Getting Inspired

People often ask me where I get writing ideas. Truth is a lot of the writing I do is prescribed—meaning I don’t have to generate ideas. These are things like technical proposals and reports, where I write according to certain guidelines.

Other times I’m assigned a story or editorial to write on a given topic, where I’m given an outline, directions and sources to interview.

But there are times when I need to get flat out creative and think up ideas of my own – either to pitch to a client or for my own personal blog.

Where do the ideas come from? Well, from everywhere actually.

It can be a casual conversation with someone in line at the bank or grocery store check-out line.

Or a friendly chat with a neighbour will inspire a great lead for a personal finance story. Yeah, I write about the neighbours!

Other times it’s something I heard on the radio while driving – or maybe a story I’ve suddenly recalled from years ago that’s relevant to something I’m writing about today.

For financially-related pieces, some of my obvious sources of information are various financial websites, TV news and  BNN Bloomberg.

Essentially, content opportunities are everywhere. You just have to be receptive when they come your way.

An Unlikely Source

Lately, I’ve discovered another goldmine for story ideas in an unlikely source – daytime TV. Now, I don’t mean soap operas or Dr. Phil. I’m talking about those chat shows like The Social, the View and The Talk.

Now let me make clear the only time I watch TV in the daytime is when I’m eating my lunch (which I know I shouldn’t be doing), but with my recent discovery I can rationalize it as time productively spent.

I don’t watch any one show in particular – just channel surf to see which one is most interesting to me at that moment – especially when the topic turns to personal finance, something I write a lot about.

And, sometimes my TV watching efforts pays off – like the time I crafted and successfully pitched an article based on a story that was being discussed on The Talk. Thanks Sharon Osborne!

As a side benefit you can get some amazing practical tips for other aspects of your life.  I learned the proper way to fold my sweaters, layer my clothes for winter and what to pack if I ever go to the Yukon! Not things I’d likely be writing about, but good for my own edification.

Speaking of which, it’s lunch time now so I must run and see what today’s daytime TV has to offer!

Tabloid Tales

True confessions – I used to read tabloids when I was in university!

Mind you it was only to chill after a round of intense study and essay writing. I reasoned it was okay to waste a few hours on shallow stuff after weeks of self-denial, self-discipline and focus on deep academic stuff.

It became a ritual. After that last exam or intense bout of term papers was over, I’d clean my apartment and then hit the  variety store and grab a copy of every single tabloid on the rack – along with a box of chocolate covered Digestive tea biscuits. Remember those?

I’d come home, brew a pot of Earl Grey, and head over to the sofa where I’d gorge on the biscuits, savour the tea and devour the juicy tabloid talk – all guilt free. I’d earned it, after all, and it wasn’t as if I never read anything more edifying, right?

Tabloid Writing Tips

After long giving up my tabloid habit, I now find myself, in a strange twist of irony, turning to them once more – and, even stranger – this time for content marketing writing tips. See, I recently read some writers’ blogs on how tuning in to tabloid technique can help jazz up your writing style.

One was a hilarious account by Barbara Neil Varma on the Writing World website:

“… I was writing about a new international program in which our agency’s employees taught foreign administrators how to apply our processes to their own countries. It was an interesting topic but my first draft was half asleep. At lunchtime I stopped at the grocery store and spotted a tabloid’s bold headline: “ALIENS ON TOUR! NEXT STOP: EARTH!” It gave me an idea. I snuck the magazine into my office and surreptitiously began to read about the ridiculous. The articles were chock full of juicy verbs, naughty nouns, and, of course, true, eyewitness accounts! Credibility aside, it was fun – and my article on the international program now had a lead: “Next stop: Athens.”

Another was this one by Peter Reilly, himself a former tabloid scribe, called 10 Tabloid tips to better writing.

“The key is short sentences, action verbs, and putting the most important part in the lead – and to never be boring. After all content marketing is about storytelling and telling it in a way that grabs and keeps the reader’s attention. In our digital age where readers’ attention spans are ever decreasing, an interesting story is more likely to keep their attention than a series of facts.”

Learn from the Experts

Nothing like learning from the experts, I figured, so why not try it myself? After all, we writers always gotta improve, right? The only problems is procuring one of those rags … I mean, mags, without anyone knowing.

Sure I could look at them online, but that’s no fun. I want the real deal, something I can hold in my hand, read and make notes in. So I posted an ad on one of those recycle boards (not using my real name, of course), saying I was working on a special project (sort of true) and needed some old tabloids from someone who wanted to get rid of them.

No response.  I move to Plan B – bite the bullet, and buy one at the drug store. Hope no one sees me. Haven’t read one of these in years.

I bring it home. I leaf through it and while getting the latest celeb scoop on the Kardashians, celebrity divorces, hookups, scandals, and upcoming royal wedding, I make notes on style, lexicon, phraseology and technique.

Wow, what an enlightening exercise … all in the name of professional development! Suddenly my writing takes on new life, new vim and vigor. I use punchier words, shorter sentences and get more bang for my writing buck.

Sure pays to have an enquiring mind!


Cats, Vets and English Usage

My veterinarian and I call ourselves language purists – and we love to discuss English usage whenever I bring my cats in to see him.

While he’s examining my furry felines’ eyes, vaccinating against rabies or checking for fleas, we engage in animated debates on the correct and incorrect forms and uses of English words, expressions and grammar.

Sure, we recognize that language is fluid and ever changing – and that certain usages become accepted over time, while others become obsolete – but that doesn’t mean we agree.

How language “should” be versus how it actually “is”

Some might call us “prescriptivists”- folks who say how language should be and lament its changing. That’s the opposite of “descriptivists” who simply observe and describe current language usage and how it changes over time.

We reaffirmed our steadfast prescriptivist views during a recent cat appointment when I gave my animal doc my extra copy of  H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Henry Watson Fowler (1858 – 1933) was an English schoolmaster, lexicographer and commentator on English usage. When he was middle-aged, his schoolmaster career ended and he became a freelance writer and journalist – albeit not a very successful one. During this time he and his younger brother, Frank, started publishing books on grammar, style and lexicography. Aside from his work on A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler contributed to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

By today’s standards Fowler’s dictionary on “modern” English is outdated. Nevertheless, it makes for some intriguing reading on how English has evolved – if you have the time and patience for it.

Despite Fowler’s partiality for word economy and precision, he could get quite long-winded and meandering by today’s business writing standards. Take for example his description of the simple word “clause” as it refers to grammar:

“It conduces both to clearness and to brevity if the word in its grammatical sense is applied only to what is sometimes called a subordinate clause and never either to a complete sentence or to the framework of the sentence, which is often called the main or principal but may equally well be called main sentence. The definition of a clause, then, should be ‘subordinate words including a subject and predicate, but syntactically equivalent to a noun or adjective or adverb’; in this book the word is always to be understood thus.”

Whew, did you get that?

Not everyone agreed with Fowler. Some of his critics and peers could be downright unkind, asserting that he was simply writing his own preferences. But Fowler could be just as uncompromising in describing misuses of words, as the following example attests:

eas(il)y. Easy as an adverb, instead of the normal easily, survives only as a vulgarism and in a few phrases, mostly colloquial: stand easy, easy all, take it easy, easy come easy go, easier said than done.

Breaking the rules

Fowler probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the way we modern-day content marketers and journalists write.

We often take liberties with language, use colloquialisms generously, and play with words to make the message interesting, engaging and easy to understand. There are times when we may concede on a grammar or style point in order to make the writing connect more easily with the reader. And, yes, all of us have probably used the word easy colloquially in one of the ways that Fowler points out.

That can be a bit of a struggle for me. My prescriptivist side knows I’m breaking some of the rules, but I always wonder if the reader knows I know this. Will they think I don’t know better? What if they complain to the managing editor or the publisher? Worse, what would Fowler think of me?

So I declare here that if you come across a piece of my writing that has a word, phrase or sentence of which Fowler would disapprove, be assured I know better.

Just ask my vet!