Why? Let me explain.
I spend much of my full-time job writing, editing, and analyzing marketing emails. Often these emails are crafted for Fortune 500 companies, spreading awareness about their tech products (you might even be reading these very words on one.) After getting up-close-and-personal with hundreds of these emails covering countless topics and audiences, I’ve noticed a crucial commonality that always makes them better: cutting to the chase.
With so much yadda yadda yadda filling up our inboxes, it’s crucial to narrow messaging to key points that stand out. There’s enough bland content in the world. When you really need to capture attention, it’s often best to get ink, and get out of there.
I use this philosophy when pitching ideas to editors or applying for freelance opportunities. This very week I reached out to a respected national brand calling for humorous women-friendly content. Although I don’t recommend such a playful approach every time, I showed I knew their audience. I sent the following email:
My name is Crystalee Beck and I’m responding to your call for freelance writers.
If I could, I’d put on a party dress, bring the kazoos and balloons to your office, all while holding my handmade sign: PICK ME, PICK ME!
Then again, I guess that’s what cover letters and resumes are for. (See attached.)
Let’s party, yeah?
I’ll bring the confetti,
Freelance Writer & Managing Editor
And guess what? Apparently they like kazoos too. Although they had hundreds of interested candidates, their reply appeared in my inbox two days later, with a contract for me to sign.
Your turn: How do you make your message stand out in the inbox?
Here’s a personal essay, written to honor the woman who brought me into this world. She taught me to see and hear beauty, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, Chalice Carpenter. I’ll always love you.
My mom created an art class for my three-year-old pals and me, with hand-designed, laminated characters: Sunshine Yellow, Tree Green, Apple Red, and Birdie Blue. (And I still have them.)
Most kids hear their mother sing along with the car radio.
My mom’s melodious voice wows audiences in plays, musical programs, and church meetings – I’ve heard her perform many, many times over the years.
Most mothers read books with their kids and teach them to sound out words.
My mom wrote and illustrated original tales, worthy of any children’s books section. I followed her lead by authoring my own paper library – with handmade library cards for her to “check them out” – while I was still in kindergarten.
It never occurred to me as a young child that in her ever-creative way, my mom was teaching me to appreciate the finest of art and music.
That’s simply a built-in perk of being her daughter.
In my younger years, I admittedly took her talents for granted. The folly of youthful conformity, I remember being embarrassed as a teenager when mom harmonized hymns in church – why couldn’t she keep her voice down, like the other moms?
A matured decade later, her musical talent was what I wanted most at my wedding luncheon.
My mom has taught music to hundreds of children as a private piano tutor and elementary music teacher. I was eager to start lessons with her when I turned six. I wasn’t the best at practicing piano, but my mom encouraged me through the classic John Thompson’s beginner and intermediary piano books.
It paid off years later when I wrote my first piano piece at age 20. I practiced for weeks in my London home, where I was studying abroad. Mom’s timely visit came on British Mum’s Day, and I had her sit next to me on the piano bench as I played her a surprise dedication.
After my nervous fingers finished playing, I turned to see tears in her eyes, touched in a tender motherly moment.
My mom’s love for music is only matched by her attraction to art.
An equal opportunity artist, she strokes piano keys with as much skill as she covers a canvas.
I’ve grown up seeing her watercolor and mixed-media projects, working on at least a few at any given time. She paints with bold colors, bright designs, and intricate details. (One of her paintings hangs in my office cube at work, where I see it everyday as I type.)
My mom made sure her three girls never wanted for art supplies growing up. Even in financially tight years, when mom would forgo buying the latest kid cereal (and we snuck more than our allotted spoonful of sugar into our Cheerios), we never lacked crayons, colored pencils, markers, and paintbrushes, or notebooks on which to create our masterpieces.
With these supplies at hand, and my mom’s encouragement, I entered a handful of children’s art contests. Looking back, I realize my artistic confidence began budding when I won a few of them, including a Mother’s Day card contest sponsored by Hallmark. I even got to be on TV a few times for some wins.
That same confidence sparked other creative projects, and ultimately led me to writing. Now I paint with words, using a palette of verbs and nouns. I owe much of my appreciation of arts to her.
And I think of my mom’s faith in me when taking an artistic risk, like sending in an article query to a magazine editor. Her unfailing belief that I can do whatever I set my mind to has instilled a quiet determination in me. Step by step, my writing dreams will come true. Someday I’ll get my first book published – the grown up fulfillment of my own little books made decades ago.
And my mom will get a special inscribed copy – no handmade library card needed.
Or, art thou?
Indeed, some words are on their way to the literary grave. And “whom,” it’s your turn.
In the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic, the article “For Whom the Bell Tolls” caught my eye. I take that back. It was Megan Garber’s subtitle that entranced me: “The inexporable decline of America’s least favorite pronoun.”
While I’m not a fan of unnecessary formality, I felt a little sad to see this word obituary.
She goes on to explain that “whom” has been dying a slow death since 1826. Apparently Time magazine included 3,352 instances of “whom” in the 1930s, and only 902 in the 2000s. Garber insists “technology seems to be speeding up the demise” of the grammatically incorrect.
She’s right. We didn’t sing along with Ghostbusters theme song, “Whom Ya Gonna Call,” nor do we see “Whom to Follow” on Twitter.
Perhaps I have a soft spot for phrases without a future.
Or maybe it’s my defense of four-letter words. In any case, I call for a moment of silence for whom the bell tolls.
What would you like to add to my R.I.P.?
P.S. While we’re talking grave yards, here’s why I dance a little jig every time I go to my local cemetery.
Word nerdness and wanderlust are a dangerous combination. As my husband will attest, I can’t seem to get enough of either writing or traveling. As I’ve explained about the joys of sky writing, it’s often best to do both at the same time.
I’ve worn flight attendant wings since 2009, and for nearly two years I’ve written (corporate communications) by day, and flown by weekend. I’ve kept those worlds separate for a long time, but decided last week to reveal my weekend super power to my marketing co-workers.
Fresh from the SLC airport (I’d worked the early morning flight back from Fargo, North Dakota) I went to the Ogden, Utah office in my flight attendant uniform. Met by some surprise and requests for peanuts, it felt great to have my two jobs – and two passions – united for a brief hour before I changed into office attire.
If you’re like me, writing is a means to pay for travel, while travel supplies ideas for writing.
I keep a world map in my office cubicle, and look at it often, day dreaming up my next adventure. In the past six months alone I’ve perched atop the Empire State Building in New York City, visited my friends in San Diego, went running in Los Angeles, spent time with my family in Phoenix, rang in the new year in Paris, went on a bike tour of San Francisco, and played with my cousin’s kids in Sacramento – and this summer my husband and I will see first-hand why “all roads lead to Rome.”
I’m not saying we all need to this much travel to be inspired writers. To be frank, I’ve had a bit of travel overload.
I do believe all writers need to travel. We need to open our eyes (and passports) for inspirational recharge, and freedom from the humdrum of daily surroundings. Explorative adventure is in our nature as creative beings.
Recently my new writing friend Meg at Word Cafe wrote about why every writer needs a solocation. I couldn’t agree more with her sentiments. In fact, we’re two peas in the same writer/traveler pod.
On my most recent solocation, I found myself with an unexpected 19-hour layover in San Francisco. What a pleasant surprise to have an afternoon to get up close and personal with the Golden Gate City.
My adventurous heart pitter-pattered on the BART train from Millbrae to downtown, relishing that familiar feeling of childlike wonder. As I watched the cram-packed cityscape slide past me, it seemed my senses were on higher alert, able to soak in my surroundings away from deadlines. For this reason, I always keep a small notepad and pen in my camera bag, ready when inspiration hits.
In downtown I practically skipped my giddy self past spring blossoms in Union Square to Blazing Saddles, a popular bike rental place.
Bike selected and helmet secure, I made my way up Market Street. I wrangled through “The Wiggle,” and stopped for a photo op with the Painted Ladies, Victorian homes featured in 90s-sitcom “Full House.” Meandering through Golden Gate Park, I saw Sunday softball games and paradise green paths. The Pacific Ocean was in sight before long. After a quick splash, I jumped back on the bike for the final push of my four-hour tourist ride to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.
Big and red, the icon towered above me. No matter how many famous landmarks I see (Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower, Rockefeller Center, etc.), I still find such glee every time I encounter them in new ways. I’d driven over the Golden Gate Bridge before, but biking it was a new thrill.
About 100 yards over the bridge, I realized too late I’d taken the pedestrians-only side (oops) and had to dodge families and hand-clasped lovers. They didn’t seem to mind, and I wasn’t in any rush.
A couple hours later I was on a ferry with my bike, returning to the city, greeted by the gorgeous San Francisco sunset you see above. Inspiration, indeed.
Whether in your own city or in another land, exploring grants you a new look at life. Bill Bryson, one of my favorite travel writers, says it well:
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”
Amen. Now it’s your turn to share: Where will your next adventure be?
What makes a book feel like a friend? Or a news article share-worthy? Or a story cause you to take action?
I was asked what makes writing good in an interview last year, and here’s how I responded:
Great thoughts. Anyone can slap words on paper (or clink them out keyboard), but good writing materializes with the infusion of creative, authentic ideas. Writers paint with words, using a palette of verbs and nouns. When they get it right, they gift readers with power-punch phrases, such as this beauty from the September 2012 Real Simple magazine: “My ratio of tra-la-la to ay-yi-yi shifted noticeably.”
Since then, I’ve thought about the great thoughts and good writing in my life. I’m always paying attention: the plastic wrapping on my fruit leather, tweets from standout writers, and billboards I pass on my way to work. Words are everywhere. What makes some combinations more powerful than others?
Good writing resonates. It touches a piece of my soul, often connects me to something greater and inspires makes me want to act or think new thoughts.
Martin: I was always a huge fan of ee cummings. He did a series of lectures at Harvard or Princeton, and they were recorded. And they were incredibly moving. He does this long anecdote, and then he says, “To me, these are the most beautiful words ever written in the English language.” Suddenly you’re really listening. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I thought about that a lot. It’s like when you listen to a comedian, you think, “Well, what is your life?”
As the Three Amigos comedian alludes: We need writing that moves us, inspires us. Words grant us more than means of mere communication. They are the medium by which we define our lives.
Now it’s your turn: What makes writing good?
Well, at least according to comic Wiley Miller’s take on ancient history, Egyptians made grammar blunders too. Gotta love the kicker here: “Oh, for cryin’ out loud … you never end a sentence with a (bird figure)!”
Indeed, the art of word crafting and science of grammar rules can make writing seem almost mystical, a magic out of reach. I took a graduate course on editing last year, and learned a lot from my trusty When Words Collide. In fact, I keep it within arm’s length whenever writing, so I’m ready to take on (almost) any editing question.
Besides forever striking the word “irregardless” from our vocabularies, such a helpful grammar ally guides writing. If you’re serious about being a writer or editor, I highly suggest getting a reliable grammar guide. Keep it close. Let’s show those ancient grammar police who’s boss!
We all have our grammar strengths and faux pas. Here are my grammar weaknesses – the ones I have to look up often! I’ve personalized this mini grammar lesson, and included you’ll see links to my personal blog. You’re welcome to check out the ones (that/which) pique your interest:
Grammar Rules to Remember
that restricts meaning
which elaborates on it
who can be used in either case for people or things personifying humans
A free service that takes the headache out of budgeting.
The funeral procession for the officer, which involved Ogden’s community, made us remember.
A snowboarder who does tricks would be cool to see!
affect v. effect
affect means to influence or to pretend to have
effect means result or impact
“Create Distinction” giveaway winner
Last week I was delighted to share a Q & A with best-selling author and speaker, Scott McKain. Thanks to those who entered to win his book, “Create Distinction.” A signed copy of the book goes to…Gloria!
Here are her thoughts on distinction:
If everyone believed in themselves and their own truths, and told their stories with confidence and openness, while others received them with the same kind of openness and confidence, I think that we wouldn’t be stuck in a rut today where we have to force ourselves to be “individuals” … Growing to trust yourself is the most organic way to distinction.
Comic mage via Non Sequitur Comics
Last year I heard distinction expert Scott McKain give a keynote address. His vivacious and mesmerizing presentation hooked me into fandom. You see, Scott not only gives sound advice for business and life – he’s the living example of it. Besides being a best-selling author and well-known speaker, he sets himself apart by truly caring about people. I love that. You’ll soon see why I respect Scott so much: He’s as distinct as they come. And lucky you, he’s giving away a signed copy of his brand new book. Read on to see how you can win it!
Q. Congrats on your book, Create Distinction (2013) launched this month in nationwide airport bookstores, from LAX to JFK. What’s it like seeing your own idea become a tangible reality?
Thank you! You’ve really touched upon the most gratifying — and surreal — aspects of being an author. When I’m speaking, I love the instantaneous response of the audience, yet wonder if there is any tangible impact. When I see the book on a shelf in the bookstore, or see someone reading the book on a plane, I’m thrilled because there is a sense of both accomplishment and completion. At the same time, it does seem quite extraordinary that something beginning as thoughts jotted on a legal pad in Starbucks can become a tangible product — one I’m fortunate that some people find of value.
Q. You’ve written three Amazon.com No. 1 business bestsellers – what makes the latest book stand out from your others?
This is the first time I’ve followed up on a previous book. “Create Distinction” is an expanded and updated version of my previous book, “Collapse of Distinction.” I wanted to do this for a couple of reasons; first, after the original was named to the “Top Ten Business Books of the Year” list by the Miami Herald and other major newspapers, I felt the previous publisher — and this author — didn’t quite do enough to maximize its potential in the marketplace. A “re-launch” would give the material the opportunity to find a wider audience.
However, I also wanted to validate the points of the earlier book by showing how the distinctive organizations I mentioned had performed since the original work. Any author can create a theory of how a business should approach the marketplace, or how customers should be served. The critical question I hear from corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, however, is, “Will this work in the real world?” “Create Distinction” provided me the opportunity to deliver the evidence that the answer is a resounding “yes!”
Q. In addition to being a celebrated author, you’re an energetic storyteller. I know, having experienced your powerful keynote speech in 2012. Which do you believe creates more distinction and why: writing or speaking?
The best answer is not new or original to me, however, it’s the best one: The magic is in the mix.
We all are aware of speakers with a compelling presentation style who have nothing of significance to say — they’re all style and no substance. On the other hand, there are authors who have deep content, but their presentation style doesn’t create audience engagement.
In today’s media-centric culture, it’s not about the “or” — it’s about “and.” The most distinctive content providers will be able to both write powerful stories and deliver compelling presentations. That’s a level to which I aspire.
Q. You learned a lot about pleasing customers when working at your parent’s small town grocery store as a kid. Back then, did you ever imagine yourself being an international expert on distinction?
NO! It never crossed my mind in Crothersville, Indiana that I would ever become an “international” anything! While I don’t like referring to myself as “lucky” — because that seems to imply mere random circumstance — I constantly see myself as extremely fortunate. I have been blessed with extraordinary mentors and colleagues, and have been encouraged by my family and friends to travel the “road not taken.” And, as the classic Frost poem proclaims, for me, too, it has made all the difference.
Q. Getting theoretical here, but if everyone avoided stifling sameness, would anyone be distinct?
It’s a great question. And, unfortunately, because of all the cliches we hear as kids, I don’t think we are in danger of it occurring. We are warned against standing out and attracting attention — and we have such a strong desire to “fit in” with our peers — that I believe we are predisposed to similarity.
Theoretically, yes, you’re right — if everyone was distinctive, then it would be common to do so. For some reason, that reminds me of the scene in Monty Python’s classic film, “Life of Brian,” where the throng is awaiting any words from the man they erroneously presume is holy. In his irritation to get them to stop following him, Brian shouts, “You are ALL individuals.” And, they respond in unison, “Yes! We are all individuals!”
My point is that uniformity and conformity have become so common, the sameness is — as you suggest — stifling. While it probably wouldn’t work for us ALL to become unique, my research and experience has taught me that YOUR business will profit and YOUR career will benefit if you create distinction.
WIN your own SIGNED COPY of “Create Distinction!”
To enter, “Like” this post and answer one of these questions in the comments: What makes you distinct? OR Why does creating distinction matter? I’ll pick the most distinct answer as the winner! Be sure to comment soon – I’ll announce the winner Friday, April 5, 2013.
Connect with Scott McKain
See his site: createdistinction.com
Send him a tweet: @scottmckain
Check out his blog: mckainviewpoint.com
Peanut butter and jelly. Lucy and Ricky. Tax season and accountants.
Some things are simply made for each other.
Let’s add “writing and thinking” to this list of inseparables. Sure, you can think without writing (even hold whole conversations in your head), but I guarantee you can’t write (well) without thinking.
In college, a phrase in a lecture seared itself into my memory: “Learning to write is learning to think.” As a full-time word wrangler, I’m fully convinced writing absolutely requires a healthy dose of mental gymnastics! Speaking of which, here are some exercises I find helpful.
9 tips for thinking– and writing – creatively:
- Doodle, dude. Perhaps it’s the intersection of right brain meets left, but when I let myself play with a pen, I’m often surprised at where my pen/marker/crayon takes my words.
- Cozy up with a respected magazine. I keep a stack of magazines nearby when I’m writing, so I can meander through prose others have written. I can’t tell you how many times a well-crafted phrase in National Geographic popped a new idea into my head.
- Hone in on visual details. Consider what stands out in the scene or depiction you’re looking to describe. Clever wordologist Amy Taylor shows us a lot here: “A card-carrying member of the public library and ruthless Scrabble player, Amy’s wordological tendencies emerged at a young age.”
- Chop difficult points into bite-sized chunks. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Whether it’s a school report or a proposal for your boss, break apart massive thoughts into puzzles parts, and find fun in piecing it together. Bit by bit.
- Get off the screen. A recent Nielsen report found Americans spend 34 hours a week watching TV- almost a full-time job! Whether you’re glued to a computer, tablet, TV or smartphone – give your eyes and brain a break. You can’t improve creativity when sucked into the tube.
- Marry two unlikely ideas together. Some of the most creative people I know are really matchmakers. Or perhaps they’re alchemists, concocting same-old ideas in new ways? Either way, hopefully that gives you an idea of what I mean.
- Ditch a project for a day. Sometimes I get to the point I’m thinking too hard and my brain feels fried. If there’s wiggle room before a deadline, I set aside the writing project and return (hopefully) refreshed the next day.
- Talk to yourself. I won’t tell if you don’t. While typing, if you get stuck, something about verbalizing thoughts makes them register differently. When you don’t know what to say when writing, you may need to hear it.
- Juice up your verbs. Being an interesting thinker, speaker, and writer, has everything to do with the words you use. Want to jumpstart your writing? Squeeze in eye-catching verbs.
Now tell me: What are your strategies to get in the creative zone?
Happy St. Patty’s Day! Thank you to all who entered the “Lucky Limerick” contest. I hope you enjoyed the wordplay as much as I enjoyed reading your five-line gems. As promised, I’ve judged the entries based on: 1) originality 2) clever last line 3) sticking to limerick format
And without further ado, I present the “Lucky Limerick” winners and their limericks…
Congrats to Kenton A., who wins a personalized luggage tag from the Script and Scribble store. His poem:
On this weekend that honors St. Paddy,
the world famous snake-charming daddy,
while you all sit typing
I’ll be out Highland piping
and driving the local snakes batty.
Congrats to Sophia M., who wins a custom stamper from Paper Fancy for this limerick:
I followed the trail of a buzzing bee,
But forgot that it wanted to sting me;
I laughed off the sting,
I started to sing,
But the hive began following me!
Kenton and Sophia: I’ll reach out for your mailing addresses and we’ll get your prizes sent.
Want to be in-the-know about future contests? Delight your inbox. Enter your email in the “Subscribe” box to the right, and you’ll get weekly insights on writing, communication, and the delicious art of words. No spam, ever!
Your creative 12-word essays wowed me so much last December, I’ve decided it’s high time to host another writing contest. To get in the mood for St. Patty’s Day, I’m pleased to announce the ”Lucky Limerick” writing contest.
What’s a limerick? Glad you asked.
Besides being a city in Ireland, a limerick is a funny, often nonsensical form of poetry, commonly used for delighting children. (Think Mother Goose.) Limericks are composed of five lines, including one couplet and one triplet. They are known for a specific rhyme scheme and sing-song rhythm. (I learned more about them here and here.)
Often containing puns and hyperbole, the limerick punch line surprises the reader in the final line. Here’s a witty example:
There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
—attributed to Edward Lear and William Cosmo Monkhouse (via hypertexts.com)
How to enter
To enter your clever five-liner:
- Type your limerick in the comments of this post.
- Like “delighted to write” on Facebook if you haven’t already. (thank you)
- Give contest sponsors Script and Scribble and Paper Fancy some Facebook “Like” love too. (triple thank you)
Make sure to enter by 11:59 p.m. Saturday, March 16 (extended deadline). I’ll judge entries and announce winners on St. Patty’s Day!
Winners, Sponsor Love & Prizes
There will be two winners, selected based on: 1) originality 2) clever last line 3) sticking to limerick format
Design your own luggage tag from the Script and Scribble store:
Select your own custom stamper from Paper Fancy’s collection.
Let’s see your best limerick. Ready, set, rhyme!