Technology doesn’t always give us the highest quality outcome. Sometimes it just buys us more convenience.
Look at coffee. It used to be a pain to prepare and drink. Then in 1850 Folgers started roasting and grinding it for us. It wasn’t as fresh, but it sure was fast.
Or look at photography. Today, smartphones put everything from supercomputers to cameras into our pocket. But the pictures pale in comparison to what my 5lb DSLR can take.
But we compromise. Sometimes convenience wins. Writing made a similar compromise.
The telegraph was a huge improvement in communication compared to smoke signals. We could now transmit messages over long distances.
But man, were those early messages expensive. A trained operator needed to type each letter by hand. And so compromises were made to shorten and change the message. For example, when the Wright Brothers completed their first flight, they couldn’t gush to their parents. Orville had to send this:
Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas . Orevelle Wright
(Yes, his name was spelled wrong)
Newspaper articles also had to change. They couldn’t be narrative. They had to get to the point immediately. Just the facts. And the inverted pyramid style of writing was invented.
Get the important stuff out first. Everything else is less and less important.
It’s a style that lives on today. Not because we need help anymore in transmission, but now when newspaper and magazines are laid out, it helps an editor to quickly chop off a writer’s article from 500 words to 400 words, and worry little about changing the quality of the writing. Just cut from the bottom.
And we wonder why people aren’t interested in our writing? Look at the rules we’re following. Most of us learned in high school or college to “write well” with the inverted pyramid. Get the necessary stuff out first. The 5 W’s (Who, what, when, where, and why). Don’t bury the lede.
But we weren’t taught enough how those styles are tools, and even compromises, for specific situations. So, that’s how most of us write everything.
Even an attempt at some form of narrative gives into the idea it still needs a “TL;DR” (Too Long; Didn’t Read).
Yet think about what you read and watch that keeps you interested. How do you think Game of Thrones turns out as an inverted pyramid of a story? You’ll get punched in the eye if you TL;DR that for a fan who’s behind.
But we keep doing it to ourselves. Sometimes even others do it for us:
Skip the TL;DR.
If you have people requesting that from you, let them move on and find more headlines to read. It is your job though to keep them interested throughout your writing. If you still feel like whatever you’re writing would benefit from a TL;DR, consider throwing your post away and just Tweeting something.
If you’re going to write 500+ words, give them the importance they deserve. Keep people interested by flipping the inverted pyramid back, and making your writing more and more interesting as it goes along, not less. Give your readers a journey. Make them something to be inspired about at the end of a piece. A TL;DR rarely moves anyone.
Of course, there are situations that require conciseness. Just the facts. Anticipation that people will just read the headlines. But don’t cargo cult the styles of newspaper and magazine writers for all the writing you do. Better yet, don’t worry about rules from high school and college. Ignore style and grammar. Learn to tell a better story. Surprise people.
I’ve had an above average bit of success as a writer and getting people interested in my work. My secret? I bury the lede.
A handful of years ago I was volunteering for an organization here in Chicago where we helped high school kids prepare for their college applications. These kids were the first in their families, often underprivileged, to be applying to college.
One Saturday I met a student who wanted help editing his application essay. We went over to the computer lab and he pulled up a draft he’s been struggling with.
The essay was fine. It read grammatically well.
But it was terrible. It was dry and uninteresting. Artificial intelligence could have probably auto-generated it from a history of other applications.
I doubt any recruiter would remember him. How were we going to fix this?
Most of us trying to write to gain an audience, inspire people, market ourselves, etc. are all doing it wrong.
We stick with the education and rules we learned in high school and college: “Don’t end sentences with prepositions.” “Don’t start sentences with conjugations.” “Sentences have subjects and predicates.” We focus on the perfect paragraph and essay structure.
And if I asked most people to write an essay about their day. It’s likely going to come out a lot like my mentee’s. Stiff, formulaic, unoriginal.
But if we had an intimate conversation over coffee, the story about your day would be remarkably different. You wouldn’t worry about the word you used to start a sentence, or which of your sentences made up paragraphs. Instead, your struggles, achievements, and thoughts would hit my ears before you had a chance to think about: “Can I end a sentence with ‘at’?”
And because you weren’t worried about a hundred rules of grammar while you were talking to me, I’m that much closer to your internal voice.
The voice that makes you unique and interesting.
So my first step with the student above was just to ask who he was, what he does, and what he observes all day. And then I just typed what he said. A lot of it was run on sentences, and sentences without verbs. If he turned this draft into his high school English teacher, he’d have failed an assignment. So we edited it a bit to fit grammatical rules that someone reading a college essay might expect.
But what was on that computer screen was a story in his voice. A story of how just four years ago he came to the United States, poor, with a single parent, and could barely speak English.
Then over his high school career, not only did he become an amazing student, he became a man for others. He was tutoring kids in math and leading programs to help students who were in situations that he was in just a short time ago.
When he was done, I was sitting there, mouth open with goosebumps. Some jerk must have been cutting onions next to us.
His essay was original, dramatically compelling, and told an inspiring hero’s journey.
This kid was awesome. And an essay finally came to him because he stopped worrying about the correct way to write, and just wrote like he talked.
If you find yourself struggling to get who you are onto the page, record yourself talking on your phone and write out the transcript later if you need to. Just get your voice on the page first before you start worrying about a bunch of rules.
When you finally have YOU on the page, now go back and make your bits bend to the style you want them in. But be careful with spending too much time on the grammar and the rules. Go back and make sure it still flows like you’d actually say it. Read it out loud to yourself. You’ll know when you sound fake when you stutter a bit trying to read a sentence back.
Because we aren’t trying to get an A in an English class. Most of us aren’t journalists for the New York Times all trying to write in a similar and strict style.
We’re just trying to contribute to a real conversation. And we want to meet you.
Welcome to the first episode of Rework! This podcast is based on Jason Fried and DHH’s 2010 best-selling business book, which was itself based on years of blogging. So what better way to kick off this show than talking about by-products? In this episode, Jason explains how Basecamp’s ideas have been packaged as blog posts, workshops, and books. We also visit J.H. Keeso & Sons Ltd., a 145-year-old sawmill in Ontario, Canada to see how this family-owned business sells its physical by-products.
We’ll be bringing you new episodes every other Tuesday, so be sure to subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, RadioPublic, or wherever you listen. We’ll take you behind the scenes at Basecamp and bring you stories of other businesses—startups, established companies, makers of physical products, brick-and-mortar stores, and more. Follow along and let us know what you think!
Lately, I’ve been getting asked more frequently: “Claire, do you illustrate your own blog posts?”
The answer is, “Yes.”
To date, I’ve written forty-three blog posts on Medium. With the exception of a few (where I’ve used a photograph as the main image instead), I’ve illustrated each one myself.
I’m not a professional artist by any means (I grew up drawing and painting thanks to my mom, who’s an artist). A much better idea might’ve been to hire someone else who I’m sure could produce higher caliber work and save me some time…
But I insist on doing the illustrations myself. Why?
It shows we care.
These days, everyone is writing something— be it blog posts, e-books, newsletters — and a lot of it sounds and looks the same. A high-resolution, parallax scrolling image as the featured photo. A brightly-colored, minimalist infographic. You can even hire ghostwriters or outsource your writing to content marketing firms who’ll both write and illustrate the posts for you.
See the same thing enough times in enough places… and you start to smell the lack of authenticity when you read it.
You think to yourself, “Do these people even give a shit?”.
Here at Know Your Company, we do give a shit. Our sole purpose for writing is not to increase our SEO ranking or “growth hack” our business. We write because we truly care about creating more open, honest workplaces. And we believe sharing our insights can help more people influence their own workplaces to be that way.
Illustrations done by me, the CEO, is one way for us to show this. We don’t hire out anyone else to write our stuff. We don’t even hire anyone to illustrate our stuff.
We give a damn, so we do it ourselves.
Doing something yourself — whether or not you have to — shows that you care.
This past January, I received a birthday card that my mom made herself. Admittedly, I cried when I opened it. It meant so much more to me than if she would have picked up something from the store. (By the way, my mom has handmade me a card almost every year since I was born!).
The same goes for business. When a CEO writes, illustrates, etc. herself, it shows she cares.
Sure, it’s time-consuming and a bit tedious. I first google some images to get ideas for what I want to draw. Sometimes, I draw a few images and riff on them before deciding on one. I sketch out the final image. Then it’s Sharpie time. I use watercolor pencils to fill it in. I take a picture of it with my phone, adjust it in Photoshop… And voila! The illustration you see is on our blog post.
Is that all too “in the weeds” for a CEO to be doing? Meh, I’m not sure that I care.
The fact that something takes longer and requires a little more effort matters less to me. What matters is that we’re trying to communicate authentically with whoever is kind enough to lend us their time.
Even if it’s not “perfect” quality or the most efficient thing to do… So what?
We hosted Signal vs. Noise on our own site for nearly 15 years. We started with something else home-spun, and then switched to Greymatter (old timers will remember this one). Then we moved to Movable Type. Then Typepad. Then to Blog Cabin, our own homegrown blog software. And now we’re on Medium.
People often ask me why we switched to Medium. There were a variety of reasons, but one was reaching a new audience, and another was aiming for wider distribution. But maybe the top one was curiosity — let’s see if we can learn something new.
We couldn’t be happier and the results couldn’t be better.
Check this out… In just a year, here are the stats for our eight most popular stories, ranked by views:
Comparing before and after Medium
Between 2014 and 2015, which was the year prior to switching to Medium, we only had three posts with more than 50k views on our old blog. And while the chart above only shows our top 8 posts, it turns out we had 18 posts exceed 50k views on Medium in the last year.
I know that’s not an apples to apples analogy since the articles were different, but here’s something even more interesting: RECONSIDER, our top post ever on Medium with 431,000 views, was also published on our old blog prior to switching to Medium. Views of the same post on the old blog? 56,000. Medium’s traffic to the same article is nearly 7x more than on the old blog.
We’re also writing a lot more on Medium than we did in the past few years on our old blog. There are a variety of reasons for that as well, but one key reason: It’s such a delight to write on Medium. They’ve nailed the writing environment. Great text editor — the best way to write anywhere on the web. Fun to add images. Nice straightforward styling options that make it easy to make something look good, and hard to make something look bad. Gold standard, I’d say.
Social sharing is also significantly easier on Medium. Embedding highlights as images in tweets is also such a wonderful, inventive way to help share bits of stories. Great work.
Quality of the comments have been quite high as well. Comment quality on our own site had really taken a dive near the end.
One feature request
Figured I’d end this with one feature request. There’s something I’ve wanted for ages, but have never found it in any mainstream text editor. We should really add it to Basecamp 3, but I’d be fine with Medium beating us to it.
Here it is: I’d love to have version control at the word/sentence/paragraph level. I’d love to write 3 or 4 headlines, and be able to quickly toggle through them in-place so I could see how they look/feel/read right next to the rest of the story.
Same goes for any word or sentence or paragraph in my story. Sometimes I’ll go back and forth on a specific word when I’m writing something out. Do I want to use “fast” or “quick” or “rapid” or “swift”? I bounce between them in my head, but there’s no way to write them all out and toggle through them quickly, in-place, mid-sentence, so I can see how the sentence flows with the different words. I end up pasting the sentence three times with three different versions to compare, but that’s not the same thing.
Same idea for a paragraph. I’d love to write a few different paragraphs and toggle between them. Does the longer one work here? Or should I aim for brevity in this one? The more poetic analogy? Or the straightforward explanation? Let me write them all and then see them once at a time, in-place, by hovering over and hitting the arrow key on my keyboard (or something).
So anyway… Just an idea!
So if you’re thinking of making the switch to Medium, I’d recommend it. It’s a wonderful place to write, more people seem to be exposed to your writing, and ideas spread further, wider, and more quickly. At least that’s been our experience.
I’ve been writing for a couple years, but I have no more inspiration, and little readership. How do you write? Where do you get inspiration? How do you get out of the rut and get people to start reading?
We all get this way. But here’s a few things that have helped me keep pushing through that, and eventually ended up with some stuff that’s done well on places like my blog Ninjas and Robots, or Signal v. Noise, and have even found their way into The Huffington Post and Fast Company.
1) Create a schedule, and go with what you got.
Years ago I felt I was doing a somewhat decent job writing, but I just wasn’t getting any traction. Dustin Curtis had just launched a new blogging platform called Svbtle that was getting a lot of attention and was only publishing authors he had invited. I didn’t have an invite. But I knew his attention could rub off on me. So I took a shot, emailed him and showed him some samples of my work.
As I hit send, I felt very pessimistic about my chances. The other folks writing on Svbtle were much better and had better followings than me.
No way I’m getting an invite.
I got an invite.
Huh, I should stop assuming things won’t work.
But writing on his blog network came with a caveat, publish one thing a week. I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t, but I assumed he’d kick me out, and I really didn’t want that. I needed this opportunity. So I kept publishing once a week. If I was up against the end of the week and hadn’t had inspiration, I would just find something to even take a picture of. Like that truck I saw as I walked down the street.
Or I saw an interesting article in Esquire about Bill Murray. Again, under the gun to get something published that week, I wrote up a few sentences on why I thought it was interesting.
Not my most brilliant post — turns out to be one of my most trafficked posts.
Don’t worry so much about meeting the schedule with the same quality and quantity. Running up against your schedule deadline, find a picture of something interesting and write a hundred words about why it’s interesting. That’s it. Write a yelp review even. Get some personality in that review and put it on your blog. Just do something, anything, to keep the momentum going. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself.
The momentum will actually push something through that your weird brain pessimistically thought was terrible and turns out awesome. As journalists like to say, “Go with what you got.”
2) Stop writing the same thing.
If you write about yourself, start writing about other people. Or vice versa. I personally like to share a lot of anecdotes about my life, but I find I get into a rut. I don’t want to talk about me all the time. Especially if I’m going through some really tough struggles. But there are so many interesting people to write about. Here’s: a great example on my blog. I took myself completely out of it. Just wrote about someone in the news (James Garner) who had recently passed away and how cool his life was. A lot easier to write about him, when I feel stuck writing about myself.
3) Take a class!
I don’t know why we as writers stop taking classes. They are great places to learn new things and get yourself on a schedule. There’s probably a ton of places to find a fun writing class. I took one at Gotham.
It was in that class actually that I wrote that article above about James Garner that went gangbusters. It was another thing pushing me to write something different. If you’re stuck on your blog, I’m sure a homework assignment can shake some new stuff loose.
4) Bands don’t keep playing the same song in the same place. Write somewhere else.
Find a new place to share your stuff. Stop the blog for a bit. Get your stuff in a magazine, the Huffington Post, wherever. Go pitch some editors for some guest posts and articles.
5) Bands also don’t keep playing completely original songs at each venue either.
They repeat their hits or their latest album. They might improvise and riff on old songs, but they reuse a lot. That’s beauty of #4’s advice about finding new outlets to write — you can recycle some of the ideas you are most proud of. James Altucher is great at this. It’s like the guy is a writer Everywhere. And you see some of the same stories. But that’s fine. Very few people are like me and reading his stuff on all these different places. He’s out there making new audience members constantly from these new channels.
6) Practice your idea muscle.
It’s been super interesting hanging out with Jason Fried these days since I took over Highrise. The guy always has an idea for something. A new book, a new blog post, a new product. Only executes on a tiny fraction of those things he thinks are worth it, but man does he have a wealth of things to pick from.
Need a little push to do the exercise? Come up with lists. Everyday, push yourself to come up with lists of things to write about. Most will suck. But don’t let your brain atrophy. Keep coming up with stuff.
7) Get out and do some new things.
Go to a new museum, or weird place. Pick up a new or strange hobby for a bit. Go buy some strange magazines you’d never ever buy. Learn what other people are reading and caring about. Lots of interesting things to draw from those experiences.
8) Copy someone else’s template.
I’ve literally taken writing I’ve liked and dumped it into my writing software and just written on top of it, working to match the flow and structure, deleting their stuff as I go.
Go find a writer that you like, and write something using their piece as a template. Maybe you try and copy their tone. Or structure. How they use analogies, or anecdotes. Or even copy the argument. Try to make their same argument with a different analogy or method. It can be freeing to use the constraint of someone else’s writing.
9) Stop writing. Talk.
Pretend you’re giving a talk instead. Or some kind of presentation. Get out of the chair and walk around with your phone recording your voice. Moving and talking have a way of loosening up whatever it is.
Take things that people haven’t put together before and put them together to show what an interesting combination they make. Fries and milkshakes? Yes, try that.
11) Buy books like they’re free.
When you’re broke, like I’ve been many many times, you need to find some creative ways to get by and you get to complain all you want about the prices of books (Like wtf college? Why do you keep releasing new versions of the same text book when all that changes is mostly page numbers and not the physics of the universe. There goes another $80 down the drain for the “new edition”).
But I don’t get most other people’s hangup with how much books cost. If you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, and buying a $20 book isn’t going to change the food you buy your family, give yourself a huge budget to buy books.
If there’s something I’m really interested in, I’ve turned off the nag in my head, “oh man, this should be 15% less. I’ll wait.” Or “I’ll wait for the library”. I need more ideas, quicker; instead of waiting for the rare library visit.
The other weird thing people feel about books is that they’ve “invested in it”. This leads them to feel, when they realize they hate the book they “invested in”, they can put it down for fear they’ll waste their investment. But they never finish the terrible book. So they rarely get to another.
Throw more books away. It’s a sunk cost. Forget about the past “investment”. Move on to something interesting.
I buy books like they are free. I saw a physics textbook that looked interesting. Maybe there’s something in there to help me think about problem solving. Oh it’s $99. I don’t care. I didn’t even finish it. I got something interesting out of it after a couple chapters, might make its way into an article, and the book is there if I want to learn more physics.
Again, if you live on a tight budget, you have to be a lot more careful. But if you want to introduce yourself to new thinking and options as a writer, and your budget has money for clothes, drinking, eating out, vacations, cable, televisions, etc., I’d rethink the lack of allocation you have to books, magazines, and anything that can potentially get new ideas across your brain faster.
12) Stop hitting the delete key.
I want to create something out of nothing but nothing isn’t a great place to draw from. -Mitch Hedberg
Just write. Free write. Take your writing software or notebook and just go nuts. DO NOT DELETE or edit yourself. You need a body of thoughts before you can edit. You need that place to draw from.
Don’t underestimate paper either. It’s a great place to just flow. Typing can be too slow to get all the thoughts out there.
I hope that’s helped some. If there’s something else on your mind and you feel like you could use some more help, please don’t hesitate to ask. It would be awesome to meet you on Twitter, or see where all this writing stuff led to what I’m now doing with Highrise.