The Importance of Fresh Perspective

diver-in-kelp-tank-c2016-jillcbaker-400-px

I sometimes recall a long-ago Sociology class where our professor had us all sit on the floor. The objective was to help us gain a fresh perspective about the world – to look at things differently, to shed our assumptions about good and bad entities and to replace that categorization with an understanding of the important dynamic created by both forces.

The same is true for writing. All too often, especially when working in a corporate capacity, we get “too close” to the product or service. We assume that others know what we’re discussing. We revert to industry lingo or technical terms that may not resonate with the end user. We rely on acronyms that hold no meaning for the outsider. We overlook unanswered questions that newcomers may have because, based on our own experiences, we have already found those answers.

The need for fresh perspective is an excellent argument for utilizing an external resource – a freelance writer, an editor, or a consultant. “Fresh eyes,” is what I sometimes call it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is another phrase I use. To me, that’s the ability to say with brutal honesty, “It’s still not clear how to work with your company” or “I know what your product does but I still don’t understand how to use it.”

* TAKE A BREAK.

As an exercise, it’s wise for authors to step back or step away for a few days. Upon returning, we find ourselves more observant and critical. “I see what the character is doing, but what’s his motivation? Why did he choose to take that action at this particular time?” With direct response copy, a clear head can also catch important oversights: “I see what the monthly payments are, but nowhere does it say what the total cost will be. That seems deceptive.”

* LOOK FOR THE SECOND RIGHT ANSWER.

Gaining a fresh perspective can also help us avoid clichés. It’s easy to revert to catch phrases and familiar metaphors while telling a story. “She had a song in her heart.” Really? Let’s be cynical: “How did the song get there? What is it singing?” Perhaps we should explain more authentically: “After a week in the sunshine, her mood shifted from a sense of futility to a gradual joyfulness that caused her to hum as she puttered around the garden, pulling weeds and turning topsoil. The combination of warm earth and trilling birdsong lifted her spirits and opened her mind to new possibilities.”

* TURN THINGS INSIDE OUT AND UPSIDE DOWN.

As writers, we must force ourselves to see things others don’t. For example, we all see cars, trucks, and taxis as vehicles that pass us by on a busy city street, but what if we were in an airplane or skyscraper looking down? That’s an entirely different canvas made possible by a change of perspective. We become observers, empowered by our position. We see an interchange of moveable parts, we notice advertising on the tops of buses, we become aware of colors and patterns, might even be able to anticipate an impending accident or traffic jam. Fresh perspectives provides wisdom and scope.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a wonderful aquarium presentation staged around a kelp tank at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  As we stood safe and dry on the outside of the enormous 70,000 gallon tank, we could look in and up to see the fish swim by. We watched moray eels emerge from the tangle of plants… observed an immense sea bass rise to the surface and descend for food. Two divers entertained us – one cleaning the tank, one feeding the fish. Just seeing the continual interaction of these graceful sea creatures and the light filtering through the water transported us to a place we didn’t know … a place where peacefulness and fluidity could translate into a descriptive paragraph or plot.

So let’s ask when writing: “What would this incident look like if I were one of the characters? What would I see, feel, taste, hear, or smell?” Alternately, let us imagine ourselves encountering the incident as an observer. “What would make me stop and pay attention?” Sure, there is the obvious — “there’s a sinkhole forming in the road” — but perhaps it’s the small detail that takes us there:  “A mouse scurried across the road only to stop at the edge of the cavern created by cracking concrete.”

In thinking about the kelp tank, I’m reminded that “blue” might be nice in describing something but perhaps teal, the color of peacock feathers, or turquoise, the color of an underwater garden, might be more compelling.

Text Stop — The Need to Write

text-stop-c2014wordsonthefly

I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny other than that it elevated texting to a basic need. Communication of course is essential to our well-being, but is not usually regarded with the same urgency as “rest stop.”

In thinking about this, though, maybe writing and communication are more necessary to human survival than might appear.

For people who write, words dance in our heads. Sometimes “they need to get out” – they need to be captured by pen or keystroke lest they vanish, lest we forget.

Once as a student, I woke from a compelling dream, and keeping pen and pad on my nightstand, forced myself to jot down notes before falling back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at my scribbles and saw they were gibberish. So much for the perfect plot line.

The need to write can be healthy in that it drives us to organize our thoughts, energizes us when we’re tired, pushes us to perfection, motivating us to add one more letter, one more line, paragraph, page — until it “feels right.”

Do you remember the movie Quills?  It was fairly disturbing, taking place in an insane asylum that housed the Marquis de Sade. While most of us associate him with other unsavory acts, this film focused on his obsession with writing as a protest against censorship and was a conveyance of mental imbalance. For him, writing was a compulsion, a therapy, a release. While I don’t recall too many details, I do remember leaving with the sense that writing was in fact, his “life blood.”

Sometimes the persona of “writer” makes us cranky as we watch others empowered with social media tools. OK, some are glib, informative and thought-provoking, but others are just plain self-serving, illiterate and nasty. To this end, we need to continually distinguish ourselves in skill, accuracy, and originality.

The ability to write serves different purposes. Sometimes we write because it’s necessary (“Jimmy, please write a thank you note to Grandma.”); sometimes we write to avoid face-to-face confrontation (“Susie, I’m sorry I stood you up the other night.”); writing gives us a voice (“Dear Sirs: The car you sold me is a lemon.”); writing conveys leadership. (“As my research findings show…”)

But what if writing is simply indulgent? I say, go for it! Sit on a bench in a meadow and pretend you’re in a Victorian Garden or on the high seas or in outer space. Writing helps us travel, imagine, age with wisdom or return to youth.

Yet writing isn’t all about emotion. This word-business can be lucrative, too. Sometimes aspiring writers forget that not everyone is an editor, English teacher, columnist or novelist. There are copywriters, speech writers, web writers, direct response writers, grant writers, medical writers, and technical writers to name a few. For any industry or profession, you will surely find writers who specialize in those topics and are gifted at generating vast volumes of content in a world that is hungry for it.

What about ghost writing? Could you do it? Not sure I could. I think I’d want to take credit for my work. (because — despite the gratification– it is work, especially when someone else is depending on it)

Sometimes the challenge of writing short is just as difficult as writing long. The 140 characters of a Tweet aren’t always enough to express a full thought, but then again, drafting a 400 page manuscript is not something most of us have time to do… so maybe how we write is a  matter of convenience, something we shape and format for the occasion.

I remember climbing into the cliff dwellings of Bandalier, an ancient Native American site in New Mexico, thinking that this need to write is wired into the human psyche.  There on the cave walls, ceilings, and rock sides are petroglyphs that tell the stories of long ago. There are tales of travel, symbols of strength, and a suggestion of seasons. Thanks to pictorial writing, history is alive here.  It envelops us, transports us, helps us understand– or in more modern terms, “it engages us.”  How ironic.  We act as if story telling were new.

Prepositions — The Secret of Good Infographics

I grew up in a small town, but it wasn’t until my pre-teen years, sleeping on a cot in a screened porch one summer, that I awoke to the realization I lived in a valley.

I had never really thought about it before, but on that day for some reason, I noticed mist hanging in the hills and I watched intently as it dispersed with the sunrise. I was dwarfed by the magnitude of it all, and yet I found my place in it.

woods-hill-c-2014-wordsonthefly

Last week I ran to the window because deer were sighted in the woods. I didn’t see any, so I reached for binoculars in hopes of getting a closer look. Still, I couldn’t find them.

Then someone said, “Look higher” – and sure enough – I saw the backsides of two handsome deer moving slowly across the hilltop. Once again, I had forgotten that I lived in the curve of the earth. I needed to be reminded of my relative position.

That’s what prepositions do for nouns. Prepositions describe a spatial relationship and include words like above, under, beyond, and through… during, over, inside, near.

I’m not one to write “by the book,” so I give very little thought to prepositions, but I was recently reminded of their importance when trying to have an infographic designed.

Most of us know that infographics are schematics that help tell a story or explain a concept, but like many things we take for granted, most of us don’t think about the precision of language that influences their design.

When a writer provides input for an infographic, there must be clarity and accuracy in description — and sometimes the writer must push for it by asking repetitive questions.

When a client says, “our software ‘supports’  their hardware,” the writer is going down a slippery slope. Just what does ‘support’ mean?

When I think of “support,” I think of architecture. “That’s a supporting wall, the beam supports the roof” – but if I’m asking a designer to create an infographic – my words need to be more explicit. “The doo-dad sits on top of the watchamacallit” – and therefore the watchamacallit supports the doo-dad.

Or is it that the doo-dad leans on the watchamacallit? Maybe the watchamacallit encloses the doo-dad and supports it as an exoskeleton.

Good writers must be persistent.  Are we even sure there’s physical proximity when talking about this “support?”  Perhaps not. Maybe the “support” is virtual or spiritual. “The social worker supports the family in need.” That might be conveyed with two-way arrows, to imply a dialogue.

Then again, “support” can be in the form of an umbrella, an over-arching canopy: “The professional association supports its members by providing training and health care.” That’s a different visual.

Support can come from within: “His faith was his greatest support.” Or it can come from “around”: “Her support network was extensive.”  Another interpretation could require a three-dimensional illustration:  “The earth’s surface supports vast oceans.”  Or maybe the support is microscopic. “A crystal is supported by unique chemical configurations.”

So when we write – and when we work with designers who depend on our words – we have to remember that we live in a valley and to look up the hill – because to take phrases at face value will fail to convey the meaning – and that leads to misunderstanding — and unnecessary revisions.

143 and Other Nonverbal Communication

I had never heard of “143” until I saw it written in a good-bye book for a colleague. Upon searching it, I learned that it became nonverbal shorthand in 1894, long before friends ever texted BFF or LOL. As described in this post, the digits represent lighthouse code for “I Love You” or “I Miss You,” with the numerals indicating a sequence of flashes.

That’s made me think how often we convey meaning with no words at all –a stern glance, a wink, a roll of the eyes, a tapping foot. The translation is easy: “don’t you dare,” “yeh, sure,” “you’ve gotta be kidding,” and “is this ever going to end?”

baby-hands-cwordsonthefly-2013

From the first days of infancy, a child learns to communicate without speaking. A baby quickly discovers that a smile begets a smile, a touch begets a touch. I found it interesting to learn in talking with a new mom that she was using American Sign Language http://www.handspeak.com/ in tandem with voice to communicate with her eight month old baby. It makes perfect sense. Just because the baby can’t articulate doesn’t mean he can’t express his needs.

So it is with writing – we don’t always have to be blunt. As writers, our words are a touch… they can be a gentle caress, an accidental brush, or a suggestion of something more.

Mimes, of course, are masters at nonverbal conversation. “Help, I can’t get out of this box,” is a message that comes across loud and clear… or rather, silently and clear. Dance conveys emotion with nary a word. A symphony raises the spirits and conjures up images of victory just as easily as it instills a sense of fear and chase. Graphics that dissolve slowly or pound and pulsate create very different messages without language.

Those of us who use words could learn from our nonverbal counterparts. Perhaps comics do it best – with that intentional, prolonged pause… what professionals call “timing” in order to maximize the punch line.

How does this apply to writing? We might think of it as restraint.

Some of the most effective writers craft their messages as one would fishing… letting out the line, reeling it in. Letting it out, getting a bite, reeling it in – but not before a little play.

I happen to be reading The Magus by John Fowles.  Not sure how it escaped me all these years, but somehow it landed in my hands and sucked me in like quicksand. I see this technique at work and am enjoying the nonverbal tease. The main character meets a mysterious millionaire and finds himself at the fellow’s estate. There are hints at unusual activities, but nothing is certain. There’s the vague scent of a woman’s perfume and footsteps on gravel, but no immediate reveal. There’s talk of war, philosophy and classics but without hard edges. What a joy for the imagination. All so subtle.

While this technique would fail in online writing where we have to convey information fast, we could use it in a long form fundraising letter or in an image ad. For example, “every day 1 in 4 children” etc… “once a month, 3 out of 5 employees.”   Here we set the stage and then stretch it out:  this is the situation… this is how the situation feels … can’t you just empathize with the victims in the situation?… and then we bring it on home: “And that’s where we come in.”

Sometimes it’s hard to give a nonverbal cue in writing. A nod or a nudge doesn’t translate well in e-mail. But behold the parentheses! Give your recipient an “aside.” For example: “Here are the facts, Joe. (I’ll tell you how I got them, later)”or “Let me tell you what happened today. (You know I’m smiling, right?)”

And then of course, let’s not forget the ellipsis: … (dot, dot, dot)… As writers, we can create time to pause, to ponder, to leave room for thought. So rather than impose our definitive conclusion, we can give readers a gentle hug that says, “go on… you can do it … take a moment and read between the lines.”

Descriptive phrases can fill in where words fall short. A narrator or interpreter can carry the plot when a character is silent. In press releases, authors used to signal the conclusion with a simple number:  -30- (two digits that in old newspaper days meant “end of story.”)

The Man in the Mill

I’ve run into people who appreciate words. I’ve met them at bookstores, classrooms, podiums, and theaters.

Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to meet a word enthusiast in such an unlikely setting – an 83 year-old gristmill, off a quiet country road, on a random Saturday morning.

gristmill-wayside-inn-c2012-wordsonthefly
You see, this man was a guide at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA. The Inn dates back to Colonial Times (built in 1716) and was later (1863) immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his “Tales of a Wayside Inn.”

In 1923, Henry Ford bought the building and surrounding 3,000 acres of land in hopes of turning  the Wayside Inn into a living museum of Americana. During the years that followed, he imported a one-room school house, built a fully functional gristmill (1929) and constructed the Martha-Mary Chapel (1940).

Although there were only five of us inside the mill that day (including a Mom and two smart, earthy children), the miller/educator gave us an in-depth presentation, focusing not on the mechanics of the mill (as others have done in the past), but on the origins of the words related to milling.

Quite the entertainer, he shot questions out to the kids, challenged them to be smarter than “us adults,” and took divergent twists and turns in his thinking.
First, he pointed out the differences in the colors of wheat product …brown whole wheat vs white wheat flour. He dispelled the myth of bleaching, and showed instead by sifting, how removal of the bran would leave the finer flour white.

gristmill-jars-wayside-inn-c2012-wordsonthefly

He posed a trick question and asked what part of the wheat was most nutritious, delighting in the fact that most people got it wrong by saying the bran. Hah! Bran is cellulose and non-digestible, he explained, so while it was “good for you” in terms of providing fiber, there was no nutrition in it at all.

(And so we’re reminded about the power of Marketing)

Much like a teacher (though he claimed he wasn’t), the miller asked if we knew the difference between “flour” and “meal.” We all came up with reasoning relating to the grind. Nope. He explained that “meal” was a Franco-German derivative that simply meant “grain” – as not to be confused by the term “Indian Corn” that was neither Native American or corn, per se. He explained that “corn” used in this context, also drew from Germanic roots, and also meant “grain.”

Here are more wheat-related terms for those interested.

I learned a lot that morning, not only about the by-products of milling, but about how words can convey a passion – and breathe life into something that could have been mundane. This experience offered a bridge to the past. There was a connection and energy in the conversation. Something bigger than the items at hand. Simple household goods like bread and cereal suddenly possessed historic importance. The humble work of milling rose to the stature of science.  Through this man’s story-telling expertise, it became clear that bread sustained life – in more than a few ways.

As I moved out into the light, my mind was heightened with word-awareness. I kept thinking about the importance of precision in writing and about wheat (or the metaphor of it) in much grander terms:

Up from the earth, the wheat sprung. Absorbed sun, rain, and blue skies. Grew sweet, plump and yellow until the heavy heads drooped. Enter mankind… with nimble fingers, blades, and threshers. Usher in industry, silos, and conveyor belts. Add one small grain to another to sustain a society. Granaries.  Groceries. Bakeries. Worn kitchen tables with striped bowls and the smell of yeast rising… wooden cutting boards and checkered cloths. Melted butter, spilling over crispy crust.

Ah, bread, “The Staff of Life.” … and words, the crux of communication.