Writing

Copy Critique: How to Tell a Complex Story In Just a Few Words

More from the exhibit on WWII propaganda currently up at the FDR Presidential Library.

Apart from the gorgeous imagery here, this is an incredible example of economy and power in storytelling. The narrative told is a complicated one: Don’t talk about what you’re working on for the war effort, because spies are listening, and if they learn about shipping or attacks in advance, they might relay those orders to Berlin, who would then attack, costing lives or resources. And don’t buy into the idea that just one person mentioning something isn’t important. What one person says or doesn’t say can cost or save lives.

Got all that?

Well, you could get the same from two words of headline copy plus nine words of optional copy and an image composed of two well-balanced elements.

Everything on this poster is doing work: the size of the hand, the movement from left to right, the use of color, the choice of civilian clothes for the figure, and the transformation of the newspaper into an accusatory pointing finger.

As a copywriter, I’m normally annoyed when clients or designers ask me to use fewer words. “But the words are doing all the *work*” I often think. The images are just there to grab people’s attention to get them to think.

With this little masterpiece from the golden age of print advertising, I’m inspired to think otherwise.

Arthur Machen, the HG Wells of Horror

The Great God Pan, a short story by Arthur Machen about the intrusion into Edwardian London of a great evil, is one of the few genuinely disturbing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s disturbing in the way that a horror film can spook you, or even a personal trauma. The story sets on you only after you’ve finished it and are putting the pieces together.

I was heartened to see this appreciation of Machen over at The Paris Review. If you don’t have time to read Machen, but want to understand his importance to the modern literature of the uncanny (an ever more important mode of expression for our literary mainstream), then the piece is worth your time.

On Writing: Do More Hours Equal Better Writing?

BartlebyThe Economist’s new column about the workplace, had this to say about the way we equate success and long working hours:

If long hours were the key to success, after all, people who hold down two jobs, or nurses on the night shift in emergency rooms, would be rolling in wealth. Ronald Reagan became president despite quipping that “I’ve heard that hard work never killed anyone, but I say why take the chance?”

As with so many things, there’s a double standard about behavior and class. Work 90 hours a week as a maid? How sad. Work the same hours as a C.E.O.? How badass.

But what about creatives? I work in the advertising-public relations-marketing-industrial-complex, where the hours tend to be, shall we say, long. There’s a kind of status or protection that comes from being the most overworked and therefore the most miserable out of any group of people. Sometimes I’ve been that person. Sometimes I’ve given props to that person. And sometimes I’ve pitied that person and been glad it wasn’t me.

Whenever I’m at the office at some unholy hour, I can assure you it’s never by choice. Sometimes the hours are long because that’s just what it takes to get the job done. I’m not complaining about that. Walk through the door of an ad agency and that’s what you are signing up for. Plus, being forced to push yourself beyond what you think your limits are can be invigorating.

Up to a point.

But when does the work start to suffer? Writing and coming up with ideas is like dancing. You can only do it for so long before it starts to get clumsy and unattractive.

There are writers who say they need a certain amount of time to get into an enchanted space, where they are capable of imagining things more vividly. I don’t doubt this. And it’s true, the longer I am allowed to be in a state of flow, the more the ideas and words flow.

Up to a point.

If I were to spend 90 hours a week typing, I’d go crazy and my clients would fire me, because the words would be gibberish. There’s a point at which sheer volume of output has to be balanced against their quality, not to mention quality of life for the worker. This is where the American way of work, which assumes that sheer effort is both virtuous and the way out of every problem, collides with the reality of skilled labor. The challenge, I suppose, is knowing where to draw the line, in itself a kind of intuitive dance.

How do you strike that balance? Intuition? An app on your phone? A spouse or friend who keeps you balanced?

Misusing “around” is making us sound dishonest

Here’s an imprecision in the language that I’d like to call out for deletion: using “around” when we really mean “about,” “in support of,” “relating to,” or any other more forceful preposition.

Around is precise when it is used to describe a physical location. “Let’s all gather around the campfire” invites us to position ourselves on all sides of it. “She was hanging around the neighborhood” means she was both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

“Let’s make sure the discussion is around the topic of leadership,” however, means nothing.

That sentence could invite us to revile leadership or praise it. Using “around” to describe notions rather than places is vague in a way that is only useful to propagandists, whose job is often not to say anything substantive, but to say something merely because something has to be said. Propagandists really do speak “around” issues, the same way that soldiers patrol a neighborhood or thieves case a joint. We’re there for strategic reasons. We hang around an issue, both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

When I spotted “around” used in The New York Times by a journalist in a piece that purported to clarify the public conversation I was dismayed. Newspapers and magazines should never speak “around” anything. They speak candidly about certain issues to certain audiences with moral authority. The phrase is “speaking truth to power,” not “speaking truth around power.”

We have enough circumlocution (literally “speaking around”) of the truth these days. Let’s expunge it from the only sources of truth we have left, i.e. newspapers and magazines. If we only have enough courage or clarity to speak around something, maybe its better to stay quest until we have the force of mind to speak about it.

The view from my keyboard, Tuesday October 2nd, 2018

It’s not often these days that I get to write in places that aren’t my office, but today is one of them. Some deadlines converged unexpectedly and in order to meet them I need to be in a place where my co-workers can’t find me. Since my co-workers are in the habit of opening up the doors of conference rooms where I am working alone, in a corner, in the dark, with headphones on, that means fleeing the office entirely.

New York does many things poorly (square footage, being roach-free, public transit, politeness, smelling good, etc.) but one thing it does well is neat little street level cafés to work in, like Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, where I am alternately typing these words, and gazing out over my screen at the humanity loitering, ambling, stumbling, strutting, and zipping by. Venturing out into the world for my working day keeps me lively in a way that writing in my garret doesn’t.

And if you’re wondering what’s in the mug to the right of my computer, it’s a cup of Earl Gray, naturally.

img_8071

Note the classic combo of red brick facade and black iron fire escape over my little window.

Writers’ Houses: Seven Surprises from the House of Seven Gables

Salem, MA is not the tiny, forest-choked hamlet I’d always imagined. It’s a breezy harbor town of mazy streets lined with roomy mansions. Like Concord, MA there is a cosmopolitan feel that overlays the small town charm. The elegance and deep quiet of the place withstand the kitschy occultism of Essex Street and the downtown, which have been cashing in on the witch trials of 1692 for at least 150 years (more on that in a later post).

At the far end of town on some prime land overlooking the harbor is The House of the Seven Gables. The tour guides call it the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, but the signs and everybody else call it by the name that Hawthorne gave it, also the title of his great novel.

I’ll confess haven’t read the novel, but I have been on the tour, and here are seven things that surprised me.

1. The house did not have seven gables when Hawthorne saw it. He was having dinner with his cousin Susannah Ingersoll, lady of the house, when she mentioned that she remembered the place with seven gables in her youth. By the late 1840s, when she and Hawthorne met, her father Captain Ingersoll had long ago demolished three of the gables (triangular extensions of the roofline) to give the mansion a more streamlined modern feel. After learning of the house’s old appearance, Hawthorne raced to the attic to puzzle out where the gables had been. Today, because of the novel he wrote, the gables and the house have been restored.

2. The pine floorboards in the attic are no wider than 32-inches, because all trees that afforded any larger planks had to be shipped back to England by edict of the King, to form the hulls of ships in the Royal Navy.

3. At one point, three slaves lived in the attic. We know they lived in the attic because an inventory lists the slaves along with the other “property” that was stored there. The museum staff are looking through plantation records in Barbados, where they think the slaves may have been sold, to learn more about them, but for now they are only three names on a list.

4. The cent shop on the ground floor is not original to the house, but an early 20th-Century recreation of the one that appears in Hawthorne’s novel. Families built cent shops into their homes to sell what the industrious mothers and children of the house made by hand—baskets, dried herbs, tallow candles, etc. Both the Turners and the Ingersolls were too wealthy to need a cent shop, but one was added in the house’s restoration to satisfy the romantic expectations of museum goers.

5. Behind a panel in the dining room is a secret passage that leads to the attic. It’s a claustrophobic climb up two and a half stories through the undulating brick tube that used to be the chimney. Like the cent shop, it was built for charm over function.

6. Susannah Ingersoll, Hawthorne’s cousin and frequent entertainer, whom he nicknamed “The Duchess,” never married, likely because she didn’t want to be forced to hand over her family’s considerable fortune to her husband. So she went into business for herself and made an additional family fortune trading real estate in the Salem area.

7. Hawthorne’s childhood home is just across the garden, but it was originally down the street. It was moved to its current location in the 1950s to avoid being demolished. I like to think that it was in the kitchen near the massive brick fireplace that would’ve warmed the house 365-days a year, that Hawthorne heard and read the tales which first kindled his own genius. I started tapping the words of this post in the very same kitchen.

I’m heading to Concord later this autumn and maybe to Sleepy Hollow, too so more writer’s houses to come. And more on Salem later this week.

Me, with the House of Seven Gables. The new sections were added after a record string of storms last winter, which the 350-year old house withstood better than the 20th-Century visitors’ center.

The hearth that warmed Hawthorne’s childhood.

The Ha(w)thorne House.

The view from my keyboard, Sept. 28, 2018

It seems the only days I end up working at the Providence Athenaeum, where Poe and Lovecraft wrote, are days which could be the start of one of their stories. There is rain skittering over the skylights, the leaves brushing the windowpanes are just turning color, the sky is darkening, and it’s a too cold for the light jacket I brought. It’s cozy, but with a coming chill I’m not quite ready for.

img_8106

img_8105

H.P. Lovecraft bust in the Athenaeum, funded in part by Guillermo del Toro.