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.

State clearly; ask clearly

If you can’t make your email easy to understand and act on, don’t send it.

Most of work email is about one of three things:

Any questions?
  • Informing people of something important,
  • Asking someone to do something for you, or
  • Amusing your closest friends with clever snark.

If your email isn’t one of those, don’t send it. If it must be sent, then respect the recipients’ time by doing these three things.

Be clear and concise

Most people who think they are great communicators are, in fact, terrible writers. My wife (an experienced teacher of writing) and I were lamenting yesterday that school teaches kids that good writing requires more words–add description, adjectives, DETAILS! Dead wrong, especially in business writing. More on this in future posts, but about work emails I want to say just these two points today:

  • Stick to the central point(s). Eliminate backstory. Eliminate details that are already known to the recipients. Eliminate distractions. The longer your email, the less attention your main point will get.
  • Use clear, direct language and sentence structure. Your reader should understand your point on the first reading. This isn’t always possible for complex topics, but it should be your goal. Don’t strive to make your email understandable; strive to make it impossible to be misunderstood.
No “quick question” email has EVER had a quick answer.

Set up the right response

Before you send your email, know what you want, and who you want it from. Don’t send your email until you are clear on those two points and have made it obvious in the text. Bad emails fail this in two main ways:

  • Pussyfooting around the question, or burying it in the middle. Don’t make the recipient work to find your question, or to figure out what you need from them. If I have to dredge your question from a bog of muddy text, I’m going to think you don’t really know what you’re asking, or I’m going to suspect you’re trying to hide something. Make your question or request clear, and set it apart where I’ll see it.
  • Not asking anyone in particular. When your question goes to a group, often no one will respond because they hope someone else will. Perhaps you’re sending it to the group because it’s a complicated issue that needs input from multiple people and you don’t know where to start. I’ve found that either asking a pointed question of one individual on the list, or stating outright that I need help and don’t know where to start, gets things rolling.

Reread and rewrite

If you don’t take time to make your email easy for me to read and respond to, I am going to set it aside for later.

Did that sound arrogant and dismissive to you? Did you think, “That’s really rude. I would hate to be his coworker”?

When I get a wordy, rambling, ambiguous, or difficult email, I know the sender prioritized their own time over mine. They decided it was easier to make me decipher their word maze than to take a few extra minutes and clarify their message. They may have saved a few of their own minutes, but they cost me extra time and effort, which delays their answer.

Now imagine that multiplied by everyone on the distribution list. If six people get your email, that’s six times the deciphering effort. It’s far more efficient to the group for you to spend a couple extra minutes editing.

In other words

State clearly; ask clearly. Get to the point. Eliminate distractions. Guide the reader to your request, and make it obvious who needs to respond.

If you can’t do those things, you’ve got either lazy editing skills, or lazy thought. Either way, you’ll end up frustrated that no one is responding. If no one responds, reread what you sent before blaming them. Over time, your effort will be rewarded when your coworkers pay more attention to your emails than other people’s, without even realizing it.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a new 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 Playlist

As I mentioned in my last post, the Evanescence song The Only One was a huge inspiration for the idea that became Lifelike. On a cross-country flight recently, I discovered that several other Evanescence songs really fit the plot and characters. It wasn’t until I started reading the lyrics of some of my favorites that I realized this.

Although a lot of the songs I really like aren’t on this list, the playlist below includes those songs that I thought really fit the book. Either they fit the theme overall (like The Only One) or they fit a particular moment in the book, like Erase This.

For those of you who’ve read the book, are there other songs you’d suggest for the story? One friend suggested Rachel Platten’s Fight Song. I can see it, but I wouldn’t have picked it out myself.

Read Lifelike Free

Lifelike will be available June 16. You can get a prerelease e-copy for free. All I ask is you leave an honest review at Amazon or Goodreads after reading it! Just contact me or join my email list.

Inspiration

In June I will publish my next novel, Lifelike, an urban fantasy set in San Francisco. To keep up with release information, join my email list.

I’ve never understood why non-writers assume all my novels are essentially autobiographical. Many non-writers, even after reading my books, look for ways in which I’m secretly telling the story of my own life through my novels. I don’t do that.

Of course there are parts of me in every story I write; that’s what make them uniquely mine. And some of the settings in Lifelike are real places, like the De Young Museum, a beautiful place in the heart of Golden Gate Park.

But my stories are entirely fiction. The characters are not people I know. The plot does not consist of things that actually happened to me or to people I know.

This flummoxes non-writers. “Then where do you get your ideas?” they always ask. I guess it’s a fair question, though most writers I know will tell you that coming up with ideas is not the hard part; the hard part is picking which of the thousands of ideas we have is the one we’re going to commit two years of our creative energy and spare time to writing.

In the case of Lifelike, inspiration came from two sources. These two sources–two paintings in the De Young, and a song by Evanescence–struck me at different times. The story itself didn’t come right from these sources. They inspired a feeling, an idea, that ultimately became a story as I turned my thoughts over and over in my journal. A story rarely appears fully formed, and working out the details takes time and work. But the inspiration can come from anywhere.

The Evanescence song is The Only One, and I’m sure that the idea it created was not exactly what Amy Lee had in mind when she wrote it. It just created a feeling and sparked some ideas that largely fit the lyrics.

The other half of the inspiration came from a gallery in the De Young, where two paintings hung opposite each other. As I stood between the two portraits of young women, I felt an eerie connection to their history, even though I knew nothing about them. Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about that connection, which felt like an almost ghostlike presence in the room. I won’t explain how this turned into the story idea for Lifelike (no spoilers), but that feeling became the main theme that got entwined with the lyircs of The Only One and eventually became my novel.