I'd Love to Optimize Your Click-Path

As I was reading this well done page about making text easy to scan for the web—basically, use bullet points and accurate language—I realized that my idea job right now would be helping sites optimize their click-paths.

With so many people involved in the creation of any web page now, teams can lose sight of the only goal of a web page: Clicking.

A page works best if it gets you to click exactly where the creator wants you to click. If it sends you somewhere else that eventually leads to the same hole—miniature golf style.

Registration paths especially have to exist entirely for the right click. I think I have intuitive sense of what makes people click. Some of my thoughts are very tangible—always have the place you want people to click in nearly the same spot, always on the right. Some is very particular to an individual site.

It's the kind of puzzle I love to busy myself with.

I don't know if there is a demand for this kind of service. But there should be.

If you can't express your professionalism by making your click-paths simple, who's going to invest much time or money in you?

How The Story Goes

Everything is normal. Not good or bad. Then BLAM—something.

Something terrible. Something wonderful. Something weird.

Jaws attacks. You find out your lost uncle left you a billion dollars. Your hand swells to the size of the bigger sister in Heart.

And a story begins. But what’s next? Nigel Watt’s knows.

DailyWritingTips has great post about Watt’s 8-Point Story Arc. It’s the Doe-Ray-Mi of storytelling and it began with the Odyssey and is on display during every sit-com episode and most Hollywood movies. You can also plot novels—from those written by Tom Clancy to Virginia Wolfe—with Watt’s 8 points.

And if you’re telling a story and want it to grab the audience and enthrall and finally satisfy them… you better generally follow Watt’s structure.

And if you’re so experimental that you wouldn’t even think of using a prefab structure, you better know exactly what you know that millenniums of storytellers didn’t. Or you're probably employing these classic tropes without thinking about it. Either way, Watts is worth a look.

Close Reading:
What You Can Learn From Obama's Emails

You didn’t have to see CNN newsbot Rick Sanchez bumbling through Twitter feeds on Saturday night to know that the Internet is the battleground where much of the war for the US presidency is being waged. And no campaign has used the web more effectively than Barack Obama's.

As the Senator from Illinois evolved from an insurgent to the favorite to win this election, his campaign's grassroots web outreach continually improved. Their YouTube and Social Networking efforts worked so well that his opponents didn't even blush as they appropriated the innovations into a new standard-operating procedure.

Still the most impressive aspects of Barack Obama’s campaign are its careful use of words and its extremely effective “customer communications."

Daily I find emails so good that I can’t bear to label them as spam, though they technically are—depending on your definition of spam.

These emails do nearly everything right and offer a fine model for any operation that wants to establish continual communication with its “base.”

Here are three smart things about Obama’s emails that everyone can and should copy or appropriate:

1. Make the email from someone real.
Cool, an email from Joe Biden. Here’s one from Barrack about Michele. Sweet.

The Obama campaign constantly changes the sender based on the message. This is a swift move that shows that every bit of the email has been thought out. It also instantly builds up interest in the reader.

In the future, I think that campaigns will build up the identities of their web teams. Then we’ll be able to trust that a message is from the person it says it is from. For now, the novelty of being so connected to a campaign is still in effect. And I’m still waiting for Malia and Sasha Obama to ask me to be in their Jonas Brothers Facebook group.

2. Make the email appear short and sweet.
Notice the word “appear.” Appearance is much more important than reality when it comes to emails. The email needs to instantly read as easily digestible. Just the brief sense that my time is being taxed and I’m ready to press the spam button.

How does the Obama team keep their emails so readable? Paragraphing. Their emails are perfectly paragraphed FOR THE WEB.

I’ll use a bit of the email recently sent by “Joe Biden” to make my point:

Jason --

I'd like to thank you for the warm welcome I've received as the newest member of this campaign.

What you and Barack have accomplished over the past 19 months is incredible, and it's an honor to be part of it. I'm looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting involved.

I recorded a short video message about how I hope to help in the weeks ahead.

Please take a minute to watch the video and share it with your friends:

The paragraphs are usually one sentence, occasionally two. It’s hard to get much longer than that in an email.

With short, sharp chunks of copy, the message broadcasts urgency and movement. Shrunk and White warn that “firing off many short paragraphs in a row can be distracting…” but their central warning against “formidable blocks of text” is even more crucial on the web.

So keep it short. That way your reader won’t taste a bit of puke the next time they realize an email is from you.

3. Make your email to ME.
Little things like addressing your message to the receiver by name really matter--especially because Mr. Biden references "my" contribution to the campaign in the message. That would ring hollow if it said “Dear Supporter” or “Hello Team ‘08 Member.”

In addition, I should immediately know why I’m getting a email. Visual consistency matters here, and matters even more if you’re doing tricky things like changing the sender’s name.

Once you establish a connection you have the chance to let the reader know why he or she should care and what they could do next.

What could Obama do better?

Obama’s opponents have learned how criticizing the man doesn’t really pay off much. But I do see one thing the Obama team could do better.

They could employ one of my email rules: Make your email matter.

I think Obama could open his emails with a little bit of the old composition trick of raising the stakes immediately. For instance I might have added a quick thought to Joe Biden’s opening paragraph:

I’d like to thank you for the warm welcome I've received as the newest member of this effort to overcome eight failed years of the policies of George W. Bush and John McCain.

It’s a mouthful, but it reminds you why the email you are reading matters so much.

As this campaign hits overdrive, web communication matters more than ever. It’ll be very interesting to watch as these processes mature and the possibilities of e-mail change the way democracy can work.

This post is a part of the Social Media Marketing Best Practices Project.

On Shitty First Drafts

In Bird by Bird, which sits mockingly on the bookshelf of every unpublished writer, Anne Lamott explains her theory of "Shitty First Drafts." She says that "All good writers write them [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts."

An undeniable truth of writing: Writing is rewriting.

For most of us, several drafts are required to make any piece of prose readable. Several more passes are required before the electricity we hope to conduct begins to spark. A few more drafts and then you've got something. Finally we need all sorts of proofreading tricks (from reading aloud to reading sentences backward) before your baby is ready for a reader.

Of course, there are exceptions. We love to believe that we are all Jack Kerouacs typing mercilessly into a roll of paper towels that we send straight to our editor to retype and pass on to the publisher. But those are alcohol, methamphetamine-soaked dreams. On the Road had to be revised, and so will every solid cover letter, love note or magazine article you ever write.

Of course, there will still be errors or poor word choices or sloppy syntax in nearly any article or story or kidnap note you release to the world. Just look at the paperback version of the Kite Runner and note the several repeated words and other petty slips. But you, the writer, can take refuge if you did the work.

Of course, there will be times you can take no refuge in your diligence. You'll write a stirring critique of Bush's foreign policy and realize that you used the wrong "there". You might leave out a "The" in the title of your term paper. And unfortunately, one day you will write a blog post about the role of sentences, and the result will be such a mess that a commenter will wonder if English is your first language.

That last example, of course, happened to me. A fine reddit commenter "Munificent" found my post on sentences and wrote a skilled critique of my post, which at many stages of my life would have made me suicidal. Thankfully, he's found me post-Eckhart Tolle, and I was able to laugh most of the pain away.

His criticism was also much easier to take because it was generally astute and correct. Some of his points were about style, but he also pointed out a sourly obvious grammar faux paux in my second sentence. All and all, I think he missed what I was trying to say, and, of course, my sloppiness was to blame.

I was attempting to argue that grammar rules should be secondary or third-ary to the idea conveyed by a sentence. Sometimes a fragment will offer a reader more than a "complete" sentence ever can, while a meandering compound or complex sentence provides a writer a chance to reveal contradictions or embed a subtle critique.

Of course, the idea that the role of sentences is mutable isn't original. That's why I used examples from classic writers like Dickens, Tolstoy and Nabokov to make my case.

Even these safe choices were abhorred by Munificent, who saw me trying to say something new about these authors. I wasn't. I was trying to show readers how to steal some of tricks of the greats. But apparently that comes off as pretentious when you can't write one sentence that's lucid enough to be read.

Even in shame, a lesson.

I think I've learned from Munificent. He reminded me of the importance of revision and the necessity of clarity. And he also humbled me, as if life hadn't done that enough.

So the lesson today is that occasionally letting your shitty first drafts out into the world isn't always such a bad thing. You just better expect some of the shit to blow right back into your face.

Picture by mpclemens.

What a Sentence Can Do

Everything you write is made of sentences. Sentences of infinite varieties build every story, pick-up line or threat.

To most English teachers, a sentence is any complete clause—any collection of words with a noun and a verb.

“I ran,” is a sentence, as is “I rock.”

“Stay!” can be a sentence because the noun, the subject of the sentence is an implied “you.” I mean “You stay!”

But to me, a sentence can be any word or collection of words that invokes a thought.

Consider this: “He woke up at noon. Gray clouds.”

The "clouds" in the second sentence lack a verb. But in context, it's clear enough what the clouds might be doing. They’re floating in the sky. Or they're littering the top floors of the lissome skyscrapers. Or they're all the point-of-view character sees: Gray clouds.

So my first rule of sentences is that a sentence is a thought.

It can be a complete thought, like “The gray clouds worried the pilot’s wife. “

A sentence can be a fragment of a thought, like “Gray clouds.”

Or a sentence can be compound thought, a thought connected to another : “The sky was filled with gray clouds, and the horses shuddered at the sudden coolness in the wind.”

Or it can be a complex thought where two things are happening at once: “As clouds gathered to gray the sky, the horses circled anxiously.”

Here are some excellent sentences with some humble commentary on what makes them so effective.

Marley was dead, to begin with.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

A simple complete thought with a simple aside to complicate matters. Dickens states the hard fact and then almost interrupts himself to clarify that the story has begun. And ironically it begins with death. You know right away that this narrator will not withhold facts. You can trust him, but things are not as simple as they seem. A perfect opening for a ghost story.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Vladmir Nabakov, Lolita

Nabakov opens the most pleasurably perverse novel of the twentieth century with a fragment. The thought is complete without a verb but modified twice to show the depth of the infatuation. We’re meeting an unstable man obsessed with the feelings created by one singular, in his mind, girl, and that’s evident from the very beginning.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

This compound sentence states a thesis as a universal truth. By implication the rest of the story either follows from this truth or, perhaps, even proves the truth. By linking the fate of the happy and happy families with a semi-colon, Tolstoy complicates his observation, leaving the reader to wonder more and more as he follows the story of Anna: Is there such thing as a happy family?

These are a just a ideas about what your sentences can do. More to come.

Photo by Mayr.

How Fiction Works

Are the forces that run through fiction dissectible in a scientific or legal way?

The Neuroethics and Law Blog has a little linkfest about recent attempts to quantify fiction.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

The Structure of the Magic Tale and Some Feeds You Can't Miss

Stumbled on a lot of great writing stuff this week. Probably my favorite is “Propp's Structure of the Magic Tale.” With this structure, you could write a great novel in almost any setting. It has all the twists and meaning built into it. You just need the voice and the world.

If you are into RSS feeds at all, there are two sites that are a must for any writer. If you are into RSS and don’t subscribe to these feeds you aren’t a writer, you’re something worse—like a dilettante or a poet.

The first feed is Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Garrison picks a poem every day, and it’s usually pretty good. But the real fun is his tributes to writers on their birthdays. He tells the writer’s story with some shading you’d never heard before and adds some of the author’s own words. In his recent take on Charles Bukowski, he included Buk’s quote, “Bad luck for the young poet would be a rich father, an early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything well." That’s fun stuff.

The second great feed treasure for writers is DailyLit. You can sign up for free classics from Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen and the usual suspects. About five pages of the work are sent to you daily to your RSS reader or email. Great way to distract yourself and catch up on the cannon.

Here are a few great sites that offer tons of links to stuff you’ve probably seen but in an organized, centralized way: 50 of the Best Websites for Writers, 10 Ways to Become a Better Writer and Writers Resources at Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists.