Why You Can't Write about Fleas

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.—Herman Melville

Not every big idea needs to be in a big package. Often, the things that we remember are the short phrases and concepts. That was the thought behind Ernest Hemingway’s original six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

You can read that story, short and haunting, in a matter of seconds.

On the flipside, it takes hours—maybe days—to read all of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s 587,287 words.

If you’re not familiar with book lengths, I’ll lend a hand.

  • The King James Bible has 788,258 words

  • Fahrenheit 451 has 46,118 words

  • The Hobbit is 95,022 words long

  • Oliver Twist is 155,960 words

  • East of Eden is 225,395 words

A long story isn’t guaranteed to be better or worse than a short one—in fact, length often has nothing to do with the merit of a tale.

I know you have a burning desire to know: what, then, makes a good story?

Obviously, all the factors everyone already knows: lovable (and despicable) characters, a hearty plot line, good writing. But at the end of the day, none of those are the defining factor that weeds out a classic from pulp fiction.

It’s the idea.

If you want your writing to last, you need to write about a subject that lasts. Technology, trends, style . . . the list goes on and on, and it’s all transient.

But redemption, restoration, courage—those themes have been around forever, and they’re not going anywhere.

Whether you’re writing Leo Tolstoy or Ernest Hemingway style, write about the big ideas. They’re the ones that stick around past the end of the year.

How to Write a Good Blog Post

I have started at least four different posts. I’ve been convinced each time that, “This will be the one that takes off, this will be the right one for today.” Instead of taking flight, each post has jumped off the picnic table and crashed to the ground.

Probably, it would be smart to stop trying and to watch cat videos instead.

Everyone says that novels are supposed to write themselves, without the author even trying (that’s definitely not true). What is true is that when you write a novel, you develop characters and throw them into sticky situations to see how they react. Unfortunately, when you write a blog post, you can’t just slap a sentence up there and see what happens. If you want to write a good post, there’s a six-step sequence you should follow.

How to Write a Good Blog Post

The Idea. Most good ideas start out as snippets of thought. The Idea can go one of two places to grow: the brain, or the mouth. If you’re an internal processor, you’ll think through the idea and decide what to do with it. External processors will take The Idea to a forum, where the group can mull it over and point out finer qualities and unnecessary points. If you can stomach it, both processes are very helpful in developing The Idea.

The Write. After thinking through The Idea, it’s important to write it out. Get it all on paper, from beginning to end. Don’t leave anything out, and don’t trouble over how to say it. Think of The Write like cleaning the fridge: dive in, pull every single thing out of there, and slap it all on the counter.

The First Edit. Unfortunately, many people stop at The Write—but wait! When you’re cleaning your fridge out, you don’t just leave all your food on the counter! You look through it, realize you have four bottles of open soy sauce (three of which expired before 2015), and throw them in the trash! This is your opportunity to look at your words on paper (or screen, probably), see what’s working and what’s not, and get rid of the excess.

The Second Edit. Often, The First Edit refines The Idea and eliminates smaller errors of thought, while The Second Edit purges whatever smaller misdemeanors are still lurking in the neighborhood. You may be tempted to skip The Second Edit, but don’t. It might save you from something really embarrassing, such as a run-on sentence or a misplaced modifier.

The Proof. If you’re posting on a traditional platform, there should be an option to preview your content before it goes live. It is always best to read your content the final time in its complete form—it will help you spot things you missed in the drafts. So hit preview, then slowly and carefully, comb the words, sentences, and paragraphs for any errors. Catch them before you post it so you can avoid any really bad publicity from misspelling dog or house.

The Post. Once you’ve triple-checked and are sure your content is error-free, post that article with pride. Sit back as it goes viral and you become an overnight sensation.

3 Ways to Build Your Character(s)

If you’re a writer, creating lovable characters is a key element to helping your audience enter into your story. If you’re not a writer, but you’re a reader, you know the pleasure and delight of characters who come alive to you and become friends. If you’re neither a writer nor a reader, I’m so sorry.

So how do you create real-seeming people out of thin air?

One option is to write an exact, precise character description of someone you know and change the name: Rob to Bob, Larry to Harry, Holly to Molly. Writing about a person you have a relationship with is an excellent way to capture personality—but if you’re writing about people who read your stuff, either be careful what you say, or be very clever with your renaming (grumpy old next door neighbor becomes 17-year-old bagger at the local supermarket).

Another frequently used method is to sketch a few attributes into a character, and let them finish the development themselves. As the story develops and you throw your heroine into disastrous situations, see . . .

Read More

Less Words—Greater Impact

I occasionally have the privilege to sit in classes taught by people who have decades more experience at writing and marketing than I do—and it’s always a privilege to learn from them. Today’s course was given by a man who works for a radio station in New Jersey. Here are a few of his key lessons:

  1. Good writing begins in the heart, and reaches the heart.

  2. Noble themes lead to noble words.

  3. To be a better writer, be a better reader.

  4. Be less boring—leave out filler words, predictable phrases, and unsubstantiated claims.

  5. Write to help your reader grow.

  6. People’s brains are fast. Let them fill in their own details.

  7. Cut your adjectives, double your verbs.

  8. Less words equal greater impact.

  9. Don’t mistake style for substance.

  10. Write to your audience like you’re sitting at a table in Starbucks over a latte.

  11. Build word pictures—don’t just spew a bunch of details.

Tripping on a Pothole

Occasionally, utter humiliation is probably healthy.

Today, I was crossing a busy Chicago street in front of a silver Mercedes. While checking the bike lane, I stepped deep into a pothole. Catapulting forward, I did that thing where you’re scrambling on your palms, trying not to completely fall over. My water bottle flew out of my hand and my heels went flying up.

The Mercedes pulled up as I skulked over to the sidewalk, and the driver leaned over and asked,

“Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” brief pause. “I’m fine. Just hurt my pride.”

He grinned.

“I thought you were going down hard!”

I tried to say something pseudo-coherent, but probably failed. He drove off, and another guy crossed the street to ask if I was alright.

Guess maybe I’m not all that and a bag of muffins. Just another Tuesday.

See that crater-sized pothole? My dignity is somewhere in that pit.

See that crater-sized pothole? My dignity is somewhere in that pit.

A Failed Blog Post

I spent a long time (long time = several nights in a row) fighting with three or four paragraphs about writing. Having an idea that you can’t fully communicate is, as every two-year-old knows, grippingly frustrating. It’s annoying. It’s tiring. And it seems to get more complicated, the longer you try to simplify it. Or maybe that’s just me.

Since simpler is often better, I’ll lose the clunky phrases like, “Beyond the dictates of pragmatism and pedantry,” and cut to the main point:

Good writing isn’t just about grammar—it’s about rhythm.

Maybe if I can figure out how to say everything I want to say, I’ll write a P.2. Until then, you can fill in the blanks in your own mind.

How Cookies Relate to Writing*

Every author writes for a different reason.

Some of them want to be rich and famous. Others want to entertain. Many have powerful stories, both made up and real. A few have a message to help their reader. Millions write as a form of self-revelation—they want other people to know about them. Victims write for catharsis, heroes write for fame, zealots write to further their cause . . . Every person with an experience (so everyone in the world) uses writing a little differently.

Categorizing forms of writing could leave us with a multi-paged chart with lots of color coding and asterisks. In the interest of your time and mine, I’ll posit that there are two main reasons that people write.

To help myself: A lot of people write because they’re meeting their own internal need to be heard (maybe this is all of us, to a certain extent). Writing is a form of processing that helps brings thoughts full-circle and engages different parts of the brain. When you’re struggling through something, putting it on paper not only provides an audience—one that always listens and never talks back—but it also lets you see the whole picture. Many books exist that were written purely to help the author process through their own pain, thoughts, and experiences.

To help others: If you knew that the road behind your house took a sharp blind turn and led straight off a cliff, wouldn’t you consider at least putting up a sign? Writing to help others fits into this category. It’s like sharing a secret recipe or a beauty tip. The gain to yourself is minimal, but you’re giving a gift that could change another person’s life. You believe that good news merits spreading, so you spread it.

Often, this kind of writing comes from a deep well of

experience (you’ve made the cookies yourself, lots of times),
observation (you’ve watched other people mess up cookies and you know they could use a better recipe),
and maturity (you’re willing to let someone else at the party bring the very best cookies).

There’s massive end gain in both types of writing—one is personal, one is communal, and both are highly valuable. Take a brief pause today and try doing a little of each one. It’s like doing pushups: hard at first, lots of long-term rewards.

* besides that you should always write with cookies in hand.

The Two Types of Writing

Everyone wants to read for two reasons: either they’re interested in the topic—cars, sports, or real estate—or they feel like the writer understands them and can offer them insight on their feelings (loneliness, marriage, or pain).

Writing for the first group of people is comparatively easy. You become an expert on something. You pour time and energy into studying and developing your knowledge on a subject, so you can constantly mine the wealth of information to teach valuable information. It’s a lot of mental exercise and it takes great determination, but it doesn’t require much heart.

It’s much harder to reach people through their feelings and relational experiences. To write about pain really, really well, you must live through pain. To understand how it feels to be lonely, you must have no friends.

Connecting on an emotional level requires experiencing emotions and learning how to communicate them. You have to engage your heart.

It’s hard. It’s draining. It’s scary to be vulnerable. The emotional labor of empathy is enduring and processing your own pain, then feeling it again for someone else. And that is not easy.

Sharing joy is wonderful—but sharing struggles is what brings people together and helps them grow.

If we can share struggles and together bring them to the One who experienced all pain for us, hard stuff still might not be any easier. Life might not get better overnight. But there is One who sees, Who has given His life for us—and He’s given us each other, to learn from and experience with.

And that is worthwhile.

How to Write an Inflammatory Post

They—who they, you ask? The writer people who know stuff—always say that it’s best to write as if you’re writing to a person you know. Your writing takes on a more personal tone, and you can delve into topics with some expertise.

Naturally, this can be a tricky style. There is plenty of fodder for discussion: Dear Roommate Who Keeps Stealing My Nail Polish or Three Tips for Dealing with Coworkers Who Smoke on Lunch Break, for instance. But maybe you don’t want your coworkers to be angry that you’ve had enough of their aroma. Perhaps your shaky relationship with your roommate started because she sleeps with a big knife by her bed and sometimes she sleepwalks with it (at which point you have bigger problems than the nail polish anyways).

But if you’re burning with a story that you must write, there are five ways to do so discreetly.

Change up the story based on the personality trait. A friend ignores her problems and avoids them by becoming busier and busier till she’s numb to the good and the bad. She could become your bachelor next-door neighbor who never confronts his fears of dying alone by keeping a to-do list longer than his arm, which means he never allows you to set him up on a blind date. The scenarios are different, but the basic principle remains the same: burying your problems in a full schedule doesn’t actually solve anything.

Always be gracious. If you’re telling a story about your know-it-all coworker, use terms like, “well-integrated information” and “clever synthesis of knowledge.” Be sincere rather than sarcastic. Tell the story in a way that honors your coworker, and doesn’t speak ill of them. Writing is cathartic and gracious writing helps develop a gracious perspective.

Ask the person if you can write about them. There’s no better way to diffuse a possibly explosive situation than by getting permission. Don’t ask, “I’d like to write about how you made a fool of yourself in that meeting, can I?” Remember the gracious principle—“How you handled that situation brought up some interesting talking points. May I refer to it in my writing?” If they say yes, cool. Be kind. If they say no, refer to the following.

Write about it for yourself and save it for later. Chances are that in 25 years, you won’t be working and interacting with the exact same people as you are now. An inflammatory article now is an interesting, amusing, and instructive piece when you won’t lose your job because of it (still, 25 years out, remember that gracious thing).

Go anonymous and move to an island in the pacific. And if your words are burning in your heart like a ticking time bomb, take up a pseudonym and house shop off the coast of California.

Why That Project is Taking So Long

Have a big project you haven’t finished? Garrison Keillor has crafted a perfect, absolutely watertight excuse for why it’s not done yet (disclaimer, this rings especially true for us writer-types).

Roman and Leon are brothers growing old together on their farm in Minnesota.

Roman worked, Leon said, as if he could by sheer effort pull the corn up out of the ground and make it grow. Leon said that he worked, too. On a book, though he wasn’t ready to show it to anyone, which would distill the wisdom of the ages into a single volume. This book, when finished, would change people’s minds about him, but he was in no hurry to finish it, knowing that work that lasts comes slow.