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.”

“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.

12 Techniques to Improve Your Writing in 2015

It must be frustrating for beginning writers who want to hone their craft, but aren’t given much direction beyond “write every day,” and “read a lot.” It’s been my experience that if you want to improve your writing, you have to start with one tactic and do it every day.

But which ones? What order should you do them in? Are they all important?

Here are the 12 big ones I see a lot of beginning writers need to work on. We’ll start simply and move from there.

Start with the first one, work on it all through January. Make it a habit, and learn to not only recognize it in your writing (and others’), but learn to recognize it before you put it down on paper. Practice the technique on everything you write, not just your Special Private Writing Time. In your blog posts, your emails, your monthly TPS reports. Everywhere.

As you work these writing muscles, you’ll find you can improve your writing everywhere you put pen to paper and finger to keyboard.

  1. Get rid of That: This is the first place that I have most new writers start. This is one of the worst habits that we get into as writers, but it’s easy to spot and break. It’s not incorrect, but it makes your writing loose and clumsy. If you can strike it out, and not affect the sentence, do it.
  2. Avoid other filler words: This is much harder to do. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my writing career working on this particular habit, and I’m still not great at it. I usually take 2 – 3 edits before I’m satisfied with the final result.
  3. Eliminate adverbs and adjectives: Don’t describe verbs, use a descriptive verb. If you use words that end in -ly, chances are, you can get rid of them, and replace the offending verb too. Instead of saying someone “eats noisily,” say “they chomped their food.” So it goes with nouns. Rather than describing the noun, like “the thick hamburger,” rewrite the sentence to show how thick it was. This brings us to our next technique. . .
  4. You can learn from Tom Waits as a way to improve your writing.

    Tom Waits in Prague, 2008 (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

  5. Show, don’t tell: Eliminating adverbs is fairly easy. Eliminating adjectives takes a little more work. Instead of describing how thick a hamburger is with a bunch of adjectives, try this: “Jason always bragged about the size of the hamburgers at this place, but I never believed him until I heard my jaw pop when I tried to eat one.”
  6. Metaphors & similes: Once you’ve started down the slippery slope of showing-not-telling, start using metaphors and similes. They help you explain complex ideas or add punch to your writing. For example, Tom Waits’ song “Putnam County” is rife with powerful metaphors. He describes roads as “asphalt dance floors,” talks about women with “swizzle-stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools,” and how a band “moaned in pool hall concentration.”
  7. Practice Dialog: The ultimate in showing-not-telling. When our kids were little, we told them they would learn a lot more by listening to conversations than interrupting and asking questions. You can reveal ideas and thoughts to your readers without ever explaining a thing just by making them pay attention to conversations. Learn to master dialog.
  8. Stop talking to your reader: You’re writing to them, but don’t talk to them. Stop nudging them with parenthetical asides, like you’re sharing a secret (I know, I know, you’re probably asking “what do you mean?”) <-- THIS! This right here! Stop doing that! It adds extra words to the piece, and doesn’t actually help the story. Plus, it’s an amateur move.
  9. Write like people talk: Like Elmore Leonard said, if what we learned in school interferes with our writing, tough shit. It means to adopt an informal tone. Use contractions and end sentences with prepositions. It means to use words normal people use, not markety language or legalese.
  10. No more business jargon: Do you speak in business jargon? Do you say phrases like “we have to recontextualize mission-critical relationships?” If you don’t, then don’t write that way either.If you do, this is why no one likes you.
  11. No infinitives or gerunds: If you have a habit of ending words with -ing, edit and shorten to eliminate them. They don’t add to your writing, but their absence can enhance it.
  12. Avoid nonsexist language: I hate he/she and him or her, and s/he is not even a word. Nonsexist writing can be some of the worst and hardest to read. Instead, alternate between male and female examples and terms. If you use a “he” in one example, use a “she” in the next. Or, use the singular “they.” Writers shouldn’t be judged just because they chose one gender over the other, as long as they balance it out. If you alternate between “he” and “she” over your general body of work, you’ll be okay.
  13. Use specific examples, not vague generic ideas: As my friend and owner of The Geeky Press, Brad King, says “don’t tell me about a dog dying. Tell me about the day your dog died.” If you call yourself a storyteller, this is the way to do it. People respond to actual stories, not vague babblings about lofty concepts.

Did I miss anything? What other techniques have you done to improve your writing? What would you suggest for next year? Leave a comment and let me know what writing techniques you want to work on.

Five Ways for Creative Writers to Make Money (And Two That Don’t Work)

I had a great discussion with a new friend, @SarahSuksiri, about creative writing, poetry — I learned a lot about poetry and poets from her — and how writers try to make money while pretending they don’t associate themselves with filthy lucre.

This attitude is especially prevalent with poets, who think they should only do poetry for their art. If this is your attitude, repeat after me:

Hello, welcome to Starbucks

For those writers who want to earn a living from your creative writing degree or MFA, here are five ways to actually make some money from writing that does not involve freelancing. Or you can at least show your parents that your 4 – 7 years of higher education were not a complete exercise in navel gazing.

1. Sell ebooks

Jim Kukral is the master of promoting self-published books. He’s made his name helping new authors and. . . let’s say, “niche” authors find an audience and sell their books. Even the unusual ones. (Books, not authors. Well, authors too.)

The numbers in self-publishing make sense. Without going too much into the entire “traditional publishing versus self-publishing debate,” let me tell you what Kukral and others say about the economics: If you sell a traditionally-published book for $20, you’ll make $1 – $1.40 per book in royalties, after you pay back your advance. If you sell a self-published e-book for $2.99, you’ll make $2. Sell it for $9.99, and you’ll make $7.

Now, you may sell more books in bookstores with a traditional publisher (plus it’s awesome to have your book on a bookstore shelf), but you have to sell 5 – 7 trad-pub books to make $7, versus selling one $10 ebook. Sell 1,000 books, and you get either $1,400 or $7,000. If all you sold is 1,000 books, you won’t get that $1,400 from your publisher; that’s all payback for your advance. But that $7,000 is yours off the bat. (Warning: this takes a lot of social media marketing and promotion.)

2. Become a speaker

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

Professional speakers command a fee. If you’re a nonfiction B2B writer like me, you have a system or knowledge that you can parlay into a one to six hour teaching session, and people will pay for that (see #5 below). If you write about important social issues, whether fiction or nonfiction, you may be able to get a gig as a keynote speaker. Keynotes make anywhere from $500 to $3,000, and even more. (Of course, you need to almost be a professional keynote speaker and that takes a few years. You’ll know when you’re ready for that.)

Build up your stage legs by giving readings, teaching small classes, and doing small talks around town for free. Join Toastmasters if you’re not comfortable with speaking. Promote yourself with a blog and become active on social media.

3. Give readings or host organized events

Slam poets earn money through their readings (Slammings? Happenings?), because they treat their work like a musician or a theatre troupe. They sell tickets or have a cover charge, and they sell books in the back of the room. Depending on the size of your audience and your rates, you could make a couple hundred dollars in a single night. Not enough to pay the rent, but you’re certainly earning more in one night than working three shifts at High-Priced Boots And Pants in the mall.

Promote the bejeezus out of these events, and get a big crowd. If you don’t like marketing, you’d better learn to real quick. You want a big crowd that’s interested in what you have to say. Even if you want to be a purist who never accepts money for their work (do your events for free then), you still want a big crowd of people who clap for you (or snap. Do they still snap at poetry slams?), and run up to you afterward, gushing and stumbling over their words. Promote these events with social media and old school marketing techniques to draw that crowd.

4. Combine your work with another passion and travel

Writer Chris Guillebeau, who wrote The Art of Nonconformity, has the kind of job that lets him work anywhere. So he does it while he travels to different parts of the globe in an attempt to visit every single country around the world.

As a writer, you have the flexibility to work anywhere you want, and on any kind of project you want. In some cases, you can even work in strange new locales, like the African Bush, the Canadian wilderness, or Iowa. If you can leverage your writing skills into a real money-earner, like a freelance copywriter, go where the work is, or just work from your favorite coffee shop. If you can get a nonprofit to hire you for six months, rent a short-term apartment in that city, and go to work.

5. Teach classes and seminars

Writing coach Jeff Goins is making his name not only as a writer, but as a writing coach. He’s built his reputation and living by offering several online webinars and ongoing classes per year, as well as selling educational materials to budding writers. One of his multi-week classes can cost a few hundred dollars per student. Similarly, I’ve begun teaching classes for the Indiana Writers Center, and I was happily surprised when I was handed a check at the end of the first class. I had forgotten all about it.

So what if you charged $200 for a 4 week online class and got 15 students to sign up? That’s $3,000 a month. It’s not downtown-penthouse money, but for a young writer who has a roommate or spouse-with-a-job, it’s a significant contribution to the household income. And what if you could repeat that model every month, or even run it twice a month on different days, but only did it a few times a year?

Further, if you have an MFA, you’re qualified to teach writing and English at a local college or university. (Actually, if you have a master’s degree in anything, you’re qualified to teach undergraduates in that field.) It’s not great pay — I get anywhere from $700 – $1,000 a month for a single public speaking class. And you certainly don’t want to build a career on being an adjunct. But if you’re looking for beer money, or a little something to boost your income, this is a great way to use your degree and your passion.

And now for the two don’ts: I’ve seen other people try this, and it’s rough. A lot of people have started down one of these two paths only to realize the numbers don’t work, and they’re out all that time and expense.

1. Start a website or journal that relies on banner advertising

Ad sales are a hard, scary way to make money. Even big city newspapers aren’t making a ton of money from them. Advertisers only want to pay per thousand displayed ads (some even only want to pay per click). These advertisers will only pay between $10 – $20 per thousand visitors, which works out to $.01 – $.02 per view).

So if you want to earn $50 for a single article, you have to generate between 2,500 – 5,000 visitors to that one page page. But if the advertiser is paying by the click, you may get $.20 per click, but if you want $50, you need 250 clicks. And if the click-through rate on an ad is 1% (which is actually kind of high), you need 25,000 visitors to see that ad. If you could bring in 25,000 visitors a month to your website, you need to sell ebooks, not display ads.

2. Traditional publishing

(Otherwise known as “my editor is going to hate me now!”)

While everyone wants to have that big blockbuster that makes them more money than J.K. Rowling and John Grisham combined, seriously, what are the odds of that happening? I’ve written three books and ghostwritten half of another. If I tried to live on the royalties of those books, I’d have a very fancy cardboard box under a bridge.

No Bullshit Social Media in New Release Shelf

When I saw this photo, it was one of the proudest days of my life. My mom, not so much.

Even if you’re lucky enough to get a publishing deal, you need to sell hundreds of thousands of books in order to get rich; several tens of thousand per year to earn a salary. Let’s say you get $1.20 in royalties for every published book you sell. If you want to earn $48,000 a year in royalties, you need to sell 40,000 books every single year.

Don’t get me wrong. Traditional publishing is great. I owe Que Biz-Tech and Pearson Publishing a lot. So much of what I’ve been able to do has happened because they took a chance on me. I love knowing that my books have been printed, occupy a physical space in the world, and I got a thrill knowing that No Bullshit Social Media was seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of impressionable children walking into a Barnes & Noble. I encourage many writers to try to get their books published by a real publishing house before they take up the self-publishing baton.

But — and this is the point I want to stress — traditional publishing is not how you’re going to make a long-term living. The numbers just aren’t there anymore. Not at $1.40 royalties per book. You’re going to push, promote, and shout about your book to as many people as you can, whether you self-publish, or you go the traditional route. Either method involves the same amount of work. The only difference is there’s a bigger payoff in the self-pub route than in trad-pub. (On the other hand, you’ll never see a self-published book in a Barnes & Noble.)

Having said that, having a traditionally published book is an excellent way to build your reputation, which makes numbers 2 – 5 that much easier to accomplish.

Now that I’ve crapped on your dreams or given you a great idea, what are some other ideas you have for writers who want to make money? If you’re making money from your writing, what are you doing that earns a steady (or at least significant) income? Leave a note in the comments.

Weird Habits To Improve Your Writing Skills

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

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

1. No Orphan Words

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

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

2. No Sentence Longer Than The Page Width

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

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

3. Use a Typewriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Marketing the Kurt Vonnegut Way

One of the things I love about Kurt Vonnegut, and the reason I mention him in my writing talks, is his ability to create visual imagery in his writing.

I’ve been on a metaphors are better than similes kick lately — I’ll save that topic for another time — so I’ve been paying more attention to this in my reading. I saw an excerpt of a Kurt Vonnegut interview on a Paris Review blog post that reminded me of what makes him such an important writer.

In this particular segment, he’s talking about a 240 millimeter Howitzer he had done basic training on, the largest weapon in the US military at that time (WWII). The interviewer said, “It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.”

Vonnegut said:

Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

What caught my eye about Vonnegut’s answer is the way he describes how slow and inefficient the firing system was. He didn’t just say “it was slow” or fire off some witty simile about molasses and icebergs. Instead he took 13 sentences — using 15 metaphors and 2 similes — to explain how slow the gun was.

  • He referred to the “slow and patient explosives” as damp dog biscuits. That gives me an idea of the consistency and feel of the explosives, as well as their effectiveness. It also made me laugh, because I like the hard consonant sounds of the D’s, P’s, and K (in biscuit).
  • He said the sound was like “cooking a turkey,” and then followed it up with imagery of “basted the shell.” The fact that he said they could have done that in utter safety also shows how slow the process was.
  • The word “expectorate” means more than just “spit out.” It’s that thing old men do when they make that deep snk-k-k-k-k in the back of their throat and then spit. His term makes me think of old men retching up a gob of spit, which speaks to the thickness and fullness of what the gun was firing.
  • The idea of the floating shell is reinforced by the idea of them painting the shell as it left the gun.

This is also how good stand-up comics work. They take a single idea, a single incident, or even a single conversation, and expand on it. Vonnegut took “the gun was slow to fire” and turned it into a 165 word epic description of just how slow the firing process actually was.

As bloggers and content marketers, you can use the same techniques to convey ideas in your own writing. Rather than a detailed, lengthy, and technically accurate description, try using metaphors and similes to make your writing more easily understood. And interesting.