Tag Archives: writing

Turtle Wisdom

44,881 words | NaNoWriMo Participant 2013I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time this year. My intention was to write 1,600-2000 words for six to seven days per week month-long, and I finished November with a total of 44,881 words. My NaNoWriMo total didn’t make me a “winner” by the rules of the 50-000 word challenge, but it did give me a structure for re-engaging my research consistently. I’ll be taking that accomplishment—and its momentum—with me into the upcoming year.

When I finished writing up my doctoral study in 2012, I wanted a way to tangibly mark the achievement and capture the lesson learned with something that would outlast the graduation pomp and smiles from visiting relatives.

After some thought, I settled on these pottery turtles.

My two turtles come from the hands of New Mexican Navajo artists Tom Vail Jr. (white-grey with rainbow) and Johnny Williams (glazed black). For the last three years of my program, I spent a few days retreating in New Mexico each fall, and these pieces remind me of the state’s artists, peoples, and land.

They also remind me of wisdom strains that I’d learned as a child and promptly forgotten through the years:

“Slow and steady wins the race…”

“The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong…”

“She that endures to the end shall be saved…”

and then the most prosaic, from one of my research advisors:

“Do a little bit every day.”

It was that last piece of counsel that helped me most through my research topic, around grad student fatigue and despite various family and personal derailments. It kept me current for most of NaNoWriMo, and it’ll also keep me on task with my goals for the coming year.

We’re still a few days away from the calendar turn. What goals do you have for your next 12 months? How can you break them down into manageable pieces? How will you “do a little bit every day”?

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A Writing November

Cartoon of open newspaper with "Correction" advertisement: "The Downing St memo seems to be at odds with pretty much anything you remember seeing and hearing in the media in the runup to the Iraq war.  Your memory is in error. We regret your mistake."

(c) Tom Toles (2005) | “The First Draft of the Rewrite of History”

I’ve decided to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo 2013), and will be using the 50,000 word-challenge to reboot my research on the British executive branch’s structure, values, personnel, and communications during the 18 months before the UK- and US invaded Iraq.*

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the March 2003 invasion and the 8th year since I began to study how the Blair administration rendered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “non-compliant” with international protocols on weapons of mass destruction and an “imminent” threat to the UK national interest.

I’ve already written and presented about this case for other communication academics (Popular Culture Association, 2008; Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 2009), and I’ve also written a 150-page doctoral study about it with a bibliography nearly 25 pages long. I may write for these readers again in the future, but not next month.

November is about writing about the British executive branch, weapons of mass destruction, secrecy, freedom of information, and civil servants, not for other academics and not as part of a degree program, but for members of the public: people like you who are savvy and curious, who don’t necessarily know a lot about the details of this case, and who care about good governance and want to read high-quality, engaging content about it.

I’m not going to write and revise next  month, though; I’m just going to write. By the end of the month, I’ll know whether I have it in me to turn this year-old baby into a book in 2014.

My goals for November are simple enough, and I’m declaring them here to increase the risk:

  1. Write ~2,000 words six days each week for 30 days, or a minimum of 1,670 words daily.
  2. Focus on generating these 50,000-50,100 words, rather than fretting about whether they are good words.
  3. Remember how much I love this project and wonder why it’s taken me so long post-graduation to return to it.

If you’d like to track my progress through November, there’ll be a word count widget in the right column of my homepage. And if you have a fiction or non-fiction book in you too, then you still have a day to sign up! As of tonight, nearly 190,000 other writers are waiting for you.

Expect an update on this from me in a few weeks.


* This intention marks me as a NaNo Rebel. Good luck to all the novelists too!

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that [writing] is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” ―James Baldwin

Sometimes James Baldwin just preaches from the dead. Here’s another passage, from Another Country:

People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears – not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy.

He saw people, he saw society, and he wrote down what he saw. Powerful.

Doesn’t Matter Who You Are: Write.

Today Forbes shared 8 recommendations for business writing, including avoiding unnecessary jargon and writing “as though you’re talking to the person face-to-face.” Simplicity, directness, and a suitable tone are very important aspects of writing, but not just in the commercial world.

Poor writing is also a plague on the non-profit / social good sector. Improving organizational writing is sometimes the least painful, most effective upgrade for organizations that otherwise add incredible benefit to the world.

There are two suggestions in the Forbes post that are much more fundamental than tone or language level: Know Why You’re Writing and Understand Your Readers. I’ll deal with each of these in turn.

Know Why You’re Writing

A writer reaches out to readers through her words. When she is clear about her purpose, her quality of thought and expression always improve.

I edit routine membership communications for a non-profit president each month. She doesn’t self-describe as “a writer” though she’s successfully written membership columns every month for the last three years and always gets positive feedback from the membership list. As we’re reviewing her columns, I ask her questions like “Why do you need to say this now? What impact do you want to have on the people who read this? What action do you want them to take when they put your article down?”

Simple questions like these challenge writers to examine their objectives and intentions. A writer’s intention is the what; without conscious purpose driving content development and organization, a piece of writing loses its potential for shared meaning and impact. So the final draft of an article isn’t a bridge to nowhere; it’s the how, the means by which you can connect with others and establish a different relationship with them than you had before. If you could achieve those intentions on your own, you wouldn’t need to write at all.

Photo of a man writing.

Credit: Linda Bartlett

But what about freewriting? Freewriting is an exercise in goal-less, expressive, and unconscious writing that some writers use to spark inspiration and as part of their personal voice training. Beyond training, though, writing without an intention often yields text that’s more appropriate as a journal entry; while it can inspire public articles, it should normally remain private. Freewriting will not directly support development of professional reports, program updates, or business articles; intentional writing will.

If you’re writing for other people in your organization or for the general public, whether to prompt interest in the work you’ve done or to increase member engagement, know why you’re writing.

“To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.” — Warren Buffett

Understand Your Readers

The second critical principle, understand your readers, is the foundation of rhetoric: knowing your audience and their motivations, triggers, and barriers gives your writing its best chance to stick with the people who read it.

Understanding your readers is both an exercise in empathy and an opportunity to deepen the connection between you and the people you’re in a word-mediated relationship with. Acknowledge that your readers will be different from you and that your writing wouldn’t even be necessary if they already thought as you did. You’re only writing to them because of them.

If you’re used to framing your writing as your personal chance to express yourself rather than as a social invitation to dialogue, slip out of your chair and slip into the chairs of your readers. Who, exactly, is reading what you write? What motivates or concerns them? What constrains their reading time or frame of mind? What background knowledge do they bring to your conversation? What do they need? What do they expect from you?

Sometimes you’ll be able to answer these questions based on prior observation, and sometimes you’ll need to take people out to lunch and talk. Some people will answer a targeted survey or email. And some will never engage you. You won’t always be able to get direct information, but do your best.

Use the results to help you building your writing, its argument, the details, the evidence.

Read. And Write, Often

A lot of people are like the non-profit president I work with: once upon a time they had a composition class and it didn’t fit, and now they’re “not a writer.” Nonsense.

Just today, tech entrepreneur Guy Kawaski offered 10 recommendations in a webinar about non-profit story-telling and independent publishing. One was Write Every Day. For Guy, daily writing is in the same category of importance as hugging one’s children and flossing. And he’s right.

Practice builds proficiency, and proficiency makes skillfulness possible.

Photo of research notes.

Write Every Day.

Think of all the other things you do every day that are second or third nature to you now. Were they always? Are they all easy? Or are some of them near-native now because of the amount of practice you’ve had with them? Just as a non-profit president can build proficiency with an unfamiliar skill, so too you can support your facility with words by radically increasing your active exposure to them: absorb them through reading, and use them through writing.

Stephen King’s writing standard of “2,000 words a day” is a lot higher than most people will feel comfortable aiming for. Perhaps 2,000 words or 4-6 hours a day reading and writing is also more than the time a business writer would normally need to improve his or her craft and comfort level: any extra time over zero will have a positive impact. I recommend a minimum of 45 minutes continuous writing daily—and private journal writing does count if your only goal is general development. I also recommend making that 45 minutes “sacred” (that is, make it a personal commitment and don’t skip it on days you don’t feel like it, and make sure the space you write in is clear/clean enough for you to focus.) It doesn’t have to be perfect text. It just has to be written text.

But if you also have a long-term project like a large report, research study, or a book, daily on-topic engagement is important not just for writing facility but also to keep you connected with the project. When I was creating my dissertation, I had a very big idea based on four core constructs and more than 600 pages of primary sources. It was like carrying an ocean in a plastic bag. I learned quickly that if I let too much time lapse without reading, reflecting on, or writing on-topic in addition to whatever other daily writing I did, my big idea would drown me. I had a couple of salt-water soakings before I settled on up to 1 day off the research schedule per week. You may have to experiment with your own ideal scheduling so that you’ll get your project done.

Whatever you decide about timing, write. Write about dreams. Write about movies. Write about technology. Write about your family. Write about your business. Write about religion or secularism or whatever moves you most. Doesn’t matter who you are: just write. You will improve.

Contract Writing and Chaos Theory

I’ve been at my desk with some contract writing this week. Fortunately and unfortunately, I usually write by an outside-facing window, near a small tree with two bird-feeders and high food-seeking traffic from bright red cardinals, grey squirrels, swooping hawks, and the occasional deer at night who eats while it thinks we’re not looking.

BirdFeeder_Jan2013

The Tree in Question, with Birdfeeder

Of course my opening the door to take this picture made the cardinals fly away. They returned as soon as I was indoors again.

About twenty minutes before I took the photo, I also saw two flocks of birds about 100 feet south of me. They were too far away to identify, but I was transfixed by the two-cluster flock of small, dark birds crisscrossing chaotically around the trees, over the grass, and on to the next grass patch and the power lines beyond: something like this murmuration of starlings over the River Shannon, Ireland.

While I watched my local birds, it occurred to me: contract writing can often be like the gorgeous chaos of flocking birds. Like avian flocks, successful contract writing has some very simple rules that allow beauty to emerge from the process: separation, cohesion, and alignment. [1]

1. Separation

The rule of separation means that a bird or other individual flocking agent (a boid) maintains some space between itself and its nearest neighbors in the group while in flight. If you have a serious project, you too will need to establish and maintain reasonable boundaries of space and time between your current project and your other relationships and obligations. You’ll need to be able to repel unnecessary distractions and impositions so that you can stay on course and mitigate crashes.

Hang the Soul At Work sign on your door or the back of your chair. Turn your cell ringer off. Sign out of Twitter, Facebook, or your favorite news site. Create whatever physical space and psychological space you need to attend to your work and produce well.

But also establish some reasonable interpersonal boundaries with your teammates in regard to the project itself. If you’ve scoped properly, you’ll have a collective schedule for deliverables and meetings. You’ll also have developed some expectations about email or phone response times and when you and your teammates should and should not expect to receive replies from each other. Set some fair guidelines about your workload and maintain them. Whatever artificial energy you might have felt procrastinating through school, you’ll perform better well-paced than you will with an overload and a pressure crunch.

2. Cohesion

Boids rely on these consistent rules because it’s impossible to know everything about a flock at all times. When applying the cohesion rule, each boid recognizes its neighbors’ courses, calculates their average locations, and moves toward that average. As each boid does this with at most six or seven others, the flock heads in a common direction as if of one mind.

People can approximate this without performing mental mathematics or a lot of awkward staring. Check in with your closest teammates regularly: contract work need not mean exercising your genius in solitary confinement! Ask sensible questions about your section of the project and how it influences your colleagues’ work, and listen to their progress updates. Your questions demonstrate that you’re making substantive progress on the contract whether you show draft deliverables or not.

More importantly, when you know where your peers are on the landscape of your assignment, you’ll have more data with which to refine your part, and if you’ve already opened up a communication channel with others, then when they make significant changes in their section, you’ll be more likely to hear earlier. All changes anywhere in the flock will have a mass impact, and improvements anywhere will also be mutually beneficial.

3. Alignment

In the book The Flinch, Julien Smith writes that “everyone wants progress, but no one wants to lead. So a whole group wants for the first hand to go up before their hands go up too.” Although there’s a lesson in this about assertiveness and initiative—some bird species do rotate leadership  during a migration, for example—there’s also something else to learn about moving ahead with others. Computer scientist Bernard Chazelle found that, while in flight, “birds update their velocities by averaging them out over their nearest neighbors.” All of them co-adjust to their proximal peers’ speed. It’s not the stagnant Waiting for Godot that we sometimes do in groups, it’s split-second reconfiguration while in motion and it keeps the flock flying together.

The business world fell in love with the rugby-influenced scrum method for agile group project management several years ago; it’s but one way for a team to ensure that all members stay on-task, mutually aligned, and adaptive over the course of an assignment. Learn to monitor and adjust to the people you work most closely with. Staying in alignment with your peers makes it more likely that you’ll uncover project issues together and be coherent enough to analyze them collectively and successfully resolve them.

Test the Rules Yourself

Just for fun: try using Northwestern University’s Flocking simulator to design and implement rules for a flock of your own. If you run it from your browser you’ll need to have Java enabled.

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1. These and other rules (avoidance and goal orientation) are taught in college level computer science and game theory classes. See for example Flocking (.pdf) and a related build-animation-with-supplied-algorithm assignment (.pdf)