This is the douchiest possible post, but a bunch of people have been asking me to write about writing, which makes me this sleazebag (not actor Rip Torn, whose name and jawline I continue to envy):
I caught myself dangerously close to saying that exact phrase recently during one of my talks about storytelling (meta, right?), but the truth is, unfortunately, I am a writer. And I’m a pretty decent one, which it took until recently for me to give myself credit for. I still hate it, but the fact that people actually come up and reference some BS post I’d forgotten about is kind of cool. And kind of creepy, in the Mr. Harvey/Chris Hansen sort of way.
I hate writing, which I’ve covered (although as my friend William Tincup pointed out, writers jump the shark when they reference shit they’ve already written, and I tend to agree, so won’t get into it), but I do have some pretty core beliefs about what’s good and what’s crap. That’s because at my core, I’m not a writer at all – I’m an editor. And that, I love more than anything else in the entire world, except maybe burnt ends from Arthur Bryant’s, hip hop or NFL Sundays. But it’d be a close call, to put that in perspective.
The coolest thing about being an editor is that you don’t have to stare at a blank page, which is, by far, what sucks the most about being a writer. You get to come up with a cool idea for a story you want to read – say, ‘I wonder how Medieval Times recruits people who know how to joust,” and then either pursue it yourself (which, in this case, I am obviously doing), or assign it to someone who can do a better job telling that story or whose interests and voice align with a theme or specific news item the people paying my salary expect me to cover.
Most of the time, what I get back has the same disjointed, dispassionate and clinical tone as a Wikipedia entry. Lots of backlinks, some semblance of structure, lots of objective facts and figures, and completely lacking any sort of style or soul. Those are from the writers I repeatedly work with.
The ones I’m trying out, or the “thought leaders” I trade traffic for their byline, often require pretty much retaining only the overall subject of the assignment, a few hyperlinked or keyword dense sentences and, increasingly dubious, a byline (complete with photo and an “about the author” section).
Sometimes, I get .txt files that look like an ee cummings tract with minimal punctuation syntax and take 50 words instead of the 500 or so needed for our style guidelines. That puts me on the hook for 450 words of filler and block quotes. Sometimes, I get a post in .html that, when I cut and paste it in WordPress, reads like Chicken Soup for the HR Soul, full of unnecessary exclamation points and amazingly specious superlatives!
But I get to play with those raw materials and make it into something that’s not only informative, but also actually interesting, no easy task when you cover the world’s single most nuanced and niched professional category (not to mention the most incestuous industry). The key in getting to where those raw materials are enough to meet both criteria lie solely on the ability to match the right writer with the right topic, or, better yet, to know which writers to step back and give them creative carte blanche. That means getting to know their stories, because that’s what informs any story you’re ever going to get back to edit, anyway.
I do a few things, when editing, that I find can turn pretty much any piece of generic copywriting into something that, while not necessarily possessing a lick of literary merit or saying anything new or innovative, is at least entertaining enough to keep the reader captured for a few minutes of their online time (the most fragmented, segmented and competitive of all mediums), and, occasionally, make them care enough to comment, riff or at least hit the magic marketing button to share said post to those visceral “networks” that seem simultaneously omnipresent and omniscient these days.
1. Don’t Be Boring. Be Human.
No one pays attention to pedantic, professorial or proselytizing content that’s asking you to pay attention, demanding that you recognize that their Forrester Research or Gallup citations have been meticulously researched and that the data they present is unquestionable proof that the crazy theory they’re postulating is really a problem, or even a thing (think: big data or talent communities).
People, though, are hard wired to engage with other people, which is why you’ve got to write like a real person sounds.
It’s really important not to sound like Siri – yeah, anyone can Google for information, but not everyone can translate that information into somewhat conversational content that’s compelling simply by being convincingly human.
2. Sound Like You Speak
And starting off paragraphs with modifiers like “and” or “but” or “so,” generally mimic the style of most interpersonal interactions, a transition en media res (thanks, film school) that’s contrived to fill in the gaps of the conversation a reader can’t actually have with a static piece of content.
Add in some, you know, personalized interjections like, you know, or (the odd parenthetical that’s preferably a non-sequitur) – and some interjections for pace – and you’re able to more or less mimic the rate and pattern of speech, which is what that whole “tone” thing they taught you about in English class means.
3. Choose Anecdotes Over Evidence
Unless you have Asperger’s, there’s a good chance that in the average course of a conversation, you don’t back things up with a bunch of numbers authoritatively backed up by some entity that sounds important, like the Society of Human Resource Management or the Human Capital Institute of the University of Southern Mississippi, even when their names blatantly suggest otherwise. So enough with the citations – that’s secondary evidence.
Primary evidence is the good stuff, and it’s why we like diversity (in theory) – it’s the first person experiences that personalizes even the most universal of experiences. That’s why that whole, “write what you know, not what you think people want to know” concept is so damn important. Tell your story with words, not someone else’s with numbers.
4. Don’t Write About Writing
The few people who give a shit will disagree. Everyone else will think you’re just being a narcissistic, self-indulgent asshat. And they’d be right.
Sorry for boring you, but hell. This is my blog. Go get one of your own.