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On “Content,” and Writer as Artisan: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer._

This is Part 4 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1, 2, and 3, on networking, “Good luck,” and MFAs, respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“The more business-oriented and consumer-facing the publisher, the more likely you’ll hear the word ‘content’ used instead of ‘writing.’…’Content’ can be reshaped, reconfigured, and reimagined for many different people, places, and purposes.
“This, too, can upset writers, who may have a more artisanal outlook on publishing.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 62.)

A long, long time ago, I told someone that I loved writing marketing and corporate copy. He hitched a short laugh, and then double-took. (Is that a thing? Can you past-tense double-take? Anyway.) “Wait,” he said, “are you serious?”

We were having drinks, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking, so I laughed, too, and then I was like…wait a minute. “Yeah,” I said, finally. “I really do.” My friend went on to say that he was surprised, since I’m “literary.”

So then I had to explain to him why I think marketing writing and corporate copy is so great: When it comes to working for small businesses, it’s about helping someone to get their message across, helping to crystallize someone’s brand. When it’s working for large companies, it can be about fighting a tiny battle to keep sloppy, imprecise language from conveying whatever makes a product or a company unique. So yes, I love copy. I love content. I love anything that helps a thing to convey itself.

This idea that content and copy is somehow less than writing of a literary sort–oh, excuse, me, littttrrrraaaaaary–really rankles. And, as Friedman notes in her pages, it’s not unusual to hear someone lamenting marketing work as hack work, or “just to pay the bills.” But there’s something really off about that, and I don’t just mean for its abject snobbery. What I mean is this: Working on content takes just as much skill as working on a novel or a short story or a poem.

(For an idea of what I mean, here’s a post I wrote awhile ago about coming up with a new tagline for the back of my business card, and my editing business.)

Think about the way we talk about writing: We talk about it in terms of  craft. We sometimes refer to it as wordsmithing. We talk about it as something requiring skill, and training. If writing copy, if crafting a message for a brand, isn’t inherently artisanal, I don’t know what is.

Marketing and advertising copy, or content, is also accessible to everyone. It’s made to be. There’s something really beautiful about that concept, that anyone can “get” what you’re trying to say. And it also takes skill. (Have a look at William Zinsser’s wonderful chapter on business writing, in his book On Writing Well, for a refresher.)


If some work is artisanal, is the other work junk?

I won’t get into that whole attractive notion of pay for work (content and marketing copy pays a hell of a lot better than short stories, I can tell you that right now), since that’s a no-brainer. And I utterly refuse to get into an argument about whether or not writing you get paid for is better or worse than writing you toil over, only to get paid nothing or a stipend for. Those are…I mean, it’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples, and, like, battleships, or something.

(This reminds me of the day I complained to my cousin Otto, who is way smarter than I am, that movies made from books were way worse than the books. Otto blinked, all speed-processing behind a casual slow-lizard exterior, and then said, “Well. They’re two different things. You can’t compare them.” There followed a short silence during which I ate my hat.)

In the end, I think my view is this: Copywriting and content writing is a thing which requires a great amount of skill. Writing short stories and novels and poetry and essays is a thing which also requires a great amount of skill. Some of these skills are shared. Some of them are unique to the job. But more importantly, neither of these is more or less artisanal than the other. They are both equally hard. One of them pays with more regularity than the other. That’s the only thing that should be up for conversation. The rest is just a conversation about whether, in fact, you have the right skillset to do one or the other.

Some tips:

  • Try your hand at all kinds of writing. Don’t be fooled into thinking one is better than the other.
  • Be aware that each kind of writing takes different skill sets. Yes, even the social media stuff.
  • You’re producing all kinds of content, all day, from the comment you posted on a friend’s image to your Instagram caption. Look at those as room to practice. 

What’s your take on content and marketing writing, as opposed to literature? Tell me in the comments below. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

When Your People are Hurting: Part II

Part II: Far

In 2012, I went to Peru with ShelterBox. In the state we were working in, pocket communities needed shelter after their homes had come down in mudslides. And in 2011, in Arkansas, a community needed help after tornados came through their region. In Malawi in 2015, big floods wiped out farmlands and grass huts.

In each of these disasters, before I deployed, friends asked, “What’s going on there?”

I never get tired of answering this question, for a specific, singular reason: People always care.

Even in these terrible, fractured times, folks are always concerned when we tell them what we’re working on. Perversely, they are even more concerned if it’s a disaster they’ve not heard of happening, or if there’s something else happening closer by that’s been taking over the news cycle.

Here’s the hard, horrible truth about refugee or displaced persons situations, whether manmade or natural: Our attention is demanded by so much else, our world so much smaller now, that the suffering of people both near and far can slip off your radar screen before you even know it existed. So when I get a chance to let people know about things that are going on that they may not have been aware of, I see it another way to help.

It’s easy to forget that people still care. While we can’t deny that humanitarian plights are too often used as political action points, we should also remember that everyone deserves an equal chance at life, especially if they’ve been through things the lucky among us can’t even fathom having to experience.

While eyes are on the damage Hurricane Harvey has caused right now, ShelterBox is operational in eight other locations and monitoring several other crises. My teammates are working in Nepal and we’re positioning a team for Bangladesh; our partners are busy working in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and our work with the Syrian refugee crisis is in its 6th year.

The New York Times‘ Neediest Cases fund runs a campaign that costs nearly bupkus. Throughout the year, you’ll see a boldfaced phrase at the bottom of columns or scattered in other places across the paper; it reads, “Remember the Neediest!” Whenever I see this, I think of people far away from areas of terrible disaster and displacement, thinking of those who are the neediest.

Thank you for your support. Every donation helps agencies who respond to crises to be ever ready.

spinning-globe

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Shelter, Warmth, Dignity–and Education

Hello.

Two Fridays ago I returned from Haiti, where ShelterBox, the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, is helping the nation to recover from Hurricane Matthew.

As always, there are many different things I saw and people I met that left me feeling richer and better rounded, but I want to take some time and space today to reflect on something that sometimes gets overlooked in our normal understanding of relief efforts.

So let’s picture what people think of when they think of disaster relief: Food. Medicine. Shelter. Yes. All good, necessary things. But what happens in the immediate days after a disaster? Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered a sign like this somewhere in your neighborhood:

tornado-shelter

Where do you usually see them? Civic buildings, generally: Stadiums, churches, sometimes–and schools. Schools are well-built; it’s the place to which parents will naturally turn if a natural disaster strikes during school hours, since they’ll want to see if their kids are okay.

But quite often, places of education get turned into shelters that may serve a population for weeks on end if families have no place to turn.

When we arrived in Haiti, a few days after Hurricane Matthew came through, schools had already been pressed into service. One chalkboard I saw had its last lesson on it, from September 28. When we left Les Cayes, there was no news as to when schools could go back into service.

The problem is, when schools are housing families, serving as places to stay safe and out of the elements, they can’t be used for their original purposes. In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, schools only started to reopen after a few months. And in Malawi, where I was last year, even after schools opened to regular classes, classrooms were still serving as shelters, so families had no place to go during the day, while school was in session; and school staff and communities had to work every morning and every afternoon to effect the change from classroom to shelter and back again.

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The classrooms in this school in Malawi were doing double duty when we showed up: They were serving both as shelters for families while they rebuilt their homes and as proper classrooms. You can see the kids in their school uniforms with my teammate here.

The effect of natural disaster on a society goes far beyond the more acute needs of food, medicine, and shelter. It’s one of the reasons aid agencies like ours work so hard to get families back onto their home sites, so life can go on.

For more of our work in Haiti and worldwide, visit ShelterBoxUSA.org. And for more detailed information on what effects disaster can have on education, see this paper from the Brookings Institute.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Naming Conventions for Unconventional Real Estate

On a little island in the middle of the Philippines, there stands some incredibly attractive property. Ocean views on hillocks; fertile soil that gives rise to corn, cassava, coconut; curious lava-rock formations that attract the eye and, occasionally, the butt of a scratching goat or cow.

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Everywhere, happy neighbors and a healthy community; folks who will take care of you in trying times. Every morning and afternoon, children in school uniforms walking the over-two-kilometers from home to school; school to home to help their parents, cheerfully waving and calling to foreigners riding by in trucks, there to help a community recovering from an extreme act of nature.

IMG_2226 Continue Reading →

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Old-School Race Report

I did two races this weekend: a 10K and a sprint triathlon. This report is about the tri. My friend John covers the 10K admirably, over here.

I used to write race reports with some regularity, but I’m reasonably sure I haven’t ever done one for a triathlon. Then again, my memory is failing me, so who knows?

Anyway, the San Dimas Turkey Tri is the first triathlon I have ever done in my home vicinity. That is to say, in the 13 years I lived here prior to my leaving for New York, and in the year since I have been back, I have never done a triathlon in southern California. So I was excited. And, I was excited because my friend Chels, who is a friend from my MFA program and has done the Whidbey Island Triathlon with me for the past two years, was also participating in this race. Plus, added bonus: Jim signed up for it too! So we had a nice little team. Chels’ husband Tyler came to watch and help us shlep stuff from race finish to the car afterward. Very nice.

turkeyTA

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Happy 1-Year Anniversary…

…to California, for getting me and Jim as residents. Feh.

Here is a brief list of things I like here:

 

  • I never know what month it is, and am sometimes pleasantly surprised to find out.
  • I am almost consistently warm.
  • I like the smell of eucalyptus and pepper in the mornings.
  • I like being  up before the rest of California, to work with my east-coast clients.
  • I like being closer to my Whidbey Island friends.
  • I like the ocean, although it is very far away.
  • We have a nice aquarium here.
  • The colleges are pretty.
  • I have enjoyed getting to re-know some friends, and making some new ones.

Well. More later.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Verbagram, the Grilled Cheese Edition: A Tall Tale*

Verbagram: (n.) A thingamajibber in which I make up for my crap food photography by telling you a story about the food in question.

A few months ago, this happened:

Don’t quite understand it?
It’s okay. It has taken me lo! all these months to process it myself.
Here is what happened.
We went to our local brewery for the first of their Food Truck Fridays, which is, yes, when food truck arrives at brewery. The truck that week was the Grilled Cheese Truck. It was late getting there and late setting up, which is why Mr. Gooddirt had something like two and a half strong beers before he got into line.
Presumably the ABV contributed to some kind of food-related myopia, because when he delivered our food to the table he dropped off two normal grilled cheese sandwiches, one for me, and one for my friend, and an order of tater tots, and then he weaved a little and said, “Be Right Back,” and then he came back with another two handfuls of grilled cheese.
Well. I thought it was two handfuls of grilled cheese. Basically it was two grilled cheese sandwiches, each stuffed with mac and cheese, and slapped together. The whole thing was glued together by another layer of mac and cheese and more pulled pork.
The woman who is sitting next to Mr. Gooddirt is most likely laughing because she can’t believe he is trying to explain the thing to her and eat it all at the same time.
Also, it arrived in two containers and weighed about as much as a brick.
The next morning Mr. Gooddirt smelled like bacon and could not roll over onto his belly.
True story.
*Not really very tall. In fact, just normal height.

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A writing prompt, after a fashion

I saw someone very special the other day. It was someone I only see once every six or seven years, apparently. She is lovely and it never seems like any time has gone by when we do see each other, and I think this is part of the reason why:

Well. Not this exactly. But stuff like this.

After an awesome backwards dinner (we had dessert first), we strolled back to my car and spotted this, um, tableau in a shop window. We then proceeded to riff off of it for a good ten, fifteen minutes. It’s nice to find people like that with whom you can do such things.

We came up with a number of possibilities. (If you can’t really see it, the scary-looking devil-child is holding a set of antlers behind his–its?–back.) The horse is actually an old rocking horse, and it has a hole through its neck where, presumably, the reins used to go.

The various scenarios we came up with:

“Hello horsie. Would you like something sweet?”

“Well. I have these fine antlers. But I really would like it better if you were a unicorn, so…here.”

“Ah. I see. The hole in your neck. Here’s something to plug it with.”

“My Frankenhorse is almost complete. I have shed the barnacles of my childhood by making a mere plastic rocking horse into a carousel horse. Now it remains only to unicornize it. Oops. I did not mean to de-antler that buck on the way here.”

Now it’s your turn. What do you think is going on here? My totally subjective choice of winner gets a bag of Swedish fish mailed to them. I’ll try to make it the multi-colored ones, but you’ll get standard red if that’s all I can find.

“Submissions” close December 31.

Special thanks to Shey, my once-every-seven-years friend, for making this happen. Hopefully we’ll see more of each other now!

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Reasons to run in the morning

1. Less smog
2. Fewer people
2a. Fewer cranky old men telling you your heeling hound needs to be on a leash.
2b. Fewer attack chihuahuas miraculously untethered from their people. Yes, really.
3. Better companion-hound activity
3a. Less need to stop for poops
3b. Too sleepy to want to stop and smell everything.
4. Southern California in the mornings smells like eucalyptus, pepper trees, sage, rosemary, thyme. Yes, really.
5. Pizza for breakfast
6. Coffee is so much more of a reward
7. The morning version of the gloaming
Here, have a gratuitous Sprocket photo.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.