How Negative Questions Can Ensure a Positive First Impression

Part 1 in the series, “The Power of Negative Thinking

Those of you who have followed my career for the past twenty-five years may be surprised that I’m writing about the value of negative thinking. Yes, yes, I know, I’m the guy who wrote the 1982 best-seller Positive Workaholism, and my book The Power of Positive Productivity has been translated globally into five foreign languages—including Romanian—since 2005.

What I want to talk about, however, is not a glum, hopeless, defeatist negativity. Instead, it is a cautionary, pragmatic, logical form of negativity. In short, it is a system of analysis that can help a writer be prepared for any negative situation that could possibly arise, and, thus, take proactive steps to avoid potential disaster.

Let’s use a real-life situation. Imagine you are going to a writers conference and you are scheduled to meet for fifteen minutes with an acquisitions editor. You intend to introduce yourself, talk about your book, and, with luck, leave your book proposal with that editor. Okay, prior to the conference start asking yourself, “What might possibly go awry in this meeting to ruin my chances of making a good first impression?”

Be harsh. Be real. Be honest. Make a list.

1. My appearance might be negative in some way. Remember to press your clothes, get a haircut, clean your nails, use a breath mint, and tone down the cologne.

2. My book proposal may not be complete. Double-check to make sure you have a cover letter, cover page, synopsis, table of contents, author biography, outline, and three sample chapters. Bring a spare proposal in case the first editor you talk to asks to keep your only copy. Bring a flash drive containing the entire book proposal in case you need to print even more copies.

3. The editor may ask me questions I don’t know how to answer. Find someone in your writers’ club or critique group who has done this before, and have that person provide possible questions you’ll need answers for. Ask that person to sit and do a mock run-through with you so you can rehearse your pitch.

See? The power of negative thinking has enabled you to make positive changes.

Next week, “4 Ways Negative Scenarios Can Lead to Success”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

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3 of My Favorite Leads

Conclusion of the series, “Entice Readers with Clever Leads

One of my early mentors used to say, “The trick to writing great articles is to focus on an interesting story that fascinates readers while also teaching them something they didn’t know.” With that in mind, I’ve always tried to locate the most captivating or inspirational or unique aspect of the material I’ve gathered about a topic and to use that key fact as my lead, presenting it in such a way that makes readers desire to absorb more about the subject. If, in drawing in the readers with my lead I also can tickle, amaze, or surprise the readers, then all the better.

But it all begins with that initial enticement. A good lead works like lifting the top of a treasure chest and allowing readers to peek inside. If there is a promise of gold, the reader will plunge forth. It is then, Matey, that the story must deliver the goods—an article that is properly researched, well organized, and informative. A clever lead will only anger readers if it is followed by a lame article. I use certain leads frequently because they are reliable. Here are three of my favorites:

  1. Perplexing circumstances. This lead introduces a nonthreatening character whom readers can identify with, but who has been confronted with an unexpected, potentially tragic situation. Her classic home is threatened to be destroyed to make room for a new expressway. His small herd of livestock will be put down unless a cure for the animals’ disease can be found. Their fundraiser will be cancelled unless they can convince the mayor to grant a parade license. The article must reveal how the persons being written about met the challenges and solved the problems. This serves as takeaway value for readers, who learn lessons vicariously.
  2. Juxtaposition of norms. This lead requires you to show the main person of your article behaving radically abnormal for his or her position in life, and then explaining why and how this came about. I opened a story showing a school principal being spanked in his office by students. Turns out, it was for a promotional video about violence in schools. I opened another article by telling of a woman, who was terrified of heights, leaping off a bridge for a bungee jump. It turned out the bridge was only a projection on a screen, and the woman was only simulating the jump as a way of helping her confront her fear of heights while being in no actual danger.
  3. Comparison. Most folks don’t like to be confronted by a lot of math or statistics, but for some reason they are fascinated by comparisons. I wrote an article once about a new Disney cruise ship, and the lead noted, “Being three times larger than the infamous Titanic, this cruise ship is not only a floating hotel but also the city that surrounds it.”

In striving to create a good lead, look over your notes. Underline the best quotations, the most fascinating statistics, the oddest or most surprising facts about the matter, or any perplexing new point of view being offered. Then step back and examine what you’ve brought to your attention. Odds are, the lead will be in there somewhere. Snag it!

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

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Drawing In Your Readers

Part 1 in the series, “Entice Readers with Clever Leads

A recent cartoon in a national magazine showed a freelance writer on the phone with his editor. The writer, surrounded by crumpled papers, disheveled books, and a cup of spilled coffee, is shouting into the mouthpiece, “But it really was a dark and stormy night.”

And there you have it. You may be telling the truth, but if the lead to your article is bland, your editor will reject it—and probably the rest of the article with it.

In the late 1970s, when I was cutting my journalistic teeth as a young reporter for the Muncie Star, I was expected to investigate the news, get back to the office, and pound out the information in time for an early morning press run. That meant an article’s lead didn’t have to be flowery, just accurate and succinct. My editor expected the who, what, when, and where information, but he cared very little about the why or how. I’d pound out the information on an electric typewriter in time for an early morning press run.

Today, with online reporting, news-streaming, and media convergence, readers still want to be drawn immediately into a work of nonfiction, but they also expect more in regard to the relational aspects of news. How will what is being reported impact their lives? Could such events or situations transpire in their sphere of day-to-day activities? What seems to be the national mood regarding this occurrence? Thus, a modern lead must also set the tone for the story and establish the voice in which it will be shared. This is especially true for people who read blogs, where elements of personal opinion or individual perspectives are frequently injected as part of the reporting or analyzing of events. Unlike previous generations, today’s readers are actually curious as to why the reporter decided to cover such an event and what his or her “take” on it is.

Next week: “3 of My Favorite Leads”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

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Four Steps to Establishing Your National Platform

I’m asked, “Why do people like Dr. Phil and Donald Trump get published? They aren’t even writers. I’ve worked on a manuscript for years, but can’t get a publisher. What’s with that?”

The answer? Visibility. Those people have platforms. Become known, and you too can attract interest from publishers. How? Bill yourself as an expert in your field and get out there, speaking on your topic.

1. Start smallDon’t overlook obvious matters: business cards; brochures with your photo, titles of your speaking topics, and endorsements; a website promoting your writing and speaking.

2. In your backyard – Years ago I pitched a Saturday half-hour radio show called, “Freelance Writing Made Easy.” I lined up two bookstores with 15-week contracts to underwrite the show. After a year I was so busy with speaking engagements, I ended the program and went on the road.

Contact independent TV outlets; create your own promotional blog; speak to public service groups (Kiwanis, Lions, Elks); speak at banquets, retreats, or teach night school courses. At first, you may have to do some of this pro bono. Later you can charge a fee, as well as set up your book sale table.

3. The success factor – None of this prep work amounts to anything unless your presentations are stunning. Your next two bookings are sitting in each audience. When you knock a crowd for a loop, people talk. Nothing will boost your career as much as positive word of mouth. Never allow yourself to give anything less than a phenomenal presentation.

Each year I meet dozens of people who hand me a business card that says Susan Smiley, author/speaker. They’ve taken a three-day crash course in how to dress for success and prepare a speech. They land a gig or two at a ladies luncheon or PTA meeting. But their phone doesn’t ring off the hook thereafter. There was no pizzazz in their presentation. All the promotional trappings were in place, but no one got excited about the speaker.

4. Prepare and deliver – Write a content-heavy, highly entertaining speech. Rehearse it, hone it, revise it until it’s a knockout. Then, prepare another one. If you are a great orator, you’ll be booked at bigger venues. That leads to large on-the-spot book sales and additional speaking engagements.

A big platform results in lots of books sold—and publishers love that.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

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Is Writing in Your Blood?

Conclusion of the series, “Determining if God Has Called You to Write”

When helping people discover if they should pursue writing, I ask people how much they write “anyway.” By anyway, I mean how much writing do they do without expecting to become famous or rich by it.

If a person tells me, “Oh, I keep a journal and I maintain a blog and I write book reviews for my local newspaper and I write the newsletter for our church,” then I know that this person has a passion for writing. It isn’t a chore, it’s a delight. This sort of person would rather write than watch TV, bake a pie, knit a sweater, or repair a car engine. Writing is a natural love probably instilled by God, so it should be channeled into productive venues and outlets. It can go from a hobby to a career.

My advice to anyone considering a career in writing is this: If it is in your blood, then it was probably put there by the One who created that blood. Pursue it. If it isn’t a genuine passion, there is no shame in admitting that. Research and explore until you find what is in your blood.

Hey, who knows . . . it may be editing, and then you can be a taskmaster for the rest of us.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG).

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Making an Honest Appraisal

Part 2 in the series, “Determining if God Has Called You to Write”

Be honest about whether or not God has gifted you in the area of writing. Personally, I’d like to be a major league pitcher or the world’s greatest classical guitarist. I’m not gifted in those areas.

The same holds true for some folks regarding writing. Many people would love to see their name on the cover of a book, but they lack the creative gift to come up with phenomenal plots and the mechanical knack for writing with proper grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation.

Yes, training is necessary even if you have some natural talent, but if after several attempts you still are unable to put a story on paper with logic, organization, and unique creativity, be rational enough to admit your gifts probably lie elsewhere.

Next week, “Is Writing in Your Blood?”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG).

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Feeling God’s Pleasure

Part 1 in the series, “Determining if God Has Called You to Write”

I direct a professional writing program on the college level, so hundreds of times each year prospective students visit our campus and ask me, “Am I just in this for the ego trip, or am I justified in feeling that God can use me as a Christian author?” It’s a fair question, and I’ve come up with some litmus tests for discovering an answer.

First, give it what I call the Eric Liddell analysis. In 1924 Liddell won the 400 meter Olympic gold medal in Paris. His sister wanted him to give up competitive running and go with her to China as a missionary. Eric told her that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure. So, he continued to run, and he used his fame as a champion runner to attract crowds who would listen to him preach. Eventually, he did become a missionary to China, but he continued to run even there.

I tell prospective writers, if you feel God’s pleasure and power within you when you are engrossed in your writing, take that as a sign that you are in your zone for what God wants you to do.

Next week, “An Honest Appraisal”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG).

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Focus Your Book-Writing Energies for Maximum Impact

I teach at a lot of writing conferences and workshops, and I don’t care if a person is entering this field at twenty-eight or seventy-eight, there is always a concern about making the best use of what time is available for writing. I get asked where a person should focus his or her writing energies. My response is that it isn’t a matter of preferences, it’s a matter of practicality.

Let’s say a person is fifty and wants to become established as a working writer but also has dreams of one day completing some kind of major work of writing. The two seem contradictory, since it would probably take two years to sit and write a five-hundred-page nonfiction book, edit it, revise it, and then start to market it. And then (gulp!) what if it doesn’t sell? Yikes, what a waste of time!

My suggestion is to be more pragmatic. Okay, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to write a book, but why stop all else in the process? Instead, write it progressively. First, create a table of contents that lists all the topics you want to cover in this book. Second, write each of these chapters as a separate feature article (or two articles, or an article with sidebars). Third, start selling the articles to magazines.

You’ll accomplish three things at once:

  1. You will begin to build a platform for yourself as a published expert on the topic of your book;
  2. You will get byline exposure and also earn cash; and
  3. You will be writing your book.

This system has worked for me in writing more than twenty of my fifty-four published books. Try it! Use your time wisely.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. His 54 books include Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG).

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Tips on Landing a Mentor

Conclusion of the series, “How to Woo, Choose, and Use a Mentor”

If you encounter resistance in trying to set up an initial meeting with a potential mentor, see if you can get a referral. You can write or phone the potential mentor and say, “Your friend Mike Davis suggested I contact you” or “Having studied under the same professor you studied under at City University, I was hoping we could meet sometime.” Don’t demand too much right away.

When people call and ask to take me to coffee, I am put off if they hand me a 500-page manuscript, hoping I’ll edit it for free. I also am put off by people who either brag endlessly about their potential or who continually put themselves down and play the part of the victim who has never been given a fair chance.

I am eager to hear what you have accomplished thus far, where you are headed, and why you feel I might be of help to you. Also, like most mentors, I am open to bribes. As my friend, author and editor Lin Johnson, tells students at the college where I direct the Professional Writing Program, “It’s always nice to send a thank-you letter to editors…and chocolate.”

Having a mentor can reveal shortcuts to you, can open doors for you, can protect your blind sides, can keep you focused, can hold you accountable, can push you to new levels, and can channel your energies and talents toward success.

The Old Testament not only teaches about the importance of advisors, but it also points out that, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (Ecclesiastes 4:12 NIV). A mentor can be a great defense for you in your quest to become a successful writer.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. He is the author of 54 books, including Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Approaching a Potential Mentor

Part 2 in the series, “How to Woo, Choose, and Use a Mentor”

Because the best advisers are successful people themselves, it will not be easy to secure their guidance. You may have to pay for it, as I did with my personal trainer. You may have to barter for it, as I do with fellow writers when we edit each other’s writings. You may have to merit it, as I did when I was a young reporter and worked extra hours and took on extra assignments to prove to my editors that I was worthy of the time they were investing to teach me techniques of investigative journalism and deadline writing.

Approach the person you feel will be of greatest help to you (successful author, insightful teacher, influential literary agent) and with humility ask for an initial meeting. Be transparent in saying, “I want to develop the skills and abilities I see you have mastered. If you could work with me in whatever time you can spare, I promise I won’t disappoint you.”

Present a list of goals you have that you feel will help advance you as a person and as a writer. Ask for direction in that initial meeting. Are there people you should meet, books you should read, workshops you should attend, connections you should make? Walk away from that first meeting with some specific suggestions, and then amaze the potential mentor by coming back later with proof that you have followed that advice—typed summaries of the key points found in the recommended books, quotes from the workshop you attended.

Next week, “Tips on Landing a Mentor”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. He is the author of 54 books, including Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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