Write When Inspired

In writing four books and an unknown quantity of articles and blog posts, I’ve discovered the simple secret to maintaining quality. I share it with you here in mnemonic nursery rhyme fashion:

Write when inspired; rest when tired.

Whether the task is writing, design, or hanging a picture straight, it is obvious that we do our best work when healthy, rested, refreshed, alert, and eager to do the job for its own sake.

But anyone who has done professional work also knows that we must often work late into the night at the behest of deadlines. There are jobs that call for us to push ourselves, not merely creatively (which is exhilarating), but physically—even when our bodies need rest, our minds are dimmed, our concentration dented, and our inspiration nonexistent.

Therein lies our conflict, and one key to the difference between good and great.

Design is a hurting thing

Work is work, and we must do what we must do. But when quality matters most, the old saw about “good or fast—choose one,” holds true. Pushing through to the finish line when you have nothing left inside you is great for marathon runners, but not so hot for creative professionals. In particular, if you’re trying to write clearly and well, it’s better to let a deadline slide by a day than to “just finish up.”

I call out writing in particular because if you push out a design when you’re exhausted, the details and balance will suffer, and it won’t be as great as it can be—but the public has such a low expectation of aesthetics in web design that you might get away with it. Only you and a few of your designer friends will recognize the sloppy, ill-considered bits that make your work good when it could have been great. Of course, your designer friends will think less of you, and you’ll cringe every time you see the site, but if you don’t have a taste for masochism, you shouldn’t be in design, because the hurt will kill you.

Night of the living deadlines

There’s a reason they call them deadlines.

With design that could have been great but was ever so slightly bungled due to exhaustion in the face of ridiculous deadlines, it is only the designer and the rare armchair aesthetician who know.

But when writers push themselves to make a deadline, everyone knows, because the passages where they cheated are unclear, unpersuasive, ineffective. A reader needn’t follow the exact art and subtle science of kerning or vertical grid building to recognize when a sentence isn’t clear, or fails to make a convincing point, or doesn’t seem to entirely belong with its older and younger brother sentences.

When I let a publisher’s deadline push out a piece of writing before it is ready, it is like thrusting a helpless preemie into the cruel world. And it’s not just external deadlines that can wreck my work. Say I’m writing here, where there are no deadlines. I get nearly to the end of what I want to say, and then I’m called away by work or family. When I return to the blog post hours later to wrap things up and publish, I’m distracted, and the powerful emotion and single idea that initially led me me to write has flown over the garden wall. If I just bang out a finish, the whole piece will be weakened. I know because I’ve done it.

Will no one think of the readers?

Currently I’m working on the third edition of Designing With Web Standards, and in addition to mentally approaching it as a new book in order to truly rethink and reinvigorate it, I’m also sticking like epoxy to the discipline of holding back chapters until they are ready. This sounds like what a writer would always do, but trade publishing is like a slave galley in a Roman galleon—if the sufferer beside you collapses under the whip, you need to row harder. You won’t get that placement at Borders if you don’t finish on time. Amazon won’t give you that special promotional push if you don’t turn it in six weeks earlier than your contract says you must, &c.

Never mind the bollocks. You are not writing for Amazon, or to fit a staff proofreader’s vacation schedule, as important and real as those considerations may be. You are writing for readers, a duty as sacred, in its way, as parenting. If you don’t believe the previous sentence, if you think writing is mainly about getting paid, I’m sorry you wasted your time reading this page, and I hope you find another way to earn a living soon. The world is already choking on half-considered, squeezed-out shit. There’s no need to add to the pile.

If you want to be great, or at least to be better, start by breathing, taking breaks, and working intensely when the mood is on.

[tags]writing, inspiration[/tags]

ALA 274: The emerging content strategist

In Issue No. 274 of A List Apart, for people who make websites: a website without a content strategy is like a speeding vehicle without a driver. Learn why content matters and how to do it right.

Content-tious Strategy

by JEFFREY MACINTYRE

Every website faces two key questions: 1. What content do we have at hand? 2. What content should we produce? Answering those questions is the domain of the content strategist. Alas, real content strategy gets as little respect today as information architecture did in 1995. MacIntyre defines the roles, tools, and value of this emerging user experience specialist.

The Discipline of Content Strategy

by KRISTINA HALVORSON

It’s time to stop pretending content is somebody else’s problem. If content strategy is all that stands between us and the next fix-it-later copy draft or beautifully polished but meaningless site launch, it’s time to take up the torch—time to make content matter. Halvorson tells how to understand, learn, practice, and plan for content strategy.

And, in EDITOR’S CHOICE, from July 31, 2007:

Better Writing Through Design

by BRONWYN JONES

How is it that the very foundation of the web, written text, has taken a strategic back seat to design? Bronwyn Jones argues that great web design is not possible without the design of words.

[tags]contentstrategy, content, strategy, content strategy, web, webcontent, webdesign, userexperience, writing, editorial, Kristina Halvorson, Jeffrey Macintyre, Bronwyn Jones, alistapart[/tags]

Get The Pains

Almost everyone I know who is serious about the internet and has spent more than a few years working on web stuff has read John R. Sundman’s novel, Acts of the Apostles, your everyday story of bioengineering, Gulf War Syndrome, Trojan Horses, and millennium cultists. (If you haven’t yet read this classic underground thriller cum paranoid fantasy, do yourself a favor; it’s pretty great.)

Now Sundman has come out with a new book, The Pains, with illustrations by Cheeseburger Brown. Sundman’s third novel owes its genesis to a single sentence written in his online diary: “I woke up this morning with a pain in my body that felt like it might be a soul gone bad.” Through a process that makes sense to writers, that sentence turned into this book:

The Pains is a story of faith in a world that appears to be falling apart. It tells the story of Norman Lux, a 24-year-old novitiate in a religious order, who becomes afflicted with something akin to stigmata.

The complete text and illustrations are on wetmachine.com, freely available for download under a creative commons license. Sundman is now taking orders for the soon-to-be-printed book. You can order by PayPal/credit card or by check.

[tags]sundman, johnsundman, thepains, actsoftheapostles, cheapcomplexdevices, publishing, writing[/tags]

ALA 271: words and scripts that work

The fundamental things apply in Issue no. 271 of A List Apart, for people who make websites. Erin Kissane tells how non-writers (i.e. the people who write most of the stuff on the web) can make every word count in “Writing Content that Works for a Living.” And Aaron Gustafson wraps our introductory series on progressive enhancement with a look at the thinking behind (and best practices for executing) “Progressive Enhancement with JavaScript.”

[tags]alistapart, progressiveenhancement, writing, fortheweb[/tags]

Where do you begin?

Q. I’m searching for your archive. Whenever I find a really good blog, I like to start at the beginning so I can understand better some of what you’re talking about. And I can’t find any link to your archives.

A. Thanks for writing. I started my site in 1995. There weren’t blogging tools back then, hence there aren’t archives in the sense you are describing. I published via hand-coded HTML until around 2004, when I began using WordPress. All my pre-WordPress content is still online; you just have to keep hitting the “PREVIOUS” button to get to it. Sorry about that.

[tags]writing, blogging, wordpress, archive, archives, site, data, organization, structure, dailyreport, zeldman, zeldman.com[/tags]

Fish tacos FTW nom nom nom

You can look at Twitter as text messaging or as micro-blogging.

If it’s text-messaging, of concern only to your closest friends, then content such as “Dude, where are you? We’re in the mezzanine” is perfectly appropriate, and “Fish tacos FTW nom nom nom” is practically overachievement.

If it’s micro-blogging, then you may be obliged, like any writer, to consider your reader’s need for value.

Writers inform and enlighten. They create worlds, ideologies, and brochure copy.

In 140 characters, a good writer can make you laugh and a great one can make you march.

You thought I was going to say “cry.” That, too.

Not everyone who blogs is Dostoevsky, and with ten Twitterers for every blogger, the literary riches are spread thin.

Fine writers are using Twitter—they’re using it even more than they’re using their personal sites, because it’s an even faster means of distributing what they have to offer, which is jokes, poems, and ideas.

The good writers are easier to discover thanks to tools like Favrd. (The best thing about Twitter is its unfulfilled potential. Some developers reach their highest level of attainment creating some of the many features Twitter didn’t come with.) Tools like Favrd also change the discourse: writers write differently when they think someone is reading, and self-consciously clever Twitterers have responded to Favrd by posting stuff that’s more likely to get favored—like directors playing to critics.

But nobody just follows on Twitter. Sure, you follow, but you also create. And you might consider that an obligation to occasionally create meaning, color, and richness.

I don’t view http as a medium for phone chatter. I don’t mean you can’t place phone calls over the internet—of course you can. I mean I’m old-fashioned enough (or have been doing this long enough) to view the web mostly as a publishing medium, with all the obligations that implies. So while I sometimes use Twitter as a homing device, I mainly try to think of it as the world’s smallest magazine, published by me.

In my ceaseless effort to impose my views on others, I recently declared a moratorium on banal tweets about food and drink.

The public was overwhelmingly supportive.

Whether it’s good for your readers or not, approaching Twitter as a writer’s tool (or the world’s smallest magazine, published by you) can be good for you. Getting off a nice Tweet can be like popping a breath mint or finishing a work-out at the gym. It refocuses the day, relieves tension, empowers constructive criticism, and generally helps clarify the muddle of your thoughts.

Conscious Twittering FTW.

[tags]writing, twitter, publishing, the web[/tags]

ALA 259: Career and Content

In Issue No. 259 of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

The Cure for Content-Delay Syndrome

by Pepi Ronalds

Clients love to write copy. Well, they love to plan to write it, anyhow. On most web design projects, content is the last thing to be considered (and almost always the last thing to be delivered). We’ll spend hours, weeks, even months, doing user scenarios, site maps, wireframes, designs, schemas, and specifications—but content? It’s a disrespected line item in a schedule: “final content delivered.” Pepi Ronalds proposes a solution to this constant cause of project delays.

Why Did You Hire Me?

by Keith LaFerriere

Landing a new job or client is difficult in this economic climate. Undelivered contractual promises and work environment shortcomings can transform that challenge into a long-term nightmare. Keith LaFerriere shows how to get paid what you’re worth; how to fight for control of your projects using management tools corporate cultures respect (even if they don’t understand your work); and how to tell when it’s time to jump ship.

[tags]alistapart, webdesign, tips, content, writing, editors, editorial, control, career, client services[/tags]

Stick out your tongue

While employed at a famous New York advertising agency twenty years ago, a partner and I created a TV commercial touting an over-the-counter medicine client’s revolutionary new cold and flu remedy for young children.

Only when the shooting and shouting was over did we learn that the product did not, in fact, exist.

The commercial whose every creative detail we’d had to fight for was never going to run.

The client—the marketing side of a product development group—had a budget of $60,000 to spend. So they spent it, even though the R&D side of the product development group had not been able to deliver the product.

It was not a liquid medicine that needed to be measured. It was not a pill that needed to be chewed or swallowed. It was a pill that dissolved instantly on the tongue. Or would have been, if the engineers had been able to create it.

During weeks of presentation, the client rejected campaigns that would have caught the attention of the nation’s parents. The client bought a safe campaign that called less attention to itself, then set about systematically softening its edges. My partner and I wanted to cast like Fellini or Woody Allen. We brought in amazing children of various backgrounds, their faces rich in character. But the client picked cute blonde girls instead.

And so on. Every decision, however small, required approval. Everything was a fight. A ladies-and-gentlemanly fight. A fight that sounded like polite, mutually respectful discussion. A fight with invisible knives.

We won some and we lost some. For all the back-and-forth with the client, the resulting commercial wasn’t bad at all. The first few times anyone—even the guy delivering sandwiches—saw it, they laughed. Afterwards, they smiled. It could have been okay. It could have gotten my partner and me out of that agency and to a better one.

After the shoot was completed, the client told our account executive that the product did not exist and the commercial was never going to run.

The client had known this going in. So why didn’t they let us win more creative battles? Because they wanted something soft and safe to show the boss who had the power of life and death over their budget.

Why did the boss give them $60,000 to produce a commercial for a product that didn’t exist? Because that’s how corporations work. If they didn’t spend advertising dollars in 1988, they wouldn’t get ad dollars in 1989, when (in theory) they would finally have a product to advertise.

Governments, at least the ones I know of, work the same way. Since last night, the city of New York has been paving 34th Street in places it doesn’t need to be paved. Why do they do this? To justify the budget. In a better world, money set aside to pave streets that don’t need paving would be reassigned to something the city actually needs—like affordable housing, or medical care for poor or homeless people. But cities are corporations—that Mike Bloomberg is New York’s mayor merely confirms this—and few corporations are agile enough to rethink budgetary distributions on the basis of changing needs.

Last week, in an airport, on one of the inescapable widescreen TVs set to CNN (and always set to the wrong resolution) I saw a commercial for a revolutionary children’s medicine product that melts instantly on the tongue.

I guess they finally made it.

[tags]advertising, design, artdirection, writing, copywriting, TV, production, commercials, adverts, wisdom, work, experience, budgets, business, waste, government, medicine, OTC, overthecounter, newyork, nyc[/tags]

Self-publishing is the new blogging

Everyone a writer, everyone a publisher, everyone a citizen journalist.

Everything that could be digital would be. Content wanted to be free. Then we had to get paid. But animated smack-the-monkey ads were so declassé. Ch-ching, Google AdSense, ch-ching, The Deck advertising network, ch-ching your ad network here.

Everyone a writer, everyone a publisher, everyone a citizen journalist, ch-ching.

First the writers and designers did the writing. Then the non-writers who had something to say did it. Then the people with nothing to say got a MySpace page and the classy ones switched to Facebook.

And ch-ching was heard in the land. And the (not citizen) journalists heard it, and it got them pecking into their Blackberries and laptops.

And then the writers and designers, ashamed at rubbing shoulders with common humanity, discovered the 140-character Tweet and the Tumblr post. No stink of commerce, no business model, nothing that could even charitably be called content, and best of all, no effort. Peck, peck, send.

When you’ve flown that far from Gutenberg, the only place to travel is back.

Enter Lulu, all slinky hips and clodhoppers. Self-publishing is the new blogging. No more compromises. No more external deadlines. No more heavy-handed editors and ham-fisted copyeditors. No more teachers, lots more books.

You don’t need distribution, you’ve got PayPal. You don’t need stores: there’s only two left, and nobody buys books there, anyway. You don’t need traditional marketing. Didn’t we already prove that?

Got book?

[tags]blogging, editing, publishing, self-publishing, writing, writers[/tags]