John McPhee and writing by omission

John McPhee is one of my favorite authors. He makes me feel like I am present in the place and with the people he writes about. Coming into the Country, his book about Alaska, introduced me to a wealth of fascinating characters. He makes potentially boring subjects captivating, such as geology in Basin and Range.

So when my news feed turned up his an article in The New Yorker about how to write, I read it right away.

The article is titled “Omission: Choosing what to leave out.” The question for the writer is how much to say about the subject and when to stop.

McPhee says, “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out.”

He continues, “Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.” Now that’s the tough part. McPhee relates various arguments he’s had with editors over the year about the amount they cut from his articles. Sometimes he won the argument, sometimes he lost, and sometimes he ended up agreeing with the editor.

McPhee talks about the need to leave white spaces: the writer should provide enough details to evoke a scene but allow the reader to fill in the details. “To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost.”

He also quotes Ernest Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

I’m going to suggest that you read the entire article. It will make you think more about how you write. And you’ll also find out why General Eisenhower left the grapes out of the still life he was painting.


Three great leads to engage your readers

Your lead needs to grab people by the collar or get them asking questions, said Ann Wylie at a recent workshop sponsored by PRSA Puget Sound.

There are three good types of leads, according to Wylie:

  • Concrete: Engage one of the five senses or offer a startling statistic.
  • Creative: Use words that involve suspense or conflict. Talk about something weird, unusual or surprising. Or be descriptive, paint a picture with your words.
  • Provocative: Give concrete information that will provoke your readers to ask the question.

Some leads to try: human interest, wordplay, prescription, metaphor, anecdote, juicy details or startling statistics.

Some leads to avoid: abstraction, background, throw-away, question that’s broad or abstract, quotation, pack of facts or announcement. Those tend to be boring. They may be appropriate elsewhere in your story, but not in the first sentence.

Ben the Bear: Ann Wylie and online storytelling


PETA photo

“The bear, known only as Attraction #2, lived in a cage the size of a child’s room.”

That is one possible lead for a story about Ben the Bear, said Ann Wylie. She was speaking at a PRSA Puget Sound workshop on writing for the web called “Get Clicked, Read, Shared and Liked.”

Wylie described Ben’s story in a classic story template.

  • Introduction: Make the lead concrete, creative or provocative. What is a  critical moment or interesting fact that will draw people into the story and encourage them to keep reading?
  • Problem: Describe Ben’s dismal life in a North Carolina roadside zoo. Paint a picture for readers.
  • Solution: Talk about how your actions (by your company, nonprofit organization, agency program or other) improved the situation. In Ben’s case, PETA and other organization filed a cruelty-to-animals lawsuit that eventually got Ben out of the zoo, and FedEx transported him to his new home. Don’t use too much detail to describe your actions. Other people don’t care about those details. They want to know what happened to the story’s hero or protagonist.
  • Result: Ben now lives in a bear sanctuary, where he has green grass and his own pool. Happily ever after.

Stories are a powerful way to communicate online. Stories that involve human (or animal) interest and personal stories are more likely to be read.

To find stories, look for where your company, agency or program touches your customers. What have you done that is “aw”-inspiring?

Storytelling is half research and half structure. You need both for good stories.

Watch for more from Ann Wylie and her co-instructor Shel Holtz in future posts.

Inadequacy marketing and the magic solution

Magic solution

A magic solution may reduce your anxiety, but at what cost to you and to society?

Marketers are letting us down by making us feel inadequate, says Jonah Sachs in Winning the Story Wars.

Marketing has enormous power and reach. Each of us has received more than one million marketing messages in our lifetime, and they have a big effect on how we see ourselves and the world. In other words, in many ways marketers are mythmakers.

Marketing stories and myths could raise us up, help us grow and mature as individuals and as a society. Instead, for many years marketers have told us that we are somehow incomplete.

Most advertising reinforces emotions like vanity and insecurity. It tells us that we only need to buy a certain product to feel strong and powerful, safe and secure, or sexy and desirable. Sachs calls this inadequacy marketing.

Inadequacy marketing is a two-act story: [Read more…]

How telling better stories can change the world

I just finished reading an intriguing book about storytelling, “Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future,” by Jonah Sachs.

Sachs takes a different route than most of what I’ve read about storytelling. His book is about myth making. The real story wars in today’s world, according to Sachs, are about how we interpret the world and ourselves. They’re about values and morals, archetypes and heroes.

To give you an example, let’s talk about Annie Leonard and Glenn Beck.

I bet you have seen Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute video about, well, STUFF: the things that we buy, use and turn into garbage. Leonard turned abstract economic theory into a simple story, populated by stick figures, that’s easily understood. (Sachs’ studio produced “The Story of Stuff” for Leonard.) Here’s the video. [Read more…]

Translation is not your friend

Indian-woman,-one-finger-up,“What does this mean?” asked Ha Na Park as she held up one finger in the air. Park was speaking last Monday at Social Marketing SPARKS 2014. 

  • If the question is what number, it means “one.”
  • If the question is which direction, it means “up.”
  • If the question is which part of the body, it means “finger.”

It all depends on the context. It’s important to keep context in mind when translating English words into another language.

[Read more…]

Storytelling tips from Star Wars

What can you learn about storytelling from Star Wars? There are many excellent lessons.

Let’s start with Luke Skywalker. Luke’s story is a classic “hero’s journey,” a quest to make things right. All stories about a hero’s journey involve a threat to something the hero holds dear, a quest, villains and a mentor who gives the hero tools to succeed.

Anna Fahey at Sightline Institute wrote a blog post this week about Luke and the hero’s journey. You can read the entire post here.

May The Force be with you!

Why your brain loves good storytelling

Here’s a link to an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review. It says that character-driven stories turn on oxytocin, a brain chemical that enhances empathy.

In order to activate oxytocin, the narrative must first sustain people’s attention by creating dramatic tension. In other words, the character must meet and overcome a difficult situation.

As the article says, this blows the typical PowerPoint presentation to bits. You can make your communications much more effective by adding human-scale stories to let people know why they should care.

You can read the full article here.

Those who tell stories rule the world

“Those who tell stories rule the world” is the title of a TEDx talk by Shane Snow, a technology journalist and self-described geek. On the TEDx stage, Snow said he hung the Native American proverb on his wall to remind him of the importance of stories.

I heard about Snow from Liz Satterthwaite, one of my co-presenters on storytelling at the recent ECO Net Summit. I had to check out Snow’s talk, given my fondness for both storytelling and TED.

One of the stories Snow told was about the French poet Jacques Prevert and a blind beggar. The beggar’s sign read: “Blind man without a pension.” He told Prevert that life wasn’t so good: not many people were giving him money. [Read more…]

The structure of a story

Fog of War movie poster

How do you begin creating a story? Start with plot structure, so you have a skeleton to hang your story on.

There are three basic plot structures, according to Gabriel Taylor. I recently took his class in “Aesthetics of Editing” at Seattle Film Institute. [Read more…]