Each week, Evan Peterson rounds up five stories from across the Web that scribes of all stripes should check out.
Depending on your point of view, the idea of robots or algorithms taking over human tasks
is either a sign of improved efficiency or people losing their jobs. Until recently, writers could be pretty detached from those worries; no way could a computer be taught to write an article or blog post. Except now they can. In a video story, The Washington Post
covers a company called Narrative Science, and how they've adapted an algorithm to write stories
about Little League games and other events driven by small amounts of data. In a world of ever-higher demand for content, computer-generated stories have a place. But at what point do writers need to get defensive? And at what point will editors and publishers begin looking at stories created by an algorithm as a replacement for a staff writer, rather than a complement to their work?
There's been plenty of good coverage of author Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing
this week following his death at age 87. They are rules worth remembering. But Slate
, as it sometimes does, won the race to write something a little different about a topic everyone seemed to be covering. David Haglund focused on the exceptions to Leonard's rules
, summing up that he really meant them as guides to avoid bad writing. Haglund suggests Leonard seemed to be saying, "Don't do these things, unless you're good at them. Then go ahead." It's true Leonard lists several famous authors who break his rules to great effect, including Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Tom Wolfe, and others. Perhaps more than offering exceptions for anyone who writes well, he's giving credit to the greats and pointing out that, look, you can't write like them, so don't try.
My favorite of his rules, by the way, is an addendum to No. 10: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."
It's hard enough making a career out of being a writer, especially as a freelancer. Calls, pitches, small paychecks, rare paychecks, hearing "no." But writers accept it because it's all part of the gig. What's not necessarily part of the gig is having friends and colleagues tell you you're not any good at it
. Ada Calhoun went through this with an editor friend, and wrote about her experience in The New York Times
. It drove her to seek revenge on her friend, proving to him and to everyone that she could get good work published. Sometimes criticism can be a major motivator.
[RELATED: Learn to write smarter at our PR Writers Summit.]
By now we're all well versed in the lessons of brand engagement and content marketing
. What you may not realize is there is a place beyond a blog, podcast, or YouTube channel to exercise these virtues, and it's nothing new. Nick Parker writes in The Guardian
on the value of unexpected writing
. That is, using voice, clarity, and humor in places we wouldn't normally expect: product testing language, directions or website user agreements. It's true that within the mess of technical and legal writing on most packaging, and within most consumer agreements, there is opportunity to give a brand an identity in a way a blog usually can't. Parker’s article points to a product called Soap and Glory, which has a disclaimer that reads:
“This product was tested in the UK on a panel of slightly irregular types who described themselves—on application—as being a bit rough around the edges.”
When I Googled them later, it turned out that tons of people have taken pictures of the small print on their Soap and Glory bottles and posted them on blogs, Flickr, Pinterest and so on, just because they liked the writing. How's that for “brand engagement?"
New York Times
columnist and Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman
used some Internet space this week to remind us of a good lesson about writing
. Upon being charged with plagiarism, Krugman not only denied the claim. He denied it in such a way that underscores the harsh reality of most writing: You can't just write. You have to present. And you have to present regularly. Otherwise no one will care. Or, at least, no one will read what you've written. In other words, no one's going to go to the trouble of stealing your words if they can't be totally sure that theft-worthy language is buried somewhere in what you've written. Krugman writes:
You have to provide the hook, the pitch, whatever you want to call it, that pulls them in. It’s part of the job.
Evan Peterson is a writer based in Chicago, and the editor of OpenMarkets magazine at CME Group. He's on Twitter at @evanmpeterson.