What Makes Good Writing

In 2012, I made the decision to read all 100 of the books listed on the NY Times Best Books of 2011 list. Each year, The Times lists “the best” books published in that year spanning fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Since I began to expand my brand, which includes writing, I thought it would be a useful experiment to begin reading books that were critically praised in order to establish for myself what exactly makes good writing. Every year, there are tons of lists of this type but I picked the New York Times book list because of its established reputation and visibility. Although last year, I only managed to read 30 out of the 100, my experiment taught me so much that I decided to try it again this year. So far, I’ve read fiction books like Richard Ford’s Canada, Bernice McFadden’s Gathering of Waters, and Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy and non-fiction ones like The Grey Album by Kevin Young and Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon.

The books that I read last year and this year spanned a number of non-fiction topics from scientology to grief to parenthood to the African roots of Alexandre Dumas. My fiction reads were equally as diverse and encompassed short stories, poetry, novellas, and novels. Most of the books I read were incredibly well written, interesting and in some cases, simply fantastic. Although the writing styles, topics, and themes are wildly different, I found a few basic rules for good writing that were overwhelmingly present in everything I read. These include:

Rule No. 1: Find a good editor. And in some cases, a fact checker too. Having written for quite some time, I can tell you that the final piece is almost never the first draft. For me, the first draft is the outline and the final product is pulled together though copious revisions and editing. If the piece is non-fiction, a fact-checker is especially important. Good writing and good editing go hand in hand.

Rule No. 2: Write good sentences. This seems intuitive but it needs to be stated. I believe that writing a book or story is a bit like architecture, the foundation needs to be strong before you begin adding things to it. The foundation for writing is really good, well-crafted sentences. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book that exemplifies this rule. On a craft level, this book is a primer on how to write. Well-written sentences are the foundation of good writing.

Rule No. 3: If writing on a familiar topic or theme, be creative and talk about something new. Kevin Young’s The Grey Album is a perfect example of this. The book is a collection of essays on different aspects of African American artistic culture: music, acting, literature, etc. but Kevin Young introduces new ideas, new concepts throughout. Even the way the book was written and organized was fresh; its had a very improvisational jazz like feel to it. Add something to the conversation, especially if the topic is widely written about.

Rule No. 4:  Feedback is critical. It’s important to find readers. And not just anyone. But someone who can give honest feedback as to what works and what does not.

Rule No: 5: Read more. I have always loved to read so this one is easy for me to follow. It was important for me to read across subject matter, tone and genre in order to understand the multiplicity of ways that people can tell stories. Fiction is just as valuable to me as non-fiction. Being a voracious reader has never let me down.

Rule No. 6: When one word will do, use one one word. This rule is perhaps the hardest for me to follow. I am the queen of long sentences. But over the years, I’ve learned to never use three words when one will do. Use adverbs sparingly.  The right word will always win over the right phrase.

 

The Power is in the Plan

 

I am a compulsive goal setter or rather, a compulsive planner. I am one of those people who has a list for everything — the grocery store, a to-do list for the day, a goal list for the week, etc.  The idea of having a plan settles me, it gives me direction, and orients me in a way that makes my goals, big or small, seem achievable. I find power in the planning. As I try to make major changes in my personal, professional, spiritual, and financial lives, planning has been at the core of this process. Figure out what you want, set a goal and then stick to a series of steps that will get you closer to achieving it. Each morning, after meditating, I look down at the goal list I prepared the night before and mentally organize my day around those goals. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons that I have learned through this process is to not be so rigid with respect to planning. I’ve learned that flexibility is key. If something isn’t working, rather than trying to make it work with one method, I now pivot and try to find alternative ways to meet my goals. Or, if need be, I re-direct my goal. The YouTube video above is a TedTalk that I particularly like that speaks to the power of a 200 year plan. The author of the talk explains above but the idea behind it is creating a plan wrapped in your core values that will outlive you and leave a legacy.  The ultimate in a powerful plan!

 

On Roger Ebert

 

A few days prior to his death, Roger Ebert published a piece titled “A Leave of Presence” for the Chicago Sun-Times. The publication was where he began his august career as a film critic almost 50 years ago. He writes:

“What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

At the same time, I am re-launching the new and improved Rogerebert.com and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, Ebert Digital, run by me, my beloved wife, Chaz, and our brilliant friend, Josh Golden of Table XI. Stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and roll out other projects under the Ebert brand in the coming year.”

I have always been an admirer of his. His example crystallized for me, as a young girl, that one could make a living talking about, writing about film. A pop culture junkie, I’ve always wanted some aspect of my career to lie in film. Roger Ebert built a brand on trust, honesty, and good journalism. The legacy of his words and work, I’m sure, will not be forgotten.

ONE PART OF MY DAY

 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about disruption. I wrote a post about “Disrupting Yourself” a few months back. Industries such as publishing/journalism, music, etc. have been forced to change the way they do business because of increasing competition out of the tech sector that is making their business model obsolete. The education sector is no different. Lately, I have been taking classes from the following sites: Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. All three sites offer free, online classes from world renowned and top-tier schools like Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan , Princeton, etc. Coursera, by far, offers the most diverse array of possible courses to take. EdX and Udacity are very heavily concentrated in math, science and computer science/coding.  In my spare time, I’ve been taking a number of free classes online. Mostly in math and computer science, but also in other areas such as health, psychology, and history. The sites are great. At this junction, Coursera is my favorite because of the diversity of subject matter to choose from and the ease of navigating the site. For a couple of years now, I’ve made the decision to learn a new skill each year. French was last year and I’ve carried it over into this year. Learning to code is on my list for this year as well.  How are you productive? How do you use your spare time, if you have any?

Je parle le français… et vous?

For the past year, I have been learning French. Each day, I set aside 30 minutes to an hour, to either read in French, listen to a French podcast or speak to someone in French. Learning a language is hard. At least it is for me. Living in New York, I’ve met many multilingual people who can weave fluidly and effortlessly between languages with perfect pronunciation and diction. I am envious. Growing up in southwest Louisiana, I was always exposed to French. In Catholic school, we had to learn our prayers in French. (To this day, I still say my prayers in French). I took French throughout my primary and secondary education. In college, I fell just a few credits short of having a double minor in French. After college, I became less industrious about French. And my command of the language drifted to someplace between barely intermediate and passably intermediate.

There’s something about the American educational system, in that a student can take a foreign language for four, six, or eight years and only comprehend said language at barely a beginner’s level. I always wanted to be multilingual. My ultimate goal is to speak 3 or 4 languages at the proficient or fluent level. French was a natural first choice. I was able to start again at the intermediate level but moving to the highly intermediate level was surprisingly a struggle for me.  The Atlantic’s columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates documents the difficulties of learning French here, here and here. And he’s right. Its like taking up a sport. My ipod and computer, google alerts and gmail accounts are all in French. When I get my Netflix films in the mail, if its not a French film, if possible, I add french subtitles. I know all the major French publications and listen to the major French podcasts in my fields of interest.

And most importantly, I have a dear dear French penpal that I met here who has exhibited such patience and warmth with me as I try to gain a command of the language. I’m planning a trip to France in September so I hope to be at least minimally proficient by then. At this moment, I can understand most of what is being said to me. But I’m still unable to express complex thoughts and have deep conversations in French. As I embark on this journey, here are a few tips for all those interested in learning another language:

  1. Its not a quick process. Admittedly, there are people who pick up languages very easily. I, and I suspect most others, are not as lucky. It takes discipline, attention to detail, and precision. For example, these two words in French: pécher and pêcher are pronounced very similarly but mean two completely differently things (the former means to sin and the latter means to fish). A slight mixup in pronunciation could lead to miscommunication.
  2. Find different types of native speakers to speak to.  Though my primary language partners are French, I seek out other native French speakers from places like Morocco, Senegal, Switzerland, Canada, Haiti, Algeria, etc. Its good to hear French (or whatever language you are learning) from different accents/countries if possible. That way, you can train your ear to specific nuances in the language.
  3. Be consistent. It takes time, but you must be consistent and do it, if possible, every day. You can’t get better if you don’t practice constantly.
  4. Put as much of your digital media in the language you are studying. At first its a pain, but you’ll be surprised how much you learn without trying.

Above is a movie with Kristin Scott Thomas, my model for language learning. A native English speaker (she’s British), she speaks French flawlessly. The above is a short clip of a wonderful french film called “Partir” (Leaving) with the Spanish actor Sergi Lopez.  Through the process of learning French, I’ve learning several things about myself. Namely, the best ways for me to learn a new skill and how passionate I am about languages. I believe it was Pedro Almodovar who said that if you don’t speak Spanish, you miss out on 90% of what being said in his movies. I believe this to be true. I watch French films now and when the English subtitles are on, I am amazed at the lack of nuance between what’s being said and what’s being written. In order to get to something good, you must do the work. Language learning is no different.

ON MEDITATION

 

A few months ago, this article surfaced on my twitter feed, courtesy of Fast Company, called “What Successful People Do With the First Hour of Their Work Day.”  Prior to reading, I’d already incorporated light exercise, meditation and prayer into my daily morning routine. The article sparked my interest and one of the main takeaways for me was the idea of Tony Robbins’s “Hour of Power.” Over the past months, I’d had a significant elevation in stress because of personal and professional demands. The idea of staying still for an hour or even thirty minutes (“30 Minutes to Thrive”) seemed easy enough but as I tried to implement it into my routine, I found myself blocked and even more anxious at the idea of doing nothing. Slowly, I came to realize the importance of stillness and quiet. I could organize my thoughts, think linearly, reflect on gratitude and most importantly learn to clear my head. For me personally, meditating has been an essential part of my current journey. I learned to adopt a positive attitude regardless of if I felt positive or not, carve a blueprint for the rest of my day, and I began to get real clear on what my values are. If you are sure of your values, maintain a healthy state, and adopt an attitude of gratitude, life begins to pick up in an organic way. Above, I’ve included a song , a cover of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time”, by one of my favorite jazz vocalists Cassandra Wilson. Sometimes, I play it while I am meditating because its such a peaceful, hopeful song. Here is a link to a free download of Tony Robbins’ “Hour of Power” talk. If anything, the practice of finding at least 5 minutes a day to just be still and re-group has been invaluable to me.

 

 

WHAT JAY-Z HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT BUSINESS

Several years ago, a friend of mine and I visited the then recently opened 40/40 club in Manhattan, music mogul Jay-Z’s sports club. We weren’t there 10 minutes and who did we see? Mr. Jay-Z himself. I was then still new to New York and was completely starstruck at the idea of meeting a celebrity. I was content to just stay at our table and make furtive glances his way. But my friend grabbed my arm, pulled me over to him and introduced us to the superstar. Jay-Z was nothing short of warm, generous, and polite, graciously engaging us when he clearly was under no obligation to do so. Since then, I have carefully watched his career flourish to stratospheric levels. Most recently he has extended his already enviable brand to include sports agent. As I begin to build Think Young Media Group one of my “virtual mentors” has been Jay-Z. I find myself thinking back to his example often to find tried and tested strategies for taking myself and my career to where I want to be. Some of the most cogent business tips, courtesy of Jay-Z, include:

  1. Treat everyone with respect. He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall but the amount of respect he showed me coupled with the attention he gave to us has always stayed with me. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
  2. Learn how to read people.  Jay-Z, to me, embodies someone who possesses a range of intelligences, one of which is social intelligence. In particular, he has honed the skill of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of most of those who come into his orbit. There’s this great Jay line in his song “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” that says, “I do this for my culture…Show them how to move in a room full of vultures, Industry is shady, it needs to be taken over, Label owners hate me, I’m raising the status quo up…” Let’s face it, when you are dealing with people you will deal with both the good and the bad. Learning how to “move in a room full of vultures” as well as distinguish those that can add value to you and your company from others is invaluable. 
  3. Protect yourself, your brand and your business. Always handle attacks to you, your brand & business swiftly and then move forward.
  4. Be inquisitive and identify smart, successful mentors who can offer you honest feedback. The video above is one that Forbes did with both Jay-Z and Warren Buffett (another of my idols)! Jay-Z has been very open about his curious nature and his desire to always learn. Smart questions are the lifeblood of knowledge.
  5. Focus first. Then apply this focus to the most feasible, realistic way to make money.
  6. Hard times make you into the person you’re supposed to be. You choose how you respond to the uncontrollable and controllable events in your life. Life from them and move on.
  7. True Renaissance men master one area first before moving on to another interest/business opportunity. Looking back, I think one of the things that has held me back was my lack of focus. I admire how Jay really solidified his reputation in music before moving on to the sports, fashion, and beverage industries. Build your reputation first and branching out becomes much easier.

A NOTE ON MENTORSHIP

Never have I realized the importance of networking and making meaningful connections and relationships with people than when I decided to expand my brand and form my business, Think Young Media Group, LLC. Before I even knew the name of my business, incorporated myself or built a website, I leaned on acquaintances, both weak and strong, friends, family and colleagues for advice on securing potential clients, marketing, and the like.  During this period, a generous network was a godsend and I began to think about asking some of these people to be my mentor.  I’ve read a copious amount of material on mentorship that went into detail on the dos and don’ts of a good mentoring relationship,  how to make the ask, setting realistic expectations and so on.

As I began to think about who I would ask and, if he or she agreed, what I imagined the parameters of our relationship would be, I began to think of people who were already inspiring me in my quest for professional success. The Queen of all Media, Oprah Winfrey, has always been a personal and professional example to me particularly because she began as a journalist and parlayed her success into a billion dollar global platform. Others who I admire — Ursula Burns, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett — had always been “mentors” of a sort in the sense that although I’d never met them, I often leaned on their examples and personal journeys in order to inform my own.  I call them “virtual mentors.” Another one of those people is Melinda Emerson or Small Biz Lady. She successfully transitioned from corporate American to entrepreneurship, creating a public profile under the premise that she helps small business owners avoid failure.  This interview is a recent one where she talks about her journey to professional success. I think its these examples that can also create a form of mentorship. I’ve learned the importance of identifying both actual and “virtual” mentors, leveraging their knowledge, and pulling from it tools specific to your journey that will provide value to your professional path.

It Can’t Always Be About the Money

Outside of Claire Danes and Damian Lewis’ wins for the outstanding show Homeland, the double Emmy win for comedian Louis CK were my favorite moments of last week’s Emmy Award Show. Louis CK has been in the game for quite awhile as a writer for the Chris Rock show, as a successful comedian and also as an actor. When the opportunity for his show, the now critically acclaimed Louie, first manifested itself, he was approached by huge networks like HBO that offered him quite a bit of money but also wanted quite a bit of control. In the end, Louie went with FX. Though FX did not offer him nearly as much money, they gave him 100% control of Louie. Louis CK writes, produces, stars in and sometimes edits the now Emmy award winning program. As I saw Louis CK accept both his awards, and finally the recognition his talent and intelligence deserves, I thought to myself, it can’t always be about the money.

Currently, I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s amazing memoir Joseph Anton. In it, Rushdie (writing of himself in the 3rd person as Joseph Anton, a pseudonym taken from the two names of his favorite authors, gives a portion of the publication background of his (in)famous novel The Satanic Verses:

“The Highest offer for the English-language rights to publish The Satanic Verses was not made by Viking Penguin. Another offer was a full $100,000 higher, but Andrew and Gillon both advised him strongly against accepting it. He was not accustomed to figures of this size, much less with turning them down, and he asked Andrew, ‘Could you just explain again why I should not agree to receive an extra one hundred thousand dollars?’ Andrew was adamant. ‘They would be the wrong publishers for you.’ Later, after the storm broke, an interview with Mr. Rupert Murdoch was printed in The New Yorker, in which he stated emphatically, ‘I think you should not give offense to people’s religious beliefs. For instance, I hope that our people would never have published the Salman Rushdie book.’ It was possible that Rupert Murdoch didn’t know that some of ‘his people’ had been so enthusiastic about the novel that they had outbid the opposition by a considerable distance, but it seemed probable, in the light of this New Yorker profile, that had Murdoch found himself in the position of being the publisher of The Satanic Verses he would have withdrawn the book the moment the trouble began. Andrew Wylie’s advice had been unusually prescient. Murdoch was indeed the wrong publisher for the book.”

It was a godsend that money didn’t drive Rushdie’s decision about where to publish his book. There are countless examples of celebrities who have walked away from extremely lucrative deals — see: Dave Chappelle and Mariah Carey. It may be hard for some to imagine turning down millions of dollar to do something you’re great at and love to do. But money can’t alone drive a deal that could impact your professional and personal future. Its important to have a wide and long view that takes money into consideration but isn’t completely driven by it.

A couple of months ago, the New York Times published a piece about the troubles facing famed shoe designers Kari Sigerson and Miranda Morrison of Sigerson Morrison. The once A list shoe designers had entered into a lucrative deal with Marc Fisher Footwear’s Marc Fisher. Soon after the papers were signed, the deal went south and now the women are engaged in a rather contentious legal battle that is poised to be a long and arduous journey. Their story is significant, a cautionary tale.

Recently, there was an article published at the Wall Street Journal about lessons entrepreneurs can take from the career of musician Bob Dylan. One of those lessons was to “See the big picture at all times and avoid the trap of the quick buck.” Sagacious advice for anyone. Slow down. Identify your goals (short and long term). And consider always consider your value system.

 

A Note on Failure

When I first made the decision to start my own business, in addition to writing the business plan, trademarking a name, researching my potential customer base, and developing my new brand, I reached out to other entrepreneurs and began to do my own research. There was one word that came up in virtually every conversation I had, interview I read, and program I watched — failure. Now an omnipresent buzzword for the entrepreneurial landscape, it refers to unsuccessful attempts to actualize or bring to fruition an idea, business or plan and the lessons gained from that process.  Though no one enjoys failure, countless successful entrepreneurs as well as successful individuals in any number of professional fields have cited the lessons accrued through professional, financial, and even personal failures as more valuable than their best success. Failure, it seems, is an extraordinary professor.

A few weeks ago, someone tweeted something that I found interesting — that failure is a privilege. I thought about that quite a bit. And I began to really think about this “cult of failure.” Sure, its important to learn how to handle failure and learn from each unsuccessful undertaking, but the ability to continue to do so without results is not an easy endeavor. Whether personal responsibilities, a dint in one’s self-esteem or just the general anxiety of the uncertain gets in the way, the attitude of  embracing failure as part of the process is not an easy swallow for most.

I have a love for graduation speeches. Each year during graduation season, I make a point to read/watch some of the most poignant. This year, I was most inspired by the candidness of Michael Lewis’ Princeton speech. In his speech, he touts luck as a part of the journey to success. He acknowledges that, “People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people.” In my experience, this couldn’t be a truer statement. Currently, I am reading By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop by Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson. In the book, both women acknowledge their hard work, excellent leadership, and smarts weren’t the only factors that played a part in their success. It was also in the timing — something that they couldn’t predict or plan for. Yes, learning from failure is crucial. But also realizing that there are certain parts of the process that can’t be planned or expected is also important. The conversation around failure is an interesting one to be had. Its been my experience that the lessons gained in business are also applicable personally and vice versa. How have you responded personally or professionally to the idea of failure?