Blogger Commitment Extraordinaire: An Interview with Larry Cuban

 

X9PSO6cF_400x400I’ll come right out with it. My Dad, Larry Cuban — Stanford emeritus professor, former high school teacher, district superintendent, and prolific author on education — is the epitome of writing discipline: he’s been cranking out blog posts two times a week for nine years…yes, almost a decade.

I wanted to find out how he does it, to inspire others to start on their blogging journey, and to motivate bloggers already in the trenches (including his own daughter👩‍💻).

Tell me a bit about your blog.

It’s called Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. I aim for 800 words for each post, two times a week. I have at least one point I want to make. I use lots of examples to back up the point, and then I take a position on it.

What specific topics do you cover?

Because it’s education and includes both policy and practice, it gives me a lot of latitude to write about what I want — from state and federal policy to school reform to classroom lessons. Education is so connected to other institutions in our society so it’s easy to also analyze business, the practice of medicine and teaching, and other similar topics. I try to make connections between things, it makes writing more challenging and interesting.

How do you find blog post ideas? Do you have an editorial calendar?

I am always reading a lot of books, newspapers, magazines, other peoples’ blogs, and a lot about corporate, medical, and governmental practices. Ideas just kind of get married to one another, and that to me is exciting. I don’t have an editorial calendar but I do have some regular sections on the blog. There is a monthly feature on education cartoons with different topics, for instance, how teachers and kids use digital tools, and an intermittent post I call “Whatever happened to..” about past innovations and popular school reforms over the ages, like teaching machines and phonics. I also do an anniversary blog post every year thanking readers and featuring annual blog stats.

Do you ever run out of topics?

Ideas don’t always come to me. Sometimes I’ll ask others to do a guest post. Other times I’ll recycle posts and update them with a new opening and closing. Then there was that “Poems about Education”… not such a big hit. Readership dropped. Not doing that again.

I still marvel at the fact that you write twice a week. How the heck do you do it?

That’s a complicated answer: One, I like to write. Sometimes you hear blogging is passé but I find it very invigorating intellectually. I like to take ideas that I have and convert them into prose that gives me a chance to express myself. Secondly, the blog is a vehicle to teach others. I’m highly motivated to share because I think my ideas matter and give me a form of teaching. Teaching has been a major part of my life.

What advice would you give to would-be bloggers, or those in need of a writing adrenaline shot?

Ask: Who is your audience? Once you have an audience, read other blogs you admire and try to figure out an angle that gets at what you want to communicate. It’s important to always have a hook. Also, have the self-confidence that what you’re saying matters to the audience. Last but not least, make a commitment to try to do it for at least year. Writing, revising, and editing is hard work but very satisfying when you push that button “publish” and hear from readers.

 

 

 

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8 Ways to Deliver a Punch to B2B Writing 👊

Fact: writers rarely get trained for B2B technology writing, it just kind of happens. You deliberately or accidentally fall into a tech company, breath in all their communications, the bytes and bites, brand style guide (if they even have one), and somehow it all comes together. Rinse and repeat for next company.

But no matter how much writing experience under your belt, it doesn’t mean you’re cranking out good, compelling writing – that task requires a more Herculean effort.

For starters, writing about features and benefits of non-human technology has innate issues: How do you make those products interesting? How can you move the reader along to the next step? How can can ensure they won’t yawn, or worse yet take a power nap?

Writing B2B copy over two decades, I’ve seen my share of snoozefests and poppin’ copy. We all know that in the digital age of distractions, smart, engaging copy isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s the mandate. Competing with thousands of other websites and incoming messages, texts, plus other online choices, your content needs to stand out – or your reader is out.

Here are some techniques I use to turn up the volume and make my writing count.

Focus on helping your customer—always❤️                                                                         I know, obvious right? But you’d be surprised how many times I run across copy that is me, me me: let me tell you how great my product is, look at all my shiny bells and whistles. But that is not solving the customer’s problems. I still have to check myself, especially when I’m working with a product manager or marketing mucky-muck who thinks his or her widget is the best thing since sliced…circuits. It’s an essential ingredient to any good B2B writing, better yet all marketing writing.

Ixnay the jargon and buzzwords🙄                                                                                      Let’s play a drinking game: how many times do you see the words “leverage” or “enable” in technology marketing writing? Yeah, we’d all be drunk by now. Cut those altogether. No one talks that way nor should they unless they’re an AI-fueled robot. Though it’s tempting to use easy-access words, especially when you’re under deadline, take the time to find that perfect synonym. If branding will allow, use “craft” instead of “expertise,” or “technology muscle” instead of “innovate.” Swap “very easy” with “effortless.” Or even small tweaks like “exceed expectations” to “defy expectations” can make a difference. Be creative, not lazy.

Surprise Your Reader😮                                                                                                        There’s nothing like a one-sentence paragraph to stop your reader in his or her tracks.

A sentence that stands by itself in a sea of others beckons the reader and gives you a potential hook to read the entire blog post, case study or whatever you want eyeballs on. Make sure that sentence has impact. If your reader is scanning (trust me, they will be), it could be the only words they read. Choose carefully.

Or try a skillful use of the em dash — which can create drama and emphasize an important point — but don’t be overly dramatic with every sentence, make it count.

Flip Clichés Upside down🙃                                                                                                  Many a corporate communication organization, especially global companies, wisely implement a no-colloquialism policy. Americanisms like “follow the leader” or “the stakes are high” can cause confusion to non-native English speakers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use well-worn phrases that most cultures do know. For instance, “Time is on your side” can be turned into a statement to create urgency and also give a confident spin, such as “Time is not on your side when…”

Be a Person, not a Monolith🙋🏻                                                                                              Some larger companies like to mention their name over and over in communications as if the person didn’t realize where they were, while others use the “we” and the “you.” Smaller companies tend to be more comfortable with this language but frankly, the big multinational ones need it the most – they are impersonal corporate entities. In the real world, people like to be spoken to and with directly. Personal pronouns are warmer and help build a connection. Don’t get carried away with it, but weave in various places to keep that thread going.

Use Provocative Questions and Bold Statements🔥                                                       When writing my first direct mail campaign early in my career, my boss said to me, “Never start an email with a question because if the answer is no, they’ll stop reading.” Point taken, but there are still plenty of ways to sidestep the inevitable yes or no and get your reader to think and engage with the copy. It could be a rhetorical question like “Why are you paying for extra services you’re not using?” Or a statement like “XYZ thinks everyone should pay for full service, but we disagree.” Don’t be shy about challenging your reader’s thinking and throwing in some fun with language. Speaking of which…

Inject humor –But With a Slow IV Drip🎭                                                                              I’ll be the first to laugh at a good pun, funny joke, or amusing alliteration. And there is definitely a place for it in B2B copy – it just needs to be the write one. (sorry couldn’t help myself). But before you trot out your comical stylings, make sure the brand voice has the flexibility, the wit is in context, and humor that is accessible to all. If your reader doesn’t get it, the joke’s on you. Making someone smile or laugh is one thing; turning them off is quite another. Irreverent, self-deprecating humor like on this CB Insights page, strikes the right tone: “In God We Trust, Everyone else Bring Data.” 

Embrace the writing rhythm🎼                                                                                            Short sentences are great for understanding. Long ones can be woven in to make a point when they need to (but 25 words max). Much like the way we speak, writing has its own pattern. Otherwise, we’d be completely monotone. Make sure you mix it up so you’re not fatiguing the reader. Get it?

That also means mixing bite-sized paragraphs mixed with chunkier ones to keep the tempo going. And don’t forget to add guideposts like bullets and headlines so you keep the reader moving through.

What are some of your tips? What’s your pet peeve or joy in writing and reading B2B copy? ☺️😜🤓😩😖

5 Tips For Working With Freelance Writers

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Ever wonder why some of freelance writing projects go smoothly and others sink like the Titanic? Peek inside our brain with some first-hand insights that will help your content hit the nail on the head – instead of the last one in the coffin.

Be a Great Partner

Collaboration is key in content development. We don’t automatically flow words together without effort. We rely on the best information to create that fabulous writing for you. We do our part by getting all the materials to the job done, including asking smart questions and confirming details. Your part? Help us close the understanding gap, like legacy knowledge or a relevant back-story, so we don’t risk missing the mark. Say, for instance, I’m the second writer you hired for this job. Why didn’t that first engagement work out? How can we improve this one?

Chart the Course

Set expectations about the project – that means the schedule, reviews, logistics, milestones and any “gotchas” along the way (um…we may add in a new product at the end). Most of these questions can be answered with a project plan – even a loose one. Schedules change but at least we’ll have a roadmap. For example, a recent website client didn’t include all the players for early reviews, so near final copy, major changes were required. That added up to wasted time, resources, and money for everyone.

No “Sh*tty First Draft”

Writer Anne Lamott aptly stated the truth about first drafts years ago and it won’t change – mark my words (sorry couldn’t resist). By the time you see our work, we’ve put a Herculean effort to make it the best it can be – but we do expect changes. It’s rare that the first time you see a document it will be “perfect” and require nary an edit. We can pine for this utopian scene but don’t expect it (that’s why it’s called Utopia, people). We are prepared to revise and get constructive criticism. Those writers who can’t deal should pick another career. Which leads us to the next tip…

Show Me, Don’t (Just) Tell Me

The way you review matters: Slap-dash or vague verbal comments will produce a sub-par result. “This paragraph doesn’t work” isn’t specific. Why? What’s the issue? If the tone of the document is off, that’s one thing, but if there are parts you want to change, be clear and note it on the document, email, or whiteboard – anything. But know that verbal feedback can sometimes be tricky to interpret. A former client would not review documents in writing as she was “too busy.” The result? A protracted review loop with misunderstandings and ad hoc changes all along the way. Bottom-line: Clarity early saves time later.

Shift Happens

Sometimes mid-way or at the very end (see “gotchas” above) someone, somewhere decides that this document needs to serve another purpose, the messaging has changed, or a response to a competitor should be weaved in (and of course deadline hasn’t changed). Hopefully, the entire document doesn’t have to be scrapped, but sometimes that’s the reality. Know that we will likely need to add to the budget and schedule if it’s not baked in. Small changes? Fine. A rewrite is a whole different animal. We’ll be fair and work with you on this, but know there is a difference between revisions and starting from scratch.

Circle-Slash Whiney Writers

Occasionally, there is a piece of content that just doesn’t work – period. Maybe the CMO jumped in and forced a paragraph that changed everything; or a success story wasn’t all that impressive; or the blog post is watered down because too many people got their hands on it. None of these situations is anyone’s “fault,” but they do need to be resolved. Moments like this can also be a breeding ground for misunderstandings and delays. Writers take a lot of pride in what they do and will help solve the issue if we can. But ultimately it will be your decision, knowing we’ve done our best work and it’s out of our hands. Though difficult, this is the life of a freelancer. The end result may not be our perfect ending, but it’s yours – and we have to accept that and walk away.

The Wrap

Freelance writing projects are an intimate exchange of partnership, jumbled words, and moving parts that can churn out a great result – or turn into a failure to launch. The best outcome? That the content serves the purpose, it will be read by your audience (and shared too!), oh, and you get well-deserved kudos. The beauty is that we can learn something from each engagement – about you, ourselves, and how to improve our writing for future projects.

Oh, and one more thing of beauty – that you’ll call me back for your next project.

An Author, Agent, and Publisher Walk into a Writing Conference…

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As we sat huddled at crowded tables in the Peacock Room of the elegant Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, my deja vu struck: I was watching a Tony Robbins motivational conference on PBS.

The dozen or so men and women on stage, all shapes, sizes and ages, stood up and gripped the mic—some with more confidence than others—and told their stories: “Three years ago, I too was sitting where you are, my book idea barely conceived, uncomfortable and unproven but here I am now a published author with an advance and another book on the way.” Riotous clapping ensues. Rinse and repeat with other inspiring stories.

I realized that the attendees at the 50+ tables wide-eyed and straining to listen, weren’t attending this conference to refresh grammar rules, learn story arcs, or methods to hone their pitch. They were here to fulfill their dream: The ecstatic giddiness of writing a book and getting it published.

I also understood clearly at that moment that it wasn’t just about writing the book, it was the desire for others to read your book. It made me wonder: could one exist without the other? I loved writing but if no one read it, did it count?  If I don’t have feedback does it mean I won’t know if my writing is good? Does any of this even matter? My mind raced with “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it…” questions, but was brought back to the noisy excitement of more clapping.

Once I checked back into the reality of the room, I felt a sense of shame and idiocy recalling the one-in-a-million chances and fakery we’ve all seen on TV: The faith healer raising a small boy out of his wheelchair. “The Price is Right” contestant who wins a car because she reveals a stapler in her purse to Bob Barker. The lottery winner on TV grinning ear to ear. Could this dream really happen to me?

But then I checked myself.

I too could be on that stage. I too could write that book. I too had that passion—and it was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it was one of those rare moments I felt a deep sense of camaraderie with every person in the room for their passion to write, no matter how different we were. And believe me, we were miles apart.

From the young woman writing about birthing in the wilderness to the female coach advising how to say “no” without guilt. Or the San Francisco hipster taxi driver musing on his rides to the serial dater writing about her kooky love misadventures. Then there was the doctor penning a story of a 5th grader doing surgery and a famous cartoonist’s son spinning historical fiction. The list goes on.

This quilt of ideas and passion in the room strangely seemed to fit together: We all have a story to get out and conversely, want someone to read it. But I still couldn’t help asking myself if I was part of a group of unrealistic dreamers or soon-to-be successes.

Throughout the weekend I attended classes about parables, platforms, and pitches, which only served to fuel the strike-it-big fantasy. Excitement was sparked by topics like: how to option your book; rules for media interviews; scheduling out book series.

Though I became weary of all the advice, potential triumphs, and scribbling notes, I nonetheless stayed motivated by the possibilities of writing dreams. In the evenings, between sips of wine and bites of networking snacks, we tested our pitches and ruminated on fears and fantasies for our books.

But there was the subtext buzzing beneath the surface during the entire conference: Self-publishing is the last resort if you don’t get published. It’s the First-Class versus Coach of the industry. The unspoken message is that if you are a published author, you’re legitimized, if you self-published, not so much. After all, anyone can publish a book these days. That doesn’t make it a bad option, but it means you have no other option. Some authors don’t care. But some care very much.

Of course, the (again one-in-a-million) example heard of self-publishing throughout the weekend was the lucky author of the “The Martian” discovered online, then part of an Oscar-nominated movie, and the rest is history. Yes, sometimes luck, talent, and timing really do intersect in life. But how many lives? How many times?

By the end of the conference, through all the classes, writers, agents, and publishers I encountered, the biggest discovery had nothing to do with potential book fame—it only had to do with my relationship to writing.

For those who lament with words every day, it is not a choice, it’s something we must do, no matter how painful or glorious it is. It’s more than getting our thoughts on the virtual paper, or praising ourselves for the beauty of perfect prose strung together, or slogging through that final edit that renders us broken but exhilarated. It’s about completeness. The End. Ready for Prime Time—whatever form that takes.

The truth is that writing is the least of the work if you want to be a published author—whether you seek a contract or self-publish. For those of us who live in the world of feared procrastination just looking at the blank screen, that alone can be enough to click on Facebook for life.

You’ll be eeking out every page, editing and re-editing, creating your platform, finding publishing options, hiring a coach or an editor, getting educated on contracts. It can make your head spin. And maybe if you have the time, reading other works to continue that inspiration. It’s enough to look at your book as a side project, which it is already if you are working to support yourself to write (99% of us).

This isn’t all bad though, it means that it will light a fire under your ass—or it won’t. The passion you feel for your project comes completely from within. Being a “published author” can come in many forms —but that flotation device in an ocean of words that keeps you above water is shaky at best and may or may not sink at any point.

But then I slipped into my imagination and clearly saw a snapshot of the glossy cover of my book, the title a bit fuzzy and the image splashy color but illegible. But what I did see with extreme clarity, was my name in big bold letters staring back at me.

And as I learned from 74-year-old Walter at the conference, now is when you should write your book. “I don’t have a lot more time to tell my story so I need to do it now.” He see’s the ultimate deadline and in doing so, has accomplished the seemingly impossible.