Category: Writing

Writing is difficult work, and I’ve been exploring the craft as a creative and professional since I graduated from my MFA program. Here I’ll share my thoughts about the craft of writing.

Copywriting Tips for Beginners | Kill these Misinformed Ideas

I’ve worked with talented editors at the LA Times, LA Weekly, Narratively, and more, and I have learned so much, but the lessons I unlearned might have been the most valuable. During my time as a journalist, I was able to kill misinformed perceptions about “good” writing, and it helped me, as a beginning writer, grow. Here are three copywriting tips for beginners and misinformed ideas that hinder talented young professionals from growing.

1. Do not confuse sentence length with a run-on sentence

So many entry-level writers believe that long sentences are grammatically incorrect simply because they are long. They label them “run-on” and banish them outside of the draft, and they want to find more valuable copywriting tips for beginners.

Just for the record: A run-on sentence is when you fuse two independent clauses in one sentence (and here is the key) without using a coordinating conjunction

Somewhere a teacher scared the ink out of a student’s pen when talking about run-on sentences, and instead of using sentence length stylistically, the student saw any sentence that felt too long as incorrect. Then the misperception spread like an Adam Grant tweet reposted on LinkedIn.

To break the spell, I often share Donald Barthelme’s, “The Sentence,” with people I’m training to show them that published pieces can be really really really long sentences. In fact, “The Sentence” is actually a fragment.

My best advice: Stop being scared of sentence length. Use short and long sentences to help build rhythm and voice. Here is a beautiful illustration of this concept by Gary Provost:

2. Do not be scared of writing “drunk” in your search for copywriting tips for beginners

Too many people sit down at their computers and expect to have a perfect draft in 30 minutes. But this is a recipe for failure, and they need a valuable copywriting tip for beginners.

Take a page from Ernest Hemingway, who is famously credited (though turns out it wasn’t him) with saying, “Write drunk. Edit Sober.” Regardless of who said it, this quote is great advice, and it’s not intended to peer pressure you into drinking Fireball. It’s trying to say: Give your brain space for different modes of thought. For example:

  • A draft where you get the worst possible version out but where you can be free and creative.
  • A 2nd draft where you step away and come back to destroy the bad copy and bring to life the good.

If you’re not creating these mental spaces, then you’re probably wasting hours.

3. Do not think you’re the grammar police

People make mistakes with writing all the time. And I’ve met so many people who have hard and fast rules on grammar that are unbreakable.

For instance, I used to ask a relative to read my drafts, and they would always say things like:

-You can’t begin a sentence with “And”

-Health care is two words.

While certain rules shouldn’t be broken (using “you’re/your” or “it’s/its” incorrectly), most of what people call incorrect is just stylistic choices.

So please, use a style book (or create editorial guidelines for your brand). Because without a style book, there is nothing inherently wrong with using healthcare or health care. It’s just your choice. Hopefully, this will take the pressure off of being perfect and you can begin adding more and more tools to your copywriting toolbox. You then will be able to experiment with style and learn that words are in your control.

5 Ways to Find Writing Motivation: Beyond the Obvious Recommendations

Credit: Joseph Lapin, The Man Who Walks Through Walls, Paris, France.

I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts program from Florida International University at 25-years old, which seemed like an impressive feat at the time. When I finished my MFA, I moved from Miami to Los Angeles, and I thought I was a pretty hot-shit writer about to head to one of the most creative cities in the world. In fact, I thought I was moments away from turning my thesis into a best-selling book, and I wasn’t worried about finding writing motivation to finish countless drafts while working long days at many different jobs. Honestly, it felt like I had already arrived.

In fact, I look back on that version of myself, a totally delusional version of myself, and realize that it’s kind of embarrassing. I remember asking one of my professors how long it took her to publish her first book after graduation, and she said, four years. At the time, four years after graduate school felt like such a long time to publish a book.

Now, I just turned 35-years old, and it’s 10 years since I graduated from my MFA program, and I don’t have a book. I have published a decent amount of non fiction and some fiction, and I have a great career where I practice my craft every day, but I know I still have a long way to go to accomplish my life goal: Filling an entire shelf with books I have written, and those books have to be worth the trees that were sacrificed. I want people to actually read the books, not just let them sit there and collect dust.

And even though so much time has passed since I graduated, I know I need to dig deep to still make my dreams come true. It’s hard to stay motivated though, especially with all that is happening in the world.

That’s why I put together a list of ways to find writing motivation. When I was researching for this blog, I read a lot of the other posts about finding writing motivation, and I realized the advice was terrible. They give trite advice like “set deadlines” and “commit to writing.” It’s time to actually hear some real advice. Let me keep it real with you.

Continue reading “5 Ways to Find Writing Motivation: Beyond the Obvious Recommendations”

What is Good Writing?

What is good writing? It’s easy to sit there from your computer or phone and say, “Joe, it’s simple to spot good writing. No typos. Great command of the English language. Possess a fundamental understanding of grammar.” Other people might say something like: “You have to know how to use a comma and understand the difference between Let’s eat grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Don’t forget about the people who say: “Vary your sentence structure” or “understand how to use a semicolon” or “commas splices are the devil, Bobby.”

Then there are the people who think that split infinitives are the worst thing in the world, believe that using a serial comma is wrong, or chastise writers for a typo in a blog and see that as an indication of an inferior intellect. Oh, and don’t use literally the wrong way; you’re going to piss a lot of people off.

Success! You're on the list.

I’ve heard so many rules that people have to follow to write well, but I’m here to say that there is no such thing as good writing. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. Our teachers and our parents and our high school newspaper editor all want us to believe that there is good writing. I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just not fair. It’s not accurate. It’s kind of a shared hallucination.

When most people examine writing to evaluate if it’s good, I actually believe they are more likely asking (unconsciously), does it match my style expectations? Is it following the rules that I have in my head that define good writing? Does it meet my understanding of language? And when you break those rules that I know, that I understand, you should be crushed and seen as a hack!

But this is just a poor way to evaluate quality. For instance, I heard for years — from professors, authors, and copy editors — that a split infinitive is a mistake; yet when I read Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style,” he has an almost diatribe on how many credible sources believe that a split infinitive shouldn’t be remotely considered a mistake. To poorly construct a sentence with a split infinitive shows as little about writing abilities as using the passive voice.

Yes, we have been trained that the passive voice is horrible and should never be used, but emphasizing a different part of a sentence can be a great use of style.

What I’m trying to get at is that good writing is not actually good writing; it’s effective communication. It’s being understood by an audience; it’s making them feel something; it’s helping them understand a complex idea. It’s a conversation that can be expertly done. Steven Pinker doesn’t say this exactly in his book– or he might; I can’t remember — but what I took away from it was that effective writing is about using style and language to convey thoughts to be understood. And that’s what we should focus on.

When you evaluate this post, I hope you don’t look at a typo; I hope you say: “Did I truly understand what he was trying to say?” “Did he convince me that good writing isn’t real?” Well, probably not in this small space.

But overall, I’m so tired of the question about “What is good writing?” Yes, when we work with people professionally, we have to agree on a standard, and if I write right as write when I actually mean right not left (😉), then you probably will think I’m an idiot. And it would behoove any writer to avoid obvious mistakes. Just…. does that mean the writing is bad?

No, good writing is a lie that we are sold by elitists who want to keep literature and writing to themselves.

How Not to Write for Money

It’s 10:17 p.m., and I just returned from a walk, where I tried to ignore several meetings in the morning and the conundrum of finding a way to be present in those meetings while balancing projects that need significant brain power to complete. Work takes up a significant amount of space in my mind, and I am grateful that I can use my craft to help in my profession. I tell stories at work, and I have incredibly clear outcomes: Grow our business, please our clients, and pay my bills. There is a sense of satisfaction in that clarity.

On the other hand, my creative work doesn’t have as clear outcomes. I don’t have deadlines; I don’t get paid (at least very much); and I don’t have any true metrics to evaluate performance outside of the arbitrary ones I set for myself. After I returned from the walk, where I wondered how many days after Christmas it would take some of the neighbors to remove their holiday lights, I saw my desk calling to me: Hey, Joe. You can get a couple hours of writing in before bed. You don’t need those 30 extra minutes of sleep. At this time of night, I find myself negotiating with the desk: But I can get the work done in the morning. How about this: 10 minutes on the story and 20 minutes continuing to build the framework for the novel after I make coffee? That should satisfy you, right? The desk is cold: Shut your mouth when you’re talking to me and sit your ass down. 

The desk always wins, however. It looks at me with those black eyes and coffee-stained freckles that look like constellations, a road map to the creative journey I build in my mind, and it guilts me into submission. Whether I engage or I don’t, the desk is on my mind, taking me out of whatever moment I’m trying to exist within…And I catch myself wondering: Why the hell am I doing this? Why am I negotiating with a desk? 

Many years ago, I would have been able to tell you clearly why I write creatively. I would have said: When I was in college, I read George Orwell’s Why I Write, and I felt a duty to speak truth, to say something meaningful, to throw a cog in the endless machine of soothsayers and reality-shapers. In high school, I would have said I write because I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five during a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach, and when I finished, I couldn’t imagine that life would ever be the same. I would have said that I write because I feel that the only way my life has meaning is if I’m remembered after I’m dead, and leaving a legacy of writing can help. I would have said because nobody thinks a kid from Clinton, Mass, can grow up and write novels. I would have said anything that I thought I needed to hear me say.

But why do I do it now? Why Do I spend the time after a hard day’s work to write stories and novels that I’m not sure anyone will ever read? Why do I take hours out of my day to think about sentences, paragraphs, characters, verisimilitude, the authenticity of act two?

I don’t get paid for this work. I don’t get recognized every day when I come home. I don’t have a boss that can provide a performance evaluation and tell me that I’m doing a great job…here is a raise. I don’t have clients to please.

It’s 10:31 now, and my wife wants to go to bed. I have a copy of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey on my nightstand that I can’t wait to read. I hear the sink in the bathroom turning on. I hear the traffic on the highway several streets over. But still, why do I do this? Why do I spend the time to brave rejections and acceptances, to fail and succeed (mostly fail), to wait for other people’s evaluations of my work, to publish blogs that I’m never positive people will read or ignore?

These questions have been running through my head over the last month, and I realized that I was struggling to answer them. That was until it hit me: I write because I want to connect with people. I want to build a conversation. I want to hear people tell me about their stories that, perhaps, my story inspired. I want to speak to the people who don’t feel like anyone is willing to talk. I want to write stories that force people to think twice about how they perceive mental illness. I want to write stories that illuminate the power of the imagination and how sometimes our realities are not as objective as we believe.

I want to communicate. It’s as simple as that. That’s such a basic want, and somewhere along the line, I forgot the power of that, and I began to force my work to fit expectations, marketplaces, genres that might not have been me. But I have to learn in 2018 to accept that I do not have control over creative work. I can’t bend it into the shape I want. I can’t force the genre of my work to reflect the perception I want others to have of me.

I write now because I want to connect with people, and the only way I believe I can  connect with them is to find a way to bleed on these pages, to use them as a mirror to the self, to share something authentic and true. That is my goal. That is why I write. To share and know the authentic self.

Why the Patriots Odds of Winning the Super Bowl Just Plummeted

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the odds that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl has dropped significantly. Bianca washed my Brady jersey. If you know anything about football, then you know the Pats success is due to the fact that I don’t wash my jersey during the year, only at the end. Let’s try and keep it together.

I know you may not believe me, but I’m happy to provide significant evidence to the case.

It was November, 24, 2013, and the Patriots were hosting Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos along with the traitor Wes Welker. It was a cold night, but the fans were into the game, and I was watching another version of the epic Brady Manning saga from my friend’s apartment in West L.A.

Everything was normal and consistent except for one small detail: I was wearing a Randy Moss jersey. I have always worn my throw back Brady jersey, but tonight, I was feeling like I needed a bit of a stylistic change. So I wore the Randy Moss jersey.

I didn’t realize what I had done. I couldn’t have imagined what disturbance in the force I had caused, and as Peyton and the Broncos kicked off the game with a stampede of touchdowns, I looked up at the scoreboard at half time and realized that we were down 24-0.

How could this be? How could the Broncos slow down a dynamic offense like the Patriots? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

My friend, let’s call him Steve, was ready to quit and change the channel. The Chargers fan, let’s call him Jay, who was also in the room, started to say Brady was washed up.

But I couldn’t give up. No, I’ve watched this show too many times to quit.

That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t wearing my Brady jersey.

I told Jay and Steve I had to go, and I raced back to my apartment, desperately searched for my Brady jersey hanging in the closet with the rest of my clothes, looking forgotten and jilted. Heroically, I threw the jersey on and came back to the apartment. I pointed at the Chargers fan straight in the eye and said: This is far from over. 

Well, I’m sure you know what happened. The Patriots came roaring back and won the game. But it was all because of my jersey. Not the play of the Patriots or coaching. It was my jersey that won the game.

Now, a dark cloud will roll over the Patriots 2017 season, because my wife, Heron, has washed my jersey. Best of luck Brady!