Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blissdom 2012 Recap: Why Less Is More When It Comes To Your Writing

As I mentioned yesterday - did you see the yummy Cherry Bliss Bites I made? - I have been at Blissdom for the past several days. This is by far one of my favorite conferences because it is so content heavy and has such great information. In fact, I actually saw very few of the sponsors because I spent all my time in sessions and didn't have time to get around to most of the booths and suites, which made me a little sad.

The good news is that I tried to take really good notes so that I could absorb the information being shared and then pass it along to you. I'm sure I missed some pieces, but hopefully not much. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the sessions and what we learned.

The first session I attended was Cut to the Chase: Learn Why Less is More When it Comes to Your Writing with Scott Adler and Amy Graff from

A couple notes before I get to the session: the irony of the long title for this session given the topics we discussed was not lost on me. It still makes me giggle.

I also disagreed somewhat with the extreme focus on cutting out words. At some point, the words - even the seemingly superfluous ones - are what make the story and bring us into the moment. The winning story in our group exercise at the end of the session was 31 words - cut from over 200. In my opinion, it left out so many details that made the story real and relatable. We do need to strike a balance, and this was left out of our discussion.

My notes:

Top tips for writing irresistible headlines:
Be clear, not clever

Keep it short and tight (5-7 words)

Use strong keywords and trending terms

Force the click

Use numbers (but not too large)

Ask a question

Promise something

Winning words for effective headlines: free, new, easy, best, worst, secret, top, how to

4 habits of successful headline writers
1) Pay attention to your own behavior – what headlines do you click on? What types of headlines elsewhere appeal to you?

2) Seek headline feedback – ask your friends, find a good support group

3) Ask yourself: What part of this story would I tell a friend?

4) Make time for headline writing. Don’t wait until the last minute to slap a headline on your post. This should be most thoughtful part of your post – spend at least 10 minutes working on it.

Using the Gizmodo example – why would anyone take on the story of taking on the ownership of the Iranian nuclear threat? This was their headline: “Two supercarriers side by side look awesome, but it’s very bad news” This was placed next to the image showing the two carriers, demonstrating the power of an image with a headline. What image extends the power of the headline? This was a post that spoke in our language and even those who aren’t politically inclined, that draws you in, proving you can do this for any topic.

Part 1: Nailing a headline
Write a winning headline for this topic – with prizes! Someone from the table will win….

“Teens across America are wearing their pajamas to school. It’s the latest fashion trend. But while teens think PJs are comfortable and cute, many school administrators find this fad sloppy. Some schools are forbidding students from wearing pajamas to class.”

Our two ideas: Pajamas Get an F? and The Schoolroom Isn’t Their Bedroom
Winner: School Administrators Tell Victoria to Leave Her Secret At Home
Real headline: Wear Your Pajamas All Day?

Part 2 Editing yourself – the power of economy

With newspapers, you have a group of editors and readers, there are anywhere from 5-10 people who all are going in and reworking sentences and they are omitting needless words, making things more concise and sharp. In blogging, the blogger is both the writer and editor. We’re guilty all the time of not editing and just trying to get it up quickly. We just want to post it and get it up there. It’s so important to take the time to edit it. Have you ever said, “it’s a little wordy, but it’s good enough. No one will ever notice.” If you notice, someone else will!

Why it’s important to write concisely:
One of best ways to improve your blog post is to edit it down. Your message will come across more clearly and powerfully when your writing is clear and strong. Readers are more likely to come back. They are more likely to share posts that are well-written and post them on Facebook and Twitter. You never know where it will be picked up.

If it’s well edited, you’ll become well respected in your field. It’s incredibly powerful to have good writing. If is going to link to someone, they want to make it something that’s a worthwhile destination. When you link out to someone, it’s extending your relationship with others. You want to be sure to offer them something they can give to others.

The key is to give yourself the time to write. “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” – Henry David Thoreau. To write something short and witty that still tells the tale, that’s what takes the most time, but it’s well worth it. Try to write a show description in 25 words (an upcoming concert or movie). It’s a great training field to have you start thinking about not just what adjectives you could use but instead what three words can make a real impression on who the artist is.

How you can trim that fat:
Go back to high school English. Get rid of the intensifiers and qualifiers. They’re the needless words that modify an adjective “rather quickly” becomes “quickly.” There are many frequently used modifiers – very , really, rather, too, so ,quite, extremely, definitely – we want that casual conversational style, which is why we use them. Sometimes it’s ok because it fits the flow and makes the story write, but try to cut 50-75% of them out of your writing.

There are also redundant expressions in our language that we use regularly: advance reservations, absolutely essential, ATM machine, crystal clear, mutual agreement, whether or not, reconsider again, 12 noon, best ever, both of them – read the list of top 200 redundancies on Don’t be redundant.

We can also reduce inflated formulaic phrases to one word:
Due to the fact that – because
At this point in time – now
With regard to – about
In the near future – soon
In my opinion – I think
In the event that – If
Prior to – because
Regardless of the fact that – although
In all cases – always

Don’t overuse who, which and that. Relative pronouns bog down sentences. It’s so easy to get carried away with them. You don’t ever want to have more than one “that” in a sentence. Break it into two sentences if you need to.

It was my mother who said – My mother said
The diapers, which were pull-ups – the pull-up diapers
The pediatrician would never recommend that a parent but a used carseat – The pediatriction recommends against buying used car seats.

Refer to Strunk & White – The Elements of Style. It’s great to use and refer. Best description of when to use who and whom. The New York Times Style Guide is another great resource, but thicker and more expensive.

We also get wordy with verbs when we add in extra things.
Don’t use “would” just use past tense. She would change diapers daily – she changed diapers daily

Use the active voice instead of passive voice. It is recommended – Pediatricians recommend

Avoid unnecessary use of “to be” and “being.” Time outs are considered to be effective – Time outs are effective

The passive voice is so common, but it’s second nature. Really work to avoid this. Grammar checker on computer can help us avoid passive voice. It does point out the passive voice the majority of the time and can help you find it. Their recommendations for reworking sentences aren’t the best, but it gives you an alert.

Part 3 Editing yourself – Listening to your writing

8 ways to improve your blog posts
1 Show, don’t tell (exchange vague modifiers for specifics). You’ve probably heard this before, but when you give the details, then you don’t end up with these vacuous adjectives. “The meal was fabulous” v “I had the tangy salmon with spicy cilantro salsa.” You have to describe the taste and the mood. Check out the James Beard food writing award winners – they are the experts in this field and you can learn from them.

2 Opt for simple words rather than fancy, intellectual ones: If you don’t think the readers are going to know what a word means, then don’t use it.

3 Uses contractions – don’t v do not

4 Avoid expletive constructions: “it is” and “there are” – can you rework the sentence to avoid these?

5 Start sentences with “And” or “But” – not formal words like “however” that are formal and sound stuffy. You can break up long sentences and start the second one with a but or and.

6 Skip clich├ęs – “dead” not “dead as a doornail.” Go back and fix those.

7 Avoid using the same words again and again in a blog post – adjectives (like fantastic). Look for different words that tell the story.

8 If what you’re writing is important, let it sit overnight and then read it the next day before you publish. We don’t always have the luxury of waiting overnight, but give yourself some distance – go look out the window, go to the bathroom, take a bread. You will catch something when you go back to look at it. Take a breather and create this awareness before you publish rather than when you’re scrolling through comments. You can be so eager to get a post up and then make a mistake that you could otherwise have avoided.

How to be clear and concise every time – top 10 tips for cutting to the chase
1) Keep your headline to 5-7 words

2) Research and use the write words - google adwords, google trends are good sources. Go by the numbers. It’s an incredible free tool that allows you to see how often a particular key word or phrase is searched every month. This is a great way to set keywords in your post, headlines, even content for your post. BabyCenter changed every mention of toilet training to potty training because searches were exponentially higher. Try different permutations of phrases when searching to find the best one. Google trends does matter because “Valentine’s Day” is a trending phrase in the days around Valentine’s Day, so put it in your headlines. Creatively bring trending topics into your posts where it fits and you can make it work. There may be things on there that are applicable to you and that you can use to create content.

3) Write crisp, clear, uncomplicated sentences

4) Keep verb construction simple Use an active voice

5) Omit needless words and phrases that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence

6) Don’t get overly creative with punctuation

7) Use a conversational voice

8) Say something new in a photo caption – put in information that isn’t included elsewhere. This is a great opportunity to capture readers

9) End your posts with a concisely written question – don’t just slap on a question, so many of us do. Put a good elegant question at the end that makes your readers want to comment. Narrow it down to one question so you’re driving the conversation where you want it to go. They’re going to make a commitment to making a comment, so make it something that is where you want it to go. These are not yes/no questions but ones that make your readers think and share. It’s an opportunity to say something new, not something you already said in a post. Since all your real estate on the page is important, use it well.

10) Read your posts out loud because that is what allows you to catch those typos, grammatical errors, extra words, etc.

Some more tips:
Yes, you can write in a fun, conversational style. That’s what blogging is about. We want to be fun and conversational. Editing down a post doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of this style. Some common mistakes are long rambling reeds. If you need to explain what the story is about in the third or fourth paragraph, you need to rewrite that first paragraph. Go ahead and write it the long rambling way first. Let it out, but recognize that it’s a long rambling need and that you’ll need to kill it. Let it be part of the process if you need.

Avoid cluttered sentences that are packed with so many words we don’t need.

Be careful of words in all caps for emphasis – it’s a big part of rage and anger. You lose the effect if you use it more than just once or twice. It really expresses the emotion when you use it rarely. When you’re putting the caps in, people aren’t used to reading them in all caps, so it stops the reader.

Be careful with overly creative punctuation. We don’t have to follow all the grammar rules in blogging, but no sentence needs five exclamation points. One exclamation point is sufficient. You really only need one, and use them sparingly so that they remain effective. It’s like swearing – when you do it rarely and then swear, people listen and know it’s a big deal.

Don’t use too many words. So often you can cut a blog post in half. She often tells writers that 350 words is a sweet spot and don’t go over 500. If you’ve done a ton of research to share or you’ve got a huge story to tell, there are exceptions, but aim for that sweet spot. Most of the time, editors will tell her to cut a story in half when they look at it. You let go of information and sentences that you’ve fallen in love with, but you still need to let them go. You can save favorite sentences and phrases to use in another sentence. Put them into a “junk” document – the sentences are still there, so it helps you through the letting go process.

It isn’t just about going out and buying a red pen. Or fifty. If you have time, they say rewriting from scratch is best, but that isn’t always feasible. You don’t have to do whole cloth rewrite, but read it out loud and see where you catch yourself. When you do it, your readers will, too. You are your own best critic, so use your power. Read it to someone else if you can.

There is one silver bullet – if a gun is to your head and you had to cut 100 words, what would you cut? That puts the passion into the piece, but it’s about moving it forward and making it more powerful.

Faster doesn’t mean dumber. There are long pieces that are popular, but they earn their length. The pieces that don’t earn their length are considered boring – quote from someone, oops, I missed who.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell” – William Strunk Jr – Elements of Style

You can use your keywords in the caption and also in the photo file name, which is also a great way to get SEO leverage. Putting up the IMG35235 is a huge waste of SEO potential energy.

Writing better, writing more quickly, writing focused on your message really pays dividends.

David Ogilvie (the original ad man) sent a memo in 1982 to his entire staff entitled how to write:

The better you write, the higher you will go at Ogilvie. People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write wooly memos, woolly letters and wooly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.

Here are 10 hints:
Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times
Write the way you talk. Naturally.
Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, altitudinally, judgementally. They are the hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
Never write more than 2 pages on any subject.
Check your quotations.
Never send a letter or memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning – and then edit it.


So yeah, this post may have broken a few of the rules. It's just a touch over that 350 word sweet spot. That said, I felt like it was worth it to share all the information I took down, even if you read it in more than one sitting. Who doesn't want to improve their writing? Which of these tips are you most likely to utilize?


Unknown Mami February 29, 2012 at 5:40 PM  

Lots of useful information here. Thanks.

Deepak Gopy March 1, 2012 at 12:15 AM  

Thanks for the information my friend.
Are you a journalist?

Sandra March 2, 2012 at 9:53 AM  

Thanks for sharing all this great info! I agree: there needs to be a balance. But it also depends on the type of post. Sometimes details are essential, while other times wordiness gets in the way. Looking forward to more great blogging info!

Heather E March 2, 2012 at 11:48 AM  

I'm with Sandra- It's a balance and it really depends on the topic I think. But I loved reading this and definitely took away some key points!

Heather E March 2, 2012 at 11:48 AM  

I'm with Sandra- It's a balance and it really depends on the topic I think. But I loved reading this and definitely took away some key points!

Pat March 7, 2012 at 5:05 PM  

Thanks for all these helpful hints, Michelle. I'm going to print out some of them and keep them beside my monitor.

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