The craft of writing in the computer age

Writing is a funny thing.  Not haha funny, although it can be.  Rather, curious and odd.  For one thing, you can break all sorts of rules (like I just did) and mostly get away with it these days if your message is crisp and clear.  On the other hand, writing can also be about as pure an art form as sculpting and painting.  It’s about stringing together disparate large and small ideas that float through your brain and transmitting them to “paper”.  It shouldn’t be a struggle but often is, especially if there are associated strong emotions.

Two things got me thinking about this. The first was a conversation I had with my wife the other evening about writers and whether I consider myself one (for the record, I said no because above all, I’ve never been really published).  The second was an article I read in The Atlantic called Composition 1.01: How Email can change the way professors teach . It’s a long, rambling piece but about halfway through, the author weaves the threads together to tell us of a professor named  John Whittier-Ferguson at the University of Michigan who uses Email in real-time to help his writing students write.  He tells them they should send him their writing as often as they want as they are writing their pieces.  So he ends up with snippets of drafts to which he applies his expertise so they can learn as they go how to construct proper sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and (ultimately) stories.  Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it?  But smart too.  I mean, when I took writing at the University of Toronto, we had to do it the traditional multi-centuries-back, old-fashioned way… write your story, hand it in, wait a week, and then get raked over the coals for an hour in front of the class as your story is dissected line by line.  It was grueling but it worked.

I see the virtue and the value in the way Whittier-Ferguson does it too.  It likely doesn’t scale well (doing what he does leaves little time for him to do anything else) but from a student’s point of view, it would be like having an instant professor-check installed on your computer.  One so sophisticated that it could tear your work apart instantly as you write.  You wouldn’t have to wait a week or two for the humiliation.

Fast change: what skills are important?

Fortunes can turn fast these days.  RIM has been all over the news, of course, for their rapid descent from domination to the very risky place they find themselves in today.  I was speaking to a friend today, a friend who works at RIM, so the story was front of mind for me.  But they aren’t the only high tech corporate beast struggling to regain stature in the jungle.  Motorola, Nokia… two once-proud lions also seem to be fading quickly as they appear unable to stay relevant.  What’s relevant?  Whatever the consumer doesn’t know they want yet.  Who knows… maybe they’ll all turn things around just as quickly but for now, Apple and Google seem to be the only companies of a certain massive size that have a handle on what we want next.  (As an aside, my current employer too seems to be out-front in a similar manner as Apple and Google but in a very specific market and at a much smaller scale).

Anyway, I was thinking of this when I read the Wall Street Journal today.  Debt-crisis articles were dominant, naturally, but one other called What’s wrong with America’s job engine? made me think of the topic of rapidly changing fortunes.  It takes a lot of fortitude to ride the roller-coaster of the modern economy and it begs the question, how best should we prepare our kids?  When it’s obvious that there is no such thing as job security (i.e. with a single employer for decades), and that jobs won can be jobs lost almost as quickly, and often due to circumstances outside of an individual’s control, how should we guide our young people?  The answer is very old but probably more relevant and its practice more important than ever.  Instill in young people strong moral and ethical values, respect for others, respect for themselves, encourage a zeal for learning, thinking, sharing. and leading.  People who exhibit these qualities are the ones who are capturing success in today’s communication-heavy business world.  I think that will become increasingly true as the years roll on.

Old TV biz model finally set to fade?

In an earlier post called If only they knew, I argued that if television networks and content providers were subject to the same level of granular performance analysis as computer-connected (i.e. IP-based) devices, we would see a revolution and a vast improvement in the content we as viewers endure when we choose to watch TV.  Until now, they had no idea how viewers reacted to the same inane commercials being played repeatedly, or even how many viewers were watching at any given moment (the reliance on Nielsen ratings has always been questionable).  If they knew, then they would be more careful of, and work harder at satisfying, the needs and desires of the viewers they covet. An article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in today’s Business Insider supports that opinion.

It covers a wide range of interesting topics but one item in particular caught my eye.  The comment came from Roger McNamee, Elevation Partners director and an investor in Facebook.  He sees television as the last protected media business and that once we get to the point where TVs are computers (i.e. off cable, linked to, and with content loaded from, the Internet), the industry will face major disruption.  This is not new news but it does serve to reinforce what seems to be the inevitable outcome….content providers will have to pay attention to viewer behavior like never before if they want to stay relevant and in business.   Yay!


Signs of progress are there if you pay attention

I’m leading a very young technical team and as I get to know them I’m impressed with their passion and commitment to personal growth.  It makes me think of a bigger picture, of our economy as being the product of the liberalization (the non-political definition) of our school systems over the last 50 years and the general promotion of independent thought we encourage in our younger generations.  Criticism can certainly be made of those statements but it’s hard to argue with evidence.  It seems to me that younger generations are more accepting now of the need to take control of their own destiny.  And it manifests itself in very private ways, as in the conversations they have with their bosses, for example.  I think this particular behavior is very positive.

The media constantly bemoans the alleged scarcity of innovation and implores the government to do something to kickstart it.  I think that’s the wrong approach because innovation must stem from the private pondering and desires of individuals.  Governments cannot trigger those with short-term infusions of cash that reward specific industries or institutions.  A better approach is to continue to encourage our young to think independently and (yes) be seduced by whatever will motivate them to make improvements that benefit them by benefiting society at large.  The allure of personal reward (money, fame, personal happiness, etc) triggers a person to push themselves to make improvements that, in turn, make more valuable the product of their work.

A social media lesson

People connected with me know by now that I started with my new employer last week and those who I’ve had a conversation with know that the company found me on LinkedIn.  The business world is changing rapidly and yet that statement (about the company finding me on LinkedIn) still provokes surprise when I get into a conversation about the experience.  I’m surprised that people are surprised.  I guess I shouldn’t be.  Although LinkedIn has been around for quite a few years now, and I was an early adopter, it’s only been in the last couple of years that the population at large has begun to embrace it.  Let’s call it the Facebook effect.  Social media are certainly not defined by Facebook but that application’s stunning success has driven change and spawned a multiplier effect across generational, national, gender, and occupational lines.  It has opened the eyes of millions of people to the vast potential of connecting with others over the web.  Being part of that new behavior, and the degree to which it is embraced by individuals, says something important.  It is unwise to dismiss this phenomenon because you might not like the vehicle that is delivering it.  Social media are here to stay and if you want to be successful in today’s business world, it must be embraced fully.

What does fully mean?

  • a robust profile, complete with a photo of yourself.  Consider it a resume on steroids.  It’s your one chance to catch the eye of the automated software scouring the web looking for the best candidates to fill open positions.  Why a photo?  Because the absence of one says something too, that perhaps you’re not as confident as you should be if indeed you aspire to be in the position.
  • get active and be noticed: participate in the online communities via comments, professional feedback, advice, and/or recommendations.  Sorry but passivity and being only an observer will not help you.  If you’re interested in advancing in your career or vocation, the credentials acquired from school and work experience are still vital (no one can dispute that) but increasingly, employers are looking for people who are unafraid to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Finally, it never ends.  You must always pay attention to the online you.  Make sure it reflects you.