Hitch Your Wagon to a Dragon and Blog Like a Wizard

The business landscape is crowded with sorcerers of the written word who bend the dark forces to their will. Meanwhile, you sit there, read their stuff and go Hmm. Anybody can write like that.

So you launch your favorite word processor, and start tapping away at the keyboard. Wow, you have tons of stuff to say. Except… none of it seems to gel. Where’s the wit? The verve and pizzazz?

Your own writing bores you out of your skull. And it fails to get your message across.

Guess what: it doesn’t have to be that way. You too can tap the arcane wells of power that fuel the best writers in business today.

So, how would you like to write like a wizard?

Great Artists Steal

Great musicians accept everything that they hear and find something good. ~Jazz composer John Zorn

If you model a behavior, you’re not taking anything from the source. Learning is, in the end, copying and adapting.

When Louise Brooks, witch-queen of the bobbed haircut, decided to become an author, she realized that she needed writing practice. Lots of it. So she would sit down with acclaimed novels and copy whole sentences into her notebook. She said copying helped her understand style, tone and rhythm.

Brooks knew there’s nothing wrong with being a sorcerer’s apprentice.

If you’re in a rush, turn to master wizards for help. I suggest that you study at the feet of the greatest Wizards; like Andy Maslen’s no-nonsense sorcery, The Copywriting Sourcebook.

Need to write a sales letter? There’s a chapter on that. What about a press release? Ditto.

The Copywriting Sourcebook is a recipe book for all kinds of business potions.

Double the Magic Power, Double the Fun

There are some things you can’t do by yourself. You need someone to call you out on your nonsense, and point out flaws in your text that may have eluded you.

You see, you’re too close to your own material. What is glaringly obvious to you may not be as evident to somebody else. A co-writer helps you pinpoint weaknesses and leaps of logic.

Ideally, you want a writing partner whose writing skills are more advanced than your own. Someone who can make a point in clear language and has a firm grasp of the basics, including punctuation.

Always have a fellow wizard read through your incantations.

Maybe you think you’re summoning heavenly spirits, but you’re actually invoking denizens of the underworld.

Put a Hex on’em

The Internet is like this old wall they dug up in Pompeii. It was scribbled over with graffiti, from top to bottom. One of them read, “I am baffled, O wall, that you do not crumble under the weight of so many words combined.”

Many blogs are the equivalent of those ancient graffiti — lots of people trying to be funny or relevant, and failing. The Intertubes are clogged with irrelevant dreck.

I’ll tell you why.

It’s really hard to structure a text in a way that others will understand, and noise keeps you from the messages that matter.

Lack of focus is the real killer. The key ingredient in magic is concentration, so cast one spell at a time.

Decide what your goal is before you start to write.

Cut, cut, cut

“Cut, cut, cut” was Ezra Pound’s advice to all young poets. Guess what? It applies to your writing, too.

Overwritten sentences are hard to read. Wittgenstein, the philosopher, once wrote that “anything that can be said, can be said clearly.”

Nix the demonic jargon: best-of-breed, knowledge-intensive, and the like. Don’t feed the shoggoths of complexity. Write for human beings.

Set down as many ideas as you want, then get rid of 90%. Cut the flab.

The best way to deliver your message is to keep it short and to the point.

Don’t Skimp on the White Rabbits

We humans have been communicating through the power of story for very, very long.

Stories teach by example and lend credibility to your message. Telling stories is like planting seeds of understanding in your reader’s mind. Our brains are wired to remember narratives and derive meaning from them.

A picture is worth a thousand words but a story is worth a thousand pictures.

In the context of business writing, you want to focus on true events. A bold writer could use Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella to make a point, sure; but that kind of trickery is for PR shamans.

You want to pull rabbits out of your hat – rabbits, not alligators.

Stories have to be more than detours. Think of them as stepping stones and never lose sight of your goal.

Coda: Hitch your Wagon to a Dragon

One of the greatest challenges you will face as a writer is developing a voice. What do I mean by that?

One of Chuck Jones’s art teachers once told his students that they had 100,000 bad drawings in them. Before they got those out of their system, they wouldn’t draw anything good.

Things aren’t that different when you write. You’ve got a truckload of failures in you, enough to make the gods weep. Voice is what you get once you move past the misfires and sketchy experiments. Before you develop a voice, you are not effective. It’s as simple as that.

The griffin of failure must be tamed in order to become the dragon of self-confidence.

While the griffin squawks, the dragon roars. Which one will you be?

  • Have you identified a writing partner yet?
  • Do you spice up your material with relevant stories?
  • Do you have a clear goal before you start to write?

John Magnet Bell

John Magnet Bell has been a freelance translator for 9 years. On his blog, he delivers truly one-of-a-kind story prompts twice a week, including the strangely popular Do Polish Doctors Like Hornets? But that's not all. JMB's other efforts include What can Thelonious Monk teach you about writing? and 3 Terrible Ways to Begin a Story.

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  • http://live-your-love.com/ Brankica U

    You say that one of the hardest things will be finding your voice. I completely agree with that and I think a part of it is just fear.

    Anyway, I wanted to say that I bet you are one of the rare ones that had a voice before writing the first word (blog wise).

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Brankica.

      To be honest I had an obscure blog about 5-6 years ago, which I shut down. I had no idea what I wanted to do with it, couldn’t focus on one given thing… I guess I was trying to express myself without limitations — but a lack of limitations actually hampers creativity.

      There is no such thing as “raw creativity.” You have to channel your creative impulse.
      Finding your voice is all about channeling the impulse.

  • http://twitter.com/LeoWid Leo Widrich

    Great post Dino, there is a similar quote that comes to mind here which was something like “Great Thinkers Recycle Ideas” not sure by whom, but Seth Godin is a good example.

    Anyways, you brought it to the point, you should steal, but steal genuinely. Spin an idea your way, dont be stupid and copy paste it from someone.

    Also love the “bad drawings” one, you just have to write and write and eventually your posts will be better.

    It’s a great lesson that is well worth sharing. Thanks for a post with lots of ideas and things I can learn from, in the Buffer it goes! 🙂

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Leo.

      “Stealing” is, in the end, recycling. Everybody who writes about vampires and werewolves today is ripping off the original stories, shaping them to fit their own voices.

      Ideas are infinite. Real art is in the telling.

      Real art doesn’t come easy, you have to work at it.

      • http://twitter.com/LeoWid Leo Widrich

        woops, sorry John, didn’t read that it was from you, will change that above too.

        • Anonymous

          No biggie. Thanks.

  • http://www.getting-unstuck.com/http://fearlessdating.wordpress.com/http://www.getting-unstuck.com/ RILEY HARRISON

    Many times when my writing bores me I realize I’m not being my self. Other times I realize I have nothing to say so I quit forcing the issue and go on to something else.

    • Anonymous

      You hit the nail on the head there. The key to great prose is to write what you believe in. When you don’t have anything to say, moving on to something that truly engages you is the way to go.

  • http://www.thejackb.com/ The JackB

    Good writing is a combination of passion and knowledge. Write what you feel and add a dash of what you know.

    • Anonymous

      I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  • http://billdorman.wordpress.com Bill Dorman

    If you are going to put any time into this, having a writing partner is a great idea.

    I also liked this comment: A picture is worth a thousand words but a story is worth a thousand pictures. If you are an effective story teller, it is truly an art.

    I have a long ways to go before I find my writer’s voice, but I’m enjoying the journey. Thanks for sharing.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Bill!

      One of the reasons I suggested writing with a partner is that a partner brings multiple benefits.
      a) they’re a sounding board – help you weed out the weaker ideas and keep the great ones
      b) they might come up with new angles – you know, pull different rabbits out of the hat
      c) immediate feedback
      d) by paying attention to somebody else’s writing voice, you develop a deeper understanding of your own
      — and lots more, obviously.

      • http://billdorman.wordpress.com Bill Dorman

        Similar to an accountability partner that I have in my payin’ gig. And of course it doesn’t have to be someone I know in person, but I can tap into some of my friends I have made in the twitter world.

        For our sales meeting we have on Monday mornings we were given a homework assignment over the weekend. We were to leave a voice message like we had called a prospect, on our sales manager’s phone. We played them back on Monday to see what worked and what needed work. The good news was, the practice makes you better. The bad news was, management (not sales) seemed overly critical and was picking it apart to death. I guess there is a happy medium but you certainly want someone who will tell it like it is, right?

        • Anonymous

          Yes, there IS a happy medium. I was talking to a friend about this the other day, and he came up with a great one-liner that says it all: “Be honest, not brutal.”

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  • http://www.mylifestylemax.com Stacey Herbert

    Hey John ,when I first read this post, my initial thoughts where “this is genius”. It’s amazing how many of us think we’re good writer and until we’re actually forced to write on a daily basis, and not just for ourselves, but for our readers. Over the last few weeks, I have been sitting at the feed of those who do it so much better than me and slowly learning. Hopefully not copying too much, but definitely being influenced and inspired. Can I just say, I love your post title, and will definitely be checking out that copy writing book that you mention. Dino sent me a grammar book, which I have also been learning lots from

    • Anonymous

      Thank you, Stacey!

      Copying’s not bad per se; in fact, during any kind of learning stage, you need to copy stuff. A better word might be “imitate”; but some amount of copying helps you wire your brain for the new tasks you need to handle.

      I’ll share a personal example. I am now studying Swedish. I was progressing slowly until I found this great news site, 8sidor (“eight pages”), which serves the immigrant community in Sweden, and is written for non-native speakers of Swedish. I began to copy news items everyday — and this behavior/method really helped me improve my fluency and vocabulary.

      Copying/imitating is an essential part of training.

      Andy Maslen wrote two great books — one is The Copywriting Sourcebook — great help if you’re pressed for time. It’s a collection of time-tested formulas, a potent “spell book,” if you will. The other one is “Write to Sell.” You pick up a lot from those two.
      Toward the end of “Write to Sell” Maslen provides the reader with a list of publications (on- and offline), as well as authors, which he believes are examples of great writing. You can’t go wrong with Maslen.

  • http://www.unleashingthetiger.com Dean Carlton

    Hi John @StartYourNovel:disqus .

    Oh, crap!
    Here I am worrying about themes, plugins and stuff for my blog, as well as creating new posts and I damn clean forgot to look at my writing style!

    Well OK, I didn’t, but this post made me realise I should take a long hard look at what I write in future….

    Note to self, stop fussing about the tech, get writing, then cut, cut cut….

    Thanks for the pointer to The Copywriting Sourcebook, looks like a good tool, checking out right now!

  • http://www.hollandz.com Brad Holland

    So, I read that and suddenly I was immersed into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and this geeky kid named Harry was getting his ass kicked. His glassed were shattered and the branch he carries was broken. This ugly red head kid was trying to help but got kicked in the ribs and doubled over. Harry was crying and tried to talk but the duct tape over his mouth stopped him from casting spells. I sat there thinking I should help those poor kids, but decided against it because, what’s a 35 year old man doing in a wizard school anyway. I just went back to practicing my writing instead.