Truth: There is no fury like the angst of a teenage girl when Taylor Swift goes dark and cryptic on social media.
Corollary: I’m almost out of Aleve.
The start of school was pushed back a week in Maryland this year and I’d been wondering what my daughter would do to fill the free time until Labor Day. Leave it to Taylor Swift to take care of that with a few swift clicks of her (or her marketing team’s) delete key.
In case you have no teen girls around, the reigning queen of pop silently wiped her social accounts and website last week (Friday at 11:38 a.m., my daughter just said. Duh.). Her loyal Swifties, a vast and slightly obsessed legion, summarily—and this is a technical term–freaked out. When she started posting cryptic images of snakes a few days later, any semblance of composure was right out and the freak-out became a frenzy. Finally, confirmation that a new song was imminent (released last night—get on it!) and an album is on its way; #Reputation went viral within minutes.
There was no ad or a commercial or press release. Swift herself hasn’t been seen or said a thing. A few clicks, a carefully crafted image, and wow. Tsunami waves of press and attention and a guaranteed instant hit for her. This is how she does marketing and it’s genius, whether she dreamed it up herself or backed the team that did.
This, I think, is the new face of PR. It’s social, it’s buzzy, it’s miles from conventional, and it apparently works like little we’ve seen before. You might say it’s a revolution but what I want to know is, how are you going to ride this wave? How will your operation make its own noise?
Betty started spending Christmas with us 18 years ago, when we looked out the window of our loud, sparkly house and realized the old lady across the street was alone. Her nephew was supposed to come, she said when Joe knocked on the door, but had the flu. And every year after that first one, long after she sold the house and moved to a retirement community, one of us would call her shortly after Thanksgiving and make sure she knew what time to come for Christmas dinner. She reciprocated by always sending a box of Swiss Colony meats and cheeses and a fruitcake the UPS guy tossed on our porch--"Love, Betty B."
Betty had Miss Clairol-yellow hair and smudged, arrest-me-red lips, was trailed by a palpable cloud of sticky-sweet drugstore perfume, and told wild stories nobody believed: She was high up with the CIA; she sang in the church choir with the Clintons--both of them;she still worked L&D at Sibley because they begged her, edema-swollen ankles and bat-poor vision aside. She sometimes swept herself into a southern drawl despite living in D.C. her whole life and she talked every year about the daughter who died in infancy and the husband who didn't waste time leaving after that, and then told us we were her family. We who saw her once a year.
Last Christmas, Betty told us she had breast cancer. She was starting chemo soon, though, she said, and it would be fine. She had to be 90 years old. A few months later, when the air just started to warm and tiny leaves began unfurling on our trees, I stumbled on a very short notice online. Betty B lived and died, it said. Nothing else.
Life went on. It does that, you know? And then at noon on a scorching July day, my doorbell rang. It was Rafael, who always drove Betty to and from our house (we didn't ask questions). "I wanted you to know that Betty died," he said. But it was so much worse. She'd met a man at church, he said (at church!) who'd befriended her. It wasn't hard to do--she didn't have anyone else--and nobody knew about him until she died. That's when the will came out, where she'd given him power over her estate, because he was her friend.
You've heard this story before but here's the ending anyway: The guy, this friend Betty made at church late in life, claimed what was left of her money and washed his hands of her. The morgue, Rafael told me, held onto her body for quite some time before consigning it to a paupers' grave over in Suitland. The obituary was written and paid for by the retirement-property manager. The bank foreclosed on her condo and her car rotted where it sat in the parking lot. Rafael saved a few photos and sent them to Betty's brother (Betty had a brother?) but everything else, he guessed, was destined for the dump. Legally, he couldn't touch it.
We sat on my sweltering front porch for the better part of an hour. I guess I was the only person he could think of who might care. "I just wanted you to know," he said. "She deserved better. Anybody deserves better." He was right.
I was behind an elderly woman in the grocery store checkout this morning who handed her entire wallet to the cashier when it was time to pay. I knew exactly what was going on. She doesn't understand numbers anymore and all her defenses are gone, so she hands everything over to a total stranger to help. The cashier, thank God, was honest and decent. This time. But I wanted to yell, "Where is your family? Where are your people? Why are you here alone?" Why are so many of the people who raised us just out there on their own?
My favorite Facebook page belongs to a cop I've never met. He ends every post the same way: "Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people's things alone, and be kind to one another. " That last part is the one we forget. I do, all the time. I wish it didn't end so badly
Garry Shandling died today. He was in the background of my early-adult years and it's sad to hear he's gone. But the writer side of me cringed when I read what NBCNews.com wrote about him.
"Garry Shandling was felled by a heart attack."
Listen, I know we don't like to write "died" or "dead." If it happened to him it might happen to us, and so we flower it up. But some phrasing just isn't OK. One is felled in armor by another knight in a jousting contest. One might be felled in a duel. Heart attack? That killed you.
While we're on it, people don't expire. Milk does, coupons do, library borrow times do. We're not dairy or coupons or books. Don't write "expired" for people.
People die. Garry Shandling died. If he's my relative (he's not, just so we're all clear) he passed away or passed on, and he might even have crossed over. But if I don't share blood and I'm telling readers that he's no longer with us, he died.
Simple is better. Even if we don't want to think about it.
Headlines go bad a lot, especially on one Washington, D.C., news site I suspect is left to the interns a lot. Here's one posted tonight. I guess security guards are their own breed?
It's easy to fall into the trap of starting in the middle when we write. After all, if we write what we know (the most often-given writing advice in history), we can get so close to the topic that we unconsciously make assumptions about what the reader knows, and we leave out background or basic information he or she needs to understand. That's when you get the, "What is she talking about?" murmur from the person checking out your story.
The solution is easy and it comes from my first day in Journalism 101 back in college. The professor was telling us about ledes, which are the first paragraphs in news stories, and how to know what to include or not include to get the reader hooked. He told us to imagine telling our news story--the car crash, the council meeting, the community event--to a spouse at the end of the work day: The partner greets us at the door and says, "What happened today, hon?"
Of course, you'd start at the beginning--your love has been out of the loop, right? It was a great lesson for news reporting but is equally valuable for nearly all sorts of written communication, from the marketing piece you're putting together on your association's new education program to that report the boss wants on his desk by COB today. Your audience (your readers) don't have your specific background on the issue at hand, even if they're in your industry, and they don't necessarily know what you know. So when it comes to explaining something on paper, start at the beginning and go from there. Imagine them standing in your office door: What happened today, hon? Tell them in your head, and then transcribe it into your document. It'll force you to back away from the topic you know so well and get back to basics in a logical way so everyone understands.
Simple solution to a common problem. Beautiful, isn't it?
That above is the first tenet of writing by feel. Don't impress me. What's that mean? Essentially, write like you talk.
I see a lot of writing that includes all sorts of four-syllable words, complex punctuation, and language that's supposed to sound very impressive--what light through yonder window breaks kind of stuff. It worked for Shakespeare because he's, well, Shakespeare. You're not. I'm not either and we don't communicate that way anymore. Long words, Latin-esque phrases, and sentences broken up with unnecessary random bits interrupt my journey as a reader, making my eyes trip and tying my brain up in knots. I have to work too hard to read them and in a lot of cases, I just won't. Writing nobody wants to read isn't very useful.
Instead of trying to use big, impressive words and sound like a Ph.D. thesis, try to write like you talk. Do you use those words in regular conversation? If not, they're probably not great for conversations on paper, which is really what good written communication is. Does your writing sound like you? Can you hear yourself talking when you read it? If not (and if it's not actually a Ph.D. thesis), rethink it. Pare it down. Use real words and phrases that seem natural to you--if the process of writing feels stilted, the process of reading it will be, too.
So here we are, you and me, settling in to talk about writing. If that gave you a flashback of Strunk and White, fear not: This is rules-free writing. I call it writing by feel, and anyone can master it.
Writing by feel isn't about producing the Great American Novel or winning a Pulitzer. In fact, it's not about being a professional writer at all. Writing by feel helps you communicate on paper in a way that's easy to understand and flows, just like an out-loud conversation. It's equally effective if you're in high school or college, a reporter or an office manager, a business owner or an intern--everybody has to communicate in print. Writing by feel is writing that's simple to follow and makes its points effectively and easily without hours of choosing words, re-thinking sentences, or looking up a bunch of grammatical rules. Best of all, you'll save a ton of time and nervous sweat once you learn the system. Writing, like speaking to a friend, will just happen.
I'm an award-winning professional writer who's been at it for more than 20 years, crafting everything from book copy to magazine articles to marketing materials to professional letters and memos, and everything in between. I couldn't diagram a sentence to save my life and I can't pick out the more obscure parts of speech on a common seventh-grade grammar assignment, but I get paid to write--in fact, I think a lot of people hold the incorrect belief that they can't write specifically because of all those rules and regulations and tests and assignments. It's suffocating.
You can subscribe to this blog and get all new posts in a blog reader--just click RSS Feed to the right. You can also like Writing by Feel on Facebook (click on the Facebook icon to the right) and be notified of new posts that way. Thanks for joining me on this journey--you're about to learn how to think like a writer. It's going to be fun (promise)!