Business and work Writing

Writing should take that long

I suspected I was about to hit the bottom of the pit earlier that day. By early afternoon, I was lying, broken, in a crater. The lesson (spoiler alert!): yes, writing should take that long.

I was working with much shorter writing deadlines to produce new articles than I usually have. I was sceptical that the deadlines were feasible. At the same time, I thought that if journalists could produce articles on ridiculous deadlines, I should be able to do the marketing writing equivalent.

I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

Bending space-time while writing

I started my morning at a sprint. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to say in the article and I was determined to meet the new deadline: researching and writing a medium length opinion piece in a standard working day (effectively 5 to 7 hours).

I finished the initial piece an hour or two over my deadline and shared it with my manager to review. She read it the next day and we discussed it shortly after lunch when I was in the middle of another article-in-a-day.

Well-written crap

The critique of my article began with my manager saying she couldn’t quite understand what I was saying. I wasn’t too disturbed by this because I wrote the article a little more creatively than usual.

When we discussed more of her comments it became clear that the facts and assumptions which I relied on to make my point were utterly irrelevant and devoid of any practical value as parts of a case study.

There was no doubt: I had produced well-written crap.

Writing isn’t easy, there is a process

The challenge is an expectation that it shouldn’t take long to write a clear, insightful and effective article about some or other business topic. By “clear, insightful and effective”, I mean that the article should have certain qualities:

  • It should be well-written and easy to understand;
  • The article should contain more than a simple reporting of its subject matter. It should contain something interesting and, well, insights into some valuable aspect of the topic; and
  • The article should fulfil its purpose which, in my case, is to attract prospective clients to our blog and persuade them to sign up to use our products.

ThatDasia, aka Patricia, described the problem nicely in her blog post titled “Are Writers the Most Disrespected Creatives?”:

On the surface, our job is something everyone learns to do when they’re seven.

Everyone who gives us work can write (they write briefs, don’t they?)

Everyone who pays us can write (they send us emails, don’t they?)

Everyone uses words, but the heartbreaking thing (to me) is that most don’t care about them.

Everyone writes. But not everyone is a writer.

Surely it shouldn’t take more than a couple hours to research a compelling topic, write a brilliant piece of between 500 and 750 words that converts targeted prospective customers into paying customers? They’re just words. Writing is easy. Writers just sit there in front of their screens typing stuff. How hard can it be?

Something like that, right?

Here is the thing: what seems like the simplest of tasks is really not that easy. We just make it look easy because most of the work occurs in our heads.

Perhaps if there were tears, strained muscles and blood seeping out of our ears, it may be easier to perceive the difficulty involved? Thankfully writing doesn’t usually have that sort of physiological effect but you can pretend it does if it helps.

Picking the topic takes time

For me, finding the topic is the first step. Some people like to sit and brainstorm 10 articles about 3, 7 or 10 things prospective customers absolutely must read to make it to their next meal and thrive.

That sort of approach can be useful if you have interesting topics in mind already but I much prefer researching what is going on in my industry and identifying relevant, topical themes. That takes time because it involves a lot of reading and processing.

Then, once I have a topic I find more information relevant to my topic. Other perspectives, data to work into funky infographics and quotes to inspire and amaze. That also takes time because it also requires me to test my hypothesis against what is actually going on in the world.

My well-written piece of crap skipped this stage and that came through pretty strongly on review.

Putting words on a page

The most visible part of the work is when I start typing. This is when observers can see Progress happening. If it looks like there are a lot of words on a screen then it means Things Are Happening. This is a risky time for us writers, though.

The process of writing the article is a lot like that metaphor used for launching a business: you leap off the cliff with your materials and build your plane on the way down with the goal of powered flight before you hit the ground.

Writing isn’t a mechanical process. At least good writing isn’t. Just producing words in some sort of coherent form isn’t enough.

You always have to keep the article’s flow or story in mind and keep it all consistent. Add to that all the keywords, phrases and links that we like to include in marketing writing and it can be a lot to keep track of.

All of this while appearing to Make Progress.

For bonus points: picking the winning headline

The Experts say you should dedicate about as much time to writing a great headline as you do writing the actual article. The reason for this is that your article’s headline is your hook to capture your prospective reader’s attention (and Google’s).

I don’t spend nearly as much time as the Experts say I should when I come up with a headline. I can image the consternation if I sat there at my desk with a largely complete article and a blank headline field for a couple hours while I appear to stare blankly out the window.

Yes, it really should take that long

Once the article is done, a brilliant headline formulated and it is all paired with great images (that is another process in itself); the article you spent A Lot of Time working on has to perform. It has to have the right combination of keywords, headline and other mystical stuff to draw the crowds.

Remember the movie “Field of Dreams”? “Build it and they will come”? It’s a lot like that except this isn’t a baseball field on a farm somewhere. It is one of a gazillion articles published on the Web that day, many of which are written by other marketing writers aiming for the same audience with a very limited attention span.

Somehow our article has to reach through the noise and grab our audience’s attention. We then have to hold their attention long enough for some of them to invest their time in our companies.

Achieving that is part marketing technique, part talent and part luck. The proportions vary but our talent as writers, as a storytellers, is what will persuade prospective customers to become actual customers. Actual customers are convinced by our stories that what we offer holds the key to their success. Our marketing technique and luck show them the way and, perhaps, open the door. We still have to help them believe, to see the light.

No production lines here

That takes time and it isn’t something that can be simply cranked out on a production line like engine parts.

These creations we give birth to on keyboards (there’s an image for you) must find their way across the Internet, blind, and connect with someone who may have no idea who we are or what our companies offer. It must then persuade that person to take the time to listen to us and, more than that, trust us enough to sign up and pay our employers money.

That requires more than pounding a series of keys to produce 500 to 750 grammatically correct words. It requires insight, creativity and talent.

It also requires time.

How much time is required for for clear, intelligible, insightful and effective writing, you may ask? Easy, as much time as is needed. No more and no less.

So, yes, writing should take that long.

Image credit: Kaboompics


Insanity or a new model?

I just read this in Seth Godin’s post titled “Time for a new model?”:

The thing is, when your model doesn’t match reality (when you have trouble predicting how your investments will do, whether a sales call will resonate, whether a presentation will work, whether a new hire will work out) it’s tempting to blame reality.

What is that old adage about insanity and doing the same thing over and over?


“… you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.”

Ever notice how we fixate on how we think things should be and our attachment to that expectation just causes frustration and anxiety when things don’t actually turn out the way we expected?

What would happen if we let go of that attachment and adapted to the circumstances we find ourselves in instead? I came across this quote recently which expresses this idea really nicely. It is apparently by Heather Hepler from her book, The Cupcake Queen, and it mirrors a philosophy of letting go of our attachments to things because those attachments cause suffering.

At some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.

The crab in my photo is another reminder of why it can be so important to let go. We came across this crab at the Tel Aviv Port. It was hanging from a fishing line and that probably wasn’t where it intended to be when it began its day. I have no idea what passed through its mind (to the extent it has one) but I’d like to think it shifted its focus to its survival and didn’t lament how it just didn’t expect to be caught by the fisherman and hauled out of the water.

It cut the line moments after I took this photo and dropped under the boardwalk to the water below.

Blogs and blogging Mindsets Writing

Blogging with less pressure

Gina Trapani published her rules for blogging in her post about “Short-form blogging” which reminded me about an anxiety I still seem to have about blogging: if I’m not going to write a really substantive post, I shouldn’t bother. One of her rules is this one:

If it’s a paragraph, it’s a post. Medium-sized content gets short shrift these days. Don’t go long. One or two paragraphs count. Then press publish.

I don’t know why I feel this need to write long posts that are researched, reasoned and detailed but that compulsion has probably ruined many post ideas through my associated procrastination. Perhaps if I just let go on that need to fill a page with my words, blogging would be more integral to my expressive life.

As for the rest of Trapani’s rules, well, I don’t agree with all of them. I have pages with static content and I have a number of plugins in my WordPress installations. I even keep an eye on traffic to my sites (it’s hardly worth mentioning but useful because it tells me what people find more interesting).

Anyway, this post is starting to run on a little so I’ll just end this one off here and save my other thoughts for another, shorter-form blog post.

Business and work Events and Life Mindsets

A father's advice to his daughter about words in magazines and make-up aisles


I came across this terrific letter Dr Kelly Flanagan wrote to his daughter in a blog post titled “Words from a father to his daughter (from the makeup aisle)” which I want our daughter to hear when she is old enough to affected by them.

Two paragraphs really stood out for me:

When you have a daughter you start to realize she’s just as strong as everyone else in the house—a force to be reckoned with, a soul on fire with the same life and gifts and passions as any man. But sitting in this store aisle, you also begin to realize most people won’t see her that way. They’ll see her as a pretty face and a body to enjoy. And they’ll tell her she has to look a certain way to have any worth or influence.
… and this next one which, aside from the bit about fingernails, is advice we could all benefit from:

Brilliant strength. May your strength be not in your fingernails but in your heart. May you discern in your center who you are, and then may you fearfully but tenaciously live it out in the world.
Thanks to Daniella for sharing this on Facebook.

Mindsets Mobile Tech Social Web

From privacy to publicity and the #JugCam debate

The #JugCam debate is a minefield and its probably not a good idea for anyone other than a woman feminist to say or write anything about it. Any perspective other than a feminist one is sure to be as incorrect as any answer to the dreaded “Do I look fat in this?” question.

If you haven’t discovered the #JugCam meme yet, its pretty simple. The idea is to tweet photos of women in bikini tops at cricket matches in an effort to spice up the game a bit. I believe the person who came up with this idea is person tweeting as @followthebounce (almost certainly a guy). A couple guys responded to the idea with tweeted photos of women at cricket matches in bikini tops. One or two photos were of women who posed, a couple were women in the crowd and a number were screen grabs from the TV feed.

Fleabeke: I don't usually start argu ...

I went back a bit and as far as I can tell, the woman tweeting as @Fleabeke sounded a call to action against the #JugCam meme and declared her intention to fight it. A number of people (primarily women) joined the Twitter protest against the meme on the basis that it is illegal (I doubt it); exploits women; encourages photos of women’s breasts being published without their knowledge and consent and is downright sleazy. Intellectually I understand some of the arguments and where they come from. To me the arguments against #JugCam resonate a little with some of the ideas behind the Slut Walk movement (my favorite slogan is “Its a dress, not a yes”). I don’t really agree with the protest against #JugCam.

I am going to throw what I am certain will be an unpopular argument against the wall. As the Twitter debate evidences, we live in a time when we are increasingly online, socially connected and capable of publishing a dizzying amount of content on the Web for virtually anyone to see. This is not new. We’re had the ability to take photos with out phones and upload those images to the Web for several years now. As more people use more capable smart devices we will share even more of our daily experiences online. Often this sharing will be inappropriate and perhaps even malicious. For the most part people will just share stuff because they can. We are getting to a point where you can’t go anywhere without seeing smartphones or other devices being used to take photos, record video and publish that content to sites you have no control over.

When it comes to the #JugCam meme (which is an organized version of what guys have probably been doing at sports events for some time now), we have to start making decisions about how we behave in such a connected world. I know how this next bit sounds but I think it has to be said and really does have some merit as an argument: women who wear bikini tops at public sports events like cricket matches must be aware that their photos could be taken and uploaded for broader consumption. I’m not saying its ok for that to happen, it is a little creepy, but it happens. Arguing that people (ok, men) shouldn’t be allowed to do this in public spaces without express permission is a little disingenuous. If a woman is opposed to being photographed in a bikini top and having her photo published online then she should reconsider wearing a bikini top at these events. Women should also be free to express outrage at their photo being published and demand that it be removed but whether that actually happens will likely come down to a decision based on the rights to freedom of expression, dignity and privacy being weighed up. I suspect the legal position will be something along the following lines: women in public wearing bikini tops have no real legitimate expectation of privacy when they are in public and can’t complain if their photo is taken and published online, particularly where they are aware that this could (and does) occur.

@magependragon: Giggling at #JugCam outcry ...

As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, this debate is a minefield. It includes elements of historical gender-based discrimination and objectification. It touches on how men, generally, tend to treat women as means to satisfy their own desires without consideration for women’s feelings and sensibilities. It also touches on notional privacy issues and the idea that “its a dress, not a yes” (although there is no suggestion that taking photos of women in bikini tops and tweeting the photos is directly and necessarily linked to sexual assault). Another argument is that women should bear in mind that wearing a bikini at a public and televised cricket match can draw attention from smartphone toting guys who have an impulse control problem.

I think our privacy norms are changing and we are becoming accustomed to being a little more public. I also think the vocal feminists on Twitter are going a little too far with their protest. They’re entitled to oppose what they view as offensive but its practically fashionable to assume we don’t live in a world where people don’t always behave with utmost respect and where women (justifiably) dress as they please but in a fictional world where doing so doesn’t attract any unwelcome attention, whatever that may be (it still amazes me how men are expected to just know what is appropriate behaviour and what isn’t without being given much guidance and I’m not talking about obviously offensive comments, touching and assaults – those guidelines are pretty well established).

The Web and all its bits and pieces have changed how we live our lives and relate to each other. We have to start making more decisions about our publicity levels and act accordingly. Perhaps women who object to being photographed in bikini tops at cricket matches shouldn’t wear bikini tops at those matches. Perhaps people should be discouraged from taking the photos of bikini clad women in the first place so women feel more comfortable wearing less at these matches for whatever reason. Or perhaps we should reassess our norms when it comes to our privacy expectations and publich sharing on the Web.