We need to talk about depression

I have just read Rosie Waterland’s book, The anti-cool girl, which captures with such precision the half-life of a person living with depression, with mental illness. Amidst the laugh out loud moments of life as a ‘houso’ in North Ryde, the pressing, the closing in, the self-sabotage resonate. It needs to be read, widely.

I lived a second-hand experience of depression through my brother: caring for him, trying to keep him alive through the fog of medication, alcoholism, weight gain, inertia.

I would circle back to stations to get him off a train, the one he’d promise to be on, and wait on platforms in vain. Two, three times. He’d lie in our spare room all day. My parents, my sister and I had no clue how to help him. When he died, it was a searing honesty that trying to keep him alive was the hardest thing we had ever done. We had failed, but now, amidst the grief, it was easier. That’s hard to live with.

What’s wrong with our society that we turn our backs on these sick people? Why do we value these lives less? He knew it would be easier with him gone, and without a decent support system to help him, to help us, it was. I have a tattoo on my ankle, a snake encircled around a tree of life. He was born in Hong Kong in the year of the snake and I was afraid that I would forget him.

Not long after my brother died, I met a woman whose father-in-law in Sweden had attempted suicide. He was incarcerated in hospital. He had care, therapy and sanctuary until deemed well enough to go home for short visits. He stayed for much longer. Our taxes wouldn’t pay for that, with our meanness, our blindness, our chosen ignorance. My brother had attempted to kill himself seven years earlier and was discharged from Emergency after two nights with a referral to a psychiatrist. Like he was in control of his decisions.

He was treated as an ‘individual’, although he wasn’t. Who amongst us is? His ‘right to privacy’ was paramount: his depression was his responsibility alone. It meant that my parents, his carers, were excluded from his medical treatment, his therapy. They were personae non gratis, in the eyes of the medical establishment.

Rosie’s account of having to rationalise to the triage nurse at A&E that, yes, she would kill herself if not admitted is our system in miniature: a bizarre Catch-22 of being sane enough to admit insanity.

While her life with a broken education at 17 schools, abandoned for days at a time, living with violence could be the polar opposite of mine, the frailty of human beings is universal. My best friend at school had alcoholic parents. They’d drink scotch at breakfast, so she raised herself. And spent lots of time at my house. Not that I knew anything at the time. So much is hidden.

Rosie Waterland found a way through in writing. She describes how she had read a vacuous article about exactly nothing and knew she could do better. Her published writing pulled her back and I was reminded of Marian Keyes’ account of her own depression and alcoholism. Like Rosie, Keyes, a bestselling Irish author, found that writing became a way of grounding herself, being able to see through the blackness around her, and reattach herself to life.

And my friend survived, grounding herself in a country which gave her the opportunities and home she had missed out on as a child.

My brother never found that thing that would bring him back. We need to listen to those who survive and reading Rosie Waterland is a brilliant start.

 

Self-publish?

The digital age has turned publishing on its head. Writers now have more options than ever before to get their voices out into the world. A writer can now publish a book professionally, find a respectable readership and be reviewed in mainstream media, all without the imprimatur of a publishing house. Whether or not they are heard – whether or not that is their goal – is another question, and one I’ll explore in another piece.

Joel Naoum, publisher, editor and founder of Critical Mass Consulting discussed self-publishing with a group of interested writers at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 7 April 2017 . I caught up with Joel later and we talked further about the new face of publishing.

The freedom of the digital era to publish new writers or new books by existing writers, without having to bow to strictures such as shelf space, has been liberating. The market is out there. Despite fears, people still want to read books and look for an immersive reading experience in a traditional mould – the long form book ­– without interactive websites, reading apps, or distracting hyperlinks. Genre fiction – with its high turnover – has found a natural fit with digital publishing and romance, particularly, is now more than 50 per cent digital.

The accessibility and cost-effectiveness of digital publishing is a logical destination for self-publishers. Critical Mass is an advisory service for writers who have written a book, or thinking about writing one, and are exploring self-publishing options. After working as an editor at Macmillan and then heading up its digital imprint, Momentum, he launched Critical Mass Consultancy to fill what he saw as a gap in the market. With writers wanting to put books into the public domain and the IT capabilities and platforms available, the missing links were connecting the two.

Marketing is the behemoth which forestalls many writers. Joel confirmed that so much of traditional publishing is the grind of marketing – copy, covers, blurbs, promotions – and shepherding the writer through the process. He acknowledged that the most successful self-published authors were either adept at this, or learnt quickly how to outsource it to professionals. Becoming a successful self-published author is akin to becoming a small businessperson – the most innovative, the bravest do well. That said, an authentic presence is essential. He encouraged writers to use platforms with which they were familiar and were most likely to suit their genre.

He agreed with my concerns that self-publishing has pushed these functions onto the writers, but more control over your authorial voice is no small compensation. The sense that the reading public is in danger of being swamped is certainly there but he is confident that the cream will rise to the surface. Advice on how to navigate that road to get the best book possible is probably a good investment.

 

Writing for outcomes

Here are the four parts of my persuasive writing masterclass in one article. Mix it up, take what you need. Your situation is unique and your appeal will be too.

 

#1 Facts

It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.

Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and it is complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.

In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.

  • Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
  • Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
  • Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.

 

#2 Understanding

Once you know what you want to say and can support it with the right facts, demonstrating understanding is critical. Your words need to ring with confidence. You are building trust with your reader.

If you are going to persuade, expect to defend. And you will find it hard, if not impossible, to defend an argument that you do not understand.

When writing briefs for the Premier of NSW as a graduate policy officer, I was expected to be able to explain anything that I had passed up the line. If I did not understand it, I needed to make the right calls to find out how it fitted into the bigger picture. What did it mean?

Understanding something operates on two levels.

Handling complexity

First, you need to know what you are talking about. Understanding the information is different from making sure your facts are right.

If you don’t understand it, neither will your reader and you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.

Apply these rules:

  1. If there is complexity or ambiguity in your argument or in the resources you are working from, find another reference. Ask an expert. A CEO I worked for was never afraid of asking the ‘stupid question’. If you are unsure, others will be too. Trust yourself.
  2. Don’t let complex material languish on its own. Illustrate it with a story, or by expanding on the context. This will show your confidence with the subject. Confidence is catching.
  3. Think about the most rational outcome. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. Even if powerful vested interests are dominating the debate, flagging the common-sense solution can be powerful.

Emotional understanding

You feel this. It has touched you. Appealing at a basic, human level will elicit a basic, human response from your reader. The gut.

Make it real. Include real events or scenarios. This does not need to be lengthy. In fact the shorter the better. An historian I once read called it ‘corroborative detail’. It will stick with the reader. Some things to remember:

  1. Give your reader a sense that you are a real person. How would they feel if they were in your place? Can you imagine and describe different outcomes?
  2. People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?

 

#3 Motivation—yours and theirs

The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.

Where is the power?
Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.

Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?

Stakeholders
Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.

When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.

Where are they vulnerable?
If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.

Pick your battles
How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.

But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.

Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.

Next steps
Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.

 

#4 Structure and tone

How you put your pitch together is crucial.

You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and keep them looking. Don’t blow your opportunity for a result with poor construction.

The opener
Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.

Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.

Choosing and placing words
Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.

Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.

No surprises
Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.

Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.

No mistakes
Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, find a second opinion or a fresh set of eyes.

 

Structure and tone—Persuasive writing #4

Structure and tone

How you put your pitch together is crucial. You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and then keep them looking. If you have the other elements in play (facts, understanding and motivation), you don’t want to blow your opportunity for a result by poor construction.

The opener

Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.

Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.

Choosing and placing words

Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.

Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.

No surprises

Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.

Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.

No mistakes

Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, ask for a second opinion.

This has been my last instalment of the persuasive writing masterclass, giving you tools for writing prose to persuade. You can read more at www.yourseconddraft.com. I’d love to hear thoughts on it and other writing techniques you would like to learn more about or have found useful.

Motivation—Persuasive writing #3

Motivation—yours and theirs

The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.

Where is the power?

Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.

Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?

Stakeholders

Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.

When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.

Where are they vulnerable?

If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.

Pick your battles

How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.

But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.

Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.

Next steps

Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.

Next time, I’ll discuss the basic structure of a persuasive text. There are some simple rules which will help your writing get results.

Understanding—Persuasive writing #2

The second lesson in my persuasive writing masterclass is about understanding.

Once you know what you want to say and can support it with the right facts, demonstrating understanding is critical. Your words need to ring with confidence. You are building trust with your reader.

If you are going to persuade, expect to defend. And you will find it hard, if not impossible, to defend an argument that you do not understand.

When writing briefs for the Premier of NSW as a graduate policy officer, I was expected to be able to explain anything that I had passed up the line. If I did not understand it, I needed to make the right calls to find out how it fitted into the bigger picture. What did it mean?

Understanding something operates on two levels.

  1. Handling complexity

First, you need to know what you are talking about. Understanding the information is different from making sure your facts are right (see my piece last month, Facts—and how you can use them). If your reader doesn’t understand it, you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.

 If there is complexity or ambiguity in your argument or in the resources you are working from, find another reference. Ask an expert. A CEO I worked for was never afraid of asking the ‘stupid question’. If you are unsure, others will be too. Trust yourself.

  • Don’t let complex material languish on its own. Illustrate it with a story, or by expanding on the context. This will show your confidence with the subject. Confidence is catching.
  • What is the most rational outcome? Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. Even if powerful vested interests are dominating the debate, flagging the common-sense solution can be powerful.
  1. Emotional understanding

You feel this. It has touched you. Appealing at a basic, human level will elicit a basic, human response from your reader. The gut.

 Make it real. Include real events or scenarios. This does not need to be lengthy. In fact the shorter the better. An historian I once read called it ‘corroborative detail’. It will stick with the reader.

  • Give your reader a sense that you are a real person. How would they feel if they were in your place? Can you imagine and describe different outcomes?
  • People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?

Once you get your facts right, and demonstrate understanding, a core element of persuasive writing is motivation. Yours, theirs. See my piece next time on Purpose.

Facts! Persuasive writing #1

It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.

Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.

In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.

  • Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
  • Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
  • Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.

Next, I’ll talk about understanding and how it can be irresistible.

 

 

A masterclass in persuasive writing

 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the ways you can get results with clever use of words. I’ll teach you how to attract someone’s attention, hold it, and get a result.

Writing for outcomes is a blend of basic elements which can be ticked off in a checklist, and poetry which cannot. But, once understood, you will be able to create some of your own magic. And, like any difficult skill, you will get better with practice. I’ll work through the mechanics of persuasive writing and then touch on its artistry.

My own masterclass in persuasive writing occurred over many years working with executives and politicians and in grassroots advocacy. Getting that second look, ensuring that my letter or submission or paper was read beyond the first paragraph is key. You might only have 30 seconds of a senior official’s time before they decide its fate. To keep my appeals moving towards favourable decisions, I had to make every word count.

Stay tuned.

What publishers think about the future of books

Last week, I went to Forest for the Trees—a Sydney Writers’ Festival workshop—to hear industry insiders talk about the state of writing and publishing in Australia in 2016. A panel chaired by David Hunt, author of Girt: the unauthorised history of Australia and the podcast Rum, Rebels & Ratbags, talked about the rise of audio books and the spoken word.

Audio has taken us into new territory with new audiences. Instead of cannibalising readership, as some have feared, however, they were optimistic about the power of new technologies to tell stories. Think driving. It’s a no-brainer. An enclosed, climate-controlled space is the perfect environment for audio books. And ironing has never looked so appealing. The phenomenal success of the Harry Potter audio books, even before Stephen Fry’s narration, is testament to the power of a good story.

We’re looking for substance again too. After nearly two decades in thrall to the digital experience, its breadth, colour, movement, we’ve discovered that we have been feasting on junk food. Bedazzled by its sheer volume, we didn’t notice how quickly content had been replaced by snippets, distracting hyperlinks, visual muzak.

But now, we see the long form article appearing more and more, and we are paying for good content. It’s worth it.

Innovators are working on media and platforms that I cannot imagine. Creativity will continue to unfurl through their channels and find new audiences. But for all the bells and whistles of the future, the act of reading continues to be a solitary, introspective activity.  I cannot be alone in savouring it for the freedom it offers in being able to look up, away from the page and into my own thoughts (not ‘enhanced’ by anything), and return in my own time.

The long-form book give that complete immersive experience and as long as we are human, it will be with us.http://www.swf.org.au/program/swf2016/forest-for-the-trees-writers-and-publishing-in-2016-W17

Everybody likes a system

Everybody likes a system. The smooth operation of our civilisation depends on following rules. Sure, some are ill-designed, some are just stupid and others are unfair. We all flout some rules, sometimes with excellent reasons but, in the main, they stand between us and that other law—the jungle.

I was reminded of this today. Volunteering at my daughter’s school at the ‘kiss and drop’, resplendent in my high-viz vest, I set up traffic cones, directed incoming cars into the designated lane, opened doors, helped the kids with their bags and waved the driver on. If more than four cars lined up, we directed those at the end to drive round the block. Although they had to join a queue and might have to go round again, instead of cutting in further down, the parents loved it. They saw a system that  worked for everybody. Everybody played, everybody understood the rules.

And, recently, stuck on one side of the barricades at the Boston Marathon, our guesthouse on the other side, the air was cooling faster than the runners. The road was long. How would we get across?  Dark mutterings were heard in the crowd. But there was a system! We found a crossing point where security checked the oncoming ‘traffic’ then waved us over in groups of two or three. And the crowd of tired onlookers, thinking about home and dinner, formed a line. The mood lifted.  We danced across, happy to be a part of the whole shebang.

Grammar is a set of rules which lets us discern meaning.

Take apostrophes. They only ever show ownership or indicate a contraction.

If the owner is singular, (the club), the apostrophe come before the s: the club’s soccer ball. If the owner is plural (the girls), the apostrophe comes after the s: the girls’ soccer ball.

With the exception of ‘its’. We don’t use an apostrophe when we show ownership by the pronoun ‘it’: the club won the game playing with its best team.

This distinguishes it from the contraction of ‘it is’ (it’s going to be a hot day). In a contraction, you put the apostrophe exactly where the missing letters belong: where they’d (they would) be, if you’d (you had) written the word in full.

Never use them in plurals and you can skip them when talking about a number of years (1970s). The jury’s out on that one but I think it looks better without it.

Rules helped us cross the marathon’s barricades and will help you sort your soccer balls.

 

Boston marathon crossing