Defeating the Blank Page: S. J. Perelman on the Chandler Method

MUD day 12:

On a day when I have little time and less inspiration, I will let the sadly neglected S. J. Perelman ride to my rescue. In a late-1950s Paris Review interview, he was asked what he did to overcome the blank page and start writing an essay. His answer involved yet another approach from Raymond Chandler, previously cited this month as a model by one of my illustrious commenters:

Interviewer: Are there any devices you use to get yourself going on [your essays]?

Perelman: No, I don’t think so. Just anguish. Just sitting and staring at the typewriter and avoiding the issue as long as possible. Raymond Chandler and I discussed this once, and he admitted to the most bitter reluctance to commit anything to paper. He evolved the following scheme: he had a tape recorder into which he spoke the utmost nonsense—a stream of consciousness which was then transcribed by a secretary and which he then used as a basis for his first rough draft. Very laborious. He strongly advised me to do the same . . . in fact became so excited that he kept plying me with information for months about the machine that helped him.

Perelman doesn’t say whether he tried the method. But if you, like Chandler, have a dread of the blank page, it might be worth a try.

Embrace Your Errors

MUD day 5:

When I embarked on this month of daily, rapidly written blog posts, I knew my tolerance for typos and other errors would be sorely tested. And indeed, yesterday I committed one of the homophonically confused errors I’ve made since the beginning of my publishing career, writing “died-in-the-wool” rather than “dyed.”  Once I might have been upset by the discovery of my mistake, but my recent reading has persuaded me that a few errors now and then, once recognized, can be good for both readers and writers.

In this morning’s Los Angeles Times, the editors published a note under the headline “Didn’t anyone edit this?” As the paper’s “reader representative” Dierdre Edgar wrote, “When readers write in about errors, it shows they care, and that’s a good thing.” While there are other ways of getting readers to interact with you, the occasional mistake can be good for a writer’s engagement with readers.

But there’s a better reason for writers not to feel too bad when realized they’ve goofed: It’s a valuable learning experience. I’ll leave the last word on this to Kathryn Schulz, a writer I discovered only yesterday through a wonderfully written New York Times review of Haruki Marukami’s new novel 1Q84.  In her book, On Being Wrong, Schulz eloquently explains why the occasional error is not only tolerable, but beneficial:

Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.

Attribution and Linking Are Essential to Transparency

MUD day 4:

If you’re a B2B journalist or a journalistically inclined content marketer, you should be faithfully following Steve Buttry’s blog. Although he’s a died-in-the-wool (UPDATE: um . . . I meant “dyed-in-the-wool”) newspaper guy, he deals frequently and insightfully with issues that also plague trade editors and reporters. A good example is from Buttry’s post on Monday, in which he offers advice on attribution. It’s an age-old issue for trade journalists that has only intensified in the online era.

Though by all means you should read his entire post, I want to cover a few of his points that particularly apply in the trade press. The first is the thorny issue of press releases. As Buttry says, the idea of a press release is that you can freely crib from it—the company that sent it to you will be perfectly happy if you do. But you may do your reader a disservice if you don’t explicitly attribute the copy to the press release.

This is particularly true of quotes within the press release. Too often editors pick up the quote and attribute it directly to the speaker, as though they had interviewed the source or attended a press briefing. But instead of “… CEO Smith said,” it should be ” … CEO Smith said in a press release.

A related issue that Buttry brings up has to do with what he calls recycled quotes. As he says, “If you didn’t hear the person say something, you should probably attribute the quote not only to the speaker but to the medium that reported it.”

A few years ago, I had an editor who handed in a story with fantastic quotes from a variety of C-level executives. Thinking he had interviewed them all, I complimented him on being able to get through to so many elusive sources. He blanched, then told me he’d taken the quotes from various sources on the Internet. Needless to say, he rewrote the story with proper attribution.

Some writers have the opposite problem, and turn guidelines into fetishes. Rather than focus their lead on the story, they focus it on the attribution. More frequently than I liked, our writers would start a story with a sentence such as “Ellis Q. Stone, Assistant Vice President for Research and Development at Mondo Widget Corp. (New Paltz, NY), said ….” That would be followed all too often by other background information before the key point of the story would be raised. As Buttry suggests, “If you start a story with attribution, consider whether the person speaking is more important to the reader than what he or she is saying.”

In theory, attribution is easier and more useful online because you can link readers to the source. In practice, though, the trade press doesn’t link nearly enough. They should do better. As Buttry argues,

Linking is an essential part of attribution in online journalism. Linking lets people see the full context of the information you are citing. Even when readers don’t click links, the fact that you are linking tells them that you are backing up what you have written, that you are attributing and showing your sources.

If you want to see some examples of this shortcoming, you only need to read through a few stories from the leading publication for the magazine industry, Folio:. In an article entitled “Editors Share Best Practices for Twitter,” for instance, you might expect at least a link to each of the Twitter pages for the four editors profiled, if not also links to their magazines. But there’s not a single link in the story.

In the new-media era of journalism, the arguably most important ethical principle is transparency. As Steve Buttry reminds us, attribution and linking are essential tools for achieving it.

Schadenfreude Is Cheap: Don’t Worry About the Journalists of the Future

MUD day 3:

I recently joined the LinkedIn for Journalists group, which turns out to be more useful and interesting than I had expected. A post from a couple of weeks ago pointed to an entry in Roger Ebert’s Journal headlined “Help! Our journalists of the future.” The entry consisted almost entirely of extracts from bad student writing, provided by a friend who teaches a university journalism course. The following extract is typical:

One thing is for sure were in for quite a ride and an impeccable race that’s for sure.

I do my share of bagging on journalists, but students are too easy a target. Having taught college English for several years, I know that in every batch of papers, you can find both brilliant and abysmal bits of writing. I also know that, as one of Ebert’s commenters pointed out, “some of the problems are the result of the rush to get the assignment done overnight—or, even more likely, in the moments before class started.”

What Ebert’s column really reflects, other than an easy way to write a blog post, is what every elder generation feels: that their young are a disappointment, not up to the great things they did. There is even a kind of schadenfreude, or covert joy in their shortcomings.

Bad, even sub-literate writing, has always been with us, and always will be. But of those students Ebert quotes, the few who really care, who are passionate about their craft, will overcome their weaknesses and become good, perhaps even great, journalists.

NaNoWriMo, Social Media, and Measurability

Month of “Um” Days (hereafter MUD) day 2:

If April is the cruelest month, as the great Tom Eliot once observed, November must be the lamest. As the not-so-great Tom Hood wrote,

No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November !

So having no other options, some 250,000 people this month will write novels, as part of the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. (And, in case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those people. I have other editorial fish to fry.)

What’s curious to me about NaNoWriMo is how it has leveraged the framework of social media in the service of what is an essentially solitary and personal undertaking. I tend to think of social media as being collaborative in nature and as producing a collective benefit. But NaNoWriMo uses social media to produce an individual benefit—in this case, finally finishing that novel you’ve talked about writing for so long.

NaNoWriMo 2011

Self-help tools for aspiring novelists predate social media, but none, to my knowledge, have had such widespread success. What started out in 1999 as a casual contest among 21 Bay Area writers has turned into a world-wide event that’s led to several best sellers and many thousands of novels that might never have otherwise been finished.

You might question the quality of those novels, but that’s not the point of NaNoWriMo. It’s all about measurability, not quality. The whole point is to produce a countable number of words (50,000) in a countable number of days (30), which participants must submit for verification.

What’s brilliant, I think, about NaNoWriMo is how it uses measurability to turn social media from a vehicle for experiencing into a tool for doing. It becomes a social system to help individuals conquer what Seth Godin calls the fear of shipping.

What other examples of social media can we identify, I wonder, that use measurability to achieve individual goals? I’d try to answer that now, but my MUD rules don’t allow it. But then, dear reader, that’s what the comments are for.