How Nathaniel Philbrick Writes

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National Book Award-winner and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Nathaniel Philbrick details to The Paris Review his writing process. Philbrick writes historical non-fiction, so he often has to dive head first into topics and develop a mastery while maintaining a sense of wonder. As a result he has a pretty regimented process to assure things come out right. Some choice gems:

On taking notes:

Moleskine. It’s almost a reading journal. Day by day. Early on I’m getting a sense of the book. I find that when I’m new to a topic, that’s when I’m catching the best details. It’s all new to me; it’s what the reader will respond to. Because, you can so easily over-know a topic, and you lose the magic. It becomes interesting to you, but you’ve lost the connection to the reader. You’re too far down the rabbit hole. So for me, it’s having a record of those initial reactions to the material is really important. It’s the roadmap I go back to. You forgot how interesting the material was when you first learned it, after you’ve learned a lot about a topic.

On getting feedback:

So, after I finish a draft, I hit print. I used to do a lot more revising on the page. I used to print at the end of every day, and then the next morning revise. I’ve since gotten to the point where I just do the revising on the screen. I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife after dinner.

[Paris Review:] Out loud?

That is the most critical point. She has a notepad where she’s writing comments. It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, that sucks. Like for all of us, I’m always searching for a word. It’s a lot of the sounds I’m going for—not that I’m creating anything anyone notices.

On the importance of the preface:

What I should mention is that, what applied to Away Off Shore and all my books since, is that, for me, it’s the preface that matters. That’s where I develop the voice; that’s where figure out what I’m going to say. Well into the Moleskine approach, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to begin with. What scene will introduce what I’m trying to do. That’s really hard for me. I’ll have forty drafts of how I’m going to start the book. Forty different ways in. How about trying this way, how about that? And that’s really the hard part. I’m deconstructing myself, second guessing myself. Where am I coming from? What is this about? What’s the voice? The tone? My manila folder for the preface is always really fat.

Read the entire interview (a must for any writer) here.

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When Decision-Making Becomes Procrastination

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Jason Norcross, executive creative director at advertising agency 72andSunny, knows that when you have too many ideas it is easy to over analyze every option before making a decision. In an interview with Fast Company, he says the best option is just to pick one and see what happens:

The best way to learn, create and move forward is to be decisive. It’s OK to be wrong, but make a decision because then you’ll learn. At least you’ll know you’re wrong and can move on. As opposed to just over-thinking and debating things… If it seems like it’s meeting the brief and it’s the right thing to do, then pursue it. If it doesn’t come to life for whatever reason, then reboot and go in a new direction.

When you spend so much time trying to decide what the best direction is, you burn people out and stop making progress. No one has time for that. Select an idea that fits the solution and leave time to try another idea if it doesn’t work out. If something is going to fail, it’s better to find out sooner than later so you can change direction.

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Get to Inbox Zero: Email Like a Journalist

Photo by Herschell Hershey

Photo by Herschell Hershey

Lost productivity is costly. According to multiple research studies, the average person receives more than 304 business emails a week. The average worker checks their inbox 36 times in an hour, and then spends about 16 minutes refocusing after handling incoming email. The studies show that the annual productivity costs per employee are $1250 for spam emails, $1800 for unnecessary emails, and $2100-$4100 just for poorly written ones. 

Founder, and the author of Work Simply, Carson Tate, explains:

“We are all bogged down by the sheer volume of email we receive and to which we must respond. That volume grows even more daunting because so much of that communication is unclear, ambiguous and flat out sloppy. These sloppy emails waste your time. And they cost you hours each week. Which means they’re also costing you money.”

She suggests that we can dramatically reduce the volume of email messages we receive by crafting email messages using the key foundations of journalism: who, what, why, and how. It may seem obvious, but utilizing all four in one emails ensures that your message is understood upon the first read, and does not require multiple back and forth emails asking clarifying questions.

Who?  This breaks down into two sub-questions: “Who needs to respond to, take action on, or make a decision about this information?” Put their name(s) on the to: line. “Who needs to know this information?” Put their name(s) on the cc: line.

Why? Look back at the names on the to: line and the cc: line. For each name, ask yourself, “Why is this person involved in the project?”…Make sure the tone, style, and content of your email matches up—just as you would choose appropriate words, tone, and body language if you were sitting across a table from them and discussing the topic in person…

What? “What is the purpose of the email?…What are the key facts? What references or research data need to be included?”…

How? Ask yourself, “How do I want recipients to respond?” Describe this explicitly in your email. If there’s a deadline, say so. If you want an email response, say that…Never assume that people will understand what you want—tell them as straightforwardly as possible.

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Why Community Managers Are the New Brand Managers

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Whereas brands used to push their products and messages out in what was essentially a one-way conversation, the social web has transformed it into a two-way conversation. Which means that we have to learn to speak authentically and honestly to our customers, and that we can’t hide when we make mistakes.

To learn how to deftly navigate this new dynamic, we chatted up one of the most talked-about brands on the social web—Warby Parker, the eyeglasses-cum-lifestyle brand that has been a mad success from day one. Here, co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal breaks down how to be okay with leading a brand that you can’t totally control:

Where do you think brands go wrong when they’re trying to build an authentic relationship with customers? 
People have extremely sensitive BS detectors these days. We’ve all been inundated with advertisements since we started walking and talking. So we can pick up on a brand’s authenticity—or fakeness—immediately. As a brand, you can only engender trust if you’re being transparent. Brands have never been able to control what their customers say about them, but now, thanks to the Internet, customers are more empowered than ever to disseminate their experiences with a brand. Companies can’t hide. If you make a mistake, or you do something wrong, it’s going to get out there. And if you’re not proactive about responding when it happens, you’re going to dig yourself into a deeper hole. 

What’s the best way to go about being “proactive” when something goes wrong? 
I think it goes back to transparency. The first thing to do is admit it. Explain what happened and apologize. Your customers can be very understanding provided that you enable them to be understanding, which means that you need to have an honest discussion with them and fess up when you make a mistake. 

For instance, think about if you call any of our favorite cell phone carriers. [laughs] It used to be that they were just rude and didn’t solve your problem. Now, they’re often polite, but they still don’t solve your problems. So, they’re getting a little bit better, but you still want to break your phone in half after one of those conversations. 

So being polite and friendly and apologizing is part of it. But it’s just the first part. Then you have to actually correct the situation. For us, that might be offering a discount, it might be offering free glasses, it might be doing whatever it takes to get that person a pair of glasses before they go on vacation. It’s the little things that make a brand great. It’s about being diligent with details, keeping your antennae sensitive to what customers want, and responding in a way that’s authentic to your brand. It sounds intuitive, but the fact is that many brands are not treating their customers the way they want to be treated. 

Do you think the dynamic of the social web means there’s more of an interplay between customers and brands than there’s been in the past? Can brands still control the conversation? 
I was talking to Troy Carter—an investor who also used to be Lady Gaga’s manager—the other day, and he made a really interesting observation. We were discussing Warby Parker, and he said, “It’s not your brand; it’s our brand.” “Our” being the public. And I think he’s right: You do not control your brand anymore. You can influence it and help guide the conversation, but there’s a limit to how precisely you can define your brand on your own. 

This idea that a brand will conform to a nice PowerPoint presentation with a strict brand architecture and messaging hierarchy is no longer the case. Your brand is part of conversations that are being had in the streets, on Twitter, and on Instagram. And the best that you can do is help influence that dialogue by giving people reasons to talk positively about it. These days, your community managers are your brand managers.


This is an excerpt from 99U’s new book, Make Your Mark, which features 21 essays and interviews on building a creative business with impact.

Get  “Make Your Mark” now –>

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Use Daily Rewards to Break Creative Blocks

Photo by Evan P. Cordes

Photo by Evan P. Cordes

Renowned author Stephen King, who has published 49 novels that have sold over 350 million copies, writes at least ten pages each day. As a creative person, you’ve experienced writer’s block, even if you’re not necessarily a writer; software engineers, artists, or anyone that has to create things for a living is susceptible. We also all know the well-worn advice of practicing even for just a little bit, at least once a day — but how does one actually stick to it?

Product Manager at Twitter, Buster Benson, recently created 750words.com to help us break through writer’s block and open up our creative passages. He uses a rewards system to keep on track (much like the famous Jerry Seinfeld calendar-method). The idea is simple:

Every month you get a clean bowling-esque score card. If you write anything at all, you get 1 point. If you write 750 words or more, you get 2 points. If you write two, three or more days in a row, you get even more points. How I see it, points can motivate. It’s fun to try to stay on streaks and the points are a way to play around with that. You can also see how others are doing points-wise if you’re at all competitive that way.

Benson shares his inspiration:

I’ve long been inspired by an idea I first learned about in The Artist’s Way called morning pages. Morning pages are three pages of writing done every day, typically encouraged to be in “long hand”, typically done in the morning, that can be about anything and everything that comes into your head. It’s about getting it all out of your head, and is not supposed to be edited or censored in any way.

The idea is that if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day, that it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day. Unlike many of the other exercises in that book, I found that this one actually worked and was really really useful.

By writing 750 words a day, or 50 lines of code, or drawing a page of illustrations every morning, you’re turning the act of creating into a habit. A creative block isn’t worn down by worrying or procrastinating; it can only be broken by trying.

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99U Book Giveaway: “Make Your Mark” + Free Kindle eReader!

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Make Your Mark, our new business book for makers (not managers!) launches this week. It’s our third book in the 99U book series, which offers pragmatic, actionable advice for managing your time, your career, and your business. You can order the book here.

To celebrate, we’re giving away three Kindle Paperwhite eReader devices pre-loaded with all three 99U books. (Not to mention a totally sweet carrying case that looks like the cover of Make Your Mark.)

To enter, tweet your favorite piece of startup wisdom for creatives in the next 24 hours with this link and hashtag: amazon.com/99u #makeyourmark

Tweet: [Your deep wisdom here.] – amazon.com/99u #makeyourmark

We’ll pick three winners at random on Monday, and ship them their snazzy Kindle eReaders.

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Don’t Let Overthinking Kill Your Work

Illustration by Koosje Koene

Illustration by Koosje Koene

Visual artist Koosje Koene says that when it comes to creating, you have to jump right in. In an interview with The People Project, she explains her creative process:

I am a do-er, if that’s a word. If I have an idea, I like to execute it, create it, or at least start planning the project. In Art School, we talked a lot about ideas, the ideas behind the ideas, and so on. It made me feel less enthusiastic about starting a project, since the idea wasn’t fresh anymore. All the thinking sort of sucked the passion and excitement out of me, and that showed in the results. In a bad way.

When a new idea hits, you should take advantage of that initial passion and excitement and jump right in. If you spend too much time thinking, the concept begins to fade and you lose the creative momentum. After the initial burst of creativity, you can always take a step back and do some evaluating. Get out of your head and create.

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