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.

craft, Writing improvement

Think the “Experts” are Perfect? Think Again

While reading and studying some famous direct mail samples, I found some things that stood out to me as errors. I admit, I might be picking nits here. Yet I think it’s important, and I’ll leave the explanation of why to another post.

For now, I’ll point out a few errors that I noticed, and give a little insight to why they stuck out to me.

These materials are all part of AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. Included within the program is the AWAI Hall of Fame: 50* best-performing sales letters (and space ads) from the past half-century. Winning promotions for The Wall Street Journal, American Express, The Nature Conservancy, and more are collected here for study and edification. I am grateful for the chance to learn from the best, and see how my skill matches up. And yet, even within this list of “best of the best”, I still found errors. Hopefully at the end of this post you’ll see what I see.

First up: Wall Street Underground.

 

Wall Street Underground

This was a promotional letter for Nick Guarino’s newsletter Wall Street Underground. I’ll point out 2 errors here:

#1)         The commentary from AWAI starts like this:

This is one of their best offerings. You’d be hard-pressed to find another pitch like it. Especially worth noting — the writer locks his sites on a “Common Enemy” message.

Did you see it? It’s in the last sentence. “the writer locks his sites” [emphasis added]

This throws me off a little as I’m reading. Wait a minute, I think. You can’t lock “sites”. Shouldn’t it be “locks his sights”? Locking “sights” is something hunters would do, to ensure that they are fixed on their target. You can’t lock a “site”, because that is a location. It’s meaningless in the context of aiming at a “Common Enemy”. So when I read that, I’m tossed out of the flow just a bit, and it takes a moment for me to get back into it.

#2)         About halfway through, I find this sentence:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of the Barron’s or Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

Now, maybe this is just a little bit of esoteric knowledge, and maybe it’s not. But the publications mentioned there are Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. Check their websites if you don’t believe me. You’ll see that Barron’s is not modified with “the”, and The Wall Street Journal clearly has “The” as the start of its name. What’s wrong is a misuse of little “the”, yet it caused two twitches in my mind as I’m reading. Instead, it should have been written like this:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of Barron’s or The Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

There are more, but I’d like to move on.

 

The Oxford Club

This letter invites potential members to join an exclusive investment advice club called “The Supper Club.” Again, I’ll point out 2 errors:

#1)         One statement about a stock of a gold mining company reads like this:

Consider these facts … It’s selling more than three times cheaper than Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

The problem here is that to say something is “three times cheaper” means there must be two comparisons – one that demonstrates the “cheaper”, and another to be “three times cheaper” than that first comparison. So, suppose that Masterworks is selling at $230 per ounce. This would be “$60 cheaper than Placer Dome”. Now, once that is established, the target can be described as “a $200 discount, more than 3 times cheaper than the Masterworks discount!”

To be a more clear, more effective statement, it should probably have been written like this:

Consider these facts … It’s now selling at less than a third of the price of Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

You just can’t have a multiplier on “cheaper” without having multiple comparisons, one to be the baseline and another to be the reference. With only one comparison, it needs to be something like “a third of the price” or “a 60% discount”.

#2)         A headline reads as follows:

A Full Compliment of Wealth-Building Benefits

And right away, Microsoft Word is on the task! It’s underlined “Compliment” for me. It must have noticed the same thing I did, that the spelling with an “i” means a nice thing to say about another. The word necessary here is “Complement”, with an “e”, meaning an element which “completes”, or adds on to, a primary element. So if you’re looking to describe these benefits as completing a wealth-building arsenal, so to speak, you’d want this headline:

A Full Complement of Wealth-Building Benefits

Again, you may find this nit-picky. Sure, it is. But it’s also important. A fuller explanation is forthcoming.

 

Conclusion

These are just a few examples of how even the best may make mistakes at times. Yet, despite some small errors, these were included in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps everything else was overwhelming enough to counteract these little deficiencies, or perhaps they really are small enough that they didn’t make a difference.

For me, I’ll strive to eliminate any such errors in anything I write, and I hope that this post demonstrates not just what, but how as well.

 

* P.S.: I can pick nits with modern businesses, too. Though the Hall of Fame says it includes 50 direct mail classics, there are only 49 samples included. Worth is #8, while Rogue Trader is #10. What happened to #9?