If You Want To Write Something…
I’m here to assist, and I post this to offer some help and guidance.
[NOTE: this was a draft I wrote to help Made by Many’s staff write stories]
- Write about what you know, in your own voice.
- If it’s interesting to you, it will be interesting to someone else.
- Resist feeling the need to write, for example, in the way that people write on Medium, or for The Guardian. Content is often skewed by the container it sits in: when writing bends to a “house style”, explicitly codified or otherwise, it risks becoming “just another Medium post”.
- In other words: the telling of the story is as important as the content of the story.
- Not every writer needs an editor, but all writing benefits from being edited. Use me as editor, if you want to.
Giving Shape and Form to Stories, & The Freedom Of Constraints
The Blank Sheet of Paper Paradox: One can write anything! Hence, one can never start writing :(
Two ways to give a story walls:
1. The “Just Write It” approach. Doing exactly that, bashing it out and ignoring speling n stuf like that, and seeing, in the writing, what form the story naturally assumes. Then edit later.
2. Apply constraints in order to find freedom within them. I lay out some of these constraints below; they are imported from print editorial practice and they can help obviate the drift which, in my opinion, often characterises online writing.
1. Type (or Category)
In general, there are five type of content we make and publish at MxM (below). I’ve given these “rubrics” — suggested titles for each type. It might help to cross-reference what you want to write with something that has already been published:
News: updates, announcements, job offers.
Stories: experiential content, “this just happened”, opinions, reports, comments, like Isaac on Empathy, Adam on structuring research.
Models: narrating the services Made by Many offer: eg the Made by Made by Many model; a menu of services for, eg, Innovation labs.
Release Notes: case studies like Composed, published retrospectives, William on ITV & Sir Trevor.
Reports: lengthy, in-depth, thought leadership pieces, eg the Innovation Labs reports. These pieces benefit from editorial design — in other words, some nice packaging.
Maybe it helps, if you want to write something, to think, for example, “Oh it could be like that blog that Isaac wrote about Spitfires”.
2. Word Counts & Why They Help
Word counts force writers to tell their story succinctly, and avoid boring the reader. This is one essential difference (but useful technique) between pre-internet (print) writing, and what we know as blogging.
Writing for print operates under constraints— the size and number of pages in a publication. Stories often get cut down from their original commissioned length, forcing the text to work as hard as it can to tell the story, capturing attention and imagination, suspending disbelief, give readers a break from mundanity. Tabloids are the best at Minimum Viable Story.
George Orwell said, never use a long word where you can use a short one. The same applies to writing stories.
Words counts and what they allow:
<400 words — Make the point, add some detail, come to a conclusion or call to action.
800 wds — enough length to go into more depth, explore a subject a bit more deeply.
1,000 wds — the same, but a bit more; also a nice round number.
1,500 wds — getting a bit long now. The story needs to have some real substance (data, argument/narrative, and structure) to it.
2,000 wds — the story needs to be really authoritative and captivating to be this long, and the telling needs to lead the reader all the way to the end, prevent them from getting bored, like Tim’s essays on The Problem With/Solution To Design Thinking
3,000 wds — longform essayistic: needs to be broken up into clear chapters, beginning, middle, end. Otherwise the reader risks getting lost.
10,000+ wds — jack in the day job, become a novelist, or apply for a position on The New Yorker (left)
3. Format: Rethinking What “A Blog” Could Be
Some other ways of formatting stories, or giving them an angle:
- An Opinion/Commentary/Response piece: the writer Po Bronson’s solution to writer’s block: “start with something that makes you angry”.
• A list: Eight/Thirteen/99 Things You Need to [Verb] about [Noun]. What Buzzfeed does, basically.
• A Satire/P*ss-take: one of the best recently.
• An Open Letter: addressed to someone or something specific, but open to all to read. “Dear Innovation Guy At Company XYZ…”
• A research-driven article: find something from a related discipline (carpentry; trainspotting; wing-suit flying), transpose it to what you do in your work.
• An Experiential story: a report on something you’ve done, seen, discovered or learned, eg Sam on how great agencies work.
• A This Much I know: Interview someone (or yourself), transcribe it, and then remove the questions, leaving the insightful anwers.
• A Conversation: Person X talking with Person Y, moderated by person Z.
• An Essay: an argument that leads to a conclusion. Here’s a really good one on Medium.
• A Passion Piece: just something about what you really really really like (Spitfires, Isaac!)
• A Series: iterate a point of view by writing up it, responding to comments, and rewriting again. OR, serialise a more ambitious exploration of a topic, building on previous installments. This one is very interesting.
- Some Captioned Images: a set of Post-It notes, for instance.
4. Tone Of Voice
Again, write what you know, in your own language.
4.1 Also helpful: write from six inches away, or 30,000ft above.
Either go into microscopic detail on a subject, or talk about a gigantic strategy horizon. Or both. Both is best: find examples of something, analyse them and and extrapolate your findings out into a general truth or principle.
Best of all is six inches away, AND 30,000 ft AND the writer inserting themselves into the story, describing their experience of, opinion on, or response to this evidence.
You can imagine a Venn Diagram here.
This leads to…
4.2 Subject, or You & It
Information is not story: story is the human experience of information, fact or data; the narration of that information, or an argument about it.
We’re overwhelmed by information, but stories transcend information. Stories humanise data. We are human.
So, as the writer, and only as far as you feel comfortable, put yourself into the story, describe your experience of the information/facts/data you are discussing. Don’t be afraid to use the “I” word. Enjoin the readers in your experience.
4.3 Address, as in: addressing your story to someone:
In speaking it’s natural to modulate tone and address: you don’t speak to your mum in the same way you speak to a travel agent. In the same way, when writing it’s worth imagining the way you’d tell your story to the person you want to hear it. This brings us to:
It might help to think of the audience/the readers as users. Designers and engineers talk about empathy for the user: by the same token good writing “feels into” the lives of the reader, second-guessing and anticipating their reactions, speaking to their interests.
Can that the reader/user can see themselves in the story? Does the story appeal in some ways to their interests? Will they be able to relate, identify, benefit? This is the key value of working with an editor, of being edited: editors act as a proxy reader/user.
Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion*
- Logos: the data, fact, the appeal to logic. “Statistics show that nine out of ten pets prefer Pedigree Chum. Buy Pedigree Chum.”
- Pathos: the sentiment conveyed, the appeal to emotion. “My heart bleeds when I have to update Yosemite 10.3.7 — and, dear reader, I guess yours does too…”
- Ethos: “I believe this! And I urge you to believe this too!”
*Persuasion: stories don’t always have to persuade; they can merely say, observe or ask.
However, there is probably little point in publishing — in making public — unless we think that the story in question agrees with these two principles:
1. A story is something you haven’t heard before. That could mean something you have heard before, but not told in that way, that voice, or that manner.
2. Does it pass the So-What Test? Usually a story falls flat when it doesn’t come to a clear, take-home conclusion. That can be difficult to achieve; one way to do it is to set out the nub of your argument at the start of the story, and return to it at the end, reiterating it after you’ve presented your evidence, anecdote and experience.
3. This formulation might also be useful in helping to structure a story:
- How did start?
- When did it change?
- What happened next?
- What does it mean?
5. Window Dressing: Stuff That Helps Tell A Story
5.1 Headlines: An important — in fact, probably the most important — part of the story. Encapsulating what you’re about to say, and putting an intriguing spin on it.
One of the best headlines I ever read was:
J. Ive Talking
An interview with Apple’s Jonathan Ive.
(from Fast Company magazine, I think)
In the ocean of available text competing for attention, readers actually read headlines. If the headline is good, they are more likely to read on (and as writers we want our stories to be read). If the headline doesn’t intrigue, the story us likely to fail since fewer people are likely to read it.
5.2 Standfirst: sell the story you’re about to write to the reader in a (maximum) three sentence summary. Two sentences is good, one is best. Hard to do.
5.3 Subheads: a way to break up the story into discrete sections or chapters to help the reader navigate through it.
5.4 Pull Quotes: in page design terms, pull quotes were used to pull out the most important sentence, and also to break up gigantic, intimidating blocks of text.
Medium has this highlight feature which works the same way as pull quotes.
They paint a thousand words. But it’s hard finding pictures as good as this one:
So I end this with…
An Appeal To The Artists
We have no end of informative, highly rational, data-centric content; Medium is full of it. But where’s the mad weird clever smart arty odd content makes a point by enchanting, shocking, beguiling or confusing their readers?
What pictures can we use to paint a thousand words?
Can we tell stories visually?
Here’a s brilliant one Adam sent to me, from Facebook’s Julie Zhuo
This story is getting a bit long, so that’s all for now. Once again, If you want a facilitative second pair of eyes on your writing, I’m the guy with the bald head sitting between Charlotte and the big window.
Thanks for reading,
Kevin, Embedded Storyteller