Six questions that will greatly improve your writing

Legendary marketing guru Drayton Bird asks these questions when editing his own or anyone else’s writing:

1. Are these sentences in the right order?

2. Does each one advance the argument?

3. Do I need that – or is it just there because I think it’s clever?

4. Is there anything – words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs – I can get rid of?

5. Is there anything I can add that will help?

6. Am I going for the jugular with enough force?

Copy these questions and ask them the next time you write anything (be merciless with your answers).

Then when you’re thinking of using an editor, send the questions to him or her along with a sample of your writing and ask them to answer them. Or better yet ask a few editors and hire the one with the best answers.


News Flash About Ponds

Everyone would like to be a big fish in a little pond so they can dominate it.

Accomplishing that used to be simple: just work and study hard, network, improve your skills, and move up a corporate ladder.

But the hot winds of internet communication–especially anything business or consumer related–have changed all that.

You may have spent years preparing yourself to become a big shot, only to see a new industry fall into the hands of a brash imaginative nobody–and leave you gasping.

Face it: business and social ponds will come or go in the time it takes you to find GPS directions.

Every day we read news of big fish left flapping helplessly in the mud because their personal pond up and moved or dried up on them.

Getting big and meaty is no longer the secret of success. Work on your jumping skills and develop a nose for new ponds instead.

Make magic not “meh”

A few times I’d walk up to the registration desk of a conference and introduce myself as a journalist.

“I’m thinking of writing an article about the conference and one or two of the topics on your agenda.”

Free pass–sometimes even with a complimentary lunch.

This wasn’t dishonest: I’m always looking for story or interview ideas. And they were happy to let me in. They knew that a journalist would add value to their conference and mission. A real win-win.

There’s plenty of magic in words if we always choose them thoughtfully and connect them carefully.

And you can be a magician if you’re committed to practicing and polishing your magic act.

Pull a happy surprise out of a situation or scenario. Spread sparkly images with elan like you’re spreading a deck of cards. Jump into a tank and show off your lasting power.

Sloppy or derivative writing will always be greeted with a speedy goodbye.

So make everything you write magic and get a return engagement.

And tell someone at your next conference that Carey sent you.

“Save The Last Dance For Me”

Bloggers and content marketers are only human; they’ll sometimes try to eat their dessert first.

Front-loading your article with a point and then tap dancing through the rest of the piece without adding much relevance, proof or value might feel like you’ve gotten away with something.

It’s like putting all the exciting scenes from a movie in the trailer to attract movie goers.

But readers are increasingly demanding and jealous of the time they spend reading. Once they begin feeling short-changed they’ll simply move on. Without you.

Don’t be like the infamous prom date who flirts with somebody else after a dance or two. Give your readers the value and entertainment they want … up to the final sentence.

Readers will follow your narrative with sincere interest if you give them good enough reasons to.

And there are a couple of tested and painless ways to avoid short-changing your readers:

  1. You could use an organizational or brainstorming tool like a mind map. I started using an visual outline as a planning tool decades ago and saw immediate improvement in the quality of my transitions, internal logic and structure. Or
  2. Find an editor savvy and caring enough to make certain your blog ends as memorably as it started.

How to Clear Out a Sky Full of Locusts

Many people write simply to try and do something productive with ideas flying around their brains like a plague of locusts

They are like farmers who enjoy nothing better than watering and weeding the fields they’ve spent their lives cultivating–row on row of jobs and family relationships and ingrained habits.

When suddenly they hear ominous whirs of random ideas and self-talk that blot out the comforting sunlight and raise questions that depend completely on complex variables and characters.

Unfortunately this plague comes with your decision to begin writing anything: unless you happen to be named Georges Simenon (prolific author of the Inspector Maigret mysteries) you can abandon any hope of rounding up all those ideas and releasing them one at a time.

Because even if you could do that there will always be another wave of ideas and critical editing decisions on the horizon.

“Is this scene or dialogue in the right place? Can I tweak its transitions or tone so it might work here? Or should I just leave it lay where God has flang it and cross my fingers?”

It’s a big reason many writers publish a book much earlier than they should: they want to avoid the plague of questions and related decisions they can see massing on the horizon and decide to harvest their work much before the proper time.

As soon as a farmer spots locusts massing over a neighbor’s field they’d call the neighbors to come and help wave the insects off the crops.

Consider yourself forewarned that a plague of ideas is about to obscure your cherished work; there’s still time to get the help you need to prune and channel and prioritize your waves of ideas.

As long as you have an editor.


Great writers (and editors) serve

Since childhood I’ve preferred being last in line. As a would-be Southern gentleman of course always for ladies, but for men as well.

Following everybody I’m sure we are going to the same place.  I enjoy watching them interact with each other and our surroundings. It makee others feel special and allows me to be ready in case there’s a problem I can help resolve.

This is also how I edit books.  Writers have enough on their minds without trying to please an editor.  My job is to help writers discover and clarify their intent and make sure both the reader’s and writer’s goals are being met.

When looking for an editor try to find one with a sincere “servant leader” philosophy.  Ask them how they work with clients and drop anybody who needs to be a know it all.

And while you’re at it, demonstrate how mature and skillful you are as a writer, Make your own work more successful by putting readers’ needs before your own.

Life and Chocolate Pudding

I jumped out of the van to push it because the Kenyan hillside road we’d been navigating was turning into chocolate pudding and our van was skidding through it toward a cliff on the right and the possibility of an abrupt end to my group’s idyllic journey around the African countryside;

so I jumped over the knees of friends in the middle seat and through the van door behind our small Kenyan guide who now felt responsible for the absurd danger we found ourselves in;

and as I helped him push the van up the hill I realized I wasn’t really strong enough and neither was the scrawny guide but we did it anyway until he spotted a Caterpillar-yellow construction tractor passing us on the way home for the day and he shouted to the tractor driver in Swahili and the tractor pulled the van so for a couple of minutes I was walking against the van to catch my breath as its wheels slurped and spun up the hill;

and then the hillside road grew flatter as dusk settled over us for the day and the van was picking up speed;

and the guide yelled over his shoulder at me before leaping through the van’s open door toward my relieved friends;

“bad animals around here!” he shouted and slid the door shut behind him, and then the tractor and van and my friends were suddenly not there as the darkness became final;

and staggering toward a tall forested bend in the full throated darkness I could imagine a dozen pair of wild animal eyes studying me from the thick forest;

and then I was stumbling around the bend and the van was waiting, filled with the most beautiful lights I’ve ever seen and beckoning me to feel safe again.

This is how my life goes: always filled with surprise and danger and desertion yet eventually with people who care when I need them the most.

And I’ve never eaten another bowl of chocolate pudding.


Why You Need A Fun Lifestyle

In the early 60s our mother was a Village beatnik. Times changed; in my teen years our little family acted more like hippies or gypsies. Every three years or less we’d move and she’d change jobs.

Our unspoken rule was “As soon as what we’re doing and where we’re living stops being fun we hit the road.” So I soon became a master improviser addicted to unexpected and memorable experiences.

If something was normal we’d happily live without it.

It made sense for my brother John and me to attend a “college without walls” so we could travel around the world, doing whatever independent study appealed to us in faraway and fun places.

Then we graduated and I tried to get jobs and acceptance by mainstream society. Constantly failing at that wasn’t much fun, but at least I never got stuck in a rut. Instead I fully enjoyed being with my young daughters and constantly checking out new stuff whenever I felt like it.

My ideal lifestyle has always included learning and helping others without expecting a reward–because every effort was also my reward.

Many people seem to be getting uneasy with what they’ve got and envy my life of adventure and spontaneity. I’m happy to inspire anyone who feels that way to be different and follow their instincts.

So what about the dire threats we’re always getting? “To be happy you have to toe somebody’s line and conform?” Pure baloney; the benefits of traveling light and having lots of fun connecting with strangers will far outweigh any illusory costs.

Be bravely weird; then some day you too will be remembered for all your irreplaceable and fun memories.

What You Know

What do you know?

Are you putting lots of it into everything you write?

One big reason your readers don’t stay excited about what you’ve written: they just aren’t interested in reading stuff they’ve heard somewhere else.

Make that “former readers.” They’ll only keep reading if you give them something unique and surprising.

Tweaking what you heard somewhere feels easy and safe. It should set off your mental alarms instead.

Everything should be original and thought-provoking. This requies more guts, skill and enthusiasm than most of us can come up with without professional help.

But it will set you apart from the competition so it’s the best investment of effort and resources.

Writing what you know is your ticket to success. When it becomes your trademark, your work will have a chance of putting you over the top.

Deep down you already know this; you also know how to make it happen.

Get an editor.

How to Write and Edit Like You Mean it

Success at writing or editing (or life) is mostly about how clear your intention or purpose is, and how effectively you remain focused on it.

Hobbyist writers tend to lose sight of three important questions–“Why am I writing this, what specifically do I want to accomplish and how will I know when I’ve achieved my purpose?”

It’s easy for any of us to put off answering the first two because it’s so much easier and pleasant to day dream about the last one. Before even finishing the first rough draft we begin counting our avid fans and sales results.

But resist this temptation; force yourself to identify your intention and goal/goals. Writing, like any complex and meaningful project, is about reaching your goals without taking shortcuts. And there’s no more self-defeating shortcut than mentally celebrating the rewards of writing something good without actually writing it.

If you can’t be bothered to carefully think through your intent, then build the entire writing process around that “engine” you should do something else; you’re little more than a daydreamer.

This is another benefit of working with a good editor who can help you develop a muscular statement of intent.

He or she will help make writing your book an evolutionary activity as you grow into the kind of successful writer you’ve always wanted to be.