Small Business Marketing

Are We All Just Hacks? Steven Pressfield Has Thoughts

Are We All Just Hacks? Steven Pressfield Has ThoughtsI finally got around to reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

(“Reading”, here, is defined as “reading ALL the words”. As opposed to, say, looking at it in Chapters… and Barnes and Noble… and Waterstones…. and FNAC… and EVERY SINGLE TIME wandering off for a coffee.)

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. It’s one of the most highly talked about works in this industry, and it’s not new – it’s been on the shelves since 2002. But there was one part that spoke to me in particular. This is where he quotes his friend, screenwriter Robert McKee. It’s called “The Definition of a Hack”.

According to his definition, I’m a hack, and so is almost everyone I know.

Passages and concepts like this are divisive. There’s a part of all of us that wants to heed his words. We cry out, YES! That’s true! And we don’t want to be hacks. We reel when we consider how much we’ve sold out.

But the other part rails and rages. NO! That’s NOT true! We’re NOT hacks. We’re practical! We’re giving the market what they want! We’re feeding our families, paying off debt, building a better life.

Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum, here’s the passage. This is me quoting Pressfield quoting Robert McKee:

The Definition of a Hack

I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.

The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.

He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?

The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he takes a position. He’s a demagogue. He panders.

It can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.

Wise words to consider, yeah?

Thanks to the generous James Chartrand for lending me the book, and the patient Jenna Avery for tolerating me whenever I mocked her obsession with it. Mea culpa.

5 Time-Saving Hacks to Get Your Newsletter Out the Door Faster

Write newsletter fastSo we’ve talked about emails you can send in no time at all. Now let’s up the ante and talk about five ways you can save time and get ANY email out the door faster.

Yay! Time!

1. Kill your images.

If you have images, that’s wonderful. Who doesn’t love a pretty, pretty picture? But if you’re struggling to get your email out, and pictures are a part of your personal torture, kill the image. Nobody cares.

When I have given this advice in the past, I’ve heard two types of reply. One, an incredulous “I can DO that?!?!” with an accompanying sigh of relief. Two, “But people say they really love my images!”

If you are in the latter camp, that’s great. Bring the image back next time. But just because people love an element of what you do doesn’t mean they’ll leave in a rage if you stop. It’s your picture, you can kill it if you want to.

2. Kill the template.

For the better part of 10 years I sent email in text-only. Every now and again I lusted after somebody’s gorgeous email template, but I realized that as a small business owner, I had better things to do.

It’s difficult for me to imagine somebody saying, “Well, I would read IttyBiz, but there’s no fancy formatting in the newsletter, you know?”

If you’ve got a great template that’s easy to use and takes virtually no time to format, fantastic. Keep it. But if the template is part of the problem, kill it, even only for today. When people see that it’s different, they’ll assume something went wrong with the formatting and they’ll just read the text.

3. Steal a subject line.

The subject line for my last email came from the cover of this month’s InStyle magazine. It was originally “Style Your Hair In Half The Time.” I changed it to “Email Your List In Half The Time” and as such, put all of three seconds of thought into the entire affair.

This also works if you don’t know what to write about. Go look at a magazine. Find a headline you like well enough. Change it to something that works for your list or blog. Now write the piece.

Be ready for the gym in half the time?
Make your bed in half the time?
Clean your desk in half the time?
Calm down in half the time?
Choose your dress in half the time?

No, they’re not going to win the Pulitzer, but they’ll keep your list warm and get you a bit of traffic. To quote Colin Firth from Love, Actually, “This isn’t bloody Shakespeare.”

4. Ditch the intro.

If you have ever said to yourself, “I don’t know where to start”, this one’s for you. The amount of time people spend on their introductions is often greater than the rest of the email combined. It’s shocking. If you don’t know where or how to start… don’t.

Truly, there is nothing wrong with starting your email with a reworded version of your title.

Go read the intro for this piece. See what I did there? Took eight seconds.

5. Kill unnecessary formatting.

Most formatting in emails does not need to be there, and making sure it looks “right” takes forever.

If you’re writing a short piece (less than 750 words?) you really don’t need much formatting at all.

Formatting exists to add emphasis and give the reader’s eyes a chance to rest in the midst of big blocks of text. So…

If you want to emphasize something, put it in all-caps. And give the eye a rest by breaking up your paragraphs – one or two sentences max. Bam. Formatting’s done.

(Incidentally, in a world where everybody’s reading on their phone, you want to break up your paragraphs anyway. Something that qualified as a perfectly reasonable paragraph when you were in college takes up more than a whole screen on an iPhone 5. Start getting used to shorter sections of text – your readers will thank you for it.)

(That last paragraph? A little too long for mobile. The ones right before it? A lot easier to read on a phone.)

So that’s it!

Five ways to eliminate the unnecessary and save precious time that you COULD be using to interact with us on Facebook. I’m just saying.

7 Newsletters You Can Send In 10 Minutes Or Less

7 Newsletters You Can Send In 10 Minutes Or LessRaise your hand if you’ve ever had this thought:

“I know I should email my list, but OMG, it’s going to take sooooo loooong.”

(Now that everybody’s hand is up, perhaps we should all do the hokey pokey. Or ride a bull!)

Emailing your list doesn’t have to take forever. It can be quick. Today, I’ve got some ideas for you.

1. A really good or unusual quote.

Go to a quotes website (I like brainyquotes.com) and plug in something tangentially related to what you do and scroll around for a while. Find something you haven’t seen 4000 times already.

A good way to find quotes that haven’t already entered cliche status is to head on over to the trusty thesaurus.com and put in the first word you would think to use. “Courage”, let’s say, or “happiness”. Find synonyms of your word, and search for quotes using them. You’ll get stuff that’s a little off the beaten path.

Use a subject line like “A little quote I love” and you don’t even need an introduction. Just dump the quote in the email, attribute it, maybe throw in a date if you’re feeling ambitious. Click send.

(Incidentally, this one from Po Bronson actually came in our top 10 favorite posts of 2008.)

Now, what about longer quotes? Once a quote gets long, it becomes…

2. An excerpt!

Some of the best feedback we get is from carefully curated excerpts of other writers’ longer works. (We’ve done a few that were particularly popular – see an example of a Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up excerpt here and a The Obstacle is the Way excerpt here.)

Short excerpts with attribution fall under Fair Use copyright, so as long as you’re not uploading whole tomes or calling them your own, you’re generally okay. Nobody’s going to call you a thief.

3. An excerpt of your own.

Also qualifying as the easiest email blasts to ever send are excerpts of things you’ve already written. This is particularly popular with writers who have both an active blog and an email list. What do you send where?

Find a good chunk – let’s say a couple paragraphs – of something that’s up on your blog and send it to your list. Provide a link to the full piece. Bam. Email written. That’s what I did with this post. I cut the first four paragraphs of this piece (the tiny ones at the top) and plonked them into an email with a link sending them here. Hey, look! We’re done.

(You can also do this with excerpts of your books, if you have them. This has been known to sell a lot of books. Keep it to a page or less, and cut or move or modify stuff if it seems prudent. It’s your book, you can cut whole paragraphs if you want to.)

4. Blast from the past.

Kind of like an excerpt, but longer, we have a blast from the past.

Just yank something from the archives.

Seriously. Take an old post. Put it in an email. Send the email. Aaaaaaand, we’re done!

(If you can go way back, this gives you implied social proof. See what I did with the Po Bronson thing? A top 10 from 2008? Cool, right?)

5. Round-up.

While you’re stumbling around in your archives, you could make a whole LIST of pieces. Then you could put them in an email. Then you could send than email to your mailing list.

What to make a list of? Pretty much anything. Your favorites. Other people’s favorites. Most popular posts throughout the months. Most popular posts throughout the years. Your favorite posts that nobody ever reads. The post that gets your highest search traffic. The posts that have the stupidest pictures. Honestly, anything will work here.

Stick them in a list of links. If you have some time, cut a few lines from each as a little teaser. If you have no time, a plain old list is fine.

This is AMAZING for traffic. Seriously.

6. Found on the web.

Basically? Things you found on the internet.

These can be on topic, but they don’t have to be. If you don’t know what to send, or you don’t have anything cool you’ve found, sign up for Pocket. They’ll send cool stuff to you, and then you can send it to your list.

If your list is social media positive, then they’ll tend to love posts like this. It gives them fodder for sharing so they can look interesting and in-the-know.  Your readers will get cred in their social circle, and privately remember that you are the source of the goodness.

(Bonus?  If you’re concerned you talk about the same thing all the time, this will be a breath of fresh air for your list.)

7. Ask a question.

Last (and certainly) not least, you always have the option of asking a question via your email.  You can ask a direct question (“Hey, can I get your opinion?”) or a more rhetorical question that your readers will ask themselves (“What one thing could you do today to increase your Facebook engagement?”)

A few things to take note of:

One! – If you ask a question, people will answer it. If you have a large or responsive list, a lot of people will answer it. You’re going to have to respond to their answers, so no sending before you go on a weekend, or a bender, or a weekend bender.  People expect a reply. (I did this a few years ago and got over 700 replies in less than 24 hours.  I answered more than 400 until I basically died.  If I didn’t get back to you, mea culpa.)

Two! –  The “question” email is often a staple of a launch sequence, so be prepared for people thinking you are about to hit them up for money.  You can allay this concern by giving a little bit of context.  Tell them this topic came up last night at dinner, or you’ll make a post later with the most interesting answers, or anything else that communicates THIS IS NOT A PRE-SALE BLITZ.

That’s it. Easy peasy.

You can do any of these emails in less than 10 minutes.

If you’re the printerly type, print this post out and keep it handy for those moments when you’re strapped for time, grappling with writers’ block, or recovering from that weekend bender.

And share this post while you’re at it. Consider it your first “Found on the web”.  :)

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