Why can’t I see you?

Could it be because you are simply not showing up? I think it was Woody Allen who said, “80% of success is in showing up.” Whether concretely or metaphorically, your presence is required in your writing.

Other people can research and record the same facts. Other people might even share many of your opinions. But when I am drawn to a source of writing, it is usually because I am drawn to the writer. How are they like me? How are they different? What are their characteristic ways of expressing themselves?

I love to read the Dear Sugar column at TheRumpus.net. (Warning: Language is often strong.)  Sugar writes anonymously for now, and has reflected several times on this anonymity. Is she “showing up”? Oh, yes–often virtually naked in her openness and vulnerability.  Even though I don’t know her name, I feel I have a profound sense of who she is.

Journalists are taught to write without injecting their personality into their reporting. Some are more successful than others, but by and large, I don’t read news articles because of the byline. If I do read  them, it’s for the facts I hope they contain. Does this suit your writing purpose? If so, you can get lots of free education and tips at Poynter. You may want to start with Roy Peter Clarke’s 50 Writing Tools (the link is to a summary version; the whole list is well-worth reading and re-reading).

Malcolm Gladwell is another favorite of mine. In one sense, he is a consummate reporter, sharing his  research and insights  uncolored by the language of emotion. Yet in his choices oof what to research, what to report, which experts to interview, and how to report their stories, he shows up so clearly I have the sense I can identify his pieces without seeing who wrote them.

How can you show up?

  • Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
  • Be consistent; think about integrity, “being of one piece,” and hold yourself to it
  • Be reliable. If you are blogging, and commit to one post a week, don’t let your readers down. If you are writing a book, and promise a result in its title, make sure that a way to achieve the result is given to the reader by the last chapter.
  • Avoid “cute.”
  • Write English (or whatever language you are writing), not SMS/text-speak. (LOL!)
  • Care about your reader, and let it show.

Your thoughts? Please comment.

7 qualities of an engaging book title

Your book’s title is important to its impact. If the title is not a grabber, the prospective reader will not open the book.

So–how to name your book? As I’ve mentioned, a lot of the advice that applies to copy writing applies to book titles. Here are 7 characteristics of a successful title; make sure your book’s title has at least one of them:

  1. Make it the answer to a question. Questions are memorable. And they are “open loops’; the reader’s brain seeks an answer, a place to find closure. A good title addresses a question that is plaguing the reader. “But Is It Art?” by Nina Felshin includes the question in the title. “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region” by East Bay Municipal Utility District Conservation Staff answers a very specific question.
  2. Cover of Make it targeted. You need to know exactly who you are addressing with your book. And your book’s title must promise to address a major pain that they are experiencing, like “Flat Belly Diet!” by Liz Vaccariello; or “The Official SAT Study Guide,” by the College Board. These speak to people lacking a flat belly and to those studying for the SAT.
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
  3. Make it address primal issues. Life and death, health, love, children–these are emotion-fraught topics. Even if your book is technical, your title will draw more attention if it mentions mortality, sex, or body functions, even if these are used only metaphorically. “The Age of Virtual Reproduction,” by Spring Ulmer. “I Miss You: A First Look at Death,” by Pat Thomas and Leslie Harker.
  4. Make it a promise of a benefit. “Beyond Anger–A Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of Life,” by Thomas J. Harbin.  “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill.
  5. Make it a “how to.” When looking for a book, people are often trying to find out how to do something. Good titles: “How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less,” by Nicholas Boothman; “Mushrooms: How to Grow Them,” by William Falconer.
  6. Make it a command. How about “Wreck this Journal,” by Keri Smith? “Do the Work,” by Steven Pressfield? “Cook Like a Rock Star,” by Anne Burrell and Suzanne Lenzer?
  7. Make it almost familiar. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” William Shirer, harked back to “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”  “An Inconvenient Book,” by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe, played off of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
What are your thoughts about successful titles? About how to create them? Comment below!
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What’s the question?

Your audience–the people you want to reach with your book–has a question. Yes, I know they have more than one. But for many of them, there is one big question they share. It occupies them. It represents a pain, a hole in their lives, that is demanding comfort, that must have an answer.

Do you know what your audience’s question is?

If you do, great. The title of your book should address that question. And the answer found in your book should be powerful. Actionable.

If you don’t know what the audience’s burning question is–find out. Ask. Call. Interview. Read market research reports. In fact, if you don’t know, don’t publish a book until you do–that is, if you want anyone to read your book.


Paper vs. ebook

It’s not really a dichotomy; you can, and probably should, have both. Thanks to print-on-demand machinery, you can get your book out there for very little money (consider Lulu.com if you can handle terrible customer support; otherwise my favorite is Booklocker.com). And you can simultaneously publish your work as an ebook, getting it formatted for the different readers, as well as offering it for computer reading.

A paper book can be a “big business card,” as Dona Kozik puts it; it’s a physical presence in your prospect’s hands, and then in their home or office, that constantly reminds them of you. It’s authoritative, and establishes you as an author–hence, an authority.

An ebook has very low production costs and is almost free to distribute. If you sell it, it’s almost pure profit; if you employ it as a bonus or giveaway, your marginal cost per copy is essentially zero.

One poorly exploited aspect of ebooks: Media richness. Your ebook can contain color, audio, video, and links–all of which are expensive, impossible, or cumbersome to put in a paper book. Yet they are easy and inexpensive to have in an ebook.

But why invest the additional work? Here are some reasons:

  • Reach readers with different learning styles
  • Rich more media-jaded younger readers
  • Enable a reader to reach you with a single click
  • Build a broader-bandwidth relationship with your reader
Why not?
  • Good media can be expensive or difficult to produce
  • The results may not be worth the investment
  • Your audience doesn’t respond well to media
Writing a book is something you need to do, to establish yourself as an expert. But having a media-rich ebook is something that may or may not enhance your business. Don’t decide by default; think about it and do what makes sense.

What’s happening to punctuation?

Henry Hitchings’ article in the Wall Street Journal regarding the changes in punctuation over the ages is so interesting I am willing to send you away from this site to read it… 🙂

Misusing language

One of the quickest way to lose intelligent readers is to misuse English in your book. This is a site that is full of common examples. The entries are clear and concise; they won’t make you feel like an idiot if you’ve been guilty of any… 🙂 Here’s an example:


One unusual modern use of the apostrophe is in plural acronyms, like “ICBM’s” “NGO’s” and “CD’s”. Since this pattern violates the rule that apostrophes are not used before an S indicating a plural, many people object to it. It is also perfectly legitimate to write “CDs,” etc. See also “50’s.” But the use of apostrophes with initialisms like “learn your ABC’s and “mind your P’s and Q’s” is now so universal as to be acceptable in almost any context.

Note that “acronym” was used originally only to label pronounceable abbreviations like “NATO,” but is now generally applied to all sorts of initialisms. Be aware that some people consider this extended definition of “acronym” to be an error.

I wish it had more, like homing in/honing in. But it’s a great start.

Oh, and Professor Brians also has a site devoted to usages commonly thought to be wrong that are not. A fun and informative read!

MindManager 9 for the Mac: A worthwhile update

I’ve used MindManager on both the Mac and the PC from its earliest versions. (The story of how it was developed by Mike and Bettina Jetter while Mike was undergoing leukemia treatments is amazing; read the book.) It is the most popular mindmapping software on the market today.

Mindmapping in Wikipedia: “A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea.”

This is not a complete generic review of MindManager; I am not interested in its extensive task- and project-management capabilities, for example, or in its ability to generate a slideshow. My interest in mindmapping stems from my use of clustering. (Here’s a short video on how to cluster.) Clustering is a way–perhaps the best way–to get stuff out of your head and onto paper, in front of you. It’s how to find out what you know–and what you don’t know–about a subject.

Mindmapping is typically used for presentation, or for gradual and deliberate planning. Clustering is much more streamlined. It is a mining tool, to let you get at the riches you have stored in your mind. Gabriele Rico devotes an entire book to it:Writing the Natural Way.

How do you cluster? Here’s a description from the blog of writer Dustin Wax.

Here’s the basic idea:
1.    Write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper.
2.    Circle it.
3.    Write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind and circle it.
4.    Draw a line connecting the second circle to the first.
5.    Repeat. As you write and circle new words and phrases, draw lines back to the last word, the central word, or other words that seem connected. Don’t worry about how they’re connected — the goal is to let your right-brain do its thing, which is to see patterns; later, the left-brain will take over and put the nature of those relationships into words.
6.    When you’ve filled the page, or just feel like you’ve done enough (a sign of what Rico calls a “felt-shift”), go back through what you’ve written down. Cross out words and phrases that seem irrelevant, and begin to impose some order by numbering individual bubbles or clusters. Here is where your right-brain is working in tandem with your left-brain, producing what is essentially an outline. At this point, you can either transfer your numbered clusters to a proper outline or simply begin writing in the order you’ve numbered the clusters.

I am a geek. I love using computers for anything–and often have difficulty admitting when I’d probably be better served by pen and paper. But years ago, when I first started to cluster, and I tried to do it on early versions of MindManager, it just didn’t work. I couldn’t get access to the stuff in my head that just came pouring out when I used pen and paper.

I think I know why. At the time, mindmapping on the computer was very much a left-brain activity. Even though the results were graphical, the process of producing a mind map involved lots of keyboarding and menuing. So I couldn’t cluster productively with a computer.

But over time, computers became more powerful; graphics became higher in resolution, and far smoother; and MindManager grew up.

Today, I cluster on my Mac, using MindManager 9. The process of creating a new “topic” or “subtopic” is so simple that I don’t have to stop to think about it. I can quickly create a cluster without planning or cogitation; it just flows out from my fingers, little engaging my left brain. So my right brain can “dump” its contents onto the screen.

By using MM9, I don’t have to worry about running out of room. MM9 unobtrusively reconfigures the layout of the cluster or mind map according to preferences I can set.

So my most favorite aspect of MM9 for the Mac is that it is unobtrusive enough for me to cluster with. For me–and I believe, for any author–that is a biggie.

But there is a lot more to this highly polished product. It integrates well with both Microsoft Office and Apple software, interoperating with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation documents. It links to URLs on the Web, as well as to other mind maps. It comes with a large list of templates, giving you a starting place for any mindmapping project you might have in mind. Here’s a full list of MM9’s features.

Although it is not quite as rich as some dedicated outliners, MM9’s outlining facility is respectable. You can switch back and forth between map and outline view very easily.

As an update, MM9 for Mac is a big step ahead of MM8. Its user interface has been simplified; its esthetics have been refined; its presentation, printing, importing, and exporting capabilities have been improved; and it works under Lion. (For a full list of upgraded features, click here.) All the improvements make it an incredibly useful tool for the aspiring author.


Autocrit: Almost-free editing site

A Google ad suggested I go look at Autocrit, an on-line editing wizard. I was blown away by its power! In seconds, it identified a bunch of subtle problems with the block of text I dropped into the free version.

Running into the limitations of the free version, I signed up for the $47/year account so that I could put in multiple blocks of text–blog posts, articles, pieces of fiction, whatever. (Knowing that I have a 60-day money-back period gave me confidence too.)

Autocrit is transparent; it explains what is wrong with the writing, covering things like:

  • Overused words
  • Slow pacing
  • Appropriate dialog tags
  • Clichés & redundancies

You can try it for free.

I liked it so much I signed on as an affiliate. The links in this post are affiliate links; I’ll get 25% if you decide to buy a subscription.

Hello again!

I traveled to Israel (and spent 3 days in Cairo) for the entire month of December. It’s great to be back in California, although I always love visiting Israel.

View from Cairo Tower
Image via Wikipedia

Speaking to many old friends and new acquaintances in the world of engineering and high-tech, my conviction that writing a book is the number-one way for professionals and startups to promote themselves has been confirmed and strengthened. People invest so much in printed marketing collateral that just winds up being thrown away. Books hang around, and continue to deliver your message for a long time.

So many startups have complex stories to tell, stories that require more than some pretty pictures and a few bullet points. Books provide an opportunity to wax eloquent on the complexities and make them understandable.

Of course, the same applies to individual professionals. What do you want your prospects to know? A book is a vehicle for conveying it in a comprehensible way.

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Back in the saddle again

I took off the period from the Memorial of Trumpets (what most Jews call Rosh HaShana) through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at least in terms of blogging. I didn’t stop working entirely, but I did focus on just a couple of things, and on taking full advantage of joining with my people in reflection on the past year and the coming year, and on making things right with fellow humans.

In the Yom Kippur prayerbook, it says that in observing the day we can find forgiveness for offenses against God, but that for offenses between people, we must go to them. That’s a very practical and loving point of view, and I appreciate it.

blowing the shofar (by Alphonse Lévy)
Image via Wikipedia

And that goes for both asking and giving forgiveness.

Hmm…what if I cast a broader net here? OK. If I have offended you, my reader, in any way, I ask your forgiveness. And I invite you to write or call me and tell me about it, so that I can also seek not only forgiveness, but a place of reconciliation. I mean it. My cell number is 650-336-3937.

I’ve grown more and more aware of the significance of emotions in my life and in my communications. When I was a math grad student, good writing was elegant, and elegance meant succinctness. Expressing a thought in the fewest possible words and symbols was the peak of elegance. Unfortunately, I carried that over into my writing. My greatest challenge is to being juicy, and not just concise.

It’s odd, because I’m a very emotional person. I just didn’t accord emotions–mine or those of others–the weight they deserve in human discourse. Now I can say that I feel bad about that. Sorry, even. And determined to do better. (See? Feelings! :-))

Feelings enter naturally into fiction and memoirs. But less naturally into the books being written by my typical clients, who are typically trying to explain their “special sauce” to prospective clients. And that fact makes them all the more important. Emotions are what engage the reader, not facts. Facts are important, but feelings communicate.

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