Thursday, July 28, 2005

Building your base: 50 tips for writing

Getting ready to write is a lot like getting ready to run. In order to do marathons or other really challenging events you have to first "build a base". Emerging writers also need to build a base when it comes to going the distance with a new project or challenge. In addition to creativity and inspiration, writers require a solid foundation of knowledge, experience and proven approaches in order to produce quality work. Reading widely, writing regularly and mastering grammar and structure are essential. But there are a lot of very simple techniques and tools that, if reviewed and practiced regularly, can help you build your writing base.

Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Online has come up with
50 writing tools that will make you a better writer and prepare you for some of the challenges you will face as a professional. Try these out right now:

#1: Branch to the Right
#2: Use Strong Verbs
#3: Beware of Adverbs
#4: Period As a Stop Sign
#5: Observe Word Territory
#6: Play with Words
#7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sense and sensibility: creativity and you

Creativity and inspiration are often characterised as elusive magicial qualities. This is understandable when you consider great works of art like the paintings of Picasso or the music of Miles Davis. Of course, we can't all be Picasso or Miles Davis. Especially those of us who make a living being creative everyday.

As a professional creative, you cannot show up to work and announce "I am waiting for the muse!" The reality is that you will find yourself called into meetings or contacted for work and expected to have an immediate and interesting response to a new idea or project. It may consist of as little as a few good questions that only you could ask. But you have to be thinking, breathing and living like a creative person in order to rise to that challenge.

In addition to honing your craft through courses and instruction, you must develop a rich sensibility you can rely on for quick insights and ready solutions. The prospect of developing a sensibility may seem daunting. It should. It's like asking "who am I?" But more specific: "who am I creatively?" And so developing your own sensibility sensibility is like training for a marathon. You're conditioning yourself to be able to perform at a high level - whenever it is expected of you. This involves asking yourself a lot of questions and investing some time exploring how others approach creative challenges. Start with the people you admire and who have demonstrated their expertise and vision through their work and accomplishments. Mentors, teachers, artists, community leaders can all help you find your own sensibility and voice.

Why not start by reading Toronto designer Bruce Mau's excellent "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth":

"Written in 1998, the Incomplete Manifesto is an articulation of statements that exemplify Bruce Mau's beliefs, motivations and strategies. It also articulates how the BMD studio works"
The manifesto includes some wonderful statements and directives such as:

9. Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

14. Don’t be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

16. Collaborate. The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.
What Mau's manifesto demonstrates is how important it is to be able to think about things differently than everyone else. This is part of what your clients are paying you for (rather than hiring somebody else). It's easy to talk about things the same way as everybody else does. For sure, you need to know how to do that. But it's far more difficult to speak for yourself and have a strong sensibility that will allow you to ask questions they haven't already thought of.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Citizen editors: a new job for young, wired interactive writers

Extra, extra! Old media is tired, citizens media is wired! Enter the "citizen editor."

According to Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, a new job title has emerged for young, hip, online media junkies. This is good news for interactive writing students:

"What does it take to be a citizen editor? Everyone I spoke to for this column suggested that being young helps. "I bet some younger journalists will find this to be really interesting, because they've grown up with the Web," says Dan Gillmor, a well-known blogger and technology columnist who wrote the book "We the Media" and recently left traditional journalism to found a citizens-media start-up, Grassroots Media Inc. A younger mindset might find it easier to accept the concept that the conversations generated by citizen media can be as interesting as anything else that a news organization does."

Could this be you?

Monday, May 02, 2005

The rock-and-roll formula of great teams and collaboration

If you've ever tried to study with friends you know it's not a great strategy. You'll have fun, but chances are you aren't going to do too well on your project.

The same goes for team-based projects and collaborations. Just look at the history of rock. Many of the best bands started out with existing friends and associates. Over time, one or two or more of the friends are replaced by more skilled musicians. The history of rock is a history of weak ties, of pals replaced with professionals. Think about the Beatles for a moment. Think about how different John Lennon was from Paul McCartney. Now let's look beyond the school of rock. There's serious theory behind this.

Social networks theory posits that social groups benefit from "weak ties". Weak ties represent loose connections with a diversity of people as opposed to strong ties, which are existing connections and relationships between family and close personal friends. Apparently, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science this applies directly to creative teams:

"Northwestern University researchers turned to a different type of team -- reative teams in the arts and sciences -- to determine a team's recipe for success. They discovered that the composition of a great team is the same whether you are working on Broadway or in economics.

We found that teams that achieved success -- by producing musicals on Broadway or publishing academic papers in good journals -- were fundamentally assembled in the same way, by bringing in some experienced people who had not worked together before. The unsuccessful teams repeated the same collaborations over and over again..."

Creating a team with diversity is easy when you're a well-networked professional but harder when you're still a student. You're likely to want to work with your friends, with people you get along with already. The benefit of a team building class is that you will be forced to work with people you aren't pals with. By working with strangers you're more alive to their gifts or challenges. These things aren't so easy to assess when working with pals. In a work situation you'll be dealing with these kinds of conditions and dynamics. Working with diverse connections (weak ties) builds your ability to see the project more objectively.

When it comes to your own projects, the projects you'll want to get grant money for, it's crucial to take the most objective approach and apply that to finding the people who are best suited to the nature of the project. These people may be difficult but talented, they may be socially very different from yourself. The key is to learn to value those differences rather than surrounding yourself with people like yourself. Just think of Lennon and McCartney.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Does email make you stupid? How to cope

According to a recently published study, the answer is yes. From The Register, UK:
"Email users suffered a 10 per cent drop in IQ scores, more than twice the fall recorded by marijuana users, in a clinical trial of over a thousand participants. Doziness, lethargy and an inability to focus are classic characteristics of a spliffhead, but email users exhibited these particular symptoms to a "startling" degree, according to Dr Glenn Wilson."

Thing is, email isn't going away and it's become such a part of our daily lives that we're going to have to learn how to manage it. Especially for you as interactive producers. Most of your direction from clients will come via email so it's going to be important to develop good habits.

As an emerging professional you've already developed some good work skills. Now you need to polish your e-correspondence skills.

Here are some considerations to help you manage your email without losing your cool:

1) Time management: Save personal, family or non-critical emails for periods when you're not working - either before you begin work, at lunch or after work/dinner. If it's an email that requires serious thought, save it for the weekend. As tempting as it may be to tell your friends about what you did over the weekend, your work comes first. It doesn't matter whether you're working from home or in-house - there are only so many hours in the day!

2) Colour coding/flagging: If your email browser allows you to use colours, assign different colours to urgent and work related emails so you know what requires immediate response. Assign a flag to any work related email and create folders for specific projects.

3) Clean up: Clean out your mailbox every two weeks (that includes your SENT folder). Obviously, save and flag important emails. If you're really on the ball, start getting in the habit of deleting non-critical emails right after you read them. Those one-liner "thank-you" emails can go in your trash after you've read them.

4) Emotional maturity and professionalism: No matter how bad your day is going emails will continue to arrive in your inbox. You will invariably receive emails that stress you out - even if the sender did not intend it. Your first rule of thumb is BE PROFESSIONAL. A second rule to think about is "always assume goodwill" - either from your sender or in your response. Another rule, when dealing with more stressful emails, is to wait until you've cooled down to respond - there is no WITHDRAW button on email! Once you've sent something it's sent and there's nothing you can do. Remember that. Chances are, no matter how annoying or nervewracking an email is there is a productive and constructive way to respond. If you're having a really tough time dealing with a particular client, remember to have a sense of humour. Designer Ze Smith's hysterical "Communication Skills" is a primer on transforming your gut reactions.

5) Good form: if you don't already have one, pick up a business writing basics book. These books go over various different types of messages - from job applications to promotions to referrals and resignations. Email may not have been around for long but good form has been with us since the dawn of the printing press. And good form is an index of professionalism. People will appreciate your tact, politeness and manners.

6) Match subject lines to content: Make sure your subject line is specific and avoid terms that might result in your email going into a spam filter. Keep your email body focussed to a single topic. If you have additional concerns or questions, send them in another email. It's hard enough to locate a particular bit of information from subject lines alone. As an interactive professional you should always send the following emails as single messages:

- Invoices (specify the job as well)
- Project deadlines
- Work quotes
- Project outlines
- Iterations

7) Closure: It's always nice to send a thank you to somebody who has helped you out in some way. In the old days, people used to send thank you cards. It's also very good form to compliment people on their work. Chances are, you won't receive much feedback from clients. When you're working on a team and hardly anyone on that team is receiving any complimentary feedback (often clients withold compliments for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work) you should all get in the habit of complimenting each other. It goes a long way towards building morale and will make for a more friendly communciations flow.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Can't afford stock photos? Free image resources to your rescue!

Photo by Vijay Kodandaraman Bysani (CC license)

So let's say I'm writing an article for my blog or website about African Zebras. I'd really like to show people what an African Zebra looks like but a) I can't afford to go to Africa to photograph one; and b) I can't really afford to pay some fancy stock photography company several hundred dollars to use one of their images. So what should I do?

Remember when you were a kid and you learned all about "sharing"? Well, some people still believe that sharing is a great thing to do - especially when it comes to our media creations. That's right, millions of photographers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers all over the world are willing to share their work (with citation and attribution) for your non-commercial media publishing projects. And it goes both ways: you might need a photo of a Zebra and they might need some interesting text about Zebras. Together you create your own media resource! Newly launched "Now Public" was created to help citizen journalists find photographers to put stories together.

So are you ready to resource?

Communications expert Robin Good explains where to find the best free image resources on the web:

"Finding quality images and photos for complementing an important article, essay or news report is already quite a challenge for many. Imagine when the goal is not just too find good images, but find some that you could openly and freely use without needing to pay royalties or one-time publishing rights to someone."

Good reviews several resources including:



StockVaul t



And many others ...

I was surprised that Good left out Creative Commons / Common Content so I'll add it here:

Common Content features: images, movies, text and audio that feature the Creative Commons license. Learn more about Commons licenses.

Friday, April 01, 2005

RSS + Flash = 10X10 Newsflash!

10x10 gives new meaning to the word "newsflash". And this has got to be the best use of tags, flash and RSS technologies I've seen so far - and it's useful (especially for journalism students who can't afford to subscribe to Reuters!). More than anything it's just FUN.

This amazing project was created, designed and developed by Jonathan Harris of Number27, in conjunction with the FABRICA communication research center in Italy. Here's how it works (from the 10x10 site):

"Every hour, 10x10 scans the RSS feeds of several leading international news sources, and performs an elaborate process of weighted linguistic analysis on the text contained in their top news stories. After this process, conclusions are automatically drawn about the hour's most important words. The top 100 words are chosen, along with 100 corresponding images, culled from the source news stories. At the end of each day, month, and year, 10x10 looks back through its archives to conclude the top 100 words for the given time period. In this way, a constantly evolving record of our world is formed, based on prominent world events, without any human input.

Currently, 10x10 gathers its data from the following news
Reuters World News
BBC World Edition
New York Times International News"