I’ve been away from this space for a while. Yes, I was busy, but raise your hand if you think the word “busy” is meaningless. That’s not what I’m writing about today.
Instead, it has taken nearly a decade for me to learn that my creative rhythm (and my career as a whole) has two equal parts:
1. Exploration, experimentation and outreach
2. Production, focus and introspection
I continually move back and forth between the two. Sometimes it happens within a single day or week. In other cases, I go into one mode for months at a time – and that’s exactly where I’ve been. Space #2: working, thinking and producing.
I used to fret about this perpetual opposition, but I’ve learned that it’s entirely natural. I’m not going to apologize for anything – what I do, which projects I choose, or how I operate. To be blunt, I don’t care what my career looks like from the outside.
Instead, I value relationships, experiences, improvement, learning, humility, failure, strength, and satisfaction. That’s what matters, and the last several months have overflowed with all of the above.
I’ve also learned another huge and highly liberating lesson in recent weeks. Maybe it sounds familiar to you, too.
When you’re lucky enough to build a career around a talent and deep love, it can take you in some unexpected directions – namely, you often use your skills in ways that don’t uphold the fantasy. Maybe you apply your drive to real-world problems instead of fiction. You sweat through stuff that won’t hang in a gallery or live between book covers. But that quiet, behind-the-scenes work isn’t any less valuable.
The soft-focus version of creativity worships sleek offices, inspirational mornings, curated lives and clothes and spaces, and the idea that art is 100% pure. It’s tucked up on a pedestal, safe from the grit of money and time, confusion and exhaustion. If you work (and I mean really work) to pursue a craft, you know the difference between reality and the romantic cultural filters.
Don’t get me wrong; I love that everyone is creating and sharing such gorgeous images. Glossy blogs, pins, articles and photos provide endless inspiration and a stimulating daily escape. They celebrate the everyday beauty in this world. Elevating only camera-ready creativity to a mental (and public) pedestal is problematic, though, because it can diminish the joy that lies in everything else you do. You know, all your other work.
I used to think that I was failing if I didn’t have an independent side project on the go. But the past several months of focused production have revealed that it’s all creative. It’s all valuable. I truly love what I do – from technical, corporate writing to journalism to editing and everything in between. It’s honestly a joy and a privilege. Each project feeds the next and teaches me something startling and new.
Where have I been? Learning to lose the soft focus, and if you’re worried about how your art “looks,” I encourage you to do the same.
Work how you want. Live how you want. Creativity and true satisfaction can flourish in the most unexpected places.
You all know that I’m obsessed with finding clarity in chaos. I still love a good creative mess, but clarity is my north star. I get ridiculously excited about patterns and structures, because they scrub away the grime and let your work shine through.
Clarity is also one of the “principles of awesome content” in my new ebook. To help you create with more clarity, I’ve made a five-step checklist.
1. Use simple language.
You’ve heard this one before. Unfortunately, when most people sit down to write, they try to WRITE with a capital “W.” Formality can defeat the purpose, which is to communicate clearly. Straightforward language with a dash of personality always comes out on top.
Here’s an example from Nest, a great company that makes thermostats. Sexy? Hardly. But they do a damn fine job of explaining how their product works, why it’s needed, and why it’s unlike anything else on the market.
From the Nest website:
“Most people leave the house at one temperature and forget to change it. So Nest learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and Nest can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%.”
Now in jargon-y “business” copy:
“The Nest programmable thermostat includes robust controls that provide mobile access capabilities, significant thermo-electric cost savings and a market-leading ROI. Our innovative technology enables domestic users to adapt the wall unit according to their individual needs.”
My re-write is pretty over-the-top, but you get the point. Write as you speak, and as if you were talking to a friend. Then go in with your best editing eyes and tighten it all up. No excess words.
2. Use metaphors (carefully)
A metaphor states that two unlike things are actually the same. Metaphors promote clarity because they help the brain transition between a known concept and a new idea. Here’s a (fake) example:
“The RocketBean brewing system adds jumper cables to your everyday coffee pot.”
Sketchy proposition and not the most elegant metaphor, but it quickly conveys the idea of enhancing something familiar with a novel twist. Just remember; where there are metaphors, there are also clichés. Every tired, terrible cliché was once a fresh metaphor.
3. Anticipate your audience
Get inside their heads. Once you’ve written a description or an introduction, think like your desired readers. What haven’t you said? If this was the first time that you encountered the product, service or idea, what else would you need to know? What’s the next logical question, and how can you answer it before you readers even get a chance to ask?
4. Apply the party test
You’re mingling, cocktail in hand, when the host asks about your work. It’s time to explain your project in 2-3 concise, yet creative sentences. I know, you’re sick of elevator pitches (yawn). What I’m talking about here is using enough detail, yet enough mystery to spark someone’s interest – a raised eyebrow and the phrase “oh, really?” You want to elicit follow-up questions, not the conversational kiss of death: “That’s nice.” Now apply this principle to your writing.
5. Wrap it in a story
Facts can taste bitter, but they’re infinitely more palatable when wrapped in a story. Here’s another strong Nest example:
“We didn’t think thermostats mattered either. Until we found out they control half of your home’s energy. That’s more than applicances, lighting, TVs, computers and stereos combined.”
Oh, really? Tell me more.
Get my new ebook, Create Awesome Content
Download a free chapter
If the Internet is a cultural barometer, everyone I know is obsessed with setting goals (and eating “paleo”). We’re frantically sharing work strategies, mood boards, productivity tips and day-in-the-life schedules that explain how to simultaneously start a business and train for the Tour de France (dope-free, of course).
I set goals, too. I like tough deadlines and I’ve never met a notebook or organizational app that I couldn’t get behind. But what’s the result of all this self-reflection? Maybe we’re getting stuff done (a phrase I’ve come to loathe), but are we getting any better?
To be blunt; am I a better writer today than I was three years ago? I hope so, but I can tell you with complete certainty that I am a better interviewer.
I do a lot of interviews, and I’ve yet to find a technology that can effectively transform my digital voice recordings into legible type. I’ve searched and tested and nothing works – and somewhere along the way, I realized that transcribing is more than a necessary evil.
Hearing a conversation again usually reveals something I missed, and at the very least, deepens my understanding of the story. Listening – repeatedly – to your own voice on tape, however, is a special kind of torture. The recording lays bare every high-pitched giggle, nasal tone and unexpected speech tic. It’s easy to get flustered, right there in the privacy of your own earbuds.
During all that tedious typing, though, comes real learning. I realize which questions elicit the best responses and how to make people feel at ease. I also learn when to shut up and get over myself, versus moments where I could actually improve the interaction.
The irritating necessity of transcription has now become my tool for self-improvement. It works – and it makes me wonder what else is possible. Creativity is beautifully messy and intangible, but the skills we use in its service can always be sharpened. Most of us would do well to stop the planning now and then and do some clear-eyed assessment.
I urge you to find ways to measure your progress. Build a personal report card. Score yourself with grace and honesty. Then laugh off your mistakes and chalk it all up to learning.
Now have a drink. You’ve earned it.
Get my new ebook, Create Awesome Content
Download a free chapter
The first website I ever visited was a music database. After waiting 15 minutes (no exaggeration) for the page to load, I would pick my favourite band and gorge on all the info. It was exciting to have so many current details gathered in one place. There were photos, too, but they added another 30 minutes to the wait time. In those early days, many websites served as digital encyclopedias.
Around 1999, I pitched a magazine story about “weblogs.” New software had made it possible to publish writing in reverse chronological order (newest entries first) — and you didn’t need to know HTML to share your journal with the world. My editor declined the story. I think he had visions of lock-and-key cat diaries and rambling teen angst. Fair enough, but we all know how that turned out.
I’ve been working on two new content strategy projects this week, which has led me back to the basics: What is a website? In 2013, what is it for? Why do we have them? Here’s what I’ve concluded.
Today, websites (and their related apps) have 7 main purposes:
1 – Commerce. Buy, browse, exchange, claim discounts, ship and receive.
2 – Legitimacy. Portfolios, galleries, resumes and digital references confirm experience and gather work in one place.
3 – Editorial. Newsletter, magazines, blogs, journals and other hybrids.
4 – Service. Find a library book, book an airline flight, manage your bank account.
5 – Info aggregation. Weather forecasts, stock prices, travel research. Movie trailers and health tips.
6 – Communication & connection. Places to talk, meet, date, rant, chat, rate services and products, or express ideas.
7 – Advertising, marketing, cataloguing. Learn a company or a creator’s story. Check their prices. Watch a video. Research products or services.
Everyone who uses the web intuitively understands these functions. Many sites also blend several purposes. An artist, for example, might have an online portfolio (legitimacy) with a web store to sell her illustrations (e-commerce). She also shares behind-the-scenes photos and sends a monthly digital newsletter (marketing). An airline site includes commerce, service, information and marketing in a single hub.
I’m sharing this list not only to state the obvious, but to give you a clear lens through which to view your website. When clients say they need site copy, my next question is always, “what is your website for?” You have to clarify exactly what you want to accomplish online in order to be successful — and those decisions directly influence the design, writing, programming and functionality. It sounds simple, but very few people do it well.
I also want to encourage you to cut the digital shackles. If your site is purely editorial, make it an immersive and truly engaging experience. If it’s designed for commerce, make it ridiculously easy for people to buy what they want. Cut the excess. Break the rules. Express yourself and screw convention. And be grateful that 15-minute page loads are now a distant memory.
Have I missed any functions? Please let me know.
Get my new ebook, Create Awesome Content
Download a free chapter
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
- George Orwell
If I could summarize my new ebook in three words, they would be “tell the truth.”
Truth-telling requires courage. It also demands clarity. Strangely enough, most of us have trouble with the small truths, not the big, life-altering stuff. We struggle to write and communicate honestly. So, let’s explore some truthful content in action.
Airbnb is a disruptive, paradigm-shifting online service that enables travelers to book private accommodations or list their own spaces for paying guests. It’s secure and surprisingly addictive.
Airbnb could have stuck with scripted platitudes, such as, “I love meeting new people,” or “I want to show off my beautiful city.” Those videos exist, and there are certainly people who share these motives, but the company wisely included hosts who also say that Airbnb pays the mortgage, fills in wage gaps, or funds their renovations.
Traditional business wisdom would advise against sharing these less-than-altruistic intentions and stick to selling rainbows and sunshine. Real people, however, have all kinds of reasons for renting out their homes – and if the space is clean, safe, comfortable and accurately presented, do those reasons really matter?
Yes and no.
If you’re deciding whether to book a room from a global hotel chain or an unemployed mother of three who rents her charming upstairs apartment, which will you pick? Well, that’s up to you. It depends what you want and what you need. The apartment is a “messier” transaction, to be sure, because it’s unpredictable, with all the potential joys and pitfalls of human interaction. But, you also know exactly where your money is going. The truth is something to embrace, not to hide.
Airbnb understands the power of truthful content. It’s compelling and it creates emotional connections. Being honest also sets the tone for the company’s online community – and when you’re renting a stranger’s home, halfway around the world, trust and honesty rate pretty damn high on the list of must-haves.
Learn more about truth and storytelling in my new ebook, Create Awesome Content.
I have a fun announcement to make today.
My first e-book, Create Awesome Content: Simple content strategy, writing and collaboration advice, is out of hair and makeup. All 101 pages are fully polished, primped and ready for their close-up.
Create Awesome Content is a straightforward guide to engaging your audience – whether you’re an entrepreneur, artisan, freelancer, consultant, small business owner or employee. You’ll learn how to develop a simple content strategy, write brilliant copy, and how to work with a writer if you start sweating when you face the blank screen (no judgment).
I wanted to demystify all the stuff that trips up smart people – from online storytelling to the difference between active and passive voice. In today’s noisy digital world, everyone needs awesome content to stand out from the crowd. This book collects all my best advice into a practical and entertaining package.
The book emerged from a conversation with my friend Paul Jarvis, who is a wildly-in-demand web designer (he built this blog and my professional site). Paul was writing his own e-book called Be Awesome at Online Business and suggested that I write a companion content guide. I filed the idea away in my massive mental “maybe” list (you know the one) and carried on with my day. A couple weeks later, Paul mentioned it again and I decided to start writing.
The book covers the most important lessons I’ve learned in nearly 15 years of working as a freelance journalist and copywriter. It’s fast-paced, informal and blends strategic advice about developing multi-platform content (including social media, newsletters, websites and articles) with a hands-on writing workshop.
Developing exceptional content is the single best way for creative people to connect with their audience. It’s part marketing, part storytelling, and part self-expression. It’s worth doing well.
So thank you for reading – and let me know what you think of the book!
We’ve been completing a little office renovation around here, and I’ve realized how impatient I am with tasks like painting, gluing, and sanding. The tape measure is not my friend. I am imprecise and irritable.
I’ve done at least 10 full edits on each book – yet every time I start back at the cover page, I’m happy to read the same words over and over again. I enjoy hunting for errors and ideas that need clarification. I love smoothing out clumsy spots that disrupt the flow – and I actually relish the fresh eyes that come with each read-through. The work can be (mentally) tiring, but it’s never a chore.
When I consider the day-to-day activities of my friends who are photographers, architects, web and graphic designers, I can’t imagine filling their shoes. Sure, it’s easy to daydream about location scouting or sketching a brilliant design before breakfast, but I know there’s also serious minutiae involved that would send me into meltdown. Every industry, even the most iconically creative ones, have dull tasks that require focus and slogging. No way around it.
But when you find yourself deep in obsessive territory, not caring that an hour passed while you re-worked a single paragraph, that’s the real creative destination. That’s where you’re supposed to be. Loving the tedious moments (at least most of them) is also essential to completing projects that challenge your mind and stretch your skills. I guess it’s also how we rack up those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell measured so eloquently.
So embrace your unique obsessions. Track them and use them to nudge you ever closer to success. The real achievement, however, is the daily sense of contentment that will sit quietly on the sidelines, watching you do the work.
Happy New Year!
I was lucky to spend a good chunk of the holidays in California and Arizona. If you’ve never been to Vancouver, you should know that Seattle is our climatic twin. That means from November through February, we live under a drizzly grey canopy for weeks on end. Is the sun still up there? Sometimes, it’s hard to know for sure.
But the desert… Oh, the desert. The morning sunshine was a shade of golden white that I haven’t seen in months. And emerging from the dream-haze on my first day of vacation, I actually wondered if there was a fire outside the front door. The light was dazzling — and totally rejuvenating.
Sometimes, nothing is better than a change of scenery, and based on my recent experience, a change of light. I’ve got new ideas, fresh plans in the works and hopefully, a little more vitamin D in my veins.
Stay tuned for more interviews and creative content. I also wrote a new book! I’ll share more details soon.
Wishing you all the best for 2013.
Some experiences provoke immediate and lasting change. You make a mistake, pick the wrong door, or do something that you vow never, ever to repeat – and you don’t.
Then there are those frustrating moments that you manage to replicate a hundred times over. You keep falling down in exactly the same way. You don’t even notice the pattern until suddenly, it’s as clear as a crop circle.
In the spirit of sharing hard-won wisdom, here are 10 lessons that (I think) I’ve finally learned.
1. Mediocre ideas can’t be polished into great ones. It’s always worth taking the time to keep scheming and revising.
2. One cup of coffee sharpens my brain. Three cups in a row? It’s a pinball machine with faulty wiring.
3. True gut instincts are never wrong. Hear them and trust them completely.
4. Every now and then, creativity arrives in a flash of inspiration. Mostly, though, it’s about spending time in the salt mine. Show up, stay focused and do the best you can in the moment. Then revise. And revise again.
5. Choose people over subjects and individual projects. Even better, choose to work and collaborate with smart, kind and generous people who are thrilled about what they do.
6. Sleep and sweat will clarify even the toughest creative puzzles and teeth-gnashing problems.
7. There’s no such thing as listening too much.
8. Always make the last phone call, double-check the fine print, or explore that one nagging idea that just might be crazy enough to work.
9. The fearlessness you had at age 21, plus the wisdom gained in every subsequent year is a magical combination – but it’s not always easy to harness. Keep trying.
10. Find the high road and take it, even when it feels like a tightrope.
photos by Marnie Recker
He’s an accomplished web designer, musician, llama lover, nut enthusiast (yup, you read that right), blogger (who writes posts like “fuck being cool”) and now, the author of an excellent e-book called Eat Awesome: A regular person’s guide to plant-based, whole foods. Full disclosure: I also edited* Eat Awesome.
Paul and I first met nearly 10 years ago, and we’ve been friends and frequent collaborators ever since. I was lucky enough to have Paul design this blog and my professional website. He’s smart, talented, grounded and very funny. He also lives in Tofino, B.C., which is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and he spends several months of each year traveling with his wife and musical accomplice, Lisa. Sounds good, right?
But back to the book. Paul has the (surprisingly rare) ability to make big plans – and then make them happen. He also has a big following on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. When people started demanding recipes for the vegan dishes on his Instagram feed, Paul decided to write a book. One week later, he finished the first draft. That’s classic Paul: get an idea, dive in and do it.
Eat Awesome is ultimately a handbook for the “vegi-curious,” so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a vegan, a committed carnivore, or you land somewhere in between. No judgment. Just fresh, plant-based foods and delicious photos by Marnie Recker. I wanted to know more about Paul’s creative process and his experiences with self-publishing, so I asked him all kinds of nosy questions. Here’s what he had to say.
What inspired you to write Eat Awesome?
I had written Eat Awesome a bunch of times in emails to friends and family. They all asked the same questions about what I eat and wanted recipes for the plant-based food that I make. I didn’t want to keep writing that same email, so I thought I’d write a book.
Why were you getting so many questions about food? There are lots of other plant eaters out there…
Mostly because all I talk about is food and eating. I post a lot of food photos and I talk about food all the time on Twitter and Facebook. People often said, “can I have the recipe?” or “that looks good… how can I be vegan?” Strangers started asking the same questions that I got from my friends and family.
Were you always so obsessed with food?
I’ve always enjoyed good food, and for me, the point of traveling is pretty much to eat and try new things at restaurants. But in the last couple years I’ve been getting more and more into whole foods and clean, vegan eating and eating gluten-free. It just keeps snowballing.
Now that it’s summer, I’m getting all my produce from Vancouver Island or B.C. farmers. I just keep going further and wanting to know more and more about my food. It’s gotten to the point where I need to know where all my food is from and who, for example, picked these berries that I just bought.
When did you become vegan?
I’ve been vegetarian for eight or nine years. One day I realized, “I haven’t eaten dairy or eggs or anything like that for about a year. I guess I’m vegan.” So, I’ve probably been vegan for about three or four years.
Why publish Eat Awesome as an e-book?
I’m a nerd, so I like to do digital stuff and I know that world really well. I didn’t necessarily know anything about writing a book, but I do so much online and on the computer that it seemed like the best way to go.
I created a full e-book, though, because there’s still cachet attached to that form. I could have written all these recipes as blog posts and people might not even read them. But because I made it a PDF that you have to pay for and download, more people have been interested. And I do tons of writing. I write lots of guest posts and blog posts for other people, and I have a newsletter where I publish recipes that aren’t in the book or anywhere else online. The e-book seemed like the best way to get it into as many people’s digital hands as possible.
Why do you think books – even digital ones – have that cachet?
To be honest, I don’t have a clue. But I think it’s cool. I like that even though you can’t feel the pages and smell the paper, there’s still something about having it all in one place, formatted how the author wants it to be, and the content flows more like a story than on a blog.
What was the most difficult part of the project?
Learning how to do it. I did everything on my own, basically, like figuring out how to publish it and how to handle the e-commerce and the marketing. Writing the book probably took less than a week. But then there was the photography, getting the editing done, figuring out the marketing plan, and submitting it to all the different blogs and online review sites. All that took way more time than writing it – and I did it myself because I wanted to learn how to do it. For me, that was the most difficult part, but also the most interesting and fun.
What’s the best response to the book that you’ve received to date?
Every time I hear that somebody has thought more deeply about what they eat. That’s why I wrote it. I don’t really care if somebody is vegan or not, but obviously it’s cool if someone tells me, “I went vegan because of you.” People are seeing the connection between food and their bodies and their health and how their lives work. To me, that’s the biggest thing – hearing that people are questioning food and thinking about it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about self-publishing?
Everything takes a lot of time. I had the idea to write book at the beginning of the year, and I thought, “I can get this done in a week or two.” That didn’t happen at all. So, you need to have patience. Even when you send the book to iTunes or Amazon, it takes 3-4 weeks for it to show up on their systems. The delay gave me time to really think about the book promotion, to get review copies out, and to build the buzz. I built a big mailing list, too, so as soon as the book was out, I could send an email blast and generate lots of interest. I didn’t expect the whole process to take so long, but I’m glad that it did.
Have you recouped the money that you invested in creating the book?
Basically, I spent 10 bucks on the domain name and 100 bucks to get it on all the online e-publishing platforms. So, yes, I’ve definitely recouped that cost!
I also bribed the photographer by saying, “you can eat every single one of the recipes if you help me with this.” All of my friends and neighbours were really stoked when we did the food photos. We finished the photography in about three days and we shot every single meal in the book. So there was a lot of food!
I’m lucky that I know lots of people who are really good at what they do. I could also build the website by myself, because that’s what I do, and I could build the newsletter and set up the e-commerce functions. I was lucky that I could cover everything that might cost money, other than getting it onto the publishing sites.
In your opinion, how viable is self-publishing as a revenue stream?
I didn’t publish this book to make money – and that’s why I only charge five bucks for it. I just wanted to get it into people’s hands. But, I think there’s definitely some value in original content. Unfortunately, it’s not as much as it used to be.
I didn’t look for a publisher and I didn’t write a proposal, because I knew I could do it myself. That way, I can get 100% of the revenue, and my costs to write it and produce it were low. So, I think it’s kind of viable, but unfortunately, as with anything in the arts and the creative realm, you’ve got to really work at it and you’ve got to really hustle to make money doing it.
What’s your best advice about promoting a project like EA?
Be genuine about it. I use social media as the main source of promotion for the book, and a lot of people on social media just talk at everybody. I don’t think that works and I don’t find that engaging at all. I think it’s good to have conversations with people. I probably tweet “my e-book is available” about once a week, but in that week, I’m still tweeting and talking and sharing photos on Instagram and engaging with people. When I do have something to promote, they’re more likely to pay attention, because they’re invested in our conversation.
You always describe yourself as an introvert, yet you’re very active on social media. What gives?
I’m much better at written communication. I have done public speaking, but I would never do it in the future, and playing music is about the only thing I’m going to do in front of people. But I can tweet and share a photo with thousands of people, and I can set the interaction that I want. I can reply or not reply, and I can engage or not engage, and if I don’t feel like “talking to people,” I don’t need to put anything out that day. For somebody like me, I think it’s perfect.
What advice would you give to people who have ideas or content they want to share (potentially in an e-book) but don’t know how to start?
There are so many free and relatively cheap services out there. For example, anyone can create a site with WordPress, pick from a bunch of free themes, and just start writing content. If you’re creating a book, you can write in whatever program you want, save it as a PDF, and there are a ton of shopping cart systems that are simple to set up (I use Sellfy) – even if you don’t have any programming knowledge.
Bottom line: There are easy ways to do everything that I did, without having the technical background that I have. It’s just a matter of finding those services. It might not look 100% perfect right away, but there are so many pro WordPress themes and templates in Pages (the Mac app) that can make all your stuff look good.
Did you have any goals or targets for the project?
I had no goals. I just wanted to do it. I thought it would be cool if a couple hundred people bought the book, and now a couple thousand people have bought it. So, it’s doing better than I thought it might, but I wasn’t trying to sell a certain number of copies or recoup a certain amount of money. It was a project of love and interest for me.
Any other advice or words of wisdom?
I know lots of people who want to write a book or an e-book, but they think, “I don’t know how.” You can learn as you go. If you make mistakes, just own them and move on. People aren’t expecting perfection. They’re okay with a process, so don’t get hung up on doing it right. Just do it.
What’s next? Do you have more creative projects up your sleeve?
So many. I wish I had more time in the day. I’m working on an iPhone app about being vegan and eating awesome food. I’m also doing a website that interviews vegans, but doesn’t touch on anything related to food or animal rights. Plus, a couple more cool things that I can’t share yet.
*I love editing big, meaty (no pun intended) projects like Eat Awesome. Send me an email if you want to chat.