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7 Not So Sleazy Writing Tricks I Learned from a Personal Injury Lawyer

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Last week, the pickup my 82-year-old mother was driving was hit by a Peterbilt truck. She had to be cut from her beloved Ford F150. She has some potentially long-term injuries, so I did what anyone would do. I took her to see the personal injury lawyer I’ve seen on dozens of billboards. You know those signs — mean-looking dude in a suit, arms crossed in defiance, glaring down at you from the side of the highway under the heading of “Been hit by a semi-truck? Call 1–800-law-dude.”

Gotta say I went into the whole thing with more than a bit of skepticism, but when it’s your mom, you’ll try anything to get her some help, right? I was pleasantly surprised with the lawyer we saw and it occurred to me that a whole lot about how he handled us can be applied to how we as writers should be handling our readers. Here’s what I learned.

Greet your audience at the door

The first shocker was that the lawyer himself greeted us at the door. Because of COVID, his office door, which was the side portico door of an 1800s-era multi-story house, stays locked at all times. When our appointment time approached, the attorney unlocked the door, introduced himself to each individual in our family, and ushered us into the building.

He walked us to the grand conference room dominated by a massive antique dining table and matching chairs, then departed briefly while we settled in and got comfortable.

The lesson here is to be present in your writing right from the beginning. Work hard on that initial connection with an introduction. It should both surprise the reader and allow them to feel a connection to the writer behind the greeting.

Then you can back away and let them absorb the introduction into your world. In fiction, you might start off with a shocking scene. Use the same language and imagery the reader should expect throughout the book. That’s your handshake with them — the bargain you’re making that this is how you’re gonna roll for the next 400 pages. You could follow that opener with a quieter scene to let them soak up the setting you’ve thrown them into.

In non-fiction, make sure your introduction contains at least one surprise or even shocking thought, and write in a voice that the reader can later recognize as you at the keyboard. Look back at my introductory paragraphs for a sec.

My aim was to grab you with the image of my elderly (sorry, Mom, but in most people’s worlds, 82 is “elderly”) mother in a bad accident. In the second paragraph, I let you know that I’m a skeptic, but one that is willing to learn new tricks. I used the slang “gotta” to welcome you into my world as I would a friend.

Tell a story that makes someone else the hero

Our lawyer’s name is Jeff. He talked a lot. But the thing he did several times in the hour we were at his conference table, and the thing we often forget to do as writers of non-fiction, is telling stories in which someone other than the people at the table come off as heroes. Jeff sang the praises of the local police department. I have no idea whether his interactions with them are all rainbows and kittens or not, but he certainly gave them due respect.

In fiction, having your hero sing the praises of some other dude as a hero can be both a brilliant misdirection and an easy way of showing how humble your true hero is. In non-fiction, sharing someone else’s accomplishments shows your own humble character, provides a powerful backup to your premise while showing your reader that you did enough research to find this other hero.

Genius Turner is, dare I say it, a genius at this. He carefully crafts entire articles around the amazing things someone else has done or said.

Tell a story that makes someone else the villain

If there’s any chance the audience has entered into your world with skepticism about your character, your best option is to deflect by pointing out some other villain. In fiction, this can be another use of misdirection. Your actual villain should always be deflecting their own character flaws.

Jeff told us a random story about a huge (like world-renowned) rock legend who he happened to see perform in a small East Texas venue once. Apparently, this guy acted like a jerk more than once during the show as well as afterward when Jeff had the opportunity to speak directly to him. My mom didn’t have a clue who our rock legend was, but hubs and I left the building thinking about what a jerk that musician was, not about whether our new friend the personal injury lawyer was.

Have a lot of billboards

I know, I know. Most of us hate (should I have put that in bold and all caps?) the promotional part of our writing careers. We’d prefer to be more like those high-priced fiftieth-floor attorneys who don’t need billboards. We want people to just show up in our waiting rooms and beg for the privilege of paying us for our words.

But you know what, unless you’re John Grisham (and I’m guessing you aren’t), you’re going to have to put up some billboards. In lawyer Jeff’s world, that means dozens of roadside signs and his face plastered on the side of his own “tour” bus which he uses for public good in the community.

In our world, it means multiple social media accounts, email lists, and a public personae that suits the role you are playing as a writer.

Demonstrate your expertise quietly

I went into the meeting with Jeff expecting a lot of bragging. I was pleasantly surprised. Rather than loudly tell us what he could do or what he has done for others, he slid tidbits into the conversation that left no doubt he was the expert in the room.

This is the hardest part of writing. You absolutely must let your audience know you are qualified to share this important information or story with them. If you don’t, you’ll lose them forever.

Here are the key steps to quietly showing what you know:

  1. Write well. That includes not shouting ginormous words at them and not using obvious trickery.
  2. Hide your credentials in a story. As an example, in one of my guidebooks, Camping New Mexico, in the introductory material, I mention that because my dad moved to Albuquerque when I was eight, I spent a lot of time in the state growing up — most of it spent camping with my dad. That’s not bragging; it’s storytelling.
  3. Present alternate opinions or scenarios, forcing the reader to draw their own conclusions about the situation. This is the equivalent of saying, “Here’s what I think, but you are free to choose for yourself.”
  4. Applaud the audience’s intelligence so they can feel good about choosing to believe in you. Jeff did this repeatedly throughout our meeting.

Give the audience something unexpected at no charge

So you’re expecting the audience to stay with you for the long haul, whether just to the end of your article or all the way to the last page of a book. Maybe you want them to buy your course or sign up for your newsletter. That’s great but you have to give them something for free first. And I mean every damn time they meet up with you.

Want to know what a shyster is? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a person who is professionally unscrupulous especially in the practice of law or politics.

In the world of writing, a shyster would be someone who offers the reader the same cheap gimmicks over and over, trying to pass them off as something of value they hope to exchange for your long-term adoration. It’s sleazy to write the same advice over and over, simply rearranging the words each time, hoping the reader won’t notice because all you really want is a vehicle to deliver your call to action.

When we scheduled our meeting with Jeff, my mother told his assistant that she had a second issue she might need help with, regarding something that had happened to her last year in Louisiana. The assistant told her that they would not be able to help her with that; it would require an attorney from that state.

But you want to know what happened when we had concluded our discussion of the wreck with Jeff? He flipped to a clean page in his notes and said, “Now let’s talk about your other situation.” He not only listened to her story and said he would find her a lawyer in Louisiana, but he also offered her a critical piece of advice that changed her mind completely about how to proceed.

He did not have to do any of that. But he did it, without any money changing hands for it. Besides demonstrating his expertise once again, he also gave us something for free that we were not expecting.

Don’t be a shyster writer. You’ll gather far more fans by giving them stuff you are rightly entitled to charge them for. You’ll have to work even harder to produce the stuff you eventually do charge them for, but that’s what will keep them coming back and singing your praises to everyone they know.

Say all the right things, but do it genuinely

Lawyer Jeff never missed checking a thoughtfulness box throughout our meeting. He took one look at my step-father and asked what branch of the service he was in, then the very instant the words “Air Force” left my step dad’s lips, Jeff said the expected, “Thank you for your service.”

It was obviously a practiced routine, but one that told us two things about the lawyer: he had a keen idea for detail and he was willing to look beyond the dollar signs to the people. If you can do those two things as a writer, you will go far. But you must do it with enough enthusiasm that the reader feels understood and appreciated.

Usher the audience out the door feeling good about meeting you

I’m not a fan of the long call to action. I understand the need to pull the reader toward something else, presumably something that will put money in the bank. But if you drag it out you wipe away all the goodwill you carefully crafted leading up to your long goodbye.

When our meeting concluded, lawyer Jeff walked us back to the office door, pausing to tell us to watch our step at the slightly raised wooden trim surrounding the charming fireplace in the waiting area. He laughed heartily at our jokes about someone falling over that and suing him as if he’d never heard that obvious punchline before. I suspect he was even playing the straight man, setting us up and walking us right into the joke on the way to the exit.

It was a quick goodbye, one that didn’t involve money talk, just a moment of shared laughter. We left feeling good about our meeting and that’s how you should leave your reader. Make sure you’ve answered all the questions, tied up all the loose ends, then serve them up a smile — all the better if you can make yourself the butt of an easy joke. Give them the win and they will always come back for the next round.

Takeaways:

Just as there are personal injury lawyers who are not the sleazebags we characterize them as, there are writers who genuinely have their audience’s interests (rather than their bank accounts) in mind when they write and sell the product of their work.

There are tools we can use to smooth the way for a transaction that leaves everyone feeling satisfied

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