Sunday, October 25, 2020

How do you know when you've finished?

In the movie Pollock, abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock (played by Ed Harris) is asked:

"How do you know when you're finished with a painting?"

Pollock answers: "How do you know when you're finished making love?"

So, as a writer, how do you know when you're finished with a writing project?

Copy and content writers know we are finished when the deadline arrives. We could always tweak and adjust, but when deadline arrives, we have to hand it over.

Beyond that obvious stopping point, for me there comes a point when I'm just making tiny edits and I have to tell myself to stop. 

It's never going to be perfect (whatever that is). 

And that my edits are not making a difference in how the piece will perform with the target audience.

And if it doesn't get done, it can't go to work.

I have a friend who says, she's done when the editor says she's done. 

Another says, "When it is placed in the client's hand and you no longer own it."

Writing instructor Gary Provost offered: "How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, 'What does the reader lose if you cross it out?' If the answer is 'nothing' or 'I don't know,' then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth."

Some other writers offer their thoughts about knowing when you are finished:

“When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” -  Robert J. Sawyer

"The writing begins only when you're finished. Only then do you know what you are trying to say." - Mark Twain

“I would say that a piece is finished when I can no longer find any faults or flaws in it. Unfortunately, that is rare." - Waverly Fitzgerald

“Writers often torture themselves trying to get the words right. Sometimes you must lower your expectations and just finish it.” - Don Roff

"The hardest lesson to learn as a writer is when work is finished. It's all too easy to go round and round, polishing until there is nothing left. Know when to quit. Deadlines are your friend. A hard stop keeps you honest. And sane." - Alastair Dickie

"I could go back and review it line by line again. I’m sure I would find something, some sentence to improve, some image to add. But at some point I have to cut it off and the prospect of opening it and going through it again might just send me around the bend." - Jennifer Ellis

“It’s finished when it’s finished.” - Priscilla Long

"Often I don’t know when a piece is finished. Knowing when to stop is one of the most difficult judgment calls a creative person is called to make." - Elizabeth Langer

"At some point in the exploration or polishing, we’ve said all that we have to say—and that pause in the conversation tells me it’s ready to send out. The dialog might start up again in the future, but for now, it’s finished.” - Joannie Stangeland

"An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it." - Paul Valery 

“Any work is always improvable, you cannot really finish the work, you can only abandon it out of tiredness or incompetence.” - Amit Kalantri

"The problem most writers have with finishing work is that they rely on pure rational will and aggressive determination to get the job done. When they feel themselves flagging in their efforts they whip themselves even harder, driving the writing on until it’s done. This causes tension in the body and a forced stiltedness in the work.

“Creative work is not a mechanical cog that can be turned out ever faster on an assembly line. Creative work is a living, breathing, organic collection of energy. It’s like fruit on a tree. Every piece of fruit ripens in its own time, and its ripeness corresponds to the current season in perfect harmony. Instead of ripping green apples off the tree and pounding them into applesauce anyway, writers would do much better to practice the art of patience and leave the fruit alone until it is ready to be picked.” - Lauren Sapala

Think about it. How do you know when you are done with a writing assignment? And while you let that rattle around in your brain, I'll close things out with a poem by Arnie Reisman

In the Home of a Poem

This poem is not finished

As long as it sits in an open space

as long as words can be placed and replaced

as long as punctuation can be ordered overnight

as long as I am still alive


Anymore than a house designed

by Frank Lloyd Wright was finished

Once sold, story goes,

the architect demanded his own set of keys

to make surprise visits

to chastise choices of paint

to rearrange furniture

to explain what works on walls

When he died, the house finally breathed

and became a home


Oscar Wilde exercised his commas like small dogs,

taking them out, bringing them in again

A raven cawed more tunefully than a crow

If it hadn’t, its master would have been

simply Ed Poe


So I continue to make my visits of inspection

reupholstering the lines

rearranging to achieve feng shui

until the day

when finally what’s removed is me

Then this poem will receive

a certificate of occupancy

Guess I've finished this blog post.

But if I stumble across a good quote about 
knowing when you've finished a writing project,
 I'm gonna come back and add it.

NOTE: Almost a year after publishing this, I added the quote from Paul Valery. I was introduced to this quote by Howard Ibach.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Chrono-synclastic Infundibulum

The chrono-synclastic infundibulum came from the fertile mind of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It's a place or time when/where everything becomes one and everyone and everything is right. It was one of Vonnegut's ways of poking at excessive human pride and the limits of our knowledge.

From Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan:

“When I ran my space ship into the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it came to me in a flash that everything that has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been.” He chuckled again. “Knowing that rather takes the glamour out of fortunetelling—makes it the simplest, most obvious thing imaginable.”

It gives some dimension to Vonnegut’s life advice: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” 

So, you might ask, "Scott, if this is a blog for copy and content writers, why are you quoting from a novel published in 1959?" 

Because I want you to consider picking up and reading it ... or Slaughterhouse Five or Player Piano or Welcome to the Monkey House or any of Vonnegut's work. 

Good writers are good readers.

In addition to improving your writing chops by reading Vonnegut, you can also benefit from the advice he offered to other writers. As writers we strive to write clearly and concisely, editing our early drafts with dispassionate vigor. Here's his advice on that:

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

And, have you read Vonnegut's 8 rules for writing? If not, here the are. If so, read 'em again.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Finally, what better way to end a blog about Kurt Vonnegut than with what he called his 1st rule:

"First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Something You Might Be Overlooking When Publishing Fresh Content

Two words: Internal Links

If you're publishing new content to your website or blog, consider linking the new content to and from your old content. Two reasons to do this: better reader experience, better SEO.

Four tips to get this done quickly and effectively:

  1. Identify one or two high traffic pages with related content elsewhere on your site. The higher the traffic on these pages, the better chance you’ll have of driving readers to the new content. And, you’ll be positioned for positive SEO “link juice.”

  2. Look for a target keyword or keyword phrase in the existing content as the text to link to the new content. This enhances your visitor’s experience and helps Google understand the focus of your new article.

  3. If there is not a suitable word/phrase in the body of the existing content, you can always add a “related links” section at the bottom of the page.

  4. Don't overdo it. Too many links can interrupt the flow of the piece, and become a distraction that make it difficult to read.

Add a step for internal linking to your checklist for adding fresh content. It can help you drive traffic while supporting your SEO efforts. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Crazy Enough to Tell the Truth?


The movie Crazy People is the story of Emory Leeson (Dudley Moore), an ad agency creative who, while experiencing a nervous breakdown, designs a series of "truthful" ads with help from some other folks experiencing mental issues. These unlikely ads are wildly successful. And, funny as hell. And, in most cases, a bit offensive.

If you're a copywriter or otherwise involved in the world of advertising/marketing, check it out. I doubt you'll suggest to anyone that it's a good movie (it's at least an hour too long), but you'll have some laughs.

Here's a taste:

I think the movie was trying to make a point by asking, "Who are the crazy people?" and letting the audience decide. Ad execs? Ad creatives? People who believe ads? People in psychiatric care facilities? People who run psychiatric care facilities? Everybody?

Frankly, I don't care. I just got a kick out of some of the "truthful" ads.


Stop reading if you're planning on seeing the movie.

If there's a slim to no chance that you're going to watch it, here are some of the "truth in advertising" headlines:

  • Jaguar. For men who'd like hand jobs from beautiful women they hardly know.

  • Forget Paris. The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We're nicer.

  • Buy Volvos. They're boxy but they're good.

  • Come to New York. There were fewer murders than last year.

  • Your fear of flying may be valid. United Airlines. Most of our passengers get there alive.

  • Quaker Oats. Does this cereal taste great? Who knows. But the box is cute.

Come to think of it, maybe instead of watching the movie, you can save time by just viewing the trailer:

FYI, the film didn't do so well. Roger Ebert gave it 2 stars. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating is 37%. And it's dated, politically incorrect, and potentially offensive and/or insulting to certain groups of people.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Publishing A Book During a Pandemic

“Why Would You Publish a Book During a Pandemic?”

That’s what a client asked me after I told him that my new book is now available.

The response took me by surprise. I was expecting some sort of supportive, celebratory comment that would stroke my ego and show me how much more prestige I now commanded.

I didn’t know what to answer.

So, I said, “I’m a writer and the book was finished. So, I published it.”

“Too bad it happened during this COVID-19 mess, people probably don’t have the money to spend on nonessentials like books.”

That comment got to me, too. I have a problem with thinking of books as nonessentials.

But, I reminded myself, we are in a pandemic and I don’t want to jeopardize business from a client who is keeping the orders coming, so I steered the conversation with, “Well, you can brag to your buddies that the guy who writes your copy and content is the same guy who wrote the book about copywriting.”

We moved on to a discussion about targeting new keywords for content.

But it got me thinking.

Thinking about other things I might have said if I had either thought of them at the time or I wasn’t concerned about limiting my income.

Things like:

  • Although the pandemic has screwed a lot of stuff up, businesses still need good content and strong copy … not all writers are starving.

  • Because of the pandemic, many writers are no longer commuting and may have more time for a useful book.

  • Copy and content writers are known for investing in their skills and knowledge of their craft. They are willing to invest in learning.

  • Copy and content writers will buy my book because it has value beyond what it costs.

  • A bunch of folks I highly respect like Bob Bly, David Garfinkel, Tom Albrighton, Steve Slaunwhite, and Drayton Bird said that it’s a worthwhile book.

  • I’m not measuring success by numbers of sales, but by numbers of people who feel they got value from the book.

OK, I’m sort of lying. I do want people who buy the book to get value (and I firmly believe they will), but I really, really want to sell a bunch of books. There’s some ego gratification and desire for acceptance at play here.

So, instead of ending this post with a great insight such as: You can wait for the time to be perfect or just roll up your sleeves and make things happen, I’ll end it with a self-serving CTA: Buy my book. It’ll make you a better copywriter:

The Parking Spot Next to the Front Door

“You could sell sawdust to a lumber mill,” said my boss as he threw his arm around Byron’s shoulders. The team applauded as Byron held up th...