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.

“Write Good Content” is Bad Advice

If you tell people to write good content, you’re part of the problem

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “write good content” in yet another Five “Secrets” of Content Marketing article. I saw it again recently from someone who ought to know better — someone who claimed to be a content marketer specializing in a particular industry.

First, these aren’t secrets. Stop calling them secrets. Natives in the Amazon rainforest who have never met outsiders know them. Call them tips. Call them ideas. Call them blindingly-obvious-insights-that-even-a-five-year-old-understands. But don’t call them secrets.

Second, this so-called secret isn’t even making it to the top of the list. This is The Most Fundamental principle of content marketing, and you put it third on a five item list? When you’re building a house, you don’t put up the doors and windows first. You lay the foundation. You create a strong base that will support the rest of the house. Writing well needs to be the foundation of all your content marketing.

At the Start/Finish line of the Indy 500 2016; telling people to write good content is like telling race car drivers to drive fast

Remember, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

Third, stop telling people to do things they should be doing anyway. These are the fundamental principles people build their entire profession on. Telling them to do it, and then calling it a secret, is an insult to the professionals who actually do that work.

If you’re a writer, you should write well anyway.

If you’re a race car driver, you should drive fast anyway.

If you’re an accountant, you should balance your accounts well anyway.

No one tells an accountant, “Secret #3: Be sure to balance the books.” No one tells a plumber “Super Duper Plumbing Secret #19: Make sure your pipes don’t leak.”

So why would you tell someone to write well?

Writing well is not an option. It’s not an item on a checklist. It’s not something that, had you not mentioned it, they would have purposely half-assed it.

Basically, if you’re telling people to “write good content,” you’re part of the problem. You’re part of the ruination and downfall of the content marketing industry

A Guaranteed Secret to Becoming a Better Writer

There’s really only one way to become a better writer, and that’s to write every day.

Okay, that’s not really a secret, but if you’re not doing it right, you could write every day for years, and never get any better. Meanwhile, other newbie writers are leaving you in the dust, improving by leaps and bounds in a matter of months, because they know a shortcut.

And that’s the secret.

It starts with understanding how elite musicians, athletes, and artists all achieve great results in a relatively short amount of time

Start with Deep Practice

The toolkit of the writer: pen, notebook, and laptop computer

Every good writer tries to write every day, practicing their techniques deliberately.

In his book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyne breaks the pursuit of talent and skill into three “easy” steps: 1) Chunk it up. 2) Repeat it. 3) Learn to feel it.

Coyne is a believer in highly-targeted error-focused practice.

In the book, Coyne uses an example of a young clarinet player who’s learning a particular piece of music. She struggles on one passage, and works over and over to get it right.

A poor musician would just play the entire piece, start to finish, over and over, mistakes and all, until she’s put in her required practice time. But a good musician, like this girl, follows Coyne’s three steps.

She stops when she makes a mistake, backs up a few measures, and works on the part that gave her trouble. She runs through the fingering a few times, making sure her fingers understand what they’re supposed to do, then plays again. But she plays it slower, and does it a couple of times before moving on.

Once she makes it through the difficult part, she continues on until she reaches the next trouble spot in her song, and repeats the process.

The researcher Coyne interviewed for this example said that just 10 minutes of this deep practice was more effective than playing the song straight through, over and over, for an hour. In other words, our musician is getting better in one-sixth the time of a poor musician.

Athletes do this as well. They focus deliberately on different problems and facets of their technique. They don’t just mindlessly do the work or go through the motions.

A professional basketball player doesn’t just shoot free throws to say he practiced his free throws. He visualizes what he’s about to do, focuses on technique, and analyzes what he did right and wrong each time. It’s not just a matter of shooting the ball 100 times in a row, it’s a matter of purposely, intentionally, deliberately practicing proper techniques.

My youngest daughter, an aspiring illustrator says when professional illustrators are learning a new figure or character, will create character studies and draw the same face over and over. Or they’ll “rotate” the head, drawing it from every angle; it’s called a “turnaround.” They’ll repeat the studies and turnarounds until they feel comfortable enough to do it on their own.

How this Applies to Writers

While every writer is told to “write every day,” they usually think it means to schedule a special private writing time, say, one hour in the morning or over lunch, and just churn out words. They focus on quantity of words created, not technique. Once the hour is up, they’re done.

They’re missing all kinds of golden opportunities throughout the rest of the day, and if you capitalize on them, you’re not limited to that one hour a day to get better.

(And if we’re following the 10,000 hour rule, you’ll become a literary phenom much faster if you can practice five hours a day, not five hours a week.)

Writing is writing. Regardless of the reason you’re tapping out words on your keyboard, you’re writing. Every time you write something, you have an opportunity to practice.

When you write an email, that’s practice. When you post a lengthy response to your cousin’s stupid political rant on Facebook, that’s practice. When you write a report for a client, that’s practice.

Whatever you’re doing, pick a technique you’d like to improve, and work on it in everything you write.

Not just during Special Private Writing Time. Not just on your preferred genre and style. If you’re a fiction writer, but send a lot of emails during your day job, use that time to practice background narrative. If you’re an aspiring TV writer, use texts and chats as a way to practice dialogue. If you have to create a lot of reports for work, practice journalism-style writing by writing short, easy-to-read sentences.

And that’s the big secret: If you can harness deep practice, and use it consistently everywhere, you can greatly improve your writing. Just like our clarinet player, if you can do deep practice for 10 minutes, you’re racing past anyone who’s just doing poor practice for an hour.

And best of all, you’re writing every day. You’re following the writer’s maxim, and you’re doing it better than those who save it only for Special Private Writing Time.

Five Ways to Make Your Written Content Suck

I’ve had an epiphany. Content marketers don’t really care if they create excellent written content. That’s the only explanation I can think of. Despite the mountains of classes, webinars, books, and “FIVE TIPPY-TOP MOSTEST IMPORTANT CONTENT MARKETING SECRETS IN ALL THE WORLD!!” blog posts, content marketers aren’t listening.

They seem to think, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me. Not old Stevie*. I can keep pumping out dreck, because my stuff is different/better/important, and my readers are big fans/generously forgiving/mindless drones.” And they double down on their bad content like a politician after a racist campaign gaffe.

Maybe they actually want to be bad. Maybe that’s their goal: to produce something so execrably bad that you can’t help but read or watch it — the Sharknado of content marketing.

If that’s your goal, here are the five best ways you can make your content marketing suck out loud.

1. Use lots of jargon.

Gill's Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

Gill’s Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

Use words that sort of sound like English, but not entirely. Use words that end in -ize whenever possible. And turn verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs.

“We’re going to incentivize learners to dialogue with their classroom practitioners as a way to optimize learning methodologies.”

If you use words your readers can easily recognize and understand, you’re not trying hard enough.

2. Use adverbs and adjectives.

Because no one believes what you have to say, unless it’s really super amazing and awesome.

“Our bleeding-edge new Mapplethorpe app isn’t like the other 900 photo filter apps. It lets you take some of the bestest, most breathtaking, wondrous, aneurysm-inducing photos you’ve ever taken. Until we release version 1.5.”

This is especially useful if you’re writing a press release, because it tells the journalists your product isn’t like all those other products in all those other press releases. You mean it! You have real news!

Combine these previous two tips to crank your content’s Suck knob up to 11.

3. Publish your first draft.

Writers — real writers, that is — are never quite happy with their work. They’re always wasting time, rewriting and improving their work, trying to squeeze blood and tears out of every word.

Which means you shouldn’t waste your time doing that.

Just splooge out whatever pops into that fancy brain of yours, hit Publish, and bada-bing, bada-boom! Blog post!

This is especially useful for those content marketers who try to publish something every day. Your practice of writing all five blog posts in 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon has been working perfectly for you. Keep up the good work.

4. Why use one word when five will do?

Journalists, especially newspaper reporters spend many long years honing their craft, learning to cut a lot of needless words from their written work trim the fat. So wWhy should you let all those extra words go to waste? They’re just lying around on the ground, waiting for someone just like you to pick them up and use them in their own work. Why can’t that someone it be you?

See all the mistakes I made there, all those fat juicy words I struck out? My sentences are usually spartan and simple, but this one was a ready-to-burst tick, until I ruined it.

One of the best ways to make your written content suck is to create a lot of it. Fill your articles with extra words. This way, you can write less, but their bloatedness adds to your weekly word count, and that’s all that really matters.

People are going to quit reading your stuff anyway, so why not make your message harder to find? Maybe they’ll stick around and search for it. It’ll be like a treasure hunt.

5. Why use one syllable when three will do?

Not only is it incumbent upon you, esteemed content marketer, to utilize an increased number of words, it’s imperative you leverage the greatest number of multi-syllabic words as possible.

Because if there’s one thing people love to do, it’s slog through a Master’s thesis answer to a simple question. If they ask you what time it is, explain how to build a watch. In German.

So retrieve your thesaurus and make extensive preparations to dazzle your readership with your encyclopedic knowledge concerning your lucrative speciality. I’m positive they will express their warmest gratitude to you.

* I’m not actually picking on content marketers named Stevie. I just needed a name to put in there. So if you’re named Stevie (or Steve), don’t worry, I’m not calling you out.

Photo credit: Joe Mabel (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)