The Importance of Fresh Perspective

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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.

Two Writings from a Retreat

As writers who produce on demand and on deadline, it’s important to restore the creative energy that inspires us. Sometimes a few days away can make all the difference.

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DAWN:

The sad thing is, this happens every day — and I miss it. Somewhere between the time the night dies and the day is born, the Lake puts on a show. The strip of land that separates sky from water turns purple and the air above it turns pink… and the flat plane of reflection below morphs to match it.

Everything is rosy to start. All  is colored by a soft brush. Slowly, slowly the light changes and the dock catches fire with the glow of the sun. Then the dappling of the woods begins as leaves shift slightly in an imperceptible breeze: yellow, green, yellow, green.

The strip of land turns gray, turns blue, as the skywater pales and the pink disappears.

By now, small birds chirp loudly overhead, distant crows call, and the tremolo of a loon cuts through the still morning air. The reflection eastward is blinding.

Shadows form. Backlit ferns become translucent in the unfolding plot as a red squirrel skirts across a carpet of dry leaves.

LATE MORNING:

Padding through pine needles, soft in the silent woods, we follow a new trail, but who are we kidding? These woods are venerable, old, and we can feel the native paths that run beside us.

There is great spirituality associated with the loon and legends that recount a gift given in return for its plaintive, guiding call. I look around to see if I can catch a glimpse of buckskin or moccasin, but I see nothing other than moss and lichen.

Listen — as the water laps dockside. You can hear the hum of a low-powered motorboat in the distance and an occasional splash of a fish breaking the surface.

Pointy leaves float against the sky that has fallen into the water.

Quiet. Quiet. There are no keyboards. My electronically bruised ears start to heal. Toes uncurl. Heartbeat decelerates.

Sweet pine needles in the woods cascade over rocks like a stream, rocks we know belong exactly where they landed some Ice Age ago.

Here in the woods, balance prevails, governing the play of light and shadow, the mix of solitude and the grand sense of belonging.  Nothing is harsh here. Edges are round where the lake curves; voices are hushed and dispersed.

Birds go silent as the sun rises. Steaming coffee courses through my veins.

The Lake beckons with its clear, cool water, but there is no rush today. This is my retreat  — at a time of transition.

The Marvel is in The Details

I gladly forfeit that old ‘devilish’ phrase for something more uplifting – and that is a reminder to all writers:  bank those glorious details for a rainy day!

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I recently changed jobs which doubled my commute, but rather than complain about slow roads and traffic jams, I decided to use the time wisely.

Each day, I try to notice something new — one small detail that had previously eluded me – an image, a name, a nuance that could enrich future writing.

I’ve become aware of changing light and discovered that early morning sun dapples some roofs more than others. One stands out like a French cottage, its shingles a mosaic of pale grays and soft greens, a playful mottled contrast to the somber colors nearby.

I’ve noticed how “ghost leaves,” as I’ve started to call them, still hang in the trees even though fall and winter are gone. Tan and translucent, they flutter on brittle stems — delicate and wing-like in their demeanor. They remind me of dry moths caught in spider webs.

I’ve become more aware of birds, too, smiling as I often do, when a flock of small budgies launch from a telephone wire and toss themselves like a handful of pepper against the sky… and I’ve noticed red tailed hawks circling slowly with fringed wings splayed, riding the updrafts like gliders … and I always enjoy geese falling into formation, usually with two stragglers at the end doing double time to catch up.

Maybe my quest for details is propelled by reading David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This has been a treat for me … a big, hefty hardbound volume with a finely illustrated cover and thick, tactile-pleasing  pages … purchased for $2 from a Library book sale shelf.  For me it’s been an indulgence; it’s not about work. It’s not cool and digital. I didn’t buy it for the action or steamy plot. I was intrigued by the liner notes and a few phrases that jumped out.

I notice the reviews range from 1 to 5 … that is “not so good” to “great.” I’d be on the greater side, not just because of characters and conviction, but because of the rich, “effortless” writing style. I want to be able to use descriptive phrases like this, without a sense of phoniness or contrivance. I want to describe that “alder-choked ravine” and creek “filled with pale green grass laid over in the current like mermaid hair.” I’ve seen that creek before, pulled my shoes and socks off and plunged my hot feet in. What a gift that someone could conjure up that raw sensation and give it back to me.

Isn’t that what makes some writing resonate while other attempts fail?  Details recover memories and deep emotions. They trigger something imperceptible but vital. Today, in writing content, we talk about “reader engagement.” The term may be new but the art isn’t. Details have been doing this for ages.

Details are like fine tailoring. They require work, but stitched together and strategically placed, they add quality and structure.

A good writer knows when to share and when to withhold details because they can be used in two important ways: (1) to provide a vivid picture so the reader sees exactly what you want them to see or (2) to tease them enough so their imaginations can run wild.

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.

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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.

“Great” Ain’t So Great. Put a Macro Lens on Your Language.

Playing with a macro lens the other day, I was reminded that cabbage isn’t necessarily a dull green ball.  macro-red-cabbage-200-px-c-2012-wordsonthefly1 In fact, it can
be violet
, royal, laced with intricate, sensual patterns in white, a labyrinth of curves and crevasses. It’s certainly more than coleslaw and the makings for “Holiskhes.”

The same is true about words. Take the word “Great,” for instance. I’m so tired of hearing it, and yet I’m as bad as the next guy in using it:   “Great to see you!” “What a great idea!” “Isn’t that great news?” But what has “great” told us? Absolutely nothing, other than to convey a sense of elation.

“Great” is one of the biggest wastes of space when you’re counting words. Why use up a Tweet character or air time on a mundane word when there are so many others that add substance. “Great” is convenient but lazy.

Think about business writing, when you have to convey a message fast. Say you have the prospect’s attention for 5 seconds and you opt for a headline that reads, “Greatest widget around.” Well, woopdedoo! You’ve offered no concrete information. Put that phrase under a macro lens and look at it closer.

Consider: “New, portable widget” or “Blue widget at half price” or “The last widget you’ll ever need because it’s so durable.” Now you’re saying something.
Examine the widget further.

How does it feel?  Taste? Smell? What emotion does it evoke? Confidence? Delight? Nostalgia?

“Rugged widget for the serious outdoorsman,” “Widget just like Grandma used to make,” “Succulent widget with a hint of saffron.” You see, it doesn’t matter what the widget is, but as a writer, you must make it unique. “Great” just doesn’t cut it.

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Now think about carrots. Gorgeous color. Refreshing crunch. Healthy, too.  Much like cabbage, when seen through a macro lens, there’s much more than meets the eye. There’s form and structure, rings of growth, a tuft of green at the top, and a root with incomprehensible persistence.

Now look at your widget as you looked at those carrots. “Widgets grown from the warm earth,” “Laser cut widgets for precision,” “Collectible widgets etched with the maker’s mark.”

Align your widget with a purpose to suggest value. “Widgets for the busy professional,” “Widgets to relax the mind and restore the spirit,” “Widgets that can be worn with red party pumps or beach sandals.”

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Now mix it up. See what happens when you combine bright purple cabbage, bold orange carrots, and a few sweet dried cranberries for fun.  This is so much better than “great.” Under the lens it is a “canvas of color,” “a burst of unexpected flavor,” “a landscape of texture and taste.” So back to your widget.  Maybe it offers an “effervescent splash of citrus,” “an aura of mystery,” or “a playful combination of polka dots against crisp white cotton.”

So set aside your old widget and give it a word makeover. Look at it with fresh eyes. Turn it upside down, inside out.  Describe it as if your audience has never seen a widget before. Surprisingly, your widget will no longer be just plain “great.”