Writing

Neil Gaiman's 2012 Commencement Speech

Somehow I completely missed out on watching this speech until a few days ago. It seems like the kind of thing my internet friends would have been linking left and right, but I guess better late than never, right?

Here are a few of my favorite highlights, with accompanying time markers:

[1:51] - “First of all, when you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you're doing. This is great. People who know what they're doing know the rules, and they know what is possible, and what is impossible. You do not, and you should not.”


[2:10] “The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do. And because nobody's done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.”


[19:29] “And now, go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.”

Content is Crap

Greg Satell:

“...content isn’t really king. Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.”

SWS — Shit Writing Syndrome

Andy Bobrow, writer on the TV show Community:

“Have I slayed the dragon? No. I basically still suck. It’s still a daily struggle. And I’ll be honest, most days I just settle for shit so I can get home and see my daughter. She’s way more important than writing good. For Christ’s sake, it’s just television, it’s not life.”

I'm mostly linking this because it's a funny piece, but it also has a nugget or two of useful writing advice.

Fighting to Stay Creative

Shawn Blanc on the importance of the "fun factor" in creative work (emphasis mine):

“There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.

He goes on to give several helpful tips and reminders for anyone who gets stuck in a creative rut. It's something we all go through sooner or later, so keep this one bookmarked.

The Cramped

The Cramped is a new site by Patrick Rhone that celebrates the joys of pen and paper.

“If you are the sort of person who appreciates nice paper, a decent pen, a well-crafted notebook, a solid pencil, writing and receiving handwritten correspondence, beautiful handwriting, or the clicky-clack of a dependable typewriter, you have come to the right place. The Cramped is a site dedicated to the pleasures of writing with analog tools (the name is purposefully ironic).”

Sites like these tickle my writing bone (even though I don't often write by hand) and I'm excited to see what Patrick has in store.

An Obsessive’s Guide to Field Notes COLORS Editions

The guys at Field Notes put together a series of videos covering the last five years of their COLORS editions, and the stories behind each one.

As of this writing, it'll take just under an hour to watch them all. If you're a huge fan of Field Notes though (guilty as charged), it's worth setting aside the time with a cup of coffee in hand.

Shawn Blanc's Preferred iPad Keyboard Setup

In my experience, the two most popular iPad keyboard setups have always been:

  1. Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, which is a keyboard, hard shell cover, and docking stand rolled into one.
  2. The combination of an Incase Origami Workstation and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

I use the former, while Shawn prefers the latter. His reasoning is perfectly solid:

“However, I have three quibbles with the keyboard case class of iPad keyboards (which includes cases, covers, folios, etc.)

  1. Most keyboard cases are designed to a specific iPad form factor. If you upgrade your iPad every so often, then you must also upgrade your keyboard case.
  2. Because I don’t mostly use an external keyboard when using my iPad, I don’t want a keyboard cover that attaches to my iPad. Though I do enjoy using the iPad for writing, that is not my chief task.
  3. For the iPad mini, it’s universally acknowledged that no good keyboard case exists. Of the ones that do fit onto an iPad mini, they have to be so small that they’re awkward and uncomfortable to type on.”

Point #2 is where I differ from Shawn. I actually do use my Logitech Ultrathin keyboard nearly constantly because all my writing is done from my iPad. Even when I'm not typing, I still keep my iPad docked on the Logitech just because it works so well as a stand and as a protective cover when closed. I almost consider it a part of my iPad at this point.

Like anything, each setup has its pros and cons. It all depends on your needs.

David Sparks Talks iBooks on the Technical Difficulties Podcast

Speaking of podcasts about writing, David Sparks recently guested on Technical Difficulties to discuss how he uses iBooks Author and other such tools to write and publish his Field Guide eBooks. Anyone considering getting into the self-publishing game should give it a listen.

One interesting point that came up in the conversation was the fact that a project created in iBooks Author doesn't necessarily have to be sold on the iBooks Store; it could ostensibly be used as a tool for putting together something special that can be freely shared with friends and family. Or anyone else with an iOS device, for that matter.

Shawn Blanc and Patrick Rhone's Guide to Writing

A fantastic conversation between two writers I respect and look up to. I only wish it had been longer.

Two points in the discussion that I particularly enjoyed:

  1. It's important that writers have fun writing. Sometimes I need to be reminded of this fact myself, and this was definitely one of those times.

    I've got about ten fairly large articles in the works, and I've been stressing for weeks about how to make each one top notch, but unable to focus enough to finish any one of them, which itself is another point of anxiety for me. Too much stress and not enough fun.

  2. Our audience's perception of our work can sometimes be skewed, and understandably so. They only get to see the stuff we choose to put out there, not the assembly line that brought it all together. They don't see all the drafts, edits, revisions, cuts, tough decisions, or the eureka! moments that it took to reach the final product.

    They see us posting photos on Instagram, or taking our kids to museums during the day, and perhaps they wonder, "What the hell is this guy doing not writing?" But that's rarely the whole story.

    As Shawn mentions on the podcast, there are a few benefits to working from home. As long as you're taking care of the negatives (managing your own health insurance and taxes, etc), there's no reason not to take advantage of the positives as much as possible.

So yeah, fantastic episode. Go listen.

An Interview with Me at the Wired Writers Guild

My friend J.D. Bentley invited me to do an interview about my writing workflows, publishing tools, and some other writing miscellany. I'm pretty happy with how this turned out, so I invite everyone to please go read it, especially if you're curious as to how I do things around here.

Thanks for having me, J.D.!

Marco Arment on Long-Form Articles

“Too many people now ask for (and produce) “long-form” when they really want substantial. It’s entirely possible to be substantial without being long, and good editors have helped writers strike that balance for centuries. Emphasizing and rewarding length over quality results in worse writing and more reader abandonment.”

Anecdotally, I actually have saved articles to Instapaper simply because they were too long to finish in the allotted time, but otherwise I agree with Marco here. I've noticed a lot of fetishizing of word-counts in recent years, as if writing more words about a topic earns the author bonus points. It doesn't.

On the contrary, I prefer when a writer gets to the point in as few words as possible. There's a subtle sort of power and beauty to that. My work may not always live up to that goal, but I do my best to keep it in my sights.

Harry Marks on the Editing Process

“Adverbs are almost always unnecessary. I don’t eliminate them with wild abandon the way some writers do, but after the second or third reading I start to see where they present a problem. The context of the sentence should dictate how the line is supposed to sound to the reader. The adverb is a lazy way of screaming, “This is how the character feels right now.””

Lots of great advice in this article. All writers—authors and bloggers alike—should have a rigorous editing process, no matter their experience level.

I particularly agree with the point about reading your work in a variety of mediums while editing. I can't exactly figure out why, but no matter how many times I've read over a draft in Editorial, I almost always catch something that needs fixing as soon as I've published it to the web.

Day One Introduces 'Publish' Feature

One of my favorite apps just unveiled an upcoming feature that will allow you to publish any of your journal entries to a unique, responsive webpage. This is so cool.

Although I probably wouldn't publish any of my entries in their current state—mainly because I don't edit them very vigorously—some of them do contain the nuggets of ideas that end up on Unretrofied. I can imagine that other people who put more effort into their entries are going to publish some excellent stuff.

I'm excited to see where this feature goes. If you'd like to sign up to be notified of its release, head over here.

Resistance

Seinfeld's not the only one who thinks writers should stop making excuses. Steven Pressfield's book, The War of Art, is a master class in combating "Resistance" — his term for the cumulative forces (both internal and external) that aim to prevent us from doing our work.

Here's what he has to say on the matter (emphasis mine):

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

Another good quote:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

This sort of thing is a common theme I see from creative people who are at the top of their respective fields. Yes, there are days when it's more difficult than usual to produce something great, but none of that takes precedence over sitting down and doing the work.

My advice is to listen to these guys. They certainly didn't get to where they are in life by being lazy.

Jerry Seinfeld on Writer's Block

Seinfeld did a Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything") and told a bunch of great stories about the making of Seinfeld and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which is one of the best things on the internet right now). All the answers are worth reading through, but the best of the bunch was this one:

Q: “How do you deal with writers block?”

A: “Writer's block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.”

Things I've Learned in 2013

Inspired by a post Patrick Rhone did at the end of 2011, and another at the end of 2012, I thought I'd put together a list of things I've learned in 2013. In no particular order...

  • It's almost always better to sleep on an article draft and edit it the next day, rather than publish it immediately.

  • Although it sometimes hurts to cut things from my articles, even my favorite and most "clever" bits, they usually turn out for the better that way. Even if it means starting over from scratch.

  • Time spent on fiddling with my blog's design is better spent on writing.

  • It's best to ignore threads about my work on sites like Hacker News and Reddit. Even a large number of compliments can't stop those few detractors from getting into my head.

  • Don't give much thought to pageviews. A huge surge of traffic to the site can seem absolutely crazy for a few days, but really this sort of attention is fleeting. It's better to have a smaller, truly supportive audience that always has your back, than a large one that will bounce without a second thought.

  • Babies will always, always choose to throw a screaming fit at the most inopportune times. This is a universal constant.

  • Some of the most well-received pieces I've published have been the ones I spent the least amount of time editing or put the least thought into. The internet works in mysterious ways.

  • After I lost my job and we started having to budget ourselves more strictly, my wife and I discovered we can get by on surprisingly little money. Eating at home rather than at restaurants has been the biggest factor for us.

  • I have just about everything I need in life, despite having a lot less income. I have a loving wife, a supportive family, a two-year-old son who makes me laugh, and a roof over my head. Like anyone, there are plenty more things I wish I had (more gadgets, a bigger house, etc), but really my life is quite comfortable at the moment. I consider myself extremely lucky.

  • My wife is even more supportive of my writing endeavors than I previously thought. She's amazing.

  • My parents and other family members don't really have a clue what I do for a living, despite my attempts to explain it.

  • It's often better to try calmly talking my son down from one of his hysterical fits rather than lose my own temper about it.

  • Let kids experiment with their environment a little. It might be annoying when they make messes, or that they want to get a cooking pot out of the cabinet and start hitting it with a spoon, but they're just exploring and learning about the world around them. Don't immediately shut them down all the time or you risk stunting their curiosity and creativity. (Unless they're about to accidentally hurt or kill themselves, obviously.)

  • When interviewing people, it's difficult to find the balance between staying out of the interviewee's way and maintaining a certain flow to the conversation, but so rewarding when that balance is found.

  • I need to journal more often.

  • I need to read more books.

  • Audiobooks are more engaging than I thought they would be. I never really gave them a chance until a roadtrip we took earlier this year, and now I wish I'd done so sooner.

  • Being off the internet for a week wasn't so bad, and I hardly missed anything important. I should do this a few more times a year.

As a writer, my goal is to inspire others to be more creative and do their best work. If my writing has helped or inspired you in any way, please consider supporting this site with a modest donation or by signing up for the $3/month membership subscription.

On Podcast Rambling

Yesterday, Ben Brooks wrote about his issues with most podcasts nowadays, and offers some advice:

“So here’s my proposal for making podcasts better: if you want me to spend 1-2 hours a week listening to your show, then you better spend at least that much time preparing for each show. Reading your RSS/Twitter feeds doesn’t count as preparation.”

This caused a bit of a stir with people. Now, I don't have any particular problems with those kinds of shows (in fact, I happily listen to several of them), but I think Ben has a point.

I've often wondered why certain shows just seem to slap together an outline of what they want to talk about, then meander around those topics at length rather than keeping the show tight and focused. It's not that I think every podcast needs to sound super-produced the way This American Life and 99% Invisible do, but I can think of very few shows that wouldn't benefit from a bit more care and editing.

Don't get me wrong, some shows are actually at their most entertaining while rambling a bit. Bionic and The Prompt are good examples of this, because the hosts are hilarious and have good chemistry. And my god, Merlin Mann has made a career of rambling (no offense to Merlin — I think he's very good at what he does).

But for most other shows, think about it this way: would you want to read an article that had very little thought or editing put into it? One that wastes your time and attention with needless repetition rather than getting to the point? I doubt it.

Why not apply the same thinking to podcasting? Food for thought.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Mediocrity

It's a pattern as old as civilization: an amateur, unsure of themselves, will obsess over what their heroes might think or say or do in a given situation, rather than simply hunkering down and doing the work for themselves. It's a perfectly human behavior, and something I've certainly been guilty of in the past.

Some even take it a step further, attempting to re-create whatever it was that made their heroes successful.

“I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Ray Bradbury

Over the years though, I've reached the same conclusion that so many others surely have throughout history: there is no shortcut, no secret sauce, no magic bullet, that will make your work great. Emulating your heroes can undoubtedly be a useful learning method in the short term, but in the long term it's no more effective than being that kid in middle school who cheats on tests and never learns anything.

Eventually, you must find your own voice. Nobody's going to do it for you, especially not your idols. I guarantee you they had to go through the same process themselves when they first started pursuing their passions, and they'd tell you the same exact thing I am now.

Here are a few tenets I encourage you to keep in mind:

  1. If you do great work, it will speak for itself.
  2. If you are passionate about what you do, then you are sure to do great work.
  3. Don't be too concerned with your skill level in the beginning. You might not be very good at first (and truthfully, almost nobody is), but with time your skills will grow. Just put something, anything out into the world, and the rest will come.
  4. Don't be desperate for attention. Aspire to reach a level where your heroes will want to work with you as peers, not just notice you from afar.
  5. Lastly, don't fawn over your heroes. I'm 100% serious because I know how easy it is to fall into this trap. You'll either creep them out or they'll ignore you the same way they ignore all the other gushers out there. It's okay to point out something awesome they've done, but keep it professional.

I'll leave you with a quote by Josh Long that gets right to the heart of what I'm talking about:

“The people that we look up to are no different than we are. They still wake every morning with their own routine and their own ambitions for the day. They have the same fears, challenges, set backs, and epiphanies.

The difference is that they ship.”