What My Jewish Mother-in-Law Can Teach You About Writing Headlines

Mildred

Mildred

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.”

 

Me?

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?

I certainly do, as well as the rest of the Krakauer family.  Our dinners are exquisite culinary experiences.  I suppose dinners are just as fabulous at Mrs. Fisch’s, at Mrs. Murray’s, at Mrs. Cohen’s as well as every house in Rockaway that participates in this ecosystem of theft.  Or borrowing, as Mildred would quickly say.  Like a Robin Hood and his Merry Men, there goes Mildred, borrowing from the rich to give to the poor, only in her case, all of Bernie’s loyal customers are swooping down from the trees in Belle Harbor to fatten their recipe files and to share the wealth with their hungry families.
No easy task to keep knocking out great dinners night after night for these ladies.  No wonder they flock to Bernie for a tip or two, an unexpected ingredient, a twist to make their husbands turn their heads and say, “Wow, honey!  I love your kashe varnishes!”

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.

Or,

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?

They work.

 

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.”

 

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Hoong Yee

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Bridges And Castles: A Gift From My Brilliant Father

San Diego Bridgephoto by rqerita

I spent this morning talking to my mom about my dad.

“Remember that car he drove when he was in Texas?  It used to get so hot that he tried to fry an egg on it,”  both of us laughing because that was so like him.   He would open cans of ravioli and vegetables and heat them on the stove for my sister and me when we were little.  Then we would stand by the stove and eat out of the cans.  No pots, no dishes to wash.

Very efficient.

Yes, he was an engineer.  Capable of figuring out amazingly complex things and yet, clueless in the everyday world we lived in.

Now, on Father’s Day, Seth and I were on a trolley crossing a bridge from San Diego to Coronado and the guide said,  “You’ll notice that the bridge has a few odd twists  to it.  That is because it had to be high enough for navy ships to pass under it but that made it too steep for trucks and buses so the bridge so they added a few extra turns and loops.”  I was fascinated.  Then I realized this was exactly how my father felt every time we crossed a bridge that had a unique structure or detail to it.  I remember him pulling the car off the road, not to admire the view, what a silly thought, but to examine the beams of a bridge.  He said there was great beauty in the solution the engineers came to in answering the simple yet difficult problem of how to cross from one side to another.  Form and function fused in a steely poem.  Of course, I thought he was nuts and what on earth could be so interesting about a bridge?

When I think sit down to play through my well worn book of piano sonatas, I feel the same thrill he did.  I often stop and scrutinize the beginning theme, the key changes, the codas and the variations  and come away in awe of how brilliantly Beethoven created his musical answer to the classical sonata form.

And this is something I do whenever I see a structure in life that is beautiful in form and function.  The bridge in San Diego, the well thought out presentation by Jean Bonilla about the potential of entrepreneurship in global economies at the Americans for the Arts Convention this past weekend in San Diego, an etude by Chopin.  I look for the structural thinking and the details that make it soar.   I think like my father, the engineer.

He would smile knowing that I love bridges and how that has helped me see the inner logic of an engineer’s mind as well as the inner castles of a composer’s inspiration.

What a gift.

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Hoong Yee

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Looking For Romance?

Romancephoto by bayan 160

 

He was tall, dark haired with a thoughtful look in his eyes.   Everything about him was right, I knew he was the one who could help me.

I walked towards him, the question burning in my mind, my heart beating a little faster with each step.  He was sitting alone and I could easily grab his attention.

I took a deep breath and as soon as the words left my lips, I realized how ridiculous I sounded.  My face turned a blushing red,  my mouth open in disbelief, my God, how did this happen?

He, however, gazed at me and repeated my question with a faint smile.

“Where can I find romance?”

I felt my ears burn.

“Hard cover or soft cover?”

Gulp.  “Hard.  I mean, hard cover.”

“Second row of shelves in the back of the library. ”  He turned his gaze, thank God, to the next person on the information line as I slipped away.

Where do you find romance?

I prefer less mortifying experiences.  But that’s just me.  Luckily, the ladies in the Carpool Court agree with me that the search for romance should be a less public endeavor and we have decided to get together for Romance Night at our house.  We are going to talk about what we like to read, what authors we follow, what types of characters we are drawn to and what we are going to drink.  Not necessarily in that order, of course.

Yes, I admit.  I am intrigued with romance.  And I think you are too.  So what I am going to do is capture some great conversation and write a romance story.

In hard cover.

 

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Hoong Yee

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What Women Really Want To Know About Arnold

Arnold Schwarzeneggerphoto by loz:::lozzy’s photos photostream

 

 

Four women were having a conversation.  Sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?

We were talking about having affairs, cheating, and amazing sex.

“I loved Arnold and I feel so betrayed!”

The woman looked at me and I actually believed her anguish.  “There was always something about him that I liked, even when he was Conan the Barbarian.”

“Well HELLO – that was a body to love!”

“What was he thinking?”

“Well, that’s just it.  He wasn’t thinking, his little brain was thinking.”

Now all of the mothers riding the schoolbus with me turned around with something to say about Arnold.  If any of you have had the experience of chaperoning a class trip with thirteen year olds through Brooklyn and into Manhattan on a school bus, you know that all conversation becomes a yelling match.

“Can you imagine him bedhopping between her and his wife?

“Look, he was in a position of power, maybe she really fell for him.”

One of the women leaned in, her eyes flashing.  “Imagine how hot the sex must have been.”

Well, that was it.  We did not talk about anything else except sex for the rest of the trip.

“Oh my God, the passion!”

” – like make up after the fight sex…”

” – the danger of getting caught…”

” – temptation, forbidden fruit…”

” – can you imagine how wild and hot it must have been?”

” Hey, open that window, it’s getting hot in here.”

 

 

 

Women are more interested in the power of the attraction that could make a man lose everything in a moment of passion.

 

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Did You Forget You Are Married?

Seth and doc IMG00192-20110408-1442.jpg

Seth and Dr. Krantzow

 

When I saw him peel his shirt off and bare his soul to the other man in the room, I knew it was time to go.

Does your husband need you?

Seth got up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. He grabbed his left shoulder and could not move without wincing. We found ourselves in the ER of Peninsula Hospital where we spent a good part of the day in a time-has-no-meaning state of mind. I held his arm, helped him sit down, barked at nurses and did everything I could to make him as comfortable as possible until the doctors could see him.

This is one of those times I think about spending time together with the one you love. I am guilty of assuming life will always provide me with a tomorrow and that yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll plan something to do this weekend.  And then something always comes up to knock our plans off balance.  Sky has somewhere to go, I need to finish something, we need to go food shopping… Life gets in the way.

Sometimes it feels like we are comrades in the trenches going out into our day and returning exhausted to base camp in the evening.

Here are a few ways to remind yourself you are married

1.  Make every occasion a date

That’s right.  When Seth goes out for the paper in the morning, he brings back tea and coffee for us.  I am usually still half asleep when he puts my cup of chamomile tea with lemon, fragrant and hot, next to me.  It may not be dinner at Daniel but it is our morning date and I really look forward to it.

2.  Turn monster times into memorable moments
OK, the ER was tough. But we made the most of being together in a tough situation. It was not as much fun as the no-tell motel adventure but we made the best of it and made some friends among the orthopedic residents and nurses. Like Dr. Krantzow who is someone who took great care of Seth. After all we’ve been through together, we could go out and pick curtains together.

3.  Find the humor

Seth is really good at this.  He flirted with the triage nurses,  told jokes to the X-ray technicians, made the residents laugh with his tasteless jokes. It actually made the time pass quickly between tests, consultations, waiting and freaking out.

Alisa Bowman touched upon this in a post where she asked how to have a happier relationship with a man. Here’s an excerpt:

“Either way, the hard time you’re having probably won’t define your entire life together, so work on staying as connected as you can, as loving “as you can, as forgiving as you can, and then dig in your heels and ride it out to smoother waters.”

If you ever think you can’t make time to spend with your husband, think again or you will find him half naked with someone else like a cute ER doctor.

Quality time is what you make of it, whether it is in the emergency room or the bedroom.

Get more Wow!

If you want style notes and more for people who change the world, please check out:

Getting to Wow! to feel good, do good and look good

Nonprofit Knitwear for all things knit and nonprofit

Style Notes from me, your artspy

Hoong Yee

— Subscribe and get a little Wow! every day

— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested

— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @hylkrakauer)

— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update

Thanks so much! I really appreciate your help.

Word of mouth is the best way to share, don’t you agree?