Writing tips from the experts

Writing tips from the experts

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Need some inspiration? Here are selected quotes that can help you put pen to paper.

Cut the boring parts

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” — Elmore Leonard

More than ever, you need to fight for the attention of your readers. There’s no point in publishing content that isn’t useful and interesting.

Eliminate unnecessary words

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete itand the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain

Write with passion.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” — William Wordsworth

The pro-tip here is that if you’re not excited about what you are writing no one else will be, either.

Paint a picture

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov

This dude gets it. Simply stating something is fine, but when you need to capture attention, using similes, metaphors and vivid imagery to paint a picture creates a powerful emotional response.

Squash your inner critic

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath

Regardless of your endeavor, you’ll face criticism, so why do it to yourself? Create your best work and put it out there.

Keep it simple

“Vigorous writing is concise.” — William Strunk Jr.

Maybe it was all of those late nights, struggling to fill out mandatory 10 page papers, but many people still seem to think that worthwhile writing is long and drawn out. It’s more difficult (and effective) to express yourself in the simplest possible manner.

Do it for love

“Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.” — Mark Twain

When you’re just starting out it’s hard to decide where to begin. So don’t. Just start writing. A blog is a good place to start. The most valuable benefit is the feedback.

Learn to thrive on criticism

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Writing means putting yourself at the mercy of hecklers, sycophants and haters. Learn to make the most of the insults and be skeptical of the praise.

Write all the time

“The way you’ll define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.” — John Irving

Write what you know…or what you want to know

“Learn as much by writing as by reading.” — Lord Acton

Successful writing is all about trust and authority. It makes sense to write about your area of expertise. If you don’t have a particular expertise, reading and writing is the best way to develop one and put it on display.

The power of persistence

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” — Octavia E. Butler

Nothing good comes easy, perseverance and consistency makes it look easy. Everyone watches the Olympics, but no one is at the skating rink at 5AM seeing the work that gets put into the performance.

Be unique and unpredictable

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” — Oscar Wilde

Following what works will only get you so far. Experiment with new styles, even if it means taking criticism. Without moving forward, you’ll be left behind.

Practicing positive politics

Practicing positive politics

Here’s how you can keep political discord from sabotaging your mood, ruining relationships and sinking business prospects.

Everyone knows that talking about politics can be instantly polarizing. It’s one of those subjects we’re told to avoid, particularly when it comes to professional situations. But dodging these discussions can be difficult, especially when we’ve got Facebook, Twitter and 24 hour news and “everyone” is talking about it. So when clients, colleagues or friends start talking politics, try these approaches to deftly sidestep the temptation of confrontation.

People live in different worlds. As this WSJ article shows, people actually construct and live within different political realities. Their social media connections, media outlets, networks, family and friends and personal experiences all support these core political beliefs. Such beliefs are extremely difficult to dismantle. You won’t “convince” a person that they didn’t enjoy going to a rally and hearing “their” candidate speak. And why would you want to try? Instead, ask what the experience was like and compliment them on their activism and involvement. You don’t have to believe the rhetoric or switch parties.

Be curious. Instead of feeling angry that someone could support a view you find distasteful, look to understand it by asking open-ended questions.  Maybe it turns out that their family business is taking a hit because of a particular policy. Why would you expect them to vote against their own interests? For example, if you believe a particular environmental policy is good for the world as a whole, try to understand how a particular individual would be affected. Some people don’t want a wind farm in front of their house. Instead of engaging in a debate, try a simple, “I understand why you would think that way,” and move on. 

The Sports Analogy. For many people, their political affiliation is as powerful as their allegiance to a sports team. They may have invested years of time, donations and energy into their beliefs. Some take pride in coming from a long family history and root for their party just like their home team and want their candidate to “win.” Think you can talk someone out of their partisan views during your lunch break? Even with facts? Try talking a die-hard Boston Red Sox or Green Bay Packers fan out of their respective teams. Show them all the stats you like, but they won’t throw away their jersey or favorite hat. Remember the sage words of Dale Carnegie in his 1937 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

Put it in perspective. The parties create a cult of personality around the candidates and pit them against each other in an epic showdown of “good vs evil.” It’s standard operating procedure. But the reality is usually not like the playbook. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were good friends in the Senate.  Abraham Lincoln was longtime buds with Alexander Stephens, vice president of the confederacy. George W. Bush and John Kerry were both members of the same “Skull and Bones” secret club. There are plenty of politicians who do battle in public but on weekends play golf together and have mutual interests. If political figures can get on well behind the scenes, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t, right? 

Avoid the negative noise. There’s a whole industry around political outrage. Writers get late night TV gigs and entrepreneurs hawk T-shirts, mugs and bobble heads. The big networks shovel cash at “experts” to bloviate and donations pour into coffers. Political social media hobbyists sink their time and effort into it. Because politics arouse such passions, people feel compelled to have an opinion and join the fray. People who are outrageous or larger than life tend to get noticed. But it doesn’t mean you have to play into it. The only person you can control is yourself. Turn it off.

None of this is really new. These days you will hear people say that “we’ve hit a new low” whether it’s the way campaigns are waged or the “qualities” of the candidates themselves. But this isn’t the case. Look up the election of 1828 that pitted Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams or the 1884 contest with Grover Cleveland vs. James Blaine. Read about the fiery words between Hamilton and Burr that resulted in their duel to the death. With some historical perspective you might think how folks from that time might consider our current environment to be quite civil by comparison. 

Take action. It’s easy to criticize our leaders from the couch. It’s easier to complain than to do something. It is likely that most of the people who try to engage you in political debate have never run for any office, not even their local school board. Many don’t even bother to vote. So the next time you feel compelled to criticize a candidate, consider Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

You don’t have to share an opinion. Instead of trying to inject your opinion into a discussion you can choose to adopt an air of mystery and focus on the other person. Pose questions like a journalist trying to understand their story. People are attracted to people who are interested in them. Talk to others with an open mind and a measure of respect, and you’ll win regardless of how any election turns out. 

Uncovering “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”

Uncovering “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”

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Long before the self-help genre was a multi-billion-dollar thing, a 17th-century Jesuit named Baltasar Gracián crafted 300 principles of success from his observations of successful merchants, artists, warriors, and nobility of of Europe. These centuries-old maxims remain remarkably relevant today.

Gracián  was a Jesuit scholar, writer, and philosopher in 17th-century  Spain and his work , translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, was later appreciated by folks such as Nietzsche and Churchill. Arthur Schopenhauer called it, “a unique book for constant use for those who wish to prosper in the great world.” In other words, a copy belongs right there next to your Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins tomes.  

Here is my “best-of” selection of Gracián’s collected wisdom. (Today we would call these “tweets.”)

Master the art of being lucky. There are rules to luck, for to the wise not all is accident; therefore try to help luck along. Some are satisfied to politely stand and await the bidding of Fortune; better those who push forward, and who employ their enterprise, who on the wings of their worth and valor seek to embrace luck and effectively gain  her favor. No one has more good luck, or more bad luck, than he has wisdom or unwisdom. — In other words, Gracián says you gotta make your own breaks, folks.

Make courtesy your calling-card. Politeness is the main ingredient of culture. It is  neglected nowadays and seems out of date. Truth-speaking, and keeping your word seem to come from the good old  times. What a misfortune for our age that it regards virtue  as a stranger and vice as a matter of course! Better too much courtesy than too little; it costs little and helps much. Politeness and honor have the advantage that they remain with him who displays them to others.  — As Aretha sang, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, right?

Give to live. The wise man would rather see men needing him than thanking him. More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy. He that has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well; when dependence disappears, so does good behavior and respect. Let it be one of the chief lessons of experience to keep hope alive without entirely satisfying it, by preserving it to make oneself always needed even by the wealthy and powerful.
— Pro tip: Gracián is saying that while you should be courteous and polite, and doing so can set you apart, don’t count on it from others.

The power of patience. Never be in a hurry, never be in a passion. First be master over yourself if you would be master over others.  You must patiently pass through the circumference of time before arriving at the center of opportunity. A wise reserve seasons the aims and matures the means. Time’s crutch affects more than the iron club of Hercules. Remember the maxim: “Time and I against any two.” Fortune herself rewards waiting with the first prize.  — A tad wordy, but you can feel him here. In a world of instant gratification, patience can be an ally.

Control your image. Do not be a wild card, a jack-of-all-trades. It is great misfortune to be of use to nobody—scarcely less to be of use to everybody. People who reach this stage lose by gaining, and in the end bore those who desired them before. The remedy against this extreme is to moderate your brilliance.  Be extraordinary in your excellence, if you like, but be ordinary in your display of it. The more light a torch gives, the more it burns away and the nearer it is to burning out.  Show yourself less and you will be rewarded by being esteemed more. — Too much of anything is too much, and sometimes this includes ourselves.

Stay relevant. Thought and taste change with the times. Do not be old-fashioned in your ways of thinking, and let your taste be in the modern style. In everything the taste of the many carries the votes; one must follow it in the hope of leading to higher things. In the adornment of the body as of the mind adapt yourself to the present, even though the past may appear better. — Don’t get hung up on the good old days.

Stand for something. The world is in chaos. Honorable dealing is deteriorating, good friends are few, truth is held in disrepute, good service is underpaid, poor service is overpaid. Whole nations are committed to evil dealings:  With one you fear insecurity, with another, inconsistency, with a third, betrayal. This being what it is, let the bad faith of others serve not as an example, but as warning. The real danger of the situation lies in the unhinging of your own integrity: accepting less than your best, being overly tolerant of stupidity, forgiving incompetence, and fraternizing with the non-spiritual. The man of principle never forgets what he is, because he clearly sees what the others are. — Be the hero people are looking for.

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Arouse no exaggerated expectations. It is easy to form ideals but very difficult to realize them. However excellent something is, it never suffices to fulfill expectations. As people find themselves disappointed they are more readily disillusioned than impressed. A few credible attempts at the beginning are sufficient to arouse curiosity without pledging one to the final object. It is better that reality should surpass the design and it turns out better than was thought. — Pro tip:  Promise low, deliver high.

Stay on your game. Vary your mode of action. So as to distract attention, do not always do things the same way, especially if you have a rival. Do not always act on first impulse; people will soon recognize the uniformity and, by anticipating, frustrate your designs. It is easy to kill a bird on the wing that flies straight, not so one that twists and turns. The enemy is on the watch, great skill is required to outwit him. The gamester never plays the card the opponent expects, still less the one he wants. — I just love the word, “gamester.”

On selling. Know how to sell your wares, and to get your price.Their intrinsic worth is not enough as most run where the crowd is, running because the others run. It is a great art to know how to sell, and to intend your goods for the sophisticated only, as it whets the public appetite, for everybody thinks himself sophisticated, and if he is not, then his sense of lack will spur on his desire. Never should your business be accounted easy or ordinary, for to make things easy is to make it common; and all have an itch for the unusual.
— Everybody wants the next big thing.

Weather the storm. Know your unlucky days. For such there are, when nothing goes right, and even though the game may change, the bad luck does not. The man of judgment will not let one throw mark the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident. But a shrewd person will not decide on the day’s luck by a single piece of good or bad fortune, for the one may be only a lucky chance and the other only a slight annoyance. — Hey, you win some, you lose some.

Beware idle chit-chat. Conversation is where the real personality shows itself. No act in life requires more attention, though it may be the commonest thing in life. You must either lose or gain by it. The pulse of the soul is in the tongue, wherefore the sage said, “Speak, that I may know thee.” This holds good for talk between friends. To be appropriate, the conversation should adapt itself to the mind and tone of the conversationalist. And do not be a critic of words, or you will be taken for a pedant; nor a always play first fiddle and you second. If you get any consideration, it is only his leavings. The moon shines bright alone among the stars: when the sun rises she becomes either invisible or imperceptible. Never join one that eclipses you, but rather one who sets you in a brighter light. — As the old adage goes, we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak.

The importance of planning. Plan today for tomorrow, and even for many days hence. The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble. We must not put off thought until we are up to the chin in mire. Mature reflection can get over the most formidable difficulty. It is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards. Many act first and then think after—that is, they think less of consequences than of excuses: others think neither before nor after. The whole of life should be one course of thought how not to miss the right path. Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life. — In other words, don’t wing it.

Know how to say, “no.” Since you cannot consent to everything, or to everybody, it becomes important to know how to honorably refuse. The “no” of one man is more esteemed than the “yes” of another; for a “no” that is gilded may be more satisfying than a dry “yes.” Refusal should never be flat, nor should it be absolute, for some remnant of hope must be kept alive to sweeten the bitterness of the refusal. “Yes” and “no” are quickly spoken, but they demand long consideration. — This is key, especially with so many requests for our time.

Know what people want. Discover each man’s thumbscrew. It is the way to move his will, more skill than force being required to know how to get at the heart of anyone: There is no will without its leanings, which differ as desires differ. All men worship idols, some of honor, others of greed, and the most of pleasure. The secret lies in knowing these idols that are so powerful, thus knowing the impulse that moves every man. Know a person’s mainspring of motive and you have the key to his will. — That last sentence is pitch perfect.

Guard your rep. Do nothing to make you lose respect for yourself, or to cheapen yourself in your own eyes. Let your own integrity be the standard of rectitude, and let your own dictates be stricter than the precepts of any law. Forego the unseemly, more because of this fear of yourself, than for fear of the sternness of outer authority. Learn this fear of yourself; and there will be no need for a monitor. — Preach, Baltasar.

There you have it. The Art of Worldly Wisdom is just as relevant to the motivation-minded today as it was for the nobles who first read it back in 1637.

How to get it done like Hemingway

How to get it done like Hemingway

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Asked to envision Ernest Hemingway, many people picture the great American author knocking back Daiquiris at the El Floridita Bar in Havana, marlin fishing off Key West, or perhaps stalking the Serengeti for a trophy lion. It’s difficult to imagine him, well, “working.”

The truth is, Hemingway worked very hard. And he was undeniably consistent. The regulars at Sloppy Joes remembered the Mojitos and the laughs and the sunsets, but they didn’t see him get up every morning and hit the typewriter (yes the manual kind where you had to punch the keys with your fingers) and pound out a 1000 words a day. “I start in at seven in the morning,” Hemingway said of his routine. “And I always quit when I’m going good, so that I’ll be able to pick right up again the next day.” The key is he did that nearly every day, week after week, for 30 years.

Is this easy to do? No way. It’s easier to sleep in the next morning, maybe try some ‘hair of the dog,’  or put it off another day. That’s what most people would do. But most people don’t produce 7 novels, 60 short stories and nab a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer before retiring to the Happy Hunting Grounds in the sky.

This disciplined schedule allowed Hemingway the afternoons and evenings to indulge in his favorite pursuits such as fishing (or wooing a new wife). But even then, Hemingway was always working. Once, while out on his boat, Pilar, Hemingway spied a weathered, elderly man in a small boat dwarfed by the enormity of the Gulfstream. This image became the idea for the famed novella, “The Old Man and the Sea.”

At the bar Hemingway also worked; taking in the conversations, the tales, and the mannerisms of the colorful characters he encountered and working them into his stories bright and early the next morning. And it was the thought and effort he put into these stories that got them read and made him a success.

Maybe Hemingway drank too much, or fished too much, or walked down the aisle a few too many times, but he never let his vices or personal pursuits compromise his work. He pulled off this trick by having a daily game plan and sticking to it.

Oh, and he also liked to type standing up, before the stand-up desk was a thing.

Solve your problems like a sleuth

Solve your problems like a sleuth

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Last post, we told you how you’re living out a Private Eye Novel. Now we’re going to tell you what to do about it.

Different gumshoes take different approaches. Agatha Christie’s gentlemanly Hercule Poirot uses a Sherlock Holmes-style of methodical deduction to solve the case; and Mickey Spillaine’s hardboiled Mike Hammer has no qualms about getting in someone’s face and throwing a few elbows.

You might be inclined to try a little combination. As Raymond Chandler wrote, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” You’ve got troubles, so let’s get crackin.’

1. Define the problem. You know what it is. In any good book it’s front and center and smacks you in the face. In crime fiction it’s a dead starlet in a pool, a missing Picasso, and a revolver with the hero’s prints on it. For you it might be legal trouble, the pressure to get a new job, a crushing debt, or a potential health issue.

2. Gather the clues. Set aside some time to consider the case. Need a job? What’s the best city for your industry? Got debt? What expenses are draining you? Got a persistent pain? Research the possible causes for your ailment. That means pounding some pavement along with some computer keys.

3. Set a deadline. Putting it off is no longer an option. If you don’t set a deadline then someone else will—the bank will foreclose on your home, the lawyers will get involved in a personal dispute, or that health problem will turn into something worse.

4. Identify the antagonist. Who’s holding you back? Not that you have to be paranoid, but there are toxic people who like you to stay just where you are, wallowing in your troubles. As they say, misery loves company. They’ll tell you there isn’t much hope, and they’ll point to the economy, the health care system, or the government to make their case, but tell ’em you ain’t buyin.’  Do your best to avoid negative people, negative news, legal entanglements, and doctors with answers that don’t seem to click. Did Bogart let anyone get in his face? Neither should you.

5. Find your allies. Every town is tough. But there is someone out there willing to cut you a break. Even Batman, a detective at his core, has Commissioner Gordon on his side. Talk to people who have experienced the same trouble as you and see how they handled it. Other laid off middle aged managers have found new jobs. People with the same bum ticker as you have regained their health. Innocent defendants out there have beaten the rap. And remember the best way to get help in life: it’s all about quid pro quo—help somebody get what they want, and they’ll help you get what you want.

6. Motivate yourself. From Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, part of the appeal of the private eye archetype is that we love their lone wolf, get-it-done attitude. We like to watch the odds stacked against a protagonist and see him come back with a vengeance and win in the end. You’ve gotta cop that attitude and put it to work for you. No one can motivate you to to solve your problems except yourself.

7. Fix the ending. In every good story the hero is tested by fire and comes out changed in some way. It’s happened to you before, and you can make it happen again. But don’t count on a happy ending lasting for long. When trouble’s the game, there’s usually gonna be a sequel.

7 ways you’re living in a private eye novel

7 ways you’re living in a private eye novel

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Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Mystery fans read their exploits for the thrills, puzzles, and escapism that only a well-written page-turner can provide. But when it comes down to it, we’re all the protagonists in our own mystery stories. Consider this:

1. You’re a loner. Sure, you have buddies, business contacts, and maybe some followers on Twitter, but living your life is really all up to you. You have to get to work each day, figure out your own dinner, and pay your bills. At the end of the day it’s sink or swim, pal.

2. You’ve got a problem. You’ve got something you gotta fix. And when you fix it, you get another problem. It’s why there are sequels. No matter what your line of work, somebody’s trouble is your business.

3. You need money. Some of us need more than others but lurking in the back of everyone’s head is a financial worry. You need to find a way to afford something, pay something off, or save for something. It’s why you hang out your shingle. And when you have plenty of dough you get a new problem—making sure it ain’t lost or swiped.

4. You’ve got a nemesis. It could be a co-worker, boss, or competitor. Maybe it’s an in-law, landlord, or a ruthless ex-somebody. Without naming names, there’s an antagonist in your life you need to contend with and they might want to see you out of business—sometimes in more ways than one.

5. You’ve got a vice. Giggle juice, a honey on the side, the blackjack table. You’ve got flaws, just like every other Dame and Jasper in town. Maybe they’re manageable, maybe not. Abraham Lincoln famously said he didn’t trust a person who had no vices. But whatever it is, it’s trouble if it’s hanging over you and threatens to bring down the whole racket.

6. Somebody vexes you. You’ve got someone in your life you don’t quite understand, and who doesn’t understand you. Your interactions might not have the crackling dialogue of a Bogart-Bacall flick, but the relationship challenges are the same. You both want something.

7. You don’t know what’s coming. It’s called suspense. You can make plans, work the angles, and try and guess what’s around the next corner. But facts are facts, and just like a dime novel protagonist you just don’t know how your story is going to end.

Edward Klink

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