writing

Reasons to Hire a Writer #2: A Writer Remembers

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"The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." -Ernest Hemingway Photo by flickr user Denny Nkemontoh, under CC license.
“The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
-Ernest Hemingway

Emerson said ” ‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book.” Two readers pick up the same volume. One reads words, receives a story, and is entertained. The other –a writer– also reads the words, but in the context of the thousands of other books s/he has read. In his mind each setting, each character, each way of writing is filed in a mental list, becoming in essence a living database of style and context.

The writer also receives a story, but the writer knows stories. The story, is it wordy? Does it say enough? Is it full of gaps: barriers to comprehension? Does it inform and impress enough to be authoritative; to have what some call ‘the ring of truth?’

The writer is also entertained, but as this is his trade and he is a list-making analyzer, his standards will be high. In business and technical writing we replace ‘entertain’ with ‘inform,’ but just as the words used in fiction and business are identical the analytical tools of the writer transform seamlessly to commercial communications.

The writer you hire has a mind just like yours. Whereas yours might be swarming with lines of unwritten code or crowded with market & performance data in aid of your strategic and operational decision-making, the writer’s mind is stacked deep with context, driven by a mania for clarity, and made to adapt.

This last provides perhaps the most value in the business world. A writer is a reader, and by nature an editor. S/he is by training and instinct accustomed to holding hundreds of conceptual lines in mind at once. As Hemingway observed early in his career writing for Cooperative Commonwealth (a former weekly business magazine in Chicago), when presented with business tasks the writer simply makes room in his mind for work and art together. In this s/he is supremely adaptive both to circumstances and information, an inherent skill that translates perfectly into a MARCOM gatekeeper and editor, a social media manager, or communications project manager.

The writer brings a wealth of cultural perspective to discussions about strategy and deep knowledge to conversations about messaging in the act of putting his considerable talents at the disposal of his employer. No matter the message, no matter the audience, a writer has the tools organizations need to bridge critical gaps in messaging, strategy, and talent.

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Reasons to Hire a Writer #1: Everything you say says something about you

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This image gained a measure of local social media attention on Reddit et al..  A misspelled entrance sign is a small matter yes, but it is an equally small matter to know the correct spelling of a word you intend to use. Every similar error instills an undesirable compound impression in the minds of viewers: your brand + careless errors. Would those viewers –potential consumers all– be wrong to wonder what other careless errors your business might commit, inadvertently or otherwise?

Any position that produces copy can and should be staffed by someone with demonstrable if rudimentary knowledge of the languages used. The more nuanced the copy, the more skilled a writer is called for. The promotional sign shop at Budweiser might consider running prepress copy through MARCOM a needless waste of time, but MARCOM –whose job it is to represent the brand with clarity and practiced enthusiasm– might consider errors like this a frustrating step backward.

The writer you hire for your sign shop might not represent himself as a writer at all. Favor the well-spoken applicant: the applicant who chooses his words carefully. HR plays a key role in finding such workers, but so too must managers instruct HR to scan applicants for verbal acuity. If the sole qualification is willingness to work for $11.50 an hour, the following is the inevitable result.

Credit: Redditor /u/FreakyNomics

A small matter yes, but equally small to do correctly. Now consider the impact of an equally simple spelling error in a quarterly letter to investors from your CFO, or in a technical document describing your company’s core technology. The effect is to rob the reader of confidence in your company at the precise moment you seek to instill confidence. Like this beer garden sign that email is one of hundreds the company produces –one small instance– but because humans have long memories the association with a certain amenability to error will persist. Hiring a writer, or at least a worker who’s good with words, nips all these potentially negative outcomes in the bud.

Advice for writers from Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway by Yousuf Karsh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve recently begun a work of long fiction: exponentially longer than I’ve ever maintained one story line. There have been times I’ve written 15,000 words in a weekend, and other times I’ve written nothing for days on end. My manuscript is full of little electronic post-it notes reading “Continuation Point.”

Looking for a different quote from Ernest Hemingway I stumbled upon this, from an October 1935 article in Esquire Magazine called “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.” I realized instantly the cause of the dopey little electronic post-its, and having internalized this message find my daily production is seldom so explosively huge, but is far more regular. YC refers to Hemingway, as ‘Your Correspondent.’ Mice is the nickname of the aforementioned Maestro, a writer friend of Hemingway’s in Cuba. My bold for emphasis.

Mice: How much should you write in a day?

Y.C.: The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Always stop when you are going good and donʼt think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. Once you are into the novel it is as cowardly to worry about whether you can go on to the next day as to worry about having to go into inevitable action. You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry. You have to learn that to write a novel. The hard part about a novel is to finish it.

Mice: How can you learn not to worry?

Y.C.: By not thinking about it. As soon as you start to think about it stop it. Think about something else. You have to learn that.

I realized I already had this capacity via the practice of meditation. The important thing for me going forward is to remember to leave things even just a little unfinished at the end of the day.

Archibald MacLeish – Ars Poetica

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Archibald MacLeish

MacLeish’s expatriate years brought him into contact with Ernest Hemingway and the generación perdue literary community in Paris in the early 20s. Hemingway –not known for kindness to old friends– was unable to land any meaningful punches on the affable, erudite MacLeish.

In this MacLeish implicitly besought poets to transmit whole the very experiences & visualizations that inspired them, not to represent that inspiration somehow. Let the love you feel upon beholding a singularly captivating river stone be the poem, not a retelling of the moment the poet fell in love with the stone. The former brings the reader into the poet’s eye; the latter irrelevant minutia.

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown –

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind –

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

A poem should be equal to:
Not true

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean
But be

-Archibald MacLeish, 1925

Ken Kesey’s heartbreaking, anguished letter on the death of his son (h/t Letters of Note)

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There’s no human measure capable of plumbing the depths of sorrow attendant on the death of a child, and damned few words. In this passage, Ken Kesey finds some of them…

…Up till this time everybody had been exhorting him to “Hang on, Old Timer. Stick it out. This thing can’t pin you. You’re too tough, too brave. Sure it hurts but you can pull through it. Just grit your teeth and hang on.” Now we could see him trying, fighting. We could see it in his clenching fists, his threshing legs. And then aw Jesus we saw it in his face. The peacefully swollen unconscious blank suddenly was filled with expression. He came back in. He checked it out, and he saw better than we could begin to imagine how terribly hurt he was. His poor face grimaced with pain. His purple brow knitted and his teeth actually did try to clench on the tubes.

And then, O my old buddies, he cried. The doctors had already told us in every gentle way they could that he was brain dead, gone for good, but we all saw it…the quick flickerback of consciousness, the awful hurt being realized, the tears saying “I don’t think I can do ‘er this time, Dad. I’m sorry, I truly am…”

And everybody said, “It’s okay, ol’ Jedderdink. You know better than we do. Breathe easy. Go on ahead. We’ll catch you later down the line.”

His threshing stopped. His face went blank again. I thought of Old Jack, Wendell, ungripping his hands, letting his fields finally go…

Read the rest here. Expect to be moved.

‘Auto-correct generation’

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As an English professor, I welcome Laura Clark to the world in which I have dwelt since I became an academic:

Computer spell checks have created an ‘auto-correct generation’ unable to spell common words such as ‘necessary’ and ‘separate’, a survey has found.

Only one in five adults out of 2,000 who took a short spelling test were able to answer all five questions correctly.

Sixty-five per cent failed to spell ‘necessary’ correctly while 33 per cent struggled with ‘definitely’ and ‘separate’.

Read the rest of this depressing but entirely accurate article here.

The value of paying attention in English class

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This moment of mortification is brought to you by someone in the agency for Starbucks and every single person in their marketing department who vetted these materials.

Business students, learn this important fact now: if you’re not going to attend your English/writing classes because you can’t reconcile the ROI, you’d better make so much money you can hire someone who did. Just like there is never a second chance to make a first impression, the appearance of laziness & amateurism is stickier than maple syrup on a three year old.

Vegetables ≠ vegatables
Vegetables ≠ vegatables