Jim Beam—Part 2

See yesterday to understand today. ... People are usually partial to their own. Therefore, in asserting superiority or quality, it's wisest to start from the bottom, and let other people make the discovery that what you have is great. This is an aspect of humility. It's not self-degrading, or sloppy; it quietly recognizes quality, and lets everyone come alongside at his own chosen pace. And while you pay attention to other people, and don't aggrandize ourself, soon they'll be more willing to listen to what you have to say in return.

What does this have to do with writing? In writing, there are choices: You can write with little or no opinion or feeling, keeping your offensive line so far back it's almost invisible. You can write with extreme opinion, guns blazing before you wake up in the morning, and long after you've gone to sleep at night.

There is a middle ground; one that embraces the value of having opinions, without making them paramount or prisoner. Blunt, badgering dogmatism that's not backed up well rarely convinces anyone—then, neither does lackadaisical laissez-faire. Have good reasons for your opinions (awards, global recognition, multiple experiences and certifications), but be kind about them. Don't pin people to the wall until they agree with you, and if you don't agree or care about something, don't malign those who do. People will listen and endure those who are well-educated geniuses, authorities, and wealthy, even if they are belligerent, malicious, and despicable; but people will respect someone who is kind.

Bolstering your image with sarcasm, dogmatism, and pedantry doesn't work in the long run. Not only do you lose respect (if you even had it to begin with), you lose the possibility of mutual care and relationship (not necessary in many occupations, but always nice). Respect, you can live without; lots of people do. It's a lot harder to live without friends.

Write with humility, earn yourself respect. Don't make claims that aren't supported—have reasons for what you say. And next time you read (hear) someone claiming that "My ______ is the best," think about Jim Beam and his award and smile silently, because you know that just saying it doesn't make it true, but you don't have to fight it.

*Note: there is a difference between opinion and belief.

Jim Beam and Writing—Part 1

There's a billboard in Chicago that  millions of people see daily. It's on the entire side of a several story tall building, located at the on ramp for the interstate in and out of Chicago.  It's for Jim Beam's bourbon. It's simple: on the right side side is a bottle of Jim Beam's. On the left, in large cream-colored letters against the dark background, it claims, "The best in the world." And near the phrase is a seal from the contest or convention (the light turned green before I could read it) that chose it as the best. Without the seal, the words would be mere conjecture. Someone, somewhere, picked up the glass, took a sip (or a swish, or a taste, or a swig), slammed the glass on the counter, splashing little droplets everywhere (classy whiskey drinkers everywhere shudder), and said,

"This is the best d*** whiskey in the world!"

But that wouldn't actually mean anything to anyone besides him. To make a statement that bold that means something, it must be backed up by more than solitary opinion. If you call your horse the fastest—it needs to have won gold in every race since it started running. If Grandma June 'makes the best chocolate cake in Missouri,' everyone in Missouri must agree. And when your clothing label is more durable than all the other leading brands, go ahead and tell people. But only if it's been tested to be absolutely true.

It's a quick way to lose your credibility—because everyone has "the best" cake recipe, the "most durable" clothing, the "fastest horse" (or car, or train, or internet speed). If you are quick to make claims about your product (animal, clothing, recipe) being better than everyone else's, no one automatically believes you. They are instead instantly on guard, thinking of their own amazing thing. It's not to say that yours isn't wonderful—but people are usually partial to their own.

Come back tomorrow to see why it matters in writing.


How the Cover Sells the Book

A good billboard is never more than a few words—the theory is that if it's something quick to read and easy to remember, it will come to mind naturally when people need it. The front cover of a book is the same; we want something fast, simple, and aesthetically appealing. The back cover copy is more complicated. It needs to be longer than a mere phrase, but just as eye-catching.

The front cover and the back cover are a team that sells the book. Without a good front cover, no one will pick the book up. Without a good back cover, anyone who picked it up will put it down instantly. A bland, emotionless set of sentences will repel as fast as a clever cover attracts. A good back cover is like the smell of fresh baked cookies or chocolate cake: irresistible. The copy needs to appeal to the reader, to draw them in, to say, "This book is written by someone like you for someone like you about something that you care about. You will benefit from reading this book." And just like that, it's in the shopping cart.

If you can do one well, you can learn to do the other well. Make your front cover like a billboard—and your back cover like the smell coming from a pizza shop.