Years, ago, I tried to get a good but hungry writer friend some easy work, writing for Corporate Writer & Editor magazine, of which I was a contributing writer and editor.
All you gotta do, I told him, is come up with some aspect of writing or editing—headlines, leads, nut graphs, captions—and share with the readers your tricks for doing those in a sophisticated way.
I could see the blood run out of his face, but he said yeah, sounded good, he'd give it a try, send me some story ideas.
Weeks went by, months. No ideas. I let it drop.
But then one night at the tavern, he was bellyaching about not having any work.
"But what about Corporate Writer & Ed—"
"I can't do it, David! I just can't do! I can't write about writing—especially to teach people who are supposed to be professional writers and editors how to write and edit! Every time I start to do a piece, I think, 'Why don't you stupid bastards know how to do this?'"
But every communicator (and every bastard) has strong suits and weak hands. Often best writers are shy interviewers. The meticulous investigative journalist can't write a headline. The all-around editorial genius is terrible at negotiating the fees she deserves. A megastar blogger can't proofread his way out of a paper bga.
You know who doesn't have a problem teaching veteran writers what he knows about the craft and business of professional writing—and doing so in the most breezy, lighthearted, colleague-to-colleague way?
Speechwriter, playwright and music man Mike Long, who writes Prose for Pros, a weekly enewsletter for members and acolytes of the Professional Speechwriters Association, where he is resident writing coach.
Kinda like this. (Yes, I know Mike wears weird glasses; and that's not the half of it.)
If you think you can improve any aspect of your writing and editing, sign up here, for free, and see for yourself how personal professional development can feel.
Published with the author's permission.
I write in honor of my dear friend and companion, Edina dog, who will leave me this afternoon forever. Eddie came to us by way of my friend, Toni, who discovered her as a wee puppy abandoned in Palmer. Eddie chewed through shoes and books and purses. She grew and flourished, learning her territory from her friend, Cujo, who waits for her today. Eddie watched my daughter grow into a woman. She saw me through the end of a long marriage, disastrous relationships, and the happiness of meeting and marrying my good husband. She was a companion to my father, even to his suicide. She was loyal as I sank into the mire of alcoholism, and sat faithfully at my feet as I recovered. She comforted me when I lost my brother and two dear friends. She chased moose, alerted us to strangers, and joined the chorus of the twilight bark that keeps the moon up in the sky. She chased balls, and always greeted us with her happy smile. She left ungodly amounts of hair throughout the house twice a year. She never begged, but loved a treat. As she has spiraled into dementia and arthritis, she never complained, but only asked for more frequent love. She deserved more balls to chase and more rides in the car. I wish that I had never taught her not to sleep on the couch. I’m sorry I hollered at her when she dragged huge moose bones through the dog door. She has been my dear friend for fifteen years, and my heart is heavy with sadness as I bid her goodbye today. Pain is overcoming her joy, and it’s time, it’s right to let her go now. But I love her, and I grieve. Eddie dog is a good dog, and I love her.
A communication consultant I know puts out a regular promotional email, purporting to impart his special brand of wisdom. Last Friday's edition came as a confession couched in, "Seven Things I Learned from Losing My Temper."
My first thought was that this guy is north of 60 years old. If the old fellow is still learning seven things every time he blows his top, he ought to blow it more often—or he should have blown it earlier in life. In any case, our man leads off in a grave tone.
"I lost my temper yesterday," he writes. "I shouldn't have, and I truly regret it. But the fact is I did."
It is rare for me to go volcanic. It almost never happens. People who have known me for ten years, even fifteen or twenty years, will tell you the closest they have seen me approach it is mild irritation. Fortunately they were not at my side yesterday.
The particulars are unimportant. Suffice to say my inbox overfloweth with emails. One of yesterday's emails, spam from a complete stranger who appeared to be the weakest volt on the Internet, was just the stupidest thing I had ever read. It was idiotic.
Here was someone pretending to be wise who was emphatically insisting that reading literature was a waste of time. Apparently a STEM fanatic, he all but said literature was useless in today's world.
Now, I like to read. As I write these words I am midway through War and Peace. I have learned a great deal from books over the course of my life, and I am convinced that the liberal arts are the best path to a lifetime of wisdom, depth, insight, relational health, and critical thought. You can imagine my ire on reading the email in question.
I dashed off a suitable, polite note expressing a strong preference to be permanently removed from his distribution list. A minute later I received a surly reply. If there's one thing I don't want and don't need before my second cup of coffee it's surly.
So I called the guy, and I let him know that he wasn't the only surly person in the world. Boy, did I ever.
I got my point across, but I truly regret using some harsh language. (No, not profanity, which is a particular irritant to me. But I did use the words "Listen, buddy.")
To help others avoid experiencing a similarly reckless rampage, the communication consultant offers some life-coaching advice that he sums up as: "think, chill and stifle."
Reading his email, I had a few insights of my own—seven, as luck would have it—that I would like to share with the consultant:
1. You confess to feeling "mild irritation." That sounds like silent seething to me. You're a pressure cooker, dangerous to everyone around you. You know what I do when I feel "mild irritation"? I scream "jagoff!" at the driver who made me feel it, and I lay on the horn until I can't remember what the guy did to offend me. Try it sometime.
2. You confess to having had a knock-down brawl with a guy, and then say, "the particulars are unimportant." Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are glad everyone doesn't share your high-minded point of view, unconcerned about how the fight went down or even who won—just satisfied, if saddened, to know that a fight has taken place.
3. You claim that you regret your telephonic terrorism, yet you still describe your victim as "the weakest volt" on the Internet, and accuse him of having written the "stupidest thing I have ever read." Well, I'd like to read the stupidest thing you've ever read. Because, again, you're pretty old, and by now I bet you've read some pretty stupid things—and written some too! But no time to inventory that, because you've got to hurry up and ...
4. ... tell us you're midway through War and Peace. Hate to point it out in public, my friend, but just about every Westerner with a college education is midway through War and Peace, and most of us will die midway through War and Peace. The middle of War and Peace is a mighty big place.
5. You say you have learned a great deal from books during your life. As you formulate your secret to sane living, try to imagine which one of those epic, passionate, earth-shattering books you've read would have ever been started or finished had their mildly irritated writers—your Homers, your Dostoyevskys, your Wildes, your Joyces—been inclined or able to follow your three-legged stool of emotional enlightenment: "think, chill and stifle." Think, Chill and Stifle, by Leo Tolstoy.
6. You dashed off a "suitable, polite note," and you received a "surly reply." How much do you wanna bet the other guy told his wife that he received a surly note from you, and that he responded with a suitable, polite reply.
7. "I got my point across, but I truly regret using some harsh language. (No, not profanity, which is a particular irritant to me. But I did use the words 'Listen, buddy.')" Wait, you are embarrassed and humiliated and throbbing with regret because you called the guy "buddy"? I mean, if you're going to feel this bad, you might as well have called him a shitheel, a dickbag or a douchenozzle.
Listen, turd burglar: I wake up some mornings feeling angry—about my prospects, about my sciatic nerve, about the impossibility of living happily among all the horny, crippled, starving reptiles crawling all over this big veiny testicle we live on, or about the Cubs' Dave Kingman-like, free-swinging rookie third-baseman. I need to knock some heads together, and I know plenty of heads that require knocking. As the first-grader fist-fighter told my teacher wife after she broke it up, "I'm just getting my exercise, Miss Bosch!"
So very consciously, I lie in wait for some poor self-loving jamoke to say something fatuous so that I can attempt to amuse my Writing Boots readers by simultaneously savaging the a-hole, and salving my soul.
It usually doesn't take long to find some suitable prey. And promotional emails from priggish consultants are a pretty reliable place to look.
Please, keep me on your distribution list.
To keep up with the Twitter conversation last week's Ad Age excerpt from my book, Raised By Mad Men, I pasted the article title, "My Mom Was a Mad Man," into the search box. Mostly, RTs of the article came up. But reading the tweets in between, I be trippin':
Fuck man I'm pissed now I gotta wake up early and wash my truck before my mom wakes up mad as fuck at me
My mom not even mad she be purping man
I was so mad at my mom for sending me to an all boys prep school when I was 14. But man, one of the best decisions of my life.
My mom is always mad at me man :((((
Just fell down the stairs so nasty man. tried to text and walk. Then my mom mad at me for waking her up from me nearly BREAKING MY NECK
I hate my mom sometimes she can get mad at me for nothing. man I can't wait to move out
Once my mom does something stupid to make everyone mad, everyone is just stuck in a bad mood.
MAN I HAVEN'T BEEN THIS MAD AT SOMEONE WHO WASN'T MY MOM IN A LONG FUCKING TIME LMAO
When my mom is trying to say sorry without saying sorry she sends me a snow man
my mom is having an affair n I knew for a long time and the other day I got mad at her and I said "go fuck that man" n she tlkd shit about me
my mom was rly mad cause I'm gone be a dad but ioncare cause afterwards she called me spider man
My mom may make me sooo freaken mad and makes me want to regulate on her but man I love that woman to death!
Musician hits all the right notes in best-man speech made into a moving medley.
Hat tip to British Columbia correspondent Lorne Christensen.
I'm wearing shorts, and my Joe Namath jersey sweatshirt—the one I've had since 1994, when I begged my wife for it for Christmas, despite the fact that it cost 80 bucks, which was real money in 1994.
I go to take a leak. And do you know what this slovenly-chic dude from a table of Gen Y hipsterfuckdweebs stops me to ask?
"Excuse me, we're trying to settle a bet. Is that a Chad Pennington jersey?"
Do you know who Chad Pennington was? Yeah, I didn't think so. That's why I linked to his name. You don't need no link to Namath.
Luckily, I had the Namath-like cool to borrow a line from my onetime colleague Ralph Gaillard.
"If I were dead," I told these sorry, ignorant bearded children, "I'd be rolling over in my grave."
This week's issue of Advertising Age carries an excerpt from my wee book, Raised By Mad Men. Here's a taste of the Ad Age excerpt, which focuses on my mother:
She and other writers began to produce examples of advertising that harmonized with the voice of the creative revolution.
She did a safety ad for General Motors, showing a macho truck driver smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. “Harry never drives more than two hours without stopping. Harry must be a sissy.”
“New York’s great,” began her recruiting ad for [Detroit ad agency] Campbell-Ewald, “but it’s so far away from everything.”
For Boeing Jetliners, she tried to promote far-away vacations: “There’s just one trouble with taking the same vacation every year: you’re always the same person when you get back.”
“Red China doesn’t interrupt the late, late show with a bunch of commercials,” read the copy over a photo showing Chinese peasants stooping in a rice paddy. “But then, Red China doesn’t have a late, late show.”
And she wrote an ad in 1964 for an unspecified client. “If you feel sure civil rights is moving fast enough,” began the headline over a grainy black-and-white photograph of a racially ambiguous child in a crib, “try to imagine your children waking up Negro tomorrow morning.”
When I say that headline out loud, I get choked up. Not because of the obvious virtue of the cause, but because of the honest intention, to communicate.
I spend so much time seeing that the character of my parents lives on through my daughter. It's damned cool to pass on just a bit of their magic dust into the world, for the benefit of whomever happens to find it groovy.
This magazine gets the company's message across with house ads, but editorially, it's simply out to tell stories that will appeal in subject and theme to the company's customers: welders, and the people who buy welding machines. Well that's a fun fucking crowd to write for! Capable! Adventurous! Grounded!
Another thing going for me—and I'm such a ridiculously overconfident writer that I often forget this—is that the ARC people, editor John Bruening and publisher Craig Coffey, have some good story ideas.
I always think my writing will carry the day. "The paint shone wet under the September sun. In the end, of course, it would dry. But how long would it take? And would it ultimately look good with the taupe trim?"
When I actually get a good story, I'm shocked by how much more fun the reporting is, and how much better is the story I wind up writing. For the first issue of ARC, I was handed one of the best stories I've ever been assigned: to profile a young millionaire who gave up everything to start a roving debris-clearing company that cleans up towns in the very first hours, days and weeks after natural disasters have hit—at no charge to the community, and with no government funds.
Here's the lead:
Tad Agoglia is not a superhero. He doesn’t use fantastic physics and magical powers to hush hurricanes and ward off tornadoes. That would be ridiculous.
Instead, he materializes immediately after disaster has struck to begin rectifying the situation with state-of-the-art machinery and near-mystical skill and stamina. That is also ridiculous.
But it’s real. And the questions you find yourself asking Agoglia are the same ones a child eventually asks of a superhero: Where did you come from? Why do you do this? How do you do this?
Read the rest of the story, and remember what I so often forget: Even good storytellers need good stories to tell.