How Does Your Writing Stack Up to the Cheesecake Factory’s Menu?

So, I was cruising the web the other day, as I am apt to do, and I came across this gem from Neil Gaiman’s blog.  The TL;DR version goes something like this: he was asked to read the Cheesecake Factory’s menu for a highly publicized charity stunt.  And that got me thinking, scratching my long luxurious lady-beard, and I wondered to myself: How would I feel if what they had chosen to read was something I had authored, even if it was ghosted.  After all, I still hold a little piece of those word babies tight to my chest and feel responsible for them for their entire lives.

Then I thought “Well, Hell, that could be a blog topic!”  So here we are.  You are now officially caught up.  Thanks for sticking with me.

How Does Your Content Read to Others?

As you probably know by now, I work with young writers from time to time, giving them whatever weak bits of advice I can come up with and generally acting like I actually know something.  One of the most common roadblocks these young’ens have is a fear of not being good enough or of being out-written by the competition.  I’m sure you’ve had this fear yourself at some point in your journey, or maybe you feel that way right now.   I’d be a liar if I said I never felt that I wasn’t as good as other writers.

But you know what?  If someone is paying you for writing on a consistent basis, you’re doing better than most.  Even those keyword-driven content monkeys are doing a better job with the words than the vast majority of the public, else the Google would have blacklisted their sites long ago.  And that, my friends, should bring you some level of comfort.  However, resting on your laurels is what’ll get my big black boot right up your ass.

You can always be better.

What if Neil was reading YOUR infomercial, blog or product descriptions for charity?  How would you feel?  Would you shrink in shame because you phoned it the fuck in and didn’t bother to actually care?

Although I’m not exactly proud of all the work I’ve done, and I’ve worked for some clients that I felt were totally fucking awful slimeballs (ambulance chasers, for example), if Neil Gaiman were to read any of those pages, any of those pieces out loud, I’d take a front seat.  I’d be like, “Them’s my words, motherfuckers, and Neil bloody Gaiman is reading them!”  And then I’d pass out.

Improving Your Content, Improving Your Mindset

There are two kinds of writers in this world.  Those that write with confidence that they’re doing all they can to produce top notch content and those who bang out random words in hopes of getting paid.  You can easily tell the difference between the two.  Writer #1 is crippled with self-doubt and reads blogs like this.  Writer #2 has no fucks to give.

You’re reading this, so I assume you’re Writer #1.  And if you’re Writer #2, maybe you sorely want to be Writer #1, so I’m giving you a pass just this once.  Charity.  Don’t get used to it.

That writer that’s wracked with guilt, that wishes they could do more, be more, learn more, get better and better, they’re the ones to watch.  And there’s a reason for this.  Not only are they meticulously checking their work for places it could be improved, they’re also spending time reading and learning, which tends to trickle down into a wider vocabulary and even better ways to turn a phrase.  Tends to.  I mean, you can’t get away with reading cereal boxes and learn anything, but I digress.  This blog is built on generalization, after all.

If you’re already doing all that stuff — the reading and the learning — well, I mean, that’s about all there is out there.  There’s no magic to good writing.  You simply learn the words, you figure out how they fit together, while demystifying punctuation and developing a sense for how people read along.  Metre is important, it’s so vital, but it’s something you pick up as you go.

So, if you’re struggling, if you’re wondering if you’re enough, and you think you’d be mortified if Neil Gaiman were to read your blog, you’ve probably alright.  A lot of it comes with experience.  You’ll learn when to hold them (keep working on a piece) and when to fold them (stop touching it and turn the motherfucker in).  You’ll learn when to walk away, you’ll learn when to run (from bad clients?  This metaphor isn’t holding up).   Write, that’s the thing.  Keep writing and keep caring.

Writing Readable Content is the Goal

There are lots of tips out there for writing clean and perfect content (it’s a fucking unicorn, stop chasing it), but there’s only one you really need.  Read that shit out loud, motherfuckers. Read it to your cat, read it to your pet barracuda, read it to the stars, but read it.  There’s only so much you can extrapolate about the flow of a thing by simply staring the words down.  You need to hear them, bring them in through your earholes and savor each umlaut.

Listening to your content is the one and only way to ensure that others will read it as you intended it.  Clear your mind and read that shit out loud.  You can break the rules, you can put an m-dash where there should be a period, provided it all flows right in the reading.  Look, I don’t know what your mother told you, but English is a language that should flow easily from the tongue, even if you’re reading a automotive parts catalog or a Cheesecake Factory menu.

I did a piece a while ago about writing by beats, and I still believe in this.  I do this every single time I write.  Do I need to write something super peppy and salesy?  Crank the happy music.  Am I writing a somber report of sadness?  Slow and steady, man.  Writing by beats is a quickie cheat to getting your metre right.  I’m very pro-cheat, or “life hack,” as we now call this shit.

What I hope you take from this blog is that you are absolutely capable of writing better content than the marketers at the Cheesecake Factory.  Your content can fucking sing if you’ll let it.  Just keep writing, just keep writing, and don’t forget to crank the jams.

I’m counting on you.  Make me proud.

Writing By Beats

The world goes by beats — the sound of rain on the roof, the clicking of the subway train, the rhythmic beating of the heart… if you listen closely you’ll hear it.  Some beats are regular, some are irregular, but they’re always there.  Those beats inspire poetry, but they should also be informing prose.  Writers of every variety need to learn how to capture that natural pulse in order to create work that transcends the paper.

What Does it Mean to Write By Beats?

Long ago and far away in a writing class we discussed the power of beats.  Short sentences and tightly spaced punctuation convey meaning beyond the basic word — they add context and rhythm.  For example, short, choppy sentences can create the sense of fast, excited speech to a reader.  In the same way, long drawn out sentences that don’t have a lot to really say for themselves can convey a more relaxed tone.

It’s about the beat.  The rushed beats, the prolonged beats, the irregular beats.  The pulse of your writing, the pulse of your life, the pulse of the lives of your characters or your readership — they’re more than words, so much more.  And the more you pay attention, the better you’ll do with them.

The Trick to Writing By Beats

Writing by beats is a much more tricky thing, though.  For some people, it comes quite naturally — I wrote by beats before I knew what beats were.  Others struggle, they grasp at it and can’t quite make it happen.  There’s a rhythm they can’t hear, but this is a skill anyone can learn, no matter how much you’re struggling with it today.

And this doesn’t just go for fiction or poetry — I write digital copy by beats each and every day.  I write this blog by beats.  I do it subconsciously, pounding out the words like I’d pound on a drum.  Fast for when I want you to be excited about a product — slow when I want you to carefully consider what I’m writing.  Beat, beat, beat… it goes on and on.

So, just how do you learn to do what I do naturally?  I have some ideas that have helped plenty of writers before you.  Here we go!

1. Set a Mood.  When I say set a mood, what I mean is that you need to choose some music that perfectly reflects the beats you’re trying to create.  I write sales copy to a playlist I named “Happy, Punchy Copy.”   It’s both happy and punchy — and that’s where that copy comes from.  The thing is that you have to sort of push it away and absorb it like a meditation on rhythm.  So, stick on your headphones, immerse yourself in music, then ignore it while you compose.

2. Read Everything Out Loud.  Beats are something you feel, but they’re also something you hear in your head as you read.  Like you’re reading this, someone else will read what you’ve written and narrate it as they go.  They’ll hear a voice in their heads, they don’t just read the words — words are never just words.  If you can’t get the beats right, start reading your work out loud to yourself.  Feel the words, feel the beat as you go.  If you hit spots that seem awkward, talk it out until it’s smooth.  Hone that copy like a fine steel blade.

3. Study Rhythmic Poetry.  I have a particular opinion on non-rhythmic poetry that there’s not space for here, but if you need some real obvious examples of beats pick up a poetry anthology.  Read those rhythmic poems, commit them to memory, understand how they pulse in the mind of a reader.  Poetry is a gateway to better writing, if you’ll only learn how it works.  Beat by beat, it’ll improve your copy exponentially.

Beats are one of the most misunderstood parts of a writer’s voice, in my opinion.  As you write more and more, your voice will develop — but if you really want to pack a wallop, figure out this beat stuff early on.  The rest will be child’s play.

Now get to work, fuckers.