Picture this

I hate infographics.

Maybe I just hate anything that’s so painfully obviously trendy and everybody jumps all over like it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Wait … what’s that? Yeah, I signed up for Google Plus and Path. Shuddit.

So let me soften my initial statement: I hate when blogs and websites overuse infographics.

And frankly, that seems to be a lot of them.

Infographics — short form for “information graphics” — are a pretty-picture way of showing information, data or knowledge.

Hubspot uses an infographic to describe what an infographic is.

They concede the infographic’s popularity is out of hand and lots of people are putting out just horrible versions.

With so many people jumping on the infographic bandwagon, there is certainly no shortage of downright awful infographics floating around the web, all pretty deserving of ridicule.

I have lots of friends who are (amazing) graphic designers and I’m sure they dig the infographic.

And you know I also love visual representations of life. Who would I be without my camera?

I even write infographics into a client’s content strategy — if it fits.

Pictures are a great way to tell a story. After all, each one is worth a thousand words, right?

But, aye, here’s the rub.

Not only are many poorly designed and presented, but its overuse tells me one thing: you’re not making enough of an effort to tell your story.

Sure, data can be difficult to convey in words. Not many people want to wade through a paragraph full of numbers and (potentially) boring data.

That’s why it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of the basics of web writing:

  • Use an active voice (The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, instead of There was a quick brown fox who …)
  • Separate chunks of information into bullet lists like this one (See what I did there?)
  • Separate chunks parts of your story with subheads (I always forget this one)
  • Use bold or italics to stress importance of some words or thoughts
  • Keep paragraphs simple, limiting each to one thought (I actually lost points for doing this in my technical writing course)

Maybe the age of 140-character thoughts is making us lazy and making us expect our readers to be lazy.

I don’t mean to say infographics are lazy. I’m sure a great deal of work goes into gathering the data/information and designing them.

But we need to remember our readers come to us not just to be informed, but also to be entertained, enlightened and engaged.

And I don’t believe there’s any better way to do that than with words.

Remember, I’m not just a writer. I’m also a reader.

Ooooh … shiny

Distractions can be a good thing.

When I’m stuck on a thought, it’s good to play a little with my mind. Take a break. Do something else.

Trouble is, the distractions have been getting out of hand and I’ve been losing my focus.

Remember when “games” on Facebook amounted to Farmville and a few other (mostly unappealing) interactive pastimes?

It’s exploded.

They’re everywhere.

And players need friends “help” to acquire more lives, get to the next level or add tools and weapons to their arsenals.

Bubble Witch Saga … Bubble Safari … Buggle … Candy Crush Saga …

I got my first invitation to Bubble Witch Saga shortly after I got laid off from Shaw. I figured it would help pass the time in between writing cover letters and tweaking resumes.

It ballooned on me. (Bubbled up?)

I added the others as emails for job postings went unanswered and second interviews went by without offers.

I spiraled into a vortex of self-doubt.

And I let the games steal my focus.

My mind became paralyzed by fear and rejection. My creativity was gone.

I couldn’t write.

I posted a plea for help on my Facebook page. My childhood friend Laura referred me to The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battle.

“I loved this book – profoundly,” she said. “Written mostly for writers, the points made in this book stung like mad after I was laid off at the height of the recession-with no jobs in Interior design anywhere out west. It also made me realize the chaos that was in my head and how powerful it can be if you allow it.”

I bought the ebook for my Kindle app the next morning and started to push my way through it.

Like Laura, I found the words ringing true almost immediately.

Resistance, writes Steven Pressfield, is about self-doubt, fear and passion.

“(It) enlists criticism to reinforce the fifth column of fear already at work inside the artist’s head, seeking to break her will and crack her dedication,” he says.

As creatives, we commit ourselves to a life of criticism … from editors, peers and readers. It’s torturous at times because we invest a small part of ourselves in every piece of work we produce.

We give that small part to you — just like this blog post — to read, feast upon and review with a critic’s eye.

That’s just the first chapter. Pressfield describes how a professional creative must act to achieve goals and produce the words that sing.

And that’s when I decided to start taking more control.

I deleted all the game apps from my Facebook account. (OK, OK, not all of them. I kept SongPop.)

I steeled myself away from looking at Twitter.

I sat down at my laptop and I forced myself to write.

I also forced myself to leave my laptop periodically and do something to refresh my mind: walk the dog, ride my bike, hit my TRX or read.

It worked.

This past weekend, I finished six pieces for three projects.

There wasn’t even a need to think about deadlines. The product was sitting in the Inboxes of my contacts long before they walked into the office this morning after a relaxing long weekend.

I’m back, baby.

Now give me something to write.

Oooh … cover letters …

Send help?

I can’t write.

Yes, I realize I wrote that.

I’m suffering from the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had in years. I sit down at my laptop and I stare at the white space in front of me.

This is not a good thing.

I am a writer by trade. The practice helps put the Kraft Dinner on my stove.

Writing, no matter whether it’s for a client, a company or my site, is a very personal thing.

At least for me it is.

The words come from my brain, my heart, my soul … or at least what’s left of it after getting thrashed and burned by editors and clients for 20 years. Whatever I write and send to you, there is a little piece of me left in it.

My work is a source of pride and I know my clients appreciate each one they pay for.

Typically, when I reach a creative impasse, I exercise. I grab my TRX system or I hit the trails on my bike. Or, I’ll exercise my brain in a different way and toss my camera in the truck and get lost.

Nothing seems to be working right now.

Every word I type tonight is a struggle.

I’m drained.

Empty.

Exhausted.

What’s this? Didn’t you just get back from a three-week vacation, you ask. Why, yes, I did.

And on my first Monday back, I received yet another ‘thank you very much but we’re going with someone else’ phone call.

Then the ‘you’re incredibly talented but we couldn’t possibly pay you enough to keep you happy and we know you’ll jump ship as soon as you can’ email.

I’m beaten up.

Kicked around.

Thrown down.

It’s getting harder and harder with each rejection to jump back and start fighting again.

But I know I must.

Mashable published a story about creative blocks tonight. It led me to a website called Help Me Be Fucking Creative.

While it’s aimed at designers, I didn’t think it could hurt to take a gander. It’s user-generated bits on how to break through the blocks. All you have to do is tweet with the hashtag #FKNGCREATIVEADVICE.

Thus Twitter, via HMBFC, tells me to:

  • Take a walk to a place you’ve never been before
  • Read a page of the dictionary
  • Read a book
  • Go to the bathroom with your fucking netbook
  • Leave your desk, go out
  • Write with your left hand for a bit

Many of them belong to the same theme: get away from your work and out of your head.

This – forcing myself to write – is the only thing I could think of doing, after a week of nothing. So you’ll please forgive me if it doesn’t flow or jive or whatever.

But I do have a deadline to meet for the end of the month.

So I have to do something.

Let me write for you

The internet is a wasteland.

No, it’s an abyss.

And it isn’t just the porn, uninformed opinion, whining, and cute baby and dog pictures.

It’s the endless stream of social media accounts, started with all the best intentions but left to rot away.

Especially blogs.

Technorati, in its State of the Blogosphere 2011 report, estimates that three million blogs are added to the abyss every month.

Three million.

It’s a staggering number. And it’s hard to tell how many of those will be lying fallow in the future. After all, those are the kind of people who typically don’t respond to surveys about how often they blog.

Maybe someone will start a blog and never get around to post to it. Maybe she’ll fire off a few posts and then lose interest, as we are wont to do in this ‘ooh look, something else shiny’ era.

Like this one blog I stumbled onto last month. I was researching blogosphere contacts for the most recent employer to decide it could no longer afford to keep me. The media list I was defining was realty based.

And if you’re on Twitter, you know how many realtors are out there, right?

This one fellow triumphantly mounted a blog onto his website and started a Twitter account so he could spread the good word. He titled his first blog post ‘My social media strategy’ and went into not-so-great detail about how he didn’t know what he was doing and he would post whenever he felt like it.

That was in February 2009.

He never posted again.

Now, I’m sure he’s a busy fella. The Calgary realty market, I can only assume by the numbers, keeps a guy on his toes.

Trouble is, he could be even busier if he maintained that blog and Twitter account. In its 2011 State of Inbound Marketing report, Hubspot learned businesses that post to their blogs daily generate four times more leads than those that post weekly or less.

Why? Because you grow traffic to your website, generate click-thrus to the business end of your site and establish yourself as a reliable source of information, services and product.

So how do you get around the busy factor? The lack of interest in writing about what you have to offer … because it doesn’t just exist for everyone. You already know that, especially if you have a dormant blog.

You could get an intern to do it, source out guest bloggers or — as I saw one local realty blog do — ‘lift’ content from newspapers and other bloggers.

(And I use ‘lift’ as a nice euphemism for republishing without attribution to the content owner. Please don’t do this.)

Or — and knowing I’m currently unemployed, you probably already realize where I’m going with this — you could hire someone.

Not just anyone.

Me.

Because branded storytelling is where we’re going. Your clients and customers want to learn about the stories behind the cash register. They want to learn more about you and how you can help them solve their problems.

My good friend Ernest Barbaric wrote in January that he believes branded storytelling is the next wave of content marketing.

The idea is to create a story, a narrative where your brand plays a role OR acts as a hub for story telling. For example, this could look something like Travelocity’s gnome – where users would take photos of the handsome fella on their vacations and then sharing that on the brand’s blog, Facebook or other network with all the other travellers.

So what’s the solution?

You hire someone who knows how to weave words and wax poetic … OK, OK, that might be blowing a little too much smoke up your butt.

But I do love to learn what makes you and your business tick. And I do know how to tell a fine story.

You wouldn’t have gotten this far if you didn’t think I could.

Contact me.

Back here again

I’ve been a bad writer. I know.

I’ve been mentally flogging myself these last few weeks, knowing I hadn’t put fingertips to keyboard on these pages in a good long while.

In the internet world, a few days gone by is enough to make people forget about you.

On the other hand, though, it’s also a lot of time for me to build up a list of things to write about. Trouble is, I leave them all up in my head … swimming around, getting confused with each other and sometimes being forgotten,

And so it was that last week, I sat down and wrote those ideas down. On paper. It’s weird but it feels more permanent that way to me.

I pledged to be a better writer. To tackle each one of those ideas. To keep you entertained, engaged and maybe — if I’m lucky — a little bit enlightened.

The next day, right before I sat down to tell you the thoughts that preceded this sentence, I was called into my new boss’s office.

Back taxes, Revenue Canada, cutbacks … sigh, oh this again.

Thus, I find myself out of work again, having to freshen up my cover letter, resume and portfolio for the second time in less than a year. Having to market myself, prove my value to another company, praying for a bidder to take a chance on me.

It looks tougher out there now, tougher than it was three months ago when I was still doing this after my layoff from Shaw. The job postings on my RSS feed aren’t coming through as frequently as they did in January.

It’s scary, especially when there’s no severance pay to float me through this time. Just a little nest egg built up from my freelancing business. A little cash that was meant to pay for plane tickets to Nova Scotia this summer, when I would finally bring a boyfriend home to introduce to my family.

At times, I feel broken and defeated, in a state of disbelief that I have to go through this all over again.

Come hell or high water, this obstacle, too, shall be overcome.

The search begins anew, I prefer contract stay-t-home work but I will entertain any offer. Post links in the comments, connect me to your network, send me emails … of postings and encouragement.

If you have work that needs to be done, read my home page for the services I might be able to provide you, telling your brand’s story. Peruse some of my clips to see how good I can be.

In the meantime, I have time to write.

Just don’t forget me when I’m gone. Even if it’s only for a day or two.

Fact or fiction

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

This happened on TAM airlines. A 50-something year old white woman arrived at her seat and saw that the passenger next to her was a black man.

Visibly furious, she called the air hostess.

“What’s the problem, ma?” the hostess asked her

“Can’t you see?” the lady said. “I was given a seat next to a black man. I can’t seat here next to him. You have to change my seat”

Oh, you’re on the Facebook. OK. You’ve seen it plastered all over everyone’s walls and read the replies ‘oh my God, that’s awesome, that flight attendant deserves a medal!’

Now stop me if you’ve heard this one.

WARNING: Men are trying to sell perfume in parking lots. DO NOT SMELL. IT IS NOT PERFUME. You will pass out and get raped. Please pass on two all of your women friends.

Oh, you’ve had an email address since 1996. You may even be in my mother’s address book.

Now stop me if you’ve heard this one.

THAT’S NOT REAL, YOU KNOW!

We’re skeptics. So many of these stories have been proven false or had their truth stretched that the internet is populated with sites demystifying their tales.

You’ve heard of Snopes and Hoax Slayer, no doubt. While both sites are in desperate need of a design overhaul from their mid-90s launches, they’re a wealth of information, dispelling — or on the rare occasion proving — each urban legend.

While some truths are disappointing, many of these stories have been handed down through the generations.

This is not new.

Storytelling is not new.

It’s how we know cultural effects of civilizations long gone by. Egyptians had hieroglyphs and Canadian Blackfoot First Nations left behind pictographs at what is now known as Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park.

We write our stories now, whether it’s in the pages of a published book, scrawled in a diary or typed away on a blog site like this one.

And there’s a touch of discomfort as I, a former journalist who seeks the truth, tell you this: sometimes it’s OK that the story isn’t real.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

There once was a shepherd boy who was bored as he sat on the hillside watching the village sheep. To amuse himself he took a great breath and sang out, “Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep!”

Sound familiar? That’s an Aesop fable. You may have studied it in literature when you were in junior high or high school.

We learned lessons of morality and common sense from Aesop and his stories, much like we can learn a lot of lessons from that other great work of fiction, the name I dare not type.

Ahem … [cough] … parables … [cough] …

The Boy Who Cried Wolf taught us not to lie for attention, lest we one day need that for real help.

The Tortoise and the Hare taught us that slow and steady can win the race.

The Parables of Jesus taught us to help each other, to love, to forgive … valuable lessons even if you don’t believe in the giant bearded dude in the sky.

The Tale of the Racist Airline Passenger drives home the point that intolerance is wrong … and that public intolerance deserves public humiliation, apparently.

Before we jump to the THAT’S NOT REAL, YOU KNOW! declaration, we could stand to see the message behind the tale.

Although 15 years later, I’m still not sure what lesson I’ve learned from the perfume story. I’m pretty sure I’ve always known not to buy perfume from dudes in a parking lot.

Or at Wal-Mart.

 

 

Missing the obvious

OK, you’re a writer.

You love words.

You know the difference between a colon, an em dash, a comma and a semicolon.

You can craft headlines and emails and missives and tweets and blog posts and press releases, meshing words together so mellifluously they drip like honey off a reader’s brain.

Or so power-packed, they stir someone to make that impulse purchase.

“I really liked your cover letter.”

Oh shucks, thanks! Twice now on my job hunt I’ve heard I have a well-written cover letter to introduce myself to a prospective employer.

Twice now it has left me surprised when prospective employers tell me that I would, in fact, be surprised by the number of poorly written cover letters they received.

Wait … what?

For the other positions you have open, right? For, say, a web designer or an admin assistant or someone who doesn’t actually make a living writing.

Nope. These are from people applying for writer’s positions.

Aye criminy, kids!

A cover letter is an employer’s first gaze at your writing, the reason you want to be hired by this company. It serves to highlight your accomplishments and the talents that will make you an asset to that company.

And to showcase your writing skills.

It isn’t just your resume and portfolio that do the talking.

Find a good ‘lede,’ the punch that will grab someone’s attention. (Don’t you dare start it off with ‘I am applying for the copywriter’s posizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.’ Anyone reading that will look at the wall and wonder how long it’s going to take for the paint to start peeling.)

Use the style and words you’ve used so many times already to sell products or services.

Because that’s what you’re doing. Selling.

But this time the product or service is you.

Of course, if you’re feeling a little lazy and you want to pay someone to do it for you, go here.

After all, I write a good cover letter.

I’m a writer.

Well …

One word has the power to make me click the X on the tab of your blog post.

One word.

Four letters.

W. E. L. L.

In a former life, I ranted and raved about newspaper writers starting any of their works with the word ‘I.’ Newspaper writers aren’t supposed to insert themselves into a story. They are, instead, meant to be recorders of history, enlightening and educating their readers on the issues of the day.

Given my immersion into blog writing and reading, I’ve softened my approach on that rule. We live in a ‘me’ world, a society of attention seekers. It’s even more prevalent today than the original ‘Me’ Generation of the 1980s, my formative years.

But there’s one rule about newspaper writing that will stick me with forever. I just can’t let go.

It’s called a ‘lead.’ When we’re writing to each other, we writers will call it a ‘lede’ so as not to confuse with any other word of the same spelling.

The lede is the nut of your story. It’s the who, what, when, where, why … although not everything at once. After all, you don’t want to overload your reader with information.

It’s meant to draw me in as a reader, pique my interest, make me want to read more.

If you start with ‘well,’ I’m already convinced you aren’t really sure what you want to say.

I’m convinced you’re not writing with purpose.

I’m convinced you’re just barfing words onto the screen.

I’m convinced I’m not interested.

But if I can just change one writer’s methods with this rant, I know I’ve done the world a favour.

ABC

Mea culpa

Spelling and grammar.

I will judge you for it, dammit! Education is a right and so many of  you have failed to embrace it, never bothering to figure out the difference between its and it’s or they’re, there and their … among other grammatical foibles.

I’ve always believed you should never be allowed to say a big word if you can’t:

A. Spell it correctly

B. Define it properly

We can even get around our lack of knowledge with wonderful little toys like Spellcheck, when we’re pounding away on our keyboards. Those little red squiggly lines are there for a reason, people!

(Caveat: there’s a squiggly line under ‘mea’ in my headline bar but we all know it’s right, right?)

And now, we’ve been blessed with Auto Correct. Our smartphones will automatically fix a word it thinks is wrong. Hilarity ensues when we’re not paying attention and thanks to Damn You, Auto Correct, we have a forum to send our boners to tell the world.

Boners … heh heh heh.

No, that’s not an Auto Correct! And it’s not a euphemism for anything, dammit! It means mistakes!

I sent DYAC to my Google Reader. Each one comes to my feed and I howl with laughter sometimes … major sexual references get mentioned when parents and kids are texting each other, ‘puck’ gets changed to ‘fuck’ and more.

Today, Auto Correct revealed the true nature of a relationship to some poor sap:

Auto Correct

Oh dear.

To the point, however, I’ve ranted on Twitter about Auto Correct, no matter how entertaining it is. Maybe, I postulated, people wouldn’t get caught by Auto Correct if they ‘knew how to fucking spell.’

And then I got caught. I recently switched to a lovely, shiny HTC Incredible S … with Auto Correct.

Last weekend, I sent a Twitpic from the Manolo Blahnik section of Holt Renfrew. I typed my message and soon received a reply from a friend: ‘Don’t you mean genuflecting at the shrine?’

Uh, yeah, I thought, isn’t that what I said?

No. Auto Correct changed it to ‘reflecting’ and then my Tweet didn’t make much sense.

Last night, I emailed a pic to My American, referencing my ass — and I swear it was totally PG-13. It got changed to ‘add.’

And hilarity ensued.

OK, not really. Those are two totally benign instances. They don’t deserve to make it to the hallowed halls of Damn You, Auto Correct.

But I have learned my lesson.

Maybe some of you do know how to spell.