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What The Avengers can teach you about writing

May 4, 2012 1 comment

Facing a writer’s block the size of Galactus? Flummoxed by a project as tricky as Loki? Perhaps my new piece for Ragan.com, excerpted below, can help:

As a writer, you probably think your job doesn’t share too much in common with the work of a team of spandex-clad super-beings who protect the world against megalomaniacal trickster fiends. And most likely, you’re 90 percent right (give or take your comfort with spandex).

Believe it or not, we can all learn a few things from “The Avengers.” With Marvel Comics’ premier supergroup hitting American movie theaters on May 4, those lessons are front and center. Here are a few nuggets of professional advice courtesy of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

To discover these world-and-prose-saving tips from Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, and more, continue reading at Ragan’s PR Daily.

5 copywriting tools that have nothing to do with copywriting

January 20, 2012 Leave a comment

So, your website is rocking a pristine design, and your search engine optimization has been fine-tuned to perfection (mostly). Now all you need is the scintillating content that’ll convert visitors into customers and customers into advocates.

But cranking out crisp, engaging copy every day isn’t easy (at least, not until SEO-generating algorithms gain sentience and take over the planet). Every content creator stumbles into a rut now and then.

Often, the trick to revivifying your writerly instincts is as simple as changing your perspective. Think of it like mental crop rotation—mixing up your creative nutrients to keep your brain matter fertile. Here are a few tools I use to stay sharp.

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How the biggest risk of my life paid off

December 7, 2011 Leave a comment

On February 24 of this year, I left my job.

I wasn’t a casualty of the economy, and I wasn’t decamping for a better position (not immediately, at least). I left because I was worn out by a job I wasn’t suited for, in a line of work I didn’t want to pursue long-term. I left because months of trying to maneuver into a more satisfying role—either internally or externally—had come up empty, and because my existing role was a big reason behind that futility. I wasn’t learning the sort of skills I desired.

I was approaching my 30th birthday, with a resume that looked nothing like the person I wanted to be. And the longer I stuck around, the longer that ersatz resume got, the deeper that false impression sunk in. I needed to make a change. I needed to take a risk. Even if that meant giving up a steady, well-paying job and plunging into the lousiest labor market in years.

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AOL’s Patch, HBR, and sustainable local journalism

August 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Last week, Maxwell Wessel posted an entry on the Harvard Business Review’s blog network critiquing AOL’s strategy for Patch, an experiment in local news aggregation that is currently a rather high-profile drain on the company’s coffers. I appreciate the thesis of the post: that rather than ignore or discard Patch, AOL should invest in it more intelligently.

What bugs me is that Wessel mentions the ostensible purpose of Patch—the gathering and reporting of news—exactly twice, both times subtly disparaging it. First, in characterizing Patch’s modus operandi:

“Patch’s current business model is unsustainable. Patch is building a network of journalists and salespeople, and it’s costing the company a lot. This is not the way to build a disruptive business and it’s an open question as to whether Patch must grow this way to win in local news. Patch doesn’t need to be spending money this way to win in the space.”

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Something something "write stuff" pun

August 18, 2011 Leave a comment

As a writer, one of my strongest and most well-practiced skills is talking myself out of writing. This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the lamentably sparse updates of either of my blogs lately (hey, I had one good week in July there!) Oh sure, every now and then some diaphanous wisp of an idea floats into my head and I manage to mold it into 900 words of reasonably entertaining prose. But for every one that somehow sees the light of day, three or four others vanish ignominiously into the ether, having inspired little more than a few illegible scribblings or incoherent out-loud sputterings.

It’s a discouraging state of affairs, and one I’m inspired to improve after attending a class/discussion group on blogging last night with genuinely accomplished blogger & writer Kate Harding, at Story Studio Chicago (a terrific resource for you fellow Windy City wordsmiths). In that light, I’ve decided that step one is identifying the most common—well, excuses is such an ugly word; let’s call them “perfectly sound and logical counterarguments”—which lead me to abandon a potential piece of writing:

  • Somebody must have already made this exact point. Probably better. And if not, they will.
  • The DVR’s at, like, 64%.
  • What sentient, literate being would ever even want to read this misshapen jumble of quarter-baked doofusery??
  • Hey, 18 new tweets!
  • Yup. This is it. This one would wake them all up to the reality that I am a hack and a charlatan. It must be buried and forgotten. The illusion of my competence must live another day!
  • Welp, this Dragon Age quest ain’t gonna play itself.

Other creative types, please feel free to chip in with your own favorite self-defeating tactic.

Words worth a thousand pictures

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere recently – fulfilling my duties as both a Sandman devotee and a literary Chicagoan, since the book is April’s selection in our Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program. As any Gaiman reader would expect, the story is propulsive and chock-full of rich world-building and encyclopedic literary allusions. But at times, I feel like the strictures of prose lead to pitfalls that a comic book would skip over: some of the characterizations are a bit too on-the-nose, and descriptive passages occasionally lean on triteness.

And then I come across a passage like this one (which I quote here without context in order to prevent spoilage):

“The marquis felt, then, that much of what he had gone through in the previous week was made up for by the expression on Hunter’s face.”

Only pure prose can render that moment so perfectly. In a comic book, the expression on Hunter’s face would have to be drawn by an artist, who interprets the meaning of the sentence and the scene a certain way. The reader’s interpretation of that drawing may, in turn, diverge from the artist’s intent, but will nevertheless be restricted to the range of emotions conveyed by a particular physical image.

As it stands, that passage encapsulates the competitive advantage of a verbal medium. By relying on the limitless malleability of language, Gaiman allows every reader to process the meaning in her own way. In that sentence, Hunter’s expression might be one of anger, shock, bemusement, respect, relief, astonishment, joy, disbelief. It might contain any combination of those emotions. So it contains all of them, while stating none of them. It’s a Schrödinger paradox of a sentence. It forces the reader to do a bit of work, to invest himself in a way that a visual medium cannot.