Tag Archives: freelance writer

Why We Tell Stories: Some Recommended Reading

27 Sep

For those searching for the most effective way to lose weight, the most accurate advice is often the most sobering: eat well and exercise. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard this in one form or another, yet many—most—Americans struggle to reach their weight loss goals. The primary reason for this failure, I believe, lies in the individual’s lack of effort to research what it actually means to “eat well.”

As a young writer I was presented a similar reality: I’ll never become a good writer if I don’t read. With my choice to be a writer came my dedication to understanding narrative: I not only continue to read numerous works of fiction, news articles, literary journalism pieces, film scripts, digressive essays, editorials, and blogs, but I read about them.

This includes a wide range of studies and references: from the tedium of style manuals to the convolutions of literature theory. There’s a lot of them. Believe me. Just visit Virginia’s Woolf’s corner in the library—there are more books about her books than the ones with her name in the byline. And as far as style guides and manuals go? Forget about it. (MLA, Chicago, AP, APA, Oxford, Fowler’s, The Elements of Style, and many more.)

After reading a bit of what I know is good for me, I let my intellectual compass take over. Recently that dial has shifted my interest in storytelling from how to why.

Understanding our need for storytelling

Assertions about the epistemological power of storytelling are nothing new—they’re as old as Aristotle—but explaining this uniquely human function through academic disciplines other than lit theory or classic rhetoric studies (you know, the ones on the other side of the campus tracks, in the science department)  is exciting to me. It just feels very 21st century.

If you’re interested, here are a couple of  works to get you started:

 The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall

It makes sense that I needed help finding this at Barnes and Noble. Who would know to look for a book about the art of fiction in the anthropology section?

Right now this is the most popular book on the subject. In it Jonathan Gottschall draws his insight  from a wide range of concentrations—psychology, history, literature, neurology, biology, and pro wrestling—but it’s his fun and colorful writing style (in his New York Times review, David Eagleman calls it “jaunty”) that keeps me interested.

He engages me as a reader so well (by keeping me interested in the story of Man and Story), I forget that he’s trying to make an argument at all. The classic ingredients most Westerners—the most scrupulous being scientists—expect from an argument (claims, support, etc.) are there, but because they’re so cleverly embedded in layers of story we often might not notice them. Gottschall knows that we (as readers) will give his “ink people” life, filling in the blanks of his arguments, because—as humans—that’s what we do.

On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd

For a scientific civilian like me, this book stands in as a great survey course for everything evolutionary (evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, etc). Compared to Gottschall’s book, however, On the Origin of Stories takes some effort to get through—Boyd provides more thorough accounts of support.

While Boyd does spend ample time away from art and stories in order to earn not only the warrants for his claims but also the claims made by social scientists to explain human behavior through evolutionary concepts like adaptations, I find it worth the effort.

One of those claims comes from an evolutionary psychologist who predicts that in another half-century all psychology departments will have a portrait of Darwin on the wall—Boyd has me convinced that Mr. Darwin’s shaggy beard could adorn the offices of English professors as well.

Ask Questions Now; Write Later

11 Sep

In the 2010 HBO documentary Public Speaking, Fran Lebowitz observes that when she gives public readings and is subjected to Q and A sessions, she often receives what she calls “answers from the audience.” These participants use the format as a way to prove something to her and the rest of the audience—ostensibly, to prove that they, themselves, are worthy, smart, and deserve to be lifted to or beyond the status of the orator.

Movie trailer for Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary of Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking.

This idea is followed in other spheres—in many professional settings—where its players obey the adage, Fake it ‘till you make it. While I understand the usefulness of such wisdom, I would say that if practiced without limit, the approach becomes a sickness, a harsh side effect to unfettered competition.

Acting like we know more than we do is often an exercise of insecurity. (The same goes for under-selling our abilities, by the way.) If our actions are overwhelmingly motivated by insecurities, nothing really gets done. The Fake it ‘till you make it philosophy, therefore, is inefficient.

Practicing Humility is Not Just a Moral Social Convention

It’s an essential quality for a writer, or for anybody who needs to process new ideas and situations. Personally, I do this by suppressing my impulse to avoid looking ignorant: I ask a lot of questions, ones to which I don’t know the answers.

This skill of absorbing information not only helps me understand how to perform in new professional settings but it serves me on any given project. I listen now, I ask questions now—risk sounding stupid now—and as a project materializes into a final product or presentation, a creative director or a client or a coworker will witness the benefits of this strategy (and stop wondering if there’s a hole in my brain).

It’s a journalist trick: if I have the courage to play dumb, I can solicit much more thorough accounts of a problem, story, or situation. Spending extra time to understand these elements at the beginning of a project serves the quality of the results.

Good Writing is Still Valuable

30 Aug

Image thanks to freedigitalphotos.net

Those who don’t consider themselves good writers (or have never studied the craft) often fail to understand what that means: What makes good writing? No typos? Proper grammar? It should sound professional? Or maybe just natural, like the way people really talk? The best answer to these questions (and perhaps others like them) is disappointing:  It just depends.

Good writing is not a phenomenon—it’s a process, fueled by work. Much of it takes place before the fingers hit the keyboard, or the pen the notepad. Every piece of writing is created for a reason, a way to communicate something:  it persuades, informs, entertains, brags, consoles, requests, sells, influences, and tries not to waste people’s precious time. Before a writer can make something good (or, more accurately, effective) he has to understand the rhetorical situation: what he’s trying to do with his message and how he can do it (a simplified explanation).

Also disappointing for amateur writers is the idea that the work does not end there. Those who prepare well (in a word, research) assume the writing should then come easy, and sometimes it does. But as a trained writer, I understand how to manage my frustrations as part of my process. Hemingway had a mantra for this: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

After I write, I rewrite, polish, and then repeat the process. Before the deadline, I walk away only to return to it as an objective reader (so to speak), which is when I notice other things it needs or doesn’t need. I cut, cut, cut out all the clutter—even sentences or paragraphs I may have once thought were clever or funny or just soundedgood (the disciplined editor calls this “drowning your kittens”), deeming them unnecessary to the original goal and situation.

What’s the Big Idea?

29 Aug

Something recently got into the main water supply on college campuses:  young creatives now assume they can flourish in the marketing and advertising world solely on their Big Ideas. While it’s true that some professionals do, most don’t.

We’ve been exposed to a century of Big Ideas, and recently, with our attention almost completely shifted to the internet, witnessed new ones rise and fall and then rise again at unprecedented speeds—the temptation to find the next Big Idea is now extremely attractive.

Of course it is important to observe the changes in our industry. There are a lot of them. The ways in which customers, users, viewers, fans, readers (or whoever else) interact with products, websites, videos, sports, hobbies, magazines, newspapers (and so on) are constantly evolving. Consequently, how we persuade those people to LOOK OVER HERE, TAKE THIS SURVEY, READ THIS ARTICLE, PLAY THIS GAME, COMMENT ON THIS PICTURE, ENGAGE WITH OUR BRAND, and, essentially, BUY OUR PRODUCT is not necessarily more challenging but different.

What hasn’t changed is the value of good writing. Where there is a writer uninterested in creating direct mail, point-of-sale copy, email blasts, whitepaper, or other heavy-texted (but often laborious) copywriter miscellany, I will be there (to exert both brain power and keyboard sweat). I’m a workhorse, not a prima donna. While I do enjoy and value the process of ideation for strategies and headlines, I also can write more than one or two lines of good body copy.

Writer for Hire

28 Aug

I’m launching this blog to display my value as a writer for employers. Though I have artistic ambitions as a writer (e.g. literary journalism pieces, fiction short stories, cultural essays, etc), this blog will primarily solicit copywriter work.

This includes many types of work: newsletters, brochures, print ad copy, direct mail, news stories, press releases, reports, edits, critiques, point-of-sale copy, among others. Being fairly new to the game, I’m also a great hire for parcels of projects–I can fill in for reasonable costs.

As a writer’s writer, I have found that I’m particularly valuable for critiquing, editing, and creating web content. The text that a person, business, or brand displays on a website is crucial. It tells a story, and when it comes to telling stories, (through narrative tools, language, grammar, syntax, creativity, etc.) I can help.

In a less direct way, the blog is also intended to promote the value of writers in general (not just me).