Is Your Company’s Content Cursed?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 at 12:33 PM | Category: Content marketing, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Tech, Writing 2 comments

Hank Stroll, one of my first clients and a dear friend, would occasionally reply to my email with a chuckle telling me I’m doing what his wife does. He explained that his wife and I sometimes had a tendency to talk about something and he’d have no clue what we’re talking about. Like he entered the middle of a conversation.

“Talk to me like I don’t know anything,” he’d write.

I fell victim to the curse of knowledge. And it’s everywhere. Maybe even in your company’s content. It could be the website or content marketing stuff.

It’s more common than you think. An email newsletter columnist submitted an article about companies that made the “best of” list. Each contained a short overview of the company’s business.

Whew, boy. They all spoke the same language: marketing-speak.

I visited the companies’ websites for more information to help me rewrite them to stick with just the facts. It wasn’t surprising to see the overviews came from the website — mostly the Home or About pages. (Good thing making this “best of” list didn’t require effective content, eh?) It also didn’t surprise me that most of the content didn’t clearly communicate what they do for clients.

They all suffer from the same disease I did.

The curse of knowledge.

I believe the phrase first appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Journal of Political Economy. Here’s how authors Colin Camerer, George Lowenstein and Martin Weber of “The curse of knowledge in economic settings: An experimental analysis.” described it.

The curse of knowledge makes personal expertise seem more widely shared than it is, making it difficult for people to convey their expertise to others and reducing the apparent need (from the perspective of the better-informed individual) for such a transfer of knowledge.

They studied the impact of the curse of knowledge from an economic point of view. Chip Heath and Dan Health explained it from a business point of view in “Made to Stick.” I bet you’ve seen it or lived it.

Many sensible strategies fail to drive action because executives formulate them in sweeping, general language. “Achieving customer delight!” “Becoming the most efficient manufacturer!” “Unlocking shareholder value!” One explanation for executives’ love affair with vague strategy statements relates to a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge. Top executives have had years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business, so when they speak abstractly, they are simply summarizing the wealth of concrete data in their heads. But frontline employees, who aren’t privy to the underlying meaning, hear only opaque phrases. As a result, the strategies being touted don’t stick.

In other words, the people who wrote the content for these companies were stuck in their heads. It makes it harder to separate their knowledge from the knowledge — or lack thereof — of the people visiting their website. They knew what their company did. They forgot to consider what their target audience knows or didn’t know.

This wasn’t a simple problem of using jargon and abbreviations. It was a problem of explaining what they do to someone who had never heard of the company. All of these were business-to-business professional services companies. (Noticed I skipped using B2B or BtoB?)

Although I work with B2B clients, not everyone reading this knows what it means. Yes, it’s common to me. Nonetheless, I still remember when I read it for the first time — and I’d like to think I read a decent amount of business articles — I didn’t know what it meant. Not just the abbreviation, but also what it means to be a B2B company.

Another example. A fan of a client’s product advised not using certain terms to describe the client’s technical app for consumers. What he didn’t realize is that most of the client’s target audience know, need and use those terms. If we use the app fan’s suggested terms, people will never understand what the app does. And they’d never find the company because they wouldn’t use those search terms.

Simple test to see if your content suffers from the curse of knowledge:

Have a family member or a friend read it.

Yes, even if they’re not your target audience. They can tell you if it makes sense or not.

Thanks to Hank, I learned early on to think about what the reader may or may not know. That doesn’t mean I’m 100 percent cured of this disease. I don’t think I’ll ever be. It’s impossible to escape my own head. (Dagnabbit.)

What do you think of the bolded text? Or do you prefer headings? Personally, I prefer the latter. However, some folks say they prefer bolded sentences and phrases.

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Reaching Out to Readers on Social Media

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 at 8:07 AM | Category: Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Writing 10 comments

Welcome to meryl’s notes blog (this here place you’re lookin’ at) in Plano, Texas. We’re honored to be a stop in Eleanor Vincent’s WOW! Women On Writing Blog tour. We’re giving away a copy of her moving memoir Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story. Read on to see how you can win. If you want to keep up with tweets on this book, the hashtag is #SWMaya.

Swimming With Maya Cover Reaching Out to Readers on Social MediaReaching Out to Readers on Social Media by Eleanor Vincent

In an age when you can download a book to your e-reader in 9 seconds that costs less than the movie playing at your local Multiplex, what is the relationship between readers and writers? Judging from the 80-plus reviews of my book on the Swimming with Maya [affiliate] Amazon page,  it has the potential to be closer than ever.

In the nine years since the book was first published as a beautiful but pricey hardback, the landscape has changed dramatically. As I writer, I see this most vividly in the ease with which readers can now buy the book and communicate with me about how it has affected them. Blogs like Meryl’s make it even easier to connect directly.

The digital edition of Swimming with Maya has been downloaded approximately 20,760 times — that is ten times the number of readers of the hardback edition. Early in August, the book made the e-book edition of the New York Times bestseller list. Wow!

As I write this, Swimming with Maya in the 10th position on the Goodreads list of Bonds Between Mothers and Daughters.

Please visit the list and add your vote. This is just one way readers can weigh in directly!

When a writer has poured her life out on the page as I did in this memoir, it is gratifying to hear that readers are moved, or that their own lives have been changed. Not all readers react favorably, of course. Because of the immediacy of digital media I can hear exactly what they don’t like, which is valuable information.

If someone feels strongly enough to review my book — be it positive or not — I’m in the very privileged position of having readers who care enough to comment.

Like this recent review from my Amazon page: “What an incredibly powerful book. Both about the pain of losing a child and what it means to be human.”

Somebody really gets it! Swimming with Maya is a story about life — even though the trigger for telling the story was the death of my older daughter. It is about how life knocks all of us down and what it takes to get back up again.

Or this one: “I have a daughter who is like Maya was in many ways. Eerily, she is the same age now as Maya was when she died. This book made me realize how much I really love my daughter. I don’t think I will have any trouble showing her anymore. “

Affecting how someone relates to her daughter is about as high an honor as I can imagine. I was so moved by the recent batch of reader reviews on Amazon that I am responding to each one. I am sincerely blown away by some of the reader comments and touched that those 90,000 words I sweated bullets over for almost 10 years are out there in the world making a difference in people’s lives.

E-books are making books available to people who might never have had such easy access before. It’s a trend I welcome. Don’t get me wrong. If you feel moved to buy the paperback as a gift for yourself or someone else, I’ll be equally happy. Please be sure to write a review or send me an email. Readers and writers need one another — so keep the comments coming. And please enter to win a copy of Swimming with Maya.

Thanks to Meryl for hosting me today.

About the Author

Eleanor Vincent phot Reaching Out to Readers on Social MediaEleanor Vincent is an award-winning writer whose debut memoir, Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story, was nominated for the Independent Publisher Book Award and was reissued by Dream of Things press in 2013. She writes about love, loss, and grief recovery with a special focus on the challenges and joys of raising children at any age. Eleanor has been a national spokesperson on grief recovery and organ donation, appearing on CNN and San Francisco’s Evening Magazine. She has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, and been interviewed on radio and television programs around the country.

Called “engaging” by BooklistSwimming with Maya chronicles the life and death of Eleanor’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Maya, who was thrown from a horse and pronounced brain-dead at the hospital. Eleanor donated her daughter’s organs to critically ill patients and poignantly describes her friendship with a middle-aged man who was the recipient of Maya’s heart.

Comment and win: The prize: winner gets a copy of Swimming with Maya. For a chance to win, please leave a comment about losing someone, what it means to be human or ask the author a question. You have until 11:59pm on October 30, 2013  to qualify for the drawing. The unbiased and robotic Random.org has the honor of picking the winner.

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Content Marketing Taken Over by Zombies

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Category: Business, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 5 comments

Newspaper Zombie 221x300 Content Marketing Taken Over by ZombiesZombies are in. I think its popularity started with PopCap Games’ “Plants vs. Zombies,” which took up many hours of what little free time I had. Now, I wasn’t the likely candidate to be a fan of the game because I’m so not a fan of horror. Yet PopCap created a cute and fun game.

Yes, I said cute in referring to a game with brain-eating creatures. C’mon. It has a dancing zombie with backup dancers. Admit it. That’s cute.

Zombies Everywhere

That’s the extent of my interest in zombies. I will not read “World War Z.” I will not view its movie. And I will not check out “The Walking Dead” no matter how many folks rave about it. I didn’t even want to check out “Under the Dome” knowing its author was Stephen King. (I read the reviews that said it wasn’t horror. Instead of the horror thing, I feared being left hanging. Sure ‘nough, it wasn’t horror and they friggin’ left us hanging!)

Anyhoo.

“But, Meryl! I don’t like horror either and I love the show,” friends said.

Thank goodness I have a trusty husband in Paul. I sent him on a dangerous mission: Watch “The Walking Dead” alone and report back.

He did. The man knows me better than I do. (Mostly.) Paul advised against watching it and explained why. He was right. Me no likey.

Like the popularity of “The Walking Dead,” marketers have jumped into content marketing in growing numbers like the multiplying zombies in “World War Z.”

Missing: Content Marketing Brains … If found, please contact your local marketer

Based on evidence of the quality of content — or lack thereof — out there … some marketers let the content marketing trend guide them rather than their brains. (Maybe zombies got to them.)  Like anything that catches on, folks hop on without giving a thought whether it’s the right thing, or doing any planning.

That’s happening with content marketing.

And a lot of content marketing is crap. (Please excuse my rare cussin’. This still calls for it.) Not only is it crap, but also it’s delivered to the wrong folks, at the wrong time, in the wrong place or all of the above.

Or they’re not doing true content marketing. They’re selling. Just look at these stats Steve Olenski found and shared in The Catastrophic Social Media Content Marketing Mistake Marketers Are Making.

Econsultancy Main Objectives for Paid Digital Media Sept20131 Content Marketing Taken Over by Zombies

Here’s his explanation why this is catastrophic:

It means that marketers are putting more emphasis on selling than they are at establishing relationships with consumers via branding.

It means that marketers would rather try and sell you something than say tell you a story.

It means that marketers are only in “it” to increase their bottom line.

What Content Marketing Really Is

Per the last bullet — Olenski knows the whole point is to make money for the business. He explains:

When I am asked for my definition of content marketing, I usually include the phrase “guns blazing” as in “you cannot go into a relationship and maintain a relationship with a consumer guns blazing. You have to engage, relate to, share relevant content with your audience and yes integrate your ‘guns’ AKA your product, into your overall content marketing strategy.”

It cannot be sell, sell, sell at every single turn.

And Michael Brenner makes these points about the future of content marketing:

Quantity content WITH Quality to support the growing information needs of our customers.

Brands will resemble publishers and assemble newsrooms and hire or train journalists who can tell stories and contribute to major publications.

Sponsored stories. Brands will continue to create more quality sponsored content that is buyer-centric and that removes the brand from the story. (Emphasis mine.)

Content length will continue downward as our real-time, mobile world seeks smaller, more “snackable” and more “shareable” content.

Good quality is always a must. But the rest of it (quantity, what to provide, etc.) depends on target market *needs*. Brenner reaffirms what Olenski said. I applaud his last point about content length. I don’t care how great a story someone tells. I rarely read a 2,000-word story. (Not counting books, of course.) I disagree with folks who say that a person should use as many words as needed to tell a story. Some publications can get away with it — and that’s because they know their audience and deliver what they crave.

Even though a lot of content is crap, there’s still a lot of it out there and some of it valuable. I’d rather have a buffet of content in small portions than eat one dish and get bored with it.

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This Content Marketing Hazard Can Hurt Your Company’s Credibility

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 at 9:40 AM | Category: Business, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 4 comments
grape jelly geode This Content Marketing Hazard Can Hurt Your Companys Credibility

Ginormous “grape jelly” geode with amethyst crystals

My husband Paul and I finally took our sons to the much-lauded Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Lane, the new high schooler, wasn’t thrilled about going. (“Why did I have to come?” Grumble, grumble.) He’d rather stay home and play video games. His younger brother Zachary, the bookish one, couldn’t wait.

I didn’t have high hopes that Lane would find an exhibit he’d like. You know teens. They make up their minds they don’t want to do something and stick with it. The three of us went our merry way checking out the interactive exhibits with Lane tagging along. At the end of the day, Paul reported the gems and minerals (read: rocks) exhibit captivated our teen son. He’s always been fascinated with rocks. Every time he’d go to the museum with Grandma, he’d come home with a couple of rocks. (We also let him buy one — much, much smaller than the 5 1/2-foot one in the photo. — more like five centimeters.)

You have to applaud the museum curators. Unlike many businesses, museums have a broad target audience as people of all ages and backgrounds visit. They serve single adults, married couples with no kids, seniors. The whole gamut. Yet they curate exhibits to ensure visitors have at least one that grips them. The curators pulled off a biggie in finding one for the pickiest, disinterested teen.

Danger! Watch Out for the Crap Content Avalanche

Sharp content curators are like museum curators. They think of their audience when they curate and select resources. We may not be creating content from scratch, but it takes as much time and effort panning for in the massive content mine since content marketing became the hottest thing. Content marketing has been around for a long time. It didn’t have a fancy name until now. Props to Hank Stroll, one of my first clients, for introducing me to the secret of sharing valuable — not promotional — content in 2001. (Not a typo.)

Folks realize that content marketing works when done right (they forget about the “when done right” part), so everyone does it and most without creating a strategy. That’s why we’re flooded with content that provides zero, zilch, zippo value.

Because of this, most of the time when we click an interesting link, we hit crap. (Sorry for cussing — it’s the best word.) The biggest danger to content marketing is the load of crap content.

Insanity! Retweeting Blind

Dan Zarella explains part of the problem in New Data Indicates Twitter Users Don’t Always Click the Links They Retweet. He says that 16 percent of the tweets with links resulted in more retweets than clicks. In English: folks retweeted a tweet with a link without checking out the link! Yikes! These folks share unchecked links, and some could lead to tasteless or spammy content. (It has happened enough that I encountered malware.)

Why retweet without checking the link first? No one can judge content based on the painstakingly crafted titles or deceptive descriptions accompanying the links. Good social media citizens don’t waste people’s time with lousy resources.

Stop! Nix the Content Assembly Line

So what can we do about it?

Easy!

Stop. Creating. Crap. Content.

Stop spewing article after article, report after report, white paper after white paper like an automaton.

Isn’t your inbox flooded with email offers? You know the free e-book, free report, free webinar,  free here, free there, free everywhere. Free don’t mean a thing if the content ain’t got that swing.

I bet you’ve downloaded a lot of those complimentary offers and opened few. I have. They collect e-dust until it comes time to do a little file cleaning. Then I go Cyberman all over them and delete, delete, delete them. (Yes, I’m a “Doctor Who” fan.) The company producing the content also loses credibility.

Many well-known (and somehow respected) websites generate content with slick titles that mesmerize you. Yes, we writers all have off days. Me included. Nonetheless, these websites did it too often and onto my “don’t visit list” they went. Fool me once, I’ll give you a couple more chances. Fool me six-ish times, kiss my clicks and eyeballs goodbye.

Help! How Do We Build Great Content?

Think of the content process like a journey not the destination. A leisurely route not a shortcut. A marathon not a sprint.

Creating content that’s worth reading is only half of the success formula. Doug Kessler did a bloody fabulous job with the Six Principles of Great Content Brands. This rounds out the rest of the content success formula.

6 Ways to Build a Great Content Brand (the short version):

  1. Be the buyer. Know your prospect inside out (with clothes on).
  2. Be authoritative. Because beneficial and fascinating beat fluff, unless it contains marshmallows.
  3. Be strategic. Create a content strategy so you deliver the right content, to the right folks in the right place at the right time.
  4. Be prolific. Tap great writers and designers. (My fave, of course.)
  5. Be passionate. Great content is contagious when you care. (This post … yes?)
  6. Be hard on yourself. Rewrite, nix, exterminate and delete until you produce hot piping content goodness.

Content oughta be a great virus so that when we click links, they lead us to tasty content worth gobbling down. Meanwhile, I shall keep on curating through the mountain of crap for the diamonds worth sharing in the museum of social media. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find some winners for those finicky Lanes.

What do you think of content marketing? What does it take to succeed?

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The Trouble with Tribble-ish Content Marketing

Thursday, June 6th, 2013 at 8:53 AM | Category: Content marketing, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Writing 3 comments

star trek kirk tribbles 300x221 The Trouble with Tribble ish Content MarketingBack in 2001, I connected with a fellow from InternetViZ and interviewed him about email marketing. A few months later, a client closed his business. It was one of the primary sources of my writing income. That taught me the importance of having a variety of clients instead of one or two that make up the bulk of your income.

Discovering content marketing

I came to a crossroads in my writing career where I had to decide whether to get more business or let it wither away and be a corporate woman for life. Not wanting to give up, I started writing an email asking people if they needed writing support to help their business.

While writing this (I still remember it as if it happened yesterday. And goodness knows I’ve written many emails.), my stomach knotted and I debated whether to do this. Finally, after re-reading the message many times, I hit “Send.” (Good thing Gmail and its “undo” feature didn’t exist or it may not have made it.)

Gulp.

The fellow responded and connected me with his business partner, Hank Stroll of InternetViZ. I’ve worked with Hank ever since. (He’s in Minn. and me in Texas. We met in person in 2007 and it was like old times. Still is.)

Little did I know he would launch my career in content marketing long before this fancy name came about. He figured it out — before most people did — that companies could better connect with clients and prospects through email newsletters and valuable content instead of marketing their stuff.

The content marketing secret’s out

Now every marketer is in on the secret and trying to churn content. (A lot of content is crap.) Multiplying like the “Star Trek” Tribbles. Even as a writer for more than 10 years, I get stumped for fresh ideas. How many articles have you seen that give you ideas for content? Zillions.

I blog less often than I should. However, I’d rather not blog than recycle something that others have said many times, many ways. Like “Green Eggs and Ham” — these articles have been delivered on a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train. OK, more like in a blog, on a SlideShare, in a video, in a tweet.

Finding a fresh take on popular content topics

So how do you provide a fresh take on a popular topic you need to cover? Yes, there’s a catch. It means reaching a smaller audience.

The secret: Write about the topic with a specific focus.

Let’s say you need to write about content marketing. Here’s how you’d get specific:

  • 7 Ways B2B professional services companies can use content marketing.
  • How content marketing boosts your luxury car dealership.
  • Content marketing lessons from a information technology research firm.
  • Is content marketing worth it for the oil and gas industry? Yes!
  • Team up marketing automation software with content marketing.
  • 5 ways to promote your tech support services with content marketing without sounding like an ad.

You get the idea. True, not many people will seek articles on oil and gas and content marketing. The magic comes in feeding search engines by having the keywords in the headline and link, such as http://www.rockingB2Bprofessionalservices.com/blog/7-ways-b2b-professional-services-companies-use-content-marketing.html (This is a fake link. Any resemblance to real links, living or rotted, is purely coincidental.)

It may not mean much traffic for the article. (This is where social media rocks. Link to the article from social media and email newsletters.)

This link  boosts keyword power for “b2b professional services” especially if the company’s other content uses those keywords in other blog posts and page headlines. While few may search for “b2b professional services content marketing,” “b2b professional services” in the headline and link pump the site’s keyword muscle.

This narrow focus content approach …

  1. Lets you produce fresh content for your website. (Search engines <3 that.)
  2. Strengthens keyword power for your site.
  3. Allows you to give away your expertise for free — which builds credibility and trust.

“But, Meryl. Doesn’t adding keywords like this come across as phony and smart search engines will catch on to such tricks?”

As a writer, I’m more sensitive to keyword fakery in web content. You probably have lots of stories you can tell about your business. Turn your story into an example and those keywords will fit naturally. Don’t force it. Just write conversationally. Edit and tweak. Repeat. (Not too many times, though!)

Watch self-mentions

One more suggestion: Skip mentioning your company, product or service in these articles.

Competitors and fans of competitors won’t link to your article. In searching for articles on niche topics for clients, most of the good ones mention the company, product or service. While a competitor or its fans may not want to link at all, they may be more willing to share because it’s important to them to be a trusted resource. (Great article on this: Why You Should Link to Your Competitors.) When an article promotes something, then that’s a little much.

How do you find content ideas that have been rehashed many times?

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The Problem with Carefully Crafted Headlines

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 at 9:46 AM | Category: Blogging, Books, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 8 comments

My youngest showed me a bookmark that listed the 20 Texas Bluebonnet nominated books. “Mom, I’m going to read all 20 of these books,” he said.

Needless to say, I did cartwheels and back flips in my mind. (The only place it can happen as I haven’t done a decent cartwheel since the ’80s.) A child who wants to read? My oldest was average about reading. The middle one despises it.

A little background. The Texas Library Association runs the Texas Bluebonnet Award program, a reading program that encourages children in third through sixth grades to read more books. They must read at least five nominated books to be able to vote.

We reviewed the list to find his next read. Then I did what I should know better to do. I started judging books by the title. An interesting thing happened. The synopsis of the titles that interested me sounded like books worth reading. And those with blah titles didn’t.

After my son finished “Benjamin Franklinstein Lives!” I picked it up. Good title, right? I don’t like monsters or anything, but I knew it wouldn’t be scary since this is for kids. Here’s the synopsis:

Victor Godwin’s orderly life is upended when he discovers that Benjamin Franklin never actually died. In truth, he was put in suspended animation and hidden away for more than 200 years in Victor’s basement.

Intriguing, right?

I didn’t like it.

Bad Headlines Live!

That’s what happens when I come across a headline that interests me. I click through only to find a disappointing article that doesn’t deliver.

There are jillions of articles about writing headlines for blog posts and online articles. They give advice, tricks and formulas for crafting a super duper catchy one that hypnotizes people into reading.

Please stop. Just stop.

It happens often enough that I quit visiting a few websites that let me down again and again and again. Everyone has an off day. Of course, I didn’t stop visiting after one over-hyped or perfectly crafted headline. These sites were notorious enough that I started remembering how they wasted my time too often.

Sometimes it’s not so obvious. Some headlines say they’ll show you how to create a plan or strategy only to be vague without helping you.

Back to Basics

A simple headline that describes the article beats out another using a formula that over promises and under delivers. The same goes for email subject lines. I open plenty of email newsletters with basic subject lines that tell me what the issue is about. They don’t always have a benefit or add a sense of urgency. Some even use the same headline such as: “Newsletter name: Title of key topic or article.”

Just say what’s in the email and make sure the content in the email matches the landing page. Bryan Eisenberg shares great examples of how an email promises one thing and delivers something else. (Check it out. It’s unbelievable how companies overlook something so basic.)

 The Problem with Carefully Crafted Headlines The Problem with Carefully Crafted HeadlinesNow when I review the Bluebonnet list, I look up the book’s summary and read well-written reviews. I also ask around for recommendations. 2013-2014 nominee “Walls Within Walls” caught my eye. And guess what? The school librarian loved it. And my son is already hooked. (Bonus points: the book takes place in New York, my dad’s hometown.)

For 2012-2013, my son voted for “Aliens on Vacation.” If I could vote, it’d be “Wonderstruck,” which left me — like its title — wonderstruck after reading it.  (Its author, Brian Selznick, wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”) At my son’s school, “Wonderstruck” received the most votes. “Postcards from Camp” won the 2012-2013 Texas Bluebonnet Award.

Are headlines becoming a problem for you in your Internet travels? Do they live up to your expectations? What can we do to write better headlines?

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Chynna’s Top Ten Writing Tips

Thursday, April 19th, 2012 at 9:38 AM | Category: Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 4 comments

Welcome to meryl’s notes blog (this here place you’re lookin’ at) in Plano, Texas. We’re honored to be a stop in Chynna Laird’s WOW! Women On Writing Blog tour.

Chynna Laird Chynnas Top Ten Writing TipsAbout Chynna Laird: She’s a psychology major, freelance writer and multi award-winning author living in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner, Steve, and their four children. Her passion is helping children and families living with Sensory Processing Disorder and other special needs. Laird has authored an award-winning children’s book (I’m Not Weird, I Have SPD), two memoirs (the multi award-winning, Not Just Spirited: A Mom’s Sensational Journey With SPD and White Elephants), a young adult novel (Blackbird Flies), an adult suspense (Out Of Sync), and a Young Adult Suspense/Mystery/Paranormal/Sweet Romance (Undertow, to be released 2012). She blogs at The Gift Blog and See the White Elephants.

Chynna’s Top Ten Writing Tips by Chynna Laird

I’ve been writing since I was in my single digits. I guess you could say that writing isn’t just a hobby for me or something I ‘just do’, it’s a huge part of who I am. I need that creative time that’s separate from the other roles I play during the day when I can lose myself in my characters and the places they take me. It’s a wonderful feeling having all of these stories inside of me bursting to get out that I can actually share with other people … and they read it! How cool is that?

I consider myself very blessed to be able to do what I do and I don’t take it for granted in the least. Writing is something we can always do as long as we have a story in our hearts and our wits about us. There’s no age, sex, race, religion, social status, or ability barriers when it comes to being a writer. If you have that creativity inside of you, if that passion is there, nurture it.

A still have a few years to go before I’m plopped in that ‘veteran writer’ category, and my goodness I still have so much to learn. But in the fairly short period of time that I’ve been out in the writing world, there are a few things I’ve learned. And, if you’ll allow me to, I’d love to share them with you.

1. Accept that you are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you dabble in it or you work most of your day pounding on the keyboard. You could be a blogger, an article writer, a poet, a short story creator, or a diligent person who writes 200,000-word books. You. Are. A. Writer. You have that creative energy inside of you and you make the effort to channel it. So, even if you haven’t been published yet, just say what I used to before I got my first story published: “I’m a writer. The world just hasn’t found me yet.”

2. Find the time. If all you have time for is a paragraph or two or a single blog post, perfect. There will be days when you just don’t have time to write as much as you’d like to get some out. It keeps the creative juices bubbling. My personal goal is about 1,500 words a day. That could be an article, a blog post, or a section in one of my novels-in-progress. For me, writing gives me the same energy as my yoga or exercise time. I make the time.

3. Have your own space. I realize this isn’t always possible. My “work space” is smack-dab in the middle of my living room where all the action is (I know … my bad … ). But when I have something I really want to work on or an important deadline to meet, I take our tiny laptop or a notebook and a pen and I hide somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you set up a little space in the walk-in closet, put little desk up in the quietest place in your house or shut yourself in the bathroom for a bit, have a space where you can let the words flow.

4. Journal. I’ve been practicing journaling since I was very young. It has many benefits. Aside from being a place to jot down your personal thoughts, feelings, and dreams, it’s also where you can work on ideas, practice finding your writing voice as well as getting into the habit of writing. That’s how my dedication and discipline for ‘finding the time’ came from.

5. Read … a lot. Just like in any profession, in order to succeed it’s a good idea to learn from those who are rocking it out there. Read anything and everything from authors you aspire to be. Trust me, you can learn so much just from that alone.

6. Start in your “safe place” then branch out from there. When I first started, I had absolutely no idea where I fit into the writing world. There are so many genres and sub-genres, it’s hard to know at first where I “fit in.” All I knew was that I was told my style of writing was “emotionally charged.” So I started writing inspirational articles and personal essays. From there, I channeled my emotional energy into intense contemporary young adult shorts, then it blossomed from there. The point is by all means start where you feel safe. But don’t be afraid to venture out past the safe area because you never know what else you’re capable of.

7. Join a writing group. Every province or state has some sort of writing association. Get in touch with them and find a local writing group. If there isn’t one, why not put one together? Writing groups are great because they are often made up of a good mix of individuals in various stages of their writing careers. You can get critique of your work and network with writing peers, which is a major part of being a writer.

8. Find a writing mentor. I love my writing mentors. They inspire me, keep me focus and grounded and never let me give up. It’s very important to have someone who has “been there, done that” who can give you guidance, answer your questions and be that strong support when you need it. If you don’t know someone who can mentor you, check with your local university or college’s English department or the writing association nearest to you. Both often have mentoring programs you could sign up for.

9. Get out once in awhile. This is something I have to remind myself of once in awhile. If you’re a full-time writer, you’ll be spending a lot of time in front of your computer. Alone. (No, social media chats do not count as getting out or connecting with others!) I’m lucky because I have my four kids around me and have to get out there and be around others through their school, activities and my charity work.

10. Rejection is a part of writing. It sucks, but it’s true. If it makes you feel better, even though I’ve written countless articles, blog posts, and books, I still get rejections. It’s a part of the whole process. The only advice I can give you is to feel the sting, then move on. Consider it a learning curve. Analyze why you were rejected and work on it. There are other editors waiting to hear your pitch. Trust me, each time it happens your skin gets a little thicker until you can finally say, “Ah. Their loss. NEXT!”

The only other piece of advice I can give you is this: Do not give up. I consider everything I go through in life a lesson, good or bad. You just can’t think of it any other way or things will just get to you. If you truly believe in yourself and what you’re doing, others will too. Never give someone the power to squash your dreams. They are what inspire us, give us hope and keep us moving forward.

Happy writing!

What writing tips do you have?

White Elephants cover Chynnas Top Ten Writing TipsAbout White Elephants: Elephant in the middle of the living room — that is one way of explaining how a family walks around the invisible presence of huge problems. Hindsight is what brings the elephant into focus.

Somehow at the innocent age of five Tami began to see the bulky creature crowding her family and took on a sense of responsibility far beyond expectation for her age. Her mother was different than other mothers. Family life in their household was not pretty. No one noticed. No one did anything about it, and Tami wanted someone to do just that. As an adult Tami took on her first name, Chynna, and took up the challenge to find out what might have helped her mother fight her battle of self-destruction. She couldn’t help her mother, but she would consider it worth everything if her family’s story helped another.

This candid memoir is a story of one girl’s struggle to deal with her mother’s alcoholic/bipolar condition–the white elephant no one else would see. With a conversational tone, Laird shares her remarkable story of abuse, survival, and her triumphant recovery into becoming a healthy, well adjusted wife and mother. Tastefully written, this book will touch your heart. It offers hope that, no matter where you come from, life is what you make it.

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Research Redefined

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 at 8:56 AM | Category: Books, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 2 comments

Encyclopedia Britannica 1913 300x177 Research RedefinedYou may have heard that Encyclopædia Britannica no longer sells a print edition. It now only offers a paid subscription to its online edition. Why pay a few bucks a month for information that’s available free? Ah, yes, Encyclopædia Britannica entices prospects by saying, “There’s no such thing as a bad question–but there are bad answers.”

Wikipedia vs. Encyclopædia Britannica

Resources like Wikipedia and infographics have been known to produce incorrect information. Besides, even if Wikipedia managed to produce perfect entries — it still has a human factor problem with volunteers writing and editing the entries.

I’ve seen an editor delete an entry due to bias rather than providing a solid reason that complies with Wikipedia guidelines. I’ve seen entries on controversial hijacked or rewritten with bias. And I’ve heard stories like David Henderson’s. He shares his thoughts and experience on Wikipedia.

I think we all agree Wikipedia has plenty of mistakes. But what about the stalwart Britannica? It’s not infallible according to a study.

Nature conducted a controversial study comparing the accuracy of the two sources. Using the average mistakes per article, the study found 2.92 mistakes for Encyclopædia Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia could make corrections instantly while a printed edition could not … that is, until now. I wonder how the two compare when using the online edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Nonetheless, we all need to know how to discern bad information from the good. That means learning how to find information, looking at the facts, and evaluating the source [pdf]. Many Wikipedia contributors include citations to support the facts presented. Using our experience and research skills, we can figure out whether those resources suffice.

Wikipedia doesn’t get much respect in academics. Some educators consider it invalid as a source. (Search for it and you’ll see.)

Trusted resources not always reliable

The Internet has changed how we obtain information. The information is out there, but we need to know how to dig through it to get what we need. Even reliable resources get it wrong.

For example, The University of Texas’ Energy Institute conducted a hydraulic fracturing study that included a look at the media and public perception of shale gas development. The study found that the tone of media coverage was “overwhelming negative.”

Here are the most interesting facts from the study:

  • “Less than 20% of newspaper articles on hydraulic fracturing mention scientific research related to the issue.
  • “25% of broadcast news stories examined made reference to scientific studies.
  • “33% of online news coverage mentioned scientific research on the issue.”

Newspaper articles. Broadcast news. Online news coverage. These are resources many people trust. Yet, these media outlets don’t often rely on scientific research when talking about shale development.

Side note. Here’s an infographic comparing the two. Accurate or not? I found the Nature study through Google, which happens to be one of the resources in the infographic. Do a search on the study and you’ll see plenty of results about its controversy.

What kind of impact does the Internet have on research? What if many researchers, journalists, and students rely on flawed data found on the Internet and reliable resources? How do we determine what’s reliable aside from talking to a primary source?

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The Secret to Writing about a Popular Topic

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 at 10:21 AM | Category: Blogging, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Writing 1 comment
crowd The Secret to Writing about a Popular Topic

Image from sxc.hu user rhythms

Before reading Margie Clayman’s Avoid the temptation to write something popular, I saw articles on how to get ideas for blogging and how to write a bunch of blog posts quickly. These tired topics introduce nothing new. Same outfit, different color and style. Blog there, done that.

I’d rather not blog than rehash something that others have said many times, many ways. Like Green Eggs and Ham — these articles have been delivered so many ways possible … on a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train.

Is there any hope for writing about popular topics? Yes. Even about Pinterest. Already, every kind of article on Pinterest has shown up: round ups, lists, advice, and so on. Many of them good reads.

Good things about writing about a popular topic like Pinterest:

  • Add fresh content to the blog.
  • Reach newcomers. (Users join Pinterest daily, so they may have ignored past articles on the topic.)
  • Share my experience. (No one can be me.)

Blogging isn’t just for driving traffic. It’s for loading the website with fresh content to keep search engines happy. Because of this, blogging always pays off. Traffic is a bonus.

Yes, there’s a way to make a post on a prominent topic like Pinterest stand out. Although it means reaching a smaller audience, the search engines will love it. The secret: Write about Pinterest with a focus on a narrow topic.

Examples of Pinterest articles with a specific topic:

  • Ways to use Pinterest in the oil and gas industry.
  • How to make Pinterest work for your professional services business.
  • Pinterest for a forklift company? Yes!
  • How a luxury car dealership uses Pinterest.
  • 5 ways to promote your help desk department with Pinterest.

Get the idea, yes? Not many people will be looking for articles on forklifts and Pinterest, but you’re feeding the search engines by having the keywords in the headline and link, such as http://www.helpdesksoftware.com/blog/5-ways-to-promote-your-help-desk-department-with-pinterest.html (This link is fictitious. Any resemblance to real links, living or rotted, is purely coincidental.)

This link  provides more keyword power for “service desk” especially if the company’s other content already uses those keywords in the headlines. While few may look for “service desk pinterest,” “service desk” appearing in the headline and link will help the site pump its keyword muscle.

You may wonder if adding obvious keywords into an article like these has a phoniness about it. As a writer, I’m extra sensitive to keyword phoniness in web content. In this case, you treat those specifics as your example.

Be careful, though. Try to write these articles without mentioning your company, product, or service. Why? A client needed articles on how to evaluate help desk software. Go on and give it a shot. Search for “evaluate help desk software” and see what you find. Most of the time, the search engine produces few results. And when they do, the article mentions the company’s product.

Lost. Link. Opportunity. The company needing these articles doesn’t want to link to articles mentioning its competitors’ products. This also makes an argument for having a company blog under a separate URL. Even if the competitor doesn’t mention its products, the company wouldn’t want to send prospects anywhere on the competitor’s site.

What do you think? Should bloggers and writers stop writing about the popular topics? Do the niche thing? Something else?

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The Joy of a Good Verb

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 at 9:50 AM | Category: Language, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 5 comments

Welcome to meryl’s notes blog (this here place you’re lookin’ at) in Plano, Texas. We’re honored to be a stop in Pesi Dinnerstein’s WOW! Women On Writing Blog tour. We’re giving away a copy of A Cluttered Life: Searching for God, Serenity, and My Missing Keys! [affiliate] Read on to see how you can win.

Dinnerstein Pesi The Joy of a Good VerbAbout Pesi Dinnerstein: Pesi Dinnerstein (a.k.a. Paulette Plonchak) has written selections for the best-selling series Small Miracles, by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal, and has contributed to several textbooks and an anthology of short stories. Dinnerstein recently retired as a full-time faculty member of the City University of New York, where she taught language skills for close to thirty years.

She has been an aspiring author and self-acknowledged clutterer for many years, and has spent the better part of her life trying to get organized and out from under. Despite heroic efforts, she has not yet succeeded; but she continues to push onward, and hopes that her journey will inspire others to keep trying as well.

The Joy of a Good Verb by Pesi Dinnerstein

I’ve never liked verbs very much.  Adjectives have always been more my speed.  How things look and feel and smell are generally more interesting to me than what they do.  Whether someone sips or swigs or guzzles their coffee concerns me less than the fact that it’s steaming hot, creamy beige and mocha-flavored with a hint of vanilla.

Most of the verbs that are part of my daily life are not particularly exciting.  I drive from here to there; I return a phone call; I lose my keys — I find my keys — I lose my keys again; I unload the dishwasher — I reload the dishwasher; I water my garden; I steam my vegetables; I try to remember to breathe.  It’s all necessary, but pretty boring.

I would certainly rather spend my time in the presence of a flaming orange sunset or an iridescent ocean wave.  Hanging out with an adjective is so much more satisfying.

However, a few years ago, something shifted.  As I was writing A Cluttered Life and thinking about all the things that make my life unmanageable, I couldn’t help but notice that my world was becoming more and more crowded with adjectives and the objects to which they were attached.

Then, one day, an old friend came to visit.  She had never seen my house in quite the state it was in at that moment, and her eyes opened wide as she stepped through the front door.

“This place feels very . . . stuck,” she said, expressing many layers of meaning in  that one well-chosen word — which, interestingly enough, just happened to be an adjective.

She was absolutely right.  My home was stuck; my things were stuck; and I was feeling increasingly stuck myself.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that what I needed were a few dynamic verbs to help me break through my own inertia.  The ones I was currently engaged with — observing, reflecting, writing — were not creating much movement in my life.  The situation clearly called for action.  Organize; fold; file; recycle; throw out — do something!  I immediately put the book aside.  It was obviously time to stop describing my mess and start dealing with it.

And, then, a strange thing happened.  When I returned to the manuscript, I found myself dissatisfied with many of the chapters that had seemed perfectly fine to me before.  Now, they felt stuck as well.

So, I began to delete adjectives and add verbs.  It was painful at first, but, before long, light and air seemed to flow into my sentences — and I could feel the manuscript beginning to breathe.

But change is not easy to hold on to.  Although I’ve come to appreciate the value of a good verb — in my life as well as in my writing — I continue to prefer the comfort of a friendly adjective.

And when I take my morning walk tomorrow, I probably still won’t notice the running and skating and bicycling going on because, once again, I’ll be too busy enjoying the beautiful, brightly colored, deliciously fragrant world around me.

A Cluttered Life The Joy of a Good VerbAbout Dinnerstein’s Book: Insightful, unsettling, and wildly funny, A Cluttered Life: Searching for God, Serenity, and My Missing Keys (Seal Press) is the story of Pesi Dinnerstein’s quest to create a simple and orderly life—only to discover that simplicity is not so simple and what constitutes clutter is not always perfectly clear. When a chance encounter with an old acquaintance reveals the extent to which disorder has crept into every corner of her existence, Pesi determines to free herself, once and for all, of the excess baggage she carries with her. Along the way—with the help of devoted friends, a twelve-step recovery program, and a bit of Kabbalistic wisdom—her battle with chaos is transformed into an unexpected journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening.

Comment and win: The prize: winner gets a copy of A Cluttered Life: Searching for God, Serenity, and My Missing Keys!. For a chance to win, please leave a comment about clutter, getting organized, changing your vocabulary or whatever comes to mind after reading this post (other than you wanna win!). You have until 11:59pm on January 31, 2012 to qualify for the drawing. The unbiased and robotic Random.org has the honor of picking the winner.

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