What would I say to you if you were sitting opposite from me right now? (assuming I'm not having an 'introverted' moment).
It's hard to say in advance... but hopefully some words would come out of my mouth in a relatively understandable order, and you would fire some back at me.
You can't overthink a conversation without it grounding to a halt.
Which means that grammatical mistakes (after transcribing hours of interviews for CycleLove, I've realised that human speech is peppered with them) are let slide. The focus is on words getting out with a minimum of fuss.
But when you sit down at a computer with the intention of writing, the brain seems to freeze up.
"Shit, shit, shit. What am I going to write? How should I write it? It feels like I'm back at school again. Help!"
So how do writers write?
Elmore Leonard (whose stories have inspired films like 3:10 to Yuma, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty) offered this advice to the New York Times:
10 rules for writers
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Whilst these are primarily tips for writing fiction, Elmore finishes with a single point that neatly encapsulates his approach, whatever you are writing...
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I've found the best way to check this is by reading things out. Not just in your head, but audibly.
The next time you are stuck writing something, imagine a friend is sitting in front of you, then read it out aloud to him.
Are you using unnecessary words or unnecessarily complicated language?
Does what you've written sound natural, or does it sound like writing?
(And are you using lazy exclamation marks because your words lack punch?)
Until a few weeks ago I had no idea that Matthew Inman — the man behind one of the biggest comics on the internet — was once a web designer.
His irreverent, often angry, sense of humour and "I could draw like that if I wanted" style has earned him cult status, and The Oatmeal now gets millions of visitors a month, grossing around $500,000 in revenue in 2012 (75% from merchandising and 25% from advertising).
For an idea of why he quit his old profession take a look at "Why a web design goes straight to hell" which offers a few subtle clues about the dissatisfaction he felt with his old trade...
The goal of it was kind of to build links, but it didn’t really work as an SEO tool. It just worked as a comic. People loved it. It got more traffic than anything I’d ever done, so that was when I kind of decided I clearly have some kind of knack for this sort of creative stuff and I think it’s a better fit for me than making little marketing gimmicks for SEO.
All of which makes Matthew a perfect unDesign case study — if only he would respond to my emails.
1. Let your ideas for content germinate when they are ready, instead of forcing them
According to an interview with The Chicagoist, Matt uses a technique called "brain-farming" as part of his creative process:
“I will come up with an idea that I want to write about, say unicorns or ctl+z, and then, I’ll think about it, and think about it. Now, when I sit down and think about it, I usually don’t come up with anything I can use, but if I go running or while I’m in the shower or something all the pieces just click together.”
Why does this work? Probably because your brain works best when it's relaxed.
2. Don't sell out
"I got an offer from a deodorant company to write" something for their advertising, Inman says, noting that he turned down the product commission flat. "It's pretty much got to be a truly exceptional client. It it were Comedy Central, I'm all over that. Maybe if it [involves] an actor or actress I like. But Diet Coke, that's not gonna happen."
3. Communities don't just happen, you need to build them
"Building and hanging on to an audience is the biggest role of social media," Inman tells us. "Then every time I make a comic, I can broadcast it out to them. That's been really helpful. I have this audience waiting for me. It's been awesome. ... You need to be funny and continually make them laugh. But when I started, I also had this [casually inviting] tone: 'Hey, guys, I just made a new comic -- check it out!"
4. SEO isn't important
“A lot of people say: ‘How do you do it?’ I just make things that people like. SEO has no bearing on the Oatmeal — I did SEO in my old job [so I know] — but social media has played a gigantic part in what I do.”
Or to put it another way...
"With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else.”
5. You never know what will resonate with people (So just keep making stuff...)
"The reaction to a comic is usually the opposite of my expectation. There will be times where I will put in three hours of work on a comic and it will fall flat on its face, while one that took me an hour or two will blow up. You just never know."
6. Utility and humour aren't mutually exclusive
Not everything on The Oatmeal is just for laughs. For example "How to get more likes on Facebook" is also packed full of great advice about so-called social media strategy.
Why does creating useful content matter? As Pat Flynn would put it: "Your earnings are a byproduct of how helpful you can be to your audience".
Which brings me neatly to my last point. (Well it's Matthew's really...)
7. Put your energy into making things that are likeable, not into some douchey social media strategy
I'm not going to elaborate on this one. But you can refer to Jeremy Waites' 80 Rules of Social Media for more tips on this (prickly) subject.
I've just been hiking in the wide open spaces of the Scottish Highlands, where I was turning my head to see the full extent of the sunset instead of my computer screen, and where the only traffic was four-legged (and sometimes had antlers).
So today I'm feeling acutely aware of the proximity of the walls and ceiling around me: less than two metres in any direction.
I'm boxed in on all sides.
Most of us live and work in boxes of various sizes. There's no other option, because it's how we've built our world. Boxes stacked upon boxes.
But humans don't respond well to harsh geometry. We prefer curves:
One of the designers who I share my studio space always eats at his desk. We've been working together for over a year now and he still hasn't had lunch in the park with me. (And I'm sure that I'm not that bad company...) He says he "doesn't have time" but it's less than five minutes walk away.
I don't always make time for lunch either, but I know that on the days when I do leave my desk to eat, I'm more productive when I get back.
When I sit with food beside me at my computer and try to multi-task, I actually get less done. If you've ever tried to eat an apple whilst using a mouse and keyboard, you'll know how farcical the situation can become).
When you stay inside the safety of your box, it's a false economy.
Everything is to hand.
Life feels safer, more convenient, more predictable.
But by staying inside your box you're not really saving time or energy.
Don't get stuck indoors.
You don't have to go hiking in Scotland to expand your horizons (you should though, if you haven't been before).
Walk to work once or twice a week, take your lunch somewhere with a splash of green, or just stick your head out of the window for a minute and look up at the great big blue sky.
Opening up your inbox on a Monday can be a grim experience.
Ideally you'll have done a few hours work before even contemplating it.
Let's be realistic though: inbox avoidance is not really an option in office environments, where email is a toxic intravenous drip jacked directly into your mouse hand.
So instead, you find yourself wading through a sea of requests, apologies, spam, god knows what but it's probably not going to be pleasant reading and can you please send those files over A-S-A-FUCKING-P.
Here's my idea for how to fix Mondays. Or at the very least, make them a little more bearable:
- Pick someone whose work you admire, or who is important in your life, or you think might simply be in need of a reason to smile today.
- Write him/her an email to tell them what you love about them or what they're doing.
- Um, that's it.
Of course if everyone did this, we'd be make to square one again.
But they won't.
You could though...
The status quo is here for a reason.
It's best left unquestioned, to follow the rules, to stay inside the lines, to do as you're told.
The status quo is here for a reason.
It's your anti sat nav.
Wouldn't it be better to question it, to break some rules, to stray outside the lines, to do as you've dreamt?
Both viewpoints are valid of course.
But only one of them will take you someplace new.
Arden was a creative director at the Saatchi and Saatchi ad agency during the peak of the company's powers. Remember the late 80s British Airways advert with a face that assembled itself from groups of people? That was him.
For more atypical life advice, see Paul Arden's magical short book "Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite".