195. The Write Stuff
How to structure a story.
A black hole happens when a point in space has a gravitational pull so strong, nothing can escape from it. No light, no matter, no nothing.
I’m pretty sure there’s one of those in my head.
Any grammatical information that enters my brain immediately gets shlurped into this black hole in my head and - poof - it is never heard from again.
I am grammatically illiterate. But the illiteracy is not my fault. It’s the gravitational pull in my cranium.
I just want to make sure that’s clear before you continue reading and I risk making a fool of myself.
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My Troubled Relationship with English
I love writing. I love the art of piecing words together in the English language.
I despised English classes.
For some reason, all that mumbo-jumbo they teach in those classes neither interested nor stuck with me.
Throughout my schooling years, I was all about math, physics, art, and music.
English class? No thanks.
Iambic pentawhat? It’s like a different language.
You might as well slap mousetraps to my earlobes. I’d rather that than have to sit through another lecture on the meaning of Marlowe’s magnum opus or some other gobbledygook.
The last English class I took was a study of Dante’s descent into hell, which I found to be a great analogy for my feelings about the course itself.
So here I am. An adult. I can tell you useless facts up the wazoo, like how the hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward. I can do complex math problems and I’m on a streak of completing every single NY Times crossword puzzle for the past 64 days.
However, I am completely clueless when it comes to the basics of the English language. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a predicate and a participle, even if you threatened to super-noogie me.
I don’t know what an adjective or an adverb is, but they sure sound like they are probably related.
The rules and terminology of grammar are not retained in my brain. So when people ask me how I write, I am slightly embarrassed.
I just, you know, write.
In reality, there is a madness to my nonsense. That is why I am writing this - to answer the question I’m often asked, “how do you come up with your articles?”
I’m hoping the answer may help you better construct your stories.
It all first starts with the Concept.
Creating the Concept
Storytelling is an important communicative art.
People don’t remember facts, they remember stories.
Regardless of who you are - writer, public speaker, sales rep, or normal human - storytelling is a part of life, and sometimes a part of business.
My process for conceptualizing an article is the same process for composing a compelling story: figure out the main point and then work backward from there.
You start with an idea.
For me, an idea could be a quote, a phrase, or an entire concept. (I store all of my ideas in the Ulysses App.)
When it’s time to write, I select an idea that tickles my tendrils. After that, creating the story is a 4-step process.
This 4-step process is the secret to compelling storytelling.
Step 1: Big Insight
What is the big insight?
For me, it’s determining how the idea relates to the behavior of a successful leader.
Step 2: Example
Develop a relatable example of that big insight.
In my articles, this means describing how successful leaders manifest the concept in the big insight.
Step 3: Emotion
What is the emotion that comes from the behavior/insight? What is an example of how that emotion is displayed?
I explore the emotion related to such leadership behaviors and how it can appear in different ways.
Step 4: Different Example
What is a different example of that emotion?
For my articles, it means coming up with a non-business-related anecdote that exemplifies the emotion.
Once you have all that in your mind, you write the story starting with the example in Step 4 and working back to the big insight in Step 1.
Confusing? I know.
Here’s a real-life example:
A couple of months ago, a friend was having a bad day. We were texting back and forth. I sent her this comment:
Regardless of how tough you are, the world will at some point try to break you. The true you is how you react to those obstacles.
I liked those words so I wrote them down. Later I went through the 4-step process.
Big Insight: We all will be challenged in life to do tough things.
Example: Leaders are required to embrace hard things every day.
Emotion: Doing hard things is what drives me to succeed. It’s why I’m drawn to Ironman racing.
Different Example: The protagonist in “Good Will Hunting” is drawn to making things harder than they need to be.
I then wrote that story in reverse, starting with “Good Will Hunting” and ending with the concept that we will all be challenged in life to do tough things..
The result? I came up with one of my most popular articles to date.
Now that I’ve revealed my secret sauce, let’s talk cadence. Because having the idea and the story is one thing, actually writing it effectively is another.
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Cadence and Flow
My lack of knowledge of grammatical best practices used to be a problem. Trust me, it’s not easy living with a black hole in your head.
I’d get destroyed in English classes for my crappy sentence structure.
But somewhere along the way, I began to think about those jazz musicians who can’t read a lick of music. They don’t follow instructions, they just do what feels right.
That’s me. I just write what feels right. And what feels right to me, is music.
When I write, I imagine I’m composing a musical piece and the structure of the words is what controls the readers emotions. Like a song, there is a flow, there are transitions, there are peaks and there are valleys.
If there’s panic. Complete chaos. If things are off the rails. Maybe short beats. Staccato. Incomplete. Sentences that may...
This is interspersed by long flowing sentences that glide like the cold water in a rippling creek as it streams over the silken rocks on a crisp autumn morning.
Don’t tell anybody this, but I actually hear music in my head when I write. It’s not just the sound from Spotify either. It’s like a little concerto that happens in my head. Seriously, that’s a secret - I’m really self-conscious about it, so hush-hush.
But it’s the truth.
I care less about grammatical correctness and more about translating that music into the flow of words that elicit the emotion I’m trying to evoke.
So for all the times that I’ve been asked “How do you write your articles?”, there you have it. I follow a 4-step process and, after that, I have no f-ing idea how it works.
I just write.
It may sound odd to you, but remember, I have a black hole in my brain - I’m not responsible for my behaviors.
A Somewhat Relevant Quote
“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make."
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