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.)

Now 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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Klatsch: Your Favorite Memoirs

Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 10:24 AM | Category: Books, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 4 comments
DSC04059 Six-Word Memoir banners
Image by godutchbaby via Flickr

The local newspaper had a tasty article about cookie balls. It tells the story of a teacher who received round sweet treats from a student. She couldn’t figure out what they were, but she knew the treats weren’t cake balls.

The article explains that the centers of cake balls include a mix of cake crumbs and icing. The cookie balls blend cream cheese and ground sandwich cookies (Oreos and Nutter Butter, for example). A clear cut definition, wouldn’t you say? Unlike cookie and cake balls, the boundaries between memoirs and autobiographies blur.

I could quote the definition of memoir from many dictionaries, but instead I will share Writer’s Digest‘s definition. WD editor Brian A. Klems explains the difference between memoir and autobiography.

An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life.

Christina Katz commented that she needs to read more because so many great memoirs await. (She must’ve read my mind because after I drafted this post, she published a list of memoir recommendations.) So I started thinking about the memoirs I’ve read and couldn’t recall a single one until I checked my books read list [pdf] (thank goodness for the list and Goodreads). In reviewing the first part of the looonnnngggg list, most were essays, autobiographies or neither. Like WD says, Amazon does put memoirs and biographies together.

I can’t think of a memoir that focuses on one aspect of a person’s life.  Oh, wait! What about Henry Kisor’s What’s That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness? The book focuses on Kisor’s experiences as a person who is deaf. But he shares a variety of stages in his life. So does that count as a memoir? Autobiography?

Christina’s list includes Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ve started reading. Like Kisor, the book revolves around one topic (can you guess?) throughout his life. So does that mean Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott qualifies as a memoir?

Sounds like I need an memoir education beyond the fabulous guest post from Linda Joy Myers. Bet many others want to know the same thing.

What are your favorite memoirs? Why? What do you think of the distinction between memoir and autobiography?

klatsch n. “A casual social gathering, usually for conversation.” Source: The Free Dictionary AKA A blog post centered on a discussion topic.

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Short, Powerful and Favorite Books

Monday, March 2nd, 2009 at 9:09 AM | Category: Books, Meryl's Notes Blog 20 comments

Inspired by the short books that helped me get my reading groove back, I asked others what are their favorite books with no more than 200 pages. If you need a jump start to get back into reading or need a short read, here’s your list of books to check out.

I looked up those new to me and already have them on my “rent from the library” list. Since these are short, I plan to get them soon after I catch up on a couple of longer books I need to review. I’d let them cut in line, but I’ve already let too many books skip ahead in line.

Yes, a couple go a little beyond 200, but not much and they’re superb suggestions. Apologies for all the links — need to credit others and make it easy for you to look up the books.

jmcnally: Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke.

mikeandthemoms: I’m going to go with two – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (I think it’s under 200) and The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway.

GeekMommy: under 200 pages? either Anthem by Ayn Rand or Mimi the Merry Go Round Cat by Dorothy Haas. Both have shaped my mind.

yarnmaven: The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood. Everything else I read is much longer or a knitting magazine.

bradshorr: Hard to pick one … this hits me at the moment Eugenics and Other Evils. On a totally different tack – Woody Allen Getting Even. Also C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. World Wide Rave: Creating Triggers that Get Millions of People to Spread Your Ideas and Share Your Stories.

CathLawson: The Richest Man In Babylon

guykawasaki: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.

Alison Law: I really loved Shopgirl by Steve Martin (144 pgs. according to Looking forward to your list!

Ben Henick: The Little Prince

Sara: Chronicles of Narnia

Gloria Chen: Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson.

Linda Kamin: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Marsha: Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life by Zoe Weil

Charles Bohannan: The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)

Jamie Grove’s List

In the Land of Pain, Alphonse Daudet

The Last Opium Den, Nick Tosches

Embers, Sandor Marai

Literature and the Gods, Roberto Calasso

The Devil’s Larder: A Feast, Jim Crace

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, Thad Carhart

From Michael Michalowicz, the Toilet Paper Enterpreneur: Body for Life: 12 Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength, The Richest Man in Babylon, and Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money–That the Poor and the Middle Class Do Not!

Stephen Elliott’s List

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Ray by Barry Hannah

Salvador by Joan Didion

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox

And probably my favorite book, Jesus’ Son: Stories by Denis Johnson

Mark Macias suggests Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing Media (Excerpts available).

Gisela suggests:

From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe

Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

Meryl’s List

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way: I started applying these ideas right away — before I finished the book. The author explains the science behind this in an interesting way.

Associated Press Guide to News Writing: The Resource for Professional Journalists: All you need to know to become a better journalist.

QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life: Rather than doing what comes naturally for many of us and becoming defensive and pointing fingers, the book changes your mode of thinking from “It’s his fault” to “How can I fix this?”

The Holy Man: Each chapter tells a tale and teaches a lesson. However, in the big scheme of things, there’s progression from start to finish as a couple of characters appear throughout.

Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results: Four simple things to make work and home a great place to be.

The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur: Become an entrepreneur with what you have and without the B.S. so many other books have.

My updated list of books read along[pdf] with their notes.

What other great books can you add to the list? What makes them special to you?

Updated: 22 April 2009


Week of June 16 Prize Winners

Monday, June 23rd, 2008 at 9:12 AM | Category: Blogging, Meryl's Notes Blog 4 comments

We have a lot of prizes to award today, so I’ll hold off our guest entry for tomorrow so the prizes don’t steal his spotlight!

From the Google Me! entry, we have Airport Mania: 2 copies (1 Mac and 1 PC) and one copy of Andy King’s upcoming Website Optimization.

Winners: Joanna Young wins a copy of Airport Mania and Yvonne Russell wins a copy of Website Optimization. We had no Mac comments in that entry, so the Mac copy remains unawarded.

Telling the Hard Truths of the Writing Life entry prizes include a book by Tara Calishain and AWAI’s Accelerated Six Figure Copywriting program.

Winners: Karen Putz (yes, you read that right!) wins a book by Tara Calishain and John Hewitt wins AWAI’s Accelerated Six Figure Copywriting program!

Prizes for The Fear that Holds Creative Writers Back entry are one custom banner for a blog or web site created to the winner’s specs and preferences, valued at $200. Men with Pens ask for a 7 to 10 day turnaround from the point that the winner transmits her/his specs, and two copies of Ricochet Infinity.

Winners: John Hoff and Ceci win Ricochet Infinity. Karen Putz (Again!!! This is your lucky day, girl!) wins the the custom banner!

Congratulations, everyone! Keep playing.

Please remember you can get more entries telling others about the prizes by linking back here — it won’t lessen your chances of winning — it’ll increase them. More copies of Website Optimization are up for the taking at CSS Collection.

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Marketing Books Online

Friday, November 16th, 2007 at 9:00 AM | Category: Books, Business, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 2 comments

With book coverage in print and newspaper sales declining, authors and publishers must extend their reach to the Internet if they want to boost book sales and publicity. Furthermore, authors are more involved in marketing their books than in the past as publishers can’t or won’t do enough.

Print publications still play a valuable role in books’ lives though the Internet offers many other advantages for promoting books:

  • No need to rely on battery power, electricity, or a working Internet connection to read print.
  • People leave finished copies of printed resources in doctor’s offices, coffee shops, and other public places for others to pick up.
  • No shut down needed upon flight take off and landing.
  • No taking it out of your carry on or briefcase to get through airport security.
  • Fewer distractions and information noise as you don’t have links and animation enticing you away from your reading.
  • Knowing where something starts and ends. The Internet consists of connected pages making it easy for someone to jump from page to page endlessly.
  • Just open and read. No booting up, waiting for loading applications and pages, signing on…

Authors and publishers need to make the Internet their partner in marketing books. The Internet offers the following benefits:

  • Cheap: It costs as little as $5 a month to have a Web site and $0 for a page on sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Bookhitch. Plus, add the book to your e-mail and discussion board signature for noticing when people read your e-mails and posts.
  • Search: Search engines and Web sites help people find books on topics of interest.
  • Access: Contact reviewers and bloggers who cover your book’s topic offering to send them a review copy. Also contact sites that publish book reviews like BlogCritics. The Internet also provides a great way to connect with reading groups. Many reading groups invite members to submit questions for the author to respond or hold a conversation online through chat or a Web-based application.
  • Network: Forums, online groups, and social networks allow you to connect and interact with potential readers and reviewers.
  • Link: Contribute articles to article libraries, online magazines, and other online resources where you can have a byline that links to your Web site or book ordering page.

Start or boost online book marketing with help from the following resources:

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Reasons for Writing a Book

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007 at 9:37 AM | Category: Books, Business, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing No comments

I asked friends and colleagues a question regarding a book topic. Quite a few people told me to write what I want to write about. But I want to provide something people need, not satisfy a personal desire.

In the October 2007 of Sam Horn‘s “Take Action” Newsletter, best-selling author Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent and Burden of Proof) shared a lesson he learned:

… an attendee asked, “What’s been your biggest lesson as a writer?”

Turow thought about it for a moment and then smiled and said, “I once spent 6 months writing a book that was centered around a legal precedent called the ‘Law of Inhabitability.’

“I turned my finished manuscript into my editor who got back to me a week later with some bad news, ‘Scott, you may think this topic is fascinating – but nobody else does.'”

Argghh. Scott had to scrap the project because he had violated the cardinal rule of writing and speaking, “We may care about a topic, but the more important question is will our audience care about the topic?”

This isn’t suggesting that you shouldn’t write about a topic that fascinates you. Do it. Maybe you’ll find a market. Maybe you won’t. Just be prepared for a long road in finding an interested publisher and don’t expect it to sell many copies.

I’m interested in many things, but would much rather write a book that inspires, informs, or both. Scott Turow and Sam Horn continue:

Over the years, many people have consulted with me to craft a presentation or develop a book. One of the first questions I ask is, “Why are you writing or speaking on this subject?”

Reasons frequently given range from “I want to:

  • Leave a legacy
  • Make a lot of money
  • Establish myself as a nationally-known topic expert
  • Catapult my visibility and media coverage
  • Drive consulting business and attract clients

These are all decent reasons. But they’re not enough.

The more important question is, “Why will people find your information and approach interesting, useful, and worth their valuable time, attention, and money?”

Will your material:

  • Save them time or make them money?
  • Motivate them or inspire them to take action on a priority progect or goal?
  • Prevent trial-and-terror learning and provide a short cut to success and better results?
  • Connect them with people experiencing the same challenge so they know they’re not alone?
  • Teach them how to acquire a needed skill?
  • Point out how they’re doing something wrong and show them how to prevent it, change it or improve it?
  • Expand their horizons and give them experiences they’d never have otherwise?

All of the above are valid reasons for writing and speaking on a topic because they focus on how your audiences and readers will benefit, not just you.

Clarify up front why your information will serve people and keep that in mind as you produce pages or present ideas. Your intent to serve will be self-evident and people will care about what you’re saying and feel connected to you because they’ll sense this is not an exercise in ego.

We must admit that having a book in your portfolio impresses people and can help your business. But the key reason should be to provide value to the reader.

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Rules for Renegades Book Review

Monday, October 8th, 2007 at 6:57 AM | Category: Books, Business, Life Tips, Meryl's Notes Blog, Reviews 1 comment

rules_for_renegades.jpgRenegades usually don’t follow rules because that is what makes them renegades. Rules for Renegades aims to share Christine Comaford-Lynch’s experiences. She states that she started with no special advantages and that 10 life lessons — the rules — she shares will help readers gain confidence and self-esteem, build strong relationships, and become financially independent.

The book oozes Comaford-Lynch’s fiery style and rivets. This is a woman whose history consists of running away to New York to try modeling, becoming a Buddhist monk, inventing several products earning millions of dollars, and making a mistake that cost $8 million. She tells fascinating stories while interweaving advice on funding and starting a company. Reading the book is akin to reading People Magazine and getting the inside scoop on celebrities from a business perspective. Instead of reading about actors, read about an executive who meets celebrities and attempts to motivate.

What are the chances any of us will experience such meetings? Very little. The celebs with the biggest parts are Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and an anonymous billionaire. She drops plenty of names of people she meet along the way including Connie Chung, Maury Povich, Jane Fonda, and Barbara Walters. This book qualifies more the autobiography section than for the self-help section.

The author’s writing feels loud and she sounds like she bounces off the walls. Few successful people have a personality resembling Comaford-Lynch’s maniacal and hyperactive style. Thus, her experiences aren’t something many of us can do or make happen even if we tried. Her advice seems more kitschy than insightful.

In talking about what it takes to be success, she believes a person’s GSD (Gets Stuff Done) is more important than an MBA. She doesn’t mean to slam education, but tells readers that the real world experience is what matters instead of the pile of degrees. A GSD means you know how to get your foot in the door, set goals, listening to the voice in your head, and avoiding pushiness. If you want to earn a GSD-style degree, David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) is better.

The most interesting thing in the “Work Your Money Mojo” chapter is its title. The advice on raising money from outside the company doesn’t offer anything new: Prove you have a viable product, set measurable goals to track progress, and report to management. However, she does a valuable service in providing resources for getting funding. This information, though, feels out of place in the disjointed book.

Comaford-Lynch deserves congratulations for making millions, working as a CEO for multiple companies, and learning from her mistakes. Her path to all of money, career, and happiness isn’t one most people would want to take to grow and prosper. In sum, Rules for Renegades proves an entertaining read with too much emphasis on things that are bigger than they really are.

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Links: 2007-10-05

Friday, October 5th, 2007 at 7:17 AM | Category: Life Tips, Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing No comments
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A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work Book Review

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007 at 2:02 PM | Category: Books, Meryl's Notes Blog, Reviews, Writing No comments

Books on writing often reiterate the same advice we learn over time, the reader sometimes lucks out in using a tidbit or two. Realistically, no one has time to study the advice and put it to practice. Thus, it’s not a bad thing for a book on writing to cover the things we’ve read before. The more we read about it, the more it sinks in.

But you can’t read A Writer’s Coach in the same way you read any other writing book. This one goes deeper meaning a reader may absorb the information better by reading one chapter at a time to understand and practice the concepts. Coaching an athlete to improve at something doesn’t happen overnight. Thus, this book targets the serious writer who needs to move beyond the basic books on writing in order to take writing to the next level.

I try to avoid writing general reviews that tell the reader nothing, but Hart is a master in explaining the concepts of method, process, structure, and everything else he covers. It’s difficult to capture them into a little review when I try to avoid long reviews.

Business and life coaching grows more popular because they’re effective in helping people change behavior and improve. In thinking about coaches, I reflected on my childhood years when I played sports. The best coaches point out the right way to swing a bat, serve a volleyball, or shoot a basket. They also help players review their weaker moves so they can fix their form rather than let them continue using bad form, which will hurt them in the end. “Coach” is a fitting word in the title because Hart takes the coaching approach in showing the writer the right form for taking an idea from start to finish.

The book speaks more to journalists and non-fiction writers. However, much advice works across all writing genres — so those who thrive on telling stories can glean a few valuable lessons from Hart. Expect to find high quality content that you find in the best college textbooks — except subtract the stiff and convoluted writing. Hart’s writing style makes the reading easy. A Writer’s Coach contains smart, clear and logical guidance that will take a writer’s writing skills to the next level.

Title: A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work
Author: Jack R. Hart
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 0375423273
Date: August 2006
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Cover Price: USD: $24.95 Amazon: $16.47

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Criticizing Book Reviewers

Friday, June 29th, 2007 at 11:03 AM | Category: Books, Business, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing No comments

Denny Hatch criticizes book reviewers proclaiming they reveal too much information. Whether you agree or not, I follow these rules in writing book reviews:

* Honest: I try to provide an overview of the reading experience including the content without the marketing speak you find on the back of the book or inside the cover. In reading reviews, I want to know whether the book is worth my time — and that’s what I aim for in the reviews.

* Shoot for the right length. A book review isn’t an abstract, but it shouldn’t take much of a person’s time. Can’t put a number of words — you just know when it’s right. The review shouldn’t be so short that the reader doesn’t have a clue what to think. “I loved it. You must get it,” a frequent type of comment in Amazon reviews, just doesn’t cut it. You loved it, great. Tell me why.

* Provide new information: I study other reviews after writing mine to ensure I covered something different. Some people don’t rely on one review to make a decision. I want them to have a variety of information instead of the same stuff. Some people list the chapter titles. Boring. I only mention them if the entry doesn’t include the details, and briefly describe the chapter.The Perfect Thing is a perfect example (couldn’t resist).

* Don’t give away anything. Had to be said.

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