Archive for May, 2009

I’ve been writing all my life. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun recording my thoughts on real or virtual paper.

“We all cluster mentally throughout our lives without knowing it; we have simply never made these clusterings visible on paper.”
[Gabriele Rico in Writing the Natural Way]

Mental clustering can happen anywhere at any time. You’re clustering when your thoughts wander while you stand under a hot shower, while your mind drifts like the clouds you’re watching as you lie in the grass on a hot summer day, while walking alone or even while driving your car.

Clustering on the page is how you record your musings. When you take out pen and paper to cluster, you’re playing with words, phrases, circles, lines, arrows and other doodles. Clustering is neither logical nor is it diagrammatic — it’s spontaneous and informal. Your inner critic will think clustering is boring and leave. Perfect! Clustering simply happens when you relax and call forth the fire of your dragon.


Begin by writing a word or phrase in the center of the page. Circle it. Write down the next thing that pops into your head and circle that. Connect the circles with a line and an arrow. The arrows are fun to draw, distract your inner critic and simply show which thought leads to the next. Follow your thoughts where they lead you without questioning or editing. If you run out of ideas, doodle around with circles, lines and arrows until the next thought jumps into your mind. It will.

Come back to the center when you run to the end of a train. Branch out where it feels right. Clustering is messy and fun and revealing. Cluster your way. There are no “rules.” Your dragon loves the visual play.

When you get the urge to write then do it.
Write what comes to mind. You don’t have to use everything (or anything at all) from your cluster. The cluster is a catalyst designed to call forth the fire of your dragon. A fire that burns your inner thoughts onto the paper without burning the page.

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Clustering will lead you on journeys of discovery, surprise and delight. It may seem a bit scary to set off on a journey when you don’t know the destination, but this is the magic of clustering. Let go, don’t censor, follow your feelings and enjoy the ride. First I’ll show you the final destination for my “Hands” cluster, a Haiku, then take you with me on my journey.

Hand security_wm

Haiku: Hands

Tears fall in silence.
A whisper touch drinks the pain.
Hands. How wonderful.

I wrote the word “hands” in the middle of a blank sheet, then as each thought occurred to me, I wrote it down and circled it. One thought led to another and another until I “knew” what to write.


Digital reproduction of my original hand drawn cluster

The vignette is reproduced below. I didn’t worry about punctuation, formatting or any other left-brain, inner critic stuff. I wrote until I felt I should stop.

hands see in the dark
eyes that touch
other hands
eyes and tears
wipe them away
and touch
another hand
a shoulder
a breast
a soul
electric flow
touch together
wring apart
hands — how sad
hands — how wonderful
they breathe
and talk
and see
in the dark
turn on the light

This first vignette is pregnant with ideas. I worked with it, each version shrinking until I had the idea for a Haiku. Haikus are fun. They force you into a compression where each word must carry so much meaning.

It all begins with a single word or phrase. A cluster, an outpouring of ideas and feelings, a vignette and a creative journey that you can repeat time after time. Clustering is magic, a license to listen to your dragon. Your dragon isn’t as bashful as you might think. He’s just waiting for your invitation to the dance.

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Walking for inspiration is like dancing slowly with yourself, gliding effortlessly from thought to thought as you move to the rhythm of your footsteps. American author Gretel Ehrlich once said that “Walking is also an ambulation of mind.”

Ambulation is simply walking about. Amble, saunter or stroll — something magical happens when you go out for a leisurely walk. The sudden flash of insight, the “aha” moment, the best ideas show up when you least expect them. Why do you think this is?

Walking doesn’t require any mental effort at all, you simply do it. Walking frees your mind and sends your inner critic packing. Have you noticed how inspiration sneaks into your mind and ideas flow while you’re standing in the shower, or other times when you’re relaxed, not thinking about anything in particular?

Or in the words of Mozart, “. . . .When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer – say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep – it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best, and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them…”

Be at ease with yourself. When you’re alone with yourself just walking, your mind is clear of clutter and worry, your problems pushed aside. Unleash your dragon. Allow him to romp freely.

Savor the moments. Walk in a peaceful garden, inhale the sweet scents of the flowers and listen to the birdsong. Take a stroll during a spring shower and feel the raindrops on your face. Walk on the beach alone in company with the first rays of the rising sun. Even a walk down a busy street can be invigorating. Inspiration is everywhere when you allow it.


When I worked in the city, no matter how busy, I always took a short leisurely walk at lunchtime and returned to my office refreshed and alive. Many times, problems I had worried over simply dissolved into elegant, inspired solutions.

When the words won’t come, push your chair back, tell your inner critic to take a nap and go for a walk with your dragon. When you return refreshed, grab a pen and paper and cluster before your inner critic wakes up from his nap. You’ll be surprised and delighted with your outpouring of ideas.

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Clustering opens the floodgates of creativity. It quiets your inner critic and invites your creative self (I think of him as my dragon) to come out and play. Clustering is easy, it’s quick and it works. I learned (am still learning) the technique from “Writing the Natural Way” by Gabriele Rico, PhD.

Here’s an example that illustrates how clustering works for me and what I did each step of the way. I always use a blank sheet of paper and one of my fountain pens when I cluster. I recreated my hand drawn cluster with FreeMind so I could include it here.

Screenshot-FreeMind - MindMap Mode - As.mm

This sequence comes from the “What Am I?” metaphor exercise in Chapter Ten. I put “as” in the center of a sheet, drew a circle around it and clustered whatever popped into my head. I simply wrote down what my dragon told me. In one branch (the first I think) I saw myself as light, in the other as a bird. I don’t recall how long this took but clusters typically take less than three minutes, often less than a minute. Just let loose, trust your dragon and let the ideas rip.

At some point you’ll experience what Dr. Rico calls The Trial-Web Shift. As you cluster, you suddenly just know what you want to write about and you start writing.

This next step is what she calls the vignette. Go with it and write quickly. It will only take a minute or two. Here’s my vignette from this cluster.

I am a great hawk clinging to a strong branch, swaying, accepting the power of the wind, climbing into the light of sudden insight, plunging earthward, claws extended, pouncing on my prey and flying off, my latest idea, my newest insight screaming, then quiet as I find safe haven, land to devour and digest. I’m always hungry.

Once you have that first rough vignette, go back and play with it until you’re satisfied. You may want to invite your inner critic to join the party with you and your dragon.

I didn’t do anything with the vignette that day. I put my sketchbook away and came back to it another day. It wanted to be a poem so I played, wrote out and crossed out four pages of handwritten poem drafts until I was satisfied. I probably managed a few more tweaks when I typed out the final draft.


Here’s the final published version

Poetry: Ideas

A great hawk
I watch and wait
spiraling on thermals of insight

A great hawk
I thunder silently
impaling the unwary

A great hawk
I stretch my wings
dripping the blood of ideas

A great hawk
I settle to ground
devouring in delight

A great hawk
I watch and wait
riding my hunger

So what do you think? Does this help? Not being the bashful type, I’d be happy to do more of these. Let me know. Writing the Natural Way is a fantastic book. Not dry with theory, it’s a real course that pulls you in as a participant and it works. I had absolutely no idea where my clustering would lead and ended up with a neat little poem. Clustering is like magic. Maybe because dragons are magical creatures?

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449px-Michaelangelo_DavidMichelangelo sensed the life trapped inside a solid block of marble and liberated his David from the stone. Research, like Michelangelo’s chisel, chips away lifeless surface material to reveal the ideas buried deep within a topic. Research transforms the unknown into the familiar so you can tackle new subjects. Research invites the authority and credibility of experts into your writing.

Solid research is vital because it yields the knowledge you need to write with confidence, build trust with your audience, and dig out the big ideas that get readers (and editors) excited.

When you write about familiar subjects, especially from personal experience, you write with the comfort of knowledge. If you’re willing to learn, you can write confidently about any subject, even when you know nothing about that subject. It simply takes time, patience, and careful research.

Research is a voyage of discovery stopping at many ports of call along the way. As you learn more and more, as you immerse yourself in your research, your confidence (and enthusiasm) will grow. When you’re ready to begin writing the first draft, you might be surprised at how much you’ve learned and how much you’ve enjoyed your journey of discovery. If we wrote only from personal experience, we’d run out of material quickly. When you embrace research as a writing tool you expand your horizons and become a more confident writer.

Research not only builds knowledge and confidence, it adds credibility that establishes a bond of trust with your readers. One of the best ways to firm up your authority as a writer is with specifics that you uncover in your research.

Suppose you were writing an article on the impact of baby boomer retirement on the economy. Your piece will have more depth when you use history to bolster your argument by showing how the boomers influenced the economy when they were kids in the 1950s. Mattell cornered the toy market in the 50s is too general and dull. Get specific and breathe life into your article with something like this instead. Mattell launched the Barbie doll, the best selling toy in history in 1959.

Give your readers something to chew on. When you talk about how the boomers are likely to affect our economy you could introduce them this way: The oldest boomers are turning 62 this year and they have a lot of money to spend. True, but generalities like these won’t do much for your credibility or reader attention.

Instead, pull in an outside source and use specifics to hold reader interest. The oldest boomers are turning 62 this year, at the rate of more than 300 each hour and according to a CNBC special report released in September, 2006, they spend $2 trillion each year. Specific facts uncovered in your research can increase believability and lend real credibility to your article.

Research today is easy, maybe too easy. With the Internet at your fingertips a search for any topic on the web will likely give you hundreds of hits.

But most of your hits will offer the same or similar surface scratching information. Stop there and your article will be like dozens of others. Why would someone want to read yours?

Dig deeper to unearth the gem(s) that most other writers overlook. Go beyond the obvious. Look for clues that can lead you to the big idea, the angle that will make your article stand out from the crowd. Suppose you’re researching an article on Vitamin D. All the other writers are talking about stronger bones and osteoporosis, but by digging deeper, you discover that researchers are reporting that Vitamin D can prevent cancer. Vitamin D and cancer is old news now but there’s a writer out there who found it first. It could be you next time.

Always research before you write. When confronted with an unfamiliar subject, research opens new worlds and helps you grow as a writer. Research substitutes confidence and credibility for uncertainty and failure. Even the familiar takes on new life when you chisel away the ordinary and discover the buried treasure. Your readers will thank you and editors will sit up and take notice.

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A good title invites. Like a house with high curb appeal that pulls house hunters inside, a great title draws people to your post and can turn an also ran blog post into a bestseller — sometimes by changing a single word. Good titles give your posts curb appeal that will arouse a reader’s curiosity and invite them to look inside to discover what comes next.

SEO adds the house number to the curb appeal of the title. A great title that might arouse a reader’s interest is useless if it’s lost on the Internet. The SEO component puts titles into the search engine results pages (SERP). The best titles get the best page rank — at the top —  and like the eye level shelves on a magazine rack, entice a reader to choose.

What if you have the right address and the house is shabby, paint peeling, shutters askew and an unkempt lawn? Not an inviting picture. A house hunter might stop, but it’s unlikely they’ll bother to get out of their car if the house isn’t inviting. A person searching for information on the Internet isn’t likely to click through from the SERP to your post if the title is shabby.

A title is an invitation to the dance, an invitation to come and visit your blog. What if potential readers pass up the dance because the partner lacks sex appeal?

Quality Internet content demands quality titles. SEO alone can’t do it. Titles that appeal to readers aren’t enough by themselves. You need both to succeed on the Internet.

Good titles aren’t clever or cute. That never works. Good titles are searchable and memorable. SEO keywords bring visitors because they match what Internet visitors are looking for, but without the curb appeal of human curiosity, few visitors will stop to read the content behind the title. The anatomy of a good title is a careful balance between the need to be found and once found, irresistible enough to stop a visitor in their tracks and compel them to stay and read your post.

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From the  News Room at Editor & Publisher

Helium Writers’ Earnings Pass $1 Million Mark

“CHICAGO Writers who market their work through Helium have earned a total of more than $1 million since the online writing community launched in 2006, Helium said Monday.”

Impressive numbers until you do the math. Helium has over a quarter million members. Certainly some writers are inactive and others don’t earn much. Averages can be as misleading as the $1 Million headline, but dividing the $1 Million by total membership comes out to less than $5.

Helium’s starred writers do most of the writing. That’s how they earn their writing stars. There are about 20,000 members with one or more writing stars. The $1 Million averages out to about $50 per starred member. And that’s since 2006.

The article quotes earnings and not how much has been paid out. Helium won’t pay until a member’s account reaches $25.  $1 Million is an impressive accomplishment, but it comes with one hell of a spin.

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Think like a reader

When you craft a title, hang that writer’s hat where you can find it when you need it, but think like a reader. Thousands of people are out there on the Internet searching for the information you have to offer them. The job of a good title is to capture their attention and get them reading.

The best way to do that is to take off your writer’s hat and climb into the heads of your intended audience.

Join the conversation

Think about this for a minute. We all carry on conversations with ourselves. We worry about the state of the economy and how we’ll make ends meet. What are we cooking for dinner tonight? Whose turn is it to pick up the kids after soccer practice? Did I lock the front door? Our minds are constantly abuzz with internal conversations, concerning things we care about.

Readers have these same conversations with themselves and if you want their attention, you must join their conversations. Seek resonance with your readers. When your title resonates, it joins ongoing conversations. You’re guaranteed to connect and get their undivided attention because your title addresses their concerns.

Suppose you (the reader) are a frequent flier and you came across this title: “What never…ever to eat on an airplane!” This title is one of the best headlines ever written for a direct mail package.

Now, this title was written before the Internet was born and doesn’t address the SEO issue, but it probably got your attention and stimulated your curiosity; especially if you’ve ever flown on an airplane.

If you were writing a piece on the subject of public speaking, you might come up with a title like this one: “How to overcome your fears of public speaking.” This title joins the conversation of someone searching for help, someone worried about the talk they are scheduled to give in the morning and there’s a good chance they’ll want to know more because you’ve struck a chord.

Reader resonance keeps you in tune

We’re writers, but never lose sight of the fact that we depend on readers. Think reader resonance. Climb into your reader’s mind when you craft your titles. When your title is in tune with how a reader thinks and searches, you have a much greater chance for search hits and a good title that will compel the reader to jump in and read your post. That’s the point after all….isn’t it?

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The Grammar of SEO Titles

Grammar? Wait — come back! I didn’t mean to scare you off like that. This isn’t your stern English teacher talking. Grammar just happens to have a few neat analogies for explaining how to craft an effective title.

A sentence is a complete thought. A title should be complete and able to stand on its own — just like a sentence.

In The Elements of Grammar, Margaret Shertzer describes the parts of a sentence.

“The subject of a sentence is the person, object, or idea being described. The predicate is the explanation of the action, condition, or effect of the subject.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to describe an SEO title using the same terminology. The subject of the title is the keyword phrase, the predicate explains and completes the thought. The keyword phrase as the subject of the title should come first. The title’s predicate assures a complete title that can stand on its own.

  • Subject + Predicate = Sentence
  • Topic (SEO keyword phrase) + Energetic verb = SEO effective and engaging title

A well-chosen title is complete because it identifies the topic clearly. The SEO-friendly subject focuses your title and your verb choice adds energy. This is how you appeal to both audiences, SEO bots and your audience of readers.

Compare this before and after title fix:

  • Poorly formed title: What NOT To Buy At A Dollar Store
  • Well-structured title: Bargain Shopping: Dollar Store Deals To Avoid
  • While the meaning of the first title is clear to a person reading the title, too much is implied and the first six words are not SEO keywords. The only keyword in the entire title is Dollar Store
  • The topic is really about bargain shopping and what not to buy at the dollar store.
  • The second title immediately has Bargain shopping as a keyword to be scooped up by the web spiders. Dollar store (and perhaps deals) will also be scooped up as SEO keywords.

Want more? Here’s a link to a great SEO article! —SEO Tips That Make Sense

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typewriterAre you fed up with all the doodads and distractions of a typical word processor?  Imagine rolling a clean sheet of paper into your virtual typewriter. No tool bars, no pop ups, nothing to distract you – just a plain screen so you can think and concentrate on your words as you write. Minimalist writing applications like Write Room for the Mac have gathered a cult following of writers who crave the simplicity of a blank screen. A few simple tweaks and Google Docs will give you the  ideal writing environment. It’s easy when you know the secrets.

Here’s how to set up Google documents for distraction free writing:

  • Open a new document, click on the View menu and select “Fixed width page view.” This setting will give you a virtual page on the screen.
  • Go to the edit menu and select “Document Styles.” From here, you select the font, line spacing and even the document background color. There’s a check box where you can make these the default styles for all new documents. I like Tahoma 14 pt. because it gives nice contrast that’s easy to read on screen.
  • Go to the View menu again and select “Full-screen mode” to make the tool bar and menus disappear. You’ll see a blue message at the top right of the screen “Full-screen mode; press ESC to return to normal mode.” Click on the X to make that go away if you find it distracting.
  • Now all you have to do is put your browser into full screen mode. Simply press F11 and you’ll have a distraction free writing environment.
  • Google remembers all your settings so you won’t have to. Just open a new document, go to full screen mode and you’re ready to write with zero distractions.

You can easily switch back and forth between full screen and normal views. Google documents have a full compliment of keyboard shortcuts so you may not even need the menu until you’re finished. You can return to the menu to add the final polish before you publish.

Google Docs gives you more than a distraction free writing environment. When you use Google Docs, you can access your documents from any computer with an Internet connection. Best of all, Google Docs works with all the major browsers, doesn’t care what operating system you have and won’t cost you a dime.

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