Hands down it was the greatest writing lesson in my illustrious almost thirty years in the journalism/publishing business. It was just one simple sentence of sage advice from an old, wily tabloid editor.
It changed my career and my life. And it just might improve the power of every single thing you say, you write and you communicate in any way.
I was a thirty-year-old rewrite editor at the Globe, the infamous tabloid that was making headlines at the time for breaking stories on the Jon Benet murder mystery plus a cavalcade of other celebrity exposes.
I had majored in literature in college and had already had a pretty successful career as a reporter and writer for a decade working for the National Enquirer, PEOPLE Magazine and even starting my own magazine. So when I wound up back at the Globe as a rewrite editor tasked with making the finished copy sing, I had no illusions of creating literary masterpieces. But I never dreamed of just how much it would help me to become a great writer.
That’s because I found myself fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of a skinny little old man of an editor who grew up in a dirt floor country cabin with a dozen or so siblings, of which he was just about the only one to finish high school and go to college, yet rose to be a legendary wordsmith.
He was a story-telling machine. He could take a 1000-word story, turn it inside out, on its head and make it shout, completely rewriting it in about half-an-hour. And when he was done with it, you couldn’t put it down.
So when he agreed to teach me everything he knew, I was ecstatic. I figured on laborious lessons about the strategy and structure of writing. What I got were simple, easy to understand tools that came straight from the compelling yarns passed down on front porches in tiny towns from coast to coast for generations. Common sense story-telling tactics that made good into great and interesting into irresistible.
They were all amazing tips, but it all started with one question. And he delivered that tip in the simplest of ways one day when he walked up to my computer with a strip of paper with a few words typed on it and taped it to the top of my computer terminal.
It read, “What’s This About?”
Wow. It was a no-brainer. But yet read so many articles in the news or some of the marketing and promotional materials you receive, or the ads you come across and ask yourself if they answer that simple question. More often than not, they don’t.
There are a whole lot of reasons for that – from getting lost in the explanation, to lack of focus, to lack of clarity and structure and so on. But the biggest reason is that people don’t have it taped on their computer to remind them.
The bottom line is that whether we are writing, talking, debating, selling, or buying sometimes we lose focus and get caught up in a whole lot of minutia that has nothing to do with the point.
And we need to remind ourselves of what that is. It’s the very first question I ask my clients when they set out to write a book, or believe they already have written the perfect book. And it’s amazing how many times they can’t answer that question.
So here’s your reminder. It will transform anything you set out to communicate. And I contend it will change your world in general. Or at least make yours a little clearer, a little easier to explain and a little more successful.
And that’s what THIS is about.
Chris Benguhe is an author, editor, columnist and publishing consultant. His website is www.executivebookdevelopment.