Think Like an Editor: 5 tips for better blogging

© Mimi Potter - Fotolia.comLast week, I attended a class at CreativeLIVE, a startup-to-watch that offers free, high-quality live workshops on everything from photography to design to marketing taught by world-class experts. (If you can’t attend a live class online, you can purchase the course later to access the video and all the bonus materials).

The course was Fearless Marketing by Barbara Findlay Schenck, a marketing strategist and small-business advocate whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. During her course (which I highly recommend if you’re a freelancer or creative entrepreneur), she asked me to weigh in as an editor on what makes a blog post stand out and more likely to be shared. So, I thought I’d round up my top five tips for better blogging:

1. Establish your expertise. What sets you apart in the crowded blogosphere?
As of a year ago, there were nearly 42 million blogs in the U.S. alone. So getting noticed can be a real challenge. While it can be tempting to blog about everything that interests you (who doesn’t love talking about baby pandas and existential cats?), it’s often better for your readers — and easier on yourself — if you establish a theme that relates to your expertise, focuses your energy, and gives readers a sense of what to expect from you.

Remember: Pick a topic you can keep up with for more than just a few months. As WordPress notes, “Many of the bloggers you admire have probably been at it for at least a year.” Before you blog, brainstorm as many story ideas as you can in five minutes. If you can’t think of more than three, your topic is too narrow or doesn’t deeply interest you. Think about what you have to say on a topic that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam.

2. Be timely. Tie your posts into notable birthdays, anniversaries, or hot topics.
Inspiration to write strikes at unlikely times. When that happens, write — but don’t necessarily publish right away. In the editorial world, timing is essential. A story about Patrick Swayze’s best lines from Dirty Dancing is evergreen, but it’s more likely to get shared on social media on his birthday or the anniversary of the movie’s premier. Research notable birthdays, anniversaries, or hot topics related to your industry or theme.

The second piece of this is to keep a calendar. If you’re writing a post about the hot new toys for the holiday season, publishing in mid-December is way too late — you need to strike while the iron is hot before Black Friday, even earlier. Keep track of major events and milestones in a calendar so you can plan for those in advance. That way, you can save those on-the-fly, quick-response posts for relevant hot topics in the news.

3. Think visually. Images and videos are highly shareable, but quality matters.
If you have a knack for presenting info in a visual manner, tap into that. If a recent study comes out and you can break it down into a compelling infographic that simplifies the data, your picture will be worth a thousand words. Are you rounding up a list of local startups or small businesses of note? Get photos. Do you have a great idea for a video series related to your industry? Don’t be afraid to put something together for YouTube.

And for that matter, make sure you have quality images (either a headshot or photos of your business) that you can share if reporters come knocking on your door. If you get a press mention, be sure to post the video or a screenshot of the article on your website. Press begets more press, and prospective clients, consumers, and media outlets view these kinds of mentions as you having credibility and thought leadership in an industry.

4. Use bullets, numbers, and bold headings to make your post scannable.
People love lists. In fact, they love lists so much that there’s a new term for an article in list format — a listicle.  We’ve all seen those lists from sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy circulate on our social media feeds: “51 Corgi GIFs That Have Changed the World” (seriously) or “27 Way More Awesome Things to Buy With $38 Than Facebook Stock.” You’d be tempted to click, right? They’re funny, interesting, and highly shareable.

Think about topics in your industry that lend themselves well to lists. Even if you don’t use numbers or bullets, use bold headings to make your post scannable. Remember: People are reading on devices the size of an index card, and you only have a matter of seconds to grab and hold their attention. A list that promises six items helps readers know how much time they need to commit to your post — and they’re more likely to make it to the end.

5. When it comes to promotion, think like the tortoise rather than the hare.
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. That’s one of the hardest things to accept about blogging or building an online presence in general. So what do you do if you feel like the only feedback you’re getting is crickets chirping?  Well first, remember it’s slow and steady wins the race. Building an online following of the right audience takes work and time. While it’s tempting to go after quantity, you should focus on quality instead.

Gimmicks to get people to like your profile or post might work in the short-term, but they don’t build the long-term following of readers or influencers you’re trying to attract. Always respond to people who post meaningful comments, and be sure to follow like-minded people, from fellow business owners to reporters covering your industry. And remember — don’t just promote yourself. Share interesting ideas from others. Be an invaluable resource.

Finally, if you’re wondering why blogging is worth it, remember that relevant content is what brings people to your website or business. Aside from being good for SEO (search engine optimization), it shows that you have authority and personality — two valuable traits in setting yourself apart and getting noticed.  For further reading, I recommend two sources:
The Resources page on Barbara Findlay Schenck’s website, BizStrong.com
 Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Good luck, and happy blogging!

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She Who Must Not Be Named: J.K. Rowling and the power of pseudonyms

© Marijus - Fotolia.comFor a few fleeting weeks, anonymity meant freedom for J.K. Rowling.

A London law firm apologized late last week for exposing Rowling’s secret pseudonym — that is, Robert Galbraith, the supposed first-time author of the critically acclaimed but modestly-selling detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Soon after the secret was leaked, The Cuckoo’s Calling skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon best-seller list, with first edition copies going for over $1,000 a pop. Great news for her publisher, no doubt, but Rowling was not pleased.

She who must not be named
So what exactly is Rowling griping about? For starters, a respected law firm leaked her identity in a major breach of confidentiality. But more than losing a sense of privacy or anonymity, Rowling lost her ability to experiment and play without the pressure of expectation. As she notes in the FAQ section of Robert Galbraith’s author website, her pseudonym wasn’t a marketing ploy, but rather a desire to fly under the radar: “If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare.”

Rowling also notes that eventually, things may have gotten complicated with requests for interviews with Galbraith coming in — but she hoped to reveal her pseudonym on her own terms, if it came to that. For people wondering why in Voldemort’s name Rowling wouldn’t publish under her own name in the first place, just consider the very public lukewarm reviews she received for The Casual Vacancy, her first work following the Harry Potter series. It was impossible for her to dabble in a new genre without constantly hearing from fans or reviewers that it wasn’t as masterful or immersive as Harry Potter. A good problem to have, in a way. But I understand Rowling’s desire to have a secret, just for a little while.

The purpose of pen names
These days, it feels like there are so few secrets.  That’s why we get such glee out of mysteries like the anonymous writer behind the hilarious Ruth Bourdain Twitter account, which satirized food writing with particular relish (excuse the pun). In the age of personal branding and over-sharing, it was hard to imagine someone not taking credit for creating something so popular. I guess sometimes, a pen name is about the sheer joy of mystery.

Of course, there’s the dark side to anonymity as well. Anonymity on the Web makes it possible for people to share questionable and sometimes downright harmful ideas without having to be accountable for the consequences of their actions. To be sure, there’s power and bravery in putting your name on a piece of writing that’s open to ridicule, debate, or misinterpretation by anyone in the world with access to the Internet. But not everyone’s lucky enough to be granted freedom of expression, and sometimes pseudonyms serve a real purpose. Here’s a look at why a few famous writers adopted their pen names:

George Sand (a.k.a. Amantine Dupin)
George Sand was a prolific French author, writing in the mid-1800s with contemporaries like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. As a woman, she struggled to find publishers who would take her seriously — which is eventually how she stumbled on the nom de plume of George Sand (a lover named Jules Sandeau supposedly helped her settle on the name).

Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)
Samuel Clemens was America’s first celebrity author, but one of his earliest jobs was piloting riverboats.  “Mark Twain” was a term referring to the second mark on a line that showed where the Mississippi was two fathoms deep. It became Clemens’ pen name when he became a reporter — a common practice, especially to protect crime reporters.

Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel)
Theodore Geisel adopted the pen name Seuss, his mother’s maiden name, after he was banned from writing for Dartmouth’s humor magazine (he got caught drinking with friends in his dorm room). He upgraded himself to Dr. Seuss after graduation. A playful pen name bolstered the sense of whimsy he created in his books (true for Lemony Snicket, too).

Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden)
Hobb, a best-selling science fiction author, first published her work under the name Megan Lindholm. She was originally going to publish as M. Lindholm, when an editor told her it was important for women writers in science fiction to “declare themselves.” Eager to explore new styles and perspectives, she later took on the pen name Robin Hobb.

Like Rowling, she likely realized that maintaining two successful author personas as just one real person wasn’t going to be easy — and she eventually revealed herself as the writer behind both identities. Today, she continues to publish under both names.

The lesson for the rest of us writers? If you’re in a rut or paralyzed by a vicious attack of “what ifs” (What if they hate it? What if it’s no good?) consider writing under a different name, even if it’s just on your blog — you might find a voice you never knew you had.

The Style Guide Wars: Why there are (and will continue to be) so many darn style guides

© Pixsooz - Fotolia.comThis week’s headline from The Onion says it all: “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence.” (By the way, in case this gets picked up in China, The Onion is a satirical newspaper… no editors died over comma usage and capitalization this week, as far as we know).

But if you’ve ever worked for a major publication or written an academic paper, you know that style guides are no laughing matter — especially when you’re faced with a hair-pulling grammatical conundrum. Comma or no comma at the end of that list? Is that one compound word or two words with a hyphen between them? And once and for all, is it website, web site, or Website … or Web site?!

The answer, it turns out, isn’t an absolute truth — nor is it something that stays the same over time. It depends on what style guide you’re using, and how recently it was updated. Style guides, like the dictionary, are always evolving. In 2011, the Associated Press caused a stir when its style guide finally moved from the hyphenated “e-mail” (you know … electronic mail) to just plain old “email” (the thing that needs no explanation).

So which style guide should you be using for that article, blog post or paper? Well, you can’t just pick one willy-nilly — there are rules and guidelines to follow, dammit! (Turns out people who worry about grammar for a living also tend to like rules in general…) Chances are, there’s a specific style guide you should be using. Here’a rundown of the big players:

The Associated Press StylebookMost widely used by journalists, sometimes called the journalist’s bible. If you’re writing for a newspaper, the AP Stylebook is your new pal.

The Chicago Manual of Style: This bad boy — common in book publishing — gives the AP manual a run for its money, calling itself a guide for writers, editors and publishers.

The MLA Style Manual: If you’ve ever written an academic research paper, then you don’t need me to tell you about the MLA Style Manual. Citations are your friend… really.

The Yahoo Style GuideObviously, this guide doesn’t date back to 1906 like the Chicago style guide. But it speaks to an increasingly international online readership.

So, are these guys likely to play nice and consolidate into a single style guide that makes life easier? Well, no. This isn’t likely to change any time soon because a.) editors are stubborn (I should know — I am one) and b.) style guides are actually based on practical and stylistic preferences for a particular medium, as Poynter points out:

“For example, AP style does not use italics because italics become garbled over the AP wire. It’s the only style guide I’m familiar with that doesn’t use italics.”

That’s just one example out of hundreds. Sure, spelling ‘website’ four different ways across four different style guides might seem silly — but hey, we editors are a silly bunch sometimes. Still, the fact is, what style you follow if you’re writing for an international, online audience differs quite a bit from if you’re presenting your research in print to an academic audience who’s already well-versed in your field. Plus, a little variety in style never hurt anyone (as long as it doesn’t actually spark AP Style vs. Chicago Manual gang violence).

So next time an editor asks you to follow a particular style guide that you’re not familiar with, don’t a.) make it up, or b.) tell him or her that you’re opting out of this whole style guide thing, unless you’re prepared for something like a scene out of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video (that is, a spectacular fight … not spontaneous choreographed dancing, though that would be awesome).

Here’s hoping our quest for better writing remains a peaceful one!

A simple method for combatting writer’s block

© klikk - fotoliaWriter’s block is so pernicious, it once prompted Ernest Hemingway (a war correspondent, mind you) to say that the scariest thing he ever encountered was “a blank piece of paper.”

From Mark Twain to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, writer’s block seems to afflict even our greatest literary minds. In Hollywood, Barry Michels has had an extremely successful career as a therapist for blocked screenwriters. He’s considered an open secret in the industry.

But let’s say you can’t afford to hire a Jungian analyst to help you through your latest block. What’s a frustrated writer to do?

“The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.” — William Goldman
Undoubtedly, starting is the hardest part when it comes to writing, with finishing coming in a close second.  I’ve found that to be painfully true — but I’ve also found a method that helps me stop thinking (What should I write about? What if it isn’t any good?) and start writing when I’ve got a deadline to meet or I’m staring at a blank screen.

It’s a fairly well-known method called the Pomodoro Technique. Despite the commercialization of the name, the technique is free and it doesn’t require you to read any self-help books. Here’s the premise: You break down your work into 25-minute blocks. During that 25 minutes, you can’t answer your phone, check email, raid the kitchen for a snack, run out to grab a cup of coffee or play Words With Friends. (Yeah, I’m really good at procrastinating).

“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” — Charles Bukowski
The deal is, you have to use your 25 minutes to write something — anything. Write about having writer’s block, if you have to. I often treat my first 25-minute block like a free-write or brainstorm session where I can throw away whatever I write. If I’m starting work on a piece, sometimes I cover my monitor for 25 minutes so I can’t edit myself or worry about making it perfect when I’m trying to get momentum.

Set a timer so you know when 25 minutes is up. I use a timer app that I keep open while I’m typing because for me, seeing the minutes count down spurs me into action (you can hide it, if you prefer).  It works for me because it’s “just 25 minutes” — it’s not a novel, a screenplay, an article, or a dissertation. After 25 minutes, your timer app will ding and then it’s time to take a quick break, typically for 5 minutes. Get away from your computer — walk around your apartment or make a cup of tea. Repeat until you’ve done a string of these (take longer breaks as needed), and you’ll be surprised by how much you get done.

“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” — William Faulkner
Critics say that this technique prevents us from developing the ability to focus over long periods of time when necessary — who’s going to hire a lawyer who takes breaks in the courtroom every 25 minutes? Personally, I think this criticism misses the point. The Pomodoro Technique isn’t supposed to apply to all aspects of life. But if you’re having trouble starting a project that you’ve always wanted to do (or HAVE to do), it can help you establish a sustainable routine to get it done. For example, “Today I’ll do 10 pomodoros.”

The sad reality is, doing a single task for 25 minutes without any distraction is actually a lot longer than most people are likely or able to focus nowadays. (If you want more detail on why that is, you should read “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.) I’ve found that establishing the habit of working in a series of 25-minute blocks without interruption has actually been a great way to train my brain to focus for longer periods of time — and understand the importance of taking breaks and getting some perspective before you can truly finish major projects, whether they take hours, weeks or years.

Hey, if taking breaks ultimately helped Mark Twain finish “Tom Sawyer,” then the method’s good enough for me.

The Challenge: Write a story about a U.S. president in 600 words or less

© Georgios Kollidas - Fotolia.com

Every few months, All Things Considered on NPR hosts a wildly popular writing contest called Three-Minute Fiction. It starts with a simple prompt, created by a respected writer who’s invited to serve as the judge. It ignites listeners, who feverishly write stories that must be 600 words or less (so they can be read out loud within three minutes).

Then the waiting game begins… entrants post obsessively on the 3MF Facebook page, where they find support for horrifying realizations like, “My story actually came out to 601 words…. !!!” Finally, the finalists’ stories are posted online and read on-air — but weeks later, only one lucky writer is named the winner.

Round 9 is currently underway, and submissions are due on September 23rd by 11:59pm ET. This year’s prompt? “Story entries must revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional.”

So what makes the U.S. president such a compelling character to write about? Well, from the birth of a nation and the New Deal to Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, presidents give writers the kind of meaty material you just can’t make up.

Bestselling novelist Brad Meltzer (who also happens to be the judge for round 9) put it this way for NPR: “There is nothing like meeting the president of the United States,” he says. “Anytime you even see the president, you have a story to tell for the rest of your life.”

From The West Wing to Air Force One to pretty much every Tom Clancy novel ever written, works of fiction about the American president have a way of capturing our imaginations. (Even works based on history that might not sound all that riveting — you know, like an HBO miniseries on John Adams — end up being mind-blowingly fascinating.)

If writing fiction is something you’ve always wanted to try (or something you love to do, but let too many “buts” get in the way), then this is a great project for you to crank out in the remaining 6 days before the deadline. Just don’t let the word length fool you into a false sense of complacency — writing short isn’t always easier. Remember that famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”