Pump up your prose

Are you old enough to remember Charles Atlas?
It was probably not the name his family gave him but an apt pseudonym for a man who marketed a muscle-building program he called “Dynamic Tension.”
Without weights or other traditional gym equipment, he turned his 90-pound weakling body into a model of muscular magnificence.
I tell you this story as a metaphor for what you might do with the words you choose, those you discard and the results you get.
With this small volume, you will be encouraged to be ruthless with your prose.
Here are several examples of how a few simple, muscular words can touch emotions and reveal visions far better than long passages, no matter how eloquent.
Martin Luther King, Jr., with a lifetime in the pulpit, used 4 words powerfully again and again during his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. As former Times of London editor Harold Evans wrote in Do I Make Myself Clear, Rev. King invoked the cadences of the Old and New Testaments, “I have a dream.”
Abraham Lincoln stirred listeners at the Gettysburg battlegrounds with words today’s Washington bureaucrats seem to have forgotten, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
While waiting for the isolationist United States to join World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised America and his own people, “We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire.” Then he finished a broadcast heard on both sides of the Atlantic and on Nazi radios, too, with 10 taut words of appeal to America: ”Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
This is not literary elegance. It is workmanlike. No tears/ No whining.
Not a single wasted word, Evans writes.
Can we pare down our words? You bet. Make your surviving words stronger by paring away weaker ones surrounding them.
Here is an example from a 31-word news story lead, written and edited by professionals at the Washington Post. They should have been mindful of the simple power of words from King, Lincoln and Churchill.
Newly released data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows a trend in pill distribution that, according to plaintiffs suing the drug industry, can’t be passed off as reasonable therapeutic medical treatment.
Still puzzling that one out? Me, too.
Here is what I suspect they meant to convey to their readers:
Physician pill-pushing can’t be passed off as reasonable pain relief.
That’s what Drug Enforcement Administration data shows and lawsuits against the drug industry claim.
2 paragraphs, 25 simple words, 5 beginning with the letter “p.”
The longest one, “Administration,” has 5 syllables and 14 letters. It was unavoidable in this case as it is in the proper name of the data’s source.
Look at your words. How many can you cut to strengthen the survivors?

Anecdotal lede: Watch for mushroom clouds

I confess to being an advocate of storytelling.
I also favor the anecdotal lede – with caution.
I once taught this to my Seton Hall students, tongue in cheek.
The story is about a Russian nuclear attack:

Mary Jones went to retrieve the morning paper and guess what?
A giant mushroom cloud hung over her neighborhood.
She wondered if it was going to rain.

You may have to overlook my warped sense of humor.

Our friend Denny Hatch is an ace copywriter.
He cautions us to use this technique with grace and style. 
He certainly doesn’t want us to beat it into chopped liver.

“Your 1st 10 words are more important than the next 10,000,” he writes.
“All writers are in the business of selling. 
“Your single objective is to sell the reader in going on to the next sentence, next paragraph, all the way to the end.” 
This is true of every literary form – letter, article or advertisement. 

“The place to start selling is the lede
“What’s a lede
“The introduction to a news article, the first sentence. 
“The ‘lede’ is a deliberate misspelling of ‘lead.’ 
When printing was done with lead type, it prevented confusion.
The lede not only tells what the story is about.
It invites the reader to read further.

Denny believes many of us start by:
• Clearing our throats.
• Rolling up our sleeves.
• Rubbing our hands together.
By then our poor readers have already gone on to Page 2. 
Create a lousy lede and chances are the reader will go no further.

In “Capitol Weekly,” Will Shuck wrote:
“I am sick to death of the anecdotal lede, that annoying habit of news writers to start a straightforward story by painting a quaint little picture.
“If the story is about a bill requiring pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs (just to pick an imaginary example), the anecdotal lead first tells us how much Janey Johnson loves Missy, her cocker spaniel.
“No doubt Janey and Missy are a lovely pair, but a lot of us have jobs and kids and commutes and precious little time to muse about Missy’s reproductive potential.”

My humble advice is to use the anecdotal lede when it makes sense.
Have an exceptionally good one to open your story.
Take a hint from that fabled novelist Snoopy.
He always opened with “It was a dark and stormy night …”
Mine might open with an early morning mushroom cloud.
Pick your own poison.

Advance orders for my $19.99 “Little Red Book of Compelling Writing” are going at a $10 discount – only $9.99.
Get your order in for the eBook today. It will be out in July.
Call Katie at 803-359-7633 or email me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

What we can learn from weather forecasters

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This may sound like a weird formula for
successful writing and communication but
think about what TV weather forecasters do:

In a 90-second forecast they:
1. Explain what will happen.
2. Compare it to what has happened.
3. Advise what you can do about it.
4. Use visual aids to help them.

90 seconds isn’t a lot of time.
It’s 225 words to the rest of us
That’s 9″ of type in many newspapers.
It’s 75% of a written letter page.
It’s 9 times longer than a classified ad.
And a classified ad must sell something.

TV forecasters know they talk to:
1. General viewers who don’t want much.
Will it be hot, cold or rainy tomorrow?
That’s all they’re interested in.
2. Weather freaks who want everything.
They are addicted to it.
3. Fellow experts and climatologists.
These people know if they fake it.
They must satisfy all 3 groups.

Let’s apply that to what we do.

Our readers are the ones who:
1. Want to know what happened.
How does it affect my life?
What should I do if it does?
2. Are news junkies.
They are addicted to news.
They read us cover to cover.
3. Those in the story.
They know what happened.
Or they think they do.
They are checking our accuracy.

Here’s a checklist you might
post beside your computer:

1. How does what I’m writing
affect or interest my readers?
Does it affect their taxes or costs?
Does it affect their family?
Does it affect their well being?

2. How does it affect those involved?
And what can they do about it?

3. Is it factually accurate?
Did we quote sources right?
If we paraphrase what they said,
does it reflect what they meant?

4, How can we illustrate this
with photos, maps, charts, etc.?
Will this improve our readers’
understanding or interest?

You will find tips like this
and others in our new
“Little Red Book of
Compelling Writing.”

Send me 75 to 100 words
about the value of these tips
and we will include them
in the book next spring.

Writing tip: Tell it to Mom

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

4 words can make a huge difference.
When you write, do it like …
… you’re telling it to Mom.

One of our writers had a good story.
She just wasn’t sure how to present it.
She had spent two hours with owners of:
• A “perfectly” restored 218-year-old house.
• 3,000 square foot barn converted to a home.

As her editor, my advice was simple.
Write as if you were telling it to Mom.

Many of us have writing problems.
Me, too, and after all these years.
Writing conversationally is the key.

As fact gatherers, we write like fact gatherers.
The fire that killed 5 comes across as cold.
It reads like a government report.
It needs to be, pardon the expression, warmed up.
It need to be about the lost people, not just the fire.

Some years ago, my son and I visited a friend.
George James had worked with me earlier.
George was a fine writer who cared about people.
He was working at the time as a crime reporter.

He filed a story about a fire with his editors at the NY Times.
The Times prides itself on being a newspaper of record.
It falls a bit short about being a newspaper about people.

George had just written an account of a fire that killed 5 people.
He showed us a printout he sent to the city desk.
It read like a police incident report.
Its 47 words contained who, what, when, where and how.

“George,” I said, “this doesn’t read like your work.”
He nodded and produced another printout
“Here’s what I originally sent,” he said.

It began: “Samuel ___ collected people and furniture.”
It talk about the owner of the building.
It told who else lived and died there.
George had talked with neighbors.
He found the owner furnished it with Salvation Army stuff.
He rented to people who could not afford to pay him.
They weren’t evicted. Samuel ___ had a heart.

The version the city desk rejected was a human story.
We asked George why he would work for such editors.
They obviously had tin ears . . . and no hearts.
“It’s THE New York Times,” he said.
“They usually accept what I write.”
“They pay well, too.”

“Tell it to Mom” is a technique we teach our writers.
It doesn’t have to be a news article.
It could be a sales letter or an advertisement.
The principle applies to whatever you may write.
Make it about people and tell it to Mom.

Think about this:
If you told Mom the story, what would you say?
Would you say “The owner and 4 homeless people were killed in an suspicious apartment house fire in lower Manhattan late Monday night”?
Probably not although that’s what most editors expect.

But you wouldn’t write that if you knew about:
• The big-hearted owner of the building.
• His 4 tenants who could not afford to pay rent.
You might tell Mom something like this:
“Mom, this guy Samuel ___ had a big heart.
“He let people live in his apartment building.
“That was even if they couldn’t pay him rent.
“In a fire last night, he and 4 of them died.”

Tell it to Mom and you can tell it to the world.

Here’s an exercise for you journalists:
Take a news article you have written.
Rewrite it as you would tell it to Mom.
Then boil down the conversational version.
Write short sentences with powerful verbs.
Make Mom see and hear what you saw and heard.

Here another one for you:
Imagine someone from Mars has arrived on earth.
She knows little about us but understands English.
What would she make of your prose?
Could she understand what you writing about?

This helps avoid jargon from police, politicians and others.
They talk in a special code we have learned.
Most of our readers don’t understand it.
Translate. Keep it simple. Help them understand.
By all means, tell it to Mom.