Find a mentor in your favorite publications and websites
I recently sent one of my pals a plea for reading recommendations.
“Read The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron,” he replied. “Read everything by William Styron. Then write like him.”
Not bad advice. After all, as communicators, we can learn a lot from the masters of our crafts — the William Styrons, the P.J. O’Rourkes, the folks who have earned Silver Anvils and other awards.
Consider this your invitation to model the masters, to learn new techniques by studying your favorite communicators’ work. It’s the best way I know to improve your skills.
Here’s a six-step process to get you started:
1. Browse the best.
If you’re going to model the masters, you need to look at the masters — the best communications being produced in any field. For me, “the best stuff” includes:
- The leads, kickers and classic feature structure of The Wall Street Journal
- Men’s Health’s tricks for packaging basic how-to information into compelling articles and departments
- Warren Buffett’s methods for bringing the driest financial formulas to life through humor, anecdote and metaphor
- Southwest Airline’s ability to make how-to-fasten-your-seatbelt information amusing enough to pay attention to
- Approaches used by other award-winning writers, editors and webmasters
So ask yourself, “What communications do I most admire?” Then add those to your regular reading and review list.
2. Forage more widely.
The next step is to forage more widely, or to make sure you’re looking at great pieces of communication — not just the ones you need to gather information and conduct transactions in your daily life.
One way I forage more widely is to look at winners of major communication competitions. For instance, I follow the winners of the National Magazine Awards — which explains why I subscribe to New York even though I live in Missouri and to Parenting even though I have no children.
3. Read like a writer.
As you study the masters, make sure you’re reading as a writer, not just as a reader. Readers read for information and entertainment. Writers read for information and entertainment, too. But they also read for something else: technique.
Another writer might introduce you to a new way of crafting a headline, constructing a metaphor or structuring a story.
As William Faulkner said, “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”
4. Clip it.
Next, start a clip file of the pieces you admire most.
- Rip out articles that do a stellar job of demonstrating the WIIFM to the reader.
- Bookmark websites that allow visitors to experience a new process, service or product instead of just reading about it.
- Copy magazine articles that offer good examples of “telling and selling” the story in the headlines, subheads, callouts and captions.
One guideline to follow: Whenever you hear yourself saying, “I wish I’d created that,” “that” goes into the clip file.
5. Study it.
Now that you have a file bulging with great communication samples, go through it again. This time, take each piece apart and put it back together until you understand why you like it and what the communicator did to make it that way.
6. Steal the techniques (not the words).
Now it’s time to model the masters, or pattern your pieces after the best talent in the field.
Note: We’re not talking about plagiarism here. I once outlined this approach to a group of communicators in a seminar. At the break, one of the participants pulled me aside and proudly explained how she collected The Wall Street Journal headlines — then used them verbatim in her own newsletter.
Yikes! That’s not modeling. That’s plagiarizing.
The key to modeling the masters is to steal the techniques, not the words. Modeling the masters means getting inspiration from the very best communicators out there, then adapting their approaches — not adopting them, but adapting them — to your own work.
Try it yourself. Feel free to borrow and improve on other communicators’ methods. It’s a widely practiced form of flattery. Take whatever you can, and keep T.S. Eliot’s advice close to heart.
“Amateurs plagiarize,” he said. “Real writers steal.”