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”

More November Writing Sprees

If you’re ready to write your wrist off in November, but a novel just isn’t your thing, consider these options:


According to sponsor BlogHer, National Blog Post Month, “is a bloggy response to book writing’s NaNoWriMo.”

The goal is to blog for blogging’s sake, once a day. BlogHer has a sign-up page and offers blogging prompts to get you typing. Sign up by 11 p.m. EST on Nov. 5, and you’ll even have a chance to win prizes if you’ve been blogging daily.

The Naked Writer Project

Got more than enough work on your plate in November (and a minivan-full of relatives arriving for Thanksgiving)? Do you just like to watch?

No judgment here!

Writer Silvia Hartmann has exposed her entire creative process for readers who’d like to see a novel-in-progress. My Social Media Club Editorial Board buddy, the awesome Syed M. Raza, clued me in to The Naked Writer Project.  Hartmann is using social media (mainly Facebook, as well as Twitter) to alert readers when she’s on Google Drive, writing the next section of her novel, a fantasy fiction called The Dragon Lords.

Hartmann got her title from reader suggestions – and she’s used the Google Drive platform to solicit feedback as she goes along, so the novel continually evolved for Naked Writer Project participants.

Related post:

A Cornucopia of Virtual Storytelling – NaNoWriMo and Twitter Fiction Festival


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.

A Wallflower Joins the Social Party

A year ago, if you’d told me I’d be writing this post, have my own blog, use Twitter regularly, and have not one, but two Facebook pages, I’d have collapsed in laughter. But, 12 months is a very long time when it comes to social media.

I am, by nature and habit, an introvert. On Myers-Briggs, I’m so far into the “I” corner it’s hard to tell me from the corner. My first job was in radio, where you can hide behind a microphone, never having to face your audience. It’s no accident that my career now is internal communications, the ghostwriter of all those memos and news updates.

Online, I used to be what was known as a lurker. No matter how much I loved “The X-Files” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and reading fan reactions to those shows on forums like Television Without Pity, I never once joined the conversation. No fanboy theory or argument over canon was ever compelling enough to make me jump in with my own opinion, sign my name, and publish it online. The potential loss of privacy seemed too great to risk. Everyone knows this electronic stuff lives forever. “The Truth Is Out There,” and, years down the line, I didn’t want to be confronted by something from my past I might regret.

What I didn’t recognize back then was that by not joining in, I was missing out on being part of a community.

This was brought home to me when I became an independent consultant. After a while, you miss the collegiality of the business world and the opportunity to brainstorm ideas.

That’s when I decided to start a blog.

I wasn’t hoping to make a dime or get a book contract. I just wanted a place where I could noodle on three decades of experiences in the business, listen to what others had to say about writing and corporate communications, and chat about books. Very quietly. Over here in the corner.

I signed up for an online blogging class to jump-start the endeavor and get advice on platforms and promotion. That swiftly led to another class on social media. To my horror, both classes required that we comment on blogs. Every week. Using our real names. A prerequisite for the social media class was a Twitter account.

Oh, the horror. The horror.

I realized I was either going to have to drop the classes or take my introverted self by the hand and leap. And, so I leaped, and it’s been a powerful learning experience.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Blog

I wanted to share some of the resources I’ve discovered since I started blogging because they’ve done more than simply build professional skills, they’ve expanded my outlook (far beyond that corner).

What I found out here in the blogosphere was a welcoming, generous community willing to take the time to guide me around things like best practices, online etiquette and the share-and-share-alike approach to community support.

This crowd is particularly gentle with newbies where other media communities often are cliquish. I hope the social media community never loses that attitude. We all start somewhere. You may be the savviest Facebook user and not really “get” Google+. You may have had great success using social channels for external audiences, but grow frustrated by trying to launch social tools internally – with all the requirements for buy-in, Legal and HR approval, policies, and full-scale training. Every time a channel is introduced or updated, we all become beginners again. How we’re treated as beginners matters – it is integral to the quality, cohesiveness and enjoyment of the community.

There was a point, about five months in, when I felt like the content well had run dry. The more I studied my blog stats, though, the more I was astounded. Not by the number of page views – my blog has a fairly niche audience – but by the regular visits from people who hailed from Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, and India.

The United States, England, Canada, I’d kind of expected. But, readers whose first language might not be English? Immediately, I realized my writing had to become more global, and it opened up my editorial calendar to new possibilities. As I began including posts about things like Asian literature, I became the student, and it felt thrilling to flip the paradigm of blog owners-being-subject-matter-experts on its head.

As I connected with readers on Twitter, our interactions grew into warm online acquaintances. When an independent professional writer in northern England asked me if I’d proofread her website before it launched – and gave me access to its development area (talk about trust!) – I didn’t think, “My goodness, that’s cheek!” I spent an hour reviewing the site, figuring, “When my website launches, I can ask for a return favor.”

This year, I’m focused on learning and using measurement tools, such as Google Analytics, and I’m determined to get comfortable with and active on the Facebook and Google+ pages I created for the blog. If I run into a roadblock, I’ve learned all I have to do is ask for help.

When you have a “Trust No One” approach to being online, it can be unsettling initially to let go of your privacy, de-lurk and contribute on social media. But, I’ve been overwhelmed by the genuine-ness of the interaction out there. When I had questions, people answered them and pointed me toward additional resources.

If one of your goals is starting a blog in 2012, I hope you’ll find these pros and organizations as helpful as I have:

MediaBistro, Gotham Writers’ Workshop and UCLA Extension offer a wide array of online and live classes, from the technical aspects of blogging (and social media) to writing, editing and promoting your blog.

BlogWorld serves the fantastically diverse blogging community with annual conferences and detailed practical workshops across every niche imaginable, including cause blogging, monetization, content creation, traffic and distribution, platforms and apps, health, fitness, travel, marketing, mobile, mommy, and more.

Darren Rowse and Chis Garrett’s Problogger book was an essential guide at the beginning and still is. You’ll find astute advice on setting up a blog; creating strategy, content and community; promotion; monetization; and easy-to-follow technical solutions. Valuable for anyone – individual, team or corporate bloggers – who wants to develop an engaged, interactive community around specific topics. Ongoing learning can be found on Rowse’s Problogger community, where he regularly advises on content, tech and legal stuff, and community-building.

The Social Media Club, IABC, PRSA, and Ragan have been invaluable professional organizations, offering resources, free webinars, workshops, conferences, networking events, and advice for bloggers and social media practitioners at every level.

The microblogging platform Twitter is both resource and essential promotion tool for bloggers. It’s an incalculably rich network of support, information and encouragement for bloggers new and seasoned. Likewise, the Groups section of LinkedIn connects you to a network of professionals worldwide. It’s especially helpful for sharing your blog or blogs within an industry network or seeking advice on starting or improving a corporate blog.

The spreadsheets section of Google Docs provides plenty of options for bloggers. If you’re serious about blogging, it helps to have a strategy for both editorial and social sharing.

Best of luck and happy blogging!

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.

Writing Your Writing Award Entry

You’re a writer. You excel at your job. Everyone in the office pats you on the back when you’ve turned in an especially creative piece. Now, you’re ready to nominate that work for an award.

No problem, right?

You’re a writer – you’ve got writing this award entry sussed.

It’s open season for many major awards programs – the Silver and Bronze Anvils, Gold Quills, Bulldogs, and EX awards spring immediately to mind – and, if your office tends to get quiet or even go dark around the holiday season, this is the perfect time to start planning your entry and organizing supporting materials.

This February, along with dozens of my fellow pros across the United States and around the world, I’ll be judging the writing category for one of the professional communications organizations.

Judges volunteer their weekends, read each carefully compiled entry from cover to cover, make their assessment, then work with another judge who’s read through the same entry to ensure fair and objective scoring. If we don’t finish on the first weekend, we spend as many weekends as it takes.

Here are three things you might want to know about last year’s writing category (respecting, of course, the confidential nature of submissions and the judging process; all examples are composites):

  1. The field wasn’t as crowded as you might assume.
  2. At least half didn’t provide strategy or measurement.
  3. The communications projects were professionally written, but not especially creative; the entries got very creative covering up missing information, but were not especially well written.

What Does this Mean for You?

It’s worth the effort to submit good work
View those awards websites, and you’ll often see a photo of entries piled from floor to ceiling. This was not the case for us last year, and we were judging all English-language submissions (U.S., U.K., Canada, and India); it took a single Saturday, and a few entries were the only examples in their category.

Don’t assume your work will be buried by the competition. You can only win an award if you’ve entered and, in busy years, it’s worth noting that your competition may be too swamped to invest the time.

Being the only entry in a category doesn’t guarantee an award, though. Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable. My post, “Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work,” will get you prepped for this.

Take the time to complete every question on your entry (and never assume judges won’t spot what’s missing)
This is crucial because you’ll lose points for every unanswered question. The strategy and objectives you declare at the top of your entry must be backed up in the measurement section. You need to prove you achieved your strategy, and your objectives must be measurable. I discuss this in detail in the post, “Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season.” (This is a very long post; it guides you through the most important questions on an entry form with advice for writing a complete and compelling entry.)

Sometimes writers (not you, of course!) try to write their way around missing information and metrics. Trust me, we judges spot this every time. For one thing, measurement generally shows up numerically, while fudging an answer takes the form of words with lots of adverbs and adjectives thrown in.

In the day-to-day churn of producing content for websites, intranets, executive presentations, newsletters, press packets, and social media, we all run into cases where we’ve skimped on the up-front creation of strategy. Having a written strategy for your communications can pay you back, though, when it comes to measuring and proving the success of your program. And this is what you need to win awards.

Likewise, measurement for vehicles, such as internal newsletters, often amounts to intranet metrics and what’s in the Comments section. “Counting just adds things up and gets a total,” as Katie Delahaye Paine notes in Measure What Matters. “Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices.”

In the case of measurement that wins awards, you’ll need metrics that prove your objectives. Saying “300 employees read this article” is counting, but “85% of the target audience could identify our three messages in a survey that followed publication of the article” is measurement.

Preparing your entry allows you to spot the gaps. If you can overcome them – maybe send out an audience survey or gather feedback from key members of your target audience, since there’s still time – you’re well on your way to understanding how successful your strategy was to begin with and how your communication met its objectives.

What won’t be successful is writing an entry that claims that your editorial board or CEO loved your website content or that a speech received a standing ovation. These are not quantitative results, and without real metrics, your entry can’t compete.

Try to be objective about your work
I’m talking about the whole entry package here. If the communication you wrote was truly great, but there are holes in your entry where clear objectives and quantitative results should be, this is probably not the year for you.

The written materials I’ve seen over the years too often are serviceable, with writing suited to subject matter, but not necessarily anything that jumps out from the pack. And, I’m not talking about writing that stands on a chair and shouts, “LOOK AT ME, I’M BEING CLEVER WITH WORDS!” When you see the real deal, you know it.

More Quick Tips on Writing a Winning Entry

Pick a Consistent Style – And stick with it! Active voice, past tense, first person are all fine, but mixing and matching unsettles the reader. If you feel odd about praising your own work, know that you are not alone – many entries are submitted by the author. Odder still is reading an entry that suggests “we did this…we developed that…” only to find a single name listed under Resources.

Edit – Not just your entry, your original work. I’m not suggesting you cheat or pay for a whole print run just to fix a typo in a brochure. Many entries take the form of Word documents. Whether it’s a speech or a blog post, the Word draft may be the easiest or the only format available to someone outside your organization. You’d be amazed how many times judges find typos and grammatical errors in this type of entry. It’s worse when you’re presented with a screen grab of the blog, and can see that the copy was corrected before it was published. In other words, never enter a draft, and always assume that a document that was painstakingly edited five months ago has magically sprouted new errors in the meantime.

Take Advantage of Lists – Writers can feel obligated to use the entry form to showcase their writing. Bullets and lists seem like cheating. You have limited space on the entry: use (allowed) formatting to make your case clearly.

Share Themes – One project I worked on started out feeling like that movie “Apollo 13.” Much of our writing referenced the troubled moon mission. Another project adopted an inexpensive brand of wine with a twist-off cap as a kind of mascot after IT successfully got through integration testing; it was a metaphor for achieving a lot with limited resources. But, folks outside these project teams wouldn’t have understood those references, just as judges sometimes feel metaphors or phrases awkwardly leap out of writing entries. If your writing has references like this, add a sentence or two to your entry that helps the judge: “You’ll find references to [BLANK] throughout because that theme was part of our messaging.”

Tell a Story – Effective entries often weave a tale for the reader. For projects that play out over months rather than days or weeks, it’s fascinating to follow the trajectory from inception to launch to wrap-up. Remember, the judges are in the same profession, and we’re thrilled when you’ve spotted an unmet need, wordsmithed great messages, engaged your target audiences, and have the metrics to reflect that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Surprises – If you’ve been at this job long enough, you’ve encountered bumps in the road. It’s natural. If you can demonstrate that you responded to the unexpected using the same strategic approach, set new objectives, adjusted messaging, created new communications, and had measurable results, then write the whole story of your success. What you’ll show is that you’re strategic, not that there was a problem with your original plan.

Best of luck to you and your team this awards season!

P.S. For additional perspective, check out this terrific blog post, “How to write an awards entry that stands out,” from Econsultancy.