Wrangling your fat, aimless cows into useful writing

All writing starts with ideas, just as all stampedes start with cows. Good writing wrangles those ideas into a herd, then spurs them into motion. Weak writing plops those ideas down in ones and twos on the page, like cows milling about a pasture.

Ideas in your writing should be a lot more like a stampede than a pasture dotted by aimless, fat cows. Stampedes surge. Stampedes roar. Stampedes have no time for bullshit. You don’t forget a stampede, but if you wander around pastures you’ll probably end up with poop-covered shoes.

Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede
Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede

How, then, do you wrangle your ideas (the fat, aimless cows) into a strong piece of writing (the stampede)?

Note to self: Next installment of Editing Pony should be about not torturing metaphors.

In business writing, a good example for this lesson might be a languishing project that you inherit. Such a project is likely to have

  • multiple participants who aren’t personally accountable for the ultimate objective
  • multiple dependencies blaming poorly understood external factors
  • lots of meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent trying to remember where we left off last time

These are listless cows, wandering about a pasture.

What the project does not have is focus, direction, or momentum. You can provide it with a tight project directive, created with three simple actions:

1. Gather the herd

Happy cattle dispersed into small, separate groups rarely stampede. When spooked, they just run a few feet and settle back into grazing. Your first step is to bring everything together into your own corner of the pasture. To do this, create four lists:

  • Deliverables
    What needs to be created, by whom, and for what purpose? (e.g., Frank write a data entry app to capture names at the event.)
  • Dependencies
    In order to create those deliverables, what needs to happen first, and who needs to do it? (e.g., Marketing needs to provide the data specs to Frank.)
  • Gaps
    Where dependencies and deliverables don’t have a name attached, call them out. Or if a critical step has been previously unidentified, list it here. (e.g., Frank has the wrong development tools for the target platform.)
  • Actions
    What immediate actions need to be taken, by whom, and by when are they needed? (e.g., Mary call Marketing to demand the data specs, by Friday.)

What don’t you see above? You don’t see executive summary or background. You don’t see templated document structure. You don’t see any “how we got here.” That’s all a waste of time. Spend a sentence or two on the ultimate goal of the project if you must, but no more.

In other types of writing, the same principles apply. The lists may be different, but you still need to put all your points together in one place and see where they connect, see the dependencies, and identify the gaps. It’s nothing more than simple storyboarding, really, but it’s shocking how often people skip this step and jump right to composition before they know what they’re writing. Which leads to crap output, or to “writer’s block.”

In high school essays, for example, this step forces the student to forget about “the paper” and focus on the points, which ultimately leads to better citations, stronger arguments, and a more complete product. In fiction, this step may identify themes, characters, major plot points, and timeline.

2. Thin the herd

When a project has stagnated or your ideas have been muddled, you’ll probably spend too long making the lists in step 1, and the lists will stretch out, full of rambling description. Kill all that crap. If a deliverable is not absolutely necessary for project success, eliminate it. If someone claims a dependency on a vague external event, nail that down or reject the dependency.

Send 'em packing!
Send ’em packing!

The goal in this step is to find and break those circles of discussion that keep folding in on themselves. Someone always calls for “another meeting to discuss it,” or someone whines about an external dependency no one in the meeting has accountability for. Stampedes can be stopped by turning the front cows back into the herd; get rid of the slow, easily frightened cows that are likely to thwart your stampede.

The output of step 2 should be a terse, tight set of lists free of needless description. A document that shows only those things that need doing, who has to do them, and when they have to get done. If an item doesn’t drive to your ultimate goal, cut it.

Again, this step is critical in other writing. In high school essays, this is where structure is imposed on the arguments. In fiction, this is where you fill in plot holes and get rid of extraneous scenes and characters; for some authors this looks like an outline.

3. Direct the herd

In our project example, it’s time to kick the team into action. But don’t just toss the project plan out to the group; connect individually with each person assigned to a deliverable, gap, or action. Avoid sending anything to the whole group–that wastes the time of the uninvolved and gets ignored by people who need to act. Where gaps exist, assign people to fill them. Where dependency delivery dates don’t support the project, get them tightened. You’ve now got a document that shows why.

With these simple steps, you’ve taken a stagnant, aimless project and pointed everyone in one direction. You’ve told them exactly what they need to do and when it’s needed. You’ve eliminated the pointless and extraneous, and you’ve illuminated the gaps. And really, all you’ve done is what any good writer does.

If your project is huge, or you’re writing a novel, this set of techniques nests and scales. I do this before I start a novel, focusing first on the entirety of the plot arc. Then as I write, I do it again for each major section, and then for each chapter within each section. The same could be done for a project or a research paper. All my novels were written this way.

Conclusion: Not all metaphors work

I really was hoping that my cow stampede metaphor would carry me through this post, but it kind of stinks. Even though I’ve been to a rodeo in Texas, inside I’m just not cowboy enough, I guess.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

I’m giving up

I’m giving up my book sale profits to support mental health.

My friends at Community Health Charities have helped me start WriteCause, a way authors, readers, and others can support those who are struggling with depression, suicide, and other mental health challenges.

This summer I’ll be donating the proceeds from all my book sales to WriteCause. Because I know that you know that I don’t make much money on book sales, I’m pledging a minimum of a $250 donation.

How you can help

Buy my books. Or buy books by other participating authors. At the launch of WriteCause, it’s just me; I hope that over time many authors will join in, as mental health is something a lot of authors or their loved ones struggle with.

Tell your story on the WriteCause page, or on social media, and tag it with #WriteCause. Read and respond to others’ stories that get posted. Engage in the discussion. Browse the mental health resources CHC lists. Pay attention, and care.

If you’re an author, visit the WriteCause page and contact CHC or me to learn how to join in the pledge.

Why WriteCause? Why mental health?

I could choose any cause. A few years ago I donated my book sale proceeds to our local library. Another year I donated to the group that runs NaNoWriMo. I could choose to donate to cancer or ALS or homelessness or any number of important causes. (And I do, through my workplace giving campaign each year.)

The last two years, however, someone I love very much has been struggling with serious depression and suicidal thoughts which have led to several hospitalizations. This, with other things, has made me far more aware of the difficulties that so many people face with serious anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional issues that interfere with their ability to simply function in everyday life. With suicide rates on the rise (both teen and generally), mental health issues are quickly becoming a tragedy that few people are talking about. I think it’s critical to raise awareness of the issue, help people who don’t struggle with these conditions understand them and engage appropriately, and provide preventative and treatment services for people who need them.

I’ve known too many people who have lost a loved one to suicide, and I’ve seen too much beautiful talent lost to depression and anxiety. I can’t do very much about it, but I will do what I can. Thus, WriteCause.

There are more than two genders whether you like it or not

Once upon a time, a man invented a vehicle. It had wheels, and an engine that powered those wheels, and a shifting lever he could use to make the engine go forward or backward.

The man was proud of his vehicle.
The man was very proud of his vehicle, and the people found it useful. They drove them in long lines, forward and backward, going to some other place and coming back again. Cities created roads for the vehicles, and parking lots, and complicated rules of operation to ensure public safety and efficient transportation.

Then, one day years later, another man invented something called a “steering wheel” which allowed the operator to change the vehicle’s direction in more ways than just backwards or forwards.

The people freaked out.

“I cannot see sideways!” shouted some. “What if someone else steers as I am steering? We will crash!” cried others. “All the roads will have to change! We will need new road rules!” lamented others.

The inventor despaired. “But we turn and move in all directions all the time already,” he answered. “Surely those who wish to do so in the vehicle should be allowed that freedom.”

“It is not natural,” demanded the frightened populace.

The population voted to outlaw steering in vehicles, and some people began arguing that all turning of any kind should be banned. Until one day, when a plucky nonconformist took his case to court. The judges agreed that it was his right to be able to steer while in his vehicle. And in fact it was everyone’s right, if they desired it, to identify as a person who does not simply go forward and backwards but also in other directions. As a nonbinary vehicle operator.

Justice prevailed.
The population reeled. “This will have repercussions far beyond this man’s vehicle,” they cried. “It was the wrong decision. Stupid activist judges and their liberal agendas!” But there was nothing they could do. Left and right had existed forever, and turning was every bit as natural as going forward or backward. It was just the system that had been designed poorly, to account only for two possible states, and that system had become so entrenched in the people’s minds that they believed anything that did not conform was immoral and repugnant rather than natural and beautiful.

Until one day, generations later, a child was astonished to learn that her great-grandfather’s society had only been allowed to go forward and backward. She found the idea unnatural and unnecessarily limiting, and she wondered about the poor people who had been oppressed all those years, forced to fit the poorly designed system.

This story was inspired by a facebook comment on this NPR article.

Upcoming free and discount book promotions

I really really want you to read and rate Lifelike before June 18. So I’ve got a bunch of free and discount days coming up for Lifelike and my New Eden trilogy.

Three books for under two bucks

The entire New Eden trilogy will be discounted beginning June 14:

  • Semper free June 14 – 18
  • Forsada $0.99 June 14 – 17, then $1.99 June 17-21
  • Freda $0.99 June 14 – 17, then $1.99 June 17-21

Lifelike introductory price

Lifelike, available now at $5.99, will be just $0.99 June 16 – 23, to celebrate the launch of the print version. Please mark your calendar to buy it on June 16, and rate it as soon as you can. Before June 18 if possible. To read a preview version for free before June 16, email me.

Get a $5 off coupon for Lifelike print edition

When Lifelike launches in print on June 16, it will retail for $14.95. Anyone who joins my email list by July 4, however, will get a $5 off coupon in their inbox July 5.

I really do love you all.

I love you all

Seriously. Life is short; we have limited hours on this Earth, and none of us knows when those will be used up. I am in awe that people read my work, and I know that each rating posted is a statement that someone spent some of their limited hours on my stories. One star or five, I am grateful for your time and feedback.

Also, June is my half-century birthday month, so if you love me back…

Don’t subject me to this. Please.

Everyone gets too many emails every day. A good subject line helps organize and triage the inbox so we don’t get overwhelmed.

Then WHY OH WHY do you still send emails with these remarkably stupid and useless subject lines?

  • Thanks
  • Following up
  • Quick question
  • Checking in
  • Hey
  • Got a sec?

Ok, that last one at least passes one (maybe two) of the five tests for an adequate subject line. The rest tell me nothing about the email, but they tell me the sender did not give any thought to how I interact with email. These are the opposite of clickbait. Clickbait infuriates me with its tease–I know that the article won’t live up to its hype-saturated headline–but I sometimes can’t help myself, and I click anyway.

These subject lines infuriate me with their lazy uselessness, yet I know I must read them, even if they turn out to be throwaway nothingness. Because behind these vapid subjects may be a critical business task. There’s no way to tell.

So. Five rules. Here they are:

  1. Tell me what’s in the email
    “Quick question” may hint at it, but I have never in my life met a quick question that had a quick answer. My day is a constant barrage of incoming problems, and I cannot triage effectively if I don’t know what you’re emailing me about.
  2. If it’s time-sensitive, say so
    Add something like URGENT: to let me know that this requires attention now. The priority flag in most email programs like Outlook help, but adding this will make it unambiguous. Better: add the timeframe. NEED TODAY or NEED BY JUNE 16 makes it easy to triage and makes it pop out if it scrolls below the fold.
  3. If it requires action, say so
    Correllary to the prior point, ACTION REQUIRED: at the beginning of a subject line lets me know that something needs to get done. An approval, perhaps, or a compliance step that may be holding up the project.
  4. If it requires my attention specifically, say so
    If you send an email to 100 people with ACTION REQUIRED and only one of them needs to take action, you deserve a time out. FRED ACTION REQUIRED lets everyone know that Fred is on the hook, but the rest of us have a need to know. Maybe to make sure Fred does his job.
  5. Be unique
    Once four different people emailed on different topics, all with the subject line “Following up.” Soon, more than twenty emails clogged my inbox with the subject line “Re: Following up”. Most were reply-all “thanks, great to meet you, too!” One thread was about a timely, critical problem. Guess how much time I wasted wading through the sludge to handle the real problem.

It should go without saying that not every email is TIME SENSITIVE ACTION REQUIRED red-flag emergency.

Editing Pony is watching. Don’t be THAT person.
Please do not be that person.

Also, when writing subject lines, assume the recipient has a smaller screen than you do. “Following up on the meeting about action required time sensitive stuff” will show up on a phone as “Following up on…” Entirely useless and very difficult for a busy person to track effectively.

Good communication is not about how you say something; it’s about how the recipient experiences it. Too many people treat writing email subjects like picking the color of an envelope. Marketing experts know, however, there’s an art to designing the packaging in order to get the recipient to care about the contents before they even open the package. Junk mail is often designed to look overly important, to get you to open it. Well designed packaging lets you know what you’re getting before you open it, and helps you manage your inbox effectively.

Pay attention to the subject lines of emails you send and receive over the next week, and note how you and others respond to them. Do you have tips on writing good subject lines, or examples of really bad ones? Share!

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Getting to the bottom of it

Up, up, up. Strive for more. Go higher. Achieve bigger.

The other day I saw an article encouraging people to journal every day. As a journaler myself, I find it helps me process complex feelings and turn over ideas like a mental compost pile (thanks to Natalie Goldberg for that image). Journaling in the morning centers me before work, and in the evening it gives closure to the day’s messiness.

But this article? I hate it. It instructed me to answer three questions every night, three questions about self-improvement. I don’t remember the exact questions, but they demanded that I explain how I improved myself today, and that I commit to doing better tomorrow.

Up, up up. Strive. Achieve. Soar.

Is nothing safe anymore, not even my private journal, away from the maddening rush to achieve? For the achievers, a journal is a way to measure and push progress. Productivity is the only worthy goal for achievers. Without progress, they believe, we stagnate and die. Like sharks, we must keep swimming or sink to the ocean floor.

I am not against progress. I push myself and my team to do the best we can in everything we do. If you’re going to do it, you might as well try your best. I never end a gym workout, for example, thinking I could have done another set. If I were a non-achiever, I would not have published five books. I also think we can learn from every failure and every success, so this kind of self-reflection has value.

But balance is as important as progress.

Read enough business articles, and you’ll see a common theme of career people feeling like they’re walking up a downward escalator. They need to get to the top, but the very path itself is working against them. So they feel they have to strive harder, to make more upward progress.

What’s lost in all this striving and improving is any contemplation of what’s at the top.

The truth is, there is no top.

Our bosses don’t actually want us to think about that. Most organizations talk a great game about work-life balance, but how many of us have been trained that “meets expectations” is a poor result in an annual review? Personal and professional development are very visible idols in the workplace pantheon, constant reminders that we are not (yet) our best selves.

Personally, I often feel I am walking down a crowded up escalator. I’m striving for balance and simplicity in a world hell-bent on forcing me to go higher, get better, achieve more. There is no top. There is no bottom. There is only restless motion based on the promise of an unknowable future success.

So my journal won’t turn into a self-development ledger. I won’t be using it to track daily progress and commit to daily improvements. That’s what to-do lists and project plans are for. We can achieve a lot (like publishing a new book) without becoming slaves to a self-improvement process.

How do you achieve balance between progress and peace of mind?

I strive for balance.

WWJD: The 24-hour rule

Joan taught me that nothing good ever comes from lashing out. Take time to reflect and analyze before responding.

When someone slaps me, my natural tendency is to say, “Ow, what the heck, dude. Chill.”

I believe that raw conflict in the workplace rarely leads to anything good. I don’t slap back. I want to believe that over time, if I behave in a way that keeps my conscience clear–being inclusive, striving for transparency and clarity, taking others’ interests into consideration, and acting with integrity and honesty–people around me will recognize that and know me for who I really am. Everyone falters once in a while, and I believe it’s better to forgive, especially if the person’s entire body of work proves them to be a good, upstanding person.

How many fingers am I holding up?On Friday, I got slapped. Scratch that… I got slammed hard. Unfairly and wrongly. When I heard what had been said about me, the word defamation came to mind.

Of course, this was not said to my face; it was fed in private to people who have direct influence over my livelihood and my career. (Side lesson: Everything you say about someone might make it back to that person.)

Stunned at first, I laughed it off. Of course everyone will see how ridiculous it was.

Ten minutes later, I was seething. How dare they? Such an attack cannot go undefended. I wanted to erupt, to spout equally strong language in defending myself and showing how little credibility my attacker had. I wanted to point out their long track record of deceit and underhandedness.

Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself of Joan’s 24-hour rule.

From time to time I need to step back and ask myself,

What would Joan do?

Joan was a beloved friend and trusted manager who taught me a lot in our few years together. One of the biggest lessons was the 24 hour rule.

It’s simple: When you face a sudden emotional situation, make yourself wait 24 hours before responding. When the explosive moment has cooled, you’ll see the big picture and can plan a better, more productive response.

You may need to find other ways of venting frustration and anger. Go to the gym. Talk it through with a trusted friend. Journal it. Redirect into other expressions that help you process your thoughts and get perspective and objectivity.

You can even write the response in an email to yourself, just to say what you have to say. It’s the digital equivalent of screaming into a pillow. Sometimes you may need 48 hours, or even longer.

Frequently, you’ll find that once the emotion is gone, you realize the best response is no response at all.

Other times, you’ll find that the distance and time have given you the opportunity to formulate a far better, more effective response.

Editing Pony is watching

I read your novel. Are you a painter?

I want to send you not just one, but two free* Lifelike bookmarks, and I want you to deface one of them.

Last week a reader sent me a note:

If I didn’t know better I would think that you were a painter/artist by profession.

Question: When someone reads your novel and thinks you’re probably a painter, is that like saying, “You have a great face for radio”?

I’m a terrible painter. If I were to take the “easy A” high school art class today, I’d get a B. I can appreciate a painting, even intellectually understand how the artist made it look the way it does. I simply have no talent with color, shadow, or texture; my attempts always fall far short of my vision.

But a writer who is also a painter sent this to me after reading the rough draft of Lifelike:

Are you a painter also? I am, and I am very surprised that you have such an accurate sense of how an artist feels about a sense of place and light and thought.

So at least I can fake it, which is good enough for me.

But about the bookmarks: I designed them with a line sketch of one of the characters from Lifelike on the back, meant to be painted or colored in.

I’ll send* you two bookmarks if only you ask. One will be personalized–painted by me!–and the other will be blank–for you to paint! Just send me your postal mailing address (US only, sorry). The only thing you have to do is color or paint the blank, then send me a photo or scan of your finished work. Your bookmark will hang in my virtual gallery (coming soon).

     
* Free to you, for a limited time. I have to pay for the bookmarks, envelopes, paint, and postage. Which is why this is only open to people in the United States. Sorry, most of the world. But if you send me a self addressed, stamped envelope, I’ll send you back a few bookmarks.

PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART! AND THIS PART!

One of the best ways to strengthen your writing is to send important emails in plain text. Rich text effects–bold, italics, highlighting, and underline–are the empty calories of online communication–they can satisfy a quick need for an instant eye-catch, but relying on them over a long time will make your writing flabby and weak.

We all work with someone whose long, rambling emails contain a sentence that looks like this:

This is the IMPORTANT part: pay attention!

The writer realizes that the recipient needs a map through their forest of words, and these visual cues create guide posts highlighting what is critical and what can be ignored.

This approach has two problems:

  1. If there’s filler in your email that can be ignored, take it out.
  2. Over time, people get used to ignoring everything that isn’t highlighted.

If you’ve eradicated all unnecessary filler and still have a lot of text, fight the urge to use the sugar-rich visual cues of bold, underline, italics, exclamation points, and highlighting. Why? Because your colleagues use them liberally, and busy people have been conditioned over the years to react to them in these ways:

  • We assume you have not taken out the filler, and we are likely to skim or ignore large parts of what you wrote.
  • We assume you lack confidence in your points, and that you are trying to dress them up to make them seem more credible.
  • We assume that you believe we are either incapable of or unwilling to read and understand what you’ve written, and as a result we may feel untrusted or disrespected.
  • We assume you’re trying to sell us something, and we may approach your highlighted points with more skepticism than we should.

So if you shouldn’t highlight with these cues, what can you do in those (necessarily) long emails to make sure your main points get the attention they deserve?

Begin with good organization. You can choose from several approaches to present complex information; pick one that fits your topic and the nature of what you need to communicate. A sequential description (A led to B led to C which leaves us at D) may be good when a lot of background is needed, but it can distract when that background really is just filler. An executive summary may be useful for informing someone of a decision, but it might not work if you’re asking many people for input on a complex problem. Whatever structure you choose, make sure the structure supports the information and not the other way round. If you find yourself adding extra information, or twisting your words to fit a prescribed structure, then you’ve chosen the wrong structure.

Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.
Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.

Put each key point at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Either make your point and then defend it, or provide the necessary information and conclude with the key point. If you feel an itch to highlight or bold something in the middle of a paragraph, restructure your paragraph.

Don’t forget the negative space. White space can create visual pauses, separate ideas, and refresh the reader’s attention. It’s also a signal to the reader that the previous point is done.

Bullet lists force brevity. Each bullet in a list should be concise and easy to digest at a glance. As a general rule, if your bullet is more than two sentences, it should be a paragraph instead of a bullet. Good bullet lists also provide a refreshing visual break in paragraphs of text.

Stay away from tables. People love to put complex information in tables, but inevitably a table will end up carrying empty cells. These are visual trip hazards; an empty cell feels like a mistake. So what do you think happens to empty cells? That’s right: they get filled with unnecessary words, distracting from our main points.

Write well. Use simple, direct sentences with strong nouns and verbs. Eliminate equivocations and adjectives. Learn to use commas properly, and for everyone’s sake spell things right. Read it over many times from the beginning for flow, clarity, and even cadence. Read it out loud. Fix awkward parts.

Finally, cultivate your own reputation for tight, efficient communication. We all dread hearing from people who always speak ten minutes longer than they’re allocated, but we like speakers who finish on time or early. If people know you as someone who doesn’t speak much but who says important things, you will find yourself using bold, italics, underline, highlighting, all caps, and exclamation points less and less.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Lifelike Cover, Preorder, and Launch Promo

I’ve put Lifelike up for preorder in the Kindle store.

But don’t preorder it!
The list price is $5.99*. If you preorder it, you will pay full list. But on June 16 I’ll drop the price to $0.99 for a few days. So wait until June 16 to buy it. If you absolutely positively must have it before then, email me and I’ll send you the file (but promise to buy it for 99 cents on June 16 so I get credit for the sale). If you have a bad sense of finances, you can buy it for $5.99 now through June 16 (ebook publication date is May 16).

To sum up:

  • Wait until June 16.
  • Buy it for $0.99 before the promotional price expires.
  • Read it.
  • Write a review.

A side effect of offering it preorder is I uploaded the cover to the Kindle store. So this isn’t really a “cover reveal” post (which I find almost as curious as those “gender reveal” parties that are oh so premature) because the cover has already been revealed. But I’m revealing it to you here, now!

Lifelike Cover - Wendy Russ, designer
Sexy, isn’t it? That’s Jewel, the main character, in the blue dress holding the roses.

What do you think? Sexy, dark, intriguing? Bewitching? Let me know with a comment here.

So put June 16 on your calendar. If June 16 is already on your calendar, write “Purchase Lifelike for 99c!” on the spot where June 16 is. Then write in the URL for the Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Lifelike-Peter-Dudley-ebook/dp/B071421YB6/

* Apologies to non-US friends. I default to USD because I’m an arrogant American in that way.