â€œAnd ye shall be forced to dwell in the dark places, and toil without ceasing, and suffering will be your only lot, and none shall be your recompense.â€? Thomas Crowley, 1684 to his writing students?
Writer Hell by Michael Finley
Presented to The Maccabee Group August 14, 2002
About me • The “Dean of Minnesota Freelance Writers” • The NEW Why Teams Don’t Work, and 99 other books • Pioneer Press columnist • Computer User columnist • weekly weblog (mfinley.com) • copywriter • speechwriter • annual reports • yadda • yaffa • yadda Dean 02/07/09
Truth is ...
Third Weirdest writing job I ever had
I, Norm Perl A disgraced Dalkon Shield lawyer hired me to write, in Sheldon Leonard novel form, a stinging rebuke of the accusers who had him disbarred and ejected from his own firm. The novel included, at the authorâ€™s insistence, fictional sex scenes. 02/07/09
Second weirdest writing job I ever had
â€œBrothers in Christâ€? A pastoral letter from the Archbishop of St. Paul to priests in the diocese, urging them to come forward on matters relating to child sexual abuse.
The weirdest writing job I ever had
Doerflinger A Milwaukee manufacturer of artificial arms and legs. 100% legitimate, but God help me, I found it psychically impossible to express their mission and vision to consumers in a way that was not hideously jarring. 02/07/09
a writerâ€™s lot 02/07/09
What the job description asks writers to be • Wildly creative ... • But have terrific judgment • Exceptionally intelligent... • But not go over people’s heads • Be a wild individualist ... • And work well with others
How writers think of themselves
How people think of writers
Hell is the place where writers dwell
What the problem is • Writers are under lots of stress • Little mistakes cause BIG problems • Sometimes it’s hard to care about clients • Also, nobody understands us
• And that includes us
We work alone ...
... not just spatially but spiritually. And while solitude beefs up mental muscle, it atrophies our social intelligence, which is critical to writing. We must be strong in both ways to be successful -- able to be alone, but not to become so eccentric that we can't communicate. Left to our own devices and rituals, we tend to get neurotic, or as our ancestors put it, "set in our ways.â€œ
And thereâ€™s a lot to remember!
Demons want to swallow our souls
In the form of ... 02/07/09
And no one wants to pay us for think-time.
Tsk, tsk! As a result, despite an explosion in overall content there are actually fewer opportunities for writers. And those who would like to try something new donâ€™t dare, which is bad for everyone.
Dorothy Parker 02/07/09
The high cost of bad writing • • • • • •
Reduced sales More returns Increased reliance on customer service Loss of identity Loss of competitive advantage Loss of trust
In short, what’s a writer to do? The short view (How to do your job better right now)
The long view (How to hang around for a while)
The very short view
for writers in crisis right now • Breathe in ...
• Breathe out ...
The merely short view
1. Write better 2. Get faster 3. Make fewer mistakes 4. Please clients 5. Stay alive
1. Write better.
When writing sucks Good writing is good in a million different ways
Bad writing is horrifyingly similar 02/07/09
Bad writing • Is vague ... Leaves people unsure of your meaning • Repeats itself ... To pad out the available space • Goes through the motions ... Is not committed to communicating • Is irresponsible ... “I’m just telling you what they told me.” • Is self-pitying ... “I’m doing the best I can with the gifts God gave me!” 02/07/09
Bad writing ... ... is the outcome of bad thinking
Donâ€™t be misunderestimated!
Writing Hygiene Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs.
Writing Hygiene Never fall in love with a phrase.
â€œAnd there was honey in the head.â€?
Practice monastic communication.
Writing Hygiene • Ask yourself, “Is this something that matters to the reader?”
• "Don't write a check with your lead paragraph that your body text can't cash."
Writing Hygiene The Latinate Form
The English Version
"Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."
"I returned and saw, under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." Ecclesiastes IX, 11
Chose English over Latin
Writing Hygiene Never use a metaphor, phrase or figure of speech that you have already encountered in print three times. “chatter” “connect the dots” “gravitas” “the whole nine yards”
Zero Sum Cliches! 02/07/09
Writing Hygiene Avoid qualifiers ... John Lennon called them â€œnothing wordsâ€? very, rather, pretty, a little, just Be lean, mean!
Writing Hygiene Never use a
utilization = use
Eschew obfuscation! 02/07/09
Writing Hygiene If itâ€™s possible to do without a word or phrase, do without it.
Condense and distill! 02/07/09
Writing Hygiene Esquimaux Questions Italiano Lies Never use an obscure or exotic word or phrase when an everyday American phrase exists.
No one likes a show-off. 02/07/09
Writing Hygiene Ignore any rule if following it will make you sound stupid. sillily It is I. agendum The data are?
Sometimes itâ€™s more right to be wrong. 02/07/09
Writing Hygiene When you have written something, let it sit out overnight ... ... to cool down.
Time edits. 02/07/09
Writing Hygiene Get yourself out of your writing ... Even if you’re writing a poem. “Wrote a dream, lose a reader.” (Flaubert)
No one cares. 02/07/09
2. Get faster. (more efficient, anyway)
Adopt a Project Manager’s approach ∀ • Establish ubergoal -- mission statement ∀ • Have a sponsor you can turn to for power ∀ • And a friend you can turn to for succor and support ∀ • Allot resources ∀ • Establish fallback plans 02/07/09
∀ • Break uber-goal into mini-me sizes ∀ • Follow the storyboard, day by day ∀ • Reward yourself for mini-me victories ∀ • When project complete, create a feedback loop -- write down what you learned for future project success
Progressively better outlines #3
A Decent Outline I. Beginning II. Middle III. End
Progressively better outlines #2 Still better than a poke in the eye
II. Fluff III. Enuff
Progressively better outlines #1 Getting There I. Intro II. State case III. Muster support for case IV.
Cyber killers How time flies •
Your computer is the worst time waster; maintenance chores
The Internet quintuples the computer's distractive power
If you need quiet, take your laptop to the lunchroom
“Bizzy” The Fly
Other major boogers Telephones Rotten filing habits Stupidity ("keeping everything you need in your head") The perfect office
And the all-time efficiency killer
Productivity is a function of flow. Worry obstructs flow. So relax. 02/07/09
Start with ... • Your favorite quote from an interview, and build around it • The best question your prospective reader will want answered • A detail from the story that may not be central, but is compelling • A challenge to the reader’s worldview • The most boring sentence ever written ... but at least now you’re moving 02/07/09
How to shut it down A • • •
good ending ... Loops back mentally to the beginning Tells the reader where he/she’s been Should snap! – like a book snapped shut • Leave no doubt there is a continuation on p. 89 Read for endings ... See what other writers do ... Steal liberally 02/07/09
A useful question to ask yourself Are things different for the reader after reading your piece than before?
Remember, you are first and foremost a change agent. 02/07/09
Dealing with false starts
A challenge to billable hours
Coping with scope Take something big ...
... and smash it to bits
3. Make fewer mistakes.
Do rules matter?
NO We shouldn’t straitjacket ourselves to “Gramma.”
YES Writing improperly makes us vulnerable to attack with no upside.
How to resolve this conundrum?
Break the rules if you dare ... but only after youâ€™ve proven to the reader that you know what they are.
The 80/20 Rules
Attend to these problems, and eliminate 80% of your complaints
10 Most Frequent (And very Intelligent) Mistakes
based on editorial mark-ups of my work
#10 standard confusions Its, it’s If it’s modifying something, drop its apostrophe.
They’re, their, there More of a typo than an error, but readers subtract points anyway.
Really want to solve that apostrophe problem?
#9 false parallelism Right: "lovely ladies of dubious virtue, kind gentlemen of low reputeâ€œ Wrong (but interesting): "I hate, in no particular order, housework, being cold, when people talk during a movie, to have to sing at parties, the way you are looking at me right now, and France."
#8 $/%#*@ words comprise It is always active, and means “include.” Do not bend it into being passive with “is comprised of,” because that makes no sense. Right: The zoo comprises four animal buildings. Wrong: The zoo is comprised of four animal buildings. affect, effect flaunt, flout wrack, rack, wreck, wreak rung, rang, wrung, wrong
flounder, founder credulous(receiver), credible (sender) 02/07/09
#7 fewer and less Less refers to a portion of a single whole. There is less milk than there was last night. Fewer refers to number. There are fewer gremlins in the patio than there were last night.
#6 Serial Commas My preference: commas go after each item in a series except the last White, black, and red Some style guides prefer deleting the comma before and. At least be consistent from page to page!
#5 Dangling participles A participial phrase starting a sentence must modify the subject: Wrong: Going to the bathroom, an idea occurred to me. Right: Going to the bathroom, I stumbled on a toy.
#4 data, phenomena, criteria, bacteria Theyâ€™re always plural. In writing, use the correct verb form. (In speech, youâ€™re on your own.)
#3 all right, alright all ready, already
(alrightâ€™s not really a word)
#2 hopefully Why not just say, I hope? Likewise, be on the lookout for doubt-creating phrases like: frankly, honestly, to tell the truth, mark my words
#1 Which and that that never follows a comma; which always must follow a comma
Incidentally Split infinitives are fine. To boldly go where no man has gone before is really the only way you can say it. NOTA BENE! The anti-split infinitive movement originated with scholars who believed English should imitate Latin â€“ which has only one-word infinitives and thus cannot be split.
Nitpicker's Ball purposely, purposefully a while, awhile -ible, -able They have more money than I. everyone = singular farther (distance), further (degree) more important > more importantly
Vive le indifference
catsup, ketchup tenets, tenants as to, so far as
And donâ€™t trust your spellchecker
Order the lo mein top go.
(My spellchecker flags mein, but not top.)
Books to read
Books to read
Books to read
Where to read â€˜em
4. Please clients
Beware the dreaded first draft!
Most clients canâ€™t understand a work-in-progress. It is the fatal moment in the client relationship. So you have to prep them.
What doth it profit a writer... To be bold, creative, at the head of your class ... But to have your client Boot you in the butt?
It’s never the project...
... it’s always the relationship.
The art of the interview Do’s
• Tape record sessions – but ignore the tape • Ask what the interviewee most wishes people understood better • Schedule your easy interviews first • Empathize: what’s the interviewee likely to worry about? • Re-ask questions until you get a good answer 02/07/09
Don’t’s • Ask the wrong person the wrong question • Worry about silences – they can be your friend • Erect walls – make your draft available • Pretend you know things you don’t • Never show an early to a touchy customer • Never order soup 81
And donâ€™t forget your reader
Know your audience
Writing is dealmaking
You agree to play the role of: • • • • • •
Host/guide Teacher Clown/Trickster Inquisitor Friend Objective Historian • News reporter
The best path out of writing hell is to know how to do something besides write. Specialize. Be a creator of Knowledge, not just the purveyor of it. 02/07/09
What I know besides writing. • Teams • Management theory • Desktop technology • The religion business • Artificial limbs
Plus things I haven’t figured how to sell yet, but I’m working on: •Dog psychology •Brain tumors
What are you smart about? 02/07/09
5. Stay alive.
“Staying alive” brings us to THE LONG VIEW
What do you need to know to survive?
Freud said there are only two kinds of writers
X’s and O’s, baby
But in truth there are four types
Different strokes ...
Advantage: Always right Disadvantage: Seldom interesting
Advantage: Eyes on the prize Disadvantage: Failure of empathy, swamps the boat
Advantage: Willingness to communicate Disadvantage: Constipation or logorrhea
Advantage: Virtuosic gifts Disadvantage: Lousy team player
... for different folks? Analytical
Really good for financial writing Not so good for poetry Desire: perfection
Really good for persuasive work Not so good for touchie-feelies Desire: success
Really good for feel-good materials Not so good for manifestoes Desire: connection
Really good for ad copy Not so good for clarity and accuracy Desire: special effects
Who ... are you ... ?
And how do you compensate for the inherent weaknesses of your type?
needs: flair, flow
needs: intuition, connectivity
needs: clarity, authority,
needs: accuracy, humility
The buddy system
partner with a sponsor, a friend, a colleague in the opposite square â€“ team up to overcome your weaknesses
Knowing who you are ... • Helps you decide what style to write in • Reminds you what your weaknesses are • Points you toward new skills to add to your set • Helps you forgive other folks – writer, clients – for being who they are • And it makes you part of a team 02/07/09
Writing as teamwork The great thing about teams is you mix the personality gifts to come up with the best result • Edit others, and become a better editor ... It feeds back in • Compensate for your weaknesses with others’ strengths But ... be strict with one another ... no log-rolling!
Escaping writer hell
Hope for the damned
Can a writer run the world? Vaclav Havel, Czech Republic
Can a writer become a vice president? Of an ordinary company, silly
Why not? •
Writers are natural entrepreneurs Writers must exercise decent judgment Writers are trained in tactical versatility Writers have great knowledge Writers are steeled to survive failure
Hell, to write persuasively is to be a visionary leader!
human pincushions 02/07/09
dynamic heroes 102
All we lack is ...
•opportunity •credibility •confidence •a nice outfit
“On top of the world, Ma!”
The way out is up... 02/07/09
the very long term you still have to ... breathe in ...
breathe out ... 02/07/09
Know who you are ...
and what you can do ...
Define your task
... nail that sucker! 02/07/09
And if that doesnâ€™t work ...
Mike Finley http://mfinley.com 651-644-4540