Understand the Hero’s Journey for Content Marketing

Let me tell you a story about a young man who is forced to live with relatives, because his father is an evil bastard bent on conquest and villainy. The young man was spirited away as a baby, and raised in secret. When he comes of age, the young man meets a mentor who helps him grow, gain new skills, and ultimately cause the downfall of the father, who frankly, had it coming.

What story am I talking about?

Could be Star Wars. That description fits Luke Skywalker to a T.

Could be Harry Potter. Take out the father references, and we’re looking at the exact same scenario. Also, there’s no blue milk.

Could be Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, the French swashbuckling story in which a young man joins a theater troupe and learns the art of fencing.

It could be the plot of Fool, Christopher Moore’s humor novel, about Pocket the fool from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

It could even be the story of Dodgeball. Peter La Fleur leaves his world as a gym-owning slacker, and gets thrust into a new world of Dodgeball. He meets a mentor who helps him to defeat his greatest enemy, and wins $5 million and Ben Stiller’s wife.

Movie makers and fiction authors call this storytelling structure The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell first called it the Monomyth in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey usually takes 12 stages, and entire books can be written about it. I’ll try to do it in less than 1,000 words.

(Also, I’m using the word “Hero” and not “Hero/Heroine” intentionally. In the real world, it now refers to both men and women, while “heroine” is normally used in works of fiction. We’ve stopped using actress, comedienne, and manageress, and I think heroine is going that way as well.)

  1. Ordinary World. This is the Hero’s life before the story begins. They live on a farm, they live in a Hobbit hole, they’re a computer analyst. This makes us realize the Hero is like us.
  2. Call to Adventure. This is where the Hero’s life changes and they’re needed elsewhere. The secret message from Princess Leia, Harry’s letter from Hogwarts, Mulan’s father being drafted to fight the Huns compels them to move on.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The Hero may be eager to accept the quest, but they have fears they need to overcome. Luke was reluctant to leave until the Empire murdered his aunt and uncle. Mulan worried that she couldn’t pass as a man. Harry said, “But, Hagrid, I—I’m not a wizard!”
  4. Meeting the Mentor. Luke met Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry met Dumbledore, Mulan met Li Shang. They trained, received advice, and got a boost to their self-confidence. The Mentor made the Hero feel like they could handle the task before them.
  5. Cross the Threshold. The adventure begins! The Hero goes willingly or is thrust into battle, but they leave the Ordinary World and cross into their new one. Diana Prince leaves the beautiful sunny shores of Themyscira. Harry literally runs through the 9 3/4 platform wall.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Our Hero is challenged in a number of different ways from a number of different sides. It’s not the final battle, but it shows him or her who’s trustworthy, reliable, and helpful, and who’s an enemy. This is where the Hero’s skills or powers are tested, and we learn how they’ll react when in a stressful situation. Diana Prince fighting the Germans in London or Mulan’s training montage.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. George Lucas may have been a little too on the nose with this in Empire Strikes Back. During his training, Luke had a vision and went into an actual cave to fight Darth Vader. This is often an inner conflict the Hero has yet to face, and some of the original doubts may resurface.
  8. Ordeal. This is the most dangerous test our Hero must survive, whether physical or internal. Everything the Hero has learned is put to the test. Mulan fires the rocket that destroys the Hun army. Luke and Han blast the TIE fighters after they escape the Death Star. Wonder Woman fights Ludendorff at the German base. But this could even be a sort of death (or near death) for the Hero, and they are reborn stronger and with more power. The mentor may die here too. Luke lost Obi Wan, Diana lost Steve Trevor, and Peter La Fleur lost Patches O’Houlihan to half a ton of Irony.
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword). After defeating the enemy and overcoming their greatest challenge, they receive a reward. Sometimes it comes in the form of an object, new knowledge, or even reconciliation with an ally. However the Hero has unfinished business to attend to before the story is actually over.
  10. The Road Back. The Hero is ready to go back home, back to the Ordinary World, only he or she is not quite finished. Luke and his friends escaped, but the Death Star is still out there. Mulan destroyed the Huns, but Shan Yu still lives. Diana Prince kills Ludendorff, but Ares was still alive.
  11. Resurrection. This is the final battle. The Boss Battle. The most dangerous, fiercest fight of all. And the Hero learns this isn’t their fight, they’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. Mulan has to save China, Luke has to save the Rebellion, and Peter has to save his crappy gym that smells kind of funny. In the end, they triumph, destroy the enemy, and are reborn. (Remember when Neo defeated the Agents at the end of The Matrix and got all better? Like that.)
  12. Return with the Elixir. This is often the Epilogue. The Hero returns to their Ordinary World (or some semblance of it). They have grown, learned many things, faced many dangers, and looks forward to getting back to the old life. Older, wiser, even a little sadder, but they’re happy to have done it. Like when Frodo and Sam returned to the Shire (read the book; the movie didn’t do this justice). Or when Mulan returned home. Or Dumbledore screwed Slytherin out of the House Cup and gave it to Gryffindor.

It’s important to remember that movies are not divided up into 12 equal segments that spend the same amount of time on each stage. Some stages are rushed through, others are simply skipped. For example, Harry’s statement to Hagrid, “But I’m not a wizard” was his one and only Refusal of the Call. He didn’t spend 15 minutes wrestling with the decision before continuing on. So if your content marketing stories don’t have all 12 steps, don’t worry about it.

In my next article, since this one broke 1,100 words, we’ll talk about how to use the Hero’s Journey in content marketing. It can serve as a structure to help guide customers to a buying decision.

Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Four Hacks to Writing Faster

The first time I was ever hired to write a press release, I charged $100 for an hour’s work.

The problem was, it only took me 20 minutes to write the thing.

I felt so guilty that I just sat and stared at my computer for the next 40 minutes, looking for errors, changing a word here and there, but mostly just making sure I worked the entire hour.

I finally realized — with five minutes remaining — that the client hadn’t hired me to work for an hour. They hired me because I had the ability to produce a press release in an hour or less.

I just never told them it took me 20 minutes.

It turns out, that’s pretty fast. I know people who take a few hours to write a press release. It takes them a few hours to write anything, in fact. They dread writing, they dread the blank page or the empty screen, and they don’t know how to fill it up.
A stopwatch is not necessarily going to help you write faster. Don't time yourself for a writing hack.
Copywriter extraordinaire Henneke Duistermaat recently wrote about 12 productivity hacks to help you write faster, which can help the non-writer and beginning writer snap out of the “I can’t do it!” funk and actually get some words down on the page.

(She also created a really cool sketch for her article, and I’m totally jealous.)

With tips like “write when groggy” and “slow down,” Henneke’s advice can help even the most resistant non-writers into passable scribblers.

But there are a few other writer-y things professional writers do so we can write much faster than non-writers. And if you want to speed up your writing time, here are four tips for writing faster for you to try.

1. Always put ideas in a notebook

If you don’t have one, get yourself a nice little notebook. Either a Moleskine or Field Notes. Something durable and simple, and small enough to fit into a pocket or purse.

Don’t get one of those gorgeous leather-bound things that looks like it came from Elvish Hobby Lobby. You’ll be too afraid to write in it, and it will be too clunky to carry around.

If you have an idea that pops into your head, write it down. It gets the idea out of your head so a new one can take its place. Otherwise, it will keep rattling around up there, and you’ll keep churning it around in your brain.

Don’t put it in your phone though. You need to go through the physical act of writing, because it helps us remember things better, which is going to help us with writer hack number 2.

Next, come up with three main points — write out full sentences — that you think would best explain this topic. If you can come up with more, write them down too. But make sure you have at least three.

2. Ponder your ideas

Okay, I stole this one. Henneke says to “take advantage of percolation.”

When you aren’t writing, your brain still continues thinking about your content. It’s called the diffuse mode of thinking—when you let your mind wander freely.

But I want you to do more than just letting your mind wander freely. You’re going to focus on this idea, you’re going to imagine yourself in different scenarios, and you’re going to work it and work it, like a baker kneading her dough.

Any time you can find time to concentrate, I want you to imagine and visualize the subject of your article/blog post/white paper/story. This percolation is actually where you’re going to do the real writing, creating and fleshing out your ideas. The act of putting it down on the computer is just typing; for now, you’re going to write in your head.

Whenever you’re going to drive somewhere, ride the train home, go for a run, putter around in the garage, or do yoga, look at your idea before you start. Open up your notebook, study your great idea and main points, and then ponder them as you’re running, driving, puttering, yoga-ing.

Really mull it over and grind it between your teeth. Use this non-computer time to come up with different thoughts, ideas, phrasing, and so on. As those ideas start to develop, that should lead you into hack number three.

3. Imagine yourself giving this as a talk

Picture yourself giving a talk on this subject to a roomful of people. (If it helps, imagine they’re adoring fans hanging on your every word.) What would you say? How would you explain this? You want to explain the subject logically, so it flows in a natural, easy-to-understand way. Think about a couple of stories you could add in there, and even a few jokes.

Do this visualization whenever you’ve got the time — driving, commuting, walking, in the shower, before you go to bed, and so on. This is more of Henneke’s percolating and it’s where your best writing is going to happen.

Finally, you’re ready for the last hack.

4. Write an email to your mom.

I always like to say, “If you’re writing about something difficult, put it an email to your mom.”

Seriously. Start out with, “Dear Mom, let me tell you something I learned today.”

Now, our moms love us, but they don’t quite get what they do. For the longest time, my mom knew I “sold things on the Internet,” but that’s about as far as she got. (And she was a financial aid consultant with PeopleSoft for a lot of years!)

So we have to explain things in language that our moms understand, and in a tone we would normally talk to our moms in. In other words, keep it simple AND CONVERSATIONAL, but don’t talk down to her.

(You remember what happened the last time you talked down to your mom, right?)

When you’re done explaining the topic to your mom, go back and delete that first line, “Dear Mom, let me tell you . . .” And there’s your blog post.

Do it this way, because it’s easier to write emails to the people we love and who love us. (Unless we’re writing about our relationships with those people. That’s hard. Save that for the holidays when the nieces and nephews won’t shut up, and everyone’s frustrated and half-drunk.)

In the end, the best way to start writing faster is to practice, practice, practice. Read a lot about your subject (books, not blog posts), and talk to people about the subject. Even the act of explaining your ideas will help you write them better, because you have to organize your thoughts just to explain them.

Photo credit: William Warby (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Outrunning The Little Man: Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

There’s only one person I’ve ever been afraid of my entire life.

He’s average height, and skinny, very skinny. He’s got a bad combover, wears outdated glasses that are too large for his face, and a tie clipped onto a pistachio green short sleeve shirt. He’s an older Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. He’s very officious, and kind of an asshole. The kind of guy who loves wielding his teeny-tiny bit of power over other people’s lives.

I call him “The Little Man.” He’s not little in size, but in spirit and vision.

I live in fear of the day The Little Man knocks on my door. He’ll look at a form on his clipboard and say, “I’m sorry” — except he’s really not — “but there’s been a mistake. You’re not supposed to be a writer. You’re supposed to be a claims adjuster. Sign here, please.” I’m afraid The Little Man is going to show up one day and take everything away because of a clerical error.

Impostor syndrome makes people worry there's some bureaucrat out there trying to get us and fix some error about our lives.I’ve been looking over my shoulder for The Little Man for the better part of 30 years. Ever since I published my first column in my college newspaper, I’ve been trying to outrun him.

It’s like the movies. The hero runs as fast as he or she can, knocking shit over into the bad guy’s path. But the bad guy just steps over everything like it’s not even there.

So I’m amassing evidence to slow him down and prove him wrong. Evidence to show that his form is wrong, and that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I’ve thrown four books in his path. Twenty-one years of newspaper columns. Thousands of blog articles. Writing awards. Writing residencies. Speaking opportunities. But he won’t stop. I’m throwing it all in his path, and he won’t even look at it. He’s a mindless bureaucrat, a drone who refuses to see evidence in front of him or use common sense. He only believes what the paperwork says, despite what real life is showing him.

I’ve been running for 30 years, and he won’t stop coming.

I thought I escaped him once last year, when I was a writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. It’s a prestigious residency where only four writers are chosen out of over 300 applicants from all over the world. To me, this confirmed that there had been no error, there was no form on a clipboard.

“This will stop him,” I thought. “There’s no way he can find me here. I’m supposed to be here. They said so.”

But when I stepped inside and closed the door on my first day, he was right there on the sidewalk in front of the house, staring up at it. In fact, it was the closest he’d ever gotten.

He chases my other artist friends too. They’ve seen him, following them wherever they go, whatever they do. To a man and woman, they’ve all seen him, no matter how successful they get, no matter how much stuff they throw in his way.

In fact, the more successful they are, the closer he gets. So we all run faster and work harder, and throw more stuff in his way. But he steps over it and continues on.

It’s a rare artist who isn’t afraid of him. Every capable creative professional I know keeps one eye on their work, and the other looking over their shoulder.

The ones who aren’t afraid often don’t know enough to be afraid. They’re not committed to their craft and they don’t take it seriously. The Little Man leaves alone those artists who wait for inspiration or think they’re masters of their craft. (Because even the real masters don’t think they’re masters; they’re looking for The Little Man too.)

So we work, because that’s the only thing that lets us outrun him. It doesn’t stop him. He never stops. Because he’s waiting for the day that I stop, when I give up and quit running. That’s when he’ll get me. That’s when I’ll have to take his pen and sign his form, and finally give up on my dreams.

But that’s not today. Today, I still have things to do and dreams to win. I still have the energy and the drive to work, and to outrun him one more day.

Photo credit: Max Pixels (FreeGreatPicture.com, Creative Commons 0)

A 25 Page Booklet is not a Book

Maybe I’m being elitist, but I’m getting annoyed at what people call “books” these days.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a so-called expert advise a room full of people to “slap together a short book to demonstrate your expertise on a topic.”

“It doesn’t actually need to be that long — 30, 40 pages tops. I churned mine out in a weekend,” one expert said a few years ago. He was giving a talk about how writing a book can get you speaking gigs and TV appearances.

As a real book author, this bothers me. It bothers me because it cheapens what I do. It turns the several hundred hours I’ve spent on my four co-authored books into a weekend errand you tackle between washing the car and getting a haircut.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I stayed up well past 3:00 am, writing until I fell asleep at my keyboard only to wake up and still be typing.
One does not simply "slap a book together"
But here’s this guy telling me you can just barf out a random assortment of words on any topic in a few hours, upload it to CreateSpace, and bada-boom bada-bing, you’ve got a book!

But my rant is not against self-published books. In fact, one of my books, The Owned Media Doctrine, is a self-published/traditionally-published hybrid of sorts. The others were published by Wiley and Que Biz-Tech (a Pearson imprint). And they’re all 250 pages and longer. So you’ll understand why I get annoyed when someone equates a 30 page weekend project with an actual book.

These stacks of paper aren’t books, they’re booklets. The -let comes from French and means diminutive or small. It’s literally a “little book.”

“If you run short of material, just bump the font size up to 13, set the line spacing to 1.5 lines, and bump the margins in a quarter of an inch,” said the guy. “I turned a 20 page book into a 35 page book that way,” he boasted. (I actually groaned out loud at that, and people looked at me funny.)

And punctuation and grammar? Don’t even get me started on punctuation and grammar! I’ve only ever heard one booklet advocate suggest getting someone to proofread the manuscript. The others recommend giving it one more read through on Sunday “with fresh eyes.” My books went through four read throughs before they were ever printed, and we’re still finding issues.

The whole reason for writing a book is to demonstrate your expertise on a topic. It implies that you have a depth and a breadth of knowledge that the average industry member does not. That you study and research more than the rest of the people in your field. (Whether you do or not is a different matter entirely.)

This is important if you ever want to get speaking gigs, especially paid ones. The idea is that you just wave your book in front of the conference organizer, and they’ll believe your expertise, and boom, you’re hired.

The problem is that 1) the minimum acceptable standard of what we call a “book” is slipping, and 2) our guy’s advice implies conference organizers are easily distracted by jangling car keys in front of them.

Booklets Play an Important Role

Look, these booklets might be fine for sharing with potential clients. You could even sell them for $.99 or $1.99. I know one guy who has made a decent living by writing ebooks and booklets about specific elite athletic techniques and selling them for $10 or $15.

He even goes so far as to break them out, chapter by chapter, and sells those for $.99 apiece. If you can do that, more power to you. This guy has a specialized piece of knowledge that, frankly, doesn’t need an entire 280 page book. It can be explained in a few thousand words with some pictures and diagrams. It doesn’t need to be any more than that.

There are booklets out there for launching a business, passing specific industry certifications, repairing appliances, cast iron cooking, and changing the oil in your car. There are short 15,000 word novellas and poetry booklets that take up 25 pages.

In the fiction world, these booklets are called chapbooks. Historically, those meant small pamphlets containing ballads or tracts, and they were sold by peddlers called “chapmen.” To modern creative writers, chapbooks are small paperback booklets usually containing poems or short stories.

And the chapbook authors are appropriately humble about their work. They recognize that this is a tiny work and not on the same level as a regular book. But they’ve also spent hours and hours on it, after spending years honing their craft to even start writing the book. It’s not something they “slapped together” one weekend either.

You Should Still Be Proud

Don’t get me wrong. What you’ve done is impressive, and you should be proud. You’ve strung together 4,000 – 5,000 words about an area you’re an expert in. I’ll bet 95% of the US population can’t say that. You have done something that only a few million people throughout history have ever done. And I’ll even say this qualifies you as a “writer.”

But that’s the first step. You’ve got a lot more knowledge rattling around in that great big brain of yours — at least another 55,000 words on that subject. You know about the history of your industry, the important issues of the day, the major themes, the political ramifications, and the tax implications.

You know the inside baseball, the little rules, the big problems, and what it all means for the beginner and expert in your industry. You could talk for hours and hours about the things you know and the things you’ve seen, and if we wrote it all down, we’d have 200 pages on the subject.

And that’s a book.

Your book should be thick. It should have heft. It should thunk when you drop it on your desk. It shouldn’t fit in your pocket. It’s the thing you’ll spend a few hundred hours on, wavering between pulling out your hair and setting your hair on fire. And when you’re done, it will be one of the proudest moments of your life, when you see that something you created occupies a physical space in the world, and will be around long after you’re gone.

If you want a real weekend project, write an outline of the book you’d like to read on your particular topic. Break it up into chapters (at least 12, no more than 16), sections, and sub-sections. And then write one sub-section for at least 1,000 words.

Then fill out the rest, one section and one day at a time. If you can write one section a day, at least 1,000 words per section, you should finish it in less than six months.

Then you’ll have a real book — something you can boast about and be proud of.

And I want a signed copy.

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.

Eight Simple Rules for Using Apostrophes

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

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

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

Apostrophes. Well, ONE apostrophe.

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

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

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

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

(With apologies to Bruce Cameron.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Apostrophes are used to show contractions.

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

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

4. Apostrophes are also used to show possessive.

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

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

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

5. Its/it’s is a right bastard.

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

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

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

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

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

American: I love Dr. Seuss’ books.

British: I love Dr. Seuss’s books.

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

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

British: Eww, what is wrong with you?!

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

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

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

7. Apostrophes are used to show glottal stops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo credit: Andreas06 (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)