I was destined to meet Marcia Riefer Johnston at Information Development World in San Jose this September.
How could I miss her? A slim and petite lady in a sleeveless evening dress and a black feather boa. I was impressed!
When I saw her again on a rainy and chilly November afternoon, we exchanged the books we had written. She was bundled up with a warm hat and layers of fleece, sweater and jacket. Sitting at a Starbuck’s, holding warm drinks and watching light rain fall outside, we each shared our painful, frustrating and liberating book-writing journey. Before we knew it, two hours had passed. Upon bidding farewell, I planned to finish reading her book in the next couple of weeks.
Indeed, I finished reading Marcia’s book during the Thanksgiving Holiday. Word Up was the #1 Best Seller on Amazon.com under “Writing Skills”. This book reminds me of some key writing rules required to become a strong writer. Here are the three rules that resonated most deeply with me:
The last words deliver:
“Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Renowned writers always bring the reader to a full stop on a word that resonates.
Consider these three examples:
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Chief Joseph’s surrender speech in 1877 (a dark moment in the US history): “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech in 1939: “So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I have got an awful lot to live for.”
In B2B writing, we are taught to end with a clear call-to-action such as ‘view’, ‘download’, ‘subscribe’ and ‘buy’ to drive sales and our ending won’t be as grand as the examples above. Don’t go to the closure directly with a simple ‘download’ or ‘buy now’. Make an effort to remind them why they need to ‘view’, ‘download’, ‘subscribe’ and ‘buy’. Connect with their pain points or emotions.
Metaphors are jewels:
“Want to wake up your readers? Poke them with a good metaphor.” This is especially handy in explaining complicated concepts. I love the example Marcia shared from the TV Show: House, M.D.
Dr. House: You know, when the Inuit go fishing, they don’t look for fish.
Dr. Wilson: Why, Dr. House?
Dr. House: They look for the blue heron because there’s no way to see the fish. But if there’s fish, there’s gonna be birds fishing. Now if [the patient]’s got hairy-cell, what else are we gonna see circling overhead?
I heard another great example from Lee LeFever, author of the Art of Explanation.
Jam Handy used an easy-to-understand metaphor to explain Differential Gear (what is that?) in 1937. Start watching at 1:50.
So true! In B2B writing, we are challenged to explain complicated products or technical concepts. Use metaphors to get the point across. So where to find examples of good metaphors? Marcia suggested looking in plays and in poems, novels, e-mails, blog entries etc. I say let’s also look into movies, TV shows or even tweets.
Marcia used this quote from Truman Capote to illustrate her point: “Writing has laws of perspectives, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” The way to make your writing pop is to use contrast, the same technique that painters use to light the eye or the composers create to delight the ear.
In B2B writing, we certainly use this rule often. Versions of it are called “Before vs. After” or “Old vs. New” or “Existing vs. Upgrade”. It’s time to dial up the contrast.
As a technical writer with years of writing experience, Marcia packed her book with her personal observations and learnings. Unlike typical grammar or how-to-write books, she added personal touches with fun references to these mundane and often-forgotten writing rules. Check out her book and you will discover something new in something old.
It’s delightful to meet a fellow marketer and writer in Portland. Marcia, thank you for sharing your book with me. When we meet again, I’d love to see you in another eye-popping long dress with some awesome boas. Don’t just Word Up. Dress Up, girl!