A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
Recently, I gave a mini writing workshop for a MarketingProfs client. The workshop (“How to Write Your Face Off”) was online, which meant the 30 or so attendees could see and hear me… but I couldn’t see or hear them.
That’s always a weird experience: imagining an audience that’s there—but also not there.
The webinar experience reminds me of when I used to stage musicals in front of my dresser mirror in my childhood bedroom. Last week, when I turned on my mic and started talking, I had a momentary impulse to belt out the opening lines of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”
(Not really. But that thought made me laugh.)
Instead, I just flipped to the first slide.
* * *
In a virtual presentation, you never really know what resonates/what doesn’t. You can’t see anyone raising their phone to take a photo of a slide. You can’t see faces nodding or smiling or perplexed or yawning.
Then I saw the image above ^^ floating around social a few days after the workshop. It was Slide 56 in my workshop deck, and it was shared by a workshop attendee. The equivalent of raising her phone to take a photo.
* * *
So much of good writing isn’t about writing at all: It’s about the prep before you write. So let’s break down that Big Pink Half in the image.
The Big Pink Half is Prep. It’s Thinking Before Inking, as New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff says. (And as I say in Everybody Writes, it would also be a solid tagline for a tattoo studio. Please please please someone run with this.)
How do you Think Before Ink? Three questions to ask:
🤔 Can you distill your idea into a single sentence? What is the one thing this post/article/e-book/whitepaper/comic book is about?
You get ONE SENTENCE. No cheating and making it a run-on, either. No using semi-colons in an attempt to hot-glue two or more ideas together. I will come unplug your glue gun.
If you can’t express an idea for a piece in a single sentence, you’re cramming too much into it.
🤔 What’s your twist on the idea? What’s your point of view—the perspective that’s not available elsewhere? (Especially from a competitor.)
Say it strongly and clearly. Plant a flag in the ground. Own that position. State it emphatically, bravely, fearlessly. Don’t qualify your ideas with “possibly” or “I think.”. Boot them outside. Make them wait in the cold.
If you can’t plant a flag, you need to do more work on your position and what you stand for. (There’s a resource for that below.)
🤔 Have you asked the 4 So-Whats? The 4 So-Whats are a series of questions you should ask yourself to reframe your idea for your reader.
Ask “So what?” and then answer “Because…” Repeat the So what/Because query and response string the necessary number of times, until you’ve reached The Why, the one-sentence you wrote above, but in a way that matters to your reader: What’s in it for your audience?
In my experience, that magic number of So Whats is 4.
If you can’t find a unique angle or approach from your reader’s point of view, you need a better understanding of your customers and their burdens, struggles, stresses, pain.
Should you “Write in a good mood; edit in a bad mood”?
I have a lot of feelings about Editing (the Blue Chunk above). But I’ll leave you with one final thought because this is enough for one post and I’m gonna cut the sound on my mic in a sec.
You might’ve heard this expression: “Write in a good mood; edit in a bad mood.” (The wonderful writer Chuck Palahniuk quotes it often.)
I don’t recommend that approach, though. I find that the opposite usually works better: When I’m feeling cranky, I’m more likely to Write My Face Off. When I’m in a good mood, you can feel the joy and lightheartedness in my edits.
Why you should write when you’re mad.
First, you’re fired up.
Second, you’re less likely to self-edit. You’re careless. You do not care. You’re mad or annoyed or (sometimes) just peckish. (Me.) Or you’re irritated with only yourself because you’ve been procrastinating for 3 days already. (Also me.)
That’s GREAT. It takes a certain amount of carelessness to write at all, doesn’t it? A certain amount of abandon to recklessly charge at the writing full-on, without self-editing and jamming yourself up before you’ve even really started.
Editing for me is the fun part: the polishing, the voice, the humor and asides that make your writing sing; the thing that makes your writing yours alone.
I can’t do any of that when I’m in a bad mood.