"Jedi knights roam the universe," says John David Mann's web site, "helping set things right. What I do is something like that—the difference being, I help set things write." A writer's writer, John is also a quintessential serial entrepreneur. Previous to being an award-winning author, he forged a successful musical career, with compositions performed throughout the world. John also founded a journal on nutrition and the environment, years ahead of the trend, where his endless hours invested created writing mastery, leading to senior editor positions at Upline, Network Marketing Lifestyles, and finally Networking Times. If this weren't impressive enough, John also built a multimillion-dollar network marketing organization that topped 100,000 people. One can understand my enthusiasm for this interview: I wanted to learn the secrets of John's mastery in not one, not two, but three diverse fields. His Go-Giver book series, coauthored with Bob Burg, are classics (the newest of which, It's Not About You, is reviewed in this issue), teaching many of the lessons he has learned through climbing the mountain to mastery. — O.A.W.
How did you get started in your first career?
I come from a musical family. My father was a musicologist and conductor. I grew up around classical music and threw myself into that as a youngster. I played the cello and I was a composer.
As a teenager, I also got into education. A bunch of my friends and I were not happy with the schools we were going to, didn't feel like we were learning much. So we started our own high school.
I dropped out in my junior year and we started our own high school, which ran on for ten years after that. It was a very successful, student-directed high school with an intense focus on learning.
One thing I learned in that experience was that it is quite possible to accomplish things outside the beaten track, even when most people around you say, "That's impossible. You can't do that."
How old were you when you did this?
Seventeen. I went to that school as a senior, then joined the faculty and taught there for a year, and then went on to pursue my music career, playing in a symphony orchestra and doing recitals.
Around that time I became very interested in natural health. I was reading a lot of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan and exploring various world views. I dropped out of my music career and got involved with the macrobiotic world in Boston and became a teacher in that field.
That was when I started writing. I never planned or intended to be a writer. There was just writing that needed to get done. We had a few journals, and someone needed to edit the articles.
I never studied writing in school. But my dad was a published author, and I grew up in a world surrounded by writing. It was part of my environment. My parents valued books very highly.
At one point, while I was actually running a small natural health center in upstate New York, a friend decided to start a journal about health and the environment. It was going to be circulated to a few cities just in our area. The day before he was supposed to go to press with the first issue, he disappeared. He split.
So I had to do it.
I put this thing out, and it grew to become a national magazine called Solstice. We had a very high-minded philosophical reason why we called it Solstice, having to do with an epic shift in world thinking—but the truth was that he had just named it after his cat, Solstice.
That's also when I got involved in network marketing.
I had a friend, a fellow macrobiotic teacher, who was in network marketing. He told me about it one day, about how it was a business where you become successful by helping other people become successful—how it was about teaching and training people.
The moment I heard him describe it, I fell in love with the concept. And I have been ever since. That was in 1986, twenty-five years ago.
How did you go about elevating and refining your writing skills?
I practiced. I had a lot of experience getting other people's writing, editing and improving it.
One thing I learned very early as a composer was how to take a piece of music apart and figure out what makes it tick. I studied orchestral scores, examining these huge compositions upside-down and backwards, getting deeply into the nuts and bolts of how they worked.
I've done this with writing, too. You have to be curious about how things work.
In Stephen King's book On Writing, he says you can forget about being a writer if you're not reading constantly. Makes sense: how do you breathe out, if you don't breathe in?
I love to read. I love words. I love the way people can put ideas together in sentences, so that they sing and really communicate. I love to explore what makes it work and what makes it not work.
When I was first involved in building a network marketing organization, I was always intrigued not only with how it works, but also how it doesn't—how people mess up or get in their own way, what are the things that can go wrong, so I could help people avoid doing that.
For the past twenty-one years, since John Fogg and I started Upline in 1990, I've always been on the staff of some kind of network marketing journal or other. Most people who submit articles to network marketing magazines are not professional writers. So I've been exposed to an enormous amount of material that is well-meaning but not too skillful.
Which is great, because I get to sit there and say, "Okay, this is a good person, and they're saying good things—but it's not working as well as it should on the page. Why not? What's wrong with this picture? And how can I, without injecting my own ego or personality into it, help make this work better?"
Why is writing important to someone in network marketing? What makes writing important today?
I've heard people say that email has created a terrible decline in writing. "Nobody cares about grammar or punctuation anymore, and the world's going to hell in a handbasket..."
And I think just the opposite is the case.
Since the advent of widespread email, people have been conducting a lot more of their communication in writing than they had been doing for generations. In fact, people may be doing more actual writing right now than ever before.
You can go back to the nineteenth century and find wonderful examples of people's copious correspondence. There's an incredible collection of letters between John and Abigail Adams. Before he died, my dad and I were working on an English translation of the complete correspondence between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Back then, people wrote. But when I was a kid? Not so much. The telephone (the first true social medium) changed all that. People wrote thank-you notes when they felt they had to.
Now we're suddenly in an age where people are using written words a lot.
Why is that important? Because words are so powerful. People sometimes say, "Oh, words cannot express how excited I am." Of course they can! They always can. There is no such thing as "words cannot express how...."
At one point in our new book, It's Not About You, the mentor character says, "Words are the most powerful invention human beings have ever created." Later on in the story she says, "Words are the footprints of God."
The guy hearing this says, "Hang on, though! I thought you said, words were the greatest human invention ever."
And she just looks at him and says, "That too."
Because I really do feel both ways about it. It's one of our greatest inventions ever, and words are the footprints of God. Words distill what we're thinking, our understanding, our knowledge, our experience and, therefore, communication. Words communicate. The Bible and many of the world's creation myths say words created the universe.
I think the communication in an email is just as important as the communication in a novel. I spend a lot of time every day emailing. That's where I do most of my communication. I don't use the phone much. And many of the articles I've written have first spilled out of my fingers while in the process of writing someone an email.
I brainstorm on email a lot. Sometimes I just dash off a thought I didn't realize I had. Sometimes I'll take forty-five minutes to rework a two-paragraph email polishing and taking it apart and discarding and starting over, because I really want it to say what it is I want to say.
Zig Ziglar says when he started writing books, he realized he was able to affect more people through the written word than through the spoken word. What do you suppose he meant by that?
Written language is like a lever you can apply to speech. When Archimedes discovered the principle of leverage, he said, "Give me a place to stand on, and I can move the world."
A brilliant engineer employed by the military, he reportedly set up a demonstration with a fleet of massive Greek battleships in the harbor, connected by an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys. He stood atop some promontory, moved a single lever—and the battleships moved.
A solitary guy, moving a fleet of battleships just with his skinny little arm, through the power of leverage.
Well, writing is like that. You can speak, but then you put it through the lever of written words, and because of the nature of mass media communication, you can get copies of the page out to a million people, or through the Internet, up on a million screens.
And there's something powerful about the stripped-down nature of written words. With the written word, you don't have inflection, you don't have volume, you don't have the nuance of the human voice. You've got letters and punctuation marks. That's it.
One could make the case that, because of this stripped-down, more abstract nature of the communication, the written word may have the potential to penetrate further, to more different kinds of people, than even your spoken word.
I recently took a vacation and brought with me a copy of Plutarch's Lives, which was written around 100 A.D. He's been dead for some twenty centuries—and yet his voice is still speaking today. That's something I'm always impressed with, John, when I read your writing: you're not just writing for today. When we are long gone, your writing will still be speaking to people.
Well, that just gives me chills. There's nothing that moves me more. I'm such a classical music freak, and I listen to Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, and Bartok, day in and day out—and every one of these guys died long before I was born. I love the idea of speaking across generations.
How did you go from being this journalist, running this magazine Solstice, to writing books?
I had an editorial hand in a bunch of network marketing books early on, in the nineties. By the 2000s, I was ghost-writing network marketing books—The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson, The Next Millionaires, by Paul Pilzer.
I started in network marketing in 1986, built my first organization, and by the mid-nineties it grew large, over 100,000 people, and I was doing very well financially.
At that point, I decided I wanted to become a writer.
I started going to Barnes & Noble and looking at the displays of new books, right in front of the store, and visualizing my own books being there. I did that multiple times a week: just went and stood there, picturing it.
At the same time, I threw myself into the study of screenwriting, read everything about it, analyzed dozens of screenplays. I had the time luxury, because of my network marketing business. I went out to Hollywood and took a few courses. Through a network marketing friend, James Justice, I discovered this writing teacher, Hal Croasmun, and I took a number of his online courses. He's a brilliant teacher.
In 2004, Bob Burg approached me about partnering with him to write this little book he wanted to write. I really didn't want to do that. I was going to Hollywood, man, and write movies! But the best things in life come out of left field and happen despite your plans, not because of them. You know the Yiddish expression, we wrote about it in Go-Givers Sell More: Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht. It means, "Man plans, and God laughs."
I was thinking of a similar saying, "Coinci-dence is God's way of remaining anonymous."
That's excellent. Never heard that one before.
Well, Bob was politely persistent. Finally we sat down and talked through a few ideas. He gave me what he'd written so far. I had a break in my calendar, so I decided at least to give it a shot.
I sat down and wrote out a chapter, and got excited about it. That was it. I couldn't stop. We poured that thing out in six weeks.
You wrote The Go-Giver in six weeks?! That is amazing.
Same thing with It's Not About You. Last November.
What would you recommend for the person who says, "I'm not sure if I'm going to be a professional writer, but I know I should be developing my writing skills"?
Writing is communication, and that's important for all of us—but especially in network marketing. Even if you never do any other writing than your emails, Facebook updates or blog posts, it's worth it to really perfect your writing.
If you create a blog or any other endeavor on a social media platform, you've got to have good writing.
Blogs are a fantastic platform for writing, because they give you enormous exposure to great writing, terrible writing, and everything in between.
Writing a blog is free, it's easy, it's accessible. Blogs make it possible for you to publish your writing, in a sense, without all the barriers to entry that we've always had up until now.
First, you can't grow your writing unless you grow your reading.
One great way to grow your reading is to get in the habit of reading critically. I don't mean criticizing, I mean when something hits you, either, "Wow, that's great," or "That's terrible," then stop right then and try to figure out why. What is it about that sentence that hits you? Why is this post so boring? So annoying? So moving? So funny?
Start observing not just what's being said, but also how it's being said. Become a student of what you read.
Another great way to grow your writing is to read outside your sphere.
I do this automatically. I don't read books about network marketing. I don't read business parables. I read voraciously, but mostly outside my sphere. I read fiction, history, memoirs, all kinds of things that catch my interest—and that are not like what I write. I just read all the Jack Reacher books—very violent, fast-paced thrillers. Is that a "guilty pleasure"? No, nothing guilty about it—the writing is phenomenal!
The same is true for blogs. When you find a great blog, it almost doesn't matter what the subject is. Look at Gary Vaynerchuk. You don't have to love wine to appreciate what he's done.
Great communication is great communication.
Now I'm also starting to write outside my sphere. I'm working on a memoir of a Navy Seal sniper. Totally outside my sphere. It's an absolute blast. Fascinating.
Let's talk writing skills. Is writing an art or a science? Or is it both?
It's a craft, which incorporates aspects of both. The science is systematic, and the art is intuitive. But in learning the craft of writing, I don't think we have to get too highfalutin about being "artists." The craft is there in an email.
Joan Didion said, "I write to find out what I think." That happens to me often. I'm in the middle of an email and go, "Hey, that's a neat idea—I didn't know I thought that." Writing can be a way of clarifying our thinking.
But the best writing is writing that communicates clearly. Here is one key to the craft: learn to say things in a direct and clear way.
One of the hallmarks of poor writing is that people clutter it up with noise. They'll start a sentence saying, "Well, in my opinion..."—but we already know it's your opinion. Or they'll say, "It seems to me that in circumstances such as this..." People think that when they're writing, they have to use blustery phrases like, "It seems to me," or, "At the end of the day." Just say what you're thinking! Blurt it out!
A lot of what I do in editing is taking things out, clarifying things, simplifying things, and making them more direct.
Of course there are many different styles. Obviously some novelists use more ornate language, and some are brutally simple. But for me, improving writing almost always means removing words.
It sounds like a lot of your learning process in how to write was through rewriting what other people wrote.
E.B. White wrote, "the best writing is rewriting," and you'll hear a lot of writers echo that. A lot of the best work happens in the rewriting process.
However, that's a double-edged sword. A lot of people who try to write never quite get there because they can't stop editing themselves. They let themselves get intimidated. In fact, that may be the feature that separates writers from non-writers: writers just put it on the page.
There's another famous writer's quote, from Hemingway, "The first draft of anything is crap."
When I'm starting a new book, the first words I get on the page would make you cringe. It's awful. You can't help it. You have to be willing to start out doing something that feels like it isn't very good, or even terrible—and not edit yourself. You have to resist the urge to second-guess yourself, just turn off your inner critic and let it fly.
That's why I'll often write an email, but not send it until later, when I've had a chance to go over it a few times, because it didn't really say what I meant it to say.
Or, I may discover in the process of writing it that what I meant to say was something different than what I thought I meant to say.
If you're writing a blog, let yourself go for 100, 200 or 300 words. Then park it on your desk and come back to it the next morning. Then, take a look at it critically. Read it out loud.
By the way, reading what you've written out loud is one of the very best ways to edit.
When you read your writing out loud, what are you looking for? How is that different than just reading it silently?
Whenever I write a book, this is always the last stage I do. I've written the whole thing, polished it, done a lot of work on it. I'll put it aside for a week—then print it out and spend an entire day reading it out loud. Usually, I pace back and forth when I'm reading it.
Why? First off, when you're reading silently, in your head, you'll skip over things that you'd stumble on if you were reading it out loud. If you typed the word "the" instead of the word "to" or make some silly little mistake like that, you'll hear it when you read it out loud. When you read silently, you skip over these mistakes.
In a larger sense, what you've written has a more vivid impact when you hear it. It's like you're decoding it back into real speech.
I've read a page and said to myself, "What on earth is that supposed to mean?" It made sense when I wrote it last night, but now, when I hear myself read it, I have no idea what this guy is trying to say.
Are there any books you'd recommend for someone who wants to become a better writer?
Stephen King's On Writing is a fantastic book. A lot of fun to read, and extremely useful.
I always think writers writing about how they write is fascinating. Barnes and Noble has a fantastic podcast called "Meet the Writers." Each one is a short interview with a writer, all sorts of topics—popular fiction, current events, memoirs, everything. The interviewer asks great questions, and at some point he always asks the writer about his or her own process.
"Do you write at a set time every day, or a different time? Do you have to write at home? Does it have to be quiet? Do you write out in public, or do you write with music, or do you write in silence? Do you write a certain number of hours a day?"
It's fascinating, because their answers are all so different. It's like interviewing network marketing leaders and asking them how they do what they do. You hear a lot of common themes, but also a ton of variations in personal style.
Is there one writer you'd say you have modeled your writing on, or who is a hero to you?
That's a tough one—there are so many. I keep adding to the list. Buckminster Fuller. C.S. Lewis. John Irving. Neil Gaiman. Erik Larson. Seth Godin. Dennis Lehane. Malcolm Gladwell. It's a mixed bag.
I'm constantly on the lookout for the next writer who makes me go, "Wow! How did he do that?"
When you're reading, do you highlight passages or copy them down, to improve your skill?
When a passage wows me, I read it out loud. Sometimes I have to write it out into an email and send it to someone. I did this last night. I read a passage that blew my mind, and I had to send it to the friend who'd recommended the book and say, "Did you see that?!"
Do you have any parting advice to help people become better writers?
Be open to criticism. One of the best things you can do to improve your writing is to show it to people whose writing you admire and ask for their feedback. "Tell me honestly what you think."
The other day I just got an email from an old friend who wants to write a book, asking if he could show me a sample. I said sure, so he sent me a one-page synopsis of his book—and it was terrible.
It took me two days to write the email. I told him what I thought didn't work and why. I was brutally honest. He wrote back and said, "You may think your words were harsh, but I'm so thrilled you told me. I am more excited than ever. I'm already making revisions and changes, and I can't wait to make this better."
With an attitude like that, you cannot help but get better.
Hal Croasmun, my screenwriting teacher, drummed that into us: "The writers who make it big in Hollywood are the writers who can take criticism. The ones who make it a joy to work with them. But if you're a prima donna and get all defensive about your writing, the Hollywood system will spit you out. It's just not worth the effort."
So rather than defending or being offended by the feedback, take it as an opportunity to grow.
I'll give you a great example.
In the spring of 2006, I realized that my writing schedule was becoming too demanding for me to continue serving as editor in chief of Networking Times.
I wrote to Chris and Josephine Gross and said, "Guys, I love you and I've so appreciated the chance to do this, but I have to scale back."
I agreed to help find and train a replacement. We came up with a number of candidates, but none of them quite panned out. Finally, after a few months, they said, "You know what? We're thinking, maybe Josephine will do it."
Now, for Josephine, English is her third language. Not exactly a native speaker. At the time, she was working full-time as a teacher. For her to leave her job and take on this task seemed, to me, an incredibly daunting thing.
I thought, "Wow, really? Is that going to work?"
Here's what happened. I agreed to stay on as Senior Editor and basically be Josephine's mentor. She started editing every piece and sending me her edits, which I would mark up and send back. I'd never done anything quite like it.
But she was such an open, curious student, and such a quick study, that it turned out to be one of the best writing/editing experiences in my life—way more fun than I had imagined it would be. As a result, I ended up putting a lot into it. Instead of just going over an article quickly, I would embed notes and write commentary, explaining why I made this choice instead of that choice, why this phrase didn't quite work, and how that word didn't quite fit this context, and suggesting a string of alternatives.
She was so much fun to teach that I poured a ton of effort into it. She sucked it up like a sponge and developed those editorial skills fast.
Here's the reason I tell this story. In the course of doing all this, I've learned so much about writing—things I'd never really put in words before.
I think Joan Didion's right: we write to find out what we think. And we teach to find out what we know.