Tag Archives: writing

“Try This At Home”: A fine book and call to action

“I do believe that everyone with any small amount of musical ability has something good to say inside them. At the very least, they have the right to try.”
— Frank Turner, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting”

Photo of Frank Turner's "Try This At Home" songwriting book atop a dobro guitarNot everybody knows that I have a long, albeit hidden, track record as a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since before high school, easily dozens of them. Styles range from punk and pop (especially in my teen years) to rock’n’roll and alternative (whatever that means) for my adult life, and most recently folk and blues.

Despite this catalog, I’ve never, ever played one of my own songs for an audience. Many of them probably shouldn’t be because they’re just not good (my earliest ones influenced by U2 and INXS and The Alarm would be dreadfully dated now, at best). Some of them are too personal to let out of the bottle. Too many of them are unfinished. But a handful might be passable at an open mic night.

This backstory, to say nothing of my admiration of his music and writings, dovetailed nicely into buying Frank Turner’s latest book, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting.” In addition to having several of his records, I also own his entertaining autobiography, “The Road Beneath My Feet.” In his books as in his singing, Frank is brutally honest, charmingly self-effacing and always very engaging.

The book is not exactly what you’d find on the syllabus of a songwriting class in a conservatory. Frank cusses a lot, draws on the lessons of poor behavior and decisions on his part, and doesn’t really get too technical. “Songwriting is an art and a craft,” he notes in the book’s introduction. “While the art part remains appropriately mystical and out of reach, the latter craft side of it can be examined, dissected, practiced and ultimately taught,” even as he next admits he’s not much trained in it.

And so, Frank takes readers through deep dives into the inspiration, structure and timelines of around three dozen songs, from tales of love lost and found to politics to the passing of Vaudeville. For whatever one might think of his music, Frank’s knowledge of world history, musical traditions and the creative process are all first-rate, and you’ll learn something about many different topics in these pages. He’s also one of the best showmen I’ve ever seen, expert at drawing his audiences into the song through call-and-response, singalongs and all kinds of interaction. Not surprisingly, his books similarly draw a reader in close.

A very valuable lesson from this book has been the difficulty for even the best writers of bringing a song from idea to lyrics to arrangement and then a lengthy fine-tuning process. One of my weaknesses in songwriting has been the initial excitement of a piece fading to the point I just want to get it done and then just leaving it. Frank often returns to songs he knows have potential to try to make them better, often trying again and again.

He also talks considerably about having a metaphorical treasure trunk of ideas. For him it’s notepads of everything from a clever turn of phrase to fragments of a tune to a song that he’s written but doesn’t feel complete. He does similar things with chords and arrangements that he later pieces together for finished tracks. It’s advice I give to my students working on ads and other creative projects — generate a bunch of ideas, because you never know if you’ll need them — but I’m bad at in my own life.

If you’re a Frank Turner fan, this is a must-have, obviously. If you’re interested in songwriting and like his style, this could also be useful. I’ve actually started writing pieces of songs — eschewing my normal habit of just writing a song to be done with it and moving on — so it’s already influencing my musical process.

So it’s truth in advertising: If you read this book about trying it at home, there’s a fair chance you actually will.

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Goodbye Garrison Keillor: A lesson in the power of with.

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …”

Garrison Keillor said those words one last time on Saturday night before signing off of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show he has helmed in some form or another since more than 40 years ago. The show didn’t just unexpectedly gather multimillions of fans from coast to coast but helped reinvigorate a whole medium. In the words of colleague Scott Simon on NPR, “all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.”

So Keillor’s last show bears its share of symbolism as it stood amidst a shifting landscape. Just as Keillor passes the torch to talented young musician/composer Chris Thile, so too has the transition from an odd little local variety show to a worldwide phenomenon taken us from a cold war and national malaise and a radio medium looking to stay vital to the age of the Internet and a world where the audio medium is as hot as ever through podcasting.

Keillor himself took the occasion of the final broadcast, as he always has, to put over a younger generation of talent. The performance featured duets with five talented women: Sara Watkins (a former guest host and bandmate of Thile in Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo. Watkins got to sing “One Last Time,” a song on her just-released album, and joined Jarosz and O’Donovan in work they do as a trio called I’m With Her.

And “with” is probably the best preposition to explain Keillor’s appeal: He performs with his guests, house musicians and comic players, and has as much fun as anybody. He shares greetings from the studio audience with the world. He brings us with him into the fictional small town of Lake Woebegon, until we can smell the coffee in the Chatterbox Cafe and see the aisles of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. And he laughs with his characters and the world, not at them.

Keillor and this show have a special relationship with our family, as we would gather to listen and laugh and love the music. It almost seems outmoded now, as today parents and kids all have their own smartphones and tablets and TVs and their own fragmented entertainment, yet there we were, our mom and various combinations of three sons, brought together by this tall, awkward stranger and his friends via the radio airwaves.

We also grew up in a small town that could have been, for all intents and purposes, Lake Woebegon. Weedsport, N.Y., a town of less than 2,000, is bigger than Keillor’s imaginary Minnesota hometown, but it had everything else — a rural setting, an ongoing struggle for identity and families who knew one another for generations. His stories felt like they could have happened on our streets .. or on the streets of many a small town. Popular culture highlighting a small town in a humbly celebratory light was rare then (and still is), so us small-town folks take a certain pride; Keillor is, in a way, one of our own who made good.

Many of these blog things talk about what we can learn from somebody’s success, and true to form, here are three things Keillor teaches us:

1. The power of storytelling. Those of us who work in communications speak of (and sometimes present on) the power of storytelling, and Keillor was a master of craft, character and consistency. Creating Lake Wobegon from scratch is an amazing accomplishment — so just think of the storytelling we can do with real people! Radio might be the best pure modern manifestation for storytelling. We hear words and inflections and fill in the blanks with the theater of our minds. No different than tales told over fires to friends about legends of old, or to our tucked-in children with powerful, positive lessons. Podcasting is simply radio on demand, and “Serial” becoming one of the biggest recent phenomena in any medium shows the audio storytelling format remains as potent as ever.

2. Generosity. His cohorts are not as famous as Keillor, but that’s not because he tries to upstage them. Quite the opposite. In his final show, Keillor made sure to give particular spotlight to longtime companions like versatile voice actor Tim Russell and sound-effects maestro Fred Newman. He gave pianist and musical director Richard Dworsky his own shine, and has always been the #1 fan of his house band in whatever combination they are (Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band remains my favorite). He let the voices of the aforementioned five talented women take up nearly as much time in his farewell show as his own familiar baritone.

3. Community. Long before Facebook or email or the Internet, Keillor created a community all his own. And I’m not even talking about Lake Wobegon — he created a very real community with fans everywhere who could fall into warm discussion of the show, their favorite sketches, the most memorable songs. Moreover, his stories were about universal themes — love and loss, striving for acceptance, family relations and wanting to do better. The community he created formed a rising tide that helped lift then-fledgling public radio into the national cultural consciousness, and NPR remains a community — virtual and otherwise — that connects people with information, with ideas and with a world beyond themselves. Not bad for a shy English major.

And so we say goodbye to Keillor and to his familiar hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. The whole experience has been far, far above average. We are all better from the time with this imaginary place and with all of Keillor’s encouraging words.

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‘Copper’ + Iron & Wine = how you nail a promo.

With so many boring, forgettable and lookalike TV ads, it’s rare that one just grabs me and makes me not only want to pay attention, but delve into its world. So I was exceedingly pleased when this promo for the BBC America show “Copper” (with excellent placement during extremely popular “Doctor Who”) captured my fancy:

As arresting (pardon the pun) as its visuals are, the song selection jumps out as perfect and haunting. That’s Iron & Wine doing a gorgeous cover of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a parlor song from the mid-19th century — the time where “Copper” is set in New York City’s teeming, tussling and corrupt Five Points neighborhood. Sam Beam’s voice and the lyrics craft a simultaneously mournful and hopeful tapestry, depicting a time when the country was divided and bloodied in the Civil War and yearning for a light at the end of the tunnel. (The song is also building buzz in the music press.)

The visuals themselves are unforgettable: The cinematography, gritty and compelling, paints the series perfectly. From the scenes, you get just a hint of what’s going on, not too much but enough that you want to learn more. It helps that it’s teasing a series rich in character, plot and action.In class I talk about the importance of calls to action, and whether content we see moves us to do something. Well, this is what this spot has done:

  • I started watching “Copper.” The first season is available on Netflix, and it’s stirring entertainment. It’s not cheerful, for sure, but it is cinematic in scope and extremely compelling. This promo teases the second season, coming this summer, but gives the world that missed the first season time to get up to speed.
  • I wanted a copy of the song. Alas, in searching for a copy of this beautiful recording, I learned Iron & Wine has not yet made it commercially available. I’d buy a copy in a heartbeat. But in the meantime, I searched through Amazon and listened to many, many versions. I ended up downloading The Chieftains cover of the song, which closes with a minute of bagpipes (which is awesome). Here’s hoping Beam makes a version of this available soon to capitalize on the attention.

Normally I say that a TV spot should include multiple mentions of its product (audio and video) to be more effective, but for outstanding examples you throw the rules out the window. This promo grabs you for its full minute, pulls you into its enthralling world, and leaves you wanting more. I love it. And it’s already moved me to action in two directions. That, then, makes it very successful.

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 11.35.57 AM

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review: content strategy for the web = must-read!

Finding yourself wishing you’d read a book a few years earlier often indicates how useful it could be to your work, your life, your knowledge. Since Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web only came out last year this wouldn’t have been possible, but if your work involves web content in any way, my advice is simple: Read this book!

Have you ever been part of a web project where people talk about design and multimedia and shiny objects, but when you ask “who’s providing the content?” they stare at you or say “we’ll worry about that later”? Here is a book to back up the importance of content, who creates it and why a content strategy should be part of any major web decision.

It’s a quick read, providing, in her words, “a high-level overview of the benefits, roles, activities and deliverables associated with content strategy.” It isn’t, she stressed, a be-all-end-all book on the web (she offers great reading suggestions), about choosing a CMS (which is merely a delivery system) or a marketing manual. It’s divided into four sessions: Learn (broken into Solution, Problem and Discipline), Plan (Audit, Analysis, Strategy), Create (Workflow, Writing, Delivery) and Govern (Measurement, Maintenance, Paradigm). The writing is crisp, non-technical and compelling.

Among the key points, which many of us often feel like we’re preaching in a wilderness:

  • Less, not more. Adding more and more pages without strategy just creates a confusing user experience and makes the website unwieldy and hard to maintain from the inside. I’ve seen sites that add new pages while abandoning old ones because they weren’t perfect, and the result is a veritable graveyard of content of no use to anyone.
  • Have a plan. Why is content created at your workplace? Where does that information come from? Do you have quality control? For more dynamic sites, do you have an editorial calendar of how often new content is generated, who’s generating it and how it is organized? Unfortunately, these questions don’t have good answers for way too many sites.
  • Ask “why” and “who”? If departments want to plug a new shiny tool into their website, or add a Facebook page or YouTube Channel, two great questions to ask are “why do you need it?” and “who’s going to keep it current?” Especially in higher education, buyers get easily excited about a new product or social media platform, but after the novelty wears off they have no plan — and maybe no idea — how to maintain it at a baseline level, let alone how to keep it fresh and engaging.

Would I have liked to have this book a redesign or two ago? Absolutely. But since I can’t go back in time, I can say this book has already positively influenced planning and discussions going forward. And just mentioning it around campus around trainings and meetings has made several people interested in reading it. In my experience most people WANT to make their content better, but aren’t sure how and welcome any help. From a big-picture standpoint, this book is not just helpful but essential for those aiming to make their websites great.


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2011 goal: become a better five-tool player

In baseball parlance, a five-tool player is one who does many things well (batting average, power, speed, fielding, throwing). In today’s workplace, where we need to perform many, many different tasks  — how many folks get to specialize any more? — flexibility and improving several skills is at a premium.

In that way, I’m studying my major skillsets, or desired skillsets, to examine where I want to grow and improve:

1. Writing. This has been my bread and butter. I started writing poetry when I was 4 (didn’t say “good poetry”) and have been paid to write since I was 20. But improvement is always possible. The character constraints of Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) reinforce the most important writing tip ever, Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words.” I think sometimes, with my general writing, I’m too satisfied with a first or second draft when I really need to keep trying to make it better.

2. Web communication. This could represent several tools in itself, but for the sake of keeping it to five, I’ll consider this a mashup of social media, analytics and website management. This is an area I’ve had to learn on the fly, but often with the help of reading and expert advice — much of it free from colleagues. Analytics, which I just started getting into after last year’s SIMTech Conference, represents countless opportunities for improving our web presence. Not included in this list but related is …

3. Content strategy. Thanks to the awesome book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson (a later blog post), I gained more of a handle on, and case for, better institutional content strategy. This has resembled the Wild West in our decentralized web presence, but combining analytics with rolling content audits and content strategies could work wonders. Or so I hope …

4. Video. My communication degree had a broadcast concentration, so I know the basics. And they sat dormant for many, many years until I had to start supplying more video content a few months ago. I started using iMovie — so much easier than the analog editing I learned on ginormous machines — and now look to improve my camera work, which requires better equipment as much as anything. But I know that, underlying it all, sits a basic desire for storytelling that I cherish.

5. Management. I’ve read books, had training, but what does it mean in the real world? I supervise two full-time workers (who I view as colleagues, never subordinates), a small student social-media team (interns and volunteers) and student bloggers. I’m trying to track, prioritize and document things better, but don’t want to make it a chore. As a discipline of the Tom Peters empowerment strategy, I sometimes wonder if I’m too permissive … but my hope, especially with students, is to put them in position and with the tools and opportunities to succeed.

So, what about you? What skills would you like to gain or improve?


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unsound opinions: how not to write a news release, vol ii.

The separation of fact from opinion — the objective from the subjective — is a major mark separating good news release writers from ones who, well, need to work on it.

A news release should be written like a news story, plain and simple: based on facts as they present themselves. Granted, the rise of columnists and commentators mean that you see a lot more opinion in what people falsely label reporting, but for the sake of the news release — or hard news story — this rule has not changed.

Facts: The sun came up this morning. SUNY Oswego is an institution of higher learning. Tim Nekritz is a writer.

Opinions: The sun came up this morning with the most brilliant hues of blue and orange and magenta the world has ever seen. SUNY Oswego is the bestest college in the history of mankind. Tim Nekritz is a writer who inspires legions of people to create better communication experiences. (OK, that last one is reeeeeeally a stretch.)

It’s that simple really. If you have something subjective, that’s fine as long as it can be attributed to someone or something. You can include opinions as quotes within the story.

Wrong: Random University just welcomed one of its most awesome groups of freshmen ever.

Right: Random University just welcomed “one of the most talented” freshman classes ever, President Norma L. Person said.

Attribution comes with choosing a good source. (Cf. the idea of credibility in Made to Stick.) Overarching declarations from your college president will, naturally, come with some bias but also note a source with some experience and insight. For some subjective areas, however, quoting a student on how great your college is can lend more credibility than the same words from an administrator. Outside praise or validation from renowned sources — experts, media outlets or others without a direct stake in the enterprise — can be even better.

If for some reason you’d really rather dot news releases with opinions and fluffy words, my advice is: Consider becoming a pundit or a poet. Otherwise, knowing the difference between the subjective and objective can help make releases shine.


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he stated, she stated?: how not to write a news release, vol. i.

Even with the advent of social media, the news release is not — and should not — disappear from the landscape any time soon. PR practitioners and students alike will still need to know how to craft one properly, hence the occasional blog feature of How Not to Write a News Release.

When quoting sources, some writers apparently become frustrated with the number of verbs available. So they try others and wander into the world of awkward writing. Three particularly egregious examples:

“We’re very excited for the start of the fall semester,” President Person stated.

“We’re very excited for the start of the fall semester,” President Person commented.

“We’re very excited for the start of the fall semester,” President Person exclaimed.

Sad but true, I’ve seen these verbs (mis)used in news releases more often than I care to think. News releases may not be as conversational as regular writing for the Web, but still think of them in a conversational context. If your president stated something, not only does that sound stilted, but something about a prepared statement almost dares cynical readers to disbelieve. Not only does commented seem more reactive than proactive, but we generally think of public figures as commenting on unfavorable news (or giving a no comment). And as for exclaimed … well, would you use that word in a regular sentence? Ever? Really?

So what to use? Here are a few:

* said. Yes, it seems vanilla, especially if used over and over. But it’s also the most widely accepted and generically accurate. Everything that comes out of our mouth we say in some way or another.

* added. I consider this fair use if you’re continuing the same thought in one paragraph or a succeeding graf. President Person said that applicants’ mean SAT scores and high school grade-point averages continue to rise. “We’re seeing an increasingly talented pool of students looking at Random University, which helps us select the best and brightest,” she added.

* explained. I use this one particularly when discussing something complex or that may not be commonly known. “While we are a public university, only 38 percent of our budget comes from the state,” President Person explained.

* noted. OK, maybe there isn’t universal agreement on this one, but I think it still works sometimes in a conversational context. “He’s one of our most honored and hard-working professors,” Person noted.

When writing anything, remember that you’re avoiding phrases that will make the reader stumble, unnecessarily pause or become confused. Using outmoded or unintentionally loaded verbs can create obstacles. Using verbs common in conversation keeps them reading on.


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up! and away: in defense of writing.

Plenty of reviews of the new Pixar triumph Up! will justifiably rave about its awe-inspiring look or nuanced voice work or overall fun factor, but I’d like to draw attention to an often-overlooked strength of Pixar films: outstanding writing and storytelling.

Nothing in a Pixar film comes out of the blue or as a cheap plot twist. If you pay attention, almost everything in Up! is foreshadowed, fits and engages the audience. The plot finds widower Carl and eager scout Russell driven to adventure by the absence of his lifelong love and a distant father, respectively. Since no one is immune from loneliness, we can’t help but feel for Carl and Russell, and though we realize the obvious way they’ve found each other, it never falls to cheap sentiment or mawkishness. The romance of Carl and his beloved Ellie is shown through a musical montage of their decades together, nary a word needed because its messages are simple, direct and compelling.

The key to any work of fiction — whether book or 30-second TV ad or motion picture — is constructing a world where every action makes sense according to its internal logic (however fanciful). Thus Carl’s transition from grieving grouch to daring/caring action hero (who outwits rather than outmuscles adversaries, a welcome change) is so well-plotted it doesn’t surprise us. As with most Pixar movies, the villain here comes with a psychological backstory; the studio’s canon never has the simple psychotic archetype baddie to trigger the car chases and explosions of many a Jerry Bruckheimer crapfest. Even with the amazing visuals of Up!, that I never stopped to wonder about how the animators did anything shows how much the story drew me in.

And ultimately that the movie’s four protagonists — senior citizen and young boy, exuberant dog and exotic bird — are driven by trying to satisfy someone or something else masterfully underscores the movie’s message about the importance of friendship and connection. That it doesn’t have to come out and say this only underscores the masterful nature of Up!‘s writing.


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i gave a webinar and lived to tell.

As if trying to prove Andy Warhol’s old quip that we’d all be famous for 15 minutes, I recently found myself in the unlikely position of giving a Webinar on writing for the Web to an audience of hundreds from nearly 50 colleges. And learned that presenting virtually seems more difficult than doing so in person.

Things did go well for Web Writing 360, a Higher Ed Experts presentation on writing for Web sites and social media, but the first Webinar is probably always the toughest. When I present in person, I can scan the crowd and see how I’m doing — are they engaged or bored, attentive or asleep? Ever wary of technology, I even wondered at times if I were still connected or just speaking to myself.

In keeping with tradition, a decent performance came after a rocky dress rehearsal. I’d bought a new headset mic — quite possibly the only one in Staples that said on the box it was Mac-compatible — and at the beginning of the rehearsal I couldn’t hear Karine Joly, the Webinar organizer. Unplugging and replugging later, it was A-OK. Karine thought at times the rehearsal seemed distracted, which was probably when my cat Fiona kept jumping in my lap; that’s what I get for trying it from the couch. For the actual presentation I moved to my home office and technology and cats cooperated.

Attendees asked many great questions — one college had a room of 20 people with a lot of good thoughts — and I was pleased with the feedback on the #hee backchat channel on Twitter (I also had an exercise where I asked participants to describe their institutions in 140 characters or less). I also noticed retweets of an ad lib comment I made in response to a question about finding time to handle the college’s social media responsibilities: Some people go on a smoke break or a coffee break, I said, I go on a social media break. Glad anyone found that amusing or apt.

And while it was nerve-wracking at times, and a lot of work, I’m glad I did it. It’s good to get outside of the comfort zone and push yourself to try new things. Moreover, we are all experts at something and should look for opportunities to share any knowledge.


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web writing webinar ahead.

Of all the things I have to promote, I’m most reticent about promoting myself. But I’ve been asked (nicely) to make sure everyone knows that I’m presenting a Webinar titled Web Writing 360: How To Write Right For All Online Media on May 5.

The valuable Higher Ed Experts service presents the Webinar, and it’s the first of a two-part series that also features the wonderful Mary Beth Kurilko presenting Web Writer Coaching 101: How To Find, Train and Nurture Web Contributors On Campus on May 6. Since content is king (or queen) on the Web, I welcomed the opportunity when HEE’s Karine Joly contacted me to do this session. To preview a stat I use in the Webinar, did you know there are an estimated 182 billion sites on the Web across 106 million active domains? How can you be seen and heard among that crowd? Simple.

That’s part of the answer: Simple. As in, keep it simple. Get to the point, make it easy to read, give ’em what they want. The Webinar also will touch on effective content for blogs, Facebook and Twitter, since social media continues to become a larger slice of the pie consumed by the estimated 1.6 billion people surfing the Web.

For more information, visit the Higher Ed Experts event page. I hope to talk to you! And we now return you to your regular programming.

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