• Books
  • The comic strip approach to email copywriting

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    Creating comic strips resembles email copywriting in certain ways. If you write email copy you can learn a lot from your favorite cartoonists.

    For starters, like a cartoonist, you must create on a daily basis and work under deadline pressure if you write for clients.

    Sometimes a comic strip is a single gag and other times there is a running story line for several strips. With email copy it’s best to mix it up in this way too (although usually without gags, alas).

    Therefore I’m always drawn to interviews with and articles about cartoonists.

    I recently discovered a 37 page interview with Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, in the book Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue. You can probably find it at your local library.

    It’s one of the only interviews with Watterson, who is something of a recluse. He ended the strip 20 years ago yet it endures in popularity even though he doesn’t do a thing to promote it. I read it in one sitting and savored every word.

    Here is something he said in the interview that resonates:

    Richard Thompson…said he likes to work with small things he notices and his example was “gravel in the street.” That might be a little too small, but I agree with him. Daily minutiae are not actually trivial. It’s a wonderful thing to draw your attention to tiny little moments and small episodes. There can be something simple, grounded, and true when you observe those generally unnoticed small things. I tend to like that scale. Whenever I go to a computer-animated movie, I think, “Oh, please, not another quest.” You know, must we always journey to discover ourselves, find home, and save Christmas?

    I love the unpretentiousness of cartoons. If you sat down and wrote a two hundred page book called My Big Thoughts on Life, no one would read it. But if you stick those same thoughts in a comic strip and wrap them in a little joke that takes five seconds to read, now you’re talking to millions. Any writer would kill for that kind of audience. What a gift.

    Indeed. Those daily details and small episodes are critical components of email copy. The “journey story,” not so much, that is for the about page or sales page. The “gravel in the street” components of the journey story are appropriate for the email copy, however.

    My current favorite comic strip is Bloom County, which Berkeley Breathed resurrected on Facebook in 2015. Without the deadline pressure of a newspaper his creativity is free to flourish once again. He publishes 3-4 strips per week and it’s well worth following his Facebook page for these gems.

    Scott Adams of Dilbert is my other favorite. I’ve listened to his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss a couple of times and it’s one I know I’ll continue to revisit. He gives writing tips and explains his philosophy of humor, among many other things.

    I also like Frazz and Pearls Before Swine. Even Garfield can get a smile out of me sometimes even though that strip isn’t as good as it was back in the 1980s. Garfield Minus Garfield is more fun.

    If you read comics, what are your favorites?
    _____
    If you don’t like Calvin & Hobbes, then you won’t care for lesson #18 in my A Year of Email Copywriting Course. And lesson 12 will be especially soporific because I analyze the storytelling structure of comics and apply it to copywriting. Oh well. Can’t please everybody.

    If you like books, please check out my book reviews.

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  • Books
  • “You need to ask smaller questions”

    With every turn of the page of Humans of New York: Stories I was reminded of that saying “Be kind; everyone is fighting a great battle.” The micro stories that accompany each photo are fascinating. And must reading for anyone who is a writer.

    My favorite photos are the “microfashion” ones of toddlers in adorable attire.

    My favorite story might be the one on page 326:

    “I’m a neuroscience researcher.”
    “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”

    “Listen to your inner voice.”

    “You’re a scientist. Isn’t ‘inner voice’ a spiritual term?”

    “Bullshit! You’ll hear scientists talking about following their inner voice as much as you’d hear a musician or priest.”

    “So how do you know which of your thoughts are your true inner voice?”

    “All of them are! The question is – how much weight do you give them? How much authority do you give your own thoughts? Are you taking them seriously? Or are you sitting in front of the damn tube letting other people tell you what to think?”

    “Studying the brain is like working in a toy store. Nothing could be more fucking fun.”

    “What do you think is the greatest weakness of the brain?”

    “That’s a lousy question! I’m not answering it.”

    “Why is it a lousy question?”

    “What do you want me to say? Road rage? That we get pissed and shoot people? That the newest parts of our brain should have been in the oven a little longer? How’s that going to help you? If you ask a crappy question, you’ll never get a decent answer. You need to ask smaller questions – questions that give you a pathway to finding some pertinent information. The major advances in brain science don’t come from asking crappy questions like, “What is consciousness?” They come from microanalysis. They come from discovering pertinent information at the cellular level.”

  • Books
  • On becoming a “dedicated spirit,” falling in love with a work, and the marriage of marriages

    David Whyte is my favorite poet because he also understands the corporate and business world and brings his poetry into business workshops. In his book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship he describes how we have the ability to fall in love with another person, a work, and even ourselves.

    On becoming a dedicated spirit:

    “…we reach a certain threshold where our freedom to choose seems to disappear and is replaced by an understanding that we were made for the world in a very particular way and that this way of being is at bottom nonnegotiable. Like the mountain or the sky, it just is. […]The only question is whether you will respond, whether you will not turn away, whether you will turn toward it – whether, in effect, you will become a dedicated spirit.”
    We put so much emphasis on finding our calling or vocation when in reality our work often finds us:
    To glimpse our vocation, we must learn how to be sought out and found by a work as much as we strive to identify it ourselves. We must make ourselves findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter. Finding and being found is like a mutual falling in love. To have a possibility of happiness we must at the beginning fall in love at least a little with our work. We can choose a work on a mere strategic, financial basis, but then we should not expect profound future happiness as a result.”
    He uses Robert Louis Stevenson as an example in the marriage section of the book, which is the only downside of the book, as Stevenson doesn’t interest me much. But Whyte’s insights on marriage are well worth reading:
    “Marriage is where we realize the other person actually is alive and has notions and desires that have very little to do with our own hopes and dreams. Marriage is where we have to be larger than the self who irst made the vows. Marriage is where we learn self-knowledge; were we realize that arts of our own makeup are stranger even than the stranger we have married and very dificult for another person to live with…Marriage is where al of these dificult revelations can consign us to imprisonment or help us become larger, more generous, more amusing, more animated participants in the human drama.”
    I really enjoyed his use of Jane Austen as a example of how to write even if you have less than ideal conditions for writing. If you are a writer Whyte pretty much eliminates any possible excuse you have for not writing:

    The greatest, most prized excuse for a writer is the lament over our lack of time in which to write. It is a false and paper-thin defense against another more difficult, underlying dynamic: The inability to have the will to find the time. It is quite sobering to find with experience that if we write only a hundred words a day – a normal paragraph – we will have a book of ninety thousands words in three years. Three years is about the average time for a good prolific writer to produce a new work, given that the first year is often spent not writing at all, the second year telling ourselves that we must write, and the third in a gradually increasing frenzy building up to perhaps three or four thousands words a day.

    The sober truth is that any of us can find the time to write a book, no matter the schedule of unstoppable events in our life. Finding the part of us that wants to write the book is a different matter altogether.

    Indeed.

    Finally, I appreciate how he looks at the work/life/relationship balance in a different and more nuanced way. The “marriage of marriages” as he calls it:

    “…the need to live in multiple contexts, multiple layers and with multiple people all at the same time without choosing between them. A kind of spiritual and imaginative multitasking.”

     

     

  • Books
  • On parallel careers and creating your life list

    Being multi-dimensional is the key to happiness according to Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life. This book is packed with helpful tips on how to reevaluate your work in the second half of life, particularly if you are a knowledge worker.

    A second successful second half of life includes:

    Developing a second career.

    Having parallel careers. These are something that didn’t previously exist in your life and are noncompetitive with your main career. They can morph into a second career or post-retirement career. They give you a window into other worlds and don’t necessarily give you an income. Of course these should not turn into the shadow careers Steven Pressfield warns against.

    Social entrepreneurship and volunteer work.

    There is an exercise called a Total Life List that is central to the book. It’s a private, ongoing exercise that involves creating a list of:

    1. Immediate family (current and future)
    2. Extended family (current and future)
    3. Closer work colleagues (people you interact with most often in the workplace)
    4. Friends (current and future goals)
    5. People in your various professional networks (current and future goals)
    6. Various places of current employment and (briefly) what your work entails (current and future goals)
    7. Professional affiliations and associations (current and future goals)
    8. Ongoing learning activities (current and future goals)
    9. Teaching (if any)(current and future goals)
    10. Volunteer activities (current and future goals)
    11. Work with nonprofit organizations, or social entrepreneurship (current and future goals)
    12. Mentoring (current and future goals)
    13. Outside interests of all types, including areas such as sports leagues, amateur interest societies, religious/spiritual activities or study, book groups, or creative areas such as writing, art, or playing music (current and future goals)
    14. Exercise and other mind-body activities (current and future goals)

    If, like me, you have never read any of Peter Drucker’s 40 books, then this book is a good place to start because it is a synthesis of his main teachings.