R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Things That Make You Go Hmm

Notes from the Past

Twenty-three years ago today, I sat in a University of Georgia classroom taking brief end-of-term notes on final portfolio requirements. The seminar instructor, Dr. Christy Desmet, remains one of my all-time favorite professors.

No, I don’t know how I managed to save this notebook for over two decades.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Last Day of School, 1981

On this day in 1981, I finished 1st grade.

Last summer, my mother found in her attic this worn, yellowed sheet of Blue Horse tablet paper. I’m not sure how it survived 37 years of moves, heat, and humidity. Check out the black Sharpie smiley-face at upper right. Somehow, Mrs. Reba Taylor even managed to check everyone’s work before first-grade cookout pandemonium descended upon her classroom.

Friday, May 29, 1981
Today is the very last day of this school year. We are going to have a cookout to celebrate. I hope all of you have a nice summer!

At first, I thought the oversized-pencil handwriting was my sister’s. It looks like the pre-3rd-grade-cursive, little-kid version of her grown-up print penmanship. But Val reminded me that in 1981 she hadn’t yet learned to write, and wouldn’t until the fall of that year.

This is unexpected. It’s also the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

In the turn lane

For a week, the oily-matte black carcass lay undisturbed in the middle of the turn lane. On either side, three more lanes of car and critter hurried past the spiky scramble of feathers. Hard freeze, hard thaw, hard rain—nothing would touch it.

In rural west Georgia, where I grew up, dead animals in the road are a fact of life. With these dead animals comes nature’s clean-up crew. They make quick work of flattened and ruptured squirrels, opossums, armadillos, dogs, coyotes, cattle, errant guinea hens, eerily headless eight-point bucks, and the occasional feral hog. Every creature eats. Every creature is eaten. In the circle of life, flesh never goes to waste.

But all that happens outside of town, in the country. Here, a hundred yards inside the city limits, was not where I expected to see broken wing and frozen talon devastated against asphalt. Like many of us, it sought the company of others, working best in groups. Like many of us, it flew into fate unaccompanied, at a time and in a place it neither expected nor desired.

Only death will eat a vulture.

 

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

On the Southern Gothic

RSWilliams_Quote003_Dec2013

Define “error.”

What would happen if I tried to follow myself on Facebook?

RSWilliamsWrite_FBFollowError

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: 4/10/13

You Are Somebody's Reason to Smile (LaGrange, Georgia - 8 November 2012)

LaGrange, Georgia—8 November 2012

100 watts of fun

Answering the doorbell on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter stands there waiting.

ME: Hi! What’s going on?
GIRL: Miss Rachael, do you have a 100-watt light bulb?
ME: No, but I do have a 40-watt or a 60-watt. Will either of those work?
GIRL: Oh, shoot. My Easy-Bake Oven takes only a 100-watt bulb.

A post a day: Looking back at the June 2012 Challenge

Last month, I challenged myself to publish a blog post every day from the 1st through the 30th. It was fun, exhilarating, even mind-numbing—and I posted 34 times in 30 days. While I’ve achieved many goals over the years, I was rather surprised at how satisfied I felt on June 30:

Just look at all those posts! Okay, okay, so there were times when I thought my brain was going to eat itself. But I made it!

Then July 1 arrived:

Up next: Thirty-one days of FAIL.

Although I hadn’t expected it, I learned some great lessons during the June 2012 Challenge. I gained fascinating insights into my writing, my creative process, and how I really can produce worthwhile material under pressure. Perhaps these lessons will help you, too.

Lesson #1: If you post on the weekends, make it worthwhile (of course)—but also make it something that you’re okay with people not reading.

Saturdays and Sundays are incredibly slow for blogs. I found this out, oh, the second weekend of the Challenge, when I looked at my site stats—just three or four or zero hits?!? But I put up some good stuff!

At first, I wondered, “Did my post suck today?” Probably not. It’s just that internet users have lives. On weekends, they’re doing everything except reading blogs (even the ones they enjoy).

I realized that weekend posts needed to be worthwhile, but also nothing I’d busted my butt or brain to put together. People just weren’t going to read on weekends. So I got over myself and posted “good enough” off-day content.

Lesson #2: Daily posting is really, really hard work if you want your writing to be any good.

Even I underestimated how much work this would take—and I write for a living!

In her classic essay “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott describes the general public perception of what writers do every day:

People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.

Amen.

At first, I was bursting with ideas and couldn’t wait to get them all out. After ten or 12 days, though, the giddiness wore off. Putting together even a shopping list was too much effort. The words would not come out.

“My God, this sucks,” I said as I re-read draft after awkward draft. “How can I put my name on this? Why can’t I seem to make it go anywhere?” Panic set in nearly every afternoon. “My students are going to read this. My clients are going to read this. What have I done?”

Then I remembered Lamott’s words, and felt much better. Only “the uninitiated”—people who aren’t writers—believe that fantastic writing flows out on the first try, elegant and effortless. It’s a common and seductive lie.

It’s never easy to write well. It only looks easy because we see the finished product; we never see the awful first efforts. We miss the inaccurate wording and clumsy transitions. We never read the things a writer cuts from early versions or adds to later versions, or the things that had to go even though they were such good ideas.

Think about it another way. In an NBA playoff game, we watch the elegant plays and perfect jump shots and masterful dunks, but we never see the preparation. How many hours of practice has each player put in from junior high school up until this game? Tens of thousands of hours—which, of course, we never even consider. Similarly, we read excellent writing and see the end result instead of the author’s years of frustration and hard work. How many drafts and ideas did the author discard before this wonderful final version? How different does that first awkward draft look from this polished one?

We expect it to be easy, yet we’re surprised when writing well is damned hard, even for really good writers. Case in point: Writing and revising this 2,700-word article took this experienced professional writer 19 hours over 13 days. It spanned eight drafts, the first five of which were embarrassingly clunky. 

Lesson #3: Most days, however, you can write good stuff—if you’re disciplined about it.

I have never been a morning person. If you value having your head firmly attached to your neck, don’t even look at me until I’m fully awake. None of that “rise and shine” crap. And for God’s sake, don’t sing.

For years, I’d hoped that as I got older, I’d become morning-friendly. But no. Forty gets closer every day, and I’m still grouchy before 11:00am. However, the Challenge surprised me—my best ideas actually come between 7:00am and noon! Yes, my “writing mojo” is strongest and freshest then. So instead of lying there half-asleep with great ideas and then griping later about how I’d forgotten them, I learned to roll out of bed as soon as possible and get to my desk. (Keeping a notebook and pen by the bed also helps a lot.)

Now, I know scores of morning people who say they could never do this. These people practically live to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn and drink coffee and be cheerful and whatever else it is morning people do at that God-forsaken hour of the day. I always want to say, “So you can get up at oh-dark-thirty and bounce around the house like a squirrel on PCP, but you can’t write?”

Here’s the secret: When what you write is truly, vitally important to you, you’ll do whatever it takes to capture those ideas. When you value that work highly enough, you will sit down wherever and whenever to get those words onto paper or screen or MP3 file. You have to decide to do it. Until you do, your work remains trapped inside you. It’s up to you, whether you’re a college student or a seasoned professional or even if you’ve never seriously written a day in your life.

I’ll probably never be a morning person, and that’s okay. Having learned to listen to my ideas when they arrive makes the unpleasantness worthwhile. I protect my prime writing hours fiercely. Not appreciating and listening to ideas when they arrive is to revert to Spoiled Teenager Mode: “You can’t tell me what to do! I’ll do what I want, when I want!”

No.

It’s up to me to use this priceless gift right when it’s handed to me. If I put it off, it will disappear. I know this because it’s happened so many times before.

When I work at home, I write steadily from 8:00am until 1:00 or 2:00pm—no matter what. I’ve learned to schedule errands, appointments, chores, and family time around my writing. If I don’t listen to the early-morning ideas and guard that work time, I will not write even the first word.

This discipline pays off many times over. Trust me.

Lesson #4: It helps if you have nothing else to do but blog.

It’s possible to have a full-time job and post good content every day. Notice that I said possible, not easy or feasible.

During the June 2012 Challenge, I spent a minimum of 35 hours a week creating content. Naturally, I spent most of those hours writing and revising. About 20% went toward research, saving hyperlinks, taking and choosing photos, working with PhotoShop to edit my images, and then carefully deciding where which photo needed to appear in which post.

Worth it? Yes. Possible if I’d been working a full-time job instead of freelancing from home? Not if I’d wanted to eat, sleep, or pee.

Lesson #5: When you have a flurry of ideas, get them down—then let them sit. What sounds great now may sound silly after a few days (and vice versa).

An old writers’ saying goes, “You can never know if something is good while you’re writing it.” A similar one says, “You almost never know what you need to write until you’ve written for a while.” Both are true.

In 30 days, I drafted and then trashed at least 50 blog post ideas. I’m serious. I came up with and eventually discarded 50 or more beginnings, blurbs, and short drafts. I spent anywhere from five to 45 minutes on each, eventually deciding for one reason or another that it wouldn’t work.

At the time, the posts seemed like fantastic ideas: Sandwiches that should never have seen the light of day. A bi-weekly analysis of obscure 1980s music videos. The reasons people need to stop wearing pajamas and slippers out in public. An explanation of Taylor Swift’s popularity despite the fact that her lyrics sound like something out of a sixth grader’s Trapper Keeper.

All decent ideas, but ideas I ended up shelving after a day or a week of staring at them in my Drafts folder. And there were so many more where those came from. Most of them focused too narrowly, or said nothing original. Some required more time than I could spare. Others just seemed dumb.

Sometimes that’s a liberating feeling, clicking “Delete Post” on something that’s been giving me hell. Sometimes it’s sad and discouraging. Did I waste my time creating posts that I would eventually discard? No. As Anne Lamott says later in “Shitty First Drafts,” there’s “no way to get to this [the quality stuff] without getting through the first five-and-a-half pages.” Or the first dozen ideas.

Although I ended up tossing out or shelving so many ideas, the time I spent on them helped me see what was possible, and what was not. Taking a break to generate new ideas often gave me unexpected insights into other (publishable, really good) posts that had been troubling me.

Lesson #6: Know when to take breaks. You’re going to need them.

Before the Challenge, I knew this in my head, but not in my heart. As my students begin a new essay, I tell them, “Step away from your first draft for at least 24 hours before you do anything else to it. When you come back, you’ll see it with fresh eyes.” Those who take my advice report that after a day or two away, it’s easier to see what works and what doesn’t. They’re not so close to the words anymore, and can look at them as an outsider might.

With much of my professional writing, I had followed my own advice. Whether it was a conference paper, an English 1101 syllabus, a workshop proposal, a feasibility report, a client’s brochure, or a sales presentation, I could always recognize when I needed to leave it alone and do something else: bathe my dogs, go for a walk, call my mother, stare at the wall—whatever would let my brain relax for a while. Later, I’d be able to see my work more objectively.

Somehow, though, I thought daily blog posts would be different. Nope! It took three weeks for me to learn when I needed to step away. “Save it and walk off,” I finally began telling myself. “Just sitting here isn’t helping. Come back later.” Eventually, I’d go do something else. When I sat back down a few hours or a day later, everything was fine. My ideas returned, and I could see new possibilities.

Lesson #7: Save, save, and save again.

I can’t stress this one enough.

Servers crash. Thunderstorms knock out the electricity. Pets walk across the keyboard. So save as if your life depended on it. Your work certainly does. If you lose six pages just because you haven’t clicked Save in the last three hours, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Lesson #8: Good writers are never really “done” with a piece, no matter how good others may think it is.

Even after I publish a blog post (article, syllabus, student guide, etc.), I still see places where I can eliminate words, or change a phrase so it flows better. While I do go back and make small changes, I’m learning to resist the temptation.

I can’t spend my life tinkering with old work. If it’s been published, on paper or online, I can’t alter it. My words are now permanently out there. There’s no tracking down each copy with White-Out and a pen. And anyone can access the original version thanks to the internet archives.

The secret is to learn when to let go—when it’s “done enough” so that I can live with it. That’s tough, but I’m getting there one document at a time.

Lesson #9: The only way to get better at writing is to do it consistently, even when you dread it.

Sometimes, writing was such tough work that I nearly abandoned the June 2012 Challenge. “I mean, it’s not like I promised anybody anything,” I told myself. “I don’t have to keep this up all month long. If the ideas have dried up, they’ve dried up. No sense in fooling myself.”

But I stuck with it because:

  • I made myself a promise, and wanted to follow through.
  • It wasn’t as if I’d fallen ill or had a family emergency—I was just low on ideas. I’d survived that before, and could do so again.
  • I hated the idea of quitting at the first sign of trouble.
  • What if my students saw that I’d just given up? I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, all “Do as I say, and not as I do.” Writing’s too important for that.
  • Something good might come from my frustration, even if I couldn’t see it now.
  • “Waiting for inspiration” is a load of crap. If I “wait for inspiration,” or until I’m “in the mood to write,” it’ll never happen. Once I sat down and started writing, even if it stabbed at my soul to put that terrible mess onto the page, after a while it got easier—and better.

These reasons and others floated through my mind when I considered giving up. Sure enough, as I sat down every morning, the initial dread wore off, and crappy writing gave way to decent writing.

Lesson #10: Use the Schedule Post feature. It’s your friend.

Let’s say you have a run of great ideas, and then manage to complete a few shorter posts with relative ease. Good for you! While you’re still thinking about it, go ahead and schedule them to appear over the next few days. Doing so will take the pressure off of you so you can work on more complex material.

My longtime readers know that, if nothing else, they can count on two regular posts each week: Nearly Wordless Wednesday and Friday Photo. These posts feature an interesting photo plus a brief caption with the photo’s date and location. They let me showcase my rapidly improving photography skills, and also provide readers an escape in the middle of a busy day.

Scheduling every June photo post ahead of time meant eight days of posts were ready to go—that’s nearly one-third of the month! This was great, especially when time and ideas ran low. Having those eight days out of the way freed me to concentrate on more complex writing and revising.

The June 2012 Challenge was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done. It frightened me at times, making me doubt my abilities and my career path. But I’m incredibly glad for the experience. I’d happily do it again, too, perhaps next summer. Writing all the time truly is the only way to write better—I know this because I’ve done it. And as long as I live, I’ll continue to write all the time.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A vivid memory, in ruins

What does it feel like to drive past a place you knew well and for many years—only to discover it’s gone? Continue reading

Friday Photo: 6/22/12

LaGrange, Georgia—8 April 2010

For passive-aggressive help, press 1

On the phone with automated tech support.

AUTO HELP: Give me a minute to look up the details of your internet service. I won’t be able to hear while I’m doing this.
ME: [sotto voce] You’re a computer. You don’t even have ears.
AUTO HELP: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your answer.

Fuzzy Martians and good instructions: Yepyepyepyepyep.

This classic Sesame Street sketch aired in late 1974, when small children automatically would have known what the funny-looking black plastic object was. (Would today’s preschoolers know? Hmm.)

In case you haven’t seen this recurring skit, the googly-eyed Martians teleport into random scenes in the Sesame Street neighborhood. They encounter everyday situations and make sense of them based on what they find in their “earth book.” In other sketches, for instance, they figure out a table fan, enjoy a leaky kitchen faucet, dance to white noise on an old-fashioned radio, and meet Ernie and Bert.

I love watching the Martians work through each scenario. They’re not afraid to make mistakes or change what they’re doing. As Shunryu Suzuki once said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

When we create a set of instructions, it’s essential that we return to beginner’s mind. Otherwise, we miss opportunities to help our readers. Usefulness, rather than publication, is the hallmark of tech comm success. When it comes to instructions, all anyone wants is to complete the steps and move along. If we fail to get inside that beginner’s process, our readers will be frustrated. That’s the last thing we want, whether we’re creating software help, a chainsaw owner’s manual, or home perm instructions.

So what happened with the Martians’ “earth book?” I ask because it’s leading them nowhere fast. How outdated could this thing be? What’s in that book to make them think the object in front of them is a cow, a cat, or a chicken?

That’s what makes the sketch so funny. Whoever compiled the book had no idea what was actually on earth. No SMEs consulted here, no sirree. When the earth book doesn’t help (which is just about every time), the Martians approach the situation or object as complete beginners.

They’re not afraid to make guesses or try a different approach. They don’t get frightened unless there’s a reason: an unusual noise, an unexpected movement, or a new creature. The phone rings, scaring the bejesus out of them, and chthunnnnng! up go their jaws. Much like the little kids watching this segment, the Martians simply learn as they go.

We, too, could learn as we go when writing procedures. In The Practical Guide to Information Design (2007), Ronnie Lipton notes that “the audience is different, and you’re not it” (p. 82). We may be very good at what we do, but we are not our readers. If we don’t remember that readers don’t share our experiences, our writing will fail. “Listening to the audience in any form suggests the need for a redesign,” Lipton adds (p. 82). It may bother us to hear that our work needs revision. But what’s at stake here is much more important than propping up our ego. Imagine that our readers are these two Martians. Would we want to hear back from their Earth mission that they mistook the brrrrinnngggg! gagdet for a variety of livestock? Talk about embarrassing.

Unlike the Sesame Street Martians, readers don’t have time for trial-and-error learning. They want to get done and move on. Going back to complete beginner mode, truly listening to what our audience requires, helps us give them what they need.

Yepyepyepyepyep.

Anatomy of a Logotype WIN: Walgreens

Typefaces grab my attention at the strangest times. One of the last places a person would have type on the brain would be at the pharmacy—you’d think so, anyway. But a couple months ago, I happened upon a nicely designed logotype at Walgreens. No, really.
Continue reading

Anatomy of a logotype FAIL

Several weeks ago, my tech comm classmates and I had a long discussion about logotypes. Which logotype would we recognize anywhere? To what did we ascribe its power? Was it designed well? Or just ubiquitous?

At first, I had a hard time thinking of a well-known, instantly-recognizable font. Irony of ironies! Finally, though, it came to me:

Figure 1: The old Wal-Mart logo, discontinued in 2008, still appears on the store's plastic bags in some markets.

Well, why not? Continue reading

Favorite (and fickle) fonts

My mom often visits while I’m working on graphics projects. No matter the document or purpose, Mom will get around to asking, “Does [name of software] have Desdemona?”

She still misses it from Word 1995. Back then, it was among my favorite fonts, too. But when she asked me the other day, I hadn’t thought of that type in years. When I hear “Desdemona,” I think Othello. Would that my mother’s favorite typeface were available to all font-slatterns! O, a pox on thee, thou bilious-gutted and capricious arbiters of fontly tastes!

Thank goodness Mom never asks about Comic Sans or Papyrus. Those fonts can stay far, far away from my documents (unless I’m being ironic). But to satisfy my and Mom’s curiosity, I did a quick Google Crapshoot for “Desdemona font.” Lo and behold, it’s still available
Continue reading

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