Every year it comes again, this subtle sense of loss — a missing piano note. I’ve erased and rewritten our story so many times over that the memory now is ragged and blurred. Too much clings to the fabric. There’s no space to start afresh.
Sharp edged criticism and disappointments have mellowed, tumbled over and over in an ocean of days and tears and never minds. What was once harsh and bitter turns soft and hazy. Perhaps one day even these will disappear, all the corners worn away until nothing remains.
I wonder if she ever heard me cry, holding jagged shards to my heart instead of comfort.
I cannot bear to wait for an echo that remains silent, so I do not sing the missing note. It sits inside my chest, bound and shackled.
Each early summer season it tries to escape. My throat is barricaded and I will not.
The past is veiled for my protection, bubble-wrapped in half-truths and semi-plausible explanations. We do our best and it is not enough. One always wants more than the other can give.
A never ending game played out across generations. Rules are unclear and the dice are loaded.
One day, my daughter too will cast the wishes I unknowingly broke into her private sea, hoping fragments will wash ashore smooth enough to hold.
Filled with too much or too little
(a little too much pain, I thought then.)
I thought I knew how life worked.
You were sunlight, floating carelessly
bright summer without end.
I thought I knew how seasons turned.
A flock of black umbrellas for a good man
steady drizzling grey, a leaden weight
that stops my breath, crushes my throat.
Earth rains from cold fingers
pattering on the lid
a fleeting thought of following it down.
I thought I knew how hearts worked
but there’s no fixing this
(too short, too little)
you couldn’t teach me how to smile today.
So I turn my face heavenward, swallow the sky
let its tears drown my despair.
I thought I knew –
Kindness and a generous spirit go a long way. And a sense of humor. It’s like medicine — very healing. Max Irons
What does it take to make your day?
It might seem that only the biggest things can turn a rotten day into a better one. You long for a scratchcard win, a £50 note discovered on the ground, a declaration of undying love, or a letter of acceptance for that thing you’ve been hoping for and dreaming about. Those things would certainly make you feel better.
They’re also almost guaranteed not to happen.
What are the odds, right?
But something changed my mind.
Work had been difficult, and then I caught a horrible cold. Think congested, feverish, head stuffed, can’t breathe, can’t sleep misery. Well, still gotta work, so I slogged on. After surviving one long morning in which all I wanted to do was run away home and hide under my blanket, there was a knock at my door. I expected another claim on my time and fading energy, and my heart sank.
Instead, the receptionist brought in flowers. A pink bouquet with a card that read ‘your (sic) in our thoughts’. It had been left by someone I had seen earlier. I was so moved by this, I could have wept.
I work in a so-called caring profession. I have colleagues, family, and friends, some of whom knew how ill I felt. Yet this came from a near-stranger, who went to some trouble to help me feel better.
Even a humble daisy would have shown me she cared. And I let her know I appreciated her gesture, more than she knew. It made me smile on a tough day, and that can be the greatest gift of all.
It takes so little to shine a light, and you never know who needs it most.
It need not be flowers; it can be any small, authentic kindness. Eye contact and a smile, a sincere inquiry followed by active listening are often missing in daily life. If we supply them and are genuine then we connect on a basic human level, and that’s what we all crave.
Make that tea or coffee without being asked. Drop change in the cup. Buy their favourite pastry, just because.
When backed by action, the thought really does count.
How could you brighten someone’s day? Look for ways to pay it forward. Go on — I dare you.
(first published 16 May 19 by Publishous on Medium)
Have you ever loved someone and it didn’t work out?
You tried, they tried, but ultimately you parted company. Then you were left to either heal a broken heart, or hide your relief at escaping something that had lost its shine.
When that happens a few times, you start to wonder whether love is all it’s cracked up to be.
Love is supposed to be our ultimate goal.
Most of us chase it all our lives, and sometimes even find it. But in the nature of these things, finding and keeping is not the same thing. There are different kinds of love of course, but our culture puts romantic love top of the list.
We act as though love is forever and yet we know it is not. We enter into contracts and exchange rings that symbolise an unending circle. And we quietly build exits and escape clauses in the form of prenuptial agreements, running away money, and the number of a good lawyer, just in case.
The Matrix Revolutions argued everything that has a beginning has an end. Why should love be the exception? Maybe as you lick your wounds from your last battle with forever, you ask yourself, “Is love ever a mistake?”
A few people get lucky, but most of us contend with detours and blind alleys before we find The One — if we ever do. That holds true whether we seek love or a life purpose or something else of value. Winning the ultimate prize is like running a maze with no idea if a solution exists, or if a lifetime is long enough to find it.
Why keep running when success seems more elusive than a lottery win?
Cross My Heart And Hope
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. Søren Kierkegaard
You can’t know how your life will work out down the road when you can’t see the whole map. Perhaps there are no mistakes, only progress you can’t yet recognise.
When things seem to be going wrong, think of it as taking an unexpected turn on the road of life — a plot twist, if you like. Once made, your footprints can’t be erased anyway. We can’t change our past; we can only make peace with it.
With this in mind, look back at past experiences and take what can be learned from them. Some loves are like flowers; beautiful and doomed, and all the more precious because they are ephemeral.
But even more precious than love itself is the capacity to feel love not once, but many times. To have that opportunity, you need to draw on hope.
Hope encourages you to try again and trust that you’re making progress. Hope might lack the certainty of faith, but it persists even in the face of disappointment. Hope keeps you going.
Pandora found that when all is lost, hope is the tiny flame that lights up the darkness. And the deeper the darkness, the brighter it shines.
Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic. Laini Taylor
From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and be accepted in the world.
Adulthood means submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.
Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.
Your parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They taught you that success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.
You forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.
You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?
But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts during a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.
Deep down, you know something’s missing from your life.
No Dreams, No Wings
If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses. Henry Ford
None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created by realists. Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.
Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea has no mass. It can be as expansive as your imagination. Ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.
Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement.To produce something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, and computers.
That’s how you’ll get to where you want to be.
Voices In Your Head
You can’t believe everything people tell you — not even if those people are your own brain. Jefferson Smith
When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.
Your father no longer scares you so much that you never look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.
When you find yourself browsing painting sets online, an old art teacher whispers that you don’t have an artist’s eye. And you click away because that’s not for you.
Here’s the thing. You’re an adult — no-one is the boss of you. You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions.
At some point you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.
The past experiences and attached emotions that make up much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you free yourself from it. That was then and this is now.
You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.
That’s when you truly grow up.
A Lost Child
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child. Julian Fleron
Everyone has their share of bad experiences. You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to find something better.
This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, like Julia Cameron’s artist dates in The Artist’s Way.
We are all innately creative. It is possible to be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.
From Reality To Fantasy
Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.
Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.
Security: safety, stability
Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning
Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.
One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’
Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.
This visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.
Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?
You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book. At a party, you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”
Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.
There Are No Limits
If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.
When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.
Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.
Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.
Where Are You Going?
It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.
Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.
Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.
You did the thing and now you have a completed first draft. You’re a writer. You have written. Congratulations are in order.
Now the hard work really begins, because you have to edit and polish your story. Getting a story out is like mining gemstones— difficult, dirty work. And what you bring to the surface is probably not a thing of beauty, yet.
But it has potential. If you can strip away the dull bits and hone the good bits, you might just have something brilliant. Here are ten ways to make your work shine.
1. Strengthen Your Storyline
What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.
Sometimes what you’re writing is an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t always enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves.The characters are changed in some way by the events.
Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.
2. Fix Your Pacing
Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.
Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the trip to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
Too much action without an actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.
To correct these try the following.
Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.
Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.
3. Make Words Count
Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.
Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov
Telling robs significant moments of their power.
When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.
Describe his actions so readers can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky while ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.
Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, skip to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.
Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.
5. Make Dialogue Tags Pull A Double Shift
Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.
There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.
You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags. They combine what was done with what was said, and by whom.
“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”
The tag belongs on the same line as the dialogue. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.
If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow who’s talking, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.
6. Fix Your Point of View
Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third-person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first-person typical of modern YA novels. For example:
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.
My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.
Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else. Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.
This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So in his POV you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which is his companion’s observation.
It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing.
As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing. Unanswered questions make people turn the page.
7. Know The Time
Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.
Past tense remains the most familiar choice. We’re used to hearing about events that have already taken place.
Tense is not the same as POV.
You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.
Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.
Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately. However most writers prefer a consistent tense throughout. It’s easy to slip between present and past tenses, so careful editing is essential.
It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. Mark Twain
Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.
You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.
Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the storyand their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.
This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events.
Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.
Giving the protagonist exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.
Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.
9. Go Easy On Themes
Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.
It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.
Use a light handwith symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.
Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.
Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.
10. Looks Do Matter
Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.
Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors. It gives the impression that the author doesn’t care.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London
Can you create your best work without inspiration?
Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.
Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.
Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. Pablo Picasso
Creativity and inspiration are not the same. They can exist separately or together. We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.
It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.
The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.
You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
Add a spark, and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.
Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill
Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill
Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you ready and waiting.
The Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration
Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. Twyla Tharp
Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.
In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.
The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.
Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not. Agnes Martin
Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.
Some people get their breakthroughs while doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.
Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
Everything Is Material
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.
Get out from your routine and search out something new. Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.
Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.
Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.
Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Examine buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.
A Marriage of Opposites
It’s a dull, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.
Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it. If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.
It is the time of sleep and not-sleep
but warm, always.
It is the time of seen and not-seen
soft focus, indistinct.
It is the time of dream and not-dream
yet absolutely real.
This is the place, mapped and not-mapped
each hill and curve already known.
These are not adventures, and here be no dragons.
We know this gentle push and pull
caressing the edge of darkness
teasing the frontier of rest.
The familiar needs no more
when soft half-light reveals us to each other again
veiled in a gossamer web of sighs.
Of course you do. You’ve got something to say and without an audience all that effort goes unnoticed. In a world where new content is everywhere, how can you get anyone’s attention?
Sadly there are no guaranteed routes to a bigger readership. But there are some changes you can make to shift the odds in your favour.
Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, (and) then decide whether or not they will look at the copy. John Caples
The headline is your shop window.
The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.
It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that too often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.
Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.
Sell the benefit of your piece.
Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There’s a reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.
The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.
This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.
Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/00
How to get better at writing = 78/100
Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.
How Hard Can It Be?
So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.
Hit the Wall
Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen.
We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.
Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.
The Long and the Short Of It
Pitch your writing at the right level for your readers.
Reading age describes the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. Compare the reading age of some popular media.
The Sun, UK tabloid 7–8 years
Harry Potter novels 12–13 years
Stephen King novels 12 years
Reader’s Digest 12 years
You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.
Keep It Moving
Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. These writing styles favour the passive voice. Active voice is more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page. For example,
The passive voice is disliked by modern writers.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.
Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.
Avoid The Angry Trap
Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.
I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions or insight into those issues.
Instead use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too.
Put Meat on the Bones
So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.
Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.
If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading.
Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.
Be conversational and friendly. Read it out loud to check that it flows well.
Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come. Dwayne Johnson
After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. But instead, you have to do it again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.
Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another.
Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. Slow down if you must, but keep moving.
Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.
You can’t predict which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.
Walk That Talk
An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. Karl Marx
How is it that we consume so much self-help and advice, and yet remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know — because I live the same struggle.
A few months ago I was very discouraged about my work on Medium. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Belief in the process didn’t make it any easier to deal with my disappointment.
Ileaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.
The result: more fans for this one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.
I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece was a new opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else was the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.
Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve — as a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in their routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.
Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to your results. Like any change, it will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.
You’re good now — and you can be better. Learn, improve, repeat.