Saturday, January 31, 2009

Just calm down, people

Last year, Americans were scared. Why? This picture says it all.









Ok! Ok! We're terrified, already.

But this year, the new buzzword isn't "scared." It's "outraged." Why are we outraged? I can give you billions of reasons. The interesting thing is, our outrage is directed at all kinds of different people.

Some of us are outraged at the person pictured above. Some are outraged at Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd. Others are outraged at Barack Obama.

Lots of people make lots of money by telling us we should be outraged. Rush Limbaugh is a master at this. So is Chris Matthews. And Jim Kramer. And Sean Hannity. And Keith Olbermann. Pass around the Prozac.

What we really need to do, is to forgive and forget. Mostly forget.

Let's take a lesson from Sarah Palin. Not that long ago, she was outraged (OUTRAGED!) about Barack Obama's nefarious past. Who could forget those stirring speeches about pallin' around with terrorists? Where is Ms. Palin this weekend? Pallin' around with Barack at a swanky DC party. Hm.

And listen. Some of you are outraged (OUTRAGED!) about the $18.4 billion that was recently doled out in Wall Street bonuses. Now, sure, that was technically your money. But you need to look at the big picture. Take a lesson from Rudy Guiliani.

Mr. Guiliani has come to the defense of the generously-compensated folks on Wall Street, explaining that their bonuses help support restaurants and other businesses in New York City.

Of course! What were we thinking? All of you waiters out there who are slaving away for less than minimum wage should be ashamed of yourselves. Where would you be without those well-padded restaurant patrons who send back their Caesar salads because they specifically asked for three ounces of shredded cheese, not four, you bumble-headed moron?

They left you a fifty cent tip, didn't they?

Just calm down.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

There is something wrong with my face

I got a terrible fright this morning. I was putting on some moisturizer, and when I stroked under my eye, the skin moved to the side - and stayed there. Then I looked at my cheek and saw little red bumps that I swear were not there yesterday.

I looked closer. There is definitely something wrong.

My nose has three new age spots.
My lips are dry and cracked.
My crow's feet look like tributaries from the Colorado River.

Suddenly, I was terrified that my entire body would crackle and collapse into a puff of dust like the pirates in that pirate movie. Or maybe it was the mummy in that mummy movie. I forget. Anyway, not a moment too soon, I ripped off my glasses and threw away my magnifying mirror.

I look much better now.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

4 Rules for writing an irresistible blog post

There are lots of blogs out there. If I was a little more detail-oriented, I would do some research and come up with an exact number for you. But I am too busy writing irresistible blog posts! And today is your lucky day. I'm going to share some of my bloggy secrets.

Blog Rule # 1: Don't be boring.
Choose topics that you are passionate about - and let your passion show. If you are not a passionate person, then tell stories about me! You will have at least one devoted reader.

Blog Rule # 2: Keep your paragraphs short.
A typical person has an attention span of 5 sentences, max. Even if you're blogging about the most fascinating topic in the world, they will tune out by sentence # 6. Start a new paragraph, dude.

Blog Rule # 3: Switch it up.
Let's say your blog is about "Granny's Secret Artery-Clogging Recipes." You don't have to make every post the same. Post some pictures. Tell some stories about Granny. Give a few CPR tips. A little variety helps keep your blog irresistible.

Blog Rule # 4: Learn from your elders.
Ok, so I don't have hundreds of followers. I don't have any viral posts. (though I do have a little sinus congestion at the moment) I don't even know what keywords are. But I'm a great role model for sincere, hopeful, technically-challenged bloggers who have an enduring fascination with their own childhood memories.

Take my writing tips seriously.
Take everything else with a grain of salt.
Take your own passions, your own stories, and your own unique viewpoints - and blog for your own enjoyment. Keywords, shmewords.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Once upon a time

Back in the Dark Ages, after the last dinosaurs had curled up and died beneath sheets of ice which are now melting at an alarming rate, children often spent hours sitting quietly, reading books.

Even the little Dale girls would sometimes settle down in various corners of the house, enjoying a quiet afternoon ...

"Where's my pink shirt?"
"What pink shirt? I haven't seen it!"
"You're WEARING it!! Take that off right now!!"
"I'm reading! Leave me alone!"
"Take it off or I'll whap you on the head with that book!"
"MOMMMMM!!!"

Once the bleeding stopped, we would take out a favorite book and escape to another world - usually involving mischievous children who torment each other and get into all kinds of trouble. Go figure.

We had three wonderful books that were long and skinny. In fact, I have them at my house now. (But don't tell my sisters.)

There was the Tall Book of Fairy Tales, the Tall Book of Mother Goose, and the Tall Book of Make-Believe. They were so well-loved, they are now held together with duct tape. The inside cover of the Fairy Tale book tells a story all its own. Scrawled in pencil, it says:

Lesley Dale's book (all scratched out)
Karen's book (even more scratched out)
Dale's book
(Mainly Karen's and Lesley's)
Karen's only
Lesley
Monica
Melissa











I think we all had a slight issue with sharing.

The Make-Believe book had some great stories. There was Bad Mousie, about a little mouse who lived with a little girl named Donnica. Naturally, Monica claimed this story for her own because she thought her name was so much like Donnica but we told her nuh-uh, it's not even close there's like two whole letters that are different and besides you can't claim a story and if you could it would go by age so Monica would have to choose third. Anyway, Bad Mousie cut holes in the bedspread, threw the clean socks into the bathtub, and made little mud tracks all over the rug. He was awful. We loved him dearly.

There was a story called The Very Mischief which we read over and over.

This one was about three children who found all kinds of ways to
be naughty including pulling the black keys off the piano, dragging their little sister underneath the door and throwing a party for wild animals.

You can tell this was an all-time favorite because, as this picture shows, the pages are all torn and patched and covered with tape marks.

There were also some sweet, wholesome stories, like "When I Was A Bird" and "The Village Of Cream Puffs."

These stories have no tape marks at all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Finding the right words

This is one of those special days. You know those days - when something so momentous happens, you always remember exactly where you were. I will remember sitting here with my laptop, struggling to come up with the right words to describe it.

I will remember feeling hopeful.
I will remember feeling amazed.

Barack Obama. Who would have thought?

Not that long ago, he was called a friend of terrorists. He was called a black radical, a secret Muslim, a non-citizen, an ultra-liberal, a hater of America.

These words didn't phase him. Why? Because this is a man who defines his life by words of his own.

When people questioned his friendships, his character, his experience and his beliefs, he didn't retaliate. He talked. He used words like "hope" ... "unity" ... "service" ... "ideals." He urged us all to examine what we were really saying, and to be careful with the words we choose, knowing that our words shape our actions and define our character.

It would be easy for a man like this to maintain a limited viewpoint, based on his eloquent ideas and nothing else. But Obama is not only a man who talks. He is a man who listens.

He has already started to assemble his team, representing a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds and political affiliations. He invites input from people who disagree with him. He asks for ideas from ordinary Americans.

I know he is not the Messiah. Come on, we all know that.
I know he is not perfect.
But I know that he values the power of words, and I believe that his words will shape this country in positive ways for at least four years to come.

Some of my friends and family members are feeling anxious and resentful and skeptical right now. If those are the words you are using to define this day, I would challenge you to look for other words.

There are lots of good words to choose from.

Need some ideas? Talk to children who have new ways of imagining their future. Look at the faces of your fellow Americans who are seeing new possibilities. Hear the heart of a President who has a new vision for this rowdy, divided, fiercely independent country of ours.

Listen closely. The right words will come.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How to Write: Part Four

Today, let's talk about brainstorming.

Brainstorming is a very important creative process. As a freelancer, it is a bit of a challenge for me, because I only have one brain to storm. But I have found ways to get around that.

1. Borrow a brain. By this I mean, tap into the creative power of others by carefully studying their work. There is a fine line between this and stealing. Do borrow. Don't steal.

When I first started out, if I was trying to come up with a headline I would pull out a magazine and find the most powerful and attention-grabbing ad. Next I would read the article right next to that ad, fill out the little card offering vacation information for seventeen different places in Alabama, and clip out any recipes that sounded yummy.

What was I talking about? I forgot.

2. Borrow your own brain. Save everything you write, whether it is a headline, an article, or a draft of a blog post entitled "Twitter Could Help You Earn A Million Dollars If You Send Me $25 I Will Tell You How." That way if you need an idea in the future, you can go back and tap into your own brilliance.

3. Adapt the rules. The usual rules of brainstorming are:
  • Assemble a group of people. (me, myself and I. check.)
  • Write down any and all ideas. (I take out a piece of paper and do this. check.)
  • See if a good idea comes up. (usually it does.)
  • Circle that one. (ok.)
Here is an example:
Let's say a client needs a headline for an auto loan postcard, to go out in late October. The most obvious tie-in would be a Halloween theme. So you start writing ...

Halloween
Boo
Costumes
Scary masks
Scare up a great rate

There you have it! Scare up a great rate! Submit that headline and watch the client rave:
"Sorry. We have decided to delay this project one week. Could we have some headlines dealing with Veteran's Day? Only don't mention Veterans. And we need to include the word 'marshmallow.' Oh, and please make it catchy."

Hopefully you recall my tips on submitting catchy copy. I'll give you a minute to study them. When you get back I will impart some wisdom on how brainstorming can help you earn a million dollars.

Stay tuned ...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Uphill both ways

Strange But True:
Tales from the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth

Did you know, my faithful and undoubtedly-younger-than-me readers, that there was a time when NOBODY had color television sets?

"you mean all of them were black? how boring"

No, I mean the picture was black and white. And there were only 3 or 4 channels. Usually at least 2 of them were all fuzzy.

"you're making this up, right?"

No, I swear. And get this - there were NO remote controls.

"oh come on. how did you change the channels, then?"

You had to get up and twist the knob. Oh, and they only showed movies once a year. If you had a favorite, you'd have to wait a whole year for it to come on again.

"very funny. what, was Blockbuster too far to drive?"

There was no Blockbuster.

"gasp"

We watched The Wizard of Oz once a year. And Peter Pan. And Amahl and the Night Visitors.

"and those were your favorites?"

Oh yes.

"good lord."

The rules were pretty strict back then, too. No swearing. No political controversy. And the married couples on TV shows had to sleep in twin beds.

"if they weren't married, could they sleep together?"

No, my little Twisted Products Of The Current State Of Depravity. There was none of that going on. Everyone was happily married, with perfect polite children and mothers who cooked dinner in dresses and pearls and husbands who relaxed at night wearing a suit and tie.

"no wonder your generation is so uptight"

We had some great shows, though. There was My Favorite Martian, with this funny guy who had antennae, and Mr. Ed, who was a talking horse - oh, and Shari Lewis, who did a whole show with this cute little sock puppet!

"ok, now i just don't believe you at all. i'm gonna go watch a movie that i downloaded onto my phone yesterday"

Sure. No problem. You know how I am, always making things up. heh heh ... I almost had you fooled, though, didn't I?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Perils of Blog Hopping

Warning: Reading blogs is highly addictive

Symptoms of Blog Hopping:
  • The patient chooses a blog at random, and reads the first post.
  • She then goes to the Blog Roll and hops to another blog.
  • Read, hop, repeat.
Symptoms persist until something better comes along like a new episode of Deal or no Deal, or an endearing and irresistible question from the patient's husband such as "Why is there water dripping from the kitchen ceiling?"

A Case Study:

Just this morning I received a nice comment from K2Comfort. I hopped to their blog, where I discovered The Retirement Chronicles, which led me to The Joy of Breathing, which is not as risque as it sounds, which led me to Slippery When Wet only because I thought it might help with our kitchen problem, which led me to Why I Oughta, which is an expression I never did understand.

(You'll notice that I didn't hyperlink those last few references. I don't want you spending too much time away from Studebaker. Plus I made them up.)

The Cure for Blog Hopping:

Maybe some day there will be a cure. Unfortunately, the one and only researcher is extremely busy right now reading The Secret Life of Cattle. And who knows where that will lead her ... ?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

10 super-duper FREE headline writing tips that just might save your life

Subtitle: How to write a compelling headline

A headline can quite literally make or break a writing project. Don't believe me? Let's look at a classic example:

Good headline: 10 FREE Tips For When Your Dream Guy Just Doesn't Give A Damn

Bad headline: Gone With The Wind

Ok, ok, I know that Gone With The Wind was a hugely successful movie. But just think how much better it would have been with a great, catchy headline!

Here's what makes my headline clearly superior:

1. It includes a number. People just can't resist reading articles that include 10 free tips, 3 deadly mistakes or 5 helpful hints. I don't know why. (Research is not my strong suit.) They just can't.

2. It includes the word FREE in all capital letters. WHO can resist ANY word that is written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS??? Especially the word FREE?!

3. It has an element of urgency. Why would your dream guy not give a damn? Is it your breath? Your hair? Your total lack of original thought? The answer is just 10 short tips away.

As you can see, the title of this blog post also includes these three essential elements. So if you are tempted to dismiss my thoughtful, time-tested, completely unresearched opinions out of hand, just keep in mind that my headline writing expertise was enough to lure you to this post.

Next week I plan to write an article on 8 Basically Useless FREE Ways To Lure Unsuspecting People To Your Blog Posts. Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Piano lessons, life lessons

Piano lessons were a fact of life for the Dale girls. We dutifully went to Mrs. Greenaway's house once a week, we practiced each and every day, and we endured recitals every June that were nerve-wracking but did provide a nice excuse for new dresses and shiny patent leather shoes.

Along the way, we learned some important life lessons:

Do not try to teach your own children.
Mom and dad were both concert pianists, but they were wise enough to see the benefits of sending us to someone else for lessons. That way they could just be ordinary parents for us - though of course, they often gave helpful little tips from the next room: "That should be an A-flat, dear!"

If you have a big project in front of you, tackle the hard parts first.
It's tempting to just keep doing whatever you're good at. But to move to the next level, you've got to conquer the hard parts. You can do it - just take it a step at a time, and work on those hard parts first. This applies to a wide variety of situations including learning calculus, driving a stick shift, and running for vice president.

Practice makes perfect.
Mom said that we used to fight over whose turn it was to practice, and that we set the kitchen timer to make sure nobody was going over their time limit. Hm. That's a nice way to look at it, but I'm pretty sure that I remember bumping the timer ahead so Monica would get stuck practicing an extra 10 minutes while I went outside to play.

Nobody is perfect.
Even if I did practice faithfully all week long, laboring over every note in The Bear Dance and counting out every rhythm, Mrs. Greenaway would inevitably find something I did wrong, something I could do better, and something I needed to go home and practice.

Looking back now, I do appreciate all the wonderful things Mrs. Greenaway taught me. But I kind of wish that, just once, she had said:

"You know, Lesley, I can tell that you work really hard to get everything just right. I see your little face drop when I offer constructive criticism. I know you are upset when you make a mistake. I want you to know that life is not about being perfect. It's about being flexible, and being generous, and being kind - even to yourself."

"Do the things you love. Do them as well as you can. And if you make a mistake, forgive yourself. Then move on."

If I had heard that when I was little, I may not have agonized over decisions and aimed for perfection and demanded more of myself than I did of anyone else.

But on the other hand, I may not have mastered every note of The Bear Dance. So it's kind of a trade-off I guess.










Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Road Trip with the Dale Girls! Part Five.

Things we learned in Miami:

1. We had cousins. Who knew?

2. Bugs can be as big as small rodents. Try not to step on them in the house.

3. Florida is much hotter than Connecticut, where 72 degrees is considered sweltering and any day without rain is officially called "partly sunny" in a futile attempt to stem the epidemic of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

4. Mangoes are yummy.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How to be a Technical Writer

I am not a technical writer by trade. If I was, I would be making way more money. And I would probably have health insurance and maybe even vision coverage ... sigh ... which is a lifelong dream ... sniffle.

Anyway - I do from time to time attempt to solve technical problems on my own. For instance, I have been trying to figure out why my new laptop computer will not go to sleep. I am pretty sure I am following the correct "Go To Sleep" procedure.
  1. Select the "Sleep" option.
  2. That's it. Go do something else.
Unfortunately, I am unable to go do something else because my little yellow Dell has a bad case of Laptop Insomnia. It will pretend to go to sleep for a few seconds, only to pop back awake singing that little "Do-doot-do-doooo!" song.

After several weeks of this, I knew it was time to get some help. So I went to Dell's technical support website and searched for "Vista sleep." The results gave me nightmares.

The very first result was "Video Corruption and System Freeze," an article explaining how my video card might "hang up and show corrupted video when the system resumes from sleep mode." Yikes! Not only is my laptop an insomniac, it is apparently showing corrupted videos when I think it is sleeping! Shame, shame!! This is worse than I thought.

Fortunately, a little farther down the page I found a message board posting entitled, "Vista won't go to sleep." Perfect. Let's see what the helpful technical writer had to say about it. I will explain the dynamics of technical writing as we go.

Step one: Describe the problem in simple, condescending terms.
"So. I understand your computer will not go to sleep. This sometimes happens and is generally not cause for alarm."

Step two: Provide a clear explanation of the first step that any moron could follow.
"Click on Start, then on Control Panel."

Step three: Now that you have lulled your audience into a false sense of competence, the fun begins! Write out the next step in English. Then go to a translation website and translate it into Japanese. Now translate it back into English. Write down the results word for word, with an evil chuckle.
"Check the Kernel-Power entry under the Source column and at the prompt type 'powercfg.stopwatchingthosecorruptedvideosorelse.' Use the off switch with the same statement to remove hibernate."

I swear, with one small exception, I did not make that up.

The moral of the story is, if you want to be a technical writer you need:
  • A good translation website
  • An evil sense of humor
  • A dictionary of technical terms which you can insert randomly into your directions to completely confuse your already-befuddled audience
I think I'll stick to copywriting. At least it's all in English. Though if my eyesight gets any worse, I just might reconsider.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

How to Write: Part Three

Today, let's talk about how to break into the wonderful, wacky world of freelance writing.

Let me say right up front that I have no idea how most people become successful freelancers. It's not like other professions where you get a degree, you go to job fairs, and you get multiple, high-paying job offers if you can guess the amount that is written down in the sealed envelope. Come to think of it, that only works if you are in a Tom Cruise movie. Trust me, breaking into freelancing is totally different.

For me, it was really mostly a matter of stumbling around and getting lucky. But I have accumulated a few tips over the years that might be helpful.

Tip # 1: Write something.
I was working as a church choir director, and I wrote an article for a small music publication. Voila! That was my entire portfolio. But at least it was something. You could offer to write a brochure for your dentist, or a newsletter for your church. Or just write up some articles, ads or blog posts to show off your style and your impeccable spelling and grammar.

Tip # 2: Find a niche.
I'm not going to tell you what my niche is, because honestly I don't know most of you very well and you just might be the kind of people who would try to steal it. Plus you'd probably be way better at it than me. Your niche might be travel writing, resume writing, or just general business copywriting (which, from what I've seen, is where the big money is).

Tip # 3: Find someone who might need your services, and send them an email.

Most people hate to write, or simply are not that good at it. And for many companies, it is much cheaper to hire a freelancer and pay only for a specific job rather than putting a writer on staff. So really, there are opportunities out there. You just have to find them.

I know there are lots of job boards online, but personally, I have never had much success with them. My "strategy" has been to simply find companies that might use my services, and shoot off an email.

Make the email short and to the point.

"Hi, my name is so-and-so and I would love to contribute some articles to Strange And Disgusting Pet Diseases Magazine. I am an expert on skin rashes, as you will see from the attached articles! Feel free to call or email me for further details."

Or, for business copywriting:

"Hi, my name is so-and-so and I am a freelance copywriter. I have been writing copy for the Barely Legal Money Laundering industry for the past 5 years from my cozy home office here in Alaska. My goal is to move to a cozy home office in a tropical climate, so I am sending out some queries to see if I can drum up a little more work. I have attached a few samples, and of course I would be happy to provide more details."

Believe it or not, I have actually had quite a bit of success with this type of email. But you need to use your own language and tailor the email to your audience. A more serious tone is probably preferable in most cases. I wouldn't really know, I almost never use a serious tone.

Best of luck!

...

Have you had any success with online job boards?
Do people really make any money writing blogs?
How come nobody answers the questions I put at the bottom of my posts?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Why my childhood was not up to code

These days, children are coddled and protected as much as possible. Little wussies. Back when I was a child, we risked our lives day after day without even realizing it.

We were sent out to play with no "Handbook On How To Tell Good Strangers From Bad Strangers."

We rode bicycles with no helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, mouth guards, chin straps, neck rolls or NASA-engineered-full-body-custom-fit crash suits.

And our car! Good Lord. It's a miracle we made it to the grocery store and back without suffering a debilitating injury other than all those bruises on our arms from arguing over who would get to sit in the jump seats.

"Jump seats?" you ask with a raise of the eyebrows. Let me explain.

Several years after the famous World's Longest Road Trip To Florida, Mom and Dad bought a used Checker taxi cab.

"Why would they do that?" you ask, with your eyebrows raised even higher.

Well, why not? Checker cabs drive all day, every day, in all kinds of weather, full of all kinds of people. They are sturdy and reliable. And nobody else had one, so it was easy to spot our car in even the most crowded parking lot.

Before you jump to the conclusion that our family was strange (I would choose a more positive term such as 'eccentric' or 'charmingly quirky'), let me reassure you that our Checker had been repainted. So instead of looking like a bright yellow shoe box with black checks along the side, it looked like a drab gray shoe box. If they made Wellbutrin for cars, it probably could have used a couple.

It wasn't all that often that the entire family rode together. But every Sunday we would dress up in our little church dresses, with hats and gloves if it was Easter, and we would drive to the First Congregational Church. Heads would turn as we drove by, undoubtedly because of my lovely pink hat with the silky ribbon. Dad would park on Main Street outside of the church, and we would pile out one at a time, like a dignified Connecticut version of those circus clowns.

"But what about the jump seats?" you ask.

I almost forgot! Sorry. The back seat had a regular bench seat, like a normal car. But it also had two little metal jump seats that folded out of the floor. Unlike the rest of the Checker, the jump seats were anything but sturdy. They were like folding chairs made with toothpicks and glue. We loved em.

Just picture it:
Two little girls on the bench seat, bouncing up and down with glee. Two more on the jump seats, clutching the sides while rattling up and down, lurching dramatically onto the floor with every turn, then scrambling back onto the jump seats with lightning speed while the bench seat sisters leap up and dive towards the empty jump seats yelling "MY TURN!!!" at the top of their lungs.

... nostalgic sigh ... Yes, we all survived our childhood, even though we clearly did not have the sense to come in out of the rain, let alone wear seat belts or bicycle helmets. I think there must have been little guardian angels watching over us, raising their eyebrows and shaking their heads and perhaps taking a heavenly Wellbutrin from time to time.

Thanks, little angels. Job well done.

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