Kevin Carlow's Personal Blog

Month: April 2019

The 5 Biggest Takeaways from John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4”

There are writers, there are great writers, and then there’s John McPhee. 

Having not read much about writing and the writing process ever in my life, and then reading Draft No. 4, it feels as if I endeavored to learn Spanish by plopping myself down in The Zócalo in the heart Mexico City. 

It would take a lifetime to get on McPhee’s level of creative nonfiction writing, but there are five key takeaways in the book that anyone who writes anything (even emails) can extract and implement today to level up their writing. 

The Significance of Draft No. 4

The first draft is the hardest. Putting words to a blank page is every writer’s plight. 

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. 

 

McPhee says to expect a 4:1 ratio of time between the first draft and the second, third, and fourth drafts combined. If the first draft takes a month, then you should be able to produce drafts two, three, and four within a week. 

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something – anything – out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again – top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.

 

McPhee goes on to remark about “the interstitial time,” the downtime in between writing and editing where even though you aren’t putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, your brain is still at work. 

What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version – if it did not exist – you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind… is working on it twenty-four hours a day, but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun. 

 

The essence of writing is revision. This understanding takes a huge weight off the first draft. There’s no pressure. The first draft is not going to be good. Masters like John McPhee don’t expect it to be good. Know the bar is extremely low on a first draft. Are there words on the page? Your first draft is a success! 

 

Revision

McPhee has encountered many expert editors throughout his career from who he has gleaned several revision processes that work. 

One of these is, when reviewing an early draft, to read it top to bottom and simply circle or highlight any word that seems like it could be improved. Then revisit each of these highlighted words and work out better ones. 

Use a dictionary, not a thesaurus. 

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you. So draw a box around “wad.” Webster: “The cotton or silk obtained from the Syrian swallowwort, formerly cultivated in Egypt and imported to Europe.” Oh. But read on: “A little mass, tuft, or bundle . . . a small, compact heap.” Stet that one.

 

Structure

Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. But that thinking is a little restrictive. Say you’re writing a business story following the life of a high-performing B2B Sales Executive, and in the day you are shadowing the subject, nothing overly exciting happens until 4:45 P.M., when the Sales Exec finally reaches the C-level buyer at one of his biggest prospects on the phone. A meeting is set, the phone call ends, and the Sales Exec packs it in for the day. Will the reader be most engaged if you write this story chronologically, making the reader slog through 80% of the piece before they get to the best part? Perhaps a different structure, one that’s not a straight line, would be best? Maybe you line up an interview with the C-level buyer, and get their perspective from that fateful day. Then you could have parallel stories from each subject’s point of view, ultimately arriving at the moment of truth – the phone call. Now we’ve got something worth reading! 

One of McPhee’s examples about how he used structure to tell the best story involved a bear. Malcolm Harris from The New Republic sums it up well. 

Inspired by the preponderance of natural cycles in the Arctic, McPhee shapes a story about Alaska around a circle. The first half of the arc will take place linearly, progressing from the beginning in the straightforward humanly experienced direction of time. Halfway through, the narrative flashes back to an earlier point, which we follow to the end, which is also the beginning. McPhee’s concern is less a desire to ape the movement of the moon, and more that the trip’s most dramatic event (a grizzly bear encounter) occurs earlier than it would ideally, which is “about three-fifths of the way along, a natural place for a high moment in any dramatic structure.” McPhee makes even the limited power of narrative sound awesome: “You’re a nonfiction writer. You can’t move that bear around like a king’s pawn or a queen’s bishop. But you can, to an important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact.” You can’t move bears, but you can move time, and that’s just as good.

 

It Takes As Long As It Takes

Giving yourself deadlines for a good piece of writing has adverse affects on the quality of the writing. This is especially important if the piece requires research, interviews, and observations out in the world.

Say you’re writing a piece about successful Chief Marketing Officers and the daily habits they attribute their success to. You seek out to collect data, making phone calls and lining up interviews with your dream list of subject matter experts. Having read enough similar books and essays, you know you will need at least five CMO’s thoughts to have enough substance for the piece. After many hours of phone calls and attempts, you’ve only been able to interview two people. You told yourself you wanted to get this project done in two weeks, and now one week has already come and gone. Do you press on with just the two sources and hope it will be enough? One path – change the deadline. It takes as long as it takes. Don’t change your vision and plan because of a deadline.

 

Keep an Open Mind to the True Story

Continuing the above example, perhaps one of your two interviewees was particularly colorful, open, illuminating. The interview was supposed to be thirty minutes; it went for two and a half hours. Perhaps she was ultra dialed in to her daily regimen with a laser focus on how each minute of her days are spent. Perhaps, then, the best path forward is to alter the plan for the piece entirely, and write a personal profile on this one CMO. 

The story is what the story is. Your job as the writer is to have eyes open enough to see it. 

 


 

What’s your biggest takeaway from John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4”? What other sources of writing inspiration and knowledge have you found particularly useful? Let me know in the Comments! 

The Easiest Way to Add Captions and Subtitles to any Video for FREE – Use YouTube

Have you been scouring the internet looking for free, easy, quick ways to get captions or subtitles into your videos? Look no further!

This post will show you how to get subtitles into any video, for free, using YouTube. After doing this method, you can then upload your video natively to any other platform like Instagram or LinkedIn and it will have its captions (not just copying or embedding the YouTube video).

The biggest thing you are looking for is creating an SRT file, otherwise known as a SubRip Subtitle file. It’s a text file formatted a special way for subtitles. Once you have the SRT file for your video, you can upload your video and the SRT file to other platforms to get your subtitles/captions into your videos.

The only tool you need to make this SRT file is YouTube, and it’s FREE! I’ll show you how to do it below. Eventually you’ll end up with a video that has subtitles like this one.

Step 1 – Upload your video to YouTube. 

Step 2 – Find your video by clicking your icon in the top-right corner and clicking “My Channel.” Once your video is open, click the “Edit Video” button. 

Edit Video

Step 3 – On the left navigation, choose the tab “Transcriptions”

Step 4 – On the far right under the column “Subtitles,” hit the button for your language.

Transcriptions

Step 5 – Now you should be on a screen that looks like this (except my subtitles are already entered in, yours will be blank). This is where you can easily enter all of your subtitles. YouTube makes it pretty intuitive. I found it’s easiest and quickest to just manually enter them the exact way you want. When finished, hit the “Publish edits” button.

Subtitle Editing

Step 6 – Now that all your subtitles are entered in and you’ve published the edits, get back to the Transcription screen for your video and click the “Actions” drop-down in the top-left of the screen. Choose “Download .srt”

Step 7 – Congratulations, your YouTube video now has subtitles! If you are curious to see what an SRT file looks like, open up the file you just created with any word processor program, like Notepad. It should look something like this.

SRT File Example
.SRT File Example

Step 8 – Now you want to get this video onto another platform with its subtitles, like LinkedIn, but you don’t want to just copy and paste the YouTube video, you want to upload directly to LinkedIn. Here’s how. Go to your LinkedIn Home screen and click the Video button at the top.

Step 9 – Find your video file and upload it. Now you’re brought to a screen where you can edit your post. Hover over the video and click the Pencil icon to edit the video.

Step 10 – Find your SRT file and upload it.

Step 11– Finish up your post by writing a brief comment about your video and BOOM – you’re done! Now your video is on LinkedIn, with subtitles, for free.


Did you get any value from this article? Let me know if something tripped you up or if this was a saving grace. I’d love to hear your feedback! 

How to Discover Meaning and Purpose in Your Life

Having just finished Viktor Frankl’s A Man’s Search For Meaning, I’m on an existential meaning-of-life high right now! 

Frankl’s notion of Logotherapy states that the primary motivational force in humans is to find meaning in life.

The basic principles are:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most horrific ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. 
  • We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do, or in what we experience, when faced with any situation, including unavoidable suffering. 

 

He states we can find meaning in three different ways: 

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we choose to take in any circumstance

 

Two other principles in the book particularly struck me – not striving for happiness and the multitude of meaning.

 

Happiness is not something one should strive for; rather, if one seeks and finds meaning, happiness will naturally appear. So, if you are feeling down and try to mentally will yourself to be happy, it will be a challenge. But if you instead find meaning by, say, creating something, your spirits will inevitably take a turn for the better. 

There is no one “meaning of life.” Meaning varies from person to person, from day to day, and from moment to moment. What is important to you may not be to another. What was meaningful to you this morning may not be meaningful to you tomorrow, or even a minute later. Asking someone, “What is the meaning of life?” is equivalent to asking a Chess Grandmaster, “What is the best chess move in the world?” There isn’t an answer to that question; it all depends on the situation. This is an incredibly uplifting view on finding meaning in your life, because there is no “right answer,” which means there is no wrong answer. The answer is right in front of you in this very moment, and the only person that can know it is you. It’s also a useful mental framework when serving and helping others, to know whatever gives you meaning will not be the same for them. 

 

This book helped me realize that if I’m ever feeling stuck, overwhelmed, unfocused, anxious, or depressed, I can ask myself the following questions:

  • Am I creating something right now? 
  • Am I doing a deed right now? 
  • Am I having an interesting experience right now? 
  • Am I encountering another person and having an interaction with them right now? 
  • Is there a better attitude I can choose to take in this moment? 

If I answer ‘no’ to the first four questions, then maybe I should stop doing whatever it is I’m doing and start doing one of those four activities because it will be sure to be a meaningful endeavor. 

If I answer ‘yes’ to the last question, then the next step, while not always easy, is simple – improve your ‘tude, dude!

 


 

Have you read Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning? What other lessons and takeaways did you glean from the book? How have you been applying them in your life? What other similar texts do you recommend? Let me know in the Comments! 

There Are No Rules

Things are as they have been not because that’s how they should be, but because you haven’t made them better yet.

There are no rules that say you can’t go for your boss’ boss’ job. The big boss just wants a system that works. Prove to him or her you’re the best person for taking your team to the next level. 

There are no rules that say a prospective client is too big. No one is “out of your league” if you show them an infallible case of how you can help. 

There are no rules about how to do your job. Know a better way? Do it. Prove it. Results always win.  

There are no rules that dictate how much you are able to do in one day. 

There are no rules saying you have to live life a certain way. 

There are no rules about going to college, getting an entry-level job, moving to the suburbs, and settling down. 

There are no rules preventing you from giving generously at every opportunity.

There are no rules when living out your dreams. 

There are no rules other than your rules. 

There are no rules blocking you from happiness. 

There are no rules. 

Self Improvement vs. Self Acceptance – Can You Do Both? (Hint: Yes.)

In the personal development universe of books and blogs, two overarching schools of thought bubble to the surface as the kingpins, yet they seem to be in direct contrast to one another. 
 
On the one hand, you have “following your passion” and all of its variations. Acting on your true calling, the things that make you feel “expansive versus contracted” (as Marie Forleo puts it). Many experts say acting on your inner calling is the key to unlocking happiness. “If you’re truly passionate about what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” as they say. 
 
On the other hand, you have gratitude. Acceptance. Some say the key to happiness and inner peace is accepting that what you already have and who you already are is good enough. Dr. Robert Holden says, “No amount of self-improvement can make up for any lack of self-acceptance.” Being authentically happy starts with the realization that you are both the source and the cause of your well-being. 
 
I believe in both of these ideas. But, doesn’t it seem as if they are in competition with one another? I feel pulled to be better, do better, create more things, make a positive dent on the universe, invest more in relationships, and learn more every day. But at the same time, if I meditate or do a gratitude exercise I’m reminded to be thankful for what I already have. 
 
How do you navigate the drive to be better than you were yesterday with acceptance of things as they are? 
 

Self-Acceptance is different from Self-Approval

It’s possible to accept your reality and completely let go of the desire to change your reality, while still not be in approval with yourself about your current trajectory. 
 
Say you have an entry-level job at a company you like just fine, but aren’t head-over-heels in love with. After a few months or years in that role, you may start to yearn for something more or different.
 
You might start thinking things like: 
 
  • “Do I really need this job?”
  • “I don’t believe in my company’s mission with my heart and soul.”
  • “They should have promoted me instead of that other guy.” 
  • “I’m realizing I don’t want my boss’ job.” 
 
These are normal thoughts. You aren’t alone in thinking them.
 
In the case of realizing you don’t want your boss’ job, you are feeling a lack of self-approval of your current trajectoryyou don’t like the idea of where things are going if they play out as-is. This is a great motivator to work on improving this aspect of your life and find a different job and/or employer that better suits your future vision. 
 
But that doesn’t preclude you from also feeling a sense of self-acceptance, focusing your energy on appreciating what you do have. This job you’ve come to not like so much, it’s served you well up until now, hasn’t it? You got your bills paid, forged new relationships, created some happy memories, and learned some things. At the very least, you learned about yourself and uncovered a path you now know you don’t need to go down ever again in your life.
 
There are always things to be grateful for.
 
You made your decisions along the way to the best of your ability with the information you had on-hand at the time. Accept yourself and be confident that your younger self was doing the best it knew how. 
 

Come to Terms With Your Limitations

No one is great at everything; don’t try to be. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and some self-improvers get frustrated when they just don’t seem to be able to make progress on developing a skill. 
 
For example, I am terrible at making any kind of hand-made art. You give me a blank piece of paper to draw something on, and all my brain sees is a blank piece of paper. When I do try to draw something, it looks like a third-grader put in about 40% effort. Now, I could take drawing classes, watch YouTube videos, and practice every day to try to improve this skill, but I have come to accept that this type of creation is just not how my brain and body are wired. It’s not for me. I’m not going to be that kind of artist. I am, however, pretty good with words, so I can work on honing that skill and express myself that way. 
 
Let the improver in you play to your natural affinities. 
 
Let the accepter in you be at peace with your weaknesses. 
 

Conclusion

I’d like to say I’ve come to a conclusion on this topic, but it feels like I’m still writing this chapter in my own improvement/acceptance mental framework. 
 
Suffice it to say… you can do both! 
 
The drive to improve is a good instinct. Nurture it. Get after it. And accept that just because you aren’t where you want to be today, doesn’t mean you are in need of anything. 
 
 
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Have you ever struggled with the same mental tug-of-war these two forces play with each other? How else do you make peace with these ideas on your path to self-betterment? It would really help me out to know in the Comments, I could use the tip! 

Getting “Radio Silence” From a Prospect? You Might Be Barking Up the Wrong Tree

“Persistence” may be the most frequently used word across all sales training videos, books, blogs, and seminars. And it’s for good reason; most B2B sales require relentless, tactful persistence in order to get on a prospect’s radar and close a deal. 

But what do you when persistence isn’t paying off? You’ve done your research, identified a high quality prospective client, found the ideal contact within the business, communicated your Valid Business Reason for reaching out, and diligently called, emailed, and messaged over social media (probably LinkedIn)… and all you’re getting is the dreaded proverbial “radio silence.” (Aside: when we will come up with a 2.0 version of this term? Does anyone even know where the phrase “radio silence” comes from anymore? Maybe we should replace “radio silence” with the “loading screen?”) So, what now? 

Do you just wait until you’ve hit that point where you’re ready to cut bait and move on to the next prospect? Or is there another way? 

It may be worth revisiting your assumptions in your initial research and prep work. You thought that person was the ideal contact because of something you read or because their job title matches that of your typical client. But you never know… if you found that person’s information on LinkedIn, maybe they are actually no longer with the company and just haven’t updated their LinkedIn profile in a while. Maybe they are out on an extended vacation or on parental leave. Maybe they’ve switched roles. You never know why someone isn’t returning your messages. Don’t assume. 

A wise sales manager once gave me this advice, and it’s a great sales strategy to live by: 

Always develop at least two relationships with any client. 

You’ll likely have a primary contact and a secondary contact, but investing time in developing a relationship with that secondary contact is crucial to long term success. Say your primary contact takes a new job. Typically you’d be starting over from square one with this client, but since you know Greg the Service Manager or Susie the Receptionist or Michael the Executive Assistant or Lisa the Coordinator… you can maintain the conversation with your client and have a smoother inroad to the new decision-maker. 

This same strategy applies while you’re prospecting, too. 

I once tried, hard, to get a meeting with a Marketing Director of a local credit union. Over the span of two months I sent her nine emails and left her eight voicemails. These were high quality, value-adding touchpoints where I showed detailed research to explain why I was calling and offered up three idea-starters to get a conversation going. Never got a single response. I was about to give up. And then I remembered…

Always develop at least two relationships with any client. 

I went back to the drawing board to search for another contact at the credit union. Maybe it wouldn’t be the ideal decision maker, but I could try to connect with someone that knows my main contact and come at it sideways. 

I sent the very first email I’d send to the primary to my new secondary contact. Forty minutes later I got a reply. Meeting set for the following day. And it turns out he was actually the “primary” contact’s boss

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in Sales. Don’t give up if one person is giving you the silent treatment. Go impress someone else at the company and success will follow. 


I’d love to know of a time where you used this out in the business world, or if you have another sales hack you use to shake things up when you’re getting radio silence. Tell me about it in the comments!

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