A Very Good Start: Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”

Tom Stoppard

Playwright Tom Stoppard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the prompts for NaBloPoMo involves writing about the opening of your favorite book.

Now, this is a bit tricky. One of my favorite books, by one of my favorite authors, is Cloud Atlas (recently turned into a film by the folks who made “The Matrix” series and “Run Lola Run,” but that’s another story), written by David Mitchell. Great book, beautiful ending. But the beginning hardly hints at the greatness to come. And that’s true for a lot of my top choices.

The book of Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” is way up there on my list of favorites, and its opening absolutely fits the bill.

The curtain rises on a room in a large country home in Derbyshire in 1809. The daughter of the house, 13-year-old Thomasina, is there with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, age 22.

THOMASINA: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

SEPTIMUS: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

THOMASINA: Is that all?

SEPTIMUS: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.

THOMASINA: Is it a sin?

SEPTIMUS: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED. We had caro in our Gallic Wars – ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’. I am sorry that the seed fell on stony ground.

THOMASINA: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

SEPTIMUS: Yes. He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before. I thought you were finding a proof for Fermat’s last theorem.

THOMASINA: It is very difficult, Septimus. You will have to show me how.

SEPTIMUS: If I knew how, there would be no need to ask you.

With a few opening lines, Stoppard establishes everything about the drama that unfolds: The precociousness of Thomasina, the respect Septimus has for her intellect, the confusion that occurs when sex enters the picture, the rhythm of the language.

Their exchange continues, and continues to set up the events to come, as Septimus tries to determine what on Earth could have instigated this inquiry from his young pupil.

When Septimus learns that Thomasina heard Jellaby the butler, “telling cook that Mrs. Chater was discovered in carnal embrace in the gazebo,” he grows nervous.

SEPTIMUS: (Pause) Really? With whom, did Jellaby happen to say?

(THOMASINA considers this with a puzzled frown.)

THOMASINA: What do you mean, with whom?

SEPTIMUS: With what? Exactly so. The idea is absurd. Where did this story come from?

THOMASINA: Mr. Noakes.

SEPTIMUS: Mr. Noakes!

THOMASINA: Papa’s landskip gardener. He was taking bearings in the garden when he saw – through his spyglass – Mrs. Chater in the gazebo in carnal embrace.

SEPTIMUS: And do you mean to tell me that Mr. Noakes told the butler?

THOMASINA: No. Mr. Noakes told Mr. Chater. Jellaby was told by the groom, who overheard Mr. Noakes telling Mr. Chater, in the stable yard.

SEPTIMUS: Mr. Chater being engaged in closing the stable door.

And so, in little more than a page, we have almost the entire cast of characters that populates the 1809 section of the play, which also travels forward in time to present day where a couple of academics have imposed themselves on the descendants of the same home, trying to solve riddles from the past. Such as whether Lord Byron, friend to Septimus, ever stayed at the house, penned a newly discovered poem there, fought a duel, killed a man, and escaped across the Channel without anyone discovering his crime.

Many critics consider “Arcadia” to be Stoppard’s best play – which is saying something, considering he also has to his credit “The Real Thing,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “The Coast of Utopia,” along with the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.”

“Arcadia” is the stuff of the greatest British playwrights, Orton and Wilde and Shakespeare. It’s a discourse on physics and the natural world, discovery and knowledge lost. It’s tragedy embedded in comedy – and we care so much because Stoppard’s writing defines these characters so clearly from the start. Thomasina, with her wondrous intelligence, is fully realized the moment she utters the play’s first line.

“Arcadia” leaves me breathless with laughter, shattered and in tears, every time I read it. The danger is opening the book at all because, once started, you’re swept away by the beauty of language and the brilliance of the mind that wrote it.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”
~ Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia”

A Cornucopia of Virtual Storytelling

If you’ve ever dreamed of sharing a story with the world, November offers an abundance of online opportunities for writers.

The month kicks off, as it has for the past 13 years, with NaNoWriMo, the nickname for National Novel Writing Month, in which tens of thousands of writers scramble to complete a 50,000-word novel while friends, the spouse you’ve been ignoring, and fellow authors follow your progress online.

Meanwhile, Twitter – yes, the social platform that restricts writers to 140-characters-per-post – is getting in the game with the just-announced Twitter Fiction Festival, a five-day virtual storytelling event that begins Nov. 28.

30 Days & Nights of Literary Abandon

Last year, starting on Nov. 1, more than 256,000 writers pledged to participate in the annual NaNoWriMo event; 36,843 typed “The End” by the Nov. 30 deadline.

As many writers and writing books will tell you, it’s crucial to banish “the Editor” who hovers over your shoulder, continually shouting disapproving, censorious comments in your ear as you create. Just write, writers are encouraged. Get your hand moving across the page!

This is the point of NaNoWriMo: “Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.”

The NaNoWriMo website offers a virtual community of support (and live events in your neighborhood), as well as forums for sharing your angst and glories with other authors, writing tips and support, a Young Writers Program, and a virtual space to track your progress, share your work and read novels by fellow participants.


“Twitter is a place to tell stories,” Andrew Fitzgerald, of Twitter’s media team, reminds us on the Twitter blog. “Often those stories are about news, or politics, or perhaps sports or music, but it turns out Twitter is a great place for telling fictional stories, too.”

The Atlantic, The New Yorker and others have used Twitter’s live-blogging platform to experiment with storytelling, and now Twitter wants to push the medium even further. For writers who want to participate, submit your proposal to Twitter by Thursday, Nov. 15, explaining how you want to tell your story using existing Twitter tools, like chats, or inventing entirely new ones. The only requirement is that your story unfold sometime during the five-day festival.

Twitter will announce the names of the selected participating authors on Nov. 19, and the festival gets under way on Nov. 28. You can follow the event at the hashtag: #twitterfiction.

What about you? Is there a novel you’ve been aching to send out into the world? Curious about the possibilities of tweaking Twitter to tell your short stories? I’d love to hear about it in the Comments.

Adventures in Storytelling: The Dark World of Brandon Generator

Imagine the possibilities if people around the world shared ideas for a story, characters and salient plot points.

“The Random Adventures of Brandon Generator” is an online graphic novel-turned-film noir, featuring the baffled protagonist striving to create original worlds and instead succumbing to writer’s block. Brandon stares at the blinking cursor on his blank computer screen and feels like he’s lost control. That’s where you come in.

The Brandon Generator story-verse was created by film director Edgar Wright (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”) and Marvel and Lucasfilm illustrator Tommy Lee Edwards. It’s narrated by Julian Barratt of “The Mighty Boosh” and fueled by cup after cup of espresso and the wild ideas of readers.

“I created a character who is creatively stuck and continually looks for random interjections to inspire him,” Wright says of the project on his blog. “Rapidly it becomes clear that the people who can actually help are the people at home visiting the site.”

“I like the idea of the world forming around Brandon and am excited to connect with people at home in a whole new way, creatively,” he explains. “It’s exciting to know that even though there’s an underlying narrative and set pieces in place, much of the plot is up for grabs.”

Despite the title, the multiple plot drivers don’t feel random at all – a tribute to Wright’s talents as a writer and storyteller. Edwards’ visuals combine with a score by David Holmes to transform the dozens of ideas, voicemails and drawings submitted by fans into a memorable, wry tale.

Two episodes have appeared; two more are in the works. At the end of each, you can mouse over the final scene and click on various images, like Brandon’s phone, to submit your own ideas, which are folded into the next episode. The project wraps in June.

Watch Brandon

You can view the first two episodes from Edgar Wright’s blog or on the Brandon Generator site at www.brandongenerator.com.

Connect with Brandon

Naturally, Brandon has his own Facebook page, Facebook.com/BrandonGenerator, and Twitter account, Twitter.com/Brandon_gen; you can discuss the project on Twitter using the hashtag #BrandonGenerator.

Writing: Crossing the Finish Line

Writer's blockSo far, I’ve attempted to debunk the concept of writer’s block to help you get started and examined what happens when you get stuck in the middle of a piece. In part 3, let’s wrap it up, so you have in your hands a writing project that you’re happy about sharing with the world.

If you’re content writing stories, essays, poems, or in a journal and plan never to show your creative efforts to anyone, then it really doesn’t matter whether you finish or not. But, if you’re already a working writer – or want a long career as a writer – then finishing is what makes you a Writer (as in formal title and job description) or Author (with published works to your name).

So, let’s address some of the reasons why writers struggle to finish and get you on with your work:

You can’t think how the piece should end – This sounds like a bigger problem than it is. Before you think I’m being flippant, I’ll go on record and admit that while I don’t suffer from this in my professional writing life, I struggle immensely with endings in my creative writing. So, what’s the answer? In many ways, it’s the same for both kinds of writing: Learn from the masters.

In corporate communications, PR, marketing, advertising, and journalism, there are tons of examples of completed pieces that went before yours. Whether you’re writing a press release, website content or an ad campaign, go back and look at: 1) great examples that cover a subject similar to yours, and 2) the work that inspires you and exemplifies best-in-the-practice. Before you get too absorbed in all that admiring, jump to the ending. How did these previous pros close the deal? Did they reiterate overall goals or messages? Let a distinguished figure do the talking with a closing quote? Tug on your heartstrings? Make you laugh? Or did they focus on something meaningful to the intended audience? Figure out why that particular ending worked for that piece of writing for that audience, and you’ll be halfway home; now, look at your own goals, messages and audience, and choose the approach that’s most meaningful for your readers.

If you’re writing PR or journalism, reading coverage of topics similar to yours is invaluable. For PR people, you’ll learn what angles work in a pitch – or are perhaps already overused. Similarly, journalists can see how the story was covered previously and decide whether they want to utilize an effective format or try a new direction or style.

This process of analyzing stories similar to your own is just as helpful for creative writers. So, you’ve got a story with characters, plot, themes. Examine the works of other writers and how they got to a conclusion. Does each character in your story have a complete arc or did you leave the heroine’s old boyfriend in Idaho somewhere, putting on his shoes one morning? Is there a gaping donut hole in your plot? Are all the strings of your themes playing together in harmony by the time you reach The End?

writer's blockBe wary, as I mentioned in Part 1, of setting aside your work while waiting for inspiration to strike. In a way, writing is not all that different from sport – you’re just exercising a different set of muscles. No good comes from letting your brain go slack. Be disciplined about regular practice: this is where skills are built.

If analyzing other works doesn’t inspire your own imaginative ending, then try brain puzzles. This is apparently what Joel and Ethan Coen did when writing their first film, “Blood Simple.” The Coen brothers deliberately wrote themselves into corners, where characters were seemingly trapped – frequently at gunpoint. They didn’t let themselves or their characters off the hook; they created the challenge of writing believable sequences that took characters and plot to the next inescapable corner. And the next. And the one after that.

Here’s what critic Roger Ebert said about the writing of this plot:

“The genius of ‘Blood Simple’ is that everything that happens seems necessary. The movie’s a blood-soaked nightmare in which greed and lust trap the characters in escalating horror. The plot twists in upon itself. Characters are found in situations of diabolical complexity. And yet it doesn’t feel like the film is just piling it on. Step by inexorable step, logically, one damned thing leads to another.”

The successful writers I’ve met in Hollywood have one common trait: They set challenges for themselves – whether around characters or plots – and they write themselves out of them. And they work at these challenges every day, whether at their computers or while waiting in line at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

You’re not willing to put in the time – Some of the advice I’ve offered in this three-part series involves extracurricular activities, whether mapping out a writing schedule or doing certain exercises. Like writing, it’s the doing that gets you to the end result. For example, in Part 1, I suggested an exercise that involved rating your expectations of writing assignments from 1 (“could’ve done it in my sleep”) to 10 (“unbearably awful”) and then rating the assignment again, after it was done. You can dismiss the suggestion out of hand or assume it won’t work for you or even figure you “get it,” so you don’t need to actually try it. But, in this particular case, as with suggestions that involve practice writing, it’s your own accumulated experience that creates in you a solid foundation of confidence and skill, and that’s what will enable you to ward off this thing that’s keeping your hand from the keyboard or pen – call it writer’s block, ennui, depression, procrastination, stress, obligations, discouragement, lack of faith, whatever, but when you’re haunted by these specters, trust me, you’ll want some inner ghostbusters you can call upon to make them go away, so you can get back to your real work.

You’re having issues at work/home and failing to complete writing assignments – When you’re having problems, they can interfere with meeting writing deadlines. Ultimately, though, failing to meet deadlines will compound your problems. Whatever’s going on at work, you need to formulate a way to address it and even proactively discuss your plan of attack with your boss. It’s likely your manager is already concerned about missed deadlines. Demonstrating an awareness of the situation, concern for meeting goals, willingness to redress the problem and seek advice will give you some traction, as long as you follow through. Likewise, once the air is cleared, stay late if you need to, but finish those writing assignments and turn them in. (If your home life is bleeding into your work life, this will become a much bigger problem a lot faster than you ever imagine. Get the two separated immediately and start practicing compartmentalization. Leave the emotional issues of home at home and don’t give yourself time to think about them once you cross the threshold of your office.)

Finding time to writeIf the problem at work or home is that you don’t have enough time to write, then you’ll need to print out your weekly schedule and share it with your manager, spouse, roommates – whoever’s impeding your ability to get your writing done. Whether you need to assure your roommates that the new Gotye song sounds even more profound when appreciated through headphones instead of blasting out of their stereo speakers from 2 – 3 p.m. on Wednesdays or you suggest to your manager that your weekly one-on-ones could be bi-weekly or literal “standing meetings,” where you don’t sit down and do a quick 5 minute run-down of anything that’s pressing, what you’re looking for is a positive negotiation that will result in realistic and manageable blocks of time where you can write and the people around you are comfortable.

You don’t see how your missed milestone impacts everyone else down the line – Whether writing in the corporate world or hoping to see your short story in Glimmer Train, if you want to be a working writer, money is on the line and people are depending on you.

There was a very specific moment in my professional writing life when I stopped procrastinating. It’s as distinctive a memory for me as the decision to quit smoking. I was communications lead on a $300 million initiative that, for the first time in the company’s history, was going to use project management tools to map the work and deliver against plan. There’s nothing like seeing your communications work itemized on MS Project as a dependency linked to other pieces of work performed by dozens of colleagues downstream with multiple business functions dedicated to the effort and millions upon millions of dollars on the line.

Most, or at least many, corporate assignments aren’t this intense or costly. But the point remains: Your work is part of a longer chain that starts with a business leader or client needing to message, sources pulling together information and donating their time to you, reviewers who make time to approve the piece, and your manager and the newsletter team who’re looking to you to complete the assignment. Each of these colleagues has their own work and limited amounts of time to dedicate to supporting your work. The same goes for the people at publications to whom you make promises about delivering completed assignments, rewrites or creative work.

Honoring other people’s time is a matter of respect, and when you demonstrate that kind of respect, people naturally want to work with you (and publish you) again and help you achieve your own goals. (And that is always a good place to find yourself no matter what kind of writing you do.)

They keep changing the goal line – This happens frequently in corporate communications, and it can throw your entire piece into question or a major part of its messaging. This is why sitting down with your clients or manager with an outline, key messages and recommended sources is so valuable at the beginning of any project. Getting agreement and sign-off on the goals of a piece doesn’t mean the assignment won’t change along the way, but it can buy you additional time to deliver if you need to conduct a whole new batch of interviews to support the new direction. If you work in an organization where goal lines move a lot, then you may also need to adopt a different approach: news briefs on the intranet, for example, instead of feature stories for the e-newsletter or addressing with your manager the ROI of constantly abandoning writing assignments (in terms of what it costs to pay a writing contractor) and get a sense if she or he has any control over the situation.

You’re afraid of succeeding – I watch a lot of professional tennis and, over the years, you learn to spot the players – even ones at the very top – who struggle to win a match. The place you often see this play out is in the serve. It’s the one and only stroke that a player has complete control over; it’s also the moment when a player feels most alone and exposed. Players have practiced for this moment since they were shorter than the racquets they use – a million practice swings to get it just right when the game is on the line. Andy Roddick always delivers. So does Serena Williams and Roger Federer. If it was all about skill – or talent – then Andy Murray and Amelie Mauresmo and even Maria Sharapova would have a lot more trophies on their shelves. It’s about finding a level of belief that exceeds skill.

The late John Wooden, the revered UCLA basketball coach, put together something he called the “Pyramid of Success,” and it’s worth studying – for writing and life (or tennis). You’ll note that ambition is balanced with qualities like industriousness, friendship and loyalty. Enthusiasm measured against poise and self-control.

writer's block“Success,” said Wooden, “is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Wooden doesn’t confuse self-satisfaction with ego; he sees it as a direct correlation of working your hardest at being your best. The real competition is inside you to better your skills and your self. There are very few good writing books that will tell you any different.

Ultimately, writing is something you do alone, like standing at the service line. Writing comes from inside you, which is why it can feel so exposed on the page and why we encounter difficulties with it along the way to expressing ourselves or getting writing assignments done. If you’re struggling with issues around success, then print out Wooden’s pyramid and consider where you might be out of balance and which attributes or practices might bring you greater balance in your writing life, and really practice them, and you’ll find you’re getting your writing across the finish line, however you’ve defined that success for yourself.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary…Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him.”
~ Abby, “Blood Simple” by Joel and Ethan Coen

The List Post: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Dear Bloggers & Content Writers:

List PostsSo, you’ve heard you can generate lots of traffic with a list article. You’ve been advised that readers love concise chunks of information arranged for the eye under bold headlines or set off with numbers.

Plus, list posts with their shiny numeric headlines are highly promotable, tweetable and ultimately “can be successful at getting links from other bloggers,” note Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett in Problogger.

It’s all true, my good writer, but there are effective and not-so-effective ways to write a list article. A few tips – five, to be exact – to write the good list post, avoid the bad, and banish the ugly.

THE GOOD: Offer real help
You’re drawn in immediately by the headline on Jenny Frank and Frannie Marmorstein’s article “8 Ways Pitching a Reporter is Like Dating.” Even better, you’re rewarded when you click the link. They offer eight bonafide pieces of information with details and examples to back it up. Sure, this piece is for the younger PR practitioner, and all the better for matching tone to the right audience. (Besides, articles in industry publications/blogs can be helpful reminders for pros, too.)

THE GOOD: Be consistent
Another point about the style in “8 Ways Pitching a Reporter is Like Dating”: the writers chose a theme (dating) and style (dating example followed by specific advice to PR practitioners) and stuck to it for each of the eight tips. They use light humor that doesn’t get in the way of the information you want to know and the dating examples aren’t random, they perfectly illustrate each tip. (When you read this list article, “4 Grammar Rules You Can Break in Blogging,” you’ll see that only one item on the list is really about grammar; the rest is style and formatting.)

THE BAD: Humor has its place
And that place is generally a comedy club. Humor in professional writing is tricky, and it greatly depends on knowing the audience and understanding what they want to learn (not what the writer thinks he or she needs to tell them). Humor that insists on being the center of attention, takes up too much space before actual information is delivered, or is off-putting or, worse, offensive, just doesn’t work.

THE BAD: Don’t over-rely on list posts
There comes a time when readers tire of the same old format. Your Twitter followers and Facebook fans will feel the same exhaustion, seeing promos for “3 Ways to This” and “Top 10 That.” More important, some types of information are better imparted through narrative or editorials or interviews and profiles. The data, details or research you’ve spent so much time gathering for your article is also better served with a longer, more thoughtful piece, where you can carefully present the information the audience wants to know and understand. (If you’ve got yourself a list-habit, check out the chapter “Blog Writing” in the Problogger book. You’ll find a wealth of inspiration, plus a section suggesting 20 different types of blog posts and the specific details they contain. It’s useful for the blog writer, corporate communicator, PR person, or community manager.)

THE UGLY: Have something to say
A rehashed list post, “Women: 5 Ways to Present Yourself Professionally,” went up on the Ragan website today, generating quite a bit of negative feedback. And while some pundits believe inciting the ire of readers creates buzz for your brand or blog, the bigger question is whether all those people griping about you today will come back to visit you tomorrow. The smart guess is “No, they won’t;” you’ve lost credibility and many readers won’t give you a second chance to re-establish it. Whether or not this post was designed to create controversy, it stumbles for most of the reasons discussed above:

  1. it doesn’t offer help, it lectures;
  2. it’s not consistent in style or content; as many readers noted in the comments, most of the items spoke to things men do as well as women, so why were women called out for correctives?;
  3. its attempts at humor fell flat for the audience (presumably women, since the headline insisted this was meant to appeal to women);
  4. it doesn’t have enough to say about its purported subject nor does it offer concrete details about whether these are real problems or mere observations – and what really can be done about them besides wagging one’s finger at women; and
  5. it insults the audience it insists it’s trying to help; that’s no way to attract and gain readers, but it’s a sure-fire way to lose them.

Say you observe something – at the office, online, in an industry publication, grocery shopping – and you think it makes a perfect allegory for a blog post. Great! But take the time to write out your thesis, develop your thoughts, search for supporting information, and see if there’s enough to the original observation to develop a strong through-line in a post or article. If there’s not, perhaps jot down your observation and place it in a Story Possibilities file or the Future section of your editorial calendar. I guarantee over time you’ll find the details you need to flesh out that idea and make it a helpful, insightful post for your readers.

Stuck in the Middle with Your Writing

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series on writer’s block, the idea that something can prevent you from writing is pure fiction.

Only you can keep you from writing. But what if you’ve started something and get stuck? How do you move past the doldrums of the middle section and catch sight of home port?

Here are some of the problems we encounter when we get stuck in the middle and their solutions:

You’re editing while writing – This is a major concern for most of us, whether the work we do is creative, personal or professional. Several excellent authors discuss the editor’s role in creating distractions from and disaffection for our work.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird says it’s like listening to a radio station with the call letters KFKD: “Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt…”

Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones notes that it’s imperative “to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor” and, if you have trouble doing so, let the editor take over for just a moment and sit there and take dictation: “Write what the editor is saying; give it full voice – ‘You are a jerk, who ever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I’m embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can’t spell…’”

Goldberg’s advice is to get to know the editor by giving it voice, so you can spot the key words that are trapping you. Perhaps it’s the word “boring” or the bit about having nothing valuable to share. Figure out what’s slowing you down, face it, and over time the editor will pipe down until, “like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background.”

On a practical level, many writers are the first (and sometimes only) editors of their work. It’s something we have to engage in to ensure that our writing is ready to go out the door to a publication, to be published on a blog, or before it’s sent out as a press release or posted on a corporate website.

You need to choose the times you edit your work wisely, especially when you’re working on a longer project and have to put away your writing for a day or two and return to it. When you re-read your writing to get back into the flow, it’s tempting to start to edit.

Here’s the deal you need to make with yourself: You must set aside time to write and a time to edit. The editing time must always be scheduled after the writing time. For example, you write for an hour in the morning and agree to edit the piece for an hour in the afternoon. When you pick up a piece after a few days away, you should re-read a paragraph or two at the beginning and then move directly to the place where you left off and review the last few grafs there. Then, begin writing and leave the red pencil for later.

You don’t really understand your subject – This borders on scary territory for a lot of writers, especially if you’ve already completed the interviews and research for the project. If you’re a corporate communicator or work in an agency and have a good rapport with the client, you’re in luck. You need to be honest with your corporate colleague or client about the need for an overview, but there’s no reason you can’t couch that request by saying that you’re absolutely determined to do the best job possible on this project and you’re asking because you want to be sure to get it right and also understand the client’s perspective and expertise on the subject in more depth.

If this isn’t an option, then it’s time to hit the Internet or the library. Use reference sites like Wikipedia to take a deep dive and news publications to see how other people have written about this subject. Then, go back to your own notes and start to pull out the best pieces of information that support the project you’re working on, its goals and key messages. This will help you create an outline that will make it easier to write from.

Defeat writer's block: Keep your hands on the keyboard and write.

Another helpful little trick I’ve found is writing sidebars. I once had to write a long piece on bone research. The research program was called “sclerostin.” Sclerostin happens to be the molecule in your body that inhibits bone growth. The company’s sclerostin program was all about helping patients increase bone. I wrote and wrote and wrote and got more confused as I went. Finally, I went back over my notes and put together a sidebar that noted that the program was really about developing a sclerostin antibody that inhibited sclerostin (inhibiting the inhibitor enables bone growth), and we kept the sidebar in the piece because it was especially helpful to laypeople with little scientific background. Several years later, the leaders of R&D renamed the program “sclerostin antibody” for clarity’s sake, so presumably I wasn’t the only one unclear on the concept.

Whether you use them in the final piece or simply rely on them as cheat sheets to keep the subject straight in your head, sidebars can be a practical solution to confusion.

You didn’t really flesh out themes or messages – And you’ve probably been driving yourself crazy, editing and re-editing (see Item #1), when what you really need is to sit down and write out each theme or message. Determine which are most important to figure out where they belong in your piece – in the lede, in the first chapter, as a convincing summation – and write from there.

You need a middle 8 – This is frequently a structure or style problem. You picked a structure or writing style that suited your subject, but somewhere in the middle you got stuck. The structure or style isn’t serving you anymore.

Don’t panic. Instead give yourself permission to break the structure or style for a few paragraphs and see if you don’t pick it back up on the other side of whatever you were writing that needed a little more room to breathe or a different tone or style.

The middle 8 is part of classic forms of songwriting, especially in popular music. For instance, in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the middle 8 is Paul McCartney’s brief interlude of grounded daily life between John Lennon’s more cryptic, ethereal lyrics:

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head.
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat,
Made the bus in seconds flat.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.”

The middle 8 breaks up the repetition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus and, as Wikipedia notes, is often called the “bridge” or “release.” These are two excellent terms to think of in relation to your own writing, especially if you’ve adhered closely to a strong (or even rigid) structure or to a style. Your reader might need a break, and the middle 8 can serve that function. And get you back in time for the chorus (or to resume your structure or style).

Your piece feels too long – This article started life as a single post about writer’s block, but somewhere in the middle, I realized it was going on and on, and I had lots of tips to share and needed to break it up. I hadn’t thought of the Having Trouble Starting/Stuck in the Middle/Trouble Finishing structure at that point, but when I looked over what I’d written, I saw that I had enough items for each segment to split the piece into a three-parter.

Series are especially helpful if you write a blog (and Problogger authors Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett actually recommend multi-part posts as a helpful blogging promotion tool) or for a newsletter or website. Not so good if you’re writing a press release or a novel (unless you’re writing a genre novel and those I think are required by law to be series).

If you haven’t written an outline, now is the time. Or you need to review your original outline. What are the salient points you need to make? What are your goals? Most important, what does your audience need or want to know? Check to make sure your client’s goals aren’t conflicting with what the audience really needs. Do you have the key points to back up your messages? Perhaps you’re overwriting because you don’t feel you’ve backed up something successfully and so you keep adding more supporting material. Is there a better and more succinct way to make your points?

After you’ve worked on your outline and key messages, try reading the piece aloud. Where are you stumbling? Where are you glossing over parts of sentences just to get through them? Where is the piece dragging? Are you repeating words or phrases? Note all of these and start adjusting.

Finally, ask someone whose opinion you trust to read the piece and mark where they found it slow going, repetitive, unclear, or simply long or uninteresting. What did they want to get out of the piece in return for their investment of time?

What about you? Where do you get stuck – beginning, middle or end?

NEXT TIME: Why you can’t finish.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
~ Stealers Wheel

A Helpful Little Secret about Writer’s Block

Google unearths 11.5 million entries on “writer’s block.”

I’m going to tell you a secret. In fact, something that’s going to shock you to your core because you’ve believed in this ever since you became a writer.

There are millions of articles on the subject (in fact, the Gotham Writers’ Workshop newsletter asks published authors the same question every single week: “How do you get over writer’s block?”) and that might lead you to believe that there’s something there to help you.

When I tell you this secret, it’s one I wish you wouldn’t keep. Please share it with every writer you know, spread it far and wide. Here it is:

Writer’s block doesn’t exist!

You read that right. Writer’s block isn’t real. It’s baseless rumor. Urban myth. Nothingness. Shadow. Specter. And it can’t manifest itself upon your writing destiny.

Don’t believe me? Try looking it up. There is no medical or mental condition known as writer’s block.

(There is one serious exception. If you literally find yourself unable to write or speak, please dial 9-1-1 immediately. You may be experiencing a neurological or pulmonary event and need medical help. That is the only exception.)

Then Why the Heck Am I Having So Much Trouble Writing?

Excellent point. Let’s try to understand the problem, so you can apply a solution.

This is the first of a three-part series to help you analyze and solve problems that are keeping you from writing.

PART ONE: You can’t start writing

You’re waiting for inspiration – You’re depending on that light-bulb moment to kick off the creative process. The only problem is that writers often have to write for a living, on a schedule and on deadline, and don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for an A-ha! moment. The best way to outsmart this assumption is to try it the other way around: Write your opening line. Write it another way. Try it again from a different angle. Now, which version is closest to the one you imagined your Muse was going to dazzle you with? Choose that one and go on from there. You’ll be surprised at how fast genuine inspiration takes over once you get your piece under way.

You can’t write the first line until you know the last – You’re hung up on structure. So, start creating an outline, just like you did in 7th grade English class. What’s your theme? What major points must be made? What evidence backs them up? Where do you want your main character to end up at the end of the story? What do you want your audience to take away at the end? Hey, check it out: now that you know your last line, you can begin.

You’ve done too much research – This one’s awful, isn’t it? You’ve done your job so well, you’ve got too much information swimming around your brain and stacks of photocopies and reference books and files cluttering your desk. There are different ways to approach this. 1) Sort your research into separate stacks, each representing a different subject, message or character. Slap a Post-It on each stack, identifying the information it covers. Set the stacks aside, away from your eyeline, but near enough to dig into when necessary. Start writing and refer to each stack only when needed. 2) Clear the stacks off your desk and don’t go near them. Sit down and, relying only on memory, write down the salient facts, the ones that are key to your piece. Organize these into an outline, noting where you’ll need the research to back up an assertion or add details. Begin writing from your outline and refer to the stacks only when you need the specific reference.

You spend too much time reading books about writing and not enough time writing – While it’s admirable you want to improve your craft, if these books don’t create an impetus for actual writing, they’re not really helping, are they? Reading about writing is more about an aspiration to be a good writer. Nothing wrong with that. But good writers are born from a regular writing practice, and that takes discipline. Try establishing a schedule and figure out the best and most productive time of day for your writing. Be kind to yourself and ensure that you have the time you need to develop as a writer, as well as take part in the world around you and enjoy the people who are important to you. Set aside specific time on your schedule for reading, too (just don’t substitute reading for writing). Once you’ve established a regular writing practice, then take advantage of the books that suggest writing exercises; these will give you the most practical and helpful ways to improve your work.

You’re distracted/you can’t find the time to write – This is another case where you need a schedule and possibly a room of your own to write in. If you’re a PR, marketing or corporate communications writer, trying to concentrate in a cubicle can be rough. If you can’t negotiate some quiet with your neighbors, then you may need to reserve the time and a conference room on your schedule. Other good places to write in peace include the cafeteria after breakfast and lunch shifts, empty offices, or at the local coffee shop with all the other distracted writers. Most important is blocking the time on your schedule, so you have enough time to do your work and other people don’t impinge on it.

You’re procrastinating – An oldie, but goodie. Procrastination is all about fear. If you can identify what’s causing the fear, you frequently remove the obstacle to writing. Are you dealing with an external cause? Are you worried what your client or boss will think of the piece? Are you afraid the writing won’t be effective at marketing or promoting a product or brand? (That’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders, by the way. Remember, your writing is one piece of a larger effort; everyone’s contributing and accountable, not just you.) Or could it be an internal fear? You just don’t think you’re up to the job. You don’t understand the subject. You’re afraid of being criticized. Everything you write is terrible. Notice how procrastinating “helps” you in each of these cases: With nothing to show, there’s nothing to hold up to scrutiny, and your fear can’t be realized. But a larger problem looms: You’ve failed to do the assigned work and you get in trouble or you don’t get another chance from that magazine editor, author’s agent or PR firm. Procrastination creates a vicious cycle of fear, failure, realization of fear. The smartest way to deal with it is to do an honest assessment of what you’re afraid of, rather than feeling generalized fear. Then, write something called a DRAFT FOR REVIEW and use the feedback process to guide the direction of the writing to make it stronger and give others a sense of accountability for the success of the piece. Focus on drafts – not producing the best work ever the first time – and understand that reviews aren’t firing squads, instead they can function like jam sessions where everyone contributes to getting the best ideas into the piece.

You don’t like the writing assignment or feel it’s overwhelming – We’ve all been there, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck in a job you need for the paycheck, doing work that isn’t rewarding. For the sake of the paycheck, you want a way to keep producing. I’ll be honest, I’m not one for self-help books, but there was a point in my early career where I desperately needed my low-paying writing job, and I couldn’t get myself to write. I was lucky enough to have a friend who recommended this book, which is based on behavior therapy. The exercise I found most helpful for approaching work I didn’t want to do involved using a 1 – 10 scale to rate just how awful I anticipated the assignment was going to be, then doing the assignment, and rating it again afterward. Invariably, what I found was that the anticipation was always worse than the actual writing, and you quickly realize that doing something is the only way to really know what it’s going to be like.

You use deadline-panic to force yourself to write – This often happens to young writers or those who trained as journalists, especially broadcast and wire service reporters. You know you can write fast and the deadline spurs you on. Whether you pulled all-nighters to finish papers in college or you love the thrill of putting a news story together up against a tight deadline, it’s the adrenaline rush that gets you through. At least, that’s what you tell yourself. There’s a point in your writing career, though, where the adrenaline no longer kicks in and fear takes over (see Procrastination above), and you discover you’re having trouble writing and meeting assignment deadlines. It’s best not to get hooked on the adrenaline beast in the first place because it unwisely convinces you that 1) you do your best writing at the last minute, and 2) you need to delay until the last minute to produce your best work. There are very few writers who look at their published work and think it can’t be improved. Often you see whole subject areas that were left out because you were too rushed or more polished ways to express your thoughts or typos and missing words that set your teeth on edge. Giving yourself the time to write is important; it’s even more crucial to allow yourself the opportunity to improve your writing through editing, seeking the input of colleagues, and rewriting.

NEXT TIME: Stuck in the middle.
THE FINALE: Why you can’t finish.

“Well, do ya, punk?”: Writing It Like They Say It

Friend of the Blog Eric responded to my post on quote-crafting with an interesting question:

“I’m not someone who writes a lot of press releases, but I regularly craft remarks, speeches, and talking points and find it very challenging to capture little nuances that make the language used authentic to the speaker. What other tricks can you share for identifying and then incorporating the phrases and language structure that makes one person’s voice distinct?

There’s enough to the answer that it deserves its own post. So, here goes.

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
~ Neil Armstrong

“You have delighted us long enough.”
~ Jane Austen

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

History-making. Sly putdown. Summoning the future. These lines are memorable and distinctive. They immediately conjure images of their authors – and it’s unlikely we’d confuse Austen for King.

We may not have the chance to craft talking points for an event as memorable as the first moon landing or a speech like the one delivered by Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, but you can bet your client wants his or her words to make some kind of impression on the audience.

Capturing the “voice” of a leader goes a long way toward making his or her remarks remarkable. How do you find those nuances and write them into speeches and talking points?

Know Your Audience

From developing a communications strategy and plan to writing a speech or crafting a tweet, it always starts with the audience.

  • What does your audience need to know?
  • What do they care about?
  • What will keep them focused and what will make them tune out?
  • How deep is their understanding of the subject?
  • Which style of writing (and ultimately speaking) will they find convincing? Will they appreciate erudite language or find it silly?

At Martin Luther King Day celebrations, audiences gathered to honor Dr. King may appreciate nostalgia as much as they do vision. When cutting the ribbon to open a new mall, the crowds probably want speakers to keep it as plain and short as possible, so they can get to the opening day bargains as quickly as possible.

Understand the audience, and you’re off to a good start.


Let’s start with speechwriting. It’s the easiest.

Typically, you’ll have more time to write a speech and at least one opportunity to sit down with the speaker, discuss the topic, specific goals and examples, tone, and whether they want slides or not.

As I mentioned in the last post, bring a digital recorder to this meeting. It may be days or even weeks before you sit down to actually write (having done research in the meantime, presumably), so revisiting your conversation via DTR will give you a good starting point.

Having a digital recorder running also allows you to focus on the conversation with the speaker, rather than taking dictation. Instead of scribbling down everything the speaker says, make notes about things like tone of voice, attitude and vocabulary.

While you’re in the meeting, ask lots of questions. Go beyond the standard questions about the audience and what the speaker wants them to take away.

What you’re aiming for is material – words, phrases, examples, and tone that are specific to the speaker that you can use verbatim when you write the speech.

Notice: How comfortable is the speaker with this topic? Is it a difficult subject? Does it feel like boilerplate – the same speech he gives at every conference?

Drive down to the smallest level of detail when discussing the examples she wants to use. Why this example? Are there others? Is this based on the speaker’s own research or experience? How did she come to learn or understand this? What intrigued her most about this work? Where did she get so frustrated she thought she might quit? Was there a surprise along the way? Or an “a-ha!” moment? Why does she feel this research or example best supports the subject matter? Could there be others? What about opposing points of view?

Now, listen to the vocabulary used to answer these questions. Does the speaker sound bored as he replies? Does his energy level or volume pick up in places? How about yours? Note when he says something that you never knew before or starts to weave a captivating story.

Remember, you’re an audience, too. If you’re interested, the conference attendees may be, as well. (Always good to double-check: Find out from the speaker whether he’s told these stories before and how well-versed the audience is in the material, then select the unexpected or most detailed examples to use in the speech.)

If you’re not hearing what you need, keep probing. Go back to an example the speaker wants to use. Say your speaker is going to address a high school graduation, but they’re used to giving talks at industry conferences. Remind them of the audience and ask them to repeat the example as if they were talking to their own teenager or niece or nephew. What you’re looking for is language that’s relatable to an audience that has yet to select a college major, much less pursue a career. They have dreams about what they want to achieve, but aren’t sure how to get there, so language (and an example) that values those forward-looking visions while providing solid guidance is perfect.

Same thing – in reverse – if the speaker is making the content understandable for you, but not in-depth enough for a group of fellow engineers. This is where you need the vocabulary and subject matter of the insider, someone who’s spent years in the industry.

If, for some reason, a meeting is deemed unnecessary, insist on one – even 30 minutes – before you write. When speakers are unavailable or out of town, ask if you can exchange emails directly with the speaker (not her administrative assistant) to go over key details about the speech. In these cases, observe their writing style. How do they construct sentences? Where do their thoughts take a turn for the lyrical or descriptive? When do they get prescriptive? Do they build to a conclusion or deliver the goods in a summary statement and then provide rationale later?

Transcribe the recording immediately, and then check the transcription as soon as it comes back. If a transcriber has left any blank spaces (because they couldn’t understand the tape), now’s the time to fill them in before you forget what was said and how it was said. Take your notes and mark up the transcript in the places you observed your speaker doing her best or losing interest. Where did she stumble over an explanation? When did she hit a home run?

You’ll want to refer to the recording as you write to capture nuances and for inspiration.

If there’s a chance you’ll be asked to write another speech or talking points for this leader, always save your recording, so you can refer to it the next time you have to put words in his mouth.

Sitting Down to Write

Typically, when writing for the ear – a speech or talking points – you use the Subject – Verb – Object style, so that the audience understands what (noun/subject) the speaker is about to discuss, then the action (verb) the subject undertakes, and who or what (object) is being acted upon.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech follows this style throughout. The simple repetition of S – V – O sentences creates a rhythm of accumulated and highly specific examples:

“…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…all men are created equal…

“…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

Then, suddenly, as the speech reaches its crescendo, King drives his message home, starting each sentence with the percussive power of verbs:

“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring…
            Free at last! Free at last!
           Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

In a century of great speech-making (Winston Churchill during WWII, Indira Ghandi, presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in Berlin, Nelson Mandela’s unifying rallies), King’s “I Have A Dream” is considered one of the very best.

It’s his use of repetition to create rhythm and drive home key points, the specificity of detail, and the cadences of a sermon that buoy listeners (even those hearing the speech many decades later on YouTube) and carry them forward, like a wave.

Which of these elements can you make use of? As you listen back to your conversation on the DTR, make note of the following:

Vocabulary – Where does he use the language of the insider and how can you weave this into your speech (and where might you need to include a definition) so that he’s speaking to the audience at their level? Are there words she’s particularly attached to? Does the repetition help the speech or slow it down? Why is this particular language important to her?

Energy level – Where is he interested in the subject matter? Where does his enthusiasm drop off? How can you build on moments of high energy to carry him through topics that might put him and the audience to sleep?

Rhythm – Does she have a natural ability for storytelling? If she tends to use complex sentences every time she speaks, mix it up to create a better rhythm. Vary sentence length and style. Have her ask a question, where a statement sounded rote.

Don’t think you’re up to writing something as eloquent as Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech? Trust me, you’re not alone there. The goal is to learn from it, not copy it.

We remember Dr. King’s speech today for any number of reasons – to honor a civil rights leader, to hold on to a positive vision of the future, to understand a point in time in the history of the United States – but, the reason it’s remembered by so many is pretty basic: the writer understood his audience. Dr. King was doing far more in that speech than “singing to the choir” of people who joined the March on Washington and supported his cause. He understood that his words had to reach into the White House and the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court, that they’d be recorded by television cameras and beamed to places like Mississippi and Alabama, where there was a terrible war on the civil rights movement. And, he wanted his words to mean something to the average American, in the north, the Midwest and the west, who was struggling to understand what was happening in the south.

This is why Dr. King relied on the language of the sermon: it was uplifting and visionary and it built a bridge across the divide. It’s why Dr. King went to the language of Lincoln and the founders of the United States: to place his cause in historical context and to help those who didn’t agree with civil rights understand how the movement fit with the beliefs and values America held most dear.

You don’t have to write like Dr. King to be a good speechwriter; you just need to understand what he was doing and who he was writing for.

That's one simple statement to cut through all the static on the moon.

A far more simple example is astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous line from the first moonwalk. Why was “one small step for man” so simply phrased? Why weren’t the first words uttered from the moon akin to Shakespeare? Because the writer knew his audience.

In this case, the writer understood that more than a nation, a whole world was watching Neil Armstrong. Whatever he wrote for Armstrong had to be simple enough to translate into dozens and dozens of languages as news organizations around the world reported the story. It couldn’t be Shakespeare for another simple reason: The transmission was so static-filled that the message had to be short and clear. A great reminder that you don’t have to be high-falutin’ to write memorable phrases – you just have to understand your audience and the context in which your leader is speaking.

Pointed Remarks

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots, or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
~ Clint Eastwood, “Dirty Harry”

“Voice” is something every novelist, screenwriter and literary journalist strives to master.

If you’re asked to prepare talking points or remarks for a specific speaker, the most helpful thing you can do is write like they talk. These are the lines you want reporters to take down in their notebooks and include in news articles. They’re the “take-aways” you want the audience to remember after the conference, the fundraising dinner, the employee meeting.

Examine that famous quote from “Dirty Harry” above. What makes it distinctive? Why do we still remember it decades after the movie was in theaters?

Even as it’s written, it sounds like natural human speech – specifically, it sounds like Harry Callahan speaks. With its “kinda” and “well do ya” and the split infinitive of “blow your head clean off,” it doesn’t sound rehearsed or “written.”

Look what’s happening with the phrase “and would blow your head clean off.” It’s the most violent image, the biggest threat, in these lines. Yet, it doesn’t come at the end, and it isn’t even a properly worded sentence, it’s a fragment. He doesn’t say, “I will blow off your head” in perfect S – V – O/no split infinitive style. He doesn’t say, “blow off your head.” The power comes from the double-barrelled action supplied by that split verb: “blow” (verb), “your head” (object) and the vernacular of “clean off” (versus “off” alone). It’s this awkward locution that gives the final line, a question (not a definitive he-man statement) about feeling lucky, its power and threat.

Most likely, your speaker won’t be comfortable if every “you” in his remarks is replaced with “ya,” but to make talking points sound more natural, more heartfelt, more real, remember that it’s okay to break the rules of grammar and use vocabulary that’s distinctive and memorable.

Finally, take your talking points out for a spin. Saying them out loud to colleagues or friends is the perfect way to test if your talking points sound like someone “just talking” or a bad actor doing a Dirty Harry impersonation.

Dialogue that inspired me this week:

Katharine Hepburn (Susan): “Oh, I’m caught on something – David, help me, will you?”
Cary Grant (David): “Oh, no. That’s poison ivy.”
Hepburn: “I bet you wouldn’t treat Miss Swallow [David’s fiancé] this way.”
Grant: “I bet Miss Swallow knows poison ivy when she sees it.”
Hepburn: “Yes, I bet poison ivy runs when it sees her.”
~ “Bringing Up Baby”

Out of the Mouths of Executives: How to Craft Quotes that Get Coverage

Your company has news to share, and you’re writing the press release. Of course, you want pick up, but instead only the lede and fourth graf were squeezed into a space smaller than your iPod Nano.

And those quotes you labored over for the executive leading this important project? They were left on the virtual equivalent of the newsroom floor.

Corporate communicators and PR folks create quotes for press releases. Reporters understand this. Good reporters, who work for the news outlets where you most want coverage, go out of their way to avoid PR. They look for the news, and they call for one-on-one interviews to get their own quotes. If they’re up against deadline, they’ll pull only what they see as “real news” from your press release and ditch the rest as too self-promoting.

Want your quotes to see the light of day? Here are 10 tips for crafting quotes that get play:

Don’t rely on key messages for the quote.
Here’s perhaps the single biggest problem with created quotes: They repeat what’s already been said in the headline (and possibly in the subhead) and in the lede. Why? Because the writer is using the key messages to craft the press release.

Consider the poor journalist who has to read this release. What’s going through his or her mind? “I know that. You’ve said it twice already. Tell me something I don’t know.”

This is why copy gets cut. Reporters want the news, which, by definition, means delivering something new in each sentence.

What? No messages? You can’t believe I’m suggesting this, can you?

Here’s a quick experiment I tried just before writing this: I Googled Fortune 500 companies, clicked on a link to last year’s list, and selected the first one that I didn’t have a vested interest in. The company turned out to be Chevron. I didn’t intend to single out Chevron; I just wanted to see how fast I could put my cursor on an example. Pretty fast, it turned out.

I went to Chevron’s corporate website, clicked on the News link, and opened a recent press release at random:

HEADLINE: Chevron Announces Natural Gas Discovery Offshore Western Australia

SUBHEAD: Vos-1 discovery adds to drilling success and further underpins development of world-class LNG business

LEDE: SAN RAMON, Calif., December 15, 2011Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) today announced a natural gas discovery by its Australian subsidiary in the Exmouth Plateau area of the Carnarvon Basin, offshore Western Australia.

QUOTE: George Kirkland, vice chairman, Chevron Corporation, said, “The find at Vos-1 represents our twelfth offshore discovery in Australia since mid-2009. Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Barring key messages, what do you include in the quote? My recommendation is details. Why do you think the fourth graf always seems to make it into the newspaper? Because after the lede recaps the headline, and the second graf recaps the subhead, and the obligatory grafs for quotes, press releases often deliver backing documentation in grafs that follow. How about moving some of that business intelligence into the quote? The quotee is supposed to be a senior executive with deep expertise in the subject; this is the place to make them sound like a pro. Let them run with the important details, the numbers, the dollars or yen or euros, the insider’s perspective.

This can feel a bit like burying the lede, but if the quote is well-written, you’ll reap at least two benefits: 1) the quote will run because it contains new information pertinent to the story, enabling you to get more of the press release covered, and 2) if it sparks the reporter’s interest, you’ll get a call for an interview with the executive, and a longer story.

Do study your subject.
The best way to learn how to write convincing quotes is to understand how your subject speaks. To that end, if there’s an executive you’re going to be writing for on a regular basis, attend every employee meeting where she or he is a speaker. Revisit transcripts of old interviews. If you know of speeches he penned himself, read those. Look up articles or editorials she authored. Remember, a senior leader is worthy of quoting because he’s an expert in the industry, not just because of his title. Pinpoint how your executive talks, the insider lingo used, when he or she is deeply engaged in the details of the business.

And, whenever you have the chance, interview your subject and get to know his or her particular turns of phrase. Discover the linguistic nuances that make this person’s speech indelibly his or her own.

Don’t smooth off the rough edges.
Too often, when we create quotes, we polish them to such an extent that they feel manufactured. Like this: “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Do you think this is what was said around the drill tower (or the corporate offices) when they discovered their 12th natural gas well off the coast of Australia?

Now, I’m not talking about putting in “ums” and “uhs” to make a quote look like a transcript, but I am suggesting using ordinary, everyday conversation that sounds real because it is real.

Are you trying to put words in the mouth of someone from South Carolina? London? Brussels? Tokyo? Mumbai? What about a doctor? A Ph.D.? An engineer? Or a CEO who worked his way to the C-suite from the manufacturing line?

You’ll likely find an unusual coinage, or two or three, if you talk to someone who hails from the south or once assembled the company’s key product. Even if the executive doesn’t have a regional dialect, you’ll find that no one speaks perfect English (or whichever language is primary for your business). There’s something about the inexactness of spoken language that makes it more believable, more trustworthy, more real.

Do eavesdrop at industry conferences.
Generally, you don’t have the chance to interview senior executives for every bit of news that needs a press release. The assignment arrives with instructions to create a quote that will be approved or changed before the release goes out.

If access is limited, then industry conferences and publications are a natural next best thing. You’ll be hearing the language of your industry as it’s spoken in its natural habitat. Listen, not to the speeches, but to the networking between sessions, over lunch, at coffee. Take copious dictation – this is not the time to leave out conjunctions and clauses – following the twists and turns as carefully as possible.

Likewise, avoid the articles written for industry publications that have lifeless prose. Look for authors who are clearly reporting from the front lines. Underline intelligent, elegant and unusual locutions and save them. You’ll be glad you did next time you’re asked to write a quote.

Don’t succumb to jargon.
Putting detail in quotes doesn’t mean resorting to jargon. Avoid consultant-speak and your company’s unique acronyms and naming conventions. If you mean IT, use IT, not the unusual name (Technical Information Resources & Services) your company has created for its IT function. If your company is drilling off the western shore of Australia, write it like humans talk. Don’t say: “Our successful drilling offshore Western Australia…”

Do know when to fold ‘em.
Really, I meant it when I said I didn’t set out to pick on Chevron. Something I love about this press release is that it’s short and sweet. You get the news, you get a couple of quotes, and you get the Chevron boilerplate. And, they avoid some of the sillier hallmarks of corporate press releases, such as…

Don’t make the CEO say how excited, happy, thrilled or delighted he or she is at the news.
Every press release ever written about good news seems to quote a senior executive saying how excited he or she is with today’s developments. Would you expect the CEO to say he’s unhappy? Because that might be news.

When writing becomes formulaic, it gives readers a happy excuse to skip over standardized phrases. Keep the reporter reading your press release on the edge of his seat. Or at least, keep her guessing. Let her be the one who’s thrilled and delighted that your senior leader has something intelligent and newsworthy to say about today’s developments.

Do individualize quotes if more than one person is being quoted.
You may be asked to create quotes for more than one executive, depending on the news or the size of the effort you’re announcing. If you want the quotes to get coverage, then Quotee #2 must sound different from Quotee #1.

Avoid doing what Chevron did. After their first quoted exec said this – “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability” – their second executive said this: “Our on-going exploration success continues to add to our Australian resource base, further underpinning our drive to be a leading supplier of liquefied natural gas to world markets and natural gas to Western Australia.”

The substance of these quotes isn’t that different and, more to the point, the words they’re using are exactly the same: discovery offshore Western Australia drilling program success.

This is where knowing each person’s unique style of speaking helps. You can also focus on their different roles in the company. Quote #1 typically belongs to the CEO. But, Quote #2 may be from the person who led the five-year project and understands both the technical aspects and the hard work that went into it. So, the CEO can describe how this news affects the current and longer-term prospects for the company, while the project lead provides the interesting nitty-gritty details.

If the CEO is a well-known company spokesperson, but Quotee #2 is not, it’s wise to introduce her by name and descriptive role (use title on second reference or not at all) to give the reporter some idea why she’s being given airtime. For example: “Jane Smith, who oversaw the 400-member project team from start to finish, said…”

Don’t “further the legacy,” “expand on tradition,” or “continue the success.”
These are phrases that make a reporter’s eyes glaze. Sorry to say, but statements like these are clear indications to a journalist that there’s nothing of import in a press release. Journalists read dozens of releases a day that say exactly the same thing, which is why most press release prose gets the axe.

Many companies are bound by regulations to avoid certain “forward-looking statements,” which is why phrases like these crop up, designed to pretend to say something visionary without saying anything. If your hands are tied, and you really can’t say anything further, then don’t. You’ll make a better impression on reporters than writing stuff like this.

If you are allowed to broach the future, then avoid the clichés and have your senior executive say something meaningful or detailed.

Do bring a recording device – for video and voice.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to schedule time with a senior leader to interview them about the subject of the press release, then you’ll be 3/4 of the way to writing a great quote already.

Remember to bring a good digital voice recorder to capture the nuances of what the executive thinks about this announcement. And a hand-held video camera (if the executive is willing and if the news is important enough to warrant it).

Maybe you’ll only share the video with employees via your intranet. On the other hand, if you’ve got good soundbytes or video, you’ve created the opportunity for radio, TV, news websites, bloggers and podcasts to give you far more coverage than a regular old press release will generate. What you can give them is the real deal – honest-to-goodness quotes directly from a senior executive of your company – in multiple formats that have the potential to reach a much wider audience.

It will show that you understand what reporters need to tell a news story and that you work and think like a reporter. All of that is what makes you a trusted resource, which creates value and interest for the content you create in the future (and the quotes within it).