writing

READING OLD NOTES: gaining insight through reflection

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I keep a stack of moleskine notebooks and serviceable knock-offs on a bookshelf in my writing studio. They are filled with meeting notes, doodles, writing prompts, sketches, and lists of peculiar word pairings that I imagine using in future pieces. There’s also some wise advice I’ve picked up and scribbled into the margins during this work-and-life journey.

I admit that once these notebooks are filled, I rarely pick them up or thumb through them again.

That is until recently.

I had been feeling anxious about a writing assignment and a personal project. I was struggling to start, to finish, to find the right words. They weren’t coming. More than writer’s block, it was a questioning of my abilities to perform my core work.

So I began thumbing through old words. Past projects. Thing that at one time seemed daunting. Things that felt important to commit to paper.

I wasn’t looking for anything particular. I was simply revisiting and reflecting on past experiences and old ideas.

And it made me stop and think: why is it that we scan old photo albums (or file folders) with a sense of wonder and excitement? Why does Facebook send us anniversary milestones of friendships? Why do we painstakingly curate playlists in Spotify from the 80s or 90s when there’s so much new music across any genre for us to enjoy? Why do we show up and honor, in our own special way, those whom we’ve lost?

 

Because we need to be reminded.

 

Reminded of what’s important and what matters;

what we’re striving for and what keeps us in the game;

what gives us life and purpose, hope and joy.

 

Looking for the right words and answers continues to be an imperfect and ongoing search. If not now, then assuredly later. And you, I’m assuming, will have your own specific search that demands resolving – from the mundane to the monumental challenges.  

As I thumbed through some old notes, I found some words of advice and inspiration, and a few that served as a kick in the pants to keep going, to pick ourselves up, to get better, and to never stop.

In some cases it was as if I was reading these points for the first time. For others, I had a different perspective thanks to the experiences I’ve has since I first scrawled the words.

Maybe these words – forgotten and tucked away in a notebook on a shelf, from writers, creators and, more importantly, doers – are exactly what I need to reflect on when the load feels heavy. And maybe you, too. Maybe these words needed some light thrown back on them to push us forward. Perhaps new eyes on these once-written, spoken and acted-upon words can breathe new life into whatever it is we need to do but haven’t.

I hope they are helpful, encouraging, or a kick in the pants. If they are, then write them down. Put them in a notebook. Add to them. And consider revisiting them from time to time.

Traveler, there is no road;

you make your own path as you walk.

As you walk, you make your own road,

and when you look back you see the path

you will never travel again.

– Antonio Machado // poet

 

 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

– Annie Dillard // writer

 

 

“When we are merely competent, the value of our work is diminished until it can eventually be outsourced to the lowest bidder – making us a dispensable commodity.” (Don’t be merely competent. Be unmistakable.)

– Srinivas Rao // business author, podcaster

 

 

CRITICIZING IS EASIER THAN CREATING.

(shut up and get to work.)

 

 

The trouble with comparing yourself to others is that there are too many others. Using all others as your control group, all your worst fears and your fondest hopes are at once true. You are good; you are bad; you are abnormal; you are just like everyone else.”

– Sarah Manguso // poet

 

 

Emotion before evidence. Otherwise data will kill a good story on contact.

– Todd Henry // writer, creativity consultant

 

 

“Keep being curious. Keep being a student.

As soon as you stop doing that, as soon as you stop playing,

you stop creating great things.”

 – Matthew Luhn // writer, Pixar Animation Studios

 

At the end of my suffering, there was a door.

– Louise Glück // poet

 

 

If you listen to everyone, you will lose yourself.

You were hired for your expertise. Deliver that.”

– Ruth Carter // costume designer for Black Panther

 

 

But what if I’m not a real writer/artist/entrepreneur/etc.? Just sit down and do it.

What if my idea isn’t any good? Just try. Do it anyway.

What if nobody sees it? It’s not about who sees it, it’s about why you did it.

What if I’m stuck? When you’re at an edge, push through it.

What if this was a gigantic waste of time? Trust that it won’t be.

 – Allison Fallon // writer, coach, adapted from perspectives on writing

 

 

DARE. MIGHTY. THINGS.

Then do the work to achieve those things.

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today

Content is king. Long live content.

If you buy into this mantra, then you already know there is a daily scrum playing out across every conceivable media platform among content creators. They are pitted in a continuous battle for eyeballs, influencers and customers in hopes of grabbing those brass rings of conversation and conversion.

But here’s the rub: for too many content creators, creating exceptional content takes a backseat to creating an exceptional amount of content – even when we know that, in most cases, less is more. A few great posts will outshine a bunch of mediocre ones every time. But still we feel compelled to churn out thoughts and ideas because our content calendars and social strategies demand it. After all, we must feed the beast, right?

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today isn’t a lack of new content, the need for more boundary-pushing thinking, or getting content to audiences faster.

The biggest problem is the absence of good editing.

 

Without good editing you jeopardize your credibility and the brand you represent. Poorly conceived content often falls on deaf ears and a quickly fleeing audience. When that happens, the “Content is King” mantra can suddenly become “The King is Dead.”

You can avoid that outcome by embracing a few basic “truths” to ensure the content part of a content strategy works as it should.

  • Writers create better than they refine. Writers seek to articulate ideas through explanations, narratives, characters, examples and analogies – sometimes all in the same piece. Writers also can justify a dozen different ways to say the same thing. Truth be told, undisciplined writers can take a good story or message and make it confusing, exhausting and even complicated – and that’s not a strong value proposition for building an audience. But first, allow the creators create. Refinement is what follows. 
  • Writers need content editors. Content editors find the essence of the story and cut the extraneous stuff and fluff that doesn’t add value or paint a clearer picture. They uphold clarity and conciseness. Through their work they make writers better, which is why writers need to consider them as their most trusted allies. Perhaps you’ve noticed that more of your favorite or trusted sources for news are publishing content riddled with typographical errors. The rush to "break the news" has always been there. But with the steady decline of copy editors, writers and the brands they represent look sloppy in the process – and that works to erode confidence.
  • The self-sufficient writer/editor is a rare species. Writers can wear the content editing hat to a point, but eventually they become too close to the subject matter to be critical. This clouds objectivity and a willingness to be brutally honest about the content. Writers need objective content editors who embrace the red pen.
  • Self-editing is an oxymoron. The knee-jerk reaction is to get those comprehensive ideas out there in all of their informed glory – right now. In contrast, few individuals and organizations are willing to chew on those ideas, let them percolate, and hone their potential through rigorous editing. Because writers know what they intend to say, it leads to reading over how things actually appear during the self-editing process. Self-editing is no substitute for a second set of eyes.

 

Six considerations for your content creation process

As a content creator, you need a process to develop your best work. These six content creation considerations help us get better and they can do the same to improve any piece of content you create.  

  • Write. Then walk away. Get your ideas down and then walk away. Engage your mind on other work and return to it later so the ideas become fresh again. A refreshed eye will reveal what ideas are worth keeping and expanding upon, and those that just aren't clicking. If you’re working against a content calendar, don’t wait until the day of publishing to start writing. Give yourself some space to contemplate what you've developed.
  • Edit. Then edit again. Slash unnecessary descriptors. Remove extraneous metaphors. Limit your number of examples. Look at each sentence and ask – What must stay? What can go? If it’s helpful, set word count limits to help rein you in.
  • Ask for input and seek out a proofreader. These are two different exercises. With input you’re asking for a critical read about the content (content editing) from someone who is knowledgeable about your subject matter and can ask probing questions. In doing this, you’re helping the piece better resonate with your target audience. Finally, ask someone to proofread for grammar, punctuation, syntax, sentence construction, and so on. You don’t need to be an expert grammarian, you just need to have one on your team.
  • Focus on being better, not first. Looking to be the first to provide insight on a breaking news story? Good luck. There is a finite window for responsive content in relation to breaking news and a mad rush to be heard. As readers, we quickly reach a saturation point. So ask this instead: what perspectives aren’t being talking about? – and take that angle. You’re more likely to stand out in a sea of sameness that way.  
  • Not everything is meant for publication. The process of writing has a funny way of revealing interesting truths. Sometimes that truth is – this isn’t very good or I have nothing new to add to this conversation. Better to keep this work on the shelf than part of an online library that makes it difficult for your audience to find your best work. And who knows, after several good edits and a new angle at a later date, perhaps you can salvage elements of that effort.
  • Post and share with confidence. Realize nothing is perfect. There will be ideas and elements you wish you would’ve approached differently when you review your post months from now. But keep this in mind: when you’ve considered your steps to creating better content and remained true to your intent to be helpful and shed new light on a subject, allow yourself to be feel confident knowing that you’ve put forth your best thinking at the time. Your audience will benefit from that kind of effort.    

When pressed with the proposition of creating more content or creating better content, pause and take a look around at what’s being published in your field. Then decide what camp you want to be in and the type of audience you want to cultivate.

 

 

Links & likes: could they be ruining your reputation?

Perhaps you’ve seen the online quote attributed Abraham Lincoln – the one that goes "you can’t believe everything you read on the internet."

As absurd as this mash up is, its point is well taken and should make us consider the veracity of content marketing and thought leadership we receive. It also should make us check our own practices as we try to keep pace in a furious sprint to create new and fresh content.   

Stop and think: are you taking the advice, tips and counsel that permeates your inbox, LinkedIn or Twitter feed at face value? Are you clicking through the links – the subtle signposts of an expert at work – to see if what is being cited is accurate and reputable? Beyond intuition and personal experience, how do you decipher between what is brilliant and what is bunk? 

Recently, I took up the link-verifying approach while reading an online article regarding website development in a highly regarded publication. This bold subheading caught my attention:

"94 percent of comments in a recent study said that people mistrusted a website based on its design elements over its content."

As someone who relies heavily on design partners to frame the messaging and content I create, this seemed noteworthy – and perhaps shareworthy (a driving purpose behind content marketing pieces like this). Intuitively I know that good design plays a significant role in positioning content and shaping the user experience. But 94 percent?

Prior to sending the post to a design colleague, I felt compelled to dig deeper – and I’m glad I did.

By following a link related to the 94 percent stat, I was directed to a Forbes article published a year ago, which in turn linked to the original research study. That’s where I learned the truth about this stat and just how focused the research was:

  • The study was specific to health websites
  • It only observed 15 people
  • All participants were women
  • All participants “faced a risky health decision”
  • All participants lived in United Kingdom
  • The study was published in 2004 

Each of the six bullets challenge the credibility of the bold generalized statement I read. Then there is the rapid change in how we define the online user experience 12 since the study. Certainly the participants in this study did mistrust website design, and perhaps there are universal truths to be made about design and trustworthiness. However, this isn’t the link to use to make the case about web design, in general, in 2016.   

 

WHAT WE WRITE + SHARE MAKES AN IMPRESSION (FAVORABLE OR NOT)

Just like you, I read plenty of content and often have the impulse to react, share or shed light where I think it could be helpful to others. When we read articles in what we believe to be reputable publications, we make assumptions about accuracy and fact checking. We don’t have time to read all of the links and citations to validate the author as a trustworthy thought leader. We see the author is well published and a regular contributor, which signals some level of subject-matter expertise.

As the age of DIY and brand journalism plows forward with platforms that thrive on new, self-published content, the journalism institute Poynter has been documenting the rapid decline of editorial professionals in newsrooms over the last few years here, here and here. The point is that with significantly fewer fact-checking professionals ensuring what we read is accurate, we must become more diligent and critical readers. 

As content marketers and thought leaders, we must earn the trust of our audience so they return to us with regularity. That means we owe it to them to take the time to be thorough and accurate. That may seem counter-intuitive given the perceived simplicity and speed in which new content arrives and the recommendations on how often you should post content (advice from content marketing thought leaders, of course). Keep in mind: 

  • If it’s worth writing, then it’s worth writing well. Take your time, edit and revise.
  • If it’s worth publishing, then tell your best story. Your reputation as a thought leader requires it.

Our reputation and credibility are always on the line – whether we create the post or decide to pass along the commentary of others.

 

HELP RAISE THE BAR BY BEING AN ALLY

Mistakes will happen – even among the most reputable journalists and publications. Be helpful and alert content creators to a possible issue or correction that would improve their piece. When we nudge respectfully, authors should see that we’ve taken the time to improve rather than attack their piece.  

When I reached out to the author suggesting the article was intriguing but this data point was misleading, the author responded with gratitude and quickly changed the article. Now readers get a better story and the author has a credible piece of thought leadership where the opinion remains unaltered and misleading links no longer exist.