The Truth About Being A Great Writer
While standing on line at the local butcher, Mildred, my mother-in-law, leaned over the counter and said softly, “So Bernie, how does Mrs. Fisch do her pot roast?”
His answer changed my life.
Bernie bellied up to the counter, his heavy lidded eyes rolling sideways before pushing over a scribbled piece of butcher paper with his grubby finger. “What do you think of that, Mrs. K?” Mildred adjusted her glasses and peered keenly at the note before her. With a dismissive sniff, she slid the paper into her purse and smiled innocently.
“The best cooks are thieves,” he winked at me. “Julia Child stole her sauce recipes from the French, Martha Stewart practically copied her Christmas cookie book from Good Housekeeping and Mrs. Krakauer here, let’s just say she borrows from everyone. And so should you.”
I was stunned. From the very first time I sat down to dinner cooked by my mother-in-law, I believed she was making everything from time honored, secretly guarded recipes handed down from generation to generation. Someone else with a better recipe for brisket? Are you meshugah or what?
Yet, here before my eyes was Bernie, the butcher, telling Mildred that the key to great cooking is grand larceny. And from what it sounds like, she has some pretty fancy partners in crime.
Who benefits from all this stealing?
If you have to turn out momentous meals every day, coming up with your own unique original ideas is gehackte tsuris – who needs it!
And its not because Mildred is lazy, she’s busy.
The only way to survive, look fabulous and stay in control is to steal a secret from Julia Child, Martha Stewart and Mildred P. Krakauer.
Copy from others knowing that true genius stands on the shoulder pads of others
What About Writing?
I couldn’t help but wonder, “Could it be possible I am needlessly killing myself trying to be original all the time?” Of course I am. And so are you. We are stressing, worrying and inwardly freaking out each time we come face to face with the blank page because we want so badly to write something fabulous, something that will transform a reader by the simple experience of reading our words.
OK, here is what I think, after being in the trenches for twelve years as a professional author & illustrator, grantwriter and blogger:
You can mistakenly believe you are the most original, prolific and constantly amazing writer in the world and sputter into a fit of depression when it becomes impossible to maintain these high standards for yourself.
You can steal.
Why am I telling you to do this?
Because I know that if you are serious about your writing, you will see very quickly that there are better ways to write better and more efficiently. Many successful writers like, Shakespeare, Jefferson and Wilde have perfected the art of copying, or as Bernie would say, “borrowing”, from others because they quickly understood that true creativity is seizing the genius in the ideas of others and making it your own.
Let’s Look At Headlines
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”
A great quote from Simone Weil.
How do you attract and earn someone’s attention?
Let me borrow a great word from Mark Ragan, the force at Ragan Communications: Cosmotize.
I just adore that!
When you are standing on line at the supermarket, you know your eyes go right to those riveting covers of Cosmopolitan Magazine, Vogue and GQ.
Did you know those headlines are over half a century old? The ideas behind them are basically the same, the wording or the language changed over time, and yours to steal for your next piece. The raison d’etre for a headline is to get you, the reader, to read the first sentence. And then the next sentence, and so on. If you can’t get someone to read your headline, you can forget about them reading your article.
Everything starts with the headline.
Look at any great headline carefully and you can see its bones, its architecture, its template that will work for any topic. Just like the recipes in Mildred’s trusty collection, I am building a swipe file with hundreds of headline templates on my computer where I can scan them whenever I need to craft a killer headline of my own.
A Shortcut To List Headlines – Snack Size Content that Readers Will Eat Up
Everywhere you look, there’s a headline like this, “43 Ways To Drive Your Man Crazy In Bed. Be Sure to Check Out #7”, or “101 Killer Resources To Make Money As A Mommyblogger”. You see them on magazine covers, on the blogs you follow and on morning and evening news shows.
Why are they so popular?
After attending the Boot Camp for Nonprofits! Power of Giving Forum – an exclusive event for Con Edison partners presented by Ragan Communications, as well as the Corporate Writers and Editors Conference (hashtag #raganCWE) the following day, I have a new respect for the power of headlines.
To help you write something that has the power to be a transformative experience, like Mildred’s pot roast, let me square my shoulders and become one with Bernie, the butcher. I will share what I learned in a roomful of PR and marketing professionals from experts in their industry that earns its right to exist by how well their communications can create profit from attention.
Mark opened the session by inviting us to ask ourselves, “would I pick this up at the newsstand?”, or “will people want to read this and do I love producing this?”. At the top of his list of tips was this: List story.
List story: organized thought with a teaser title. This is hands down the most popular and most powerful headline and story one two punch combo in the history of writing.
Here’s What I Have For You:
I did a little research project in the magazine section of my local bookstore and analyzed the most frequently used list headlines into a short list of templates. These templates are shortcuts that you can use to fill in the blanks and jumpstart your writing with a great headline.
1. 5 Ways to (do something)
Give people a little selection, not too much, and some meat on the bones for each way so that they feel they can make an informed choice.
Example: 7 Ways to Write a Better Grant
2. 52 Killer Resources for (audience)
This is a great way to dominate a narrow subject with a long list of bullet points. Readers will shake their heads in amazement, “Wow! There’s so much I didn’t know!”
Example: 101 Dumpling Ideas For Your Next Party
3. The Top 10 (techniques, resources, tips, you name it)
People love this. They want their options reduced, reviewed, rated and presented to them in a tidy list.
Example: The Top 10 Holiday Offers Your Customers Will Love
4. 11 (topic) Secrets Every (audience) Should Know
Curious about what secrets you are missing? Your readers will be too. This is one of the most effective and irresistible Cosmo headlines.
6 Sexy Secrets Every Cosmo Girl Should Know About Her Man
5. 7 Surprising Reasons (topic)
Instead of creating curiosity, tap into the curiosity that is already in your reader with this provoking headline.
Example: 15 Surprising Reasons Why You You Need Memory Boosters
6. The 9 Laws for (topic)
Some people love being told the rules of the game. Others want to study the law, figure out how to get around it and rebel against it. For both, they will still want to read what those rules are.
Example: The 5 No Nonsense Laws of Nonprofit Fundraising
7. 5 Things your (audience) Needs to Hear You Say
If you are like me, you wonder a lot about if you said the right thing or if you just put your foot in your mouth. Pick someone important to your audience to make the headline even more compelling.
Example: Want a Raise? 7 Things Your Boss Needs to Hear You Say
Why kill yourself?
Mildred pulled a stubby pencil out of her purse, scribbled something on the butcher paper and pushed it back over the counter to Bernie. She smiled. He winked. Then he looked up at me and said, “And what can I help you with today?”
I thought for a moment.
“I’ll have what Mrs. Krakauer is having,” I held his gaze and said, “Theft and pot roast.”