Are Your Words Lightning Bugs or Lightning Bolts?

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Mark Twain

We've all been there. We know what we're trying to say--but we just can't figure out how to say it. So, how do we go about finding those words--those lightning bolts--that make the hair stand up on the back of the reader's neck? That are so powerful they leave us awestruck? That elicit a desired emotion with surgical precision? And that--far too often--seem so very elusive?

I wish I had a magic something-or-other to give you that would be a foolproof way of grabbing the right word out of thin air every single time. But I don't. What I CAN do, though, is suggest two different--yet complementary--approaches. One is practical. And one is tactical. So, here goes:

PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR LIGHTNING BOLT HUNTERS

Explain It to a Kid (or Your Grandmother)

If you have a child or if you're around children for any length of time, then you're very familiar with questions like these:

"But, why??"

"What does that mean?"

"How does it work?"

If you're like me, these moments often leave you saying something incredibly intelligent. Something like, "Well, uh, you see, it's like--uh..." It's not that we don't KNOW the answer. (Well, at least we know it MOST of the time.) Instead, we find ourselves struggling to explain something that seems so obvious to us--but so mysterious to this curious child standing there looking to us for the answer. But just because something seems obvious doesn't mean we understand well enough to explain it. A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein says:

"You do not truly understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

Regardless of who said it, the big idea of the quote is true. Sometimes when I'm having trouble finding the right word, it's because ​I'm not fully understanding the concept I'm trying to write about. It's not clear enough in my mind. But, once I gain a better understanding of WHAT I'm writing about, then I become much more clear about HOW to write about it--including finding just the right words to do it. 

Write Like You Talk

One thing I see when working with writers is that they often try to write in ways that sound NOTHING like how they (or their audience) talk. So no wonder they struggle to find the right words (or ANY words, for that matter)! It's almost like they're writing in a foreign language that they can't speak and certainly don't understand. They use a word like "notwithstanding" instead of just saying "regardless." Or "furnish" instead of just plain ol' "give." Or they've picked some word out of a thesaurus that sounds smart--but they flub up the usage of it. (Remember--just because a word is listed as a synonym doesn't mean it conveys the meaning you're looking for.)

When you write like you or your audience talks, words start flowing much easier. Give it a try.

TACTICAL ADVICE FOR LIGHTNING BOLT HUNTERS

The following are some free online resources that can help you track down that lightning bolt of a word  you're searching for. Check them out. Play around with them. And see which of them works best for you.

Thesaurus.com

You probably already know about this resource. If you do--GREAT! Use it. It's pulled me out of some tough spots on many occasions. If you're not using it, USE IT! Why sit there struggling with how to say something when the answer might very well be right at your fingertips. ​

One Look Thesaurus

Although this is a thesaurus, you don't use it in the same way as you do a typical one. Instead, you type in the phrase that describes what you're trying to find a word for and it helps you find that word. Pretty cool stuff!​

RhymeZone

In addition to helping you find rhyming words, RhymeZone can also help you find things like descriptive words, lyrics that include the word you're researching, and even PICTURES that represent the word. All of these are incredibly helpful in getting the creative juices flowing when ​you're looking for just the right way to say something.

Lexical FreeNet

This tool is great for helping you find connections between words. For example, when I type in "football" (the American version of the game), it gives me connections like "quarterback", "league", "players", "coach" and--yes--"soccer." 🙂

alphaDictionary

When you're writing about something in a specific area--like food or construction or even dinosaurs--this tool provides easy access to dictionaries for these various topics. Need to know the lexicon of parrots? Terms used in folk dancing? ​The name of a dress style from the Baroque period? I'd start with alphaDictionary.

Words by Grammarly

I really like the interface of this tool. You not only get synonyms and definitions listed on the same page, but you can also see the WordScore--which gives you information about how often a synonym is used in comparison to others.

Power Thesaurus

This tool is SO cool! It's a crowdsourced thesaurus built by writers for writers. ​And our fellow wordsmiths are adding to it all the time, so it's a living, breathing resource. You can also see what words people are looking for in real time--which is a fun feature in and of itself if you're a word geek like me.

We're All Storm Chasers

As writers, we spend a lot of time chasing down the right word. Why? Because we know the power it has to make a difference in the impact our writing will have. It can be SUCH a frustrating search, though. We KNOW it's out there--but where?

Being a great writer--not merely a good writer--means that we have to accept that we'll always be storm chasers. We'll always be on the hunt for that lightning bolt that will transform our writing into something magical. Something that people don't just read--but actually feel. And it's up to each of us to figure out the best way to approach the hunt. But, regardless how how you hunt, the most important thing is to never stop searching.

It's okay to have some lightning bugs sprinkled through our writing. Because, after all, great writing has a rhythm to it. But for those certain parts --only a lightning bolt will do. It's out there. Go get it.

If you like this, then you'll like the other stuff we're doing over at The Smarter Writing Lab! So, join us!

A Smart Conversation about Smarter Online Courses with Janelle Allen

Janelle Allen of Zen Courses

In addition to giving you the tools to help you WRITE smarter, The Smarter Writing Lab also provides information about how to use your writing skills to EARN smarter. And that's the purpose of my conversation with Janelle Allen of Zen Courses. Enjoy!

One of the most exciting things about being a writer these days is that there are SO many ways to earn a living with your writing skills. You just have to be open to trying things that might not be as traditional as freelancing (which is still a good revenue option). One of those ways is online course creation. This is an area I've become SUPER interested in during the past year. I actually launched a course last fall called How to Start a Freelance Writing Copywriting Business (go figure) and I'm getting ready to launch another one this summer. I love everything about creating online courses--from coming up with the idea to figuring out the best way to deliver the information to making a difference in the lives of my students. Oh--and getting paid to do it is a nice perk, too!

Earlier this year, I found out about Zen Courses--an online resource for creating online courses that matter. My first interaction was with the podcast, which is produced and hosted by Zen Courses owner Janelle Allen. And then I visited the website and signed up for Janelle's FABULOUS and FREE email series 5 Types of Online Courses. Now--I'm a RAVING FAN of Janelle's and what she's doing over at Zen Courses.

Recently, Janelle graciously agreed to chat with me about online course creation and why it can be a really good fit for writers who are looking for ways to either add to or shift their revenue streams. Here's what she had to say:

So, first of all, I really LOVE the emails I get from Zen Courses! They're so well-written and interesting. I actually look forward to seeing them in my inbox!

Thanks! I'm glad you like them. At my core, I'm a writer. So I hope that shows through in all of my communications. During grad school, I worked as a freelance copywriter as my side-hustle. But I didn't like writing to sell things in a pushy way. And that's not very helpful if you're trying to make a living helping your clients sell what they're offering! It wasn't until much later that I learned you could write persuasively without being pushy.

You started out as a freelance copywriter, and now you're running a very successful course creation business. How in the world did THAT happen?

Well, it's certainly been a journey! I've always been drawn to self-employment and the entrepreneurial lifestyle. During my stint as a freelance copywriter, I attended graduate school to earn a degree in instructional design. I liked the idea of building learning experiences, so instructional design made sense for me. After graduating, I started working with corporations and colleges in creating online courses for them using the principles of adult learning and design. My goal was--and still is--to find those lightbulb moments for students. Those moments when they go, "Aha! I get it!"

I've always blogged on the side and, over time, I started to have a LOT of entrepreneurs coming to me asking for help in developing courses. They wanted to know everything--including instructional design, which surprised me. So, that was the genesis of Zen Courses. It's guiding purpose is to help entrepreneurs--including writers--to make actionable, learner-focused courses that change lives. I'm pretty proud of it.

Wow! That really HAS been a journey! I love what you're doing at Zen Courses--but let's talk about some of the hype out there about creating and selling online courses. What's up with all of that?

Well, yes, there is a lot of hype out there. There's this idea that you're going to throw up a website, launch a course and make six figures--all in the span of a few weeks. But that's just not the case for most people. It's NOT a quick thing. It's probably going to be 18 months or so before you start to see returns on your course building efforts. Until then, it's likely that you'll spend more than you make.

Also, it's important to realize that some of the folks out there who are talking about the ease of course creation and how it can bring in so much revenue so quickly have extra time, money, employees and other resources necessary to build and run these six- and seven-figure course launches. It's much easier for them to do that than it is for those of us who don't yet have those resources to support our efforts.

If you're realistic about the time it's going to take to create and launch a course, and if you can be patient while waiting for the revenue levels to rise to where you want them to be, online courses can be a profitable undertaking. Just don't expect too much too fast or you'll end up getting frustrated. ​It's a long game but totally worth it.

Okay. That definitely brings us back down to earth. So, here's my next question: Do you think online course creation is a good income opportunity for writers to consider?

I do--especially if there's a specific area they have expertise in. It doesn't even have to be writing. It could be a hobby they have or something like that. And when I say "expertise", I'm not saying you have to be the all-knowing expert about a topic. You just have to know more about it than your audience does.

What advantages do writers have when it comes to creating and selling online courses?

They actually have a couple of really important ones.

First, to make money with courses, you have to market them. You have to create sales funnels and email sequences that build trust with the audience. Writers know how to do this. They know how to write in way that connects.

Also, writers can explain things well. Before you can write about something effectively, you have to understand it. Writers know this. And they know how to communicate in ways that make complex things easier to comprehend.

So there are advantages writers have. How about disadvantages?

This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about my reluctance to write sales copy when I was freelancing at the beginning of my career. Writers tend to be uncomfortable when it comes to talking about money and selling. I get it. We--as writers--want to focus on the CRAFT of writing. But, if you want to make a living with your writing, you have to get comfortable with marketing. This is true for entrepreneurs, too.

My advice is to figure out how YOU market things instead of looking at how everyone else is doing it. One way to do this is to identify three or four people online who you follow and respect--and who are successful. How are they marketing? What are they doing that resonates with you? What--in your mind--makes them trustworthy? Why doesn't their marketing feel slimy to you? Then--FIND YOUR VOICE. And remember that selling is ultimately about sharing value with others. That's the mental mindset you need to reach. You're not pushing something on your customers. You're tuning into the value of what you're offering and connecting that value with people who need it.

For writers--or any entrepreneurs--who want to get started with online courses, what's some advice you can offer?

  • First of all, you really need to have an audience and an email list. It doesn't have to be a huge list. I'd say around 250 people is good for getting started. If you don't have an email list that you can market your courses to, the chance of generating any significant revenue is slim.
  • Next, focus on your learner. What problems do they struggle with? How can you help solve them? What will they be able to do after they finish your course? Decide that first--THEN start building your course.
  • It's a good idea to validate your course idea with a free offering--say an email course or workshop--before you invest a lot of time and energy creating it.
  • Be sure your content is designed for learning. In other words, take your learners on a journey from Point A to Point B. Be sure to keep in mind any questions or challenges your learner might be facing along the way so you can address them in your content. Don't just randomly jump from topic to topic. Instead, topics should build on each other.
    • Decide how the course material will be delivered. Will there be videos, PDFs, audio files, a mixture of several formats?
    • How will you determine success? Will there be quizzes along the learning journey? Is there a final project students have to produce and submit for feedback? Whatever it is, you should have a way to determine if learning is actually happening.
    • Once your course is developed, THEN focus on technology. If you're looking for a place to host your course, there are a lot of online course hosted platform options out there--like Teachable, Thinkific and Ruzuku. And you can also self-host your course--you just need to be moderately comfortable with WordPress and LMS plugins in order to do that successfully. That being said, I usually recommend one of the hosted platforms.

This is FANTASTIC information! How are you helping entrepreneurs with course building at Zen Courses?

Different people are at different places in their course building journey, so I try to meet them where they are by offering a variety of products and services. Right now, I provide workshops and consulting in which people can roll up their sleeves and get things done, I'm launching two new self-paced courses for those who like to work on their own timeline;  and I offer really intensive bootcamp courses a couple of times a year covering a variety of course building topics.

Other than Zen Courses--which has TONS of great info --are there other resources folks can access to learn more about creating and launching online courses?

I would definitely recommend Jeff Walker's book called LAUNCH. After you create your course, you're going to need a launch plan. Also, I really enjoy the online community for entrepreneurs called Fizzle. Lots of great support and information can be found there.

FULL AND COMPLETELY ABOVE BOARD DISCLOSURE! The link to LAUNCH! is an affiliate link of mine--which means I get a few coins tossed my way if you use it. And that helps me keep doing what I'm doing here at The Smarter Writing Lab! ​

Thanks SO MUCH to Janelle Allen of Zen Courses for sharing her thoughts and advice about online course creation! As I mentioned, I'm a HUGE fan of online course creation as a revenue stream for writers and other entrepreneurs. And I'm also a HUGE fan of Janelle's!

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