Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spookage 101: Decoding the CIA Style Guide

By Michael Long

So the world recently learned that the CIA has a style guide, one that leans to simplicity and precision, eschewing the PC-pretzel-making of the AP rules (“Avoid sexist pronouns by twisting the sentence into ambiguous nonsense,”) and the lurid examples one might expect from spooks (“Remember: Blood first pools, then congeals.”). Aside from the whole thing being written in lemon juice and viewable only over a candle flame, the CIA style guide is a model of straightforwardness and propriety—imagine the shading of Strunk & White if Strunk were a political analyst and White were good with the knife.

If the thing is surprising in any way, it is in its common sense: Keep the language crisp and pungent; favor the active voice; let nouns and verbs show their own power. That’s just good advice no matter who you are. Enforce this little powerhouse in high school and four years later you might see college freshmen whose paragraphs look more like paragraphs and less like texts written on the freeway. Love or hate the CIA, it’s clear that someone up in that thing loves words.

What the pamphlet lacks, however, is a true guide to CIA style—you know: styyyyyle. Herewith, proposed additions:

· Never iron your trench coat. Wrinkles make you look mysterious.
· Wear a trilby, not a fedora. And never a cloche—this isn’t Gilligan’s Island.
· When beating a suspect, bruises go below the neckline, not above.
· For interrogations after Labor Day, avoid wearing white.
· The password is never “swordfish.”
· Take August off.
· Traffic around Langley always looks bad. Don’t be intimidated. It is mostly cardboard cars maintained to scare off visitors. Drive around them.
· Although you can’t speak Spanish just by adding –o to every word, it will get you pretty far in Juarez.
· If you need a safe house in LA, call Jimmy Kimmel. He’s one of us.
· Remember: Shoot right-handed, stab left.

Michael Long, a longtime GG friend, is a writer and speechwriter living about eight miles from CIA headquarters.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Emperors Need Not Apply

by David Murray

At the first World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association in May, the notion surfaced of a "speechwriter's code of ethics." The notion struck me as both intellectually intriguing, and a promising concept for an article in The Onion.

I was put in mind of the idea yesterday, when I read writer Amy Westervelt's public vow to stop writing "content" for companies, in part because "I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are. Yeah, I said it."

Westervelt decries the "usual 'let them eat cake' attitude corporate types have toward creative types in general ('I know! Why don’t we hire a journalist to write this think-piece? They’re all desperate for cash, they’d be happy to take this on for way less than we pay anyone else.')"

She continues:

It’s not that I don’t see the value in executives writing about their perspectives and their work. I’ve worked with plenty of really smart CEOs (that’s why I took these gigs in the first place), and their take on things is interesting and well worth a read, especially in business publications. I’d just prefer to see them writing more of it themselves (okay maybe with some help—let’s face it, not everyone can string sentences together convincingly), and sticking to their own areas of expertise. ... These pieces should flow naturally as an outgrowth of a person’s experience and expertise, they should not be a whole additional job for either the executive or, as is the case now, the person they hire to impersonate them. The trouble really begins when marketing departments and PR firms push CEOS for a blog post a week—that’s something no CEO worth his or her corner office has time for, nor should they—and when they get sucked into thinking they need to philosophize on topics well outside their purview.

In theory, she's right. As a writer and just as a citizen, it's bad to live in a media marketplace where underpaid (and under-experienced) writers are inventing brilliant messages for CEOs in compliance with a command that a speechwriter once called, "Write down my ideas as if I had them."

But the reality is, we don't live in such a world. Yet. (Do we?) In the world I live in, anyway, CEOs are frustratingly reluctant pundits who don't hire starving journalists to write their speeches, op/eds and blog posts, but who use speechwriters to do so. When CEOs give the speechwriters access to their calendars and to their minds, they wind up looking as interesting in public as they are in person, and slightly more polished. When they shut their speechwriter out, they wind up spouting platitudes that no one listens to.

What they definitely don't do is mouth compelling or influential ideas conceived by writers out of whole cloth.

I understand Westervelt's decision to "never again pen a 'thought leadership' piece or a corporate blog post." I appreciate the freedom she feels by declaring that she'll "refuse to have even one more conversation in which I explain to a publicist or CEO why I will not connect them with editors I know, or why it would be impossible for their 'contributed content' to appear in The New Yorker. I can’t take it anymore."

Good for Westervelt.

But just because CEOs are often dopey about media and thoughtless about communication ... well, that doesn't mean they don't deserve communication counsel. It means they deserve better, and more assertive counsel. That will come not from journalists taking a content gig to make a buck, but from people—among them ex-journalists—who have given themselves over much more fully to the task of making good leadership communication.

"Maybe if we all jump off the 'content' bandwagon," Westervelt concludes a bit pollyannaishly, "maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought leaders in the media, and actually be thought leaders. You know, in their actual industries, writing one or two really thoughtful, great pieces per year."

Well, that would be totally awesome. But it's probably not going to happen. And if it does, it won't be because one or many struggling journalists stopped ghostwriting for CEOs.

No, an improvement in leadership communication will happen when a few serious speechwriters begin having honest conversations with their CEOs, about thought leadership, which—Wetervelt's right—you don't farm out to a freelancer. —DM

(This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Right and Wrong Reasons to Write a Book

by Eric Nelson

As an agent, I receive a couple of unsolicited proposals every day, and some of them come from people I can see looked at my LinkedIn profile. I say no to nearly all of them. The nonfiction pitches I see are almost all the product of smart thinking by an accomplished person. Where they've gone wrong most of the time, however, is that they've chosen to write this book for the wrong reason.
When I meet with potential clients, I like to ask them a few hard questions. I'm going to give you four of these questions. If you're thinking of writing a book, I encourage you to actually write out the answers to these questions. Having the answers handy is going to help you stay focused the rest of the way.
HOW DOES A BOOK FIT INTO YOUR CAREER GOALS? If the answer is "because my current readers are demanding I write one," then your success is almost guaranteed. The agent and editor can help you create the book that will turn your fans into evangelists. If the answer is some form of "to impress the people who already know my work," you're probably still on the right track. If the answer is, "to introduce my work to a wider audience," you're in trouble. A book is a way to capitalize on your fame, not create it. Do I know where my first 3000 readers will come from? If your answer is “the publisher will take care of this,” then you’re living in 1993, and I need you to take a look around for a Young MC album I lost there. The best answer to this is: “from the X0,000 fans I have built up nationally through my Twitter/Facebook/blog/column/speaking/broadcast appearances.” If you’re a non-fiction writer and you can’t answer in that manner, you should probably set aside the proposal and write up a plan for getting more famous first. A good rule of thumb is that a book publisher can probably sell twice what you could sell by self-publishing. Right reason: professional calling card and audience satisfaction. Wrong reason: to get more famous.
WHAT ARE THE LAST TEN BOOKS YOUR IDEAL READER HAS BOUGHT? This is hard for many writers because of the focus on “last.” You want books that have come out in the last three years. Making this list is something I’m happy to help all my authors with, because it’s essentially market research and that’s what editors and agents are for. These books don’t have to be on your exact topic; just aimed at your exact audience. Knowing which if these has been more successful will paint a picture of your market size, and give you some clues on what those readers seem to prefer. (You can get a rough guess at what books have sold by reading this.) Do you write for The Nation? You should probably have some books by other Nation writers on your list. Is your book about social media for business, you had better know what the ten bestselling books about social media for business are. If you make your list and you haven’t read any of these books, set aside your proposal and START READING. Right reason: I know what my readers want from me. Wrong reason: The world needs to correcting, and I'm the person to correct it.
WHAT EIGHT WRITERS DO YOU DREAM OF HAVING AS PEERS? Picture your Amazon page, and that "Customers Also Bought Items By" list. Who's on it? It's okay to be aspirational; these writers can be outside of your field and dead. This list will act as a compass, making sure you never head in the wrong direction. Not having a list like this is the #1 reason writers sign a contract and then don’t write the book. If you find all your favorite books are historical, and you’re writing a book of advice on retirement planning because it seems potentially lucrative, you’re making a mistake. Even if retirement planning is your day job. Your agent or editor should be helping you figure out where the Venn diagram of “what I like,” “what I know,” and “what people buy” lines up. Writing a book is like getting a tattoo. It's painful and it will be with you forever. Don't do it if it's not what you like. If all your favorite books are narratives about one person, middle grade dragon fiction, or oral histories of rock bands, you shouldn’t be writing an investigation of the CIA drone program. Right reason:This will help me be more like my idols. Wrong Reason: This book will make money.
WHAT ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH? What question drives you? If curiosity gets you out of bed in the morning, what are you most curious about? If you're going to write a book, you need a question that you're going to want to keep asking yourself for months and months. It needs to be nearly metaphysical and possibly unanswerable. Even if it doesn't end up in your subtitle or back cover copy, what keeps you going is just as important as what everyone else wants to know. It may seem like a great idea to take only what you already know and dump it all into a book so others can learn your wisdom, but you know all the answers before you write the first word, you're going. Right reason: So someone will pay me to satisfy my curiosity. Wrong reason: So someone will pay me to satisfy their curiosity.
(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Happy Birthday Shelf Awareness!

In honor of the Shelf Awareness blog turning nine years old last week, we’ve compiled a short list of some key publishing industry newsletters that should be part of every professional ghost's daily information diet. These staple subscriptions about writing, selling, and producing your book are our must-reads for keeping abreast of what's happening in the publishing industry.
Writer’s Digest sends an array of emails discussing tutorials, conferences, and special offers. Some cost a small fee, but their free articles and posts on writing are just as handy.  

Galleycat by Mediabistro hase everything from new book deals, to topics trending on social media, to award winners.  They also dedicate a section to new job openings every day. With “the first word in the book publishing industry” as their tagline,  the Galleycat newsletter is useful to those who are curious about the insides of publishing.

Shelf Awareness offers two types of newsletters, one for readers and one for book trade professionals, delivered daily. This includes book store closings and opening, events nationwide, author news, and 25 books of the week chosen by industry insiders.

Publishers Lunch is shared with more than 40,000 publishing professionals every day. Key stories of the day from the professional trade book community, all neatly presented in one place.

What do you subscribe to? Let us know in the comments below!