The editor steps in again

It’s been unusually quiet at Writelife. You can blame the editor for that. I have three posts unpublished because the editor has nixed them. Yes, the editor is me. The editor is a self-editor.

What was wrong with the posts? They were cranky. Whiny. The tone was all bitchiness.

The editor doesn’t like that. Not when that is all that’s being generated. There is nothing wrong with those kinds of posts. Some people have huge followings because they’ve made a point of finding things to complain and rant about. But I tire of reading those kinds of things quickly and soon find them more annoying than anything. Not wishing to become that kind of blog, my editor politely declines such posts.

I have been posting, however. But I’ve been doing it at my other site, Piddleville, a site about movies — another form of storytelling.

I’m fascinated by storytelling, have little more to add on the subject of it, but have all kinds of enthusiasm for stories, which movies are.

But here on Writelife? Today’s original post (declined by the editor) was about the why behind the lengthy silence. It may show up following a rewrite but for now the explanation it contained sounded too whiny. So the editor said, “No.”

I have to go back to Seth Godin. He manages to post every day. He’s able to because he knows each post needn’t be a book, lengthy essay, dissertation. They are often so short you wonder if it’s a post or a headline. But there is value in each one.

I must learn how to do that.Православни икони

My most popular posts in 2010

I took a look at my analytics to see what posts were the most popular here during the year. And I made a list of them.

I find it interesting looking back at the past year to see that my focus on social media drooped a bit somewhere during the summer as my focus was taken up by the idea of stories and storytelling. That focus persists. I wonder how far into 2011 it will linger?

As for the most popular, my favourites from the list would be #6 and #8, and maybe #3.

Top Writelife posts in 2010

  1. Metaphors and similes like bling for words
  2. How to waste your time effectively
  3. How Kurt Vonnegut defined social media: connection precedes communication
  4. Social media basics for a small business
  5. Guidelines vs. rules: bamboozled by bullets
  6. Lose the model: everything is a story
  7. Repetition is good so it’s good to repeat ourselves
  8. Words and how they sound
  9. Seth Godin on linchpins, focus, spreading stories
  10. Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘What the Dog Saw’ – a review

Note: This list is not entirely accurate. The top post was one titled, Joni and Bob; poets and thieves. I chose to leave it off the list because it was an aberration. It was linked from a Bob Dylan fan site and the numbers went through the roof.

Respect customers and yourself

(This was first posted Sept. 18, 2004.)

In the various blogs I visit, and in other sources, I continually come across discussions about customers and their experience of businesses, large and small. One of the themes that pops up frequently is respect, as in Seth Godin’s recent posting, Trust and Respect, Courage and Leadership.

You would think it would be easy to remember since we’re all customers. The old saying about treating others the way we would want to be treated is perfectly fitting here. And the key is almost always respect.

It’s amazing how flexible and forgiving people are when treated respectfully. Equally amazing is how much they would like to see us succeed when we treat them that way.

But there is another aspect to the matter of respect and that is self-respect.

In the context of business, success is generally about profits and “growing” the business. But how you go about achieving this relates to respect.

If simply making money were the point, we’d all be dealing drugs. To some degree, how we succeed, and what we succeed at are relevant to self-respect.

This isn’t to suggest we should all be out pursuing altruistic ends in our quest for business success. But self-respect easily translates to respect for customers. If you take pride in what you do and how you do it, it’s much easier to capitalize on the benefits of treating customers well.

It’s hard to sell shoddy products or deliver poor customer support when you take pride in what you do. Where problems exist, it’s much easier to identify and fix those problems because you’re alert for anything that may have an impact on how you or your business are perceived.

And it’s also much easier to generate the viral effects of word-of-mouth when this applies.

You attract better and more enthusiastic employees when you operate in this fashion because this is something they, too, are looking for – pride in their work. Some self-respect.

In Seth’s post, he says:

We substituted a new set of ethics, one built around “buyer beware” and the letter of the law. Marketers, in order to succeed in a competitive marketplace, decided to see what they could get away with instead of what they could deliver.

I’ve seen this in practice and it occurs to me that what happens, at least on an individual level, is a confusion of ends and means. We want to succeed – we’re urged constantly to do so. And we’re rewarded for success – the ends.

But self respect is about the means. How you succeed is just as important as the success itself. And I believe long term, ongoing success is dependent on the means. You may bamboozle people once; it’s unlikely you’ll do so twice or a third time.

I think as a group customers are a pretty jaded, cynical bunch these days due to the treatment they’ve received from many businesses. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Surprising them with respectful treatment can be the foundation to genuine success, the kind that continues.

But respect for others is a hard thing to fake. It begins with self respect and if you aren’t operating with it, your long term success is in jeopardy.

‘Emotions are contagious’

I wrote a review of a book I’m currently rereading, Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison. (You’ll find it over at Thoughtwrestling.) This morning, I was looking over a chapter titled “Throwing up rockets,” a phrase from P.T. Barnum and it started me thinking about a few other things, like school murals in Arizona and the popularity of social media.

In the chapter, Jamison says, “Emotions are contagious,” which is what the chapter is about. She continues to say, “Emotions are part of the social glue of our immensely social species, elemental to the reverberating emotional circuitry that compels us at times to pull together and at others disperse.”

I believe this is true. As a joke, I sometimes say of myself, “I’m a parasite; I feed off the energy of others.” It’s accurate, however. Even something as basic as cleaning the house is affected. On my own, it’s a slow drudge. With someone else, a someone with the kind of energy to “just get it done,” I’m a completely different person. I’m engaged and determined to “just get it done.”

One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of Thoughtwrestling was the community aspect: of the contributors but also of the readers and participants who engage with the site. It’s self-serving in a sense. The enthusiasm of others fuels my own.

Schools and murals and social media

So what has this to do with the brouhaha over a mural in Arizona? From my perspective, it is an example of public lunacy. It’s destructive and contrary to want the United States promotes itself as being about. Roger Ebert asks, How do they get to be that way? He wonders how people get caught up in the anger and hate that informs this issue.

Emotions are contagious. It isn’t just positive emotions that infect us; negative ones do too, particularly anger when it is loud and animated and appears to echo some fear or insecurity we share. It spreads and it amplifies. The next thing you know, you get a public debacle over a mural.

I think the contagious nature of emotions also explains much of the Internet’s history, and social media in particular. It explains the popular term, “crowdsourcing.” The reward/pleasure area of our brain is stimulated with every new comment, every new follower, every retweet, every new Facebook friend.

We go to blogs and discussion forums and meet like-minded people, people who share our interests and enthusiasms. And those enthusiasms are amplified and spread. Quite often, too, there is one person or group of people leading those larger discussions – moderators, editors, blog owners — and they exhibit some level of emotion that we pick up.

Seth Godin and his blog is a great example. He’s very enthusiastic; very positive; often very emotional. And it spreads. It’s communicated and infects others.

This is the social media equation: emotion plus people equals social media.

And that’s why it is so big.

Guidelines vs. rules: bamboozled by bullets

It is not enough to be able to read. You have to know how to read. In other words, it requires some critical thinking. The internet is a good example, especially when it comes to the difference between guidelines and rules.

A lot of online material concerns ways to do things: tips, how to’s, and rules. When creating material like this we inevitably want people to read it. We want them to visit the site. We want a return on our investment.

We want numbers.

That’s normal. Sometimes we want the numbers because they can translate into revenue. Sometimes we simply want the satisfaction of knowing people have seen and hopefully read what we put our effort into.

So we often present what we have to say as rules. Sometimes we do so explicitly. “Ten rules for writing effective copy.” Sometimes we do it implicitly by calling them tips. In both cases, we often put them in bullet form.

The problem with bullets

In speaking of Powerpoint presentations (“Powerpoint makes us stupid”–these bullets can kill), Seth Godin states the problem of bullet points: they look like gospel even when they aren’t.

  • bullets are always simple
  • bullets are always true
  • bullets are true because they are simple
  • anything simple must be true

As Seth points out, these are true because they look like they are true — even when they are not. They appear to have authority because they are:

  • simple
  • direct
  • easy

The problem is that, even when they are true, they are not always true. They are guidelines masquerading as rules. The truth is that context determines whether they are accurate or not. As a reader, therefore, you have to be aware of this and think of them critically.

Bullets are an organizational device

Bullets are a tool we use to chunk thoughts into categories. When we use bullets in number from, it is implied that they are sequential.

The chunks we present as bullets are really executive summaries. Each represents a much more detailed account of what they are about. And all should be accompanied by an asterisk that leads to a note saying, “This is often true but not always.”

Brevity is important online. Bullets help us to be brief. However, they are never the whole story.

As a reader, you have a responsibility to read what is presented and to know when and where what you read applies. This isn’t to say what you read is wrong; it is often correct – but not always. Your responsibility is to look at it critically, put it in the context of your situation, and then determine if it applies or not.

If you take them as easy, one-size-fits-all road maps, you’ll eventually find yourself lost.

Publish or perish: the lessons of Scheherazade

Cover of "Tales from the Arabian Nights" - a book comprised of selected stories from "The Tales of One Thousand Nights and a Night."

Scheherazade told one thousand and one stories over one thousand and one nights for good reason – to stay alive.

Her chief lesson is simple: publish or perish. Actually, in her case, it was also publish and perish – maybe.

It wasn’t enough for her to simply tell a tale.

It had to be good.

But at its core her lesson is simply that what you do – write, film, paint, create products, provide a service – is useless if it doesn’t get out there.

Seth Godin talks about this a lot, borrowing a phrase attributed to Steve Jobs: “Real artists ship.”

Teller of tales

Scheherazade is a storyteller, perhaps the greatest of them all given the circumstances of the telling and the ingenuity of the telling and of the tales. She is the teller of The One Thousand and One Nights.

Her situation was simple: tell a tale that engages the King or face beheading in the morning.

That’s some kind of motivation!

To stay alive, she told a tale each night for one thousand and one nights. Realizing she had to keep the King engaged by the tales, she would conclude as the dawn arrived with a hook that left him wanting more. He was left asking, “What happened next?” To find out, he had to wait till the next night and therefore could not have Scheherazade killed.

Scheherazade’s situation is a perfect analogy for creativity. It’s not enough to dream it; you must produce it. It’s not enough to produce it; you must produce it well. It’s not enough to do it once; you must do it again.

Or perish.

Scheherazade’s lessons:

It seems to me you can list the lessons of Scheherazade and discover there are six:

  1. Publish or perish
  2. Publish and you may perish anyway
  3. Ensure your audience asks, “What happens next?”
  4. Make it as good as possible but don’t linger because …
  5. You must publish again tomorrow (or perish)
  6. Perfect gets you killed

You can take these lessons as intimidating reasons for abandoning your book, movie, or product development. You can try to find something much safer. However, you may find “safe” is no more safe than “unsafe.”

On the other hand, you can take these lessons with a sense of relief; they remove some of the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect.

While we tinker and tweak on one idea to make it perfect, we have to remember that the time spent doing so is time we are not spending on the next idea (which could be a much better one).

Whatever we do is never just about what we’re doing. It is also about what we are not doing. Time spent here is time not spent there. At some point we have to move on, regardless.

Art that doesn’t matter

Art that doesn’t ship is art that doesn’t matter. Products that never hit the shelves are products that do not matter. Services that don’t get up and running are services that do not matter.

Publish or perish. Publish and take your lumps if it isn’t perfect then publish the next thing with lessons learned. Publish and publish again. Repeat.

You can take a breather after one thousand and one nights.


The ideas in this post are taken from three books:

  1. The Friday Book by John Barth, essays on literature, and
  2. Linchpin: Are You Indispensible? by Seth Godin, and
  3. The Thousand and One Nights by Scheherazade

I first came across the phrase “publish or perish” in John Barth’s essay, Getting Oriented. And yes, I know Scheherazade is fictional but it’s a lovely fiction so I attribute authorship of the Nights to her.