Category Archives: Writing

On Publishing

Dana Blankenhorn has an excellent post on the demise of newspapers as we've known them and the future of publishing in general. Here's the money quote:

Your job, as a publisher, remains what it was in the 19th century. Define a market, aggregate both the buyers and sellers, and stimulate financial transactions between them. Publishing is a market-making proposition, and those who create the best marketplaces win. Every time.

These are still the early innings of the online publishing game. The collapse of newspapers is a gift from above, not a plague. It opens up vast new opportunities for people who have learned their business, publishers and editors both.


The One, Yourself

Dr. Cyndi Briggs lives in Winston-Salem and teaches at UNCC and Guilford Colllege.  She's very active online – you can find her blog here and you can also follow her on Twitter – and writes a lot of stuff that quite frankly aren't in the sweet spot of your average American dude.  

If you're like this American dude and constantly trying to figure out what makes women tick, especially the women in your family, then reading her stuff can be an educational experience. All of which is to explain how I came to listen to her piece on WFDD after she mentioned it on Twitter and had a real "a-ha" moment after listening to it. Let's just say I'm going to make sure my daughter listens to it because I think it's that important, and I highly recommend you listen to it too even if you're not a dudette.

Reading Mrs. Adkins

Anne Adkins has been writing an occasional column for the Winston-Salem Journal for a while now and I must say that, to me, her writing is consistently the best in the paper. From this Sunday's column

George got a job and over the next few months he paid back his loan and appeared to be doing just fine. In those years immediately following World War II, our generation was full of halcyon dreams springing from the conviction that after years of war, we would bring to the world lasting peace. Who would have thought that early one morning on a Virginia mountain road, George’s body would be found face-down in a ditch with a bullet hole in the back.

That was nearly three-quarters of a century ago. As far as I know, no one ever found out who killed George. As the years went by, Al and I, like most of our generation, worked hard, raised our kids, saw more wars come and some of them go, and squeezed the best part out of living. And like every generation before us, we also buried our dead.

Last week a beat-up, yellow truck sped past me on the highway. Suddenly the years peeled away, leaving me with the sharpness of a memory unexpectedly returned. I shut my eyes and there George was, my young lost friend, tossing me one more smile.

I smiled back at the bittersweet thought of a young lost friend who never had the chance to find his way, but for one shining moment in time was King of the Road, gridiron hero of the Golden Wave, the sweetest guy in town.

Laugh to Triumph Over Fear

From a brilliant 2006 column by Gene Weingarten titled The Peekaboo Paradox:

At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Speaking of laughter, you simply must visit Laughing at My Nightmare. Shane Burcaw is the nephew/cousin of some good friends and his approach to life is simply amazing.

Importance of Being an Information Omnivore

How much time do you spend at work looking at information that would be classified as outside the realm of your expertise or not part of your core job description? If your answer is "very little" then you could be setting yourself up for eventual failure or at a minimum unnecessarily limiting your ability to succeed. Why? Because you need to understand not just your world, but the universe in which your world exists.

If you need an example you need look no further than what has happened to many people in the newspaper industry. 15 years ago many newspapers were riding high, boasting fat profit margins and enjoying monopolies in their markets. Then they were blindsided by what the internet represented – a distributed network of information sharing that pushed them from the center of the daily information ecosystem. Should the folks working in the newspaper industry have seen it coming? In retrospect it's easy to say yes, but at the time the vast majority of them had not an inkling of what the internet/web was about and so could not conceive how they might be able to utilize it to beat their competition, much less prevent it from decimating their entire business.

But what if some of the senior newspaper execs had spent the late '80s or early '90s looking at the larger universe of information distribution, looking at their circulation operations as one form of information distribution and figuring out how these new forms of distribution could change their business? It's quite likely that some did, and surely there are publishers out there who can point back to efforts at starting fax-based updates, email alerts, etc. But how many truly took the time to understand the underlying shift in information flow, to grasp how the new technology would be adopted by their customers and how they might shift to meet those changing consumption patterns? It's pretty plain by the state of the industry today that not many succeeded if they tried.

Over the last few years the big shift for many industries has been the rapidly expanding adoption of smartphones (over 50% of the US market now uses smartphones), but anyone who's been paying attention has seen it coming and hopefully has been adjusting to address this new reality. But what's next? What's the next big shift in how we do business going to be? It could be something related to Bitcoin, and the why is explained by venture capitalist Fred Wilson in a blog post he wrote to explain his firm's investment in a company called Coinbase:

We believe that Bitcoin represents something fundamental and powerful, an open and distributed Internet peer to peer protocol for transferring purchasing power. It reminds us of SMTP, HTTP, RSS, and BitTorrent in its architecture and openness. Like what happened with those other low level protocols, entrepreneurs and developers are now building technology on top of Bitcoin to make it more useful, more accessible, and more secure.

This has the smell of something important because it could potentially change how companies exchange services for compensation. What's more fundamental to a business than that? More importantly, how much could something like that change your business? Well, how much did the wide adoption of credit cards change business 30+ years ago? But that only offers part of the answer since this feels like something that eases transactions like credit cards did, but expands the market like the web did.  And who could this new development threaten? The banks are a good bet.

So who thinks that bankers truly understand what this could represent? Sure, they see it and they think about it, but how many truly understand the tectonic shift going on beneath the surface. Probably not many, because you can bet there probably aren't many bankers who have stopped counting their money long enough to try and understand this "Bitcoin World" and they could suffer the fate that many newspapers have over the last ten years.

That's where the title of this post comes into play. It is vitally important for all of us to be information omnivores, because you must understand the larger context in which you're working and living. While you don't need to understand all the technology that underlies what we do, just like you don't have to know how an internal combustion engine works to understand the affect of cars, you do need to understand how their application and adoption will affect your business or your life. How do you do this? Simply by being curious. Watch TED talks, read articles in trade magazines from industries that aren't your own, read the blogs of experts in other fields, take a class at a local community college or take a free class from one of the online programs like Coursera. The possibilities are almost endless and even if you never apply the information you glean to your day job you'll know something you wouldn't have otherwise. Worst case scenario you'll probably get better at Trivial Pursuit and you'll be able to wow people at dinner parties with your amazing grasp of (seemingly) worthless knowledge. More likely you'll find that your newfound knowledge will come in handy in ways you never anticipated.

£110, 200 Years and 20 Million Copies

Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice was published 2oo years ago – January 28, 1813 to be exact. As we learn from this Letters of Note post, Austen sold it for £110, which converted for inflation is roughly the same as selling it for £75,000 (there are various ways to calculate inflation and this one uses average earnings).  Since then over 20 million copies of the book have been sold, which works out to roughly 100,000 copies a year. That's a serious return on investment.



Don’t Be a Grammar Goon

Tempted to make fun of someone on Facebook because he doesn't know the difference between lose and loose? Probably not a good idea, and it might actually mean you're a bit of a whank:

There was a time that it gave me a blush of pride to be referred to as “the Spelling Sergeant” or “the Punctuation Police”. I would gleefully tear a syntactic strip out of anybody who fell victim to the perils of poor parallelism or the menace of misplaced modifiers. I railed against atrostrophes and took a red pen to signs posted in staff rooms, bulletin boards and public washrooms. I was, to put it bluntly, really, really annoying…

So if I crap on Jonny’s spelling, I’m either reinforcing an oppressive status quo, or picking on a person with a disability, or both. And taking part in these kinds of insults, even when they’re directed at an Internet troll, encourages other people to participate in this kind of shaming. It’s frankly also pretty ineffective as a debate tactic. I’m not going to change Jonny’s mind, nor help him improve his writing abilities, by making fun of him. He may be a jerk because he’s never learned how to express himself in a healthy way, and I’m not doing much to help him. And reducing my arguments to the level of ad homonym attacks debases my own credibility – because if I have a valid point to make, I should be able to make it without resorting to pettiness. Furthermore, it is guaranteed that somewhere out there on the Interwebs, there is someone I agree with whose reasoned arguments are disparaged, dismissed or ignored because they come wrapped in a package of nonstandard language.

This is no trifling issue, either. I like to shock the new tutors I train by quoting statistics from theInternational Adult Literacy Survey. I ask them to estimate, in a developed country like Canada or the U.S., what percentage of the population has literacy skills below the very basic level needed to function well in our society. People usually guess ten percent, fifteen percent, maybe as much as twenty-five. Then I pull out the sad, stunning facts: nearly half of all North American adults cannot cope with complex written material of the sort that the other half of us take completely for granted. HALF, you guys. This should be considered anational crisis. Not fodder for sport.

The blog post that's the source of these opinions is titled Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People's Grammar on the Internet and it's well worth the read, if for no other reason than absorb the list of privileges we literate members of society enjoy. Here's a sample:

  • I can easily and safely navigate my way around the city I live in because I understand all of the posted signs, warnings and notifications.
  • I can make healthy and informed choices about the products I purchase because I can accurately read their labels and price tags.
  • I can safely use pharmaceuticals prescribed to me without having to remember the doctor’s or pharmacist’s instructions because I can accurately read their labels.
  • When required to visit doctors, hospitals, government agencies, banks, or legal offices, I do not have to invent excuses to bring paperwork home so that someone else can read it to me. If I live alone, I do not have to expose myself to judgement and ridicule by asking the doctor, nurse, agent, clerk, lawyer or other employee to read it to me.
  • I can independently make informed medical, legal, political and financial decisions about myself and my family because I can read and understand important documents.

The companion pieces to this post are also well worth the read. You can find them here and there.

The Power of Words

If you've ever doubted the power of words you should read this letter, written to the family of Frank Ciulla, a victim of the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing,  by the Connells, the family who discovered his body on their land. It was written after the Ciullas had visited the Connells several years after the bombing. Here's a small excerpt:

It was just wonderful to meet you face-to-face. We needed to talk to you all too. As you said, we will get to know Frank through you. He was never just "another victim" to us. For months we called him "Our Boy." Then we found out his name. He was "Our Frank." Please believe me we were deeply affected by his coming to us. We will never forget our feelings seeing him there, a whole-bodied handsome man, the life gone out of him in a twinkling. We were just past trying to grasp the whole thing. 

Then to have to leave him there, but he was visited throughout the night by police and a doctor and we went back again in the morning. He was a fellow man and he had come to us in the saddest way. So now through him we have you in our hearts, and please, we want you all to know that you are welcome here whenever you come. 

The Connell Family


Visiting Ten Thousand Cities

Pat Conroy wrote the following parapraph in a Letter to the Editor of The Charleston (WV) Gazette in reaction to learning that two of his books had been banned by the local school board:

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer inLonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I've been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

This is why reading is more than fundamental.

The Problem with the Internet

In an interview with Mother Jones author Michael Chabon describes the problem with the internet:

MC: Well, no. It's because I love the internet and it has been incredibly useful and I have made discoveries that have been immeasurably crucial to my work—things I don't know how I ever would have found out otherwise, that are perfect, just what I need for whatever I'm doing. And with that very truth is the pretext for all the bad stuff. Because I have gotten so much out of it that I can always justify or rationalize it to myself. I'll think, "Oh I'm just going to take three minutes to find out who made the spark plugs that were used in Mustang airplanes that they used during World War II." Two hours later, I'm, you know, looking at the Partridge Family fan site or something like that, and listening to "I Think I Love You."

MJ: [Laughs.] It's called procrastination.

MC: It's more insidious, because you're being incited to it. Procrastination is something you doyourself. You know: "I gotta sharpen these pencils before I start. I got 20 pencils, they're looking kinda dull." Well, the pencils aren't calling you and alluring you and inviting you and offering you anything. They're just sitting there. You're the one who's procrastinating. The internet is actively trying to get you to stop working.

Look! Sparkly things!