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, fundraising industry

Knowing Your Enemy

Today’s entry was inspired by Kristina Leroux’s post, Writing Assignment: Knowing Your Enemy, on the Nonprofit Marketing Guide blog. She challenged the reader to personify the enemy, whether that enemy is homelessness, apathy, greed, sloth, or something else. During an AFP event a few weeks ago I heard from Jim Schallom at Sherwood Forest that the enemy for fundraisers is “Starbucks”, or the general consumerist mindset. That’s been on my mind, and this challenge completely integrated my fundraising and fiction writing minds.

So here it is:

Dee Dee versus The StarBuck

In the still morning light, before the armies massed at the opposite edges of the valley slopes are fully awake, Edie and Dee Dee walk carefully along a dew-covered path. “I know you’re scared, Dee Dee”, says Edie. “But I believe in you. You’ve been preparing for this moment a long time.” She grasps Dee Dee’s shoulder, and the connection immediately encourages Dee Dee’s troubled heart.

“Yes,” she admits. She doesn’t want to fear, she trusts her training, and she knows that she is on the good side in this fight. But the idea of her upcoming battle with The StarBuck, their nemesis, the bane of their existence, looms large in her mind. She stoops down to the path and gathers a handful of pebbles, dumping them into her supply sack at her waist. Still… “Yes, I’m scared. I know how important this is to all of us.”

“I believe in you,” Edie says. “I wouldn’t have trusted you with such responsibility otherwise.” Dee Dee knows she is telling the truth, and yet the challenge still brings butterflies to her stomach.

Their brief walk returns Edie and Dee Dee to their army’s campsite. Tents fill the small plain in haphazard clumps; volunteers, advocates, and employees alike wander throughout, preparing for the day. A buzz of conversation rises over the morning cookfires, and any who see them give a smile. Today is the day. It is the start of the Annual Campaign. And for the first time Dee Dee, instead of Edie, is to lead the charge.

Across the valley the enemy waits. They go by many names and nicknames, but the most common is “The Something Betters”. That is, everyone over there always has something better to do with their time, their money, their advocacy, than to give it to this side over here, where there is good to be done. Something better like a phone upgrade. Something better like a new automobile lease. Something better like an extra manicure this month, because, well, reasons.

Edie and Dee Dee, though, lead the army fighting the battle to save local homeless animals, to provide them places to live and to provide loving companions for their human partners. They work to make all lives better in the community, not just provide a little more entertainment. And it is sometimes disappointing to see how little progress gets made.

Because so many of the surrounding villagers just don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know of this battle waged here, in this Valley of Public Opinion, to keep the shelters open. They don’t know how the battle is fought for the division of wallets and attention, every day, every week, ever month, every year. They of course have time to keep up with all about the latest government scandals, they know what’s happening half a continent away in the fashion capital of the world, and yet so much opportunity is missed here at home to make a better life with such a small effort. Edie and Dee Dee and their army fight, every day, against the Something Betters, in order to bring about that satisfying community that everyone so deserves.

Today Dee Dee will meet The StarBuck, at noon, in the middle of the plain, to do battle, to fight, to compete for the attention of the world. Should she triumph, her shelter will have earned yet another temporary reprieve. Temporary, for there will always be another Something Better coming along to take its place, and the fight will wage on. Should she fail… Well, that is an option too tragic to consider.

The sun beats hard on the plain as the two armies begin their descent. Dee Dee leads her pack, Edie follows at the rear. Across the way, she can see that The StarBuck, her rival, leading a similar army. She gathers her nerve; this is most important. All those behind her are counting on her to deliver.

They approach, these massed brigades, to support their avatars in this battle. They know that their future, too, hinges on the success or failure of the two who represent them. They stop and wait, in silent anticipation, tension building as Dee Dee and The StarBuck approach one another.

The StarBuck is large, three feet taller than Dee Dee at least. His stout body and broad shoulders bear leather armor destined to rebut the slights of opinion arrows pointed at him. Everyone knows his reputation, too, as a thief, arms snatching coins from unsuspecting consumers with a little drip here, a little dab there, insidiously expanding his effect every day. His armor is decorated with hundreds, perhaps a thousand, shiny baubles proclaiming themselves the Newest! Cheapest! Fastest! Best! He attracts his prey, and they come close, close enough for him to rob their pockets while they are distracted, and after he leaves them wondering just where all their money went.

Dee Dee is armed, though, with her weapons of choice. The stones in her sack represent all her tools, all her little tricks she has picked up along the years. She knows she will not convince The StarBuck to retreat with words, so she remains silent while he shouts.

“Ha ha, little one!” His voice rings out over the masses. “You have nothing. Nothing! What do you give them?” He sweeps an arm to indicate the whole world. “Better? Faster? Tastier? No! Not even a guarantee. You give them nothing! You should walk away now, before we destroy you forever.” He sneers, and Dee Dee can see the bright white of his teeth, many shades whiter than normal, only available through the latest and greatest bleaching technique. He reaches into his pack and pulls out a mug, tossing it across the space to her. It bounces and spills, double-mocha extra whip foaming across the grass. “Here,” he says, “drown your sorrows in that and be gone.”

Dee Dee stares at the pointless waste, and says nothing. Instead, she reaches into her sack and takes out a stone. On it are etched the words “Direct Mail Campaign: 345 adoptions last year”. She places the stone into her sling, winds, and fires, the missile aiming directly for The StarBuck’s exposed head. It strikes him on the chin and rocks him backwards. The next says “Case Study: How We Educated 912 With FREE Classes”, and it connects with his temple. The StarBuck is wounded, dizzy, staggering. She loads up yet another.

“E-mail follow-up: Partnerships with hundreds of businesses and thousands of volunteers” flies across the space, strikes the StarBuck at the cheek, and spins him around. He staggers but does not fall. His strength and resilience are evident. Dee Dee has one last chance. She takes out the largest, heaviest stone from her bag. On it is written “Matching Gifts”, and she loads it into her sling. She feels the weight, the power, the importance of this moment. Her arm winds up; she releases just as The StarBuck turns to face her once more.

The stone arcs towards him, in silent slow motion as the massed crowds wait breathless, and as it strikes him between the eyes he rocks back, back, back, until the only sound is a loud crash as The StarBuck hits the ground.

Nobody moves.

And then, from behind her, a cheer erupts, as her dedicated soldiers watch the Something Betters launch into disarray and scatter. They flee at the loss of their leader; they run back to their hiding holes in the discount marts and strip malls and e-tailers. Dee Dee has won the day; she and the army have saved the shelter for another year.

Edie appears beside Dee Dee and gives her another hug. “Well done,” she says, “I knew you would do it,” and Dee Dee floats on the emotional high of the moment, feeling hundreds of hands pressing in to congratulate her too. Her smile overwhelms her, and she cannot turn it off. Why should she? The Annual Campaign is a success, and for one more year there will be contentment in the village.

THE END

(FOR NOW)