Yesterday, I attended WordCamp Israel, 2014, a day of learning and discussions for WordPress users. As a long time WordPress blogger, and a former Hollywood script analyst, I thought it would be interesting to talk about something less technical than widgets, coding, or meta tags but to really delve into why story is so important and how an appreciation of it can make your content better, no matter why you are blogging:
I started off with a sad but very illuminating story. About four years ago, my best friend lay in her bed, dying. It was breast cancer. I had just returned from Israel. Julie – she said weakly – tell me about your trip. I thought it was horrible to talk about a vacation while someone was dying!
Please, Lynn said. She was not able to even open her eyes.
I told her about the Red Sea and how warm it was. I told her you could see the hills of the Saudi Kingdom from there. I described the hot, greasy schwarma and the tender, crumbling falafel.
I felt like Sherhezade – I had to keep talking.
I described Petra and the silence in the desert. And the way the old city in Jerusalem smells a little like smoke and oil and flowers.
One tear rolled down Lynn’s cheek. It’s so ancient, she said. That was the last thing she ever said to me and that was the moment in my life when I realized how important – how truly important story telling is.
Because it transports us. Even on our death beds.
Stories only happen to those who can tell them.
~ Paul Auster
Here is a truth: Good stories – good writing – good content – is immersive, compelling and entertaining. Every time.
You already know this. Because this recognition and ability is hard-wired within you. Believe it. But many of us do not ourselves consume enough good content online (we skim, more on that later) or we assume that it’s easy to write good content and we may not try all that hard.
I learned valuable lessons about mediocrity in my ten years in Hollywood – in an environment of extremely high stakes, where NO NOT GOOD ENOUGH is a daily mantra, I learned that NO is an invitation to better and that mediocrity will never, ever make you stand out from the crowd.
I learned that asking more and MORE of your story, of your idea or concept was a way to sharpen your skills:
NO. Not good enough. What else happens? Why is this unique?
In Hollywood this might seem like a jaded attitude but really it’s just a reaction to too much material and too little time. And so often, unfortunately, what we think is unique and interesting – just isn’t. It’s a rough environment.
Writing online is a different environment and yet asks the same of a writer – why is this different – because today we are inundated with content and information masquerading as content.
There is an ocean of information online and its easy to get lost in the crowd. How is your blog better?
Whether you blog for personal reasons or to sell a product or service, your content is just one more piece of information floating around. Usually when we think of improving readership, we think of SEO, hashtags, sharing on multiple social media outlets efficiently. And this is true. It is important.
But content is king.
Here’s the thing: you don’t need to have a doctorate in English (or any other) Literature to get some fundamental truths of story. You just have to know how important good content is.
Remember – story telling is innate within us. The ancients knew how to tell stories and there’s never really been any improvement on the basic construct, whether in writing or in the oral tradition:
Or – as I say – Beginning, middle, BLOODY POINT ALREADY!
We are accustomed to digesting stories in three acts – the set up, the complication and the resolution.
Today I went to the store. They were out of tahini. I found the tahini.
In and of itself – this three-part story is not entertaining. Stories have many moving parts. By changing one element we have a much more interesting story – one that begs for our attention:
Today I went to the store. They were out of bullets. I found the bullets.
Now you have my attention. You have aroused my curiosity. The fun thing about story telling is that it has so many moving parts. What point of view should you be writing in? First person? Third? What is the main point of your story? Where is this happening, what makes this unique? You have a world at your fingertips. Practice your “blogging voice” or persona until you get it right.
Imagine yourself at a dinner party. Hey everybody! You say. Hey! You’ll never believe what happened! And you get all eyes on you and you get this immediate reaction to your story. And by dint of the fact that you started telling a story, we know you want to entertain us. Yes, some people are better story tellers than others but it’s both because they do it a lot and because they enjoy the feeling of entertaining others. There is a high and an immediate feedback.
However, when you blog, you write into the ether. You are greeted by silence. Which for many, is a relief. Many writers are shy. But – how do you know if your blog was successful? By the number of comments and shares? Yes, in part. By the number of followers and those who discuss the article? Definitely. But there are some caveats. What makes readers share, comment on or otherwise interact with your blog?
There are a few things you should take into consideration. Chief among them is the fact that definitely attention spans are shorter. The internet has given everybody in the world a voice and there is a huge amount of content online. Ergo, writing not just good but great content is more important than ever.
Most people skim content. In the New York Times there is a great article by Karl Greenfeld, about Faking Cultural Literacy – which points to our modern tendency to glean as much information as possible as quickly and easily as possible. Further, we live in an age of “listicles” – Top ten ways to lose weight before summer! Top three things you need to know about sex!
So where does good story telling fit into the modern reading habits and attention span of those who would build our readership? How can bloggers adapt?
Be PROVOCATIVE, speak TRUTH and be RELEVANT.
In other words:
Get my attention
Tell me the authentic truth
Make it matter in my life
Here are a few ways you can study up on better content writing:
Keep a diary of what content you read and why.
What do you notice about why you clicked on or read what you read? What grabbed you? Was it relevant to you in your life? Was it written with honesty and authenticity? Was it provocative and interesting – in either the title, the piece itself or ideally both? Did what you read leave you with something you didn’t know? Did it make you want to take action – even if that just means following the RSS feed?
Learn about great content by reading it.
Curate your Facebook Feed. Follow those publications and writers that consistently write what grabs you. Read great content and study what makes it great.
Establish a clear vision for your blog.
Why do you blog? Whether for pleasure or for business you should be able to define and describe your blog in what amounts to a tagline: Great activities for eco-hikers! Or whatever that description needs to be. When you are clear about your blog, your blog will be clearer. What, exactly, can I expect from your blog in general? And how is it different from other content?
The worst sin you can commit as a writer is to be dull and obvious. Avoid this at all costs. Don’t give me anther stupid listicle of the top three ways I can polish my cutlery. And if you do write for a cutlery business, or a medical supplier? You can still try to find a way in to that blog post that is authentic, truthful, entertaining and relevant. You can find a way.
Beginning. Middle. Blood Point Already.
Get my attention
Give me some truths; make me laugh or think or disagree with you.
Leave me with something that means something in MY life.
Now go out and blog and do it well! If you need some private lessons to improve your writing, please drop me a line. I am glad to help. If you fancy a social situation and live in Israel, come join the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon and get those creative juices flowing.