Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Sanctity of Publication

As I write this blog post, I look to the right of the editing pane at a shiny blue button labeled Publish. When I am done writing, I can press that button and, voila, my written work is visible to the entire world.

Growing up, I fantasized about “getting published,” without really knowing what was involved. In high school or college, this meant submitting to a campus literary magazine. After college, this meant spending quality time with my copy of Poet’s Market and labeling tons of SASEs. In both cases, I had to cull my reams of poems and short stories to the ones I felt were the best and revise them to the point where I felt they had a chance to stand out amid the competition.

When one of my submissions was accepted, the feeling of exaltation at knowing that my work had been assessed by the editors of these magazines and deemed worthy of inclusion was incredible. Some were more prestigious than others, but each was an honor. When I began writing freelance, my feelings upon having a pitch accepted or a piece make it through the editing process and into print were quite similar.

Either way, publication took work.

Beware the ‘Axiom’

Today, things are different. Sure, the above processes still exist, in much a similar fashion. But with the web and the wide array of accessible platforms it offers, anyone can get published. I can blog with self-proclaimed authority on any topic I choose. I can create my own online magazine and publish the works of whomever I choose. I can recruit co-authors and craft a collaborative work. I can self-publish my own novel and distribute it through a print-on-demand model. I can choose to just publish my thoughts 140 characters at a time. I live in a world where I can COPE (create once, publish everywhere).

But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

Before clicking the shiny blue button, we should pause for a moment to consider the word “publish” as we might have when we were 18-year-olds aspiring to pen the Great American Novel. To be published was an exalted achievement, one that elevated you above your peers. But it took thought and planning. It took critical self-assessment. It took rounds of revision and editing. It took more than a good idea; it took execution. It took work. And once we learned that, if we really wanted to be published, we accepted and committed to the work. We put in the time to earn the reward.

We shouldn’t let modern convenience make us lazy. Even if the publishing mechanism is easier and quicker, we should avoid becoming the publishing equivalents of the fat, slothful humans on the airship Axiom in WALL-E, creating a world where, to our detriment, the machines are doing more of the heavy lifting than us.

It’s All About Value

Publishing without work is a disservice to your audience. Too often, we take the Narcissus approach to publication; in love with our own content (hat-tip: @LoriPA), we gaze adoringly at it and assume that everyone else will want to do the same. Hate to say it, but this is not necessarily true. The size and engagement of your audience is directly proportional to the value of your content. And the irony is that mediums with potentially unlimited audiences can encourage lazier publishing… which reduces the value of the content being published. When people complain about Foursquare spam in their Twitter feed, I want to say, “It’s not Foursquare’s fault; they allow you to opt out of pushing your check-ins to Twitter. It’s the publisher’s fault for thinking everyone wants to know they’re at the supermarket.”

Simply put, the proximity of the shiny blue button to our itchy clicker finger does not excuse us from reflection and revision, whether it’s an idle tweet or a serious blog post. It does not excuse us from asking the question, “What value do I add if I publish this?” In this increasingly noisy space, the more we can focus our efforts and refine our output, the better off everyone will be.

To that end, I think we should give the word “publish” the respect and lustre it deserves. Heck, give it starry-eyed adulation. Pretend you’re 18 again and publication is an elusive, lofty goal to work toward. Make it a reward, not an entitlement.

I’ve never heard of Jonathan Fields before today, but twice today I’ve seen this comment by him retweeted, and it really sums up the whole deal:

Don’t write because you’ve got something to say, write because you’ve got something add.

Top photo by theogeo, Flickr/Creative Commons

Laying Effective Idea Traps

I recently read two really great blog posts about writing — specifically, how to log ideas, improve concentration, maintain focus and enhance your craft. It got me thinking about the process of capturing ideas.

First, about those blog posts. One of them came from Chris Brogan. He wrote about generating ideas, spreading ideas and the process of cultivating ideas into written messages. Brogan talks about writing as not being something you sit down at the computer to do. It’s more like a habit, a reflex, an ongoing filtration of the world around you. Writing is reading. Writing is thinking about topics to write about. Writing is publishing. Writing is praying without ceasing.

The thing is, you have to practice writing when you can. I don’t think it’s good enough to say, “I’ll write every morning,” or “I’ll write after the kids go to bed.” When I say this, I understand that you have to find time where you can, but the actual practice of writing is something I want you to try doing all the time.

As someone who made a big production of finding an hour every morning to write or run, I appreciated this reality check a lot. Anyhow, go read the post. I won’t blame you if you don’t come back. It’s good stuff.

The second post was on 10,000 Words, a great blog that explores the intersection between journalism and technology.  The post in question listed five ways to improve your writing and concentration. The two that resonated with me the most were 2) Write down ideas when you have them and 4) Tame the web.

With regard to #4, the post quotes the anonymous truism, “Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet.” How true is this? How many times do we shut down Tweetdeck or e-mail to get anything done? Probably not as often as we should.

With regard to #2, back in college, I made the new year’s resolution one year to always carry a pen and notepad with me. For me, such resolutions were usually fleeting affairs, but this one I kept for years. I didn’t carry a bag then, so my notepad was perpetually in my back pocket, pen in my front pocket. I was writing more poetry then than anything else, so most of what I captured were ideas for poems, lines or verse fragments.

Now, I carry a bag and it always has a notebook in it. A lot of my ideas also come to me as I am lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. It generally does not take me long to fall asleep, so there is a preciously small window of time when these ideas will come to me.  For this reason, keeping a bedside notepad within easy reach is critical. I love waking up the next morning to find some scrawled insight perched atop my alarm clock.

And of course, nowadays I have technology I couldn’t even have conceived of back in college. With my Blackberry, I am always e-mailing myself ideas that comes to me when I am out and about, whether it’s a blog topic or a point to make in The Project — not to mention ideas for work. I’ve also used Evernote a little bit, usually for more extensive writing I am doing on the go.

We often conceive of emerging technologies as facilitating new ways of broadcasting out, but what about broadcasting in? With technology, we are tremendously more empowered to talk to ourselves, and we can take advantage of much-needed system redundancy and backup. (More on this in a bit.) A tweet this morning by Brian Kenyon was particularly timely:

(I hadn’t heard heard of reQall before. Kinda neat.)

Memory: The Unreliable Narrator

What is the common denominator to all of this advice? It’s all about creating systems and habits that are more reliable than our weakest link: our memory. If we were computers, we would need to have a program running in the background all the time that captured critical bits of sound, image and text for later reference. All of these tips and strategies are akin to coding that program for ourselves.

We cannot trust ourselves to remember. It’s sad but true. The human memory is a strange and glorious function, but I wouldn’t trust it with an important new thought farther than I can throw it. When that thought arrives, you have to put on the brakes and make a note of it. Your memory is too busy remembering the lyrics to En Vogue songs you haven’t heard in 10 years to make lasting note of your epiphany. The other morning, as I was doing dishes and a Mountain Goats lyrics triggered an idea for The Project, I ran, wet hands dripping, back to my desk to write it down. I had no choice. I had to snare the idea while it was still alive.

The gap between having an idea and communicating it is wide and precipitous. We need to set up our own safety nets, to rescue our insights and ideas when they fall off the tips of our tongues or the forefront of our minds. That is writing.

I wondered why I happened to read those two blog posts so quick on the heels of one another, and then I looked at a calendar. January is almost over. The freshness of a new year and all the good intentions that come with it have been kicked to the curb, into the crust of a two week-old snow. People are losing sight of the focus with which they seized the new calendar. We need to be reminded of this stuff, our backpocket promises. We need to make it not a resolution, but habit. We need to always set our idea traps — and never let a good catch get away.

Photo by somegeekintn / Flickr Creative Commons

The Lament of Punxsutawney Phil

In a past life, I was a poet. And at one point, I wrote a terza rima about Groundhog’s Day. Enjoy.

The Lament of Punxsutawney Phil

I will not be your sundial this year.
I hear you clamor
across TV truck wires in the square,

waiting, but still I must put a damper
on your gathering.
See, I know I am just a paramour,

an annual fling. So cease bothering
me in my warm hole
with your boorish, portentous nattering;

I know the truth. I am not the first fool
you’ve tricked to go
into this prognosticative cesspool,

to be exalted on the Today Show
and kissed by Katie,
to be targeted, marketed, and sold

like a Tickle Me Elmer Fudd. Maybe
it would suffice to
confess: I’m afraid — of light, of Katie,

even of myself. (If only you knew —
my Peter Pan fights
with my shadow are quite angry to-dos.

I do not want to squint in the bright light
to see that sad thing.
I live in the dark for a reason.) Might

I read a note from Phil the First, whose things
still litter this den?
“A word to the next: You’d best see nothing.”

I know now what he meant; despite your yen
for this burly shrew,
my shadow’s the last thing you want seen then,

lest I be the scapegoat, the damned hog who
summoned another
cockeyed winter. So, when you give that cue,

my dark reflection will hide from cold earth
and still colder air.
And also, my name isn’t Phil; it’s Earl.

What Politics Reminds Us About Communicating on the Web

The last thing I want to do is start spouting off about politics on this blog. The recent Mass. US Senate special election did inspire me, however, to think about how the political foibles of unsuccessful candidates can remind us of some important web communication principles. I think I can do that without straying into partisan territory 🙂

Don’t Isolate Your Base – Consider your core audience(s). What do they want? What do they need? If you stick to an internally-focused, out-of-touch agenda, you’ll quickly lose support and interest. Similarly, you need to know when to broadcast and when to go niche. Just because red and blue make purple doesn’t mean your communications should be one shade of purple. Different audiences have different needs.

Be Authentic and Genuine; Don’t Pander or Equivocate – If you misrepresent yourself as a politician, the press and an increasingly savvy general public will sniff you out. The same goes for any other individual or organization. Also, by being yourself and being real, it will make it easier to connect, engage and build support. Be who you are. Your audience will respect you for it. You won’t win everyone’s support, but those who do support you will truly believe in you.

Own Your Story – Time and time again, politicians lie when caught in the act of one transgression or another. I’ve never understood why they always fall into this cycle, whether it’s Bill Clinton or John Edwards or Mark Sanford. It’s like they haven’t learned from each other’s mistakes. To apply this more broadly, there will always be one backlash or another. But the quicker you step out from behind the partition of denial and silence to address the matter head-on, the better.

Press the Flesh –  I saw lots of people post questions — some tough, some simply asking “Why should I vote for you?”, all real — to the Twitter accounts for Martha Coakley and Scott Brown. And whether you think it’s a fair or not, people judged the candidates by their responsiveness (or lack thereof). Presence, as always, is critical. If you’re there, you’re there, rain or shine. Being there brings expectations, so if you’re there but not present, you will not be living up to people’s expectations. A social media presence should be as real as a handshake meet-and-greet at North Station.

Be Charismatic – In politics, for better or for worse, personality matters. You could have an intuitive understanding of complex policy and brilliant ideas about how to enact reform of one stripe or another, but if you can’t communicate to and connect with the masses, your ideas will likely languish. When it comes to the web, political charisma translates to design and, more importantly, usability. People need a clean, functional interface and a clear path to the information they desire. Accessibility helps, as well. And the whole package needs to be nice to look at, to boot.

The web may have the advantage of lacking term limits — no one can vote your website off the internet — but it is still a democracy. And if we’re not doing our jobs right, the people will, one way or another, let us know.