One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.
This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.
I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:
Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.
This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.
Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:
I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.
The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).
One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:
Writing is both easy and hard.
It’s easy insofar as it it routine. A sizable portion of the population can produce passable copy for the context at hand. Think email, source code comments, wordy Facebook status updates, epic Reddit replies/burns, or even letters to the editor. This writing is GTD writing. It can be learned, and it is the glue of numerous social processes. It neither calls out for nor merits much artistic assessment.
It’s difficult because there’s so much noise. The ubiquity of GTD writing, the way it spans every context from the IT department to social media and becomes one homogenized blob (is there any job requirement vaguer and more inevitable than “writing/communication skills” ?), means that interpreting writing is hard. Much of it is barely even read – our familiarity with form and function leads to unconscious mental hacks such as:
- “This is a long introductory paragraph about the economics of college in the U.S., I can probably skip over it since the author won’t introduce any numbers here, so all of this is just opinion.” – I took this exact tack toward an article I saved to Pocket yesterday.
- “I will comb through this with a tenacity [usually just confirmation bias] I devote to nothing else so that I can write a lucid, yet clever, response” – Such logic underpins countless message board/social media arguments
- “There might be pictures or lists further down the page. Why don’t I scroll past this wall of text?” Here you go:
Interpretation suffers in each example because it either barely happens (#1, #3) or it is unevenly and randomly applied (#2), the aesthetic equivalent of a random act of kindness (more nearly meanness, in most real world instances).
The routine, humdrum quality of writing – anyone can do it, it has virtually no barriers to entry – enables this interpretative cage for readers and writers. Writing intersects with mundane parts of life more so than the visual arts, theater or even music, so escaping the trap with writing that is appreciated for its savvy, voice, and technical proficiency is unbelievably challenging.
Moreover, writing is everywhere and it only walls itself off from the noise of the world in forms such as the novel, poem, and especially the literal, physical book. Even in these modes, it is less well-differentiated from everything else than a giant painting, stage production, or symphony orchestra.
Le Mot Juste
Understandably, the everyday quality of writing has driven creative writers to agonize over literally every word. “Attention to detail,” another fundamental job requirement, makes explicit this social expectation that writing must be seemingly perfect in its word choices and grammar, as well as error-free. Such expectations are paradoxical: In a world deluged with so much writing that will never be properly interpreted, would-be interpreters profess to screen every last word, matching the efforts of the idealized perfectionist writer.
However, my sense is that current norms around writing are actually not so fixated with such pristine craftsmanship and artistry. What they really value is word choice and terminology:
- When writing doesn’t register with readers from its ideal audience, the failure starts with word choice. For example, overusing Latinate words when writing conversation is usually deadly (“Dispense the information” sounds obviously fake and, fair enough, is an exaggerative example: “Tell me what you know” isn’t exactly poetry, but it does the job). When the writer uses words at odds with the audience’s knowledge, it’s like they’re trying to have dinner while eating at different restaurants.
- The more technical and less creative the context, the more immediately important word choice becomes. “Immediately” because readers of non-creative texts perform much of their interpretation subconsciously (see the above numbered list) and don’t stop to consciously engage with words. So using “the cloud” instead of “server-based computing” ensures that reader isn’t thrown off by having to perform concentrated interpretation in a context that doesn’t warrant it.
- Creative writing is a different beast because readers can be expected to have interpretative chops. But while the writers’ specific word choices and methodologies may change, her writing is still, at the lowest level, about connecting through individual words strung together(“A word after a word after a word is power” – Margaret Atwood).
- Writer’s block doesn’t come from lack of ideas, but lack of words. I know, that sounds trite. Yet, the challenge of staring at a blank page or incomplete section is all about grasping for tools – specific words and phrases – and not finding them. It’s impossible not to think, after all, so the bottleneck is instead finding vehicles (words) for thoughts.
Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist best known in the Anglosphere as the author of Madame Bovary, epitomizes this overarching challenge of word choice. His exacting attention to style spared no sentence (he told George Sand that he wanted to avoid assonance whenever possible, a tactic usually confined to poetry). He was always in search of “le mot juste” – the right word. This habit made him one of the least prolific great writers of the 19th century. He definitely would not have condoned “done is better than perfect.”
Flaubert’s world was one on the cusp of industrialization and globalization. The 19th century Madame Bovary was a French novel created with no expectation that it would someday be available the world over in many languages. Urban Dictionary chimes in:
“Flaubert spent his life agonizing over ‘le mot juste.’ Now Madame Bovary is available in 20 different crappy English translations, so now it doesn’t really make a damn bit of difference.”
Certainly, literal translation is the enemy of any style dependent on deliberate, belabored word choice. The tools of one language just don’t have 1-to-1 equivalents in another. My French isn’t great, so I’ll look at Greek. Take the opening lines of Plato’s Apology:
Greek (transliterated into Latin alphabet):
- Hotu men humeis, o andres Athenaioi, peponthate hupo ton emon kategoron, ouk hoida.
Possible English translations:
- How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell
- I know not, O Athenians! how far you have been influenced by my accusers for my part,
The first is literal, the second more interpretative. Either way, plenty is lost. The literal translation has to contort syntax into something that sounds weirdly unnatural in English; but in Greek, syntax is secondary, since the language is inflected.
Even the interpretative one cannot convey the key “men” particle from the original, which often serves as one half of a “on the one hand…on the other hand” construction, the other half being “de.” Much of the time, it isn’t translated at all (probably wise: it adds a bunch of extra English words), yet its power is undeniable: the reader essentially waits for the other shoe – the “de” – to drop. Plato pauses after the “hoida” before delivering the “de,” in an artistic construction that English cannot easily duplicate.
Enough Greek. I only look at literal translation because it can tells us much about how word choice struggles against any reader’s knowledge and disposition. While it certainly won’t come through intact when the reader doesn’t know the mother language, but it also faces obstacles even when the writer and the reader are on the same linguistic page. The interpretative habits I described above are akin to automatic “translation” of writing – even in English, by readers literate in English – into something digestible. “TL;DR” is very much an exercise in such translation.
The writer’s task, then, is finding a way to resist such translation and commoditization. This undertaking feels like the underlying challenge of all writing, from IT white papers and emails to poems and long-form fiction.
Yesterday, I broke a years-long drought writing creative prose; I published a 5,000-word short story to my Tumblr. The last time I wrote anything similar, I did so in Microsoft Works, in 1999, when I completed the third and final part of a series of novellas I wrote for a middle school contest. I fell out of the habit once I entered high school and never came back to it, sticking largely to abstract poetry all the way through college and beyond.
Why did I come back? Because I realized that my avoidance of creative prose was due to a wall I had erected in my head, between “writing” and “creative writing.” Even as churned out tons of words for papers, blogs, and client websites, there as always some part of me telling me that that writing didn’t count and could not intersect with or influence my more artistic ambitions.
I was developing skills in producing writing that was done but not perfect, under deadlines, but whenever I sat down to write fiction, I immediately froze up, feeling like I had to write Ulysses or Madame Bovary. It was as if I was flipping off the writing switch whenever I wasn’t writing nonsense about gendering, cloud computing, or video games. It was maddening, plus the specter of the perfectionist Flaubert didn’t help.
Ultimately, I got over the hump by reading about programming. Paul Graham’s essay “The Power of the Marginal” helped me become much less self-conscious, dispelling a lot of the illusions I had about how “insiders” assess work from “outsiders.” It finally felt ok to write for whomever I wanted, rather than some mythical academy. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Reading is pre-gaming for writing
I mean that in two ways. Certainly, writing is like a plant that grows from the seeds of what the writer reads. More immediately, though, I find it hard to just to sit down and write without having a stack of books at my side to read before, during, and after I write.
Reading something – anything – before trying to type is not just helpful, but necessary in my experience. Even if it is comedic play read as I try to write taut Hemingway-style prose, digesting someone else’s great writing before trying to make your own is like feeling around in a toolbox while trying to build something. For example, I read lots of Aristophanes – Wealth, Birds – before writing my story. I don’t see the direct influence, but the reading helped on another level.
It can take hours to get “in the zone,” and sometimes you have to take a break
Very rarely can I just bang out prose that I’m comfortable with after immediately switching to it from some other task. I can’t just unfurl a good paragraph or poem right after exercising, and it’s a struggle to do so after playing a video game. This seamless multitasking seems mythical.
Instead, getting into a good zone requires one or both of the following:
- Spending minutes or hours writing seemingly false starts: writing whatever is on my mind is a good way to clear the system and sometimes those ideas can be woven back into the eventual piece
- Writing, encountering resistance, stepping away, and coming back: In another of Graham’s essay, he talks about how problems are often solved by returning to them later. Having time to walk (“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” – Nietzsche) and think is important, but your brain is also doing unconscious work for you, working out the kinks.
It’s fine – even preferable – to start in the middle
One of the most destructive tendencies in writing is trying to hammer out an epic introduction before even knowing what you’re writing about. This habit leads to overly broad introductory sentences (“Since the dawn of time, humankind has always liked ideas” or some such), plus it’s incredibly, incredibly constraining – it’s like you’re tying weights to your ankles before you even start the race!
Many aspects of the story I wrote only came into my mind in the act of writing – I did not, perhaps could not, conceive of them beforehand in the abstract. Starting in the middle or anywhere, using stream-of-consciousness if you have to, can be so much more productive than taking a strictly algorithmic approach to writing. On that note…
It’s hard not to be influenced by James Joyce
I once loathed Joyce, and I would never mention him as a favorite author. Yet, it is humbling to consider his influence. Almost any seemingly unstructured, free-form writing, chock-full of poetic sensibilities rather than just linear storytelling, owes a debt to Joyce. Reading Ulysses helped me chisel my way out of my years-long writer’s block, not because I liked it but because it refocused my mind on what tools were available to me as a writer, and showed me what could be done with them.
A Chromebook can help you stay focused
The Internet is terrible for focus. I mostly agree with this guy who can’t stay off IMDb when trying to write from his computer. While I haven’t faced this constant temptation while writing blog posts or technical writing, I can really feel it when attempting anything creative, perhaps since creative projects can be open-ended and make me feel like I can never read enough to prepare myself (when in fact my “reading” is just dicking around on Hacker News). So why/how did I write my story on a computer with an OS that is useless without an Internet connection?
Chromebooks, especially the Samsung ARM model from late 2012, are limited machines. Their limitations are part of their power and appeal, though. When using my Chromebook, I don’t have to deal with the vast, tangled mess of files on my MacBook, nor its ability to load webpages much more quickly than this ARM-powered laptop. I don’t keep as may tabs open and I don’t multitask (multitasking is bad for you overall, and a real killer for writers). I plan to write as much as I can from Chrome OS.
Good simplicity is complicated. The first iPhone, Tetris, the prose of Ernest Hemingway – each is easy to grasp, but built with exacting care and technical skill. Mario Kart 8 is a worthy heir to this tradition of ingenuity made to look effortless.
Even if you have never played a racing game, never flirted with the Mario franchise in the past 30 years – it doesn’t matter. Within minutes of booting Mario Kart 8 (made easier with the Wii U’s recent system update), you can be fully ramped into the game, racing alongside Yoshi, Wario, and death-stare Luigi.
The controls are seamless and fluid. They feel so natural that using any of the Wii U’s controllers feel like playing a musical instrument – you’re an instant virtuoso, knowledgeable of every nuance. Plus, that soundtrack! Nintendo unleashed its chops on the Super Mario 3D World score, but the tunes here are better. The melodies and arrangements (generous electric guitar) differentiate the mood from track and track.
The Wii U was hardly lacking for top-flight titles before Mario Kart 8. Super Mario 3D World is one of the most polished, re-playable games ever designed, while ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 are like little else. But Mario Kart 8 gives the Wii U the instant gratification lacking in its previous top-flight titles, all of which are exceptionally difficult (just try Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze).
It’s not just the gameplay that is rewarding right out of the box. The visuals are gorgeous, crafted with Disney-level attention to style. Looking at the scenery is as fun as trying to beat out Koopa Troopa to get on the podium. The Wii U needed a(nother) masterpiece, and it got one.
Job interviews are increasingly weird. Striking up an in-person, phone or Hangout conversation with someone at the company could lead to a question about climbing out of a blender, or an enervating haze of “culture fit” queries. The interviewee is still likely to get the classics – ‘tell me about yourself’, ‘what’s a challenge you overcame?’ ‘any questions for me?’ – but she also can’t expect that this particular interview will be the final or even penultimate stop on her journey to getting the position.
Today’s interviews are logical extensions of job postings that are written in epic jargon. Doubtless many candidates are discouraged to apply after seeing a wall of bullet points about “multitasking” and “detail-oriented” or the occasional all-caps phrase. That’s probably the aim of whomever is offering the position. For the ones that do make it past the submission phase, a potentially weeks-long interviewing escapade awaits.
Zappos stands out in this context for bypassing this byzantine norm and requiring months of (unpaid) interaction with current Zappos employees via social media. It seems extreme, but this process is just a more codified version of what candidates already had to do: Message, chat, and visit with potential employers until the latter calls time.
Most of my interviews have been at tech firms and at schools (all of my jobs have, naturally, been at one such institution). On a few occasions I have been on the other side of the table. By and large these interviews have been “normal” in that they’ve been protracted.
But to get a real feel for what interviewing today is like, look at airlines. Being a flight attendant is obviously a desirable position, with regular travel around the world not a luxury but a part of the job. With thousands of applicants to deal with, airlines like Delta have come up with a process that makes becoming a flight attendant more difficult than being admitted to Stanford.
Here’s how interviewing at Delta Airlines compares to interviewing at Uber and a few other companies. The details about Delta are from someone else; everything else if from my own experience.
The job: Flight attendant
The process: online application; 2x phone interview, video interview, face-to-face interview, background check
Good luck. A standard online application is followed by at least one and in the case I studied two phone interviews. The first is essentially a screening to make sure the applicant has the baseline educational and professional background. The second, if it occurs, is full of situational questions. These are not your theoretical (and useless) “Google questions” that are often used as gotchas during phone screenings, but questions with right answers rather than gold stars meted out for “thinking outside the box.”
If you make it past the application and the phone calls, a video interview awaits. Last summer I interviewed and was admitted to Dev Bootcamp (I since withdrew; it wasn’t the right fit) and the video interview was by far the most stressful part of the process. This is worse. Whereas the DBC video was just one component of many in the initial application, this has a lot more riding on it – you’ve already made it this far, and getting to Atlanta just requires recording a video of you answering some questions.
It must be treated like a real face-to-face interview (with the camera as the other ‘face’) and you must dress formally and record your video in an aesthetically appealing setting. My source did the interview wearing a shirt and tie, in a living room with lots of books. The video is time-constrained; all questions should be answered within just a few minutes.
Anyone industrious enough to make it this far must clear two more hurdles: the on-site Atlanta interview (called a face-to-face or F2F) and a background check. The F2F is undoubtedly the epic process’s toughest stage, its equivalent of the “test of the champion.” Arriving on site can instantly make a candidate fell like all is lost: just look at all those smiling, professionally dressed other people! Overcoming that anxiety is probably the toughest step. The actual interview – a two-on-one setup with lots of situational questions – can be prepared for with adequate Internet research and rehearsal.
The job: Community manager
The process: Online submission; creative exercise; phone interview; on-site interview; written exercise; party attendance
This process wasn’t difficult so much as it was inscrutable. No part of it made me feel like I was getting closer to the prize. The initial submission is standard (resume, cover letter) but nothing else is. Note that my experience is from late 2012/early 2013, and they’ve probably tightened up the process since then.
The creative exercise requires developing various marketing and promotional initiatives for Uber and takes hours to complete. It’s basically unpaid consulting. If it passes muster, then it’s on to a somewhat straightforward phone screening – no gotchas or case questions.
The on-site interview is extremely informal. It’s the dreaded “culture fit” round, and there’s not much you can do to control your fate here. They either like you or think that, for whatever reason, you won’t fit in.
Somehow, that ends up not being the end of the road. I had to do a written analysis of a ride I took, as well as go to a holiday party. Nothing materialized and I ended up waiting weeks to get the TBNT letter.
Process: online application, profile creation, assessment, on-site networking, video interview
Teaching runs the gamut. I once got a part-time professorship basically via email, making it the easiest job interview process ever (there wasn’t one, basically). On the other hand, teaching positions, especially in English, can be very competitive.
Every school is different. But for high-performing ones, expect tests, video interviews and on-sight workshops, all before even getting to a demo lesson or reference check. Like the other jobs here, it can be tough to know if you’re doing well, since much of the process – for all of its semblance of objectivity and metrics – is about fit and finish.