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Is it Better to Sound Smart or to Communicate?

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Please stop me before I commit an act of literature.

We had this discussion in class. A literature student was talking about how writing for social media was different than, say, literature. Popular writing—so our discussion went—is aimed at a different audience (here we picked our way around classist terms), and is not as, well, interesting, as literature. All her other classes required a compacting of ideas into sentences that grew rather long. Sentences that required a fair amount of attention. Sentences that required grappling with theologically heavy terms, or the whimsy of philosophers who felt compelled to make up words for their new ideas. Or writers who committed acts of literature in the most tortured fashion.

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I maintain that writing for social media requires that we let go of jargon and the complex sentences that shout “College!” or “Graduate School!” At our best, our writing is nearly transparent: leading right into the topic without stopping to say “Look at me.” Does that mean we use dumbed down ideas and language? I’ve said no to this several times. Erasing our jargon so smart people from different disciplines can understand us is not the same as dumbing down. And, in fact, when we do the work of translating our tribe’s jargon into regular English, we are poised to find a certain elegance and cadence that sounds more human, more fresh and less like the forced and predictable tribal language.

Respecting the reader is central to this project of communication—this bridge-building activity. If you think the reader is an arse, that comes through in your word choice. If you think the reader cannot be trusted, that shows. If you think the reader is intelligent and can handle the topic in words any human would understand, your reader will know.

One irony of the discussion is that many of the writers we celebrate as having written literature were themselves seeking for the simplest way to say things. Countless writers talk about kill your darlings and omit needless words and how nearly anyone can write to confuse. But the real artist takes a meaningful notion and makes it clear to someone else. And this: we are more likely to say something memorable and possibly even elegant the farther we get from our tribe’s insider language.

Will you commit an act of communication today?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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Teaching season is in full swing.

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And all my words are going toward the course.

I’ll be back.

 

Written by kirkistan

February 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

Forget Content Strategists: We need Village Storytellers.

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Begin the Begatting!

“Content strategy” has such a corporate feel to it. Such strategized-promotional-content-puzzle pieces, dreamed up in isolation, will move forward whether or not anyone cares. But here is exactly where strategy and art must date, marry and get busy begatting fecund stories.

No human will be interested otherwise.

No amount of strategizing can actually make that happen. Art must take over. Art connects with emotion. Art is a human meaning-making activity not easily controlled by a corporate agenda. If controlled too-tightly, art quickly becomes something less than art.

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I’m working with a group of writers who need to understand this. Their task is to pull people into the causes they have begun to champion. They will identify their mission and purpose, complete with telling details about their target audiences. They will strategize about content and assemble editorial calendars, but in the end, it is the art of storytelling that has the power to pull anyone forward.

My theory is that strategy works best as a beginning point. You do your best to get a strategy in place, but then you move forward. As a writer, I know from experience that stories and strategies grow up best together. Each talking to the other. That is because the weaving of the story actually makes new strategy elements available (and vice versa). Elements appear that would not be apparent except that the artist has accessed that deep subconscious, chaotic place where connections are made and much foolish talk swirls around very bad ideas before anything worthwhile appears.

Sometimes when I get stuck in the analytical side of strategy, I set it aside to tell stories just to open possibilities. I am not alone in that practice.

There is a push for strategists today. But I would rather work with their more human cousins: story-teller strategists.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

4 Ways to Bring Creativity to Work

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Hint: Creativity is not easily contained

I’ve been reworking priorities for the social media marketing and copywriting classes I start teach again in January. If these are like previous classes (I’ve not yet looked at the rosters), there will be quite a few English majors, juniors and seniors, many of which will be excellent writers. I teach the class in a sort of writing-forward way: we use writing as our primary tool for sorting client brand problems and opportunities. But over the last few years, the copywriting class has morphed from a focus on “copywriter” to “idea writer,” which is a book by Teressa Iezzi that I’ve become very attached to. We use The Idea Writers as a text to help grow our understanding of our task.

My syllabus is mostly intact from last time I taught, but this time it I see four areas where additional emphases are needed. These four areas make it difficult for a student to jump from writing papers for an English professor to writing copy in the world of commerce:TellStudentsThis-3-20151216

  • See: this has to do with trying to get out of your own brain-pan and jumping into someone else’s life situation. Read more: How to Go Out of Your Mind
  • Try: social media, in particular, rewards those who jump in and try stuff—all sorts of stuff. Trying stuff is a way of learning what your audience will listen to, and will respond to, along with understanding the limits of their attention. Yes there are some best practices and some favored tools, but social media is in constant motion.
  • Measure: The goal really is to move the needle, that is, to get a response. Hits, page views—so many of these numbers are really only incidental to engagement. Real engagement looks like a comment or a share or some other solid action in the world. This is debatable, of course, and varies by audience and objective. But social media opens a window to see just what effect our words and ideas can have. Which can also be terribly discouraging for a writer with a message to deliver.
  • Passion: This is the surprise for students, that they can channel a passion about a topic or tool or process into a project for a client. Many think passion and inspiration are ingredients only safely stirred into their own poetry or short stories. It turns out the more you run on inspiration, the more you run with inspiration.
"Inspiration" by Richard Bledsoe

“Inspiration” by Richard Bledsoe

Richard Bledsoe’s interpretation of “Inspiration” is completely right: there is often a point where the idea carries the writer forward, eyes bulging, wishing only to stop.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Image credit: “Inspiration” by Richard Bledsoe, used with permission

How to Go Out of Your Mind

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Hint: It’s a crazy idea that just might work

Can you ever see from someone else’s point of view?

“No,” some say. We are entirely bound by our own way of seeing. All the world lays before us—all the friends and enemies and acquaintances and mobs, the institutions, the physical world, all the influences, everything that is, was and ever will be (amen)—all of which we perceive from our own vantage point. We fill our brain pan using our eyes, our ears, our sense of touch, our taste buds, our sense of smell.

It’s always me looking out at you.

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There are manufactured instances, though. Huge numbers have already bought Star Wars: The Force Awakens tickets for the very experience of looking out at a favorite world through JJ Abram’s eyes, who happens to be channeling George Lucas’ story-brain. We reread Harry Potter or Tom Sawyer for the joy of seeing from someone else’s perspective.

Stories get us close to seeing from someone else’s eyes.

A primary challenge in teaching copywriting to English students is asking them to see from someone else’s perspective. It’s an invitation to awaken the force (as it were) of caring about someone else’s issues and feeling the weight they feel. And though we see and feel imperfectly, it is enough to begin to engage our imagination. And it is precisely the imagination-engaged that produces satisfying, potentially useful copy that has a chance of meeting some human need.

I want to think that as we age, we become better able to see from someone else’s perspective. But my experience says otherwise: it is all too easy to let my world close in to include only what impacts me directly.

Hard work, it is, to begin to see from someone else’s perspective.

And good work.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Happily Ever After

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Escape the orbit of your status quo stories

AnaLouise Keating names “status quo stories” as a chief culprit in reinforcing the same old binary direction choices we fall into day after day. In her book Teaching Transformation (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), she details the ways she helps students identify and reflect on all sorts of status quo stories—stories from racial identity to sexuality to our cherished pull-yourself-up-by-your- bootstraps, I-did-it-my-way tales. The stories we tell ourselves have a way of constructing the world we inhabit:

In various ways and to various degrees, we co-create the world we inhabit.

–AnaLouise Keating

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These very stories serve as guiding lights for much of our lives because they signal the direction we should take. But over time the stories can also serve as a sort of tomb, if they go unexamined. Part of that has to do with the custom nature of humanity: we’re not all the same (it turns out) and so we’re not all going in the same direction. And by the way, mass-marketing is heaving its last gasps. So there is good reason to stop and examine the stories that drive us.

Under a microscope, some stories hold up and even blossom with new suggestions that point in solid directions. Others of those stories start to smell like the dead mouse under the stove: rank and yukko. For myself, when I reread Luke’s account of what Jesus actually said, it is full of life (precisely because he points at death, strangely). And then I wonder how faith-stories in the United States have wandered so far into power-hungry, money-hungry, empire-building waters.

Many faith stories from the last several decades stink to high heaven.

Once you start to identify status quo stories, you see them all over the place. And that’s a good thing, because each needs to be examined and given a green light or a red light. As I prepare for teaching writing students, I am on the lookout for new stories that will help them craft a useful writing life full of daily meaning-making.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

7 Questions that Shape Your Art/Work Life

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Please Write this Book: The Freelancer’s Attitude Kit

I’m working out new ways to present the freelance life to college writing students. They are interested in this independent life but not clear about all it entails. They wonder: is there more to it than sitting around in your underwear all day?

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I’d like to present them with a textbook that answers these seven questions. Because these are seven questions that freelancers and other independents continually ask and occasionally even answer. These questions are useful for anyone trying to figure out the relationships between work, craft, art and employment.

  1. How do I balance art, craft and economics? Is it even possible? Because there is stuff I want to do that has no audience. There is stuff I’m less interested in that has a larger audience. And there is stuff I can do to pay the bills, which frankly doesn’t engage me much. I feel less fulfilled when I do that third category of stuff. Then again, I feel pretty fulfilled when I cash the check from that third category. Part of the answer has to do with what your time in life allows. Part of the answer has to do with the economic choices you make.
  2. Is it me or is it you? What does it mean to care for others with my work? Is it possible to use my art or craft or skill to truly look after the needs of another—or perhaps to look after the needs of an organization? One point I’ve made repeatedly to students is that while introspection is one way to sort out who you are—and our creative lore pegs introspection as the main work of writers and artists—there is another way. And that way is finding places and people to work alongside and, well, serve. Sometimes we begin to sort out who we are as we seek to help others. Sometimes our collaborator and our collaborative processes reveal more than we could ever sort when isolated at our desk or easel.WhatIsArt-04302015
  3. What unseen forces are at work? I am a copywriter who also believes that God answers prayer. I am a copywriter who is also comfortable with artists who say the universe provides. My point is that the independent person has a better perspective when convinced there is more going on than what they can muster on their own. For example: every client I called last week said “No.” But then two new calls came in from completely unexpected sources. And these calls said “Yes.” Coincidence? Faith of one kind or another plays a role in this life—especially if a spouse/children/mortgage are part of the picture.
  4. Where does my ladder lean? Aiming for the approval of your boss is not bad, just limited. Bosses change—and sometimes very quickly. Better to climb toward a larger goal. In corporate life, we climb toward this position or that responsibility. In freelance, we climb toward this kind of project or that kind of project. Freelance does not have titles and offices that automatically designate how important you are. Are you ready for that? Freelance depends on intrinsic motivation—the stuff that bubbles out from inside. In fact—it turns out—that corporate life does too. The intrinsically-motivated colleagues are far and away the happiest, because they do the work out of willingness and mission. Just like freelancers.
  5. What do I look like, an entrepreneur? In fact you do, if you are someone who sees a need and starts to figure ways to meet that need. One textbook defines entrepreneur this way:

Entrepreneurship is the process of identifying opportunities for which marketable needs exist and assuming the risk of creating an organization to satisfy them.

–Hatten, Timothy S. Small Business Management, Entrepreneurship and Beyond (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)

There is risk with the approach: you might fail. It might take a long, long time. This approach requires turning that intrinsic motivation into an engine that chugs along every single day. That can be exhausting, especially when met with a daily chorus of “No.”

  1. What’s sharing go to do with it? Today artists and writers and crafters and tribe members find each other online. Not exclusively, but frequently. Part of the independent life has to do with finding generous ways to talk about your passion. This is not shilling for work, this is giving away good stuff. Good stuff that people can use. It turns out that clients just might find you this way as well
  2. What if people knew how weird I was? That’s right, you are strange. Really strange. But everyone is. Freelance capitalizes on weird by you doing what you do in the way you do it. Freelance is the opposite of cookie-cutter. It is niche-building with much of your weirdness intact (not all, people will run from you).

That’s the book I want to use as a text. Some books I’ve read come close.

What questions shape your work life? Tell me if you’ve read this book.

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Image and dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 30, 2015 at 10:13 am

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