craft, Writing improvement

A Reading List For Life

In the next couple of months I’m going to be rolling out a book review series of business-type titles I’ve read recently. These are on my list because others have recommended them to me as I’m building my freelance business, as I’m networking, and as I’m just coming across interesting titles. That’s for another time, though. For now, I’d like to offer a different kind of reading list.

A reading list for anyone, regardless of what business you’re in, what job you do, or where you are in your relationships, spiritual journey, or in your training to hike the Sonora Desert with just two tubs of peanut butter for sustenance.

These are books that I think anyone would enjoy. Moreover, these are books that anyone would get value from, either in a new perspective on the world, new insights about personhood, or an interesting, deeper view of a subject than you can find on social media.

 

Writing Books

Elements of Style; Strunk & White

Strunk and White cover

This is the classic “how to make your writing better” book. It’s short, to the point, and doesn’t pull any punches. Whether you write for a living or not, reading this will give you a more persuasive way to say virtually anything you write.

The 10% Solution; Ken Rand

10Percent solution

This short volume challenges anyone to go back after they’ve gotten everything written and then cut 10% . Rand gives some tips on how to do it, but, more importantly, it’s the why that matters. When you’re trying to influence another, whether it be through written or spoken word, forcing a cut of 10% while still keeping the main message ensures that you’ve critically thought about what you want to say and the most effective way to say it.

Writing Down the Bones; Natalie Goldberg

writing down the bones

My instructor introduced this book when I was taking a creative writing course in college. Written by a poet and writer, about the writing process, Writing Down the Bones has been my guide for directing my writing practice for over 20 years. Highly recommended for inspiration on how to break away from the world, some rules to follow when writing, and general ideas about what to write about.

 

Inspiration / Memoir

Into Thin Air; John Krakauer

Into thin air

Krakauer tells the true-life story of a tragedy on Mount Everest. He is a journalist, so he brings a deft touch to telling the story of loss and misfortune. However, more than simply reporting what happened, Krakauer tells a true-life story with an intensity and authenticity rarely experienced in other narratives, because he lived it. He was a member of the expedition whose goal was to summit the highest peak on the planet, and his unique combination of journalistic skill and mountaineering background give readers a perspective unmatched in exploration narratives.

Never Let Go; Dan John

Never Let Go

Dan John is a former weight lifting and throwing coach for the United States Olympic Track & Field Team (at least, that’s how I remember it). This combination of memoir / essay / just-do-it missive is the first book I’ve ever read cover-to-cover and then went immediately to page 1 to do it again. John talks about weightlifting, about training, about mental and physical discipline, about diet, and about how to actually achieve results, not just talk about them.

When Breath Becomes Air; Paul Kalanithi

when breath becomes air

What do you do when diagnosed with a terminal illness? Kalanithi, a highly-acclaimed surgeon, decided to write down his thoughts as he experienced them, and luckily for us decided to publish them. “That morning, I made a decision; I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a  different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

 

Reframe Everything You Thought You Knew About A Popular Subject

Why We Get Fat; Gary Taubes

why we get fat

The old adage is Calories In (minus) Calories Out (equals) Change in Weight. If Calories In is more than Calories Out, we’ll gain weight, and vice versa. Taubes distills his weighty academic tome Good Calories, Bad Calories into a popular version, and for the good. Why We Get Fat examines, and refutes, many simplistic notions of weight gain and loss using scientific research. And he points out places where it would be good for more science, but we just don’t have it yet. This is essential for understanding that sometimes (okay, often), complex systems are complex.

Dataclysm; Christian Rudder

dataclysm

We’ve all seen the rise in dating apps like Tinder and OK Cupid. Dataclysm is from OK Cupid founder Christian Rudder, and provides a lot of behind-the-scenes information and analysis. The point of this book is that as much as people may say they wish for certain characteristics in their romantic partner, their actions tell a different story. Applications to marketing, to business, and to personal life abound.

The Prophet; Khalil Gibran

the prophet

This is a blend of philosophy, religion, and poetry. In The Prophet, the Prophet himself educates a town on their ignorance of the true valuable priorities in life: what work is, what money is, what society is, what love is. I loved reading this simply for the different perspective it offers on how to live a good life and the interconnectedness of us all.

 

Good Fun

The Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book; Bill Watterson

calvin and hobbes

Watterson was at the top of the world with Calvin & Hobbes, his beloved comic strip about a young boy and his best friend. The 10th Anniversary Book explains much of Watterson’s thought process around developing the strip, the characters, even his arguments with his syndicate over licensing issues. Not just for fans,

The Sparrow; Mary Doria Russell

the sparrow

This sci-fi novel tells of the journey and return of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest sent to Rakhat to proselytize the natives and save their souls. Many times sci-fi completely glosses over or ignores religion, both of us and them. In my opinion, this book provides the best treatment of considerations of religion in such a context.

The Time Traveler’s Wife; Audrey Niffenegger

time travelers wife

Another sci-fi, and this one was just amazing. Henry and Claire have a fantastic relationship, despite his inability to control his time traveling. But be careful – Henry’s life and Claire’s intersect in ways too numerous to count, and with consequences neither could have foreseen.

Hooway for Wodney Wat; Helen Lester

wodney wat

I love this book! I read it out loud to my daughter one evening, and the first time through I could not stop laughing. Yes, it’s a great children’s story with a classical message, but the physical joy of reading this one out loud is what makes it special.

 

What Do You Think?

Have you read any of these? Would you recommend something different to add to this list? Think I’m completely off-base? Leave me a message and let’s start the discussion. Cheers.

craft, Writing improvement

How “Stanley the Mason” Helped Me Be a Better Writer

The Background

Measure twice, cut once. It’s a famous adage in construction. The point is simple: you don’t want to mark your board (or brick, or soffit, or shingle, or stud, or wire, or tile… you get the picture) wrong, and cut it based on that incorrect marking. You’ll end up with either:

  • A piece that’s too long, and you have to trim it again; thus taking extra time you don’t really want to spend; or
  • A piece that’s too short, doesn’t fit, and requires you to make a second fill-in piece, or to shove in extra fill material, or just scrap it altogether and add to your waste pile.

Neither of these is a good option.

But where does this education come from? It comes from those men who’ve spent thirty years or more on the scaffolding laying ten thousand bricks to build a wall; or standing in the hole laying blocks for hours and hours and hours to make a foundation; or in the 101-degree oven of a Midwestern July afternoon fitting a re-roof and sweating gallons. These professionals know the value of efficiency and the cost of inefficiency. They’re Stan, and John, and Darren, and J.D., who I worked with for many summers growing up. I labored for them, and they taught me lessons I’m applying 25 years later.

So when they say to “measure twice”, you know they’re talking truth. They know the value of maximizing the precision of your first effort and minimizing the chance of re-doing it.

The Current Situation

And how does this apply to writing? Or business in general? I can’t very well measure my paper, or my computer monitor. I mean, I could, but neither would do me much good. Instead of pulling out a ruler, I’m going to apply that idea to research and writing. I’m going to look for a way to be efficient with the set-up work I do and the production that results.

When I’m researching for a client, I’ll think not only about the specific piece I’m immediately delivering. I’ll also think about related pieces I could produce if I wanted to reuse a portion for another purpose. Or, whether what I’m doing for this first project might also make sense as part of another, broader project. For example, if I were to write an article about solar panel adoption in Missouri, I’d probably also make sure to gather background statistics on solar panel adoption in the Midwest in general, as well as alternative renewable energy sources in Missouri. Having done all that work, I can write one article, and be prepared to write others with minimal new research.

The Advice

Instead of Measure twice, cut once, let’s change that a little. How about, Research once, write thrice. That’s got a similar ring, and sets you up for better results. Because putting that mindset into practice will ensure your research is comprehensive enough that you don’t have to do the same searches again the next time you have an assignment.

Plus, it gives you an opportunity to suggest follow-ups to your audience. That’s what’s known as a win-win. Thanks, Stan. You really did teach me something. And hopefully, my audience will learn to Research once, write thrice and become that much better at what they do.

craft, Writing improvement

Prove Yourself Without Saying A Word

The following quote is a fantastic guide for anyone in sales, persuasion, or attempting to change another’s mind. It comes from one of the most successful books of all time, about one of the most important topics we all encounter daily.

“If you are going to prove anything, don’t let anybody know it. Do it so subtly, so adroitly, that no one will feel that you are doing it.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

And I have nothing more to say. I’m just going to let that one sit. Far be it from me to expand on an idea that’s much older than I am, one that has helped a countless number of people to be more successful on their journey through life. Just do what Mr. Carnegie says, and you’ll be well rewarded.

So, then, why do I choose to write about it? As soon as I read it I wanted examples of this principle in action. When I browsed through the library of my mind, I found two that illustrate this quite well. And they’re entertaining too. Allow me to share so that you might learn and be inspired to apply this idea in your own life.

 

Example 1

First, let’s consider a segment of text. This is from L. Ron Hubbard’s story The Devil’s Rescue:

The main cabin was ornate with carved blackwood furniture, glowing silks and oriental carpets. Along the bulkheads to either side were rows of chests, camphor and ivory and teak, from which drooled the luster of pearls or gaped a little over a load of dull gold coins. The ports were twenty feet athwartship and full seven feet tall, all of cunningly set glass to make compasses and tritons and sea horses; through this, trailing far behind them, glowed their frothing wake, leading off into the gray dark and the shrieking wind.

The Devil’s Rescue, reprinted in Writers of the Future, vol 33

In this example, you can feel the knowledge that Hubbard has about life aboard a ship. He’s been there, he’s studied, he has the intimacy necessary to make you believe that you are aboard the The Flying Dutchman. But why is this important?

Because the author must establish the credibility of the narrator, in order for him to be believable enough that the reader enjoys reading and participates fully in the experience. If, for example, an amateur [such as yours truly] who had done the barest amount of research [or, more likely, none at all, attempting to fudge it with whatever is already in his head] about the internal decorations and workings of a pirate ship, were to write that same paragraph, it might come across like this:

The main cabin held elegant furniture, darkly-colored and well-formed. Rugs covered the floor, dulling the sound as the men walked. He dragged his hand across the sculpted walls, feeling under his fingers the rough differences between the carved wood of storage boxes, sculpted brass of drawer handles, or formed glass of the lamps lighting their way. Behind them, he could glance out the portholes, just at the height of his eyes, to the trailing wake, glowing in the dim moonlight.

Now, which of those sounds more believable? Which author has convinced you of his authority? Which one has proven that he knows enough about a sailor’s life to make it worth your while to read further? Hands down, it’s Hubbard. He has taken the Carnegie principle to the extreme: he has shown his competence, rather than blatantly beating you over the head with facts about how many books he’s read or how many interviews he’s conducted. And therefore you, as a reader, are more likely to believe him, accept him, and actually finish the story.

Nowhere in the story does Hubbard tell of his expertise. Nowhere does he come out and say, “this man knows such and such because of years aboard a ship”. He doesn’t have to. He’s shown that, subtly and adroitly, by his extremely competent narrative.

 

Example 2

The following is a humorous scene from Tommy Boy, in which main character Tommy Callahan finally succeeds in making his first sale. How? By demonstrating that his company is an authority, not because of the physical qualities of the parts they make, but by proving, quietly, that Callahan Auto actually meets his client’s unspoken needs:

And what are his needs? Not more brake pads. Not more inventory on a shelf. Not more stock to track and invoices to pay and deliveries to coordinate. The client already has plenty of those. That warehouse is full of stuff. No, what his customer needs is peace of mind. And Tommy tried that. In a sense, he said, “Well, sure, you’ll have peace of mind if you buy from us. I guarantee it!” Does that make the sale? Doubtful. It’s too direct and turns your customer off. The client completely rejected this approach in the first minute of the scene.

Notice what happens when Tommy switches tactics from the hard sell. Instead of pressing the point, he pivots to a more subtle method, and his client softens. His fear of “being sold” dissipates, and he opens up to the possibility of buying from Callahan Auto. When he does, he can see that his needs can actually be met, and he is no longer afraid of losing. Instead, he’s winning! He’s getting the emotional connection, the security and peace of mind he’s searching for. Tommy was able to make this point by, ironically, not making explicit statements to that effect. On the contrary, he spoke in a friendly manner, and allowed his expertise to come through in less obvious ways.

 

Conclusion

The next time you’re struggling to prove yourself as an expert, take a step back. Instead of becoming more belligerent and overbearing with facts of your qualification, consider a softer approach. Demonstrate your competence by producing quality work, rather than just talking about how you will produce quality work.