Category: Writing and Publishing

Where Doe Medium Fit?

I’ve spent some time in the last few days poking around on Medium. I haven’t been paying a lot of attention recently to online blogging and publishing technologies so my own writing life has settled into a well-worn groove. Today, I set up an IFTTT recipe to auto-post my blog entries from here on Medium, just to see how that works.

Medium is a strange but interesting place/idea. In one of their own blog entries, I ran across this summary of their (apparent) benefits: “a fully hosted writing platform, distribution of stories to a community of engaged and thoughtful readers, the clean aesthetic for which Medium is known, and innovative features like Text Shots.”

It seems like the first three points are the big draw, particularly the idea of easy distribution of stories within the Medium community. In this respect, it’s sort of like WordPress’ hosted platform which provides tools for the sharing and discovery of other peoples’ blogs you might find interesting. Having spent some (but not a lot of) time with Medium, it does feel like the level of discourse is above that at hosted WordPress, but I don’t know the relative size/reach of each of them. WordPress clearly has tons of features that are missing from Medium, which, after all, claims simplicity as one of its primary features.

In any event, this will be my first cross-posted article to appear on Medium as a result of the IFTTT recipe I created. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens as a result. I’m expecting nothing so I know I won’t be disappointed. 😀

Coverup or Lie? Did Obama’s Top General Commit Treason or is This Story Just Wrong?

According to a report published in the London Review of Books and more widely disseminated online by AlterNet, General Martin Dempsey and a handful of U.S. intelligence chiefs went behind their commander-in-chief’s back to undermine his Mideast policy and prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

If the story by veteran prize-winning and widely respected American journalist Sy Hersh were even mostly true, I’d be aghast, incredulous, mind-boggled and otherwise astonished that:

  1. The story hadn’t been picked up by any mainstream media #MSM outlet either in the United States or abroad as far as Google can find.
  2. Nobody had yet pointed out that General Dempsey’s actions, again if true, almost certainly constitute treason.

It turns out that the “if it were even mostly true” qualifier requires a large lick of salt and still resists swallowing whole.

Hersh’s early career was stunningly successful. He unveiled the horror of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and later the national embarrassment of Abu Graib Prison. But in recent years his reporting has caused a lot of raised eyebrows and skepticism. Seth Maxon at offered a fairly tempered but highly critical examination of Hersh’s 2013-2014 work in the Middle East and most recently, Max Fisher at fairly well discredited Hersh’s latest story with surgical precision.


I encourage you to read the AlterNet reporting of Hersh’s account. If you’re really drawn to the subject, Hersh’s original 8,000-word essay takes on a certain amount of gravitas just by its length and the hammering of the “evidence” Hersh offers.

But when all is read and done, I suspect that, like me, you’ll come away with a greater sense of dismay over the state of journalism today and over the decline and fall of yet another respected journalist in the opening years of this Millennium. It feels, at the end of it, like Hersh has fallen into the footsteps of Dan Rather and Brian Williams and other lesser journalistic lights who have been trapped by their inability to adapt to a 24-hour news cycle.

I spent most of my career in journalism. The pressure to get there first with a story in a competitive market was palpable but seldom produced significant errors in reporting. That was because for the most part the news “cycle” had a calming rhythm to it that encouraged and rewarded careful research, second and third sources for critical story points, and a sense of responsibility to readers and viewers to get it right first.

Today, those luxuries are largely eschewed by news readers who are not, in any sense of the word, journalists. The urgency to be first is so driving, so incessant, that there is no time for reflection, insight, or even questioning the logic of a story’s flow or an observer or participant’s take on it. On top of the 24-hour cycle first imposed by cable news must now be layered the instant and unqualified access to the airwaves afforded by the Internet. And that situation is further exacerbated by the siloing of information to which my old friend and colleague Dave Winer recently referred. It is entirely possible today to feed yourself a steady diet of “news” that aligns with your world view, with no intrusion of inconvenient facts from sources with alternative viewpoints. In fact, that’s the rule rather than the exception. It is difficult for me to come up with a news source that it is sufficiently objective and credible — one whose “viewpoint” if it has one is clearly labeled as “opinion” or “analysis” while news is given to me straight. In fact, I’ve given up. My news reading every day consists of six to 12 different sources from which I attempt to synthesize my understanding and viewpoints.

In that context, the pressure on the older generation of newspeople who are vying for attention amid the noise, is all but unbearable.

It is unfortunate — almost tragic — to see a great investigative reporter like Hersh stumble and fall into pit after pit. But it is also perhaps unavoidable these days. While I certainly wouldn’t put myself in the same class as any of these journalists, I almost stumbled into the same pit myself when I began researching this piece. I was flabbergasted that I couldn’t find anyone in mainstream media talking about what seemed to me to be a major news story of some moment. But my old journalist’s habits of seeking another source, researching the opposition, evaluating the credibility of the information being offered in evidence won out and I saved myself a lot of potential humiliation.


My New Book, “So You Want to be a Writer?”, Makes its Debut!

title_pageI have today published my first new eBook in some time, So You Want to Be a Writer?: Insights and Practical Tips from a 60-Book Author through LeanPub. The book — an in-progress publication — offers nine juicy tips and insights into the practical world of writing. And here’s the kicker: every few days or weeks, I’ll add new tips and insights. But if you buy the first version of the book, you lock in the 99-cent price forever! Even if I increase the price as the number of tips goes up over the years, you’ll never have to buy an upgrade for the book. Ever.

Just to make it even easier for you, I’ve also made it possible for you to get this book absolutely free. So if you’re broke or you don’t trust me enough to give me 99 cents for a book you haven’t read, you can simply opt to get the book free on the BUY page! My feelings won’t be hurt, honest. I’m interested in getting this book into as many writers and potential writers hands as possible. (By the way, I also don’t impose an upper limit on what you can decide the book is or will be worth. Already in the first day of sales, I’ve had two orders placed for between $4 and $6. I never expected that, but it’s a nice surprise.)

So how do you get the book? Go to this link and follow the simple BUY directions there. At one point you have a chance to share your email address with me; I’d appreciate it if you’d do so but I’ll understand if you choose not to.

If you like my book, please feel free to send me a note (email address links in the book) and if you really like it, maybe you’d see your way clear to recommend it to friends, post a blog entry about it, mention it in forums, and otherwise help me get the word out. I’d really appreciate it!

This book has also launched ShaferBooks, a new venture dedicated to publishing my own eBooks (and perhaps those of a few friends) on a wide variety of topics in coming weeks and months. Already in the queue and ready for release in coming weeks:

You can click on either of the links above and sign up to be notified when any or all of those books are published and available for purchase. The third title will be available for pre-release soon as well.

No Testimonials? Five Key Pointers to Telling Powerful Selling Stories

This past week I’ve been working on an advertising copywriting assignment for a good client. Writing effective long sales letters is something I’ve developed a real knack for over the years. There are some well-established quasi-formulaic approaches to these things and all of the approaches you can find will tell you one thing: testimonials are clinchers.

But what if, as is the case with this client’s new product, there aren’t any testimonials yet? We’re just introducing the product. What can you do in place of testimonials?

You could do what a lot of copywriters I’ve talked with do: make up testimonials from fake users with names like “Jim M.” or “CEO of software company”. But my client and I both hate those things; we suspect they’re pretty transparent to most prospects reading them and that they damage credibility.

storytellingI’ve found that strong short-short stories that engage the reader in what amounts to a long-form testimonial can work really well. As long as you’re clear by the way you write them that they are fictional accounts, you can really get prospects to identify with the characters in your stories. Sometimes I think these are even more effective than actual testimonials. (Of course, no reason not to use both, right?)

Here are five key ideas for creating stories that sell.

  1. Know your audience(s). You’ll want to create stories that seem relevant and that communicate in language your prospects are likely to identify with. Vocabulary, tone, subject matter, and setting all depend on getting this right. If you have more than one key audience, write a story for each.
  2. Tell their story and make your product an incidental or minor character, the solution to a problem that the character — and your prospect — is facing in the story. Focus on the character and the problem, not on your product directly.
  3. Keep it short. My rule of thumb is never to go over 300 words and I try to keep these stories in the 150-200 word range. Less than that makes it hard to tell an engaging story. More than that has the reader skipping over your story to find the next point in your sales copy.
  4. Write with emotion and color. The story should be interesting, engaging and involving without your product even  being included. In other words, the story must stand alone.
  5. Similarly, write conversationally. Narrative is more important than precisely correct grammar and syntax. It’s good advice to read these stories out loud to someone else before you finalize them. This will enable you to find spots where you’ve written some perhaps brilliant copy that just doesn’t fit the flow of the story.

Writing fiction is a different task from writing ad copy. You may need to find someone who’s adept at fiction and sub-contract your story assignments to them. (I’ll raise my hand here, unobtrusively from the back of the room.) But if you don’t have testimonials — and maybe even if you have — a well-crafted story can go a long way toward convincing your prospect that he’s just like your character and would benefit from your product or service just as the character in your story did.

Anatomy of a Comeuppance

I winced and squirmed and blustered my way through this excellent video of linguist Stephen Fry expounding on grammar and “correct” language usage today. He doesn’t go the way you think he would.

And the animation work is superb as well! If you love words and language, you’ll find this entertaining and maybe a little illuminating. If you don’t, move along, nothing to see here.

Ricochet Ads Are an Intriguing Idea

The New York Times (which I just blasted in my previous post for elitist language use) is pioneering a new kind of online advertising I find intriguing. It’s called “ricochet” advertising and here’s how it works:

  1. Advertiser chooses an article that has appeared in an online publication.
  2. Publisher creates a custom URL link to that article, to which it affixes an ad from the advertiser.
  3. Advertiser pays a fee (or share of proceeds) for a specific time period of association with the article.
  4. Advertiser promotes the article custom link to its social network.

As a rule, and as an old-fashioned news guy, I look askance at tight linkages between editorial and advertising. But this one seems, at first blush at least, to be innocuous and perhaps even mutually beneficial. It may point the way to a whole new approach to content-driven Internet marketing.

Advertisers who choose this approach will have to be very careful in choosing articles to attach to, though, because inevitably this will come to be seen as something of an endorsement.

What do you think?

New Pope’s Identity Not ‘Promulgated’

And some wonder why the New York Times isn’t more popular. Here is the news alert they sent, verbatim, at the news that the Catholic Church had chosen a new Pope:

With a puff of white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and to the cheers of thousands of rain-soaked faithful, a gathering of Catholic cardinals picked a new pope from among their midst on Wednesday. The name of the new pope, the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, was not immediately promulgated.

Promulgated? PROMULGATED?! Really? Not “announced” or “revealed” or “known” or any of a dozen other words with the same meaning that the average American could understand?

In fact, I would argue that “promulgated” was the wrong word. Promulgate’s most common usage is “to put into effect, as in a law or decree, especially by formal proclamation.” Does the name of a new pope get put into effect? Or is it just announced?



Bookstore as Printing Press?

Hardly a week goes by any more without an article appearing on some national Web site exclaiming over and bemoaning the loss of brick-and-mortar bookstores. As an author, I’m a bit sad to see this happening but in reality the publishers and the store chains have nobody to blame but themselves. If you don’t keep abreast of disruptive technology, you will be disrupted. Resistance is futile. Adaptation is mandatory.

Even today, bookstores could transform themselves at least in part and learn to thrive on the eBook explosion. Here’s one way they could do that.

Print-on-demand system may save bookstores

Print-on-demand system may save bookstores

Have good, really usable, informative Web sites through which buyers can explore and make purchasing decisions about books. Then in addition to a choice of eBook or printed book, offer a third path: the printed-on-demand eBook. By equipping themselves with a sufficient number of high-end (fast, high-quality) printers, bookstores could:

  • get me to come into the store to pick up the printed copy of the book I just ordered, in addition to or instead of the electronic version
  • give me a choice of printing formats (sizes, colors, paper quality, binding, etc.)
  • combine two or more works into one printed book even if the works are by different authors
  • get me to look at other books and reading-related products while I’m in the store picking up my printed book

In other words, they could supply the bookstore equivalent of the Last Mile of cable and fiber: save me from having to print an eBook on a slow, low-quality printer whose cartridges are enormously expensive and always empty when you need them most.

I’m astonished nobody’s tried this business model yet.

Maybe there’s a fatal flaw you can point out to me?