You need poetry in your posts

What the world really needs is poetry in posts. Seriously. Keep in mind, when we use the word poetry we usually mean it in one of two ways.

There is the very technical use when we are talking about something like a Shakespearean sonnet. But there is also the much more common use, in the general population, where it refers to really damn well done communication.

When it is damn well done communication it often uses metaphors, similes and analogies. It uses examples and descriptive language without going overboard. It creates images that communicate sense and makes what we read relatable and understandable.

Bald facts are boring. And they’re often difficult to wrap your head around. But poetry, in a very broad sense, makes them clear and drives home their meaning. Let’s try an example to see if I can communicate this notion.

I could write a post that would have the merit of being brief by simply writing, “Before any public speaking engagement, it is important to go to the bathroom beforehand.”

Or, I could write this:

About 45 minutes into my two hour lecture before 1,000 students at the University of Ottawa, I crossed my legs. Roughly five minutes later, I crossed them more tightly.

Not long after, perhaps five minutes, I began to perspire freely although the room was climate controlled and quite pleasant. Unfortunately, I had to pee. And I had about 50 more minutes to go at the lectern.

As it turned out, I humiliated myself by peeing my pants before a thousand eyes and thus learned my lesson: always pee before a public engagement!

Imagery conveys meaning and imagery is often the element that adds poetry to a post, in the sense I’m using the word.

Why would a news network send someone to a place devastated by an earthquake when they can simply say it registered 7.9 and over 500 people lost their lives? It costs money to send people all around the world. But the data doesn’t quite convey the meaning. Images of people and structures ravaged by the event do. It makes the event relatable and understandable.

So put some poetry in your posts. Make it mean something to me and everyone else.

Put another way, try telling a story that makes your message vivid.

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.

The only reason I have a job

I know a bit about a lot of things but I can’t really claim to be an expert on any level except in the area of stringing words together. Although I have had positions that involved technical work (audio engineer, radio ad producer, a degree of coding for web sites), I’ve only managed to keep working because of one thing: my English degree.

I’ve never been very good at explaining its value to me. Fortunately, David Brooks has in a New York Times Column: History for Dollars.

“Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

“Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.”

I’m not sure other people always see how dependent understanding our technology is on language. I tried to explain one aspect of it a while ago in Metaphors and similes: like bling for words.

Brooks’ column does a much better job of explaining the importance of such things. I recommend everyone read it.

It helps to explain why I’ve managed to keep working.

You write like a woman

We tend to define certain qualities as male and female, perhaps as a result of being in the west with its long tradition of patriarchy.

The sun is male; the moon female. Tough and hard is male; soft and comforting is female. Austere is male; ornate female.

It carries over to writing. When it is linear and relatively unadorned, it is masculine. When it breathes and is somewhat lyrical, it is feminine.

Speaking very broadly, in blog posts and articles when I come across something that flatly makes a statement then lists points, often in bulleted form, if I have to guess I’d guess a man wrote it and more often than not I would be right. Not all the time, of course, but the odds would be in my favour.

If I come across a blog that is a bit more wordy, uses more adjectives, similes and metaphors – a bit more conversational – I’d guess a woman wrote it and the odds of being right are again in my favour.

This difference isn’t necessarily so. It just seems to be so more than half the time.

Is this an accurate perception? I don’t know. It may simply be a cultural bias on my part that causes me to see in a certain way.

But I can’t help thinking men and women, in a very general way, communicate differently. And frankly, women appear to be better at it than men.

What it really comes down to, however, is a spectrum. On one end, there is the extreme we describe as male. At the other, the extreme we call female. We all fall somewhere in between, each with varying degrees of male and female in our writing.

It’s not that one kind of writing actually is male; it’s just more commonly found in men. The reverse is also true. The other kind isn’t actually female; it’s just more commonly found in women.

Is this true?

If so, why?

If not, why would I perceive it in this way? (Am I simply the victim of cultural clichés?)

Related Links:

Note the gender of this post:

Using the Gender Genie (see link above), I ran this post through and discovered it was male, though just slightly. I also ran my post from yesterday, Can we choose to be creative? (over on Thoughtwrestling) and found it was also male, though much more strongly so.

On the other hand, I also ran one of my short stories, I’ve never been to Pasadena, and discovered it was female. I also ran another story, one I’m currently working on, and it was also female.

What am I to conclude from this? I’m male when I write non-fiction; I’m female when I write fiction. Apparently I’m like the rest of the world: confused.

Metaphors and similes like bling for words

We use metaphors and similes every day. The web is built on them. The web itself is a metaphor. Well, it began as a metaphor. Given the meanings of web, I suppose it is an actual web. So I guess it isn’t a metaphor.

As you can see, thinking about metaphors and similes can muddle up your mind. It has always muddled mine.

Similes compare two things, suggesting similarities. Metaphors also compare but usually in a way that suggests they are same – no differences – with the sneaky goal of startling you into saying, “Huh?” and then realizing there are similarities between two different things.

“The storm bellowed and havocked across the sky like an angry bowler.” Wow – that sentence has a metaphor and a simile! (I think. I’m never sure.)

I find similes easier to wrap my thinking around than metaphors. Simplistically, if the word “like” is in there, it’s a simile. It’s a comparison. Unless you are saying I like Susan or I like Martin. Then you’re using the word “like” with one of its other meanings. (Words are so confusing – especially if they are English words.)

Why do we use metaphors and similes? Given how confusing it gets trying to figure out what they are and which is which, don’t they just make a dog’s breakfast of writing?

You could argue they are linguistic bling. What we write can be so bland without some razzle dazzle to liven it up. What better than a metaphor here, a simile there? They prettify our writing. They’re attention grabbers.

That’s what they’re there for, isn’t it?

To a degree, yes. But their main purpose is to clarify and convey meaning. Take the storm example above: Storms don’t bellow and they don’t bowl, crossly or any other way. But by referring to the storm that way, you have a better sense for the storm. It was a thunderstorm and it was noisy.

I love similes because they come very easily to me. When I write or speak, I don’t have to think about them. They’re like popcorn popping in my head. The only real work for me is separating the good ones from the bad.

Metaphors are different, however. I have to stop and think about those. I’ve never been good at them. I have to think, “How do they work? Is it this way, or is it that way?” Then it gets very muddy because I start thinking, “But isn’t that just another simile? Or maybe it’s an analogy?”

And then I have metaphors and similes and analogies and I can’t distinguish one from the other – all because I had to stop and think about metaphors.

So my preference is for similes.

But getting back to meaning … If someone has no idea of what the Internet is and what it does, you might say, “There are computers all over the world and they connect to one another. When they do, it is like a web.” Immediately the person who knows nothing of the Internet has a good fundamental sense of what it is. It’s far from complete, but it is basic and the building block to communicating a fuller idea.

When metaphors and similes are on their game, they communicate immediately. They facilitate understanding.

That’s something bling doesn’t do.