How To Freshen Up Dry Content

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Last week a friend of mine sent me an email with a sample of a corporate history he had written. He is one of the most thoughtful sales and marketing people I know. When I say “thoughtful,” I don’t really mean “considerate,” although he is that, too – but this is someone who thinks through a strategy, considers a variety of tactics, and weighs the potential impact before implementing.

He admitted he had struggled with this assignment, although it read perfectly fine. It was organized, interesting, and full of information. He asked for ways to make it more compelling, and that made me realize many of us face the same quandary. When should we switch from reporting to story-telling, and is there a place for both?

My friend, now a Marketing Director for a niche retailer, included an interesting tidbit on his page. He mentioned several celebrities who had worn their gear. This prompted me to ask, “How might we use this information in a different way?”

Here are a few tricks of the trade:

1. Back into the history. Rather than say “XYZ company was founded in 1895” and roll out the copy in chronological form, use that current color to capture the reader’s attention. Example: “Little did Celebrity know when he selected This Company Jacket to wear on his album cover, he was supporting an American institution.”

2. Show the benefits in use, rather than spelling them out. Instead of saying the product is handsome, durable, and guaranteed, make those points part of the story: “Celebrity probably thought this jacket was ‘cool’ – we do, too – with its brass studs and wide shoulder straps. In fact, we still manufacture that classic style today.” (This is where you’d link to the online store)

3. Use pull quotes. Sometimes even the best writing becomes dense, and in this case, visual relief is most welcome. A key phrase extracted and set apart in bigger, wider-spaced italic type, occasionally with accentuated quotation marks, lets the eye ‘take a break’ and quickly conveys a key point. Scattered throughout an article, pull quotes help guide readers to the most relevant parts if there’s no time for a complete read.

4. Intersperse infographics. Research data tends to be dry because people want the facts and want them fast. To this end, illustrations rock. Yes, there has to be text to explain the findings, but keep it short. Use pictures to tell the rest.  These save space, convey data quickly and can be repurposed. And don’t structure sentences the same way: “33% say this, 60% say that, 95% say the other thing.”  Try: “Nearly a third of respondents say,” “3 out of 5 believe,” “Most participants agree.” Variety adds interest.

5. Bring in another voice. Sure, it’s nice to hear ourselves talk, but other perspectives lend authenticity. Yes, it’s more work – but it’s generally worth it.  How much more intriguing it is to read a first hand account:  “I remember coming into the old store on Maple Street with my Dad and seeing a bright red bicycle on display. My father said I could have it if I helped earn it. I was mowing lawns that summer, so every time I got paid, I set half my earnings aside. My Dad matched it, and that fall, I rode home on a spanking new bike. I can still remember the salesman shaking my hand, congratulating me and telling me to ride safely. I also remember the first time I rode it to school– how proud I was and how my friends gathered around.”

The trick is not to forfeit selling points when telling a story but to infuse facts with feeling. Human emotion is a great driver when it comes to getting response, and done right, it can be incorporated into even the driest content.

Subtle Choices = Big Differences

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If someone said to me, “I have red roses and yellow daisies in my garden,” I would think of red roses as the focal point and daisies as ground cover.  However,  if they said, “I have yellow daisies and red roses in my garden,” I would think of yellow as
dominant with red as mere highlights.
The order of information can dramatically change interpretation and perspective.

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I was recently working on an email campaign, and as all responsible freelance writers do, submitted it for review. The edits were minor but one stood out. The call to action had been changed on one of the targeted pieces. This altered the motivation from empowering (I’m smart; I want to do this) to obligatory (We, the authority, strongly suggest you sign up) Now, there was nothing wrong with that statement, but did it belong here?

I’ve always felt that direct response requires a delicate balance between inspiration and persuasion. A subtle suggestion can alter the impulse to act and turn it into a dead stop. Too much information can kill the spontaneity by making the decision weighty. Not every writer — and certainly not every client — can appreciate these subtle differences,  but we can at least be aware of the choices we make.

Here are a few ways to shape the message:

Placement – is your statement the major thrust of the message or used as a reminder?
For example, does your email announce an event as the lead: “Greetings friends, Be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 25th at 2:00 when we will host a webcast about XYZ” OR does it intentionally present product news up top with a PS that says, “Don’t forget our webcast about XYZ will be held…” Both are right. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Punctuation – do commas identify key information in a way that is irrelevant or important?
For example, does your press release play it straight: “Big Enterprise CEO, Mr. Jones, announced today that they have acquired ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere” OR might your inset information lend color and credence? “Mr. Jones, CEO of Big Enterprise and also an avid diver, pledged to acquire ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere, once he saw the blue waters and coral reefs.”

Aggregation – can the way you combine information work to your advantage?
For example, is your contest copy bland because you are trying to meet legal requirements, or could you say it differently to create excitement? “A $1,000 cash prize will be awarded to each of the first five correct entries drawn” OR might you say, “$5,000 up for grabs! Be among the first five correct entrants drawn, and you could win $1,000.” You’re not making any promises, you’re still explaining the winning process, you’re keeping language legal, but you’re aggregating the total prize value for more impact.

Details – do your descriptive phrases intentionally add value or are they used as “throw aways” to draw attention elsewhere?
For example, does your ad say, “This hand-woven hammock, made by expert craftsmen from the Village of Ropeville, is guaranteed to last for life.” OR – do you shift the emphasis from the guarantee to the workmanship? “This lifetime-guaranteed hammock was carefully crafted by Ropeville artisans who enjoy a 300-year legacy of hammock-making. “ Neither is wrong, but it’s your choice as a writer, to control the benefit you promote most prominently.

With that, I’m going to step away to focus on some other work… or might I say, “Stepping away from her desk, she paused to look at the sunlight dancing off the snow.” The latter is far more interesting.

The Story in the Spoon

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Are you stuck for an idea or plot line?  Try this trick.

Look at an everyday item — or even better, an usual item   — and think about it.  What are its origins? Its purpose?  How did it get here?  Mostly… does it have a story to tell?

Emptying the dishwasher, I was reminded about 3 strange serving spoons. They’re nothing  special in terms of style or silver quality … just good, old functional Rogers silverplate– probably picked up from a consignment shop or yard sale when we needed some.

I decided to gather them together for this exercise. Here are 4 easy steps to get you started:

First –  observation: These are well-used spoons as evident by the skewed tips. Instead of a rounded oval, we see the left side angled – worn away. What could have caused so much wear? Were they used in a restaurant? In a soup kitchen?  In the military? In a hospital?  Did they pass through generations?

Although relatively plain, the handle is engraved with a “B.” What does that tell us about the owners?   Were they of simple means or simple taste? What happened to the rest of the set? Who or what was the “B?”

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Does that “B” represent a family name? Baker? Bleufort? Brill? Could it signify an establishment? The Biltmore? Brigham? Birmingham? Might it represent a city or organization?

Second – research:  The imprint on the back side of the handle says “Rogers & Bros. SA? ½” or so it seems.  Thank goodness for the internet. I turn there to learn about silverplate and to try to identify the pattern.  After a long educational scroll, it appears that this is called “Tipped” and was produced in 1879, made by “1847 Rogers Bros” which is a mark common to other utensils in our drawer.

Third – discovery:  This is the interesting and dangerously distracting part… In searching, I pulled out two other, more ornate serving spoons. I identified one pattern as Old Colony, 1911, also from 1847 Rogers – but I cannot place the third design. This one is extremely elaborate with lots of scrolls and intertwined elements that run down the stem to the bowl. It almost looks as if an ear of corn or cluster of grapes is represented in the metalwork.

Fourth – inspiration: Now take what you have seen, learned, and imagined and turn it into possible plot lines. Let the story go where it ‘wants.’ If it holds up as a blurb, chances are it can be developed.  Let your mind wander. For example…

POSSIBLE PLOT: There could be child’s book or an historic fiction novel about “The Lost Pattern” – the story of a silversmith apprentice who created a concept so elaborate and wonderful, that he wanted to keep it to himself. Every night, when the factory was closed, he would sneak in and produce one utensil at a time, working from scrap that was going to be discarded. Overlooked because of his age and lack of experience, it wasn’t until the factory was commissioned by visiting royalty to create a place setting that he quietly stepped forward. The rest is history – as he joins the royal family for a remarkable adventure abroad.

POSSIBLE PLOT: Another plot line might be around the journey of a spoon as it moves across the country from an east coast city to a sod house on the plains… a story that explores migratory routes of settlers and ties together the women in a family who used the spoon to feed their loved ones and nurse them in times of illness. Perhaps the spoon is all that’s left when a prairie fire forces the pioneering family from their land…perhaps it become a simple object used in barter to rebuild their lives.

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POSSIBLE PLOT: Then there is the ubiquitous hotel setting which, as we know from modern movies and TV shows, is an inviting stage for colorful characters. Perhaps the spoon was used to serve an official of state and in an assassination attempt, was flung behind a table and wedged into the molding of a grand ballroom. Lost until a renovation crew discovers it decades later, the spoon becomes a critical clue. Dented by a ricocheting bullet, the spoon could prove whether another shooter existed or another shot was fired… an outcome that could change history.

POSSIBLE PLOT: But let’s not forget the love story… two simple place settings were purchased as a dowry for a daughter in 1892, by a young mother quietly fighting the repression of the Victorian Age. Wanting her daughter to grow up and experience all the joys of womanhood, the silverware was set aside until the daughter fell in love, right before World War I broke out. With her fiancé called to arms and separated by an ocean, the daughter waited three years for her lover to return – while the spoon took an entirely different trip all its own.  Reunited after the war, the couple finally found the spoon in a most unlikely location where it became a symbol of hope and endurance.

Wow – now I have 4 great plots to ponder! Happy writing to all.

The Non-Christmas Cactus — or The Art of Continuity

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Today, on the shortest day of the year, a soft snow is falling and the skies are as gray as my sweater. Our bird feeders, now on new hooks, have attracted a fresh invasion of feathered friends: woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches.

The holidays are upon us which means traditions are everywhere.  Old toys and ornaments… candles and song … costumes and centerpieces… are surfaced by families across the country. Handed-down recipes come to life in kitchens big and small, turning the air into a sweet and spicy cultural celebration that says ‘home’ in a U.N. of languages.

In the corner of our front room sits a “November Cactus,” a cactus that never learned it was supposed to bloom for Christmas, but rather, selects its moment of glory just before Thanksgiving.

Whenever I look at this now-woody plant – a plant that has since begotten many “children” that live on counter tops and kitchen tables far and wide – I think back to its origins. A close aunt had passed away unexpectedly, and my young son had joined me in cleaning out her apartment.

With most of the heavy lifting done, we turned to her window sill and saw a little Christmas cactus struggling in rock hard soil. It was stunted, misshapen and not particularly attractive, but just when I was about to toss it out, my son suggested we bring it home.

My thumb was never as green as my mother’s, but I’ve generally had good luck with plants, so we rescued it and repotted it. We put it outside under a tree in summer and brought it in before the frost. Shortly after, we saw pale white points appear at the ends of the succulent leaves that grew from the thick branches. Within days, the plant became a sea of light pink blossoms that dangled delicately, lasting a few weeks and then dropping, as our own special autumn, on the living room floor.

It really doesn’t matter that our cactus runs ahead of schedule. By holiday time, it’s fresh and green again and each year, it reminds me of my aunt.

The continuity of this cactus is not unlike what writers need to do in developing ideas and plot lines. There has to be a “constant.” It could be a premise, a quest, a catch phrase or gesture. It’s something that recurs and creates familiarity with the character or theme.

Continuity in writing, much like in cinema, has to be monitored closely.  A stubbly beard in one scene can’t suddenly be long in another. That limping gait so carefully described at the outset can’t carelessly be forgotten when the character breaks into a run.

Just like this cactus, continuity anchors us when writing. It’s a stake in the ground, a frame of reference. It gives us bearing and perspective.

Some writers keep careful notes to track character development lest they forget a small detail. Was that scar on his left hand or on his right wrist? Did the dog have three brown patches or four? Was the music playing before or after dinner on the night the crime was committed?

As our November cactus nears its 20th year, we pause to think of all that occurred during this fleeting expanse of time. Despite the ups and downs and unplanned changes, the joys and disappointments, the misadventures and the good adventures, this slightly confused but persistent cactus soldiered on and gave us a gift each year.

What nice assurance that all was right in our small corner of the world.

Let this post serve to wish you the comfort of continuity in the New Year — and a profusion of unexpected blooms.

The Little Shoe

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It might seem trite to say that every item has a story, but surely, some items have better stories to tell than others – and for a writer, this is a magnetic pull that wants to be drawn out.

So it is with a little shoe I found at an antique shop in Prescott, Arizona. Truth is, this isn’t a shoe but a wooden shoe mold, style 600, size 6 ½ E – most likely intended for toddler feet.

In that Prescott was a lively ranching and gambling town at the turn of the century, I sensed that this mold shaped shoes for the children of local farmers and homesteaders, shop keepers and adventurers– children who no doubt grew up being part of the nation’s historic fabric.

Prescott is home to “Whiskey Row,” the 100 Block of Montezuma Street that at one time, as I recall, boasted 18 saloons… establishments with names like the Bird Cage, Hooligan’s and Jersey Lilly. This shoe mold may not have been crafted there but perhaps transported from Lynn, MA, where the shoe industry began.

That’s another piece of history lost to most of us: Jan Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), invented the shoe-lasting machine which could produce 150 to 700 pair in a day. This innovation forever changed the industry and turned Lynn into the “shoe capital of the world.”

But I digress…

Regardless of origin, this little shoe carries mystery with it, and for writers, mystery means intrigue, and intrigue means good reading.

I’m currently using “concealment shoes” in a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 years. This is the kind of manuscript that’s complete in my head but requires a vacation by a lake or solid block of time to be typed out.

In this context, old shoes were sometimes entombed in Colonial homes to ward off evil spirits. Perhaps it was thought that they contained the essence of the people who wore them – a human quality that would surely scare away ectoplasmic intruders.

The point here is that we writers should be aware of our surroundings and nurture the ability to look at everyday things with a sense of curiosity.

An old door key is one item that stands out. Ditto for a letter from a soldier. A seashell can conjure up images of pirates landing on a beach; grandmother’s sewing kit brimming with jet buttons and souvenir needle cases from a World’s Fair certainly tells of another time; that gnarled piece of roadside metal might well have fallen from a space ship or a car wreck that changed someone’s life.

Imagination is the lifeblood of writers, and just as a ‘medium’ is said to be a conduit to ‘the other side,’ intriguing objects can be a path to a plotline.

My little shoe makes me think of a small grave on a grassy hillside where the Great Plains spread out to accommodate Conestoga wagons.  I see a tow-haired boy in patched overalls; I feel the dust in his throat and behind his neck. But I also hear the squeals of a little girl in gingham as she scampers after her siblings, unaware of a danger about to befall.

This little shoe suggests hearth and home; a hard life, simple joys… but perhaps it is just the beginning of a bigger story that tells of celebrity or crime. Perhaps it is literally “a first step.”  Who wore this shoe – and what ever happened to the other one?