A Few Thoughts on Profanity

I’m a writer; the thought of excluding even a part of the rich vocabulary that makes up the tools of my trade tends to make me pause. But most people don’t find profanity particularly appealing, especially in professional communications. I tend to avoid certain words as a result, only occasionally dusting them off to really drive a point home.

But that doesn’t mean that I personally think writers should dump those words out of our dictionaries universally. Hillary Crosley offered an impassioned defense of the use of profanity, particularly in situations when journalists are directly quoting a source. (Warning: This link contains oodles of profanity.) I agree wholeheartedly; dancing around the subject makes it less clear. Furthermore, doing so lets publications judge the value of other people’s choice of words. I’m just not comfortable with that.

Dancing around the meaning of a dirty word shouldn’t be necessary, provided that word is the right word to use in the moment. There are times and places when expletives are the only way to drive home the true meaning of what you’re trying to say.

A Pioneer Nation Follow Up

I spent a few days at Pioneer Nation, a small conference geared towards entrepreneurs here in Portland. I heard a few comments over and over again, to the point that I wanted to bring them to your attention:

It’s so amazing to talk to people who get what I’m going through. My family just doesn’t understand.

Being willing to make the leap into running your own business isn’t easy. Even if no one in your family is ready to jump off that sort of cliff with you, t’s crucial to find a community of support — hopefully with people who you can talk to on a regular basis, rather than once a year. Going it alone isn’t impossible, but if you’re going to do something as demanding as starting a new business, why make the process harder?

I know what I need to do. I’m just having trouble doing it.

I’m pretty sure that this is an ongoing problem for most entrepreneurs; I know it’s something I suffer from on a regular basis. For most of us, the next step is pretty obvious: Maybe we need to launch a product, send a proposal, or set up a marketing campaign but we haven’t. Part of the problem is usually finding the time. It’s a legitimate problem, by the way — there is a hard limit on how many hours you can work in a day. But part of the problem is often that we’re a little afraid to move forward, especially if we feel overwhelmed by the successes we’ve already had. I don’t have a solution for this problem, except to power on through whenever you have a rush to move forward. Just do as much as you can, when you can.

I have to think bigger!

In my line of work, I have to tell a lot of my clients that they need to think a little smaller — that their budgets won’t support the high-minded plans they’ve been making. But at Pioneer Nation, several people told me that they’d realized they need to think bigger. Part of that may have been the audience; it included a lot of people who were shooting for businesses that would first and foremost support their lives. But part of that is also that it’s tempting to focus on what we know we can accomplish with the resources we currently have, and let the big opportunities pass us by. But it’s good to think big and chase goals that seem a little audacious. Otherwise, we can’t tell what we’re capable of.

Pioneer Nation was a great conference, both to present at and attend. I just want to take a moment here to thank Chris Guillebeau and the legions of folks involved in putting Pioneer Nation on. Great job! I look forward to seeing where you take it next year!

Anyone Can Compete On Price

I get twitchy whenever I hear someone suggest that they should drop their prices to land more clients. Part of that is due to the reality that make creative professionals have a hard time remembering the value of their own work. If you don’t put a value on how you spend your time, how are you ever going to convince someone else to give you money in return for those hours?

But there’s an underlying issue that may be a little harder to resolve: competing on price is bad for business.

There are a few industries in which there is no alternative to competing on price. But the truth is that anyone can compete on price. New entrants to the market can find just as many ways to cut costs as people who have been in business for years — and may have the added advantage of not knowing about certain expenses when setting their prices. Someone who can afford to take a loss, at least in the short term, always has the advantage over those competitors who can’t afford to do so.

That’s dangerous: cutting what you offer to the bone just to get your prices down can put you in a dangerous place, particularly if you’re selling your own creativity in one way or another. There are alternatives, however, to competing on cost: adding value, branding your work, and other strategies can keep you competitive without forcing you to constantly be selling just to keep your head above water.

Should You Touch The Code On Your Blog?

Looking under the hood on a website can be intimidating, especially if your creative talents don’t lie in that particular direction. Just the same, I consider tinkering with the code for my website to be one of the best decisions I’ve made for my business.

To be clear, I don’t mean building my own website with one of those ‘automatic website builders’ that certain web hosts offer. I mean that I know a little about what makes my content management system (currently WordPress) tick, as well as a bit about HTML and CSS — the parts that drive the design of the site. As a business owner, it’s tempting to try to do everything myself, but that’s not actually a good decision. I know better than to rely on my own coding skills when it comes to putting together a site. Rather, my main goal is to know enough to be an active part of the process.

I like to compare my level of coding knowledge to my level of plumbing knowledge: I can’t fix a major leak, but I can at least deal with a dripping faucet. I have enough general knowledge that I can handle minor fixes on my own, especially if I can Google for a tip or a tutorial. Perhaps more importantly, I know enough that neither plumbing nor web design jargon sounds like a different language to me. It’s a lot harder for someone to sell me something I don’t need or take advantage of me. If only for that reason, I definitely encourage improving your technical literacy whenever possible — even if you don’t need to use it directly.

Do We Need an Algorithm Beat?

The idea of the beat reporter is alive and well, even if the institutions that sparked it aren’t doing so well. Bloggers — especially those who come from a more traditional journalism background — tend to focus very closely on specific topics if they want to do well. They are beat reporters, of a sort, just as many publications train reporters to be experts in a particular niche.

But the beats that may be crucial in today’s world aren’t quite the same ones that most general interest publications rely on. Sure, I still need to read what the health, real estate, and crime beat reporters produce.

The idea, however, that technology is entirely separate from everything else and can be covered by just one beat reporter is severely outdated. First of all, divorcing the relevant technology from topics like business and health removes it from the context that readers need to understand the topics. Technology is integrated into every part of our lives; even someone who doesn’t use technology personally brushes up against it every time she leaves her house.

Second, however, there are certain issues related to technology that, when bundled together, make an overwhelming mess for a reporter. Having the same person covering privacy issues and reviewing the latest hardware specs just doesn’t make sense. Nick Diakopoulos makes a very good argument for creating beat reporter positions that cover algorithms specifically. Personally, I’d love to see a privacy beat.

How these changing beats may play out is more a question of resources at individual publications than pure journalistic idealism but hopefully editors will take note of Diakopoulos’ article and consider who should really be covering what in their newsrooms.

Our Tools Dictate the Way We Think

The tools we use for writing change what we have to say. While most of the time I write in front of a computer, I also spend a lot of time writing long hand.

I use a fountain pen and a legal pad — an echo, perhaps, of reading about an author who did just that when I was still in high school. I’ve had an obsession with fountain pens for longer than that. I remember my dad letting me use his pen when I was you — a massive pen that I could barely write with, let alone write in cursive.

But, obsessions aside, I’ve noticed some major differences between the words I write with a pen and those I write on a computer. The self-editing process is one of the most obvious changes: on a computer, it’s practical to keep going back to the previous line and making changes. I shape my sentences, add transitions, and even eliminate repeated words all through the process of writing.

Making changes when writing by hand is far more difficult, so I tend to just write. I tell myself that when I type up a particular project I can edit it then. It’s more of an ideal way to write — it’s easier to get into the flow of the process and press on.

I like to say that I don’t get writer’s block. Wanting to eat keeps me motivated and moving forward. The reality is, of course, more complicated: I can’t afford writer’s block, so I build approaches into my day that keep my brain rolling. I write on my legal pads first, getting myself in the flow of writing. I essentially prime the pump so there are already words coming out before I start working on the computer. I rarely handwrite anything for a client, but getting to work on something I enjoy first seems to help even more, so I don’t worry about my topic first thing.

Part of the reason I keep client work to the computer is that I’ve noticed some key differences between my style on paper and on screen. I’m more willing to describe my own experiences away from the screen — a part of me feels that paper is less judgmental. But even my sentence structure varies: when I write on a computer, my sad addiction to parentheticals and appositives becomes evident. On paper, I use them much less often. I prefer simple sentence structures, perhaps because they are easier to construct when you don’t have the option of self-editing. I do have a tendency towards colons when writing by hand.

Word choice is another place where my writing diverges, though perhaps not for the reasons you think. When I work on my computer, I have a piece of software called TextExpander turned on. There are certain words and phrases that I don’t want to appear in my writing, mostly because I overuse them. When I type those words, TextExpander ‘expands’ them into glaring reminders to avoid using those verboten word choices. Of course, there is no way to automatically delete words when writing by hand. I do sometimes notice that I’m spelling out a word that Text Expander will take me to task on. I’ve got an anti-authority streak a mile wide, so I generally take pleasure in writing those words all the way out

Science has demonstrated that we think differently with a pen in our hands than with our fingers on a keyboard. That’s why students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are often handed a laptop. One is not better than the other — they’re just different options. And for anyone doing creative work, having those options is useful. When you re trying to create and there’s a problem, having a way to entirely switch the way you think about your work — perhaps just by taking a few steps — is invaluable.

I see a tendency in many fields to teach only computer-based skills — usually because working through a computer is so much faster. But the underlying skills are valuable. Even in computer programming, being able to step back and write out some pseudo-code can be a useful skill. Sink some time into doing your work the old hard way. You may be surprised by the results.

Hemingway’s Automated Approach to Editing

Hemingway is a new writing app that helps writers improve their craft. You can write directly in the app (though doing so wouldn’t be my first choice), but it really shines during the editing process.

When you put some text into Hemingway, the app automatically highlights problem areas. The process is subjective, of course, but it focuses on cleaner writing, along the lines of Ernest Hemingway’s short sentence structure and crisp prose. Even if that doesn’t match your own style as a writer, the app can be useful.

It specifically highlights the following:

  • Passive voice
  • Adverbs
  • Complex words
  • Sentences that the app deems hard to read (which are differentiated from)
  • Sentences that the app deems very hard to read

I’ve already gotten into a few arguments with Hemingway: while I am perfectly happy to see the passive voice eliminated like the blight it is, I use more complex words and sentence structures than the app approves of. Some of those sentences can be improved, no doubt. But Hemingway is an automated editing tool — Papa doesn’t always know best. Sometimes an extended sentence length and an abundance of commas don’t indicate a poorly written sentence. Hemingway is tripped up by anything its programming doesn’t expect (like a proper name ending in ‘ly).

Hemingway’s ability to estimate a reading grade level is a useful feature. I wish more tools existed for measuring the usefulness of writing, especially for the web. We write for a wide variety of audiences and being aware of our reach is useful.

However, Hemingway would be far more useful integrated into a more established writing tool. It’s meant for editing, not writing. If you want to be sure you won’t accidentally lose your work, you need to copy and paste text into the app. Then, once you’ve made your edits, you need to add them to the central version of your work. Those added steps mean I won’t use Hemingway as a day-to-day tool.

Review: Be Awesome at Online Business

I picked up Be Awesome at Online Business during one of those Black Friday / Cyber Monday / Whatever Day of the Week sales a couple of months ago. While it puts a heavy emphasis on the design aspects of online business, it’s a good introductory text for people who are thinking of moving into the online space.

Paul Jarvis, the author, lays out his purpose for creating the book right off the bat: he’s a web designer who wants his clients to really get the concepts behind building an online business. It’s a noble and sensible goal and I have a feeling I’m going to use his book for precisely that purpose. It’s hard to explain approaches both web design and content marketing if a prospective client doesn’t understand the underlying mechanisms by which businesses need to operate to work well online.

If you’re a creative professional helping clients define their online presence in any way, “Be Awesome at Online Business” may be an effective tool for you. You likely know most of the topics the book describes if you’re already working with that audience, but you won’t have to rehash every concept with each new client you work with.

I’d also like to pop in a push for Everything I Know, one of Jarvis’ other books. You might shelve “Everything I Know” with the manifestos, but it’s got some great messages that entrepreneurs need to hear on a regular basis. Most importantly, we have to keep making things and putting them out in the world. We have to make the things that are truly ours and and bring some personality to the game. It’s a reminder that I know I need regularly, and if you’re in the same boat, “Everything I Know” is a fast read that will drive the message home again for you.

What Makes an Ebook Really an Ebook?

When is an ebook better than a printed book? When it includes resources that a physical book could never provide. I picked up a copy of The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide (an excellent resource for anyone using Markdown) and have been thinking about what really constitutes an ebook ever since.

I opted for the PDF version of David Sparks and Eddie Smith’s ebook. The PDF version is actually the secondary option, though, with the iBookstore version taking precedence. I prefer PDF for flexibility, despite being one of those people who mostly buys their hardware from Apple.

The reason that the iBookstore version might be preferable is because of the sheer amount of non-written content built in to the ebook. Every section seems to have something in addition to some very well written content, like a screencast or an audio interview. The same multimedia content came along with the PDF, though it isn’t embedded in the document. All in all, The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide weighs in at 130 pages, one and a half hours of video and one hour of audio.

We all have a working definition of a ‘book’ as a bunch of written content, perhaps with some images thrown in. But what happens to that definition as we shift over to reading our books on devices that make integrating video and audio content extremely simple? I wouldn’t be surprised if the definiton of books expands to include most types of content, though I’ll be very surprised if the word disappears from use — there’s a few too many of us bibliophiles out there for that.

On the surface, I love the idea that I can have all sorts of media in my reading material. But I want more data: how easy is it to process this mix? I shift back and forth pretty easily, but I spend all day glued to a computer monitor. For some readers / watchers, I could see this mix being very helpful, but for others I could see it causing distractions. Integrating more materials could change the interpretation of books: if there isn’t a video about a certain section, it clearly couldn’t be important. I know I get hung up on points in given books that the author may have included as a throw away. Will those points get lost.

I found The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide incredibly useful. I don’t expect to have answers about the right way to integrate media content for quite a while, but it’s a topic worth paying attention to. We’re going to see more examples every day, for the near future.