Monday, July 28, 2014

Let's you and him fight

Conflict is the energy that drives fiction.

The spy novelist John Le Carre, one of my favorites, describes conflict in his books this way. After creating a character, the next step is:
... empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within. They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict. “The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.
Is this a useful technique for those who write about business, technology and the economy? Yes, absolutely.

What is a market, after all, but a contest between a buyer and a seller? What is protectionism in trade all about? What happens to the old ways when a new workplace technology comes along?

What is at play in your subject? Who wins, who loses?

I decided to do a random check of my thesis. Lo and behold, the very first article I turned to is full of conflict. It's a seemingly boring subject, managing working capital -- I know, yawn -- but look what writers do with it. This is from McKinsey:
Managing a company’s working capital isn’t the sexiest task. It’s often painstakingly technical. It’s hard to know how well a company is doing, even relative to peers; published financial data are too high level for precise benchmarking. And because working capital doesn’t appear on the income statement, it doesn’t directly affect earnings or operating profit—the measures that most commonly influence compensation. Although working capital management has long been a business-school staple, our research shows that performance is surprisingly variable, even among companies in the same industry.
That's quite a missed opportunity.
There is a lot of conflict -- dis-ease -- in this opening graf. The first line of the second graf just piles on the discomfort. (The writers use another smart technique: acknowledging that the subject is boring, to, they hope, mitigate it.)

If someone can do this with working capital, certainly you can do it with your topic. Just explore it for its inherent conflict. Let the reader get caught up in the drama.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To create, don't break the chain

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” 
~ Chuck Close, American painter and photographer

If you want to write, you have to write. There's no getting around it.

This is true of any creative endeavor. The Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878:
We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination. 
A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write today will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it.
Jerry's Pop Tart joke.
If you won' take it from him, take it from Jerry Seinfeld. When he was starting out he realized that success meant good jokes, and good jokes meant writing good jokes.

So he got a big wall calendar with a whole year on one page and hung it in a prominent place. He also got a big red marker.

On each day that he wrote he put a big red X.
"After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."
Here's Seinfeld on writing a joke about Pop Tarts. It's work, not inspiration.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Hart Crane: words

"One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The CIA's rules for writing

Don't tell anyone, but it has them. You didn't hear it from me.

A freedom of information request brought them in out of the cold. Here's what the spymasters think their underlings should know.

All writers using the agency's style guide, it says, "are assumed already to possess the three essentials of intelligence analysis: knowledge, clarity of thought, and good judgment. No writing, however skilled, can conceal deficiencies in these requisites.”

Hmm. I don't think it's just spies.

See if these rules are helpful for you:
  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
  • Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.
This is a commandment for any business writer.
For the most part, Directorate of Intelligence analysts are writing for generalists. Generalists may have deep expertise in specific areas, such as missile technology or a country’s tribal politics; nonetheless, the analyst’s goal is to do away with the specialist’s jargon and to put everything into layman’s language. If your audience consists of just a few people who thoroughly understand the subject (or who cannot be trusted to follow the reasoning without jargon to guide them), by all means sprinkle your piece with technical terms. Most of the time, however, write for the nonexpert.
I'm glad this secret leaked.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Zadie Smith's rules for writing

Zadie Smith is a British novelist, essayist and short story writer. She has published four novels, all of which have received substantial critical praise. In 2003, she was included on Granta's list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University's Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on September 1, 2010.
Here are her rules for writing:
  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.
I particularly like the practicality of 1, 2, and 5. These are sturdy rules you learn either from experience or from an accomplished writer like Smith.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

How the great orators became great

We can learn a lot about writing and speaking from the ancients, which I suppose is just more evidence that there is nothing new.

Imagine that your words and deeds will be remembered for centuries!

Two of those old guys believed that excelling as a speaker or writer requires real work. How often do we who engage in writing and speaking in a business environment take time to learn and practice the crafts?

Cicero, who lived from 106 BC to 43 BC was a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist (whew!). He is considered to be one of Rome's finest writers and orators.

“I never suffered even a single day to escape me, without some exercise of the oratorial kind,” he wrote. Of Caesar he said:
"He has the purest and the most elegant command of the Roman language of all the Orators that have yet appeared. He chiefly acquired and brought it to its present perfection, by a studious application to the most intricate and refined branches of literature, and by a careful and constant attention to the purity of his style. 
Then there is Demosthenes. who lived from 384 BC to 322 BC.

An Athenian statesman, he is recognized as the greatest of the ancient Greek orators. You know his story. He was self-taught:
He built an underground study where he exercised his voice, shaving one half of his head so that he could not go out in public. Plutarch adds that Demosthenes had a speech defect, "an inarticulate and stammering pronunciation" that he overcame by speaking with pebbles in his mouth and by reciting verses when running or out of breath. He also practiced speaking before a large mirror.
These great orators weren't born great. They had to work at it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Just listen to us

Emma Green, an associate editor at The Atlantic, has traced the history of office speak from the beginning of industrialization up to now.

It's not surprising that the buzzwords heard in offices mirror the major emphases in corporations at the time, whether efficiency, or firing people or finance.

I thought I'd pass on a taste of her fine article from the end: the buzzwords we use today. This will be more fun, because some of these are considered sacred and suitable for derision. And we're so busy using them that we perhaps cannot hear ourselves. In 10 years the buzzwords will be different, and these will look silly.

Take diversity. The language surrounding this enthusiasm has evolved, Green writes.
Luke Visconti, the CEO and founder of Diversity Inc, points out that the language used to talk about race, class, and sexual orientation has also changed. “When we first started our publication in 1997, it was diversity, and then it became diversity and inclusion. Detractors will call it political correctness or whatever they want, but the real emphasis revolves around talent development. The language of equity and outcome is important.”
Translation: we're supposed to scrunch our brows and look serious.

Of all the different kinds of office speak, diversity talk is probably toughest to untangle, Green writes.
It’s easy to make fun of buzzwords like engagement, dialogue, recognition, experience, awareness, education. Everyone I spoke with recognized that there’s a certain amount of eye-rolling that comes with diversity trainings—“talk of yellow people and purple people, that sort of thing,” quipped Shawna Vican, a doctoral candidate who is studying organizational change at Harvard.
As Green notes, everyone makes fun of it, but managers love it, companies depend on it, and regular people willingly absorb it.

We engage in this babble the same way we went along with rightsizing, downsizing, making reductions in force, streamlining, restructuring, letting go, creating operational efficiencies.

Hey, they fired us! But we had a nice name for it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tolstoy would abhor your listicle

Do not click.
I try not to read anything that comes in a list, although I have moments of weakness. And I'll repost some here, especially the rules for writing of great authors.

I refuse to read those lists requiring me to click from one page to the next to read. Whoever came up with that format ought to be shot.

Okay, that's extreme, so let me withdraw that comment and reformulate it: should be shot twice.

Years ago an editor of mine criticized a piece I wrote: "It's just words." Words symbolizing nothing. Ah, we could liberally scatter his criticism abroad today.

As you might have guessed, this is nothing new. There is nothing  new. We could create a clever saying about that and use it til we're in a stupor.

There, that's enough of a useless lead-in to my point: Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, found himself creating his age's version of the listicle. The incomparable Maria Popova finds this passage in Tolstoy's A Confession.
"We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum."
Ah, the echoing babblings of an asylum.
"It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that. But in order to do such useless work and to feel assured that we were very important people we required a theory justifying our activity. And so among us this theory was devised: “All that exists is reasonable. All that exists develops. And it all develops by means of Culture. And Culture is measured by the circulation of books and newspapers. And we are paid money and are respected because we write books and newspapers, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of men.” This theory would have been all very well if we had been unanimous, but as every thought expressed by one of us was always met by a diametrically opposite thought expressed by another, we ought to have been driven to reflection. But we ignored this; people paid us money and those on our side praised us, so each of us considered himself justified."
I'm going to write "Tolstoy's Six Self Criticisms" to explore this further. Hope you'll click along.