Writing in Between-Time

Between a rock and a hard place

Hello!

After a four-month hiatus, my blog is back. You might not have noticed the gap, but in case you did—my apologies for the long wait. In a minute, I’ll tell you why it happened and how I might have done things differently, if I’d been just a wee bit more disciplined…but first…

I’m proud to announce my blog has once again received an Apex Award for Publication Excellence in the category of Blog Writing. This is my second consecutive year winning the award and I’m thrilled. 

I’m also surprised, because I assumed I wouldn’t even be in the running, given how long it’s been since I last posted. About that:

Last April, for the first time since I launched this blog at the close of 2011, I became overwhelmed. It was the start of Great Place to Work season, the time of year when I help companies complete their applications to the Great Place to Work Institute, required for consideration on Fortune’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list. I was helping a number of companies with this process, plus doing some other work, plus trying to upgrade my website (more on that soon). The end of the school year was approaching, followed by (what ought to be) luxurious lazy summer, and my two teenagers, each in his/her own way, needed some time and attention. I was busy night and day, and, more importantly, my creativity was being tapped to the max.

But while all that might have served as an excuse to blog a little less, it was no excuse not to blog at all. Because I am in possession of a magical power, one that I’ve employed in many such situations in the past. It’s the power to get work done—especially writing—without taking up any actual time. If I were to name this power, I’d call it “writing in between-time.”

Writing in between-time simply means getting beyond the “uninterrupted block of time” approach to writing. Yes, sometimes sitting down with a nice open chunk of hours can give you the psychic space you need to think creatively, and the focus you need to get it all down on paper. But you might be amazed at how much you can get done by jotting things down during the moments in between—while you’re flipping through magazines in a waiting room, maybe, or in the ten minutes between checking a task off your to-do list and the start of an upcoming meeting. As a New Yorker, I get an enormous amount of writing done on the subway—and I’m not talking about long rides, necessarily. One of my most common commutes takes about 22 minutes. I’ve gotten a lot written on that one. For the daily car commuters among you, I’d recommend writing during all that sitting-in-traffic time, but the last thing I want to do is encourage distracted driving. Hmm…maybe consider switching to mass transit?

Over the years, I’ve accomplished quite a bit with this trick. I’ve used between-time to revise or proof drafts, or, on occasion, to write entire blog posts. But most often, I’ve used this magical non-time to get past the hardest part of writing anything, the empty page. Without vast amounts of time stretching ahead of me, it’s less daunting to just jump in and get something—anything—down on paper. Once I’m back at my desk, I have a place to start. I type up my scribbled draft, rearranging and refining it as I go, and skip right over the paralysis of the empty screen.

In fact, seen in this light, between-time writing is more than just a trick for busy seasons. It can sometimes be the most effective, efficient approach you can take. You know you have just a few minutes—so you plunge right in. (It’s similar to the effect of waiting until the last minute before a deadline—but with the added advantage that you can do it days or weeks ahead of time.)

I read somewhere about a writer who, when he (or was it a she?) was stuck, would go out for a walk or run an errand, then, upon returning, race to his desk and start writing immediately, without even taking off his coat. (I can’t remember where I read this, and I may have made up the part about the coat, but that’s the way I’ve always pictured it.) Sounds like an SNL skit, on one level, but it resonated with me immediately. He was creating his own between-time.

Of course, it’s not a fool-proof trick, as the four month silence of this blog demonstrates. (Although, in fact, I did do a lot of between-time work during those months—it just wasn’t blogging work.) But it is a useful bit of magic to remember, especially when between-time is the only time you have.

I’m still working out some of the kinks, but soon you’ll be receiving these posts directly from my new website. You can take a sneak peek, if you like—you’ll find it at the same address as my old website: www.robinhardman.com. 

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What’s in a Word: Sandy Pulls Me Back to Earth

Outside Our Door, Ridgewood, Queens

I’m writing this post from my home office in southwestern Queens, where we’ve been lucky. A couple of uprooted and scarily teetering trees on the street, spotty cell phone service and a complete breakdown of the transportation we rely on to get to school and work—but other than that, my family has survived Superstorm Sandy relatively unscathed.

We’ve barely left the house between Sunday (when we made a critical run to Blockbuster) and this morning—Wednesday–when I unearthed the car to drive my husband to work (normally an easy subway ride). And, since we’ve had power the whole time, we’ve listened to a lot of radio, watched some TV and surfed—and surfed again—on the web. We’ve picked up messages from friends in lower Manhattan as, one by one, they reported power outages that we now know may take days or longer to fix. The people I’ve spoken to, images I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard remind me what the word “disaster” really means.

I say this because “disaster” happens to be a word I throw around a lot. I look around one of my kids’ rooms—or my office—and say, “This place is a disaster!” I get stuck in rush-hour traffic and cry, “What a disaster!” My internet goes down and I howl, “It’s a disaster!”

Needless to say, none of these situations are disastrous. My father grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and owned a house in a neighboring town until just a few years ago. Looking at footage of splintered chunks of the city’s famous boardwalk floating down city streets, I saw disaster.

And so, for a brief while now, I’ll have a new appreciation for this particular bit of hyperbole. The meaning and power of words is always grounded in the reality that those words are meant to describe. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes.

To hearken back to a much-worse disaster, in terms of lives lost and world-wide reverberations, my family lived close to lower Manhattan on 9/11—we were on East 20th Street, which was much farther from the towers than the homes of many of our friends, but close enough to feel personally affected. One of the things that stood out for me at the time was the noise of sirens, and the sight of fire trucks roaring through the streets. (It contrasted, especially, with an otherwise eerie quiet on the ground and in the skies.)

My children were very young then and a few weeks after the attack we were (coincidentally) visiting Atlantic City. We were sitting in a diner when a fire truck pulled up in front. My immediate reaction was to reach for the kids. I wanted to somehow shield them from the sight of the truck, which in the moment I associated simply with menace. I remember thinking how shocking it was that not long ago parents like me would point out fire trucks to children as objects of excitement and even fun.

What does this have to do with words? It’s something to do with the slippery nature of meaning. An image that is filled with positive connotations (at least from a kid’s perspective) can change in a matter of minutes to a symbol of something adult and grave–something to protect our children from.

If I had come across a fire truck-related metaphor in those early days after 9/11, it likely would have affected me very differently from the way the author intended: changed, for the moment at least, from a candy-colored emblem of heroism to an omen of disaster.

Need a writer? Hire me for your employee communications, web content, “great place to work” submissions—you can’t connect if you can’t tell your story. 

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There’s No Rule Against Interesting

I once attended a talk on the subject of employee communications by this wonderful Ragan Communications guy; I wish I could remember his name. He had us imagine a tableau I’ve carried in my head ever since:  It’s lunchtime at your office. A mid-level employee takes a sandwich back to her desk and reaches for something to peruse between bites. Two publications are at hand. One is the latest edition of the employee newsletter. The other is Cosmopolitan. Which do you think she’ll pick up?

Mind you, this particular presentation happened nearly ten years ago. Pre-YouTube. Pre-Facebook. Pre-Angry Birds.

Just because you have something to say, doesn’t mean your intended audience is listening.

So what’s an employee newsletter editor to do? You can’t produce Cosmopolitan out of your communications desk. And if you did, you’d no doubt be fired. But you can keep this very real scenario in mind when writing stuff you want employees to read.

No matter what your corporate culture, there’s no law against writing catchy, readable prose.

Sure your subject matter isn’t always as titillating as the stories the Cosmo editors get to order up. But you have an edge Cosmopolitan doesn’t have. Most of your employees have a vested interest in the information you have to give them. Even if doesn’t affect them directly, it does affect the company they work for. Believe it or not, a lot of employees care enough about their companies to want to know more. But the competition (for their attention) is whispering in their ears. So you have to meet them halfway.

Here are three tips for doing just that:

Find the hook. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while researching the story? I was once asked to write an article about a sales conference at a drug company. For background, the editor sent me a story about the same conference that had just been published in another division’s newsletter. About six paragraphs into a boring article about what seemed to be a boring conference, the writer mentioned that conference attendees had been invited to walk barefoot across a bed of hot coals at a session about the nature of pain. Six paragraphs in! Why, oh why, did the story not open with this amazing tidbit?

Ok, not every story’s going to come with this kind of obvious, built-in hook, but most have something that stands out as interesting. Search that stuff out and be tenacious about following up if you find it. Another assignment I once had was to write about two employees who’d won industry awards. Again, a pretty boring topic on the surface. But when I called them up to interview them, I discovered that the awards were announced, as a surprise, at a conference that neither of them had been planning to attend. The conference planners had to go to great lengths to get them to change their minds about attending the conference, without spoiling the surprise. Now that made for a good story.

Bring it to a human level. Introducing a new program or policy? Describing a new product? Find someone that program, policy or product affects and tell that person’s story. Here’s the way a lot of employee newsletters I’ve seen might talk about a new online database:

LuceBoltz Aircraft has partnered with Air Literature, a new online aircraft-related database, to deliver real-time online solutions for aircraft-related product research. The searchable database, now available to all employees through LuceBoltz Online, contains millions of articles and other downloadable resources.

Yawn. Why is it necessary to write like that? Can you picture a feature on this sort of topic in your local newspaper? How would it open? Unless you’ve got a really awful local newspaper, it would probably go something like this:

When Hank Dinsmore, Regional Marketing Director, needs background information for a product, he generally calls the LuceBoltz reference librarian, or takes a hike up to the 6th floor library, himself. If the librarian has the information he needs on hand—great—if not, Hank completes an acquisition form to order the reference document and puts aside his project until it arrives.

“It’s time-consuming at best,” says the veteran LuceBoltz employee, “And it’s frustrating, since I know that information is out there.”

But things are about to get a whole lot better for Hank. Thanks to Air Literature, our new online aircraft research database, Hank will be able to locate and download the information he needs within minutes, straight from his desk. So will every other employee at LuceBoltz.

Still there? See, even news about a fake product for a fake company can keep you interested, if it tells a good story.

Get your leaders to talk like human beings. This last may be the hardest one of all. For some reason, when perfectly normal, interesting, even funny people step across a corporate threshold and are asked to comment, they turn into jargon-spewing robots. They think every sentence has to be in passive voice, every word has to be 3 to 4 syllables, and every thought has to be a cliché. This tendency is made 1000 times worse by the fact that most leaders, when asked to comment for the record, don’t actually say anything (out loud) at all. They write something down. Or worse (depending on how high up on the chain they are) they have their PR guy write something down. The result is something that bears as much resemblance to natural, human speech as Pringles do to roasted potatoes.

You can’t always do much about this. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Catch the boss saying something to a colleague, off the cuff. Or turn to your inner screenwriter and write some catchy dialog, yourself. (You’ll have to have it approved, of course. Be ready to explain how you’re trying to get employees to actually read the article, and care about what the boss says. Show her a copy of this post, if that will help. Remind her that just because someone says something in a natural way—the way they really would say it, out loud, in the real world, doesn’t make it unprofessional. It just makes it human.)

You do these three things, and see if that employee isn’t picking up the employee newsletter first. At least for a quick read. So she can get a bit of news, then turn her attention to Cosmo.

A lot of my clients know me for my work writing “best company to work for” submissions. But did you know I also write newsletter content? Contact me to find out more.