How to Use a Fiction Throughline in Your Content Marketing

In novel writing, there are certain elements or themes that run through the book like a thread. You can find this thread in movies as well. They’re common themes like “Debbie is afraid of commitment,” “William wants Scotland to be free,” or “Captain America hates bullies.”

This is the throughline.

It’s the running theme, a character’s reason for being, a plot or sub-plot, or even the language that’s used in the story.

Every few scenes, we’re reminded of the throughline once again, though only a touch, as the author or screenwriter tugs on it once in a while to remind us it’s there.

When scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to the bully. When he dives on a hand grenade during basic training to save his squadron. When he ignores Colonel Tommy Lee Jones and rescues his best friend, Bucky.

As Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds says:

The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story.

Basically, Chuck says, it’s “the rope that the audience will use to pull itself through the story.”

Find Your Throughlines

What is the thing your company wants to be known for?

Not your mission statement. Nobody talks like that. Besides, most mission statements suck. Hard.

We will operationalize bleeding-edge strategies in order to maximize our core competencies to that we may holistically leverage best-of-breed solutions.

That’s not a throughline. That’s complete crap. (I sure hope that’s not someone’s actual mission statement. I made it up, and I had to shower afterward.)

Every kind of content marketing should use a throughline. Even solar panel manufacturers.

Instead, what do your salespeople and marketing staff brag about? What excites you about what your work? Why does your company do what it does?

That’s your throughline. If you’re a pharmaceutical company, your throughline is saving lives. (Or helping old men get erections. I’m not judging.) If you make solar panels, your throughline is saving the earth and reducing our dependence on coal. If you’re a business improvement consultant, like my friend Robby, your throughline is helping others be more efficient.

Once you know your throughlines, you’re ready to weave them into your story.

What Do Throughlines Have to Do With Content Marketing?

In content marketing, your throughline runs through your company’s overall story.

Your story is made up of chapters — blog articles, white papers, videos, podcasts — and your throughline should pull potential customers through on their buyer’s journey.

Your company’s throughline are those things you stand for and can truly deliver. If you know your company’s USP, a unique selling proposition, that’s your throughline. It’s the top benefit you offer your customers.

For Chick-fil-A, their throughline is chicken-not-beef. Their advertising is all about the cows telling us to eat more chicken. For Apple computers, it’s thinking different(ly). Their computer ads are about doing great things with the right side of your brain. For Pro Blog Service, it’s about providing high-level professional writing. So I write articles about advanced writing skills.

Not everything Chick-fil-A does is about their cows. Not everything Apple promotes is about being a creative professional. And at Pro Blog Service, we write about things other than writing.

But every so often, you’ll find that theme, that element, that throughline to pull you through their stories, on to the next chapter.

For our solar panel manufacturer, they can spend most of their time talking about the quality of their panels, their low cost, available financing, ease of use, money saved, and benefits over wind power.

But every so often, they need to tug on their throughline to remind us it’s there: “if we can use more solar power, we use less coal to create electricity. And less coal means a cleaner tomorrow.”

Content marketers like to call themselves storytellers, so here’s a real story element they can use. Novelists and screenwriters use them all the time, and so can you.

If you can weave your throughline into your content marketing, it will tell you what comes next, and it will move your customer down the right path. You can more easily plan your content schedule if you can follow the golden thread that’s waiting for you to wrap a story around it.

Photo credit: Gray Watson (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.

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.”

Erik Deckers Interviewed on The Business of Story Podcast

I think I could just build a media career by appearing on every Jay Baer podcast he and his company produces.

Earlier this week, my interview on The Business Of Story was released — my third interview on Jay Baer’s third podcast. (You can hear my interview, “Top Tips from a Humor Columnist on How to Tell Better Brand Stories” here.)

Erik Deckers Teaser for The Business of Story podcastPark Howell, a content marketing and storytelling professional, interviews different writers and storytellers, talking about to use proper storytelling in the business world. He’s interviewed screenwriters, film makers, editors, directors, makeup artists, and voice over actors (including Dick Orkin, the creator of Chicken Man, which I used to love!)

We had a chance to talk about humor writing, and how it can be used in the business world. Some of the topics we discussed include:

  • Why infusing your writing with humor will improve it dramatically
  • How to break down comedic theory to make it accessible and useable
  • Why you can absolutely can learn to be funny
  • How stories are more approachable and more memorable with comedy
  • Why some are hesitant to use humor in the workplace, but it is a misplaced fear
  • How to absorb lessons from great fiction writers

Anyway, give the show a listen and let me know what you think. And be sure to check out Jay’s other podcasts for more great marketing information.