Are you asking the right questions? 

The top 7 questions writers should ask as they write.

“What’s your name?”

“Jim.”

“What’s your purpose in life?”

“Um, well—wow, let me think about that a minute.”

Questions can be incredibly simple. Or they can turn you inside out as you struggle to find the answer.

Asking the right questions can also dramatically improve your writing.

So here are the top seven questions you should ask yourself whenever you sit down to write:

What’s the real problem I’m trying to solve?

It’s easy to jump right into an article or ad copy without thinking about what you are trying to achieve.

The result? You usually end up with meandering mush.

So take a breath and ask yourself, “What am I really trying to do here?”

Am I trying to convince people that the internet is destroying civilization as we know it?

Do I want to inspire someone to adopt a stray dog?

Do I want to simply explain relativity? To make someone laugh? To make someone’s day a little better?

Begin with the end in mind. And you will dramatically improve your odds of actually getting there.

How can I fascinate people?

This question is critical to ask with regard to your headline—and to your first few paragraphs.

“How are you going to draw people in?”

Often, the best way to ask the question is, “What drew me in to this topic?”

For example, if you are writing someone’s personal story, think about the part that really surprised you. Then start with that. Don’t save it for the end. Use it to fascinate people up front.

It’s a lot like movie trailers: They show the funniest lines, the biggest explosions and the scariest moments to draw you in.

Sure, unlike movie trailers, you want to save some great stuff for later, too.

But remember—if you don’t fascinate your reader at the start, they won’t get any further than that.

How can I make things more clear?

It is astonishing to me how much people appreciate clarity.

Explain something better, and they’ll love you for it.

I once read a book that explained what e=mcreally meant and how Einstein came up with his famous equation.

This book certainly wasn’t highbrow—it was illustrated with cartoons and the text was in word bubbles. But I actually got it.

In contrast, I read another book about string theory. I felt like the author was basically saying, “Look, I understand this stuff—because I’m brilliant. But I don’t expect that you will ever get it.”

I appreciated the first author—for his knowledge, his caring and his humility. And I swore I’d never read another book by the second author.

So be clear. And you’ll be appreciated.

What are my top three arguments?

Maybe you have 20 great arguments to support your point of view.

Or maybe you only have one.

What you need is three.

There’s just something magic about the number three.

And having three strong arguments, for whatever reason, is just right for making whatever point it is you’re trying to make:

  • It doesn’t overwhelm people with too many facts.
  • It doesn’t make them feel like your point is hanging by a single thread.
  • And three things are easy to remember—so they can apply your ideas to their own lives, or tell someone else about them.

See? Three arguments. So what are yours?

What’s the biggest thing I could accomplish?

You’re writing a blog post. But could it change someone’s life?

You’re writing an ad. But could it revolutionize the way you do business?

You’re writing a headline. But could it be remembered forever?

Accomplishing little things is important. But don’t let that blind you to the opportunity to do something really great.

Keep in mind what human beings are about: Helping others. Improving the world. Overcoming obstacles. Discovering truth. Changing lives. Making a difference.

Then see if whatever you’re writing can do some of that.

How can I move someone?

Picture this:

You type something out on your computer. Post it to your blog. Send out a Tweet about it.

Then someone reads it, gets up, and does something.

That is the power you have in your hands every time you write.

So consider carefully how you might make that happen.

Will you tell a story that moves someone to tears?

Will you help someone to fall in love with an idea?

Will you provide the information that helps someone understand?

People become motivated to act through a balance of information and emotion. So figure out what you want people to do. Then give them the knowledge and inspiration they need to do it.

Did I do what I set out to do?

It must be nice to be an architect. Or a software developer. Or a cell phone designer.

Because when they get done with their work, it’s easy to know if they did what they set out to do. You have a house that keeps out rain, software that works, or a phone that can place and receive calls.

It’s not so easy when you write. You can have lots of words on the page, but they may not do what you set out to do.

How do you fix that?

  • Set your writing aside for a day. Then read it through critically with fresh eyes.
  • Give it to someone else to read—someone you can trust to give you her honest opinion.
  • Or just put it out there, carefully track your results—and learn from them for next time.

So what other questions should you ask yourself when you sit down to write? Leave me a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

Fifteen essential bullet points about writing bullet points.

Bullet points make your writing simpler, more readable and more useable.

Here are the fifteen best ways to use bullet points effectively:

  • Give them a parallel form. Your bullet points should all be constructed with a similar structure. See my bullet points in this article? They all start with a short, bold sentence that begins with a verb. Decide on what form you are going to use for a set of bullet points, then stick with it.
  • Make them all a similar length. All the bullet points in a list should be approximately the same length. So don’t have some that are just five words, and some that are a whole paragraph. Be consistent. This helps to avoid jarring your reader into giving up on your article.
  • Keep them two lines or under. Most bullet points should be only one or two lines long. Readers will appreciate that. Yes, I know, I’m breaking that rule in this article. So don’t follow any rules slavishly. Know what you are trying to accomplish, then use rules as a guideline.
  • Use powerful language. What makes your language powerful? Simple words. And action words—that is, verbs. Too many adjectives will muck things up. Say what you mean in the simplest, clearest way possible. Then move on.
  • Be definitive. There’s always more to learn. But be definite about what you know and believe right now. People are relying on you for your expertise, to make their lives and their work better. So make each bullet point authoritative. I’m definitely sure you should do this.
  • Consider how they look as well as how they read. Bullet points should look inviting. Once your list is complete, sit back and take a good look. Does it draw you in, or repel you? Consider shortening your bullets, adding bold text, paring down your list, or doing other things to make your bullet points look better.
  • Provide valuable info. Approach your bullet points with a genuine interest in helping. What are your readers’ needs? What are their problems? What’s the absolute best piece of advice or information that you can give them? See if you can write a bullet point that’s the most valuable thing someone will read all day.
  • Think of what your reader needs. Writing gets so much easier when you carefully think about the person you are writing for. So consider that person, and what she needs. If you do this, your list of bullet points will often erupt almost spontaneously.
  • Remember—you’re trying to simplify. Bullet points are about making things simpler: Simpler to read, to understand, to remember, and to apply. As you write your bullet points, keep asking yourself: Can I state this any simpler? Can I provide any other information that will help simplify my reader’s life?
  • Read them out loud. I know you’re going to try to skip this one. But once you do it a few times, you will swear by it. Read your bullet points (and everything you write) out loud. Listen for anything that sounds funny. Then fix it up, and read it out loud again. It will make everything you write so much better.
  • Stay focused. What are you trying to do with your bullets? List benefits? Create intrigue about something you’re selling? Provide a checklist? Give the steps for completing a project? Make sure every bullet point is working toward achieving that goal.
  • Study good bullet points. How do you know when you’ve encountered good bullet points? You’ll find yourself entranced by them. When bullet points draw you in—so you read every one, or even take action based on what they say—save those bullet points so you can use them as a model for your own.
  • Pay attention to bad bullet points. If you lose interest in a list of bullet points halfway through reading them, ask yourself “Why did that happen?” Did they break one of these rules? Were they too long, or too boring? Figure it out, and it will make your own bullet points better.
  • Make each bullet point a little reward. Each of your bullet points should make your reader glad he read it. Which, in turn, will make him want to read the next one, too. So reward  your reader, both with the information you convey and the way you convey it.
  • Stay on the lookout for bullet point opportunities. People love bullet points. So as you review the things you write, stay watchful for sections that could easily be turned into bulleted lists. It’s one of the most powerful ways to ensure that what you write actually gets read.

What’s your best advice on writing bullet points? Leave a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

The top 8 ways writing goes horribly astray.

It’s a danger you face any time you sit down to draft a blog post, email or web page.

It’s a danger I’m facing this very moment:

That your writing will go horribly astray.

When writing goes astray, it fails to make something happen. And that’s a sorry fate for your hard-wrought words.

So how do you keep your writing on course and achieving its intended purposes?

By watching out for these eight pitfalls.

Pitfall 1:Your topic is dull.

“Why air is important.”

“How to replace your toner cartridge.”

“Things to know about prostate checks.”

Maybe you had a dull topic foisted on you. Or maybe you did this to yourself.

Know this: when your topic is dull, your writing is bound to be dull, too.

So what do you do? If it’s up to you, simply abandon any topic that doesn’t make you light up with ideas.

But if it’s not up to you, recast your topic to make it more interesting:

“How the air you breathe can make you stronger, healthier and sexier.”

Yeah, that’s better.

Pitfall 2: You don’t have a point.

You’re not just drafting an article. You’re drafting an argument.

In other words, when you write, you should create a powerful case for your point of view.

What’s the point of this article?

“Writing often goes astray. And there are sure-fire ways to avoid that.”

In college, they tell you that you need a thesis statement. That’s a fancy way of saying, “Have a point.” And what are the signs of a strong thesis statement?

  • It’s clear.
  • It’s definitive.
  • It’s stated early in your essay.
  • It’s the focus of everything you say.

So read over what you’re written and make sure your thesis statement—your point—is loud and clear. And if it’s somewhat controversial, all the better.

Pitfall 3: You’re not organized.

Writing that isn’t organized leads to readers who are confused. And confused readers will abandon your article in the blink of an eye.

So there are two ways to be organized in your writing:

  • Either organize up front.
  • Or organized at the end.

I recommend you start with some kind of an outline. It actually helps the writing process. Think of it as a list of things you want to cover—much like this article, which was organized into eight different pitfalls.

Some people, though, prefer to just start pouring their thoughts out onto the page. That’s fine, too. Just take some time when you are done to organize it all into a coherent package.

The best approach is to organize both at the beginning and at the end. That ensures that you have a tight, easy-to-comprehend package.

Pitfall 4: It’s too long.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m flirting with this pitfall right now.

It’s easy to get into the flow of things and just keep thinking of things you want to say.

Go ahead and do that. But in the end, read through and frankly ask yourself: Is this too long for my readers to read?

There are several solutions:

  • You can split your article into a couple articles. Or make it a series.
  • You can cut out the parts that aren’t really strong.
  • You can shorten each part up a bit, making each piece of your article more taut.

Realize that making an article shorter almost always makes it better.

It’s hard to cut stuff that you wrote. But do it any way. It will almost always be an improvement.

Pitfall 5: It’s too dense.

You’ve probably had this experience:

You start reading an article on a topic that’s interesting to you. It’s off to a good start.

But then you get buried in a section that seems to delve deeper and deeper into an esoteric aspect of the discussion.

So you abandon ship.

What happened? The article got too dense—it provided too much detail on something that didn’t matter too much.

How do you watch out for this pitfall? The easiest way is to watch for paragraphs that are much longer than usual.

When you find one, slash away. Either take out most of the paragraph, or cut the whole thing.

Pitfall 6: It has an uptight tone.

Some people are afraid of looking dumb when they write.

So they adopt an uptight, academic tone. They start using big words, strung together in really long sentences.

It’s a sickness. And it results in some really smart people writing abysmally. (See? I didn’t want to look dumb right there, so I said “abysmally” instead of “badly”.)

If you do this, you may find it almost impossible to stop. But this technique can help:

Try talking instead of writing.

Most people talk more naturally than they write. So you can either talk into a digital recorder—then transcribe it. Or just try explaining your topic to someone while that person types.

Either way, you will get a much more normal, friendly, conversational tone.

Once you do this a few times, you’ll get more comfortable simply being yourself when you write.

Pitfall 7: Your writing meanders.

This one’s tough. But your writing needs to have a straight line of logic.

In other words, it should start by introducing your point (your thesis) and then proceed systematically toward proving that point beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The opposite of that is writing that meanders. It wanders here and there, like a dog in a wide open field. Exploring this, running after that. But never really getting anywhere.

So know where you want to go. Then go there.

Take one step, then the next step, then the next. Until your reader is forced to say, “Yes, I absolutely agree!”

Pitfall 8: You didn’t edit rigorously.

In truth, all of these pitfalls could have been boiled down to just one:

Bad editing.

Editing is critical, because it’s simply too blasted hard to write well on your first pass. So you have to make it great with editing.

As you re-read what you wrote, look for each of the pitfalls we talked about.

And above all, use the best editing technique ever:

Read what you wrote out loud.

When something doesn’t sound right, work on it until it sounds better. In many cases you will need to do one of the following:

  • Use shorter, simpler words.
  • Split a sentence into two shorter sentences.
  • Or just delete the trouble spot.

Is good writing worth all this trouble?

It’s darn near impossible to write without falling into one of these eight pitfalls. And I may have been guilty of writing too long, and meandering, and not editing rigorously enough myself.

But avoiding these pitfalls is definitely worth the trouble.

Because when you avoid them, your writing stands out like a clear and beautiful gem.

Which writing pitfall is the hardest for you to avoid? Leave me a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

The Ultimate Headline Checklist: A Tough Mudder for headlines.

What doesn’t kill your headline makes it stronger.

You’ve no doubt heard of the Tough Mudder, an obstacle course event set up by the British Special Forces.

Thousands of people test themselves at Tough Mudder events across the country. They crawl under barbed wire. They scale walls. They run through mud.

And when they finish, they know they are ready for just about anything.

Well, that’s what you need to do with your headlines—by running them through the Ultimate Headline Checklist.

If one of your headlines makes it through, you know it’s ready. For your blog. For Facebook. For Twitter. For just about anything.

Can your headline survive?

Take a headline you’re planning on using and ask these questions:

  1. Is it short? One of the most successful blogs I know has an average of 8.83 words per headline. Now, not every single headline you write needs to be this short. But if it’s significantly longer, make sure you have a really good reason.
  2. Is it clear? Seems obvious. But there is always a danger your reader may not even understand your headline. So make sure its meaning is plain. If you’re not absolutely certain, have someone read it then tell you what she thinks it means.
  3. Is it relevant? In other words, is your headline talking about something that matters to your target audience? Sometimes, in the excitement of coming up with headlines, you may find that you have strayed off course.
  4. Is it interesting? Does your headline talk about something that piques the interest of your target audience?  This is a pretty low hurdle. Still, make sure your headline clears it.
  5. Is it suspenseful? Some headlines tell the whole story. And some don’t effectively hint at what’s to come. Make sure your headline excites some curiosity in your reader so she’ll feel a strong desire to read further.
  6. Does it pass the Flesch Test? By going to Readability-Score.com and pasting in your headline, you can get its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. My research suggests that a grade level of 5 to 6 is about right for headlines.
  7. Does it use the keywords you targeted? Make sure you haven’t left those by the wayside in your flurry of headline-creating activities.
  8. Does it use a pun or other word play? Wordplay calls attention to itself. You want to call attention to your content. So in most cases, avoid wordplay. It doesn’t do a good job of drawing people into your article.
  9. Has it been used before? It’s always possible that your Headline-To-End-All-Headlines has already been used. So do a quick Google search and find out. This will keep people from searching for your article and finding someone else’s.
  10. Would you be okay with your mom reading it? I’ve written some headlines that my mom wouldn’t have liked. And I didn’t use them. In retrospect, the headlines that I ended up using were always better.
  11. Does it make you want to read what follows? Imagine your headline on someone’s else’s blog. Then ask yourself honestly: if you were to encounter this headline, would you feel strongly inclined to read further?
  12. Did you run it by someone you trust? Try to identify a friend who is a good barometer of headline-awesomeness. Then run your most important headlines by her. Don’t ask if she likes the headline. Ask if she’d want to read what comes next.
  13. Does it excite you? My best headlines give me a great feeling of anticipation, like I just can’t wait to see what comes next. Not every headline will make you feel this way. So watch for the ones that get you excited—and don’t let them get away.
  14. Does it challenge you to make sure the rest of your content is exceptional? A good headline will make you want to read your article one more time to make sure it measures up. If your headline makes you do that, you’ve got a good one.
  15. Do you love it? Okay, I saved this one for the last. Because sometimes, it’s the only test that matters. If your headline doesn’t do so well on the other obstacles—but you still love it—you may want to go with it anyway. Your intuition may be telling you that you have one of those revolutionary headlines that breaks all the rules.

So how did your headline do? Did it survive?

If so, it’s ready to face the onslaught of the outside world.

Of course, the real test of any headline is how well it works. But the Ultimate Headline Checklist will drastically increase the odds that it will do an amazing job.

And if your headline didn’t survive? Sorry. But some headlines are better off left behind, lying face first in the mud under the barbed wire.

Was this article helpful? How did one of your headlines do on this checklist? Leave me a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

The best idea book ever.

For Christmas this past year, my oldest son gave me the best book of ideas I’ve ever owned.

In this book, I have encountered ideas for blog posts, headlines, TV commercials, business development, health improvement and things that are just fun to do. Its pages have been responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in revenue this past year.

And the weirdest thing about this book? Its pages were all blank when I got it.

This book is a simple Moleskin notebook, about 3” by 5”, and a half-inch thick. I keep it by me pretty much all day long—to put ideas into it. And to get ideas out.

Disappointed that I didn’t reveal some book that’s already chock full of ideas, ready to use?

Don’t be. Because I’m going to tell you how to stuff your own book full of ideas—ones that are perfectly suited for whatever you’re trying to do.

Step 1: Go old tech.

I’m sure there’s some iPhone app for keeping track of your ideas. And it would be easy to open a Word document and put them there.

Don’t do it. I don’t have research to back it up, but there’s something about technology that saps the stuffing out of great ideas.

So go old tech. Get yourself a cheap little notebook that will be convenient to put next to your bedside and on top of your desk. I love the Moleskin notebook I’ve used for the last year. So maybe try one of them.

Also, don’t buy anything too precious. You know what I’m talking about—those leather bound journals that make you feel like you can’t jot anything down unless it’s incredibly profound.

Get a simple, little notebook. Stick your favorite pen in it. Now, you’re ready to start stuffing it with ideas.

Step 2: Got a problem?

Ever sit around and wait for great ideas to come to you? Here’s what usually happens:

They don’t come.

Because you need to have a problem, a question, or an issue. And you’ve got to state it loud and clear to yourself.

“I need to figure out a promotion that will keep people coming to our Facebook site week after week.” Okay, that’s good. Or, “I need to figure out how to use Twitter to promote my blog, without having Twitter take over my life.”

Now we’re talking. You’ve got a problem. And your brain’s already on it.

Let that problem bug you a little. Let it fester. Think about it when you’re going to bed at night. Ponder it in the shower.

Until you start to get bothered by a problem, the ideas aren’t likely to come.

Step 3: Be ready at all times.

Let’s make this simple: where you are, your idea book needs to be, too.

If you’re in bed, it’s on your night stand. If you’re at work, it’s on your desk. If you’re driving to a meeting, it’s on the seat right next to you.

This isn’t just about being ready. It’s about changing your mindset to one that is stoked for idea generation.

Having your idea book nearby functions as a reminder to think about your problem. (Remember your problem from Step 2? Still eating at you? Good.)

So keep your idea book nearby. Pretty soon, you won’t want to go anywhere without it.

Step 4: Jot ideas down immediately.

When an idea occurs to you, write it down that instant.

Don’t wonder if it’s good enough. Don’t plan to write it down after lunch. Don’t say, “Oh, I won’t forget that.”

Write it down. Right now.

Having an idea is a little like having a dream. Ever have a crazy dream, and then forget it in a matter of minutes? Ideas are like that, too. And I’ve forgotten way to many of them to skip this important step.

Write it down—even if you think your idea might be terrible. Because even the mediocre ideas may turn into something when we get to our final step.

Step 5: Follow your excitement.

Remember when you first encountered smart phones? Twitter? Facebook? How about Post-Its, Dippin’ Dots and HDTV? Or Starbucks, Anthropologie and the Apple Store?

When you encounter a cool idea, there’s always one telltale emotion:

Excitement.

So the primary way to judge the ideas in your book is by the excitement they create in you. Because if you’re not excited, the idea probably isn’t good enough. And you won’t have the energy to follow through and bring your idea to fruition.

Most ideas fall into one of these three categories:

  • Some ideas keep building. The more you think about it, the better it gets. You keep thinking of ways to extend it and make it better. The excitement is high. Go after these bad boys immediately.
  • Some ideas burn out. You think about these ideas a day or so later and wonder, “Why was I so excited about that?” Don’t worry—and don’t try to rekindle your initial excitement. This idea might be a loser. Or it may have utility some time in the future.
  • Some ideas are stepping stones. These ideas don’t get you excited. But they may get you thinking, “You know, if I changed this around just a little. . .” See where it gets you. If you find yourself getting excited about the possibilities, you may be on to something.

Your most valuable book.

Keep your idea book on hand—and right down every idea, right away. Pretty soon, it’s going to be the most valuable book you ever owned.

Let’s see what I’ve got written in mine:

“Write an article about my idea book.”

Yeah, I’ve got to admit, I was pretty excited about that.

Do you use an idea book? Leave a comment and tell me what works best for you.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

13 procrastination techniques for writers. (Don’t put off reading this.)

I am a terrible procrastinator. And by that, I don’t mean what you think.

What I mean is I find it very difficult to procrastinate. But I finally realized that, sometimes, a little procrastination is what a writer needs most.

Why? There are several reasons:

  • Procrastination helps you relax. And a relaxed writer is a better writer.
  • Procrastination gives your brain time to make connections on its own. And that’s better than trying to force them.
  • Procrastination causes you to engage your brain in a different way—shifting from a frantic, anxious, high-performance mode to a more creative one.
  • And finally, procrastination exposes you to a different set of stimuli, which can help trigger new ideas.

The wrong ways to procrastinate.

But while procrastination can be very good, there are some kinds of procrastination that are not so good. Because they take your mind to a place that isn’t conducive to better writing.

You know what these wrong ways to procrastinate are. But I’ll list them anyway:

  • Texting
  • Checking emails
  • Checking Facebook.
  • Checking Twitter
  • Reading endless blogs about your topic

These kinds of procrastination keep your mind right in that busy, word-based zone. And if you want your procrastination to actually be beneficial, you have to move away from that.

So what kinds of activities work best?

You need something physical. Or visual. Or unusual. Or pleasurable. Or some combination of these.

My top 13 procrastination techniques for writers.

  • Do some kettlebell swings. Have no idea what a kettlebell swing is? Check it out here. Buy yourself a 10- or 15-pounder to start. Swing a kettlebell for a minute and you’ll feel like a new—and really tired—person.
  • Lift some weights. Keep a dumbbell next to your desk, and do some curls when you get stuck. Imagine, a procrastination technique that not only helps your writing, but gives you some impressive pipes.
  • Hit a heavy bag. Are you the type who gets frustrated when a project isn’t going as planned? Take it out on a heavy bag. Two or three minutes of hitting that thing will loosen up the ideas. And make people really scared of you, too.
  • Doodle. Lots of people doodle. But to truly benefit from this technique, you’ve got turn yourself over to it completely. Take 10 minutes exclusively for doodling. Writing words is not allowed. This helps shift your mind into visual mode. And giving the verbal side of your mind a rest helps it work better once you get back to writing.
  • Squeeze a hand-gripper. All day long you’re pounding away at a keyboard. Your hands are aching for something different. Get a Captains of Crush hand-gripper and squeeze it for a minute or two. The pumped up look of your forearms will make everyone think you’ve been typing like a demon.
  • Shoot some baskets. This can be on the basketball court. With a Nerfoop. Or your own wastebasket. It’s an oddly perfect, mindless task–and one that provides instant gratification (a basket) when you get your mind into a better zone.
  • Take a shower. Everyone talks about getting ideas when they’re in the shower. So how come we don’t all take showers when we need better ideas?
  • Meditate. Meditation doesn’t have to be all mystical. Just sit comfortably, close your eyes, and relax. Having upright posture helps. So does having a quiet, pleasant place, like a park bench on a sunny day. The main rule? No thinking about your current project allowed.
  • Take a nap. People used to tease me for taking short naps during the work day. But you know what? It always gave me ideas. When you sleep, your mind shifts to producing more creative theta waves. And sleep is also the one sure way to stop your mind from racing for a few minutes.
  • Bounce a ball. I read that Paul Simon used to bounce a ball against a wall in order to help him with his songwriting. It’s really perfect: Simple. Repetitive. Mindless. Visual. Physical. So grab your favorite super ball, and find yourself a big concrete wall.
  • Read some poetry. I have to admit, I’m not a poetry guy. But find the right poem, and it can have a tremendous impact on your brain. William Butler Yeats is great. And have you read “The Raven” lately? It’s incredible. I suppose Dr. Seuss is okay, too.
  • Take a walk. Okay, it’s not revolutionary. But it’s extremely effective. Here’s the one unbreakable rule: you have to take your walk outside. If it’s warm and sunny, great. If there’s a blizzard, that may be even better. If it’s raining—okay, maybe reading some poetry would be good.
  • Play with a mindless toy. This ball and cup game is one example. This one-person ping pong paddle is another. They provide a great combination of the visual and slightly physical, and require a level of concentration that gets your mind into a different state.

So go ahead and give these procrastination techniques a try. You can do it now—or you can put it off till later. Because either way, you’ll be procrastinating.

What is your favorite procrastination technique? Leave me a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | 1 Comment

18 ways to uncover your headline-writing awesomeness.

You’ve got to put 8—maybe 10 words—on a page. How hard could that be?

Surprisingly, writing a headline can be an incredibly daunting task.

But then, you know what’s at stake: your headline could inspire thousands of people to read your article, comment on it, like it, share it.

Or, your headline could be all they need to turn their attention elsewhere.

I’ve been writing headlines for decades, and I still feel that pressure. But fortunately, I’ve got something to help me.

I’ve got headline-writing methods.

Some I read about. Some I created. And some just seemed to develop by themselves.

Try a couple yourself. And see if headline-writing doesn’t get a little–or a lot—easier.

Method 1: Quantity, not just quality.

You want to write a great headline? Then stop trying to write one headline, and write 20 instead.

Focusing on writing one perfect headline is just too much pressure. Also, it keeps you from developing a headline-writing flow.

So plan on writing dozens of headlines. Then go back over them and select the best ones.

Method 2: Work on several headline projects at once.

Figure out the next three or four articles that you will be writing. Then work on headlines for all of them in one session.

This multiple-headline-writing exercise will keep you from getting into a rut. If you run into trouble writing one headline, you simply shift to working on another one.

This method lets you better capitalize on your headline-writing flow. Also, it’s a tremendous feeling when you end up with headlines for your next several articles, rather than just one.

Method 3: Hone in on it.

Sometimes you’ll write a headline then you’ll say to yourself, “Hmm, that’s not great. But there’s something there.”

Pay attention to that feeling. That’s your clue to keep after it.

Play with that headline. Change some words. Refine it. Go after it from a different direction.

If there’s something about it that interests or excites you, don’t let go until you’ve found the real gem hidden beneath the dirt.

Method 4: Follow what excites you.

What’s interesting about this topic—to you?

For a moment, don’t think about your target audience. Just look at your topic and find what’s fascinating about it to you personally.

I’ve worked on headlines for everything from fishing tackle to prostate exams, and they can all be interesting—if you look carefully enough.

So find what’s intriguing. Then write that down. What you find interesting may very well interest someone else, too.

Method 5: Ideas, not words.

Some people love to write headlines that use puns and plays on words.

Please don’t be one of those people.

Yes, I know Shakespeare did it. And how many Shakespearean scholars are working in social media these days? Right. None.

The best headlines express an interesting thought or idea.

Method 6: Relevance, interest, suspense.

If you can say something that’s relevant and interesting, then create suspense, you may have a winner.

Relevance means that it matters to your target audience. That’s pretty easy.

Interest means it raises an eyebrow. You’ve got their attention.

Suspense means it’s going to gnaw at them until they finally give in and read.

Method 7: Write it boring first.

Before you write a headline, you have to know what you need to say.

Don’t jump right in to “being creative.” Instead, be boring first. Write down exactly what it is you need to communicate.

Then, look for ways to say that in an interesting and compelling way.

Method 8: Timed headline creation.

If headline-writing is difficult for you, here’s one thing that can help:

Having a set time when you’ll be done.

Set a timer for half an hour, and devote yourself totally to the process of writing headlines.

Don’t let your mind drift. Have at it. Try to fill your pad with ideas. Sure, it’s hard. But you only have 29 minutes or so till it’s over.

Method 9: Write now, revise later.

It’s hard to be creative and objective at the same time. It’s hard to be a good writer and a good editor simultaneously, too.

So separate these tasks. Write your headlines now. Then come back to them tomorrow for editing.

You may be surprised. Some of your headlines will be better than you initially thought. And the cool objectivity of new day will help you to revise other headlines and make them great.

Method 10: Keep a great headline file.

Every time you encounter a great headline, save it.

This isn’t as easy as you might think. A great headline captures you, inspiring you to read, or act, or buy—not store it away. But when a headline makes you want to do something, first take a moment to add it to your file.

This practice does a few things: It makes you pay attention to what works on you. It engages you in the study of great headlines. And it gives you a great reference to inspire you when you get stuck.

Method 11: Move, don’t just sit.

When I’m writing headlines, I have a tendency to sit in one place until it’s done.

Not too smart. Because often, the solution to a headline comes to me when I’m driving, or working out, or washing dishes.

So look for mindless, physical activities that you can do when you are working on a headline.  And try thinking about headline projects while doing the other tasks in your daily life.

Method 12: Don’t keep looking in the same place.

When you are working on a headline, it’s easy to think that the solution is in one particular spot.

But it might not be—it may be way over there.

So try to think about the different realms you need to explore. Explore headlines that are funny, touching, inspiring, aspirational, educational or something else.

Method 13: Feel a little bit sleepy.

When I worked at an ad agency, people used to kid me about napping sometimes. They didn’t realize that I was hard at work.

Research shows that when you feel a little bit sleepy, your brain falls into a more creative, theta-wave producing state.

So don’t sit bolt upright, demanding your brain to be creative. Relax and feel a little bit sleepy. Have a slightly dreamy focus on the task at hand. It’s how I’ve come up with some of my best headlines.

Method 14: Pray.

Yes, I’m serious about this one.

If you were to ask me for my one top method for writing headlines, this would be it. Doing good work for my clients matters for me. So I like to get the Creator of the Universe involved.

If you feel so inclined—and a project really matters to you, too—try saying a prayer before your next headline-writing session. You might be surprised at the results.

Method 15: Get comfortable.

If you want to write great headlines, I believe you need to have your feet up.

Sitting in front of a 27-inch monitor may be fine for writing copy. But for writing headlines, you need to be sitting somewhere comfortable, with a pad of paper on your lap.

It may feel funny getting comfortable when you are facing such an important task. But it feels kind of nice, too. And maybe that’s why it works.

Method 16: Ask questions.

You may feel stuck when you’re trying to write a headline. But when someone asks you a question, you almost always have something to say.

So to encourage yourself to have “something to say” in a headline, ask yourself some questions.

For example:

“What’s this really about? What makes it interesting? Why should anyone read further? How is this going to change someone’s life? Where is my reader’s head right now? What’s fun about this? What’s the most ridiculous headline I could write? How would someone else write this? What notions do I have that I need to throw out? How can I look at this from the opposite direction? How would I write this for a child? How would I write it to my mom? If these were the last words I ever wrote, what would this headline be?”

Make your own list of questions that you can ask yourself when you’re writing headlines. Take note of the ones that work especially well.

Method 17: Pack a page with headlines.

Ever attend a conference where the people were packed into the hall? It makes it feel like something’s happening.

You want to get that same feeling when you’re writing headlines.

Don’t use multiple pages of your pad. Just use one. If it starts to get full, just keep packing them in.

Blank pages are scary. Pages that are overflowing with ideas encourage you to think of even more.

Method 18: Type them up and see what hits you.

Write your headlines on paper initially. Then, when you’re done with your session, type them up and have a look.

When you see all of your headlines typed in a document, they will be easier to judge. They have a look of equality, so you won’t be swayed by how neat or messy they were on your page.

Also, having your words in this new form lets them hit you in a fresh way. Read them over and you may find that you discover ways to state them even better.

Taking headline-writing from terrifying to awesome.

I understand that writing headlines can be intimidating. And I didn’t exactly give you a “three-step method” for doing it, either.

But writing headlines isn’t about following a formula. It’s about unearthing something new and fascinating. Something that excites you at what you just discovered.

When you do that—believe it or not—writing headlines is about the most fun you can have with paper and a pen.

Was this article helpful? What methods do you have for writing headlines? Leave me a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

Writing is hard. This advice is easy.

Writing a dissertation is hard. Writing an email is hard. Heck, writing this paragraph was hard.

Writing has always been just plain hard. So here are three things to keep in mind that will make it a lot easier.

  1. Have a goal. Are you trying to persuade someone? Teach someone? Inspire someone? Jot down precisely what you need to accomplish—in one sentence. Writing well is tough when you know what you want to say. It’s impossible when you don’t.
  2. Write like you talk. Don’t try to sound smart. Don’t use long words when a short word will do. Don’t use long sentences if they aren’t necessary. Talk your words down on paper—quickly, continuously, without self-criticism.
  3. Edit ruthlessly. Editing is what makes ordinary writing great. Read what you wrote out loud. Fix the parts that don’t sound right to your ear. Above all keep asking, “Is this clear?” Go through it five times. Ten times if it’s something important. Keep tightening, polishing, improving.

Writing isn’t easy. But it’s something that anyone—not just “writers”—can do.

Keep these three things in mind, and I’m betting your next writing project is a whole lot easier. Maybe even fun. How nice would that be?

Let me know if you think writing is hard, and why. Leave a comment below.

 

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

 The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

#7: Work at your craft each day. 

Here’s the truth:

There are few things as fun as being creative. And few things as valuable. So why the heck wouldn’t you work a little at being creative each day?

The fact is, this pays off in big ways. My first boss told me you had to develop your creative muscles. Then they’ll be there when you need them.

If you only use them once every couple of weeks, you’ll feel like you’re trying to push a 300-pound project off your chest with scrawny, 11″ arms.

What if you don’t have projects that call on your creativity every day?

Find other outlets for your creativity.

  • Paint.
  • Draw.
  • Write something entirely for yourself.
  • Imagine creatures that you can see in the clouds.
  • Write music.
  • Play practical jokes on your business associates.
  • Create a web site for something.
  • Decorate your office.
  • Read strange books.
  • Learn something new.
  • Let your mind wander.
  • Solve world problems.
  • Cut your shrubbery into odd shapes.

Do something. Just don’t let those creative muscles go flabby.

So that’s it. The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People. Put them to use and see what happens.

And if, in that process, you discover another two, or three, or several dozen habits—congratulations. That’s what being creative is all about.

Which of the seven habits was most helpful to you? Leave me a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment

The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

#6: Organize to free yourself. 

Projects requiring creative thought are greedy little buggers. They want all of your time, all of your thought, all of your energy.

When Mozart was writing a symphony, do you think he was also contemplating what he was going to make for dinner? Of course not. He no doubt allowed himself to get totally wrapped up in his task, forgetting about everything else in his life.

The trouble is, there are other things in your life.

If you forget to feed the dog for three days in a row, he’s going to get ornery. So you need a way to handle all those other things in your life so you can devote yourself to your creative tasks with the super-exclusive focus they need.

Now, I’m not the best guy to tell you how to get organized. The truth is, most creative people aren’t.

But there are some simple things you can do so you won’t have to worry about the goldfish dying and the health department writing you up whenever you get engrossed in a project.

Here’s a simple one: have a To Do list. 

Put all your stuff on it. Everything that’s got to be done. Why? Because if you keep it on your list, you won’t have to keep it in your head.

I recommend having a small notebook in which you can make a To Do list for each day of the week. Only put those things on each day that you realistically think you can accomplish.

Number the top three items that you will attack each day. If any items are left over at the end of the day, move them on to the next day’s list.

At the very top of the list, put the high-value creative tasks. Do those first, or at the time of day when you feel the most creative. Your time for creative thinking should always take precedence.

Then assign the leftover times to doing the stuff on your list. Because any time of the day is good for grocery shopping and paying bills.

One other thing: Clean up your office. If it’s neat, your mind will be happy.

Trust me. I know I felt like that once when my office was clean.

Are you organized? What are the top ways you organize to free your creative mind? Leave a comment below.

Posted by Jim Lahue | Leave a comment