The video of this great panel discussion is now posted. "Is There Hope for Democracy?" features former Congressman Sam Farr, Santa Cruz County Supervisor and presidential campaign veteran Zach Friend, former Special Assistant to President Obama Adrienne Harris, and Boots Road Group Managing Partner and presidential campaign veteran Spencer Critchley.
So far in this series, I've been offering tips that can be used right away, by just about anyone who writes. But now we come to something that can require significant time and dedication: finding your voice as a writer. The good news is you can start making progress today.
What is does it mean to have a voice? It's the way people know you're you and no one else -- as if they were speaking with you in person. It matters, because when people can't get a feel for who you are, they're likely to move on to someone more interesting.
(Also published at Huffington Post.) So far in this series, I've focused on the content of your writing: choosing a good topic, giving structure to your thoughts, and finding the right words.
Unfortunately, you can excel at all that and still produce writing that's hard to read.
If so, the problem may be rhythm -- or the lack thereof.
(Also published at Huffington Post.) Of all the threats to good writing, the worst -- and most insidious -- is cliché: the re-use of the over-used.
Like all other sins, cliché is much easier to spot in others. We all know to roll our eyes at a schmoozer's "Hot enough for ya?" or a jock's "We gave it 110 percent!"
But the clichés lodged in our own minds disguise themselves as self-evident truths and cherished beliefs. It's the clichés you like that are the toughest to escape.
(Also published at Huffington Post.) Used effectively, metaphors can make ideas come to life. But used ineffectively, they can make a mental mess.
Consider this: "He unleashed a torrent of invective."
At first, that might seem fine. In fact, you've probably seen versions of this sentence in many places (that's because it's also a cliché, but we'll talk about that another time).
But ask yourself a question: Since when has a torrent, which is a fast-flowing river, worn a leash?
(Also published at Huffington Post.) Last time, I showed you how to improve your writing simply by getting rid of adjectives and adverbs. Instead, I said, use the right nouns and verbs. This time: how to find those nouns and verbs.
The key is to remember that we invented nouns and verbs to stand for things and actions that we can see, hear, feel, smell or taste: "I bit into an apple." Later we created abstractions, like "nutrition". But what's most real to us is reality: the crunch and taste of the physical world.
Our emotions, too, are physical. Have you ever felt anger, love or fear in your brain? No, you felt them in your throat, your heart and your gut.
(Also published at Huffington Post.) “How will I ever learn to be a good writer?”
It's a scary question - and the hell of it is, the more you appreciate good writing, the scarier it gets.
But it turns out there's a non-scary answer to how to be good: just avoid being bad.
Think of it as the Sherlock Holmes technique: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (The Sign of Four)
(Also published at Huffington Post.) Last time, I showed you how to give your writing some shape by using the Inverted Pyramid format. As I said, this shape works well for news, because the reader finds more important material closer to the top. This has a downside, though: the farther you go into the piece, the less interesting it's likely to be. So it doesn't work too well when you want to build interest, such as in a story or a blog post.
To meet that challenge we can use another kind of shape, this one derived from ancient principles of drama.
(Also published at Huffington Post.) So far in this series, I've been helping you find out exactly what you want to say. I've argued that getting that right makes everything else easier, faster, and probably better.
Now I'll turn from what to say to how. The first thing to know: give your writing a shape.
(Also published at Huffington Post.) In any one communication, you can only make one point.
Count on people forgetting everything else. That's because our minds throw away almost all new information -- by necessity, since we wouldn't be able to tote brains big enough to store a day's worth. Even the seven digits of a (US) phone number are hard to learn, requiring that we repeat them over and over to get them out of short term memory and into the long term version.*
This is why a good angle -- a simple, emotionally compelling idea -- is so important: if people are only going to remember one thing (and they are), you want it to be the right thing.