Here’s a Man Who Knows How To Write

June 5, 2011

I missed the debut of the Sunday Magazine’s latest makeover, so I didn’t realize till this week that Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the NYT, is apparently on tap to open each issue.  What a gift.

If you enjoy good writing, check out his essay this week: A Theory of Conspiracy Theories

My favorite turn of phrase (after his quoting from an email whose author is sure that Kennedy wasn’t killed by Oswald!!)

… even if you regard the liberal use of exclamation points as a symptom of emotional instability….

And it just gets better from there.  Here’s a taste, but you really need to read the whole thing.

Humans live along a continuum from doubt to faith. Wander far enough in the direction of faith and you reach the land of Nostradamus and of the Rapture (recently postponed). Wander too far in the other direction, past cynicism, through misanthropy, and you get to more or less the same zone of credulity: Osama bin Laden isn’t dead, President Obama isn’t American, global warming is a hoax.


Is it the copywriting? The coupon? Or the beginnings of a neighborhood?

May 30, 2011

The headline and lead in the Sunday NYT business section naturally caught my eye. 

Funny or Die: Groupon’s Fate Hinges on Words

The e-mail marketer hopes that its staff of 400 writers and editors will keep it one step ahead of its discounting competitors on the Web.

I’d love it if catchy copywriting could carry the day for coupon web sites.  But I don’t believe it will work, and I don’t honestly believe it is the core of Groupon’s competitive differentiation strategy. 

With sales promotions, it’s all about the offer, and being clear about the offer.  Clever copywriting may have helped Groupon create the category, but it won’t be enough to keep them on top.

Compare Groupon’s headline today

71% off Seattle Drum School

With Social Living’s (the competitor from Amazon)

Chef Shop , 2.5 Hour Cooking Class, $33

Both headlines are basic, and Social Living’s offer is actually clearer.  Whether I even bother to click depends partly on my interest in drums vs. cooking, and partly how much time I have to screw around that today.

Groupon’s email teaser copy is a little more clever, but I don’t even know what the specific offer is until the second sentence.

Playing a musical instrument is a skill that will serve you throughout your entire life, like safe cracking, horse whispering, and puppy juggling. Add to your resume with today’s Groupon: for $40, you get four 30-minute private music lessons on…

Social Living’s attempt at clever is awkward but it gets the point across.

Hey, good lookin’. Whatcha got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ a little somethin’ up with us when you get this brand-new recipe for great savings out of the frying pan and into the oven? Heat things up with a 2.5-hour cooking class from ChefShop and you’ll be dazzling your dinner guests…

The NYT article hints that Groupon knows it needs a more robust idea going forward, and this idea is intriguing

The hope … is that its users will eventually perceive it as an impartial guide to a city or a neighborhood, somewhat in the manner of the local paper’s weekend section.

Smarter or dumber than I was in high school?

February 27, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I signed up to receive The Official SAT Question of the Day via email.   It’s a lot of fun.  And it has confirmed what I pretty much knew to be true already – if you don’t use it, you lose it.  When I took the SATs in high school my score was pretty decent. Most pertinently, my math and verbal scores were almost identical. 

Now most of the math questions seem impossibly difficult.  Two recent examples:

What is the volume of a cube with surface area 54x2?


A woman drove to work at an average speed of 40 miles per hour and returned along the same route at 30 miles per hour. If her total traveling time was 1 hour, what was the total number of miles in the round trip?

(didn’t I learn how to solve that second one in 6th grade?)

In contrast, the language ones seem exceedingly simple.  I haven’t missed one yet.  Two recent examples:

Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

Since William the Conqueror in 1066, every British sovereign has been crowned in Westminster Abbey except Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of them were crowned.

A.           neither of them were

B.        neither were

C.       neither of whom was

D.       with neither being

E.        with neither who had been


The alarm voiced by the committee investigating the incident had a ——- effect, for its dire predictions motivated people to take precautions that ——- an ecological disaster.

A.           trivial . . prompted

B.        salutary . . averted

C.       conciliatory . . supported

D.       beneficial . . exacerbated

E.        perverse . . vanquished   

So some days I feel really smart and other days not so.  But it’s fun to compare my performance against others and also to track my cumulative score.  I recommend it. 

Bruce: welcome to the blogosphere

October 4, 2007

Since I started this blog, my friend Bruce has periodically fed me fodder for possible posts.  Now I’m glad to see that Bruce has launched his own blog.  Check it out.  I first met Bruce through the aviation world and he’s the author of a very well received book on Microsoft Flight Simulator so it’s no surprise that many of his posts are about flying.  Today though, he abruptly changes tack, and takes on the very weighty topic of the frequently inverse relationship between religious dogma and scientific progress.   I enjoy talking with Bruce about this kind of stuff and I’m very pleased he’s now sharing his thoughts through his blog. 

Reading my way through Italy

September 26, 2007

I just returned from a fabulous trip to Italy, including my first ever visit to Rome.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a travel log.  I mention it here because for the first time in my life, I correlated my vacation reading to my destination.   Wow!  It added a whole new dimension to my visit.  If you have never done this, I highly recommend it. 

Here are the books that added so much to my trip.  They are all worth reading, even in your arm chair at home.  First, I read Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr.  Doerr spent a year in Rome with his wife and infant twins while he was a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  I finished it on the plane and arrived in Rome dying to visit the Pantheon and to check out the Janiculum area of the city where they lived.  He is a great writer.  Now I want to read his fiction.  Second, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.  (I may be the last person on the planet to have done so – every time I mention it to friends they nod knowingly)  It’s a romp but her enthusiasm is contagious.  Lastly, I worked my way through Basilica by R.A. Scotti.  Thankfully, I read it after touring the Vatican because by then my curiosity was aroused.  Scotti chronicles the building of St. Peter’s Basilica through its many starts and stops during the century plus it took to complete.  This is not a light read but it is definitely enlightening. 

Masterful blogging

August 15, 2007

Martin Eberhard of Tesla Motors really knows how to blog.  His post today on transitioning out of the CEO role at Tesla is one of the best I’ve ever read.  His message provides personal insight into the management change in a way no other medium could capture so well.  He is reassuring, while at the same time acknowledging a difficult moment for himself.  His voice comes through clearly, which is not surprising – Martin is a great writer.  

The cinguain approach to email management

August 1, 2007

I got a kick out of Mike Davidson’s post on handling email overload which I read about first in Jim Fallows blog.  Mike believes he should not have to spend more time responding to an email than the sender spent writing it in the first place.  To address this, Mike has adopted the policy that all his email responses will be five sentences or less.  My observation:  it takes me longer to concisely make a point in five sentences than it does to meander around the point in 25 sentences.  Shorter doesn’t necessarily translate into quicker to write. 

However, I like what I see as Mike’s underlying message — “stop dumping all your problems on me to solve”.  Many years ago, I briefly worked for Steve Ballmer at Microsoft.  His two-word answer to open-ended emails was “See me.”  His experience was that people would seek him out in person only for the most critical items and that 80% of the meetings would never happen.