Cultivating the Creative Mind

What’s happening with creativity?

A fair question, is it not? It’s suddenly lost on Hollywood. You won’t find it in the widening gulf of politics. Today’s popular literature literally shuns creativity. Everyone is rehashing the same old ideas. And there are no twists.

You could make an argument for creativity in tech development. But then again, aren’t we just pushing ideas that require us to think less? Is that intellectual evolution?

This guy could have created you out of existence with a snap of his fingers. (William S. Burroughs, circa some time after a heavy heroin binge)

As our collective knowledge grows, it’s become clearer that the constant stimuli surrounding us are killing our creative juices. We have the answers at our fingertips. Thinking is unnecessary. When faced with a blank page, today’s writer is super efficient. Unfortunately, most of that efficiency comes from borrowed content. It’s a necessity sometimes. But as a writer, it’s important to exercise your creativity from time to time.

Take a second to breathe. Here are some simple ideas to get your mojo back.

Disconnect. Every time you interact with technology, you’re shooting up. Kick the habit for a day or two. Go the old-fashioned route: carry a notebook and a pen and jot down ideas for later.

Read. Sit down with a good book, a magazine or an honest-to-god newspaper. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to process information when you have a single focal point.

Escape. The traffic. The late night drunks. The texts and calls. Get out of the city. Go enjoy the outdoors for a bit. And remember to bring that good book (and notebook) with you.

Simplify. If you’re like me, you have 50 browser tabs open. In addition to 33 documents. Add Skype, AIM and Gchat to the list and you’re going nowhere fast. Close everything and put Microsoft Word into “focus” mode.

Exercise. It’s taken me a long time to finally get into this. But I’m surely reaping the benefits. Exercise is an important part of getting in tune with your body and clearing your head.

Mute. I’m a gigantic music geek, but it can add a layer of overwhelmingness to your brain. Turn it off and work in silence for a few hours so you can focus.

Additional reading: check out this recent article in Fast Company for psychological perspective into the world of the creative process.

Watch Your Tone: 5 Tips on Brand Voice

Everyone has a unique voice.

Some voices are simple.

Some voices are terribly verbose and sometimes boisterous!

Some are confident bordering on cocky. Others are gentle and sympathetic. But whatever your brand’s voice sounds like, it must be consistent. It must fall with impact upon the ears of your target audience.

Easier said than done. How do you define your tone and ensure it resonates with potential customers?

No no, not a voice that irritates. One that resonates.

The answer to that question is complex. To get started, take a look at five tips on brand voice and tone.

1. Carefully defining your audience is central to ALL marketing. How do you know how to talk to potential customers if you don’t understand them? Narrow your audience down to people who actually have use for your product. Once you know who you’re targeting, you’ll have a better grip on how to talk to them.

2. As always, keep it human. You know…unless you’re targeting robots. During some sort of robot apocalypse.

3. Keep it simple. Planning to tell a story? Keep it short. Include the details that resonate most with your audience. Simplicity is the best policy for the diction you use, too. Just because you’re targeting a group of rocket scientists doesn’t mean they want to waste precious brainpower reading clunky words, phrases and sentences.

4. Speak like a peer. Companies that speak down to their audiences tend to lose them. Yes, you have the solution to your customer’s problem. But you’ve been in their shoes. What they do is just as important as what you do. And don’t you forget it.

5. Get specific. You can speak more effectively to a narrower audience. Use words, phrases and inside jokes that only your readers understand.

Is Outlining Really Necessary?

As a young writer, I struggled with the concept of outlining. If you already have a strength and passion for writing, you may struggle with this, too. You feel that you need the purity of the creative process undisturbed. You tell yourself that truly creative thinking follows no form.

Of course, if you get anywhere in your writing career, you’ll soon realize that this is hogwash. Yeah, that’s right. I said hogwash.

Hogwash.

Professional writing requires structure. And the longer the piece, the more structure you’ll require. The more detailed your structure, the less you have to fill in during the writing process. Outlining eliminates frustration and writer’s block while easing drafting and revision.

If you decide to write without outlining your concept first, you may be in for a huge headache. Outlining forces you to:

  • Organize your thoughts in a fluid but visible way
  • Make a simple-to-follow reference sheet
  • Order thoughts in the sequence that makes the most sense
  • Ensure you have enough content to deliver a complete message
  • Get a high-level view of your piece and make sure you don’t forget anything
  • Understand how to weave any themes into the narrative.

Before you sit down to write a piece, take five minutes to jot your thoughts down on a blank page. Put them in a logical order for your reader and craft stronger, more coherent pieces.

Why I Had No Choice But To Stop Idolizing Kerouac

It’s a hard thing to get older. You end up replacing some of that good, old-fashioned idealism with tough cynicism. As writers, some of our biggest influences die right before us. You realize that you can’t be them, and you can only barely be like them.

Keep the dream alive. But don’t forget you’re living in reality. That’s why I scaled back Kerouac’s influence on my writing.

I can’t be the only writer out there that considers Kerouac a genius. How old were you when you first read On the Road? The book is wildly appealing at any age. But if you read it as a teenager, there’s a romanticism that seems imitable.

But Kerouac was one of a kind. And it wasn’t just On the Road. Novels like Big SurThe Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans are all intense, lively and inspiring reads. They brim with youthful energy fueled by alcohol, sex and art.

Everyone wants to attain the raw energy of Kerouac’s writing, even in the world of professional writing. How do you get there? Stop trying to imitate him.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But flattery will get you nowhere with a dead author. It certainly won’t get you anywhere as a living writer. Trying to imitate someone like Kerouac is a dead-end for a writer. Especially a professional writer. His big, sweeping sentences are the exact kind that can lose your reader.

It’s sad when you finally give up imitation. But it also opens up a whole new world. It’s a scary world. We want to imitate successful writers to use them as a standard for our own writing. When you give up those influences and write from your heart, you’re likely to lose faith in your own unique voice.

Fortunately, that’s how writers get prolific in the first place. Remind yourself daily that none of your favorite writers imitated their favorite writers. Inspire yourself by discovering a style all your own and hone it to perfection.

Sexy Ways to Seduce Your Audience

Slip into something comfortable. Preferably something velour. Lay back on this leopard skin couch. Relax. Notice the subtle aroma of incense wafting about you.

How was your day? I prepared a nice candlelit dinner. Can you hear the booming baritone of the incomparable Barry White? It’s drifting into the room at dulcet volumes. The lights are dim and your eyes adjust. Go ahead. Grab one of the chocolate caramels on the coffee table in front of you. Feel it dance upon your taste buds.

If you aren’t feeling a slight hint of surreal sensuality, I haven’t done my job correctly. Everyone knows sex sells. But are we losing our understanding of that concept?

That depends on your definition of ‘sexy’.

Today, big brands like GoDaddy (woof) use blatant sexual imagery to sell. But sex sells itself. If that’s your strategy for seducing your audience, you better start over. Consider this: researchers at Iowa State University found that “viewers of programs with sexually explicit or violent content were less likely to remember commercials immediately after watching and even 24 hours later.”

As a writer, you should already have a grasp for why this is. Favoring your primary message is the best way to keep your reader on task. You want the reader to be turned on by your product. To accomplish this, seducing your audience takes place in undertones. It requires subtlety. Here are a few ways to get it done.

Consider alliteration an alluring aloe. Overusing alliteration translates to cheesy copy. Used sparingly, alliteration creates enticing, compelling moments of copy that add a layer of sexiness to your content.

Play with your diction. Everyone has words they consider emotional triggers. Want to sex up your copy? Use loaded words. A word like ‘succulent’ can evoke a strong response. Go ahead. Say it out loud. Succulent. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Massage some tight words. I’m consistently saying that strong copy is highly understandable. You wouldn’t speak in Shakespearian dialogue to a modern audience, for instance. But a colorful word every now and again can add some flair to your copy, even if it’s a bit more high-brow. Provide substantial context clues. And have a clear understanding of your audience before you head down this path.

Take us to another world. There’s no better way to seduce your audience than to get sensual. Use sensual stimuli to take your readers out of their desk chairs and transport them to another world. You can accomplish this by describing how things smell, taste, feel, sound and look.

5 Lessons Professional Writers Can Learn from Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick is a timeless classic published way back in 1851. It’s perhaps the most enduring work of American literature.

One thing’s for sure: writing was a lot different back then. Perhaps an attempt at ‘life imitating art’, the book itself is a beast of white whale stature.

The camera catches Mr. Dick off-guard. Picture circa 1851.

Moby-Dick is still read for a reason. And there’s plenty that writers can learn from the masterpiece. Assuming the right interpretation, of course. Having just finished it, I will now debase its literary prowess by relating it in terms of the lowlier professional craft of writing. Check out 5 lessons that professional writers can learn from Moby-Dick.

1. Easy on the adverbs. If there’s one thing Melville isn’t bashful about it’s his use of adverbs. Today’s writer should use adverbs sparingly. When overused, they tend to slow down the reading process. This is especially true for ‘-ly’ adverbs. Flowery language found a niche in the writings of Melville’s era. But there are better, more succinct ways for today’s writer to create a clear depiction.

2. Vivid description sets you apart. When Melville isn’t using his adverbs, he’s launching into long bouts of vivid description. In fact, he sets aside entire chapters for description. The length won’t appeal to the contemporary reader. But the sheer vividness and enthusiasm of them compels. You can learn a lot about painting a lifelike picture from Melville.

3. Obsession can be bad. Actually, this one is kind of the moral of the entire story. Ahab’s obsession with the white whale brings about his doom. What’s your white whale? If you obsess over perfect writing, you’ll never finish a piece. Revision is necessary up until a point. But obsessing over that revision can lead to hours of useless changes and edits.

4. Submerge the ‘I’. I’ve written a bit about this before. Taking the ‘I’ out of your writing helps establish more credibility. Of course, Moby-Dick starts out with the famous line “Call me Ishmael.” But as the story rolls along, you get more and more detail about the events occurring around Ishmael, rather than those happening to him.

5. Have no fear. Seriously, you’re afraid to say, write or publish something? These guys manned tiny little boats and watched agitated whales swim from the depths to attack them! And sharks! Christ. What I’m saying is the only way to make a splash is to jump right in. Don’t be afraid to try something new in your writing.

7 Writing Techniques to Engage Your Audience More Directly

Are you communicating with your audience or just talking at them?

This is an important question that marketers should ask themselves daily. You know you and your business aren’t the center of the universe. But you have to tell yourself that every day if you want to communicate effectively.

Direct communication is necessary, even if your audience consist of yellow sexless freaks.

As in life, taking someone else’s perspective is difficult. But it’s absolutely critical for your marketing. Gathering information on your audience is the first step. The second is to gain the insights you need to take action. Put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Below, you’ll find 7 writing techniques to help you engage your audience more directly.

1. Write the first draft of your copy from the buyer’s perspective. This is a great exercise from which the remaining tips on this list should follow naturally. Pretend you’re the buyer for a second. It’ll help take you out of your own shoes and write from a less self-centered perspective. Now, write your copy from that perspective. You can deconstruct and reconstruct that copy to make sense for your purposes, but you’ll gain the benefit of the other perspective.

2. It doesn’t get more direct than ‘you.’ Amateur marketers love to start sentences with ‘we.’ But if you want to sell something, it isn’t about you. It’s about the potential buyer. Direct address using ‘you’ feels more conversational. Subconsciously, readers understand that the copy answers the question, “What’s in it for me?”

3. Frame the challenge. Empathy is a simple tactic to connect with your audience right off the bat. Direct address requires you to immediately step inside the shoes of your reader. What irks them? What issue are they grappling with on a regular basis? Frame the challenge and follow with the solution.

4. Focus on benefits and differentiators. You have the solution. What’s in it for the reader? They probably don’t care about the nitty-gritty technical details. They just want to know what they get in exchange for their money and time. It’s likely you have competition, too. How are you different? Make your differentiators clear and concise.

5. Use relatable examples and anecdotes to empathize. Everyone loves a good story. Using relatable examples helps readers more clearly envision how you could help them out. You may do this quickly to introduce a bit of copy. Or, like shopping cart software provider 3dcart, you may want to build case studies as marketing collateral.

6. Honesty truly is the best policy. Compelling copy surprises the reader. In business, honesty can be hard to come by. That’s why it makes a great technique for direct address. Say something honest and surprising. Then, tie it to your message. For instance, I’m not wearing any pants.

7. Speak their language. Without getting buzzword-happy, it helps to speak the language of your audience. For example, if you’re selling a complex tech product to a non-technical audience, stay away from industry nuances. Whatever the language, make sure you’re speaking like a human.

Low-Impact Statements Won’t Make You Any Friends

Everyone has that friend that makes a mountain out of a molehill.

“Ugh. It’s Monday and the train is running slow this morning. This is going to be a terrible week.” According to ‘that’ friend, a relatively small thing will impact the course of his or her entire week.

‘That’ friend may have positive things to say as well. “Just saw [insert D-list actor] walking down the street. My life is complete!!!”

These are low-impact statements dressed up as things people should care about. In marketing (as in life), there are ways to do this effectively. Hyperbolizing low-impact statements is not the correct route.

People may write low-impact statements because:

  • They don’t understand their audience (or don’t care)
  • The ideas they share are self-centered
  • The main theme or idea is unclear
  • They are drama queens

Not every sentence you write will land with the kind of impact you desire. But that’s okay. In business writing, everything should lead to the big picture. But, if you’re summing up a theme or message, the sentence must ring with impact. Hyperbole is transparent. How do you increase the impact of the statement without blowing it out of proportion?

  • Empathize with the reader by framing the pain-point, problem or situation. This requires a clear understanding of your audience.
  • Clearly demonstrate how your product, service or organization solves the problem. Do this simply but descriptively. Statements that resonate require clarity and relevance — not exclamation points, italics, editorializations or aggrandized concepts.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, shorter sentences often have a greater impact.

Keep these tips in mind and you’ll avoid becoming ‘that’ writer.

4 Great Writing Errors from American History

God bless ‘Merica. Happy Fourth everyone! I’ll be celebrating today by overindulging in food and drink. There ain’t nuthin more ‘Merican than that.

This country’s seen its up and downs. The ups are great. But the downs are equally as important. After all, what’s history worth if we can’t learn from it.

Without further ado, I present to you four truly ‘Merican writing errors.

1. For a second there, Thomas Jefferson forgot the meaning of the word ‘independence’. There is perhaps no greater document in American history than the Declaration of Independence. But no one gets it right on the first draft. Turns out Mr. Jefferson’s original draft of this now legendary document referred to the future Americans as ‘subjects’. Luckily for us, he changed the word to ‘citizens’ — a term much more indicative of freedom.

2. Faulkner had one hell of a time with spelling. Turns out some of the greatest American authors needed an editor as badly as the rest of us. According to Random House editor Albert Erskine:

I know that he did not wish to have carried through from typescript to printed book his typing mistakes, misspellings (as opposed to coinages), faulty punctuation and accidental repetition. He depended on my predecessors, and later on me, to point out such errors and correct them; and though we never achieved anything like a perfect performance, we tried.

And he wasn’t the only one. A quick look at some of Hemingway’s unedited correspondences shows the legend’s own problem with spelling and grammar.

3. The Chicago Tribune embarrasses itself in 1948 presidential election. Thomas Dewey went toe-to-toe with Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. And the Chicago Tribune trusted the polls, falsely reporting that Dewey had won the election. In reality, Truman snagged victory from the jaws of defeat, permanently etching the Trib’s place on journalism’s Wall of Shame.

Leave it to Truman to drop an atomic bomb on Dewey’s hopes and dreams.

4. T.S. Eliot plagiarized ‘The Waste Land’. It’s considered one of the greatest works of poetry in history. And it’s mostly plagiarized. Yep, turns out ‘The Waste Land’ is a waste of time. Of course, Eliot was eventually naturalized as a British citizen. But he was born an American, and so he makes our list.

How to Freelance in Style

The best part about freelancing is making your friends jealous of your new lifestyle. It’s okay! Embrace the envy.

If you plan to freelance, best to do it in style. If anyone knows style, it’s me. I got styles for miles.

Below, I’ve laid out my step-by-step guide for freelancing in style. Note: these style tips do not take success or productivity into account. These tips help improve your lifestyle as a freelancer. But like all good things in life, they should be enjoyed in moderation.

Step 1: Stop wearing pants. Take Homer Simpson’s words to heart and stop wearing pants. Enjoy the freedom that comes with rolling out of bed and walking five steps to your computer. Working without pants can be a liberating feeling. Now, if only there were a picture to sum this tip up perfectly…

Ah, here it is.

Step 2: Work outside. All you need is your computer. Set up shop at a cafe, by the water, in a park — wherever you can get work done while enjoying the summer weather. Glare of the sun too much? Work in the shade or grab yourself a cheesy-looking laptop visor.

Step 3: Socialize more often. You have freed yourself from the daily commute. Make the most of your newfound time to catch up with friends on weeknights. Keep yourself disciplined — late nights still translate to rough mornings.

Step 4: Get in shape. Self-improvement: you now have time to participate in this ages-old activity. Slot out some time to hit the gym during the day. You’ll miss the rush and you can always make up the time by working an extra hour into the evening. All your friends will be commuting during that hour anyway.

Step 5: Learn a new language. It’s important to diversify your activities. Learning a new language can help get the creative juices flowing while taking your mind off of writing in English for a bit. Branch out and you’ll have the opportunity to open a whole new world of business and personal potential.

Step 6: Take more days off. Freelancing isn’t all fun and games — but you will notice a quality of life improvement. Stay disciplined and put in some extra hours during the week. Then, take Friday off and enjoy a three-day weekend (with email access, of course).

Step 7: Travel to exotic locales. Worry no more about budgeting your vacation days. If you’re feeling uninspired, take off for a couple of days and see the country. Or, if you’re big into traveling like me, plan 2-3 international trips a year. Watch your friends’ jealousy go through the roof.