they just want to see it.

Social media, not some hyped-up blogging software, is your Magical Publishing Fairy Dust.

Do you want to be widely read on LinkedIn? Share your LinkedIn posts on Twitter and Facebook a few times a day. People aren’t always on Twitter or Facebook when you post your messages the first time.

Want your Medium post to reach a larger audience of like-minded readers? Follow your favorite authors, leave smart, personalized comments, and share their work. They’ll check you out, and if they like what you’ve done, they’ll share your work in return.

We’ve been saying this since 2007, when we first started telling people how to reach a wider audience. And it hasn’t changed. The tools may have changed, but the techniques have not. People will read your stuff if you a) have something worth reading, and b) tell them about it.

Bottom line: I’m not saying don’t publish on LinkedIn, Medium, or other places. Publish there second, publish on your blog first. Don’t give up final control of your work to someone else’s so-called magic.

Photo credit: Sophie Anderson, Take the Fair Face of Woman (Wikimedia Commons, painting, public domain)

How Long Should You Spend Writing a Blog Post?

When I worked for the Indiana State Department of Health, I could write a press release in 30 minutes. A colleague who used to work in newspapers could do it in 20. Meanwhile, another colleague, with an English degree, took three hours.

My pocket watch - It should take 1 hour of writing per 300 words of a blog post.The secret was to know the formula, and to know your source material. Boilerplate language was also a huge time saver and space waster. For the most part, the releases were news-y, generic, and unremarkable, but they got the job done. It didn’t matter how long it took, as long as they read like a proper newspaper article.

Writing is as individual an activity as cooking or walking. We all do it at different speeds, and with different levels of efficiency and skill.

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, said on “The Business of Story” podcast, she spends up to eight hours on a single post. I spend three to four hours on a post here or for one of my own newspaper columns (which are republished on my humor blog). And I’ll spend one to two hours on a client blog post. (Of course, I cheat a bit: I interview the client, and type like mad to get it all down.)

Just Give Us The Secret Formula!

One of the secrets about blog writing is that you don’t do this all at once. Ann will spread her 8 hour blog post over two or three days. My four hour newspaper columns will take all day. And my client blog posts even cover an entire day.

There’s no magic number for how long it takes to write a blog post, but you should plan on one hour per 300 words.

That’s assuming you follow a good writing and editing process. For example, my typical process is:

  1. This is the Hemingway App score for this blog post.

    This is the Hemingway App score for this blog post.

    Write a (shitty) first draft. Anne Lamott gave us permission to write a shitty first draft, so take this time to just vomit everything onto the page. This should take 30 minutes per 300 words, assuming you can type at least 50 words per minute. You should have also previously put some thought into the structure of the article, before you even sat down to write. Then, set it aside for at least 4 – 6 hours; 24 hours is even better. This time away from the work lets you see it with new and fresh eyes, so you can more easily spot problems.

  2. Heavily revise the previous draft. Fix major flaws, remove unwanted sentences, and move paragraphs around. This should take another 20 minutes per 300 words. Then, set it aside for another 4 – 6 hours. Again, more time away from the piece is better.
  3. If you’re a beginning or intermediate writer, repeat Step #2. That includes the 4 – 6 hour waiting period.
  4. Polish it for punctuation and spelling errors. For your last 10 minutes, read the piece through a couple of times, but focus more on fixing errors than rewriting. Read it backward, word by word, to spot spelling errors, missing or extra words, and so on. You may even want to run it through a separate spell checker or the Hemingway App for a final polish.

How Long Should It NOT Take?

A good blog post should not take less than 30 minutes to write. Unless you’re working on a 100-word piece, or a haiku, you should not finish a single blog post in 30 minutes.

That’s because you’re not a good first draft writer. How do I know? Because no one is a good first draft writer. I’ve been writing for 29 years, and I’m still not a good first draft writer.

I know plenty of daily bloggers who say they create their entire week’s worth of blog posts in a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t know if they’re bragging, or warning us.

First, not only is that time you should be spending with your family, this means you’re only spending 24 minutes on a single post. (120 minutes ÷ 5 posts = 24 minutes per post.)

Second, I’ve read those blog posts, and I’ll tell you a little secret:

It shows.

We can tell you only wrote that blog post in 24 minutes, and gave it a cursory editing pass before you published it the next morning. Words are misspelled, punctuation is missing, and you forgot the ending to

(See what I did there?)

I’m fast, but I’m not 24-minutes-while-the-game-is-on fast.

But, if you’re able to write your posts that fast, please make sure you edit your draft before you publish. That includes major rewrites and polishing. Publish it later in the afternoon, after you’ve gone through it in the morning.

Writing is a basic skill we all learned in school, but it’s not like riding a bike. We definitely need some practice and time to be able to do it well. But your goal should not be to see how fast you can do it. The Internet is full of content that people tried to do quickly. It’s that stuff no one likes to read.

If you want to write high quality content, take as much time as you need to do the best possible job on it. That’s the only way your work is going to shine through the muck.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers

Birds Sing from the Heart: How Bob James Writes

Bob James is the Chief Storyteller and owner at Goodly, a writing and communications agency in Washington D.C. Bob is a graduate of Georgetown University, and holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, while I only have a mere Bachelor’s of Science. (That is, I have a B.S. in BS from BSU; even Bob can’t say that!)

Erik recently invited me to discuss “My Writing Process,” a dead-horse topic if there ever were one.

But I’ll beat that horse anyway, just because Erik asked. Here you go:

Bob James on how he writes and his writing processWhere I find ideas. The wellsprings of ideas are many and inexhaustible. The ones I return to again and again are:

  • Other writers—from the sublime (e.g., Emerson, Faulkner, Sartre, Updike) to the ridiculous (names withheld)
  • Pop culture (songs, movies, TV shows, blogs, etc.)
  • Current events (AKA La Comédie humaine)
  • Memories, dreams, reflections 
  • Other people’s observations (Take my wife’s. Please.)

How I write the ideas down. My secret sauce is no secret. Writing isn’t thinking. It isn’t even writing. “Writing is revision,” as Tracy Kidder says. “Write once, edit five times,” David Ogilvy urged office mates.” Priceless advice. Your fifth draft may not excel, but it will beat your first by a long shot. And, as you edit five times, be like the birds. An ornithologist mentioned during a recent NPR interview that birds’ voice boxes are lodged deep within their chests. “Birds sing from the heart,” she said. You should, too. Readers like it and will respond accordingly.

How I assure quality. Copy’s never error free, but I try hard to check my facts. In fact, I often spend more time fact-checking sources than writing and editing. (Don’t hem and haw: fact-checking is enlightening.) And I proofread, both twice before I hit publish and twice afterwards. Boring task, but my reputation’s on the line.

How I spread ideas. Outposting has helped aggrandize my scribblings more than any of my other activities. Adman Gary Slack advises clients to invest in “other people’s audiences” more than their own. He’s 100% on the money.

For more advice about writing. If you’re hungry for sound advice, listen to Paul Simon and Chuck Close discuss the creative process in a podcast for The Atlantic. You’ll learn more than you will by reading 50 how-to books, with these four noteworthy exceptions:

Oh yeah, don’t forget No Bullshit Social Media.

 

Why I Left Social Media Marketing

I used to be somebody. I was kind of a big deal. Well, almost a big deal. I would sometimes go to social media conferences and hear my name whispered as I walked by.

“Hey, that’s Erik Deckers.”

And unlike high school, it was never followed by “LET’S KICK HIS ASS!”

I did book signings. I spoke around the country. I even got paid for it. It was pretty cool.

I was one of the early digital and social media marketing pioneers. I started blogging in 1997. I started doing digital marketing in 1998. I joined Twitter in 2007. And I wrote some of the first books on personal branding and social media marketing.

I’ve been blessed that a lot of people have used my books to make big changes to their companies and to their lives. I’ve heard from people who followed just a few of the steps in Branding Yourself and landed an internship or even a new job. A woman who has since become a very good friend first got in touch with Kyle Lacy and me to say she had followed our LinkedIn chapter and gotten three job interviews in three weeks.

I’ve heard from others who used No Bullshit Social Media to convince their bosses to let them start doing social media marketing for their company, and now they’re heading up the company’s entire social media efforts.

But social media got crowded. It got filled up with newbies, fakes, and charlatans who thought they were social media marketers because they used Facebook, or bought thousands of Twitter followers.

The industry was overrun by rampaging hordes of ex-bartenders and college interns who didn’t have years of marketing experience. And I spent so much time trying to convince people of the importance of it that my client work was slipping.

So I stopped doing social media marketing, and focused on content marketing. It was a hard decision, but I could see social media was about to be completely ruined by marketers, who were taking it over like the killer ant scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

[Seriously. Launch any new social media tool, and the marketers swarm all over it like that Russian dude at the end. Don’t believe me? Google “Snapchat for marketers.”]

At the time, content marketing was still fairly new, because most of the practitioners were still professional writers, videographers, photographers, and podcasters. We hadn’t yet been taken over by scribblers who thought “literally” meant the opposite of literally.

I miss the good old days.
Google Results of Snapchat for Marketers
I worked to hone my skills as a writer. My partner, Paul, handled the social media marketing for our clients, and I read, studied, trained, and practiced to produce the best work we were capable of.

During this time, I co-authored a new book on content marketing, ghostwrote a book with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and even started ghostwriting the autobiography of a former U.S. Congressman.

For the last three years, I’ve kept my head down, and focused on my craft. I’ve studied several favorite authors. I’m revisiting my speechwriting roots, and learning how slam poetry can influence my work. I even spent three months as the Writer-In-Residence at the Jack Kerouac House here in Orlando, beating out nearly 300 people from around the world for the coveted spot.

It’s paying off. I’ve written several short stories, made it halfway through my novel, participated in several literary readings around Central Florida, spoken at a number of writing conferences, and contributed to different literary publications and events.

My efforts have also helped my clients. The content marketing work we do is bringing them more traffic and leads, and we do it by offering some of the best business writing available. We’re writing stuff people like to read, and getting people to share it online. Rather than churn out as much mediocre content as we can, we focus on high-quality writing.

I won’t lie though. I’ve missed being in front of an audience. I’ve missed meeting new people in new cities. So I’ve decided to shake the dust off my shoulders, rub the sand from my eyes, and re-enter the world of personal branding and public promotion.

Starting in August, I’ll write more frequently on this blog again, and booking more conference speaking slots, especially around my new home state, Florida. I hope to see you around.

Plagiarism is the Writer’s Cardinal Sin

This whole Melania Trump plagiarism flap shouldn’t be a big deal. I think if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the Republican National Convention, we wouldn’t have even heard about it.

It’s never a big deal any other time a public figure has been caught plagiarizing. Sure, it makes the news, but most people could not care any less. But to creative professionals, especially writers, this is yyy-uge.

News analysts reported that Trump’s speech was 7% similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. That may not seem like much, but by college academic standards, that 7% can get you an F in your class, and even get you thrown out of school.

A PhD friend of mine commented on my Facebook status yesterday that she normally checks her students’ papers with Grammarly’s plagiarism checker. She ran a quick check on the two speeches, and found that roughly 7 – 8% of Melania’s speech triggered the plagiarism alert, which would have resulted in an F for the paper. Other friends in academia said they have failed students, including those in Masters programs, for 7%.

Some people are dismissing Melania’s plagiarism as “just common words.” That anyone could have used these words, and that we’re making a big deal out of nothing about these “common supportive phrases.” They think it’s a complete coincidence that the same common words and phrases discussing the same ideas were assembled in that same order.

Let’s take politics out of it for a moment. Forget that this is the wife of the Republican presidential candidate.

As a professional writer and adjunct professor, I can tell you that, common words or not, this is still plagiarism. When you take a series of words and string them together in a particular order, no one else may string them together in that order, unless they cite you as a source.

Even failure to cite your sources is enough to fail your paper.

Ernest Hemingway: Common Words Used Uncommonly

Ernest HemingwayOne of my favorite Hemingway short stories, Big Two-Hearted River, is filled with common words. It’s 8,015 words long, and written at a 4th grade reading level. There are no unusual words, and there’s only one character, Nick, who’s going camping and fishing. Two pretty common activities with common jargon. Here’s my favorite excerpt from the story:

Nick was hungry.

He did not believe he had ever been hungrier He opened and emptied a can at pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan

“I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it, Nick said.

His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface- There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue.

No big words, very few 3-syllable words. In fact, he used just 124 different words. But Hemingway could take those 124 words and make cooking a camp dinner one of the most interesting stories you’ll read all day.

Hemingway’s use of common words is not the issue; we’re all able to use them. I could even write a story that only uses these 124 words. The problem is, I can’t put them in that order.

I can’t use the phrase “‘I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,’ Nick said.” without either giving him full credit or suffering the wrath of academics and literary types. I can’t even change a couple of words and present it as mine.

That’s plagiarism.

To most of us who actually care about this — the academics, the literati, the word nerds — it doesn’t matter who plagiarized. The fact is, it was done, and it’s being dismissed as unimportant by people who don’t realize the importance of intellectual property.

Probably because they’ve never had their creations stolen for someone else’s benefit.

This is What Theft Looks Like

No Burglars signThis is an important issue to me, because I’ve been plagiarized on three separate occasions, all by newspaper professionals. Two editors, one publisher. Two Canadians, one American. Three people who financially benefited from something I do for very little money.

Three people who worked in a profession where there are only a few important rules:

  1. Don’t steal shit.
  2. Don’t make shit up.

That’s it. Those are two of the most important rules in journalism, and violating them is a career ender.

Of the three thieves — and they are thieves — the American editor and the Canadian publisher lost their jobs. The publisher lost his membership in the Alberta Press Council, and may have even stepped down as the president of the Strathmore and District Chamber of Commerce. The American newspaper editor will never have a job in newspapers again.

You can Google both their names, and their sins still follow them, five years later.

In the world of creativity, especially its written form, plagiarism is the cardinal sin. Of all the Thou Shalt Nots in the world, it is the Thou-Shalt-Nottiest.

Bottom line, it doesn’t matter who did it. I think it was an error of process, not malicious theft. If I had to guess, it was a speechwriter who watched a lot of different convention speeches by candidates’ wives, took notes, and used the phrasing without remembering where it came from.

(UPDATE: It turns out, Melania read some phrases from people she liked, including Michelle Obama. The speechwriter, Meredith McIver took notes, and used them in the speech. Then, she said she never checked Michelle Obama’s speeches to see if the phrasing had been used before. So, not malicious, just careless.)

Because despite what she said, Melania didn’t write this herself. Everyone who gets on that stage gets vetted, ghosted, and edited. There are so many people with so many fingers in every pie, nothing is written by a single individual with no oversight.

But worse, much worse, is the attitude that this isn’t a big deal. That the media is making too big of a fuss. Or that the Obamas did it eight years ago, so that makes this one less bad, or even acceptable.

Politics aside, this is never acceptable. Whether you’re an apologist or a grubby-fingered troll digging up dirt on the other side, plagiarism and theft of ideas is never acceptable.

If you have never created something and had it stolen, you can’t understand why this is a hot button issue for so many of us. As a writer whose books are regularly pirated, as a journalist whose columns are pilfered, I believe this is the one line that writers of integrity should not cross.

Do not justify the sin, regardless of who committed it. There are no excuses, you can’t buy indulgences, and it should never, ever be waved off as a staggering coincidence of “common words.”