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A Disabling Fiction About Writing

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Writing is Embedded

The fiction about writing is that it takes place in a special compartment, sealed off from everyday concerns. In part that is true, the best writers gain access to deep, hidden wells that supply the fodder for their process. Working writers locate those deep places regularly, whether or not their muse shows. In fact, it is typically the gears churning through the regular process that conjures whatever muse actually exists.

But more to the point, rather than being cut off and hidden away, the embedded writer pulls from experience—past, present and future—to load content into an emotional grid, commonly called a story.WriterInResidence-06172015

I find myself writing lots of stories lately. My own short fiction, yes, and that is great fun. But also for clients with something to say. And these clients hope to release their content on a larger scale than what their marketing monologues have afforded. They hope to release their messages to a wider audience, which means making a coherent story that might interest others.

Even writing for clients—especially writing for clients—involves locating that deep well. It turns out that deep, special compartment is permeable in some way that lets real life flow through and collect into something meaningful at the other end.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

June 18, 2015 at 9:23 am

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NOLA: Same words. Entirely different experiences.

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Your Interpretation May Vary

Maybe you’ve seen a version of these New Orleans tourism spots. What is remarkable is how the same voiceover is used in all, but each depicts an entirely different experience. Tim Nudd has some smart comments on the three at Adfreak.

I watch these and cannot help but think about how we interpret any text, And how each understanding of a text is different because of the intentions we bring to a text and the experience/baggage we also bring to our reading. That’s why we talk through how we read things—your interpretation gives a fuller perspective to mine. And, I hope, vice versa.

These three ads tell that interpretation story well.


Via Adfreak

Written by kirkistan

May 14, 2015 at 8:48 am

Sometimes only a dumb sketch will do

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Show. And (perhaps) tell.

My client has a subset of curious employees who love detail. They work with detail all day, design with deep specificity and get impatient with any glossed-over, highlights-only story. They want the details and don’t weave in that marketing hooey.

These curious employees regularly talk with their customers who also want detail. One curious employee told me a story about a conversation with a customer. The customer didn’t get how this product could work—the benefits simply did not register. Then the employee showed the customer a cut-away drawing. The customer did the mental work and could instantly see the benefits of the product. The customer needed to do the work himself, and that work opened the door to the benefits.

Flatter for easier eating

Flatter for easier eating


Moral: Images can go where words fear to tread.



Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

April 16, 2015 at 10:24 am

When Truth Sounds Like a Lie

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And the lie that turns out true

Let’s make up a new term: the “aspirational lie.”

The aspirational lie is that thing that falls from your mouth before you can stop it.

  • It is not quite true—that’s why you almost didn’t say it.
  • But it is not quite false—something about it is true. Which is why you did say it.

That happened to me when talking to a writing class of business students. My professor friend let me come in and chat about freelance copywriting. She wanted her MBA students to see some different shades to how work gets done. In the course of our discussion we talked about how one prepares to write and about how one does the work.

I told one truth that sounded like a lie.

And I told a lie that turned out to be true.


The Truth That Sounded Like a Lie

The truth that sounded like a lie was that I make a bunch of stuff up for my clients. “How so?” wondered the class. It’s like this: the writer’s work is to think forward and then tell the story of how all the parts fit together. Whether writing a white paper, a journal article, an advertising campaign or refreshing a brand, writers do what writers have always done: make stuff up. They grab bits and pieces of facts and directions and fit them into a coherent whole. As they move forward, they gradually replace false with true and so learn as they go.

That is the creative process.

You fill up your head with facts and premonitions and assumptions. Many are true, some are false. But the process itself—and the subsequent reviews reveal what it is true. Writing is very much a process of trying things on for size and then using them or discarding them. And sometimes we used facts “for position only,” as a stand-in for the real, true fact on our way to building the honest, coherent whole.


The Aspirational Lie

We also talked about backgrounds and how one prepares to write. I explained how degrees in philosophy and theology are an asset to business writing. Yes: I was making that up on the spot. But not really, because I have believed that for some time, though had never quite put it in those words. Pulling from disparate backgrounds is a way out of the narrow ruts we find ourselves in. Those divergent backgrounds help to connect the dots in new and occasionally excellent ways. Which is also why we do ourselves a favor when we break from our homogeneous clubs from time to time.

Comedy writers do this all the time. I just finished Mike Sacks excellent Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), and was amazed all over again at the widely different life experiences comedy writers bought to their work.

The more I’ve thought about the aspirational lie that philosophy and theology contribute to story-telling, the more convinced I am it is true. That’s because I find myself lining up facts and story bits and characters and timelines according the rhythms and disciplines I was steeped in during school. In philosophy it was the standing back and observing with a disinterested eye. In theology it was the finding and unraveling and rethreading of complicated arguments—plus a “this-is-part-of-a-much-larger-story” component.

Our studies, our reading, our life experience—all these help line up the ways we hear things and the ways we connect the dots. Our best stories are unified and coherent because of this.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Lift and Separate (Copywriting Tip #12)

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An idea is a new combination of old elements

This part comes after.

After the interviews and after reading the transcripts, after absorbing the journal articles and revisiting the notes from discussions with various experts. After taking in as much as you can, there is the sitting-back and ordering of facts and impressions.

Maybe you use an outline. Maybe you use index cards. Maybe you use a mind map or a white-board. Maybe you draw figures or icons on the back of corporate memos. But this is an essential creative exercise: sorting through and lifting up what keeps coming to the top. This creative exercise is about identifying and corralling the really important stuff. The stuff that simply must be transmitted.


Take steps to see more.


A shortcut to this essential phase is a conversation. If a colleague interrupts you with “What’s that project about?” The first three things out of your mouth—those things worth remarking on aloud—those three things need to find their way into the copy. Often they become the main topics.

Sometimes I’ll just start writing to see what I say. Give yourself 10 minutes to answer “What is this about?” and you will come close to producing an outline for the piece.

Or you can write a letter to a smart ten-year-old. Molding an idea into a simplified (but not simplistic) presentation has a clarifying effect.

The point is that your mind needs to find a grapple with myriad  facts and figures and impressions and data—to sort minor from major and to begin to find the story that makes sense to you and to your target audience.

I like the wide-open blank page aspect of this exercise. I also like that brand new stuff presents itself during the exercise:

…an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

–James W. Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas (NY: Thinking Ink Media, 2011)



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 26, 2015 at 9:06 am

Start at the Top. Again. (Copywriting Tip #10)

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Tell Yourself the Story

Imagine holding a long piece of tangled fabric. You hold it high above your head because you want gravity to gradually unravel the twists and tangles. Maybe you shake it. Probably you smooth it out: starting at the top again and again and work your way down the length to get the fabric straight or flat.

Many threads to unravel.

Many threads to unravel.

What works for fabric also works for a complicated idea. Sometimes the only way to unravel a complicated topic is go back again and again to the beginning, flattening and shaking out the twists and turns as you retell the story.

I’ve recently finished up a complicated article about our changing health care system. The article had lots of moving parts. It was not a long article, just dense and in need of translation: from jargon-filled, industry-speak to human.

Time and again I found myself stuck in the middle and staring at the screen: so many bits and pieces to fit. Absolutely stuck and wondering how to line these parts up so they make sense (and so they are sorta interesting for the target audience). Because in the end we read one word after another. We read in a linear way, even though the story may compose itself in our brainpan in non-linear chunks.

The only way I could get myself unstuck was to start at the beginning again. Back to that very first paragraph, and work my way through. Sometimes I would modify that paragraph to fit what was next. Sometimes I would modify what was next to fit the lede. But the only way forward was through the beginning.

During National Novel Writing Month I found myself doing this, mostly as a way to find out where the story was going and how it could possibly move forward. It was a way of telling myself the story hidden in the words already written. There are one thousand ways to write the story and some will present as we retell it to ourselves. And so we pick one.

Sometimes retelling the story again and again is the only way forward, because it leads to understanding:

By the way, a wonderful book about locating the story of your own life is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. Check it out.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

The Talking Part of Writing

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Talking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

When it comes to brand new, unpaged ideas (that is, not yet written), J.K. Rowling is right:

But at some point every idea needs to make contact with an audience. Writers want their idea fully-formed with beautiful plumage before they exhibit it to anyone (lest someone call my baby ugly). Copywriters know this is not possible when it comes to collaborative writing—writing that serves some mission or purpose for an organization or cause—which needs client eyeballs as a part of the process.

Because Lillian Hellman is also right:

And Nora Roberts is especially right:

There’s the writing. And then there’s the fixing. I often think of the fixing as equally creative as the original writing. Great and wonderful things happen at the fixing/revising stage.

There is a point in every copywriting project where it must be discussed. It must be read aloud. And the key is—especially with new clients—fail faster.

I recently made a category error with a new client and I’m wondering how high a price I’ll pay. Rather than insisting on an early reading and sharing first thoughts when the bar was low, I let my content slide through several holidays until the deadline is an approaching storm and the bar is high for the copy to be right on the first reading.

Which it isn’t: it’s full of questions.

Which is almost always the case with a new client. Especially if the topic has a lot of moving parts.


So lesson learned (again): insist on failing faster and earlier.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination

The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.


If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?

I say, “Yes.”

But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]

It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.

That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.

Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:

Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to Make Your Message Permanent

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A tip from a prehistoric consultant

First: Forget about it. Nothing is permanent—at least not in the way advertising mavens augur.

Second: OK—if you insist—make your message about someone else. Make your message give back more than it takes in. “GE” branded on a rock would never last. Even the Apple logo will be chiseled away by Microsoft rebels. But a man with jointed wings, well, who can resist that story?

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?]

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?

Prehistoric peoples stopped by these ancient rocks to tell their version of the human condition. So they carved/picked/incised/abraded their messages into the exposed Sioux quartzite outside Comfrey, Minnesota long before there was a Comfrey or a Minnesota or a U.S. of A. Maybe before the pyramids and Stonehenge. Ancients left messages here to direct and entertain passers-by.

Why make your message permanent? We understand marketing communications for companies—it’s about keeping the wheels of commerce turning. But you personally—what messages do you have to communicate? And why would you make them permanent? I argue that your take on the human condition comes out in the way you do your work, the way you interact with family, friends, colleagues, and even the way you see/refuse to see the homeless guy at the end of the exit ramp. And all these daily interactions amount to a carving and incising that is far more permanent than any of us imagine.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

Our conversations have an enormous (cumulative) effect on the people around us. An effect that may move through generations.

What exactly is your message, anyway?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Do your best ideas come in two stages?

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Maybe that’s where collaboration fits: between.

A story: In second grade we all had to talk about what we did over the summer. I wrote a story that included lots of driving to far-away parts of the U.S. I wrote about camping and swimming and mountains and lakes and trees.

When finished, I read it to myself and thought, “This is boring.”

So I went back at it and remembered mishaps along the way. Flat tires and people falling into lakes and instances of poor judgment from my brothers. Especially instances of poor judgment from my brothers. Then I started inserting instances of poor judgment all over the story and it got very, very interesting.

When I gave my speech to my second grade class, the instances of poor judgment got the biggest laughs.

Share that raw thought with a clear-eyed friend.

Share that raw thought with a clear-eyed friend.

Today I write stuff for a living, so I think in terms of drafts: There’s the rough draft, with all its heartache, hollering and hoopla just to wrestle a topic onto my screen. There’s the review with a stakeholder/client/colleague. Then there is the excellent revision. The goal is the excellent revision. But few people can begin with the good stuff that came out of the revision.

But you need not write stuff to realize that first ideas can often be improved by a clear-eyed, objective second glance. And often that clear-eyed glance, especially from someone hearing it for the first time, can tell you a lot about where the idea needs to go next. What your reviewer sees or doesn’t see, what causes them to pause, what causes them to guffaw, what causes them to restate or reread—all this is grist for the revision. And revisions are potent parts of the process.

With my clients I am very up front about wanting them to review a draft on the way to the final. And that is how I present it—I’ll write this thing and then you’ll look at it and give me your scathing criticism. And together we’ll move toward what we wanted all along. And the final will be that much better.

That’s what collaboration looks like to me: at least a two-stage process.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 16, 2014 at 10:03 am

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