What it Takes to Write Copy That Kills: Part 1: Environment

(Blogger’s Note: There as many successful writing formulas as there are successful writers. Disclaimer: Am I a successful writer? I don’t really know. I’ve published thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, but will never be satisfied until my first book is published. It’s near, and of course, I think it kills. This is the first in a series of posts detailing the formula I use for my own writing. No two writers can duplicate styles, but maybe you’ll pick up a nugget or two here, and maybe you can share a few tips with me. So, write on. ~ Steve)

My formula’s found in the small, six-word tagline you see in the header above.


There are sub-categories to each element of the formula, but essentially that’s it. Today, I’m focusing on OBSERVATION.

Observation is all about environment, and there are three distinct aspects to every writer’s environment.

  1. Where you are at the moment when you write.
  2. Where you are at any given moment in time.
  3. How you see yourself at any given moment in time.

Let’s talk about the observations you make in each of these moments. Because these moments must be captured and controlled. You never get moments back.


I’ve seen some recent posts by some excellent bloggers whom I really respect. The question raised by the bloggers was: WHAT IS YOUR DREAM PLACE FOR WRITING?

It’s an interesting topic, but let’s stop dreaming for now and get real. Let’s talk about the real places where you write and how you can help yourself.

One of the most important things I know about myself is that I’m hugely visual.

I learn visually, teach visually, communicate visually, but most importantly as a writer, I’m inspired visually.

Maybe you’re inspired audibly, or through dreams or whatever. But writers must know what inspires them and then surround themselves with it.

My wife can do her hair a dozen different ways. Two or three of those ways really get my attention. This is the style I love the most:

This is my wife, Dana, who always looks hot, but when she does her hair in a swoop like this, she’s especially great arm candy. Visually, it’s the way I love her hair the most.

When I see my wife with this hair style, I’m inspired to be with one hot chick, but I digress.

Two things inspire me. One is people. The other, for better or worse, is accomplishments.

Regarding People – I’m typically inspired by world leaders, athletes and movie characters.

The walls of my writing office (painted, of course, in the colors that please me most)  are filled with framed posters: Jack Nicklaus, Larry  Bird, William Wallace of Braveheart, Maximus of Gladiator, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and others. Just seeing these guys on my walls, well, it gives me courage, fortitude, determination. It’s cheezy, but you have to recognize what works for you.

I wouldn’t know what to say about any man who’s not inspired to go out and kill something when they think about Maximus.

Regarding Accomplishments – Other things are framed that remind me of certain accomplishments: diplomas with a bachelor’s and master’s degree; photos of me finishing three different marathons over an 18-month period. I worked hard for those things. When I’m feeling weak, they remind me and I can do whatever I determine to do.

Finally just to the left of my keyboard is a small globe. It makes me think about the impact we, as writers, can have. We enjoy the benefits today of writing to a global community and that’s a really exciting thing.

The overstated point here is really quite simple. Identify what inspires you and be intentional to use it to your advantage.


 The world is the writer’s classroom.

You’ve probably heard of a guy named Hemingway, right?

Ernest Hemingway loved to travel. He loved going places. He loved observing people in the exotic places where he spent time. But not every place where he did his greatest work was the most cosmopolitan of locales.

Forty miles from up the road where I write today, it was a barn in Piggott, Arkansas where Hemingway wrote one of his most acclaimed works, A Farewell to Arms.”

You got that right? A barn studio in Piggott, Arkansas – a town with a population of about a thousand surrounded by cotton and soybean fields. And it was there, where he produced a classic.

You see, the world is your classroom, and the world is wherever you are at a given moment in time.

Watch people. Watch them interact. See what they wear. Listen to how they speak. Watch what they eat and how they eat it. Absorb the man in the airport ticket line who just missed his plane and learn from the tirade he puts upon the helpless ticket counter attendant.

I’ll bet you my bottom dollar I could walk in Kmart and find someone interesting to interview. Even if Kmart does suck (see the Rainman video below) it’s just another place where you can learn by watching people.

The airport, church, the barbershop, family gatherings, even Kmart for crying out loud. Watch people and remember what you see and hear.

 I’ve learned my lessons on how not to forget these moment-by-moment observations. I take notes everywhere I go, and I’m NEVER without a camera to catch a visual that inspires me, or perhaps could be used to inspire others.

If you pay intentional attention to where you are at a given moment in time, you’ll always be writing, even but if in your mind.


I break this down into two sub-categories as well.

  1. How you see yourself with your eye.
  2. How you see yourself in your mind.

This is a critically delicate point. It is very much NOT true, but I perceive it to be true, and so it IS true for me.

I have a bad stereotype in that I imagine writers to dress a certain way. They wear gentlemen’s hats, scarves, pea coats and boots. They wear glasses at the end of their nose and peer over the lenses from time to time.

That’s downright silly, I know. But when I dress a certain way, I feel that I’m in character, and I have to be in character when I’m writing or thinking about writing, because the character is interesting. Without being in character I’m actually a pretty dull guy. And I’m a non-fiction writer. Can’t even comprehend the lengths I’d have to go to if I ever took a stab at writing fiction.

How you see yourself in your mind is much more subtle. It’s actually as subliminal thing.

I have more passwords to various electronic accounts than Carter had pills.

Each of my passwords is unique, special, and because I have to type them so frequently, I use them as inspiration. Most passwords I use include the word “author,” or “travel” or “mission” or “goal.” Every time I type the password in, I’m forced to remind myself who it is I’m working to be.

It’s an extreme measure, I know, but again, you do what works for you.

Take these nuggets. Use them if you can. If I’ve missed some quirky way to be great at this, please send your comments. I need – we all need – all the help we can get.

(The next post in this series, “What it Takes to Write Copy that Kills,” will focus on: THINK.)

And for a related, more lighthearted writing post check out the submission on my secondary blog at: http://wp.me/p2wzTk-14


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