The cure for writing constipation

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Did you hear about the constipated writer who worked it out with a pencil? 

Okay, jokes aside, if you’re having trouble starting a writing project, or finishing one, or you’re having trouble expressing your ideas clearly and cogently, if you’re in a writing funk or “blocked,” I feel you. It happens to me, too. 

What do I do? 

The first thing I do when I’m stuck is to put the project away and write something else. Something completely unrelated. When I come back to the project, I usually find it easy to get back on track. 

But not always. Sometimes, I’m still stuck. 

I might do more research. Learning something new about the subject, hearing different stories or examples, will often help me see where I need to go. 

Another thing I’ll do is re-write my outline if I have one, or write one if I don’t. I might do a mind map, which gives me a visual look at what I have and how it fits together, and then convert it to an outline. 

If this doesn’t work, I have another ace up my sleeve: free-writing.

I open a new page and start writing whatever comes into my head. I do this without stopping to think about what I’m saying, without going back to correct anything or add anything, I just keep pushing the pen across the page or banging the keys on the keyboard.  

Free-writing acts like a lubricant for my mind. Getting the words flowing, no matter how vapid or unrelated to the project, helps me find my writing voice. 

Sometimes, I’ll free-write for five minutes. Sometimes, I go for twenty minutes or more before taking a break. 

When I’m really stuck and nothing else seems to help, I go for a walk and record myself speaking on the subject. 

I talk to myself about the problem I’m having and reason my way through it. Or I talk to the reader I have pictured in my mind and “explain” the material to them. 

As I dictate, I add notes to myself for ideas that occur to me that I want to explore later. I also ask myself questions I think my reader wants to know, and speculate about the possible answers. 

Writing every day has made me a better (and faster) writer and I don’t get stuck very often. When I do, one of these techniques usually does the trick.

No pencils necessary.

Marketing is easier when you have a plan

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How being a better writer can help you become a better attorney

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An article in Writers Digest, “How Being An Attorney Helped Me Become A Writer,” caught my eye. The writer said: 

“The best legal job I ever had was clerking for a federal judge. I was responsible for writing the first draft of the rulings he would ultimately issue to the litigants. I lost sleep over the first case I was assigned, struggling to figure out the correct outcome. The draft I handed in to the judge reflected my own indecision—the writing was hedged and weak. The judge gently admonished me that the court must always project confidence and authority. He returned my draft with my wishy-washy words crossed out and the following written in: “The Court has reached the inexorable conclusion that . . .” I had to look up inexorable (it means unavoidable), but I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes actual confidence will flow from appearing confident. A reader wants to feel she is in good hands. If you write with confidence and present yourself as a serious person, the reader will feel safe with you.”

Me thinks it works the other way, too. Clarity and confidence in your writing helps clients feel safe with you. 

Is there any wiggle room? Is it okay to act confident even when you’re not?

Ultimately, that’s what each of us has to decide.

Sometimes, you have to bluntly tell the client how the course of action you’re recommending could blow up in their face. Sometimes, you have to offer a more gentle weighing of the possible outcomes. And sometimes, you have to point out all the options and ask them what they want you to do.

One thing is certain. When you’re in court, make sure your conclusions are always inexorable.

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How much information is too much information?

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I’m outlining a new project. This one will be a freebie. Don’t worry, you’re on the list. You’ll get a copy. (Wait. You haven’t been naughty this year, have you?)

I’m using my notes from a live training I did years ago and re-purposing it. The original presentation had 12 topics. I cut that down to eight.

When I looked at my updated outline, however, I realized that eight topics are still too many. So I cut it down to three.

Three of the best. Three things every lawyer can use to bring in more business.

With only three subjects, it won’t take hours and hours to consume, or weeks for me to create.

But it’s still too long.

I want you to be able to consume this in less than an hour, so you can start using it.

So I cut it down to one.

One subject. One strategy. One lesson.

There are two parts to this lesson. They’re both valuable. But guess what? There’s still too much information.

So this morning, I put one part aside. With only one (half) lesson, I’ll have time to flesh out the subject and give you something you can use instead of just read.

If you read a lot of blogs and articles, you see that most of them fall into the category of a “round up”–a  collection of quick tips, ideas, or resources. They’re valuable but they rarely go into enough depth on any subject to allow readers to take action.

I want this to be different.

But hey, if you’re naughty, I might add back the other half of the lesson.

How to use your website to make your phone ring

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How to start a conversation without sounding creepy

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I just read an article based on an interview with Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air”. Over the last 40 years, she’s conducted thousands of interviews and offered her advice on the best way to start a conversation.

The only icebreaker you need, she said, is to say: “Tell me about yourself.”

She says “this is much more effective than the dreaded, “So what do you do?” because you don’t make any assumptions about the other person.”

She prefers her way because it, “. . . allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you’re going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are.”

Naturally, I have a few thoughts about this.

First, if you know your audience and you’ve done your homework on the person you’re interviewing, you should be the one in the lead. If you leave it up to the interviewee, they’ll take you places you and your audience don’t necessarily want to go.

Second, making people a bit uncomfortable can lead to a more interesting interview.

Okay, this is coming from a lawyer, not the host of a cultural events show, so take it for what you will. But you know I’m right, don’t you?

Anyway, I picked up the article because I thought I’d learn a new way to start a conversation with a stranger, while networking for example. Something better than, “What do you do?”

Nope.

If a stranger comes up to me and says, “Tell me about yourself,” I’m pretty sure I’d be creeped out and say something like, “Why do you ask?” or “Who the hell are you?”

I have issues.

Seriously, if you want to start a conversation with a stranger, stick with what other people expect to hear and are prepared to respond to.

You can pick up on something you see or you heard them say. You can pay them a compliment, e.g., “I like your tie”. Or you can ask a simple question, e.g., “Have you heard this speaker before?”

Easy. Everyone’s comfortable.

Once you’ve broken the ice and you’re having a conversation, ask them “What do you do?” Because you want them to ask you what you do.

And, if you’re conducting an interview, for a podcast or video or because you’re writing a book, get my book, The Easy Way to Write a Book. You’ll learn some non-creepy ways to start the conversation and get to the good stuff.

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The practice you want, the marketing you’ll need

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Yesterday, I saw an article with the title, “The retirement you want, the money you’ll need”. Good title. I took it and wrote the title of the post you’re reading now.

The point? You can get ideas for content and headlines just about anywhere. But only if you’re looking for them.

And by looking, I don’t mean scouring through blogs or your incoming email hunting for ideas. I mean being open to ideas finding you and being ready to write them down when they do.

I find ideas in many places. You will, too. Make sure you have an “idea” file or tag, read widely and deeply, and write down anything that strikes you, even if it seems silly or done-to-death. Develop the habit of finding and recording ideas first. Quality can come later.

Had you encountered the original title that inspired this post, you might have come up with a headline like, “The settlement you want, the lawyer you’ll need,” “The security you want, the legal protection you’ll need,” or, “The lawyer you want, the questions you’ll need to ask”.

Like these? They’re yours.

Developing the habit of collecting titles and ideas will pay many dividends. Continually fill your idea folder, regularly sift through it, and you’ll never run out of things to write about or effective headlines or titles to describe them.

I save my ideas in Evernote

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A simple way to write faster and better 

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“Don’t edit while you write” we are told. Get the words out of your head and down on paper without concern for clarity, grammar, usage, or spelling. Get your critical mind out of the way and write. Edit later.

It’s good advice and no doubt you follow it to some extent. It improves the quality and speed of your writing, especially if you feel stuck and don’t know what to say.

Someone once summarized this advice by saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I offer no comment on whether this advice should be followed literally but research confirms the value of doing something similar:

Write while groggy.

Apparently, we are more creative when we are sleepy. I assume that’s because our critical mind is less engaged, allowing us to write a first draft (or solve problems, as was done in the research) more quickly and easily.

So, if you’re usually slower in the morning, that’s when you might want to get some words on paper. Especially before you have that first cup of coffee. If you tire in the afternoon, you might try writing later in your day.

Are there other ways to “turn off” our critical mind without being sleepy or drunk or using willpower?

I think so.

I often put on headphones and listen to brain.fm to help me focus. Sometimes, I listen to regular music (new age or classical, thank you.) Sometimes, I listen to talk radio while writing, letting the voices blend into the background. This morning, I had a news video playing while writing this. Writing in a coffee shop does the same thing for many people.

I also get first drafts done by dictating into my phone on my walk or when I’m in the car.

What do you do to turn off your critical mind?

Your website can bring in more clients 

 

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Procrastination might be your friend

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In an interview, Ray Bradbury spoke about writer’s block, noting that it’s a warning that you’re doing the wrong thing:

“What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it? Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, aren’t you? . . . You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for. . . If you have writers’ block you can cure it this evening by stopping what you’re doing and writing something else. You picked the wrong subject.”

So, trust your gut.

Could the same be said whenever we find ourselves procrastinating?

I think it could. But things aren’t that simple.

If you’re doing work for a client, the work has to be done. You can’t change the work just because your gut’s telling you something’s not right.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore our gut. It might be trying to do you a favor.

When you feel resistance to doing something, take a moment to ask yourself some questions:

  1. Does this have to be done? Maybe there’s another way to accomplish the same result. It couldn’t hurt to take a moment to consider this.
  2. If the work has to be done, does it have to be done now? Maybe a delay would help you sort out some things that your gut says are a problem.
  3. Am I the one who has to do it? If someone else could do it, that might be a simple solution to what ails ya.
  4. Is there another way to get it done? If the work has to be done, now, by you, maybe you can do it in some other way? How might you do it differently?

Let’s noodle for a moment about that last one.

Suppose you are hired to write an appellate brief but your gut is telling you there’s a problem. You’re blocked, but you know it has to be done and you’re the one to do it.

Instead of writing the brief the way you usually do it–research, outline, first draft, etc.–how about trying a different process? Maybe start with a quick stream-of-consciousness draft of what’s on your mind about the case or the people, before you do any research. Maybe by doing that, you’ll realize some things about the case you didn’t think about before. And maybe this will provide you with a breakthrough and help you turn out a brilliant piece of work.

All hail your gut. It knows things you don’t know.

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Write like you talk?

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We’re often told to “write like you talk”. Talk to the reader, on paper, as if you’re having a personal conversation. Use simple words and short sentences, to make your message clear and easy to understand.

But spoken communication is disjointed and repetitive. Our meaning is often ambiguous. We use gestures, pauses, facial expressions, and other cues, to provide context and clarity to our message. When we sense that the listener isn’t following us, we can repeat the thought with different words and examples. We can make sure they understand before we continue.

We can’t do this in writing, however, so if you write literally like you talk, your writing will be harder to understand, not easier.

Instead of “write like you talk,” the mantra should be, “write the first draft like you talk.”

When you edit that draft, change the order of your ideas so they flow more logically. Choose more descriptive words. Tighten sentences. Tell a story instead of piling on the facts.

Do another pass, to make the draft even clearer. Depending on your audience, consider adding (or adding back) slang, cliches, and buzz words, and using visual devices to mimic the spoken word.

K?

Make the words look good on the page. Then, read the draft out loud, to hear what your reader will hear in their head when they read it.

Listen to the sound of the words and their cadence. Pay attention to the images they conjure and the emotions they invoke.

CS Lewis said, “Write with the ear, not the eye.” Make sure your words not only say what you mean, make sure they sound good.

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Say what?

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You may have heard the pejorative term “hairography”. According to the Urban Dictionary, this is “choreography using a lot of dance movement with the head that causes the hair to thrash about.” Basically, it’s done to disguise a lack of dancing skills.

Sadly, some lawyers do something similar when they hide behind big words and legalese.

I call it “lexography”.

I have to admit, as a fledgling attorney, I spoke the lingua franca. My letters and pleadings sounded like they were written in another century. Formal, stilted, passive voice, and boring.

I didn’t want to be seen as lacking experience in the arcane world of the fraternity I had recently joined. I wanted to sound like a lawyer and I thought that’s what I had to do.

I even did it with clients. I was young (and looked it) and I wanted to sound like a grown up.

It all ended quickly. I hated the way I sounded, and it was too much work to keep up, so I said, “the hell with it” and I stopped.

What a relief!

I spoke plainly. Simple words. Colloquial expressions. Cliches.

I used short sentences.

Like this.

Nobody complained or looked down on me. Nobody refused to hire me because I sounded inexperienced or unprofessional.

So, if you’re new to this club, or you (still) have issues with “sounding like a lawyer,” let it go.

I get a lot of email from lawyers. Some lawyers (lawyers!) can’t communicate a cogent thought to save their life.

Seriously. I can’t understand them.

C’mon, people. We are word merchants, you and I. We get paid to communicate. We need to be on top of our game. Better than good. Clear, concise, and persuasive.

You don’t need to be eloquent but if writing doesn’t come naturally to you, do what you have to do to get better. Take classes, get an editor, read outside your field.

Get a writing “workout partner”. Get lots of practice. And most of all, have fun with it. You’ll be glad you did. So will your clients.

How to write a “special report” that brings in clients

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What if I’m right?

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I get it. The two reasons you don’t have an email newsletter or blog or, if you do, you don’t write or post very often:

You don’t have enough to write about, and/or, you don’t have the time to do it.

I say you do. I say you have plenty to write about, way more than you realize, and you have more than enough time to do it.

Give me a chance to prove it.

Set up a new notebook or file for this email/blog project, open a page and label it “ideas”. If you have any that come to mind, write them down. If you have other files with blog post or content ideas you’ve collected, add them to your new file.

Go through your hard drive, reading list, saved article files, and do the same.

Next, write down the questions prospective clients and new clients typically ask you–about the law, procedure or process, about their legal rights and options, about what you can do to help them.

You should be able to quickly write down ten or twenty questions.

If you find yourself running short, visit some online forums where people post questions for attorneys to answer, and see what’s being asked.

You can also visit article directories, other attorney’s blogs, and websites that feature legal content and see what visitors are asking in the comments. You can search your keywords on social media and see what people are talking about.

Okay, that’s enough for now. More than enough, actually. You should now have enough ideas to keep you busy for the next several years.

Will you have the time to use those ideas? Let’s find out.

Go through your idea list and pick one. It doesn’t matter what it is, just pick something you have an opinion on or experience with, or something that interests you that you think might interest others.

Now, write down three words or phrases related to that idea.

If you’re a personal injury attorney and you’ve chosen to write a response to the question, “How much is my case worth?” your three words might be, “damages, liability, and insurance,” for example.

Next, take your idea and your key words, set a timer for five minutes and start writing. You can type or use a pen or dictate but don’t stop writing (or talking) until the five minutes is up.

Don’t edit, don’t worry about grammar or punctuation, don’t slow down or stop. Just keep pushing your pen or pounding the keys.

For. Five. Whole. Minutes.

I don’t care how busy you are, you can write for five minutes.

When you’re done, you probably learned that

  • You have a lot to say about certain subjects
  • You can get a lot of words on a page in five minutes
  • You wind up with a mess but it’s not as bad as you thought

At least that’s what I found out the first time I did this exercise.

You now have the first draft of an email or blog post or article. Put it aside and re-write or edit it later. When you’re done, you should have a few hundred words, enough for a blog post or email.

Then, tomorrow, or next week at this time, do it again. Pick another idea, write down three words, write for five minutes, edit later.

Continue doing this until you have at least ten posts or emails.

Now it’s time to decide what to do with them.

You could start a blog. You’ll have ten weeks (or days) worth of material to post.

You could start a newsletter. You’ll have ten emails to load into your autoresponder.

Or you can gather up what you’ve written and turn them into an ebook or report.

The point is, you now know you can do this. You can write something in 30 minutes or less, including editing. (Okay, it might take longer at first but you’ll get faster.)

The only remaining question is, “Should you?” Will it be worth it for you to write something once or twice a week and post or email it? Will it bring in business?

There’s only one way to find out.

For more ideas, and more ways to get ideas, get this

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