Self-Care is Fundamental to Your Writerly Health

I’m writing this blog from the end of the road, the bottom of the barrel, the length of my rope.  You see, I’ve been neglecting my most important asset for the last month: me.  I’ve not been sleeping well, I’ve not been eating well, I’ve been overworking myself, I’ve been skipping the gym, I’ve been pushing when I knew I had nothing left to give.  I’ve been on empty and there wasn’t anything for it.  I continued to plunge ahead.

If you stay in this business, this life, for long, you’ll find that this state of workaholism isn’t unique to me or something to admire.  It’s a kind of sickness that some of us get.  We forget to stop.  We get wrapped up in the work, in the thrill of the keyboard, the rush of a new project (never mind the old one isn’t getting finished because you’re spread so damn thin).  I’ve been pretty good to keep it at bay, but I met a fella recently who brought me some really special projects and there it was, peeping at me from around the corners.

So, my fucking friends, today we’re gonna drag this ugly beast out of the motherfucking shadows and talking about the thing we don’t talk about.  Because tomorrow it might be you, it might be the person you’re collaborating with, it might be your best fucking friend.  Freelancing draws a certain kind of person, they’re often quite intense and have quite intense reactions to life.

Workaholism and Burn-Out: Where We Are Now

I collapsed from exhaustion this week.  At my desk.  I am ashamed to admit this, but I need to own it because that’s literally the only road out of this pit.  If you’ve fought the battle against workaholism, you know what I mean.  You can’t pretend that you’re just really hard-working or that it’s just that you’re really interested in *this* project.

It’s a full on obsession with creation, breathing life into a world that never existed until you strung the words together like so many fairy lights.  But if you don’t own your shit, it will absolutely kill you and take everything you love.  Burnout is real, my friends, and it’s mighty unpleasant.  Mental collapse is awful.

I don’t know where the act of creation turns into the act of self-destruction.  There’s a line there somewhere… but it’s fuzzy.  It’s easy to cross over, it’s easy to get too deep into that and forget to eat and shower and take care of the basics in life.  That’s where you start dancing with burnout and all the nasty stuff.

American culture elevates work addicts and workaholism, but it’s one of the most dangerous compulsions you can possibly have.  Like with compulsive eating, you have to work, so you’re always sort of risking it, every day.  Is today the day I’ll slip?  Is tomorrow?  Am I already in a downward spiral?  These are the things I have to ask myself to keep my head above water.

Your Daily Self-Care Checklist

I’m writing this blog more for myself than for you, but I figure that if I’m having this issue, some of you are, as well.  I know a few of you are also serious workaholics and will hurt yourselves to make deadlines and so forth.  I once believed that was admirable, even something to aspire to, but time and experience have shown me that self-immolation isn’t sustainable.  Self-neglect isn’t cool.

Or, as I like to say to people who aren’t me, you can’t fill others’ tea cups from an empty pot.  In actuality, you can’t do shit with an empty pot except smash it and if you break your teapot, well, you’re in a lot bigger trouble than you realize.  So, step one and step two and step three hundred and fifty six is self care.  Every single day.  I made a checklist.  It’s for me, but maybe it’s for you, too.

Self Care Checklist

Shower.  Take a real shower.  Shampoo your hair.  Then put on something nice that makes you feel like a person and not a slovenly zombie.  Shoes, too.  Be fancy.

Breakfast.  Protein shakes and meal replacement bars are ok for breakfast.  Just do it.  Swoosh.

Meds.  Eat them pills.  They make you strong.

Exercise.  Every day.  Monday, Wednesday and Friday, take the dog for a walk/jog around the neighborhood.  Tuesday and Thursday, go to the pool at the Y and thrash about like you’re drowning.  Eventually you’ll learn how to swim properly this way.  Saturday and Sunday are for adventure walks with the whole crew.

Don’t skip lunch.  You do this a lot.  Don’t do it.  When the bell sounds, you get up and go find food.  Even if it’s a cookie.  Cookies can be lunch if there’s other good stuff with them.  Take the time to find the good stuff.  It’s good and it’s stuff, what’s not to like?

Dinner promptly at six.  Don’t eat so close to bedtime.  It just makes it hard to sleep and you really need good sleep.  You can always go back to writing after.

Movie time.  From 8 pm to 10 pm, sit and watch TV with the fam.  You deserve a break, you’ve worked hard today.  You work hard every day.  You work yourself to death.  Learn to let yourself have some fun to death.

Weekends are for exploring.  Stop working on the weekend.  That’s exploring time.  You need to figure out where all the good stuff is, but you can’t if you’re always working on the weekends.  Just stahp.

Get enough sleep.  You’ve been neglecting this one big time.  That extra hour you’re getting to work in the morning is literally killing you.  Your brain can’t function on six hours of sleep, it’s pretty evident from your heart rate monitor and general mood.  Sleep until you’re done, or at least eight hours.  Eight hours.  Zzzzzzz….

Above all else, listen to your inner Homeland Security Advisory System.  If you’re on Red Alert, you need to stop right the fuck now.  If it’s a blue alert, keep on keepin’ on my friend.

The Secret to Keeping Your Writing Fresh

Come, Little Grasshopper, and sit at my feet.  I’ll give you one of the most important secrets of the writing trade.  Don’t be afraid, I don’t bite.  Well, not often and not unless you’ve really screwed the pooch, you know what I mean?  You know…

Anyway, in writing for a living, there are a few major struggles you’re going to encounter over the long run.  First and foremost is the all-consuming fear that you’re going to run out of work and never see another paycheck again.  Next is the realization that you’ve got too much work and you’ll never see daylight again.  But somewhere between the two of those is the worry that you’re starting to sound monotonous.  Blah blah blah keyword blah blah, ykwim?

High Quality Input = High Quality Output

I’m about to say something that you’re not going to like, so before I do, screw on your big girl panties and brace yourself.  Here goes.  You can’t just write forever and be lauded as a motherfucking genius.  Because you aren’t.  What comes out of you is directly influenced by what goes in, so if you’re not bothering to put anything INTO the data stream, you’re not going to get anything but garbage out once you run through your personal backlog of reading material, popular culture, current events and so forth.

You are not brilliant.  There’s nothing new inside your special little head.

What makes a writer is how they connect the dots between data points, not the fucking nouns or verbs or vocabulary.  I mean, that stuff is important.  If you don’t have it, no one will hire or respect you and I’ll probably laugh at you a lot, but if you can’t connect dots, you might as well just go work at a cardboard box factory.

In order to connect those dots, you have to have those dots to connect in the first place.  Which means that at least half your job is non-writing stuff like watching television, playing video games, reading books, dicking around on social media, interacting with fleshy humans and so forth.  Data collection is so vital to your world, you can’t even imagine.

Ways to Make More Time for Input

We live in a world of data, which is pretty awesome if you’re a writer with not a lot of extra time to cram information into your own head.  You have to make some time for new data input, you absolutely do, but there are more efficient ways to go about it if you’re in a time crunch.  There are plenty of writers these days who don’t read a lot of books because they simply lack the time, but they’ve consumed every single article that their favorite social media feed has shared in the last two years.  Reading is reading, don’t get pretentious about it.

Anyway, here are a few things to try in order to increase your data input volume:

Crack Open Some Audiobooks.  A friend of mine swears by these.  He’s listened to some that sound to me to be pretty damn cool, but I’ve barely cracked the cover on them.  I can’t vouch for audiobooks one way or the other, but I’d say that if you got a lot from your college lectures, audiobooks will be a world full of learnin’ for you.  You can listen and do stuff like email prospects or clean your house to make the most efficient use of time.

Thrash to New Music.  Hey, you may not think of music as a form of writing, but as long as you’re listening to the kind with words, booyah!  There are words here.  Music to me is more like poetry, but poetry is a great tool for developing a voice that glides easily across the page.  Spotify has several different features that suggest new music to users based on music they’ve already heard and I use them often.  New music gives me new ways to connect words and, sometimes, even new metre to measure sentences by.

Call Your Mom.  I’m not saying you’re not doing your best, but your mom wants to hear from you, and she’s probably been doing some interesting reading or television watching, eh?  Depending on who your mom is, you might get the latest headlines from Fox News or the greatest hits from the Discovery Channel.  It’s a gamble.  But your mom wants you to call.  You could call once in a while.

Binge Some Fucking Netflix.  Whoever first said that television was an idiot box was clearly a hater of fun and destroyer of joy.  There’s lots of really smart programming out there these days, both fiction and non.  Right now I’m watching some shit about volcanoes and stuff.  I’ve been streaming Netflix for weeks and weeks while I work, it drowns out the sound of construction in my neighborhood, skanks can’t be bothered to keep it down.  Oh, and now I know things about lava.

Ok, turd mongers, that’s it for today.  Go away and fill your brain with useful data and make your writing better.  Look at different writing styles.  Explore other genres.  Try out new stuff!

Above all else, STAY INTERESTING!

What’s Plugging You Up, WriterFace?

Hi, guys.

It’s been a bit, I know.  But I mean, it’s NaNo time and you know how much I like to bitch and moan about that, so I had to wander back here eventually.  It’s been a really weird few months, I won’t lie.  Weirder than usual.  I’ve been a big plugged up, like there are lots of bits of things in the way of doing what I need to do to be really successful at this writing shit.  So, what the Hell.  Let’s make a blog!

“It’s Writer’s Block” and Other Things I’ll Punch You for Saying

First of all, I want to make this heard loud and fucking clear.  There is NO such thing as Writer’s Block.  There’s “I don’t wanna,” there’s “I have to eat a bunch of sugar to overcome my inner critic,” there’s “I’m being pulled in too many directions to complete a thought,” but there’s no such motherfucking as Writer’s Block.  There’s just doing and not doing, and not doing is typically due to a psychological overwhelm.

It’s not because of your magical fairy farts that are unique to your writerly garb.  It’s because you’re not willing or able to focus on the project.  Period.

Ok, so now that we’ve got that out of the way I’m going to say that sometimes I really, really want to write, but I feel all plugged up.  Like a tube of toothpaste with a hard bit at the end.

Wait… let me back up a little bit.

My Writing Technique: Mental Pre-Writing

When I write, I start by pre-writing in my head.  This is the bulk of my writing, to be honest.  Clients don’t necessarily understand or appreciate this method.  I’ve been fired before for not having ongoing notes, but fuck those guys because that’s just not how I work.  It’s in my head or it’s all done in one go, there’s not a lot to put down besides research required to fact check what I think is probably right.  I think everybody has a little bit of their own technique, but I’m pretty sure that mental pre-writing isn’t unusual in writers who are expected to crank copy like mad (like journalists, for example).  If it is, paint me pink and call me a Goddamn unicorn.

Anyway, so I have all these ideas jumbled up in my head, rattling around, sometimes mixing with one another, making weird hybrid ideas and eventually they’re ripe enough that I sit down and pull them out and work with them.  Sometimes time doesn’t allow that, so I pull them out not ripe and fucking salt and pepper the shit out of them and serve ’em up the best I can.

Not every piece is a Pulitzer.  Sometimes you just gotta get the information out there and live with the end result.  That’s life in the fast lane.  But rarely, another thing happens.  You get all plugged up.  If you think of that mental writing space as being sort of funnel shaped, then you can see where I’m going here.  This piece is too oblong or too big or too fucking green to go through the funnel properly, or two things are trying to go through at the same time, and nothing happens.  You can feel it trying to come out, it’s like an itch you can’t scratch, but nada.  That’s your mental plug.  Gross.

I’ve dealt with a lot of these little bastards, they’re nasty as fuck.  Luckily, there are a few tricks to work them loose so you can move on with your life and get your content delivered on time, every fucking time.  And that’s what we’re gonna talk about in the next section.  Prepare yourself for an obligatory header.

Tricks for Unplugging Your Writing Funnel

When your funnel’s plugged, it’s the worst sort of feeling.  The pressure’s building, both from your clients and internally, and you just might explode writing ideas everywhere if you’re not careful.  So let’s talk about unplugging.  We don’t need you to make a mess in here.

1. Write it Out.  I’d say about 60 percent of the time when I’m plugged up, it’s because I’m trying to enforce my own priority on projects that won’t have it.  For example, right now I need to be writing a dental blog that promises to actually be good fun, but I’m plugged up, so I’m writing this blog about being plugged up because it’s actually what’s causing the plug.  I reached up there and I saw that my lack of attention to this blog has been in my way for a while, so I’m fixing that shit.  Unplugging the funnel.  Prepare for chaos!

2. Cry it Out.  Maybe 20 percent of the time, I can’t make the words work right because something is really bothering me and I can’t quite focus on the task at hand.  I’m trying so hard to hold my emotions back that I can’t open the funnel fully to let the ideas out.  It’s a mess.  This has also been happening lately.  A good friend of mine died in late May and I didn’t realize how much trying to hold that tidal wave of emotion back had also been holding me back professionally until yesterday when I broke down crying because he wasn’t on Spotify.  Believe me, I felt as stupid writing that sentence as you did reading it.

I cried like someone had shot my dog for over an hour.  Just, buckets and buckets and I kind of still feel a bit leaky, if we’re being honest.  This was someone I used to collaborate with on stupid shenaniganry, as we both honed our craft.  I feel his loss in an immeasurable way.  But in all the crying, I also realized that I was starting to unplug.  Part of what was holding me back from a really cool opportunity, maybe the opportunity of my lifetime, was not wanting to move forward without Will, which is obviously impossible.  So, for every time that starts to plug up my funnel, we’re just gonna get out the chocolate and cry it the fuck out.  Endorphins are pretty cool.

3. Force it Out.  There are other times, not a huge number of them in the grand scheme, but enough, that the words don’t come and it feels like there’s no relief from vocabular constipation.  I think of those times like giving birth.  Not that I have, so I might be wrong about how it goes.  But, basically, you sit down and you write.  And that sounds easy, but when you’re plugged up solid, it’s the hardest thing.  But just write anything.  Write one word.  Then write another word.  Write a sentence.  Write two.  Write a paragraph.  Don’t worry if they’re awful, you can fix it in proofing.  Some days it just takes a few sentences, some days it takes whole paragraphs, but by simply purposefully writing on one topic, you’ll blow that plug to kingdom come.

Ok, that’s your useful bullshit bullshit for today, kiddos.  I’m back, shit’s gettin’ real.  It’s Day 7 of NaNo, I hope it’s going well for you.  Even though you know how I feel about that whole thing.

I’m not doing NaNo, but I am trying very hard to write some nice sonnets about cats for a friend who’s been having a rough time lately.  Best wishes to those of you who are.  Doing NaNo, I mean, not writing sonnets about cats.  But if you’re writing sonnets about cats, I’d be happy to pass them along to my friend.

If you’re reading this, Eli, they’re coming!  Sheesh!  Enough about it, it’s boring!!!!!!!! 😉

 

What’s Your Blog Post Adding to the Conversation?

I imagine there’s not much you can Google right now that won’t give you a boatload of articles that all say roughly the same thing.  I’m almost positive.  Content creators great and small have generated so much Internet flotsam that it’s almost impossible for an average user to see through it all.  Fortunately, Google sees all.  Oh, mighty Googler.  Google me up a dream.

What I mean is that despite all the seemingly huge pile of — let’s say “chaos” so I can promote this post on social media — out on the web, there is still preference being given to better quality content.  High quality content is still king.  It rules.  It’s everything.  Don’t forget that.  But if you think your special way of regurgitating everyone else’s content is the key to creating blog posts that are truly useful, you’d better think again.  Sit down.  I’mma ’bout ta school ya one.

Value Added Content Matters to the Big Picture

Whether you’re writing a blog to entertain your friends or sell your new fiddly widget, there are rules.  You can’t just steal other writers’ work and hope to get away with it in the Age of the Googler.  The Googler knows all, remember?  It will downrank you for any sort of content regurgitation it can detect and it’s getting smarter all the time.  This matters to you, believe it or not.  You want your site to rank, don’t you?  You want to get like, site visitors and clicks and all those happy horse apples, right?

This is where your big beautiful pulsating brain comes in.  Absolutely you don’t have to be an expert on a thing to write about it, but it’s vital that you have a functional knowledge of the subject area.  That’s because of this value added thing I’m trying to come around to.  When you take an article someone else wrote and attempt to simply rewrite it, you not only create a reasonably obvious attempt at being a dirty hack, you also don’t come off as being particularly knowledgeable.

Sure you can check out the other articles on the topic and hopefully gain a bit of insight from them.  Absolutely you should note what else is being said.  How else will you be able to add something that’s not being said to the conversation?  For example, let’s say I’m blogging about the history of the umbrella (I have no idea why so many of my examples revolve around raincoats, umbrellas, rubbers and duckies, but that’s life).  There are other articles on this topic already, but a quick scan reveals that not a one of them is discussing the very important but little-know fact* that the Aztecs used human skin stretched over a small frame to create the first parasols yet discovered.

Obviously, you’re going to have to overlap some information to write the article you or your client needs.  That’s the nature of the beast.  But, because you know a fair amount about umbrellas, you can chuck that nugget of wisdom in there with the rest.  That’s a value you’ve added.  Now, when people google “History of the Umbrella,” some of them will come across your piece, read it and recommend it to their friends because it paints a more complete picture.  More people will come.  More people will READ and that sort of thing gets the Googler’s attention.  The Googler will then bless you with a higher page ranking, so sayeth the Googler Blog.

The more you can differentiate your blog from the others, well, I mean, the better.  You’re not a sheeple, are you?  Naaaaaaaaaaaaah.  (I’m hilarious)  A blog doesn’t have to be long to be impactful or helpful or useful or just straight-up good.  I’m not talking about making it longer, necessarily, just… better.

4 Ways to Add Value to Blogs

So, I’m sure some of you are staring at me like I have three heads, but I swear there’s a way to do this.  In fact, it’s not even that hard.  You just have to use that thinker and the Googler will bless you.  Here are a few tricks to add value to your blogs and subsequently, earn notoriety and prizes:

Insert missing information.  Like in the example above, there’s almost always something missing that should be in a blog on any given topic.  “Six Ways to Make Your Colleagues Feel More Welcome” probably includes ideas like giving them candy and inviting them to meetings and asking their opinions, but I dare say, none of the articles I see mention office shenanigans.  And what office is complete without them?  Really?  That’s a value add.  When doing a list, I try very hard to ensure at least a third of my list items are unique, but the more the merrier, man.

Correct incorrect claims.  Oh boy.  You could spend literally all day doing this with Natural News, but I digress.  As an industry mind, someone who writes on these topics a lot, you probably *know* a fair amount of stuff about it.  I mean, even if you didn’t mean to, some of it stuck.  That’s the sad truth of this life, we collect bits here and there and our brain sort of hugs them until they’re needed.  So, if you see a lot of blogs claiming that the sky is orange and we breathe sulfur, you can totally value add by correcting that bad information and then citing an unshakable source or getting a quote from an expert that says as much.  Here: “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration certifies that the sky is, in fact, blue and humans breathe a mix of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and other stuff.”  Or “‘Of course the sky’s blue and we can’t breathe sulfur,’ said Dr. Bob, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Your Mom.  He added, ‘Are you some kind of idiot?'”

Zig where others zag.  Oh, the zig-when-they-zag trick is an oldie, but a goodie.  Say you’re writing “5 Things to Do at a Party.”  I mean, let’s just say.  The other articles you see are all focused on what to do as a party-goer who likes to vacuum chips and quaff free soda.  Instead of following that mess, you go get a snack, then sit down and write about activities that an invited person could spontaneously lead at a party.  Perhaps the Hokey Pokey.  Or shooting off fireworks out of soda bottles like proper ‘Murricans.  Digging a hole for the bodies.  You know, what you do.  In journalism, we call this changing the angle of the story.  In copywriting, we call this fucking unheard of.  Be a thought leader.

Provide some fucking data.  I get really exhausted by articles that make wild claims and then never bother to back them up.  “30 percent of all divorces lead to spontaneous orgies, so you should really look into that.”  Um… source needed?  I can’t tell you how much it matters when someone finally has the iron labia to actually find that original study or meta analysis.  Sometimes they can’t be found, in which case you shouldn’t be fucking declaring that thing as fact.  But if you, my precious ones, if YOU can give us facts where we only had claims, well, that’s something glorious and miraculous.  Amen.

If any of you read Dan Savage’s “Savage Love,” you’re gonna be familiar with the Campsite Rule.  Basically, Dan says you should leave your lover in a better shape than you found them in.  I say this also goes for your content and even your reader.  Just because some other lazy fucking slag was willing to stop before the article was really done right doesn’t mean you get to.

You’re one of mine now, motherfucker.  Do the shit right.

Reconnecting Your Social Networks in a Post-Russia World

It doesn’t take long looking through memories on Facebook to realize how rapidly social media fractured for Americans over the 2016 Presidential election.  Even now, there are huge divides keeping us apart and it’s more than what we can blame on algorithm shifts and a natural cycling of “internet friends” and fans.

Since the incredibly surprising turn of that election cycle and the subsequent fingering of Russian interference in our election process, Americans seem to have pushed deeper into their safety bubbles and forgotten how to build bridges and find commonalities.  As business owners and professional communicators, it’s up to us to help turn social media around or else we’ll all be sunk.  It begins with reconnecting our social networks and remembering how it was to talk to our people without worrying that we’d offend that one perpetually offended person, I think.

Axiom # 1: You Can’t Please Everyone

A friend recently reminded me of something I thought I knew too well.  You can’t please everyone all the time.  You’ll always be on the outs with someone.  And that’s ok.  He gave me permission to piss people off, which, as it turns out, I needed.  And that’s what I once preached in this blog, at least to some extent.

The fact is that you can’t please everyone.  And for as fractured as social media has become, you certainly can’t please all the people who subscribe to you all the time.  This is why we segment professional marketing work into manageable groups and have friends who are interested in whatever weirdness we have to say, not simply to increase our numbers.  You can’t please everyone and there’s no fucking point in trying.  You’ll just wear yourself out, make yourself feel like a failure and ignore the data that says otherwise.

It’s ok if you lose 10 percent of your readership because you said something a bit risky.  It’s ok that you had an opinion that lost a small percentage of your market.  In fact, it’s probably good that you do because there are always some lurkers that aren’t doing you any good.  And that goes for both personal and professional social media.  Some people exist to make you feel like you must walk on eggshells, and that’s just wrong.

Fly that fucking freak flag.  Fly it high.  Your people will find you.

Axiom #2: You Need to Please Some People

I’m not here to make a moral argument, though there’s plenty here to make.  I’m going to leave that to you and your people to figure out.  But, from a pure marketing standpoint, you have to remember that item #1 up there isn’t for every post.  You can’t sit around all day, every day, rattling a saber and claiming that Martians are coming to seize your car illegally and retain a broader audience.  You might find lots of people who have experienced Buick abductions themselves, but when that happens, that becomes your new audience.  That’s what happened as a result of your giving no fucks.

Actions have effects.  This is a universal truth.  So, while having an outlier thread now and again is a low risk way to increase engagement, having lots of outlier threads make them become the norm.  This will result in a significant shift in your audience base.  Ultimately, whatever you do on social media comes back around, provided you keep at it.  So, if you have an audience-focused Facebook feed, for example, you need to keep your audience in mind.  If you’re just out there to be out there, give it Hell and good luck with the results.

Axiom #3: There’s Not One Right Way to Social Media

The most important part, I think, is that there’s no right way to social media.  Obviously, you don’t want to be that guy who is always pissing people off, but then again, maybe that’s your schtick.  You don’t want to be that guy who is always advocating for the extreme, unless you do.  For most of you, it’s going to be a good bet to try to act as a uniter, even if that means having to unhitch from some of your horses for the greater good.

What I mean is that while social media becomes increasingly fragmented in the personal spaces, brands and public figures need to be trying to focus their efforts on themes that are uniting for their overall social media presentation.  Beyond that, it’s up to you how to go about it.  There’s no right way.  The only wrong way, as I see it, is to add to the issue of fragmentation.

So corral them doggies, share some #NotEntirelyUnpopular posts, add something new to the landscape.  I think by now, we can all agree that 24/7 politics are exhausting and there’s hardly energy enough for them any longer (this is not to say that there’s not room for larger messages woven into overarching brand stories).  There’s really only selective call for politics in a brand space, anyway, but again, my opinion on this.  If your brand is all about selling white bedsheets to Klan members, obviously, you’re not *my* market.

I know this seems like a mess of a blog.  But the point is that although you can’t please everyone, you have to please someone and if you’re a brand, you should consider the bigger picture.  As social media continues to fragment, you don’t want to be the business with just one guy as an audience.  You (and I) need to be doing the things it takes to reunite those audiences, even if only as brand advocates.  I think it’ll do a world of good to remind people that just because their politics are slightly different, they all use the same brand of toilet paper.

Common ground is the key to life and to refocusing our social media efforts.  It’s up to you to decide what that means before it’s too late for your brand image.

 

Digital Media and the Erosion of Journalism

There’s no good way for me to introduce this piece, so I’m basically just going to scream at you.  I mean, there’s no point in lying.  This isn’t a fist-wagglin’, get off my lawn sort of curmudgeon discourse, it’s actually a pretty serious thing.  So pay attention, ok?  Keep hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.

I realize that being a young Journo from a family that included a Journo from a Golden Age of Journalism gave me a bit of a skewed perspective on what journalists should and should not do.  But, OMGYOUGUYSES, the news has gone crazy and also a bit stupid.

Let me explain.

Journalistic Practices Circa the Pre-Digital Age

There was a time, so long ago now, when news stories were a means of driving subscriptions and thus, advertisers, to a paper-format publication.  It might be a weekly news magazine, or a daily newspaper, but the general public considered these the sources of Truth and Intelligent Commentary.  Of course, there were fringe publications, but they weren’t where the majority of people got their news.  Back then, sensational headlines were frowned upon.  Instead you were encouraged to craft headlines that were interesting and informative, so the reader could decide for themselves if they wanted to read on.

For example, my student paper covered a really serious tornado in our town, as well as the community’s response.  Our headline?  “Damn the Tornadoes — Full Speed Ahead!”  That was the most sensational headline I was ever involved with pre-Internet.  Today, you have too many “news” outlets (and some truly legit ones) that essentially trick people into clicking in order to fluff up their numbers for the purpose of extracting more money from their advertisers.

Another thing Journalists used to do, funnily enough, was their own research.  *pauses to launch hysterically*  I use a news aggregator to get a view of the day’s events, as well as the general chatter in a number of industries, and I gotta say, I am so genuinely disappointed in what claims to be original reporting.  One site will break a story and the rest rush to issue THE SAME STORY BASED ON THAT FIRST STORY’S INFORMATION.  I don’t have the words for how frustrating I find this practice.

What happened to like, I dunno, calling sources, looking shit up yourself, fact-checking and so forth?  A breaking story these days is rarely accurate or complete, even when it comes to local news.  Everyone’s in such a Goddamn hurry to get the news out, they don’t bother to wonder if they’re writing good news.  Much of what we get today isn’t much more than the Internet Age equivalent of the older folks in the neighborhood gossiping and speculating on what’s going on down the block with that ambulance.

To compound this problem, we as an audience have gotten really fucking stupid.

Let me type that again, because it felt so good.  You, the reader, are a bloody idiot.

Three times just seems like an insult to your intelligence, but then again….

We allow these once prestigious news outlets to continue with sloppy reporting and too-hurried news stories that require considerable backpedaling or further explanation in order to correct.  We reward BobsNewsSite.com (not a real site) for reporting that leaves more questions than answers by clicking on his fucking Click Bait headline.   We have created this dumbing down of the industry as a whole, and now we’re freaking out because “fake news.”

I’ve seen these fake news sites.  Most have some tiny bit of truth to them, but they’re not staffed by old school journalists who actually care about content quality.  They purposefully take things out of context, they get readers worked up, and all for increased ad spend.  These guys, as much as anyone, are feeding the increasing factionalization of America.

But you’re doing it, too.  I am not letting you off the hook here.  You keep feeding the fucking fake news and the sloppy news and the fucking wrong news and struggling outlets hire kids right out of school to break the biggest stories… it’s a terrible cycle that has to stop.  But WE can stop this.  We can find a way to bridge these gaps.

1. Fact Check Everything.  Don’t be lazy.  If you’re going to post to Facebook, make sure what you’re reading is actually right.  Even highly prestigious publications like the Washington Post or New York Times have been known to rush a story to social media before it was fully formed.

2. Learn to Identify ClickBait.  If there’s a headline, any headline, that implies there’s gonna be a shocking reveal once you click, FFS, STOP YOURSELF.  Even clicking is feeding these parasites, don’t click! If you can’t trust your own judgement, install a tool like BS Detector, which will help you figure out which is which.  I actually use this tool because there are so fucking many things on social media that I need to debunk on a regular basis and it makes my life easier.

3. Support Your Media Outlets.  Hey, did you know you can subscribe to digital media?  Yep, you sure can.  If you read the local paper daily online, why not support them with a subscription?  Digital TIME Magazine reader?  Check out that subscription thingy.  Maybe it’s not always necessary, but it’s right.  Stand up for real news with your dollar.

I could literally write a book about how low the bar has fallen for reporting in this day and age, including but not limited to fake news sites, but I have other stuff to do today.  And although I despise news outlets with obvious biases, they’re far less disgusting than those that abandon the truth entirely.  I don’t recommend you support those guys, either — after all, Journos are supposed to be neutral observers — but at least some of them still bother to do news.

Be a better person.  Do news right.  Don’t feed misinformation and paranoia in these confusing times.  Fact-check.  This is my moral imperative to you.  Hold news outlets accountable for shit reporting by refusing to feed them.  Reward responsible journalism with subscriptions and clicks.

Commentary: Google’s New Policy on Email Scanning

Friday’s post on Google’s own blog is causing a pretty significant stir in my circles right now.  Largely, I think it’s because no one really realized that their emails were being read by The Googler. For me, it’s something else… it’s speculation on why this is happening.  What’s coming?  WHAT IS THE GOOGLE HIDING?!?

I know a lot of you have waited a long time for Google to eventually reveal that it was actually behind the last year’s hyjinx all along and is now plotting world domination.  I know you believe this is going to happen, or at least that Amazon is going to undermine all retail, ever.  As with most things in life, it’s none as sinister as you reckon.  The truth is always somewhere between the two extremes in any argument, you just have to find it.

Back to Google’s Email Scanning

Because Google directly impacts what we do, it’s important that we stay on top of what it’s up to — but it’s equally important that we understand what we’re reading.  This is akin to how we use statistics or study data or anything like that, it’s one thing to read it and another to actually understand it.  The understanding is the thing, is my point.

Google has stated that it has never scanned its G Suite emails, only mining free email accounts for information.  When many people read this, the first thing they do is cry, because they’ve emailed some pretty personal/sexy/intimate thoughts using the service.  The thing those folks need to realize is that what Google IS STILL DOING (many headlines made it read like it was stopping Friday, but it’s not stopping until October — that’s another rant for another day) is simply scanning for keywords it can use to feed you ads.  I mean, this is nothing.  It’s a non-thing.

What IS interesting is that they’re stopping.  At least, to me.  Google has spent many years developing some pretty crazy advanced computer systems that can not only make reasonable assumptions and predictions, but learn from data that they’re fed.  Their machine learning is on the cutting edge of everything, Google’s machines are smarter than people in many respects, which is both exciting and frightening.

This not-headline is what the news should be, in my opinion.  If they’re not scanning emails any longer to feed us personalized advertisements, how are they going to do it?  Ad personalization isn’t going anywhere, so what we should be asking is “what’s next?” for Google advertising.

More Speculations on the Google Machine Future

Because Google is predicted to make $72.69 billion this year in ad revenues, I have a hard time believing that it would make a move that would damage that income stream.  More likely, one of two things is happening right now: Google has realized that scanning emails is a fruitless place to hunt up information that enables accurate predictions or (and this is what I think) it has found a much better way to sort this.

After all, keyword-based predictive algorithms are incredibly resource intensive, so if I were a Google, I’d be looking for a faster, easier way to achieve the same level of accuracy.  And hey, it turns out the minds at Google have actually thought a lot about this stuff, as evidenced by papers like “Ad Click Prediction: A View from the Trenches,” published in 2013 and the on-going craziness happening at the Research at Google site.

The thing, the real thing here in this story, I think — I believe with all my brainy bits — is that we’re entering a new stage in the maturation of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  Facebook, Amazon and other internet giants will certainly wonder what Google has built instead of focusing on the minutiae of unscanned email.  Although Google is a not terribly awful overlord, it’s still in it for the money.  Dropping the email scanning is not one of those things that it did just to make people happy.  It simply found a better way to keep you checking your email so you’ll see ads that might convince you to buy a thing.

Mark my words — MARK THEM! — the real story isn’t what Google posted, it’s what it held back.  There’s more to this story, and I have a funny feeling it’s about to get pretty fucking awesome up in here.  Even as my once-noble profession, journalism, is threatened by machine learning, I’m thrilled as fuck to welcome our smart machine conquerors.

Do you think they’d like a muffin basket?

Does Your Lede Actually Lead Readers In?

In the age of SEO and writing to appease Google bots, it’s a rare thing to actually consider your audience, even for a moment.  Imagine, if you will, a place where you could get any information you wanted, simply by asking, and it appeared, like magic.  Not only was that information easy to understand, it was packed in a way that you actually enjoyed reading it.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Well, the future is now, bitches.

For too long, we’ve been writing like machines for machines, forgetting our human element.  Trick headlines to draw people in to content they don’t really want to read has reached an apex, now we enter the age of user-focused content.  Are you ready for this?  I mean, really?  Or do you struggle with the ledes of your blogs and articles?  I won’t lie, the lede has long been my weak point, but those who can’t do teach, so the saying goes.

What Are Ledes and Why Should I Care?

Even before the Internet, you had to convince people that the content you’d produced was worth reading.  In newspapers and magazines everywhere, the lede was the thing.  It had the hook, it was the reason that the rest of the article was consumed.  The lede was the Alpha and the Omega.  The lede was everything, and if you couldn’t crank one that hooked, you were doomed.

Modern web copy isn’t much different, frankly.  Now that the age of misleading headlines is ending, we have to focus on the execution of the content.  We need to remember the old rules that kept readers reading and writers in jobs.

The lede is all about starting out.  You know the story you’re going to write, so how would you explain it to someone who might be interested?  That’s all a lede is, it’s just an introduction to your content.  It’s a top hat you put on to make it all neat and tidy.  Ledes also give your content cohesion since you can easily relate your conclusion back to them, tying it all up with a pretty bow.

I could leave it at that, but you know I won’t.  There are several different kinds of ledes that journalists and magazine writers use, they can all be applied to web content, as well.  This is where I explain them:

Summary.  This is probably the most common type of lede, but it’s gross unless you’re writing hard news.  It’s dry, it just states the basic facts of the story and it’s assumed that if readers want to learn more, they’ll read on.  It’s boring.  It’s done to death.  Again, unless it’s hard news, don’t do this.  Ever.

Anecdotal.  These ledes pull in anecdotes that illustrate the point of the article.  It can be very effective if executed properly, but is often not executed properly.  An example of how to use this would be something like “There was this one time I was walking along and found a dollar on the ground.  I was thrilled, but not half as thrilled as Dr. Hammer, who found a winning Powerball ticket yesterday.”  (Lame example)

Commentary.  Be careful with these, they’re a little dangerous. Unless you’re writing an op-ed, they probably won’t work at all.  However, you can lede with your opinion on the thing if the thing is something worth having an opinion on.  Also, people have to care about your opinion.  So far you’re 0 for 2.  Try it like this:  “Many people say the ocean is wet, but they’re totally crazy pants.  I firmly believe the ocean is composed of nanobots that create a mist to produce the illusion of a body of salty water.”

Pop culture.  If you’re writing evergreen content, don’t do this.  Ever.  Otherwise, it can be pretty effective if you know what kids these days are into.  I, clearly, do not.  My pop culture example:  “Pac-Man is good at chasing ghosts and eating endless amounts of fruit and pellets, but he’s got nothing on Bob Hunter, the new hotdog eating champion.”

Paint a Picture (aka. Scene-setters).  Paint a Picture is by far my favorite lede ever, ever.  I mean, it doesn’t work everywhere, but when it works and you write it properly, it’s a beautiful thing.  Here’s an example: “Imagine, if you will, sleek red curves, deep black shades and lots of cargo space — this is just the beginning of the beauty that is the Car-O-Matic 3000.  It’s everything you’ve ever wanted, but on wheels.”  Or “Fireflies blinking in a meadow call to me, bringing me back to my homeland, back to the rolling hills and lush, green grass of the cow pasture.  The doe-eyed animals were content to ruminate over fescue and hay while my brother and I walked the path to the dark woods and the small pond it sheltered on our property.”

Hey, Why Do They Call It a Lede?

No fucking clue, dude.  I even Googled around quite a bit and couldn’t find an answer that made much sense.  The closest reasonable explanation was that “lede” was used to distinguish the beginning of a story when it was sent via wire the old fashioned way.  That way it wouldn’t get lost, I guess.  But for me, it was what I learned, so that’s how I’m teaching you.  It was good enough for journalists of the old school, with our wax burns and mad X-acto knife skills, so I’m clinging to it curmudgeonly .

Now get off my lawn.

 

Zero Kelvins, Or The Difference Between Can’t and Won’t.

Zero.  Zilch. The big donut.  This is today’s blog topic.  Why?  Because I fucking hate spoons and so we’re gonna make a logical argument that makes sense.  I don’t care if that’s what the kids are doing today or if some one is comforted by a metaphor that falls incredibly short of what it actually means to be living with one or more chronic illnesses that literally leave you unable to move, mutter or moan.

In my house, we talk about Kelvins.  According to quantum mechanics, absolute zero (defined as zero Kelvins), is the point where matter has its lowest internal energy.  All those little particles stop booping around for a while and just sorta chill.  Because ABSOLUTE zero.

More importantly, how is this at all related to this blog?  Well, fuckers, it came up as a topic of discussion in one of my favorite Facebook groups and, yaknow, being as how I’ve not been able to keep this blog going lately, I figured why not.  So today, bitches, we’re talking about Kelvins.  Fuck yer spoons.

The Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

Anyone who has worked with me anytime ever knows that I’m very bad about working myself to a point where most people fear to tread.  I’ll miss sleep, I’ll write for 24 hours straight (remember that one, hotel description team?  Good times…..), I’ll miss meals, I’ll miss out on real life.  This is a very bad habit to develop.  It means you have no room for anything else in life.

Well, when I got sick, I had to really learn how to sit on myself.  I learned the true meaning of “can’t.”  When most people say they don’t have the bandwidth or that they just can’t take on another project right now, they’re safeguarding their time.  What they really mean is that they won’t.  And it’s ok to refuse to do a thing so you can do other things.  You don’t need to spend a week in a mental ward to learn this lesson the way I did.  It’s ok to say no, in whatever polite terms you choose…. or even the not-so-polite ones, Precious Little Snowflake.  Fuck those social niceties.

But for most people, they say “can’t” when they mean “won’t.”  And this is an important distinction to make, I think.  I think it’s ok to say you won’t.  No, I won’t do the thing.  The thing is too time consuming, it’s too obnoxious, it’s too much pondering life’s deepest questions, it’s too existential dread.  The thing is a no.  And that’s the end of it.  Now I’m going to go to my intramural crochet kickboxing class.

“Can’t” is another animal.  You can’t because you literally have another thing blocking your ability to do the thing.  I can’t because I have to care for my elderly parent.  I can’t because my dog was just hit by a car and my brain is coming unglued.  I can’t because I woke up totally flatlined from tomorrow (aka. zero Kelvins).  I can’t means there’s no way whatsoever that in any possible configuration of reality you’re able to do the thing.

And “can’t” is a constant when you have zero Kelvins.  Especially when having zero Kelvins is a new thing, or you’re trying very hard to make headway in other areas and them Kelvins keep nose-divin’.  When you have a chronic illness, or a host of them, “I can’t” might happen because you had a sandwich for lunch instead of another liquid meal.  It might happen because you sat out in the sun one minute too long and now have a sunburn that is literally taking all your energy to heal.  It happens for things that don’t make sense to anyone else, and it’s often things you can’t predict. (See, proper use of “can’t”)

Avoiding Zero Kelvin for Writers and Other Home-Based Workers

Zero Kelvin is a bad place to be, especially if you’re a freelancer who took that route instead of filing for disability.  There are a lot of us, and we’re a blessed in a lot of ways.  I mean, really.  If your primary skill is digging ditches and you lose a limb — BAM — no choice but to file.  If your job is to speak in front of people all the time and you develop agoraphobia, that’s just it.

But if you write or draw or whatever, it’s a solitary thing with a set finish point.  You don’t need to be in an office, or even in pants, in order to mission accomplish.  Sure, you might be a bit slower than you were before you got sick, but you still possess that skill that can happen behind the scenes.  You can hide movement disorders behind carefully composed emails, cover mood disorders with a digital veil, you can literally do the thing without anyone being any wiser.

Not that I advocate for hiding your disability from your adoring public, but that’s an option you will always have.  As a good friend of mine wrote on social media yesterday:  “Unfortunately peopling online is different than peopling in person and I’m definitely not good at the peopling with the people in person. People.”

I think that pretty much sums it up.  Sometimes — online — you can be a whole person.  A whole person with a good job and feelings of accomplishment and whatnot.  But, in order to keep up this charade, you have to know how to avoid hitting zero Kelvin.  So, as per pretty much always, I’ve got a few tips to make your life much more betterer.

1. Focus on Work.  Working from home can be a gauntlet of temptation.  You want to take that phone call, you want to do the laundry, the dishes call you from the kitchen.  You can’t succumb to temptation.  Work time is work time, not doing chore time, not free from the kids time, not sleeping until noon time (well, sometimes it’s that, too).  So work.  Don’t do other shit.

2. Prioritize Your Workload.  Deadlines are great, they let you know which things are the most overdue so you can focus on those first.  (Seriously, don’t do that.)  When you live with chronic illness, it can be stressful to keep going.  It can be a total cry-fest in order to just move from one moment to the next.  So, prioritize things and do them in order.  First, do your blogs that are due tomorrow, then onboard that new client.  Or first research for your upcoming interview, then write about the best taco trucks in America.  Whatever.  But have a list and stick to it.  Anything that’s low priority today can be high priority tomorrow if you don’t find the bottom.

3.  Automate all you can.  I know a lot of you are still hesitant to invest in things like Buffer, HootSuite and the like in order to make your lives easier.  They’re a scam, you say.  I can post the thing when it’s time.  I say you’re a fool and you’re deceiving yourself.  Those tools are wildly popular because they make it easier and faster to do the work you’re doing by hand.  For example, I have two tools I use for social media: Feedly and Buffer.  These two together make it simple to aggregate news, schedule posts, re-schedule posts and I can do it when I’m having downtime (read that “in the bathroom”) or when I feel a little perkier.  It lets me shift my energy around, which is really all we can do to survive this life.

Look, living with a chronic illness is no fucking picnic.  I’m not gonna lie.  You’ll have to make tough decisions about when you “won’t” so that you don’t reach that wall where you simply “can’t.”  The trick is to stop before you hit zero Kelvins, even if you’re just on the brink.  That last step is a doozy and requires climbing gear to come back from — and you’re already way too fucking spent for that sort of shit.  Turning a can’t into a won’t means you live to fight another day.

 

How Does Your Writing Stack Up to the Cheesecake Factory’s Menu?

So, I was cruising the web the other day, as I am apt to do, and I came across this gem from Neil Gaiman’s blog.  The TL;DR version goes something like this: he was asked to read the Cheesecake Factory’s menu for a highly publicized charity stunt.  And that got me thinking, scratching my long luxurious lady-beard, and I wondered to myself: How would I feel if what they had chosen to read was something I had authored, even if it was ghosted.  After all, I still hold a little piece of those word babies tight to my chest and feel responsible for them for their entire lives.

Then I thought “Well, Hell, that could be a blog topic!”  So here we are.  You are now officially caught up.  Thanks for sticking with me.

How Does Your Content Read to Others?

As you probably know by now, I work with young writers from time to time, giving them whatever weak bits of advice I can come up with and generally acting like I actually know something.  One of the most common roadblocks these young’ens have is a fear of not being good enough or of being out-written by the competition.  I’m sure you’ve had this fear yourself at some point in your journey, or maybe you feel that way right now.   I’d be a liar if I said I never felt that I wasn’t as good as other writers.

But you know what?  If someone is paying you for writing on a consistent basis, you’re doing better than most.  Even those keyword-driven content monkeys are doing a better job with the words than the vast majority of the public, else the Google would have blacklisted their sites long ago.  And that, my friends, should bring you some level of comfort.  However, resting on your laurels is what’ll get my big black boot right up your ass.

You can always be better.

What if Neil was reading YOUR infomercial, blog or product descriptions for charity?  How would you feel?  Would you shrink in shame because you phoned it the fuck in and didn’t bother to actually care?

Although I’m not exactly proud of all the work I’ve done, and I’ve worked for some clients that I felt were totally fucking awful slimeballs (ambulance chasers, for example), if Neil Gaiman were to read any of those pages, any of those pieces out loud, I’d take a front seat.  I’d be like, “Them’s my words, motherfuckers, and Neil bloody Gaiman is reading them!”  And then I’d pass out.

Improving Your Content, Improving Your Mindset

There are two kinds of writers in this world.  Those that write with confidence that they’re doing all they can to produce top notch content and those who bang out random words in hopes of getting paid.  You can easily tell the difference between the two.  Writer #1 is crippled with self-doubt and reads blogs like this.  Writer #2 has no fucks to give.

You’re reading this, so I assume you’re Writer #1.  And if you’re Writer #2, maybe you sorely want to be Writer #1, so I’m giving you a pass just this once.  Charity.  Don’t get used to it.

That writer that’s wracked with guilt, that wishes they could do more, be more, learn more, get better and better, they’re the ones to watch.  And there’s a reason for this.  Not only are they meticulously checking their work for places it could be improved, they’re also spending time reading and learning, which tends to trickle down into a wider vocabulary and even better ways to turn a phrase.  Tends to.  I mean, you can’t get away with reading cereal boxes and learn anything, but I digress.  This blog is built on generalization, after all.

If you’re already doing all that stuff — the reading and the learning — well, I mean, that’s about all there is out there.  There’s no magic to good writing.  You simply learn the words, you figure out how they fit together, while demystifying punctuation and developing a sense for how people read along.  Metre is important, it’s so vital, but it’s something you pick up as you go.

So, if you’re struggling, if you’re wondering if you’re enough, and you think you’d be mortified if Neil Gaiman were to read your blog, you’ve probably alright.  A lot of it comes with experience.  You’ll learn when to hold them (keep working on a piece) and when to fold them (stop touching it and turn the motherfucker in).  You’ll learn when to walk away, you’ll learn when to run (from bad clients?  This metaphor isn’t holding up).   Write, that’s the thing.  Keep writing and keep caring.

Writing Readable Content is the Goal

There are lots of tips out there for writing clean and perfect content (it’s a fucking unicorn, stop chasing it), but there’s only one you really need.  Read that shit out loud, motherfuckers. Read it to your cat, read it to your pet barracuda, read it to the stars, but read it.  There’s only so much you can extrapolate about the flow of a thing by simply staring the words down.  You need to hear them, bring them in through your earholes and savor each umlaut.

Listening to your content is the one and only way to ensure that others will read it as you intended it.  Clear your mind and read that shit out loud.  You can break the rules, you can put an m-dash where there should be a period, provided it all flows right in the reading.  Look, I don’t know what your mother told you, but English is a language that should flow easily from the tongue, even if you’re reading a automotive parts catalog or a Cheesecake Factory menu.

I did a piece a while ago about writing by beats, and I still believe in this.  I do this every single time I write.  Do I need to write something super peppy and salesy?  Crank the happy music.  Am I writing a somber report of sadness?  Slow and steady, man.  Writing by beats is a quickie cheat to getting your metre right.  I’m very pro-cheat, or “life hack,” as we now call this shit.

What I hope you take from this blog is that you are absolutely capable of writing better content than the marketers at the Cheesecake Factory.  Your content can fucking sing if you’ll let it.  Just keep writing, just keep writing, and don’t forget to crank the jams.

I’m counting on you.  Make me proud.