Posted tagged ‘writers’

Writers’ messy desks: a tribute

January 26, 2016

messydeskBlog headline: “A Perfect Mess: Why Disorganized People Are More Creative and Productive.”

I love headlines like that. Most writers probably do. After all, no less than Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Years ago, I was curious about my dear friend Beth’s writing nook. It was up a narrow flight of stairs and had a window out over her Annapolis neighborhood as well as—how cool was this—a window over her living room. One day I asked to see it. She demurred; it was a total mess.

I didn’t have to say anything, just gave her the two-handed New Yorker “Wha, who you talkin’ to?” gesture, aimed at my incredulous face. The Jersey girl got it and led me up the steps.

She wasn’t kidding. Her office was a fraction the size of mine and proportionally a wreck: books piled sloppily, threatening to tumble over; magazines full of Post-It notes; papers, tapes, brochures, and other paraphernalia everywhere. Photos, buttons, tsotskies. No sign of the floor; barely a sign of the walls. A neatnik’s nightmare.

Sure, Beth would have liked a neater office. Like most of us, though, she had lots of projects in various stages, and putting things in order, let alone storage, was a low priority. And apparently there was more.

According to the post referenced above, in the Web Writer Spotlight by David K. William, we disorganized people are indeed how we have defended ourselves to bosses, family, and friends: “spontaneous, bold and more imaginative.”

William cites Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. “On a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense,” they write. “The various piles on a messy desk can represent a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offer far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide.”

Well, even to me that sounds like self-justification. How many times have I cussed while turning over piles of paper in search of that one I need right now? But they go on: “It’s not just that the advantages of being neat and orderly are typically outweighed by the costs. As it turns out, the very advantages themselves are often illusory. Though it flies in the face of almost universally accepted wisdom, moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.”

William cites other researchers, too. Susan Biali, a physician, life coach, and author, praises “controlled clutter” for certain personalities. There’s a study by University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professor Kathleen Vohs: Clutter increases both efficiency and creativity. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe,” she says. Now that I believe. After all, as Abrahamson and Freedman note, “Mess helped Alexander Fleming discover penicillin.”

I wish I could share David’s post with Beth. To my enormous sorrow, she died suddenly on her birthday this month. Her partner told me he isn’t even thinking about her office for now. It hurts me to think of his pain in going up those steps—because if a writer’s soul is anywhere, it’s generally among all those disorganized papers.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

We’ve got food style

January 3, 2013

What is a cream puff made of? Why is sukiyaki called “the friendship dish”? What are those towering crepe-like desserts my grandmother used to make? If your recipe calls for a cup of tomato juice, and you’re out of it, what can you do? And a flip is a what?

More than a year ago I wrote a post that could have been called “Why I love the AP Stylebook.” Just as writing has its specialties, so style has its specialties. Writers may concentrate on, say, travel, food, parenting, technology, or essays. For food writers–and, to an extent, wine and travel writers–there’s (The New) Food Lover’s Companion.

Food writers, editors, and fact checkers keep Food Lover’s Companion close at hand. “One of the best reference tools we’ve seen, this is a must for every cook’s kitchen library,” said Bon Appetit. Not being anything close to a food expert, I had FLC open constantly when editing at Washingtonian. It’s still occasionally useful, on and off the job–and just plain interesting.

Who knew that “bard” is a verb? To bard is to tie bacon or fatback around lean meats or fowl so they don’t dry out during roasting. You remove the fat shortly before the meat is done to allow it to brown. Carpetbag steak? Not what I thought it was. It’s steak stuffed with seasoned oysters, then grilled. FLC explains how Peking duck’s skin gets that way (air is pumped between honeyed skin and flesh before drying) and that a “whiskey sour” can also be made with bourbon, gin, rum, and other liquors.

Last year I read with bemusement some early writings of Nora Ephron, who spent much of the 1960s learning to cook elaborate meals. Apparently this was quite a thing among young women of the time–fancy dishes, fancy dinner parties. Flipping through FLC reminded me of the less elaborate dinner parties and holiday meals my parents gave. The definition of “stud,” for instance, brought back an image of learning to poke cloves into a ham (unevenly) and feeling proud of having a task of my own. And “hard sauce.” The other grandparents, Irish who’d long since climbed the lace curtain, served plum pudding with hard sauce every Christmas. The description sent me right back to that heavy, gleaming table under that crystal chandelier, wearing my holiday best, trying not to grimace at the taste but licking the silver anyway because there was no place I’d rather be.

FLC tells us that Italian bread is the same as French bread except for the shape. Au contraire! Have Sharon Tyler Herbst et al. not felt or tasted the difference? The guide also doesn’t take a regional stand on crabcakes, though I guess I can’t blame it for not getting into that food fight. It’s Eurocentric at the expense of other continents. Otherwise, I don’t know enough to take issue with much within.

A cream puff is choux pastry around sweetened whipped cream or custard. Sukiyaki appeals to foreigners, so Japanese call it “the friendship dish.” Those Eastern European stacked “crepes” are palacsintas; they can be savory as well. For tomato juice, swap in half a cup of water and half a cup of tomato sauce. A flip is a cold drink made with liquor or wine mixed with sugar and egg, then shaken or stirred (Mr. Bond?) until frothy. Want it warmed? In colonial days, someone would plunge a red-hot poker into the brew before serving. That would get your attention.

Anyone says a style guide can’t possibly be fun, just tell ’em that one.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Who should organize a website?

January 6, 2012

I don’t mean organize it the way one might organize a union. (“Users’ rights!” “Occupy the World Wide Web!”) I mean bring some logic to the process, some common sense to the look and usefulness of the pages, the links, the graphics, the messages written and unwritten. Which reminds me of a fun quotation:

“Logic is one thing and commonsense another.” (Elbert Hubbard, The Note Book, 1927. What, you haven’t read it?)

A new client, a national nonprofit, has asked me to fix up a website that its leaders all believe is an ugly, outdated mess. No sense. No sensibility. No pride, and they’re afraid the site’s problems are creating prejudice. Eek! Call a writer/editor!

Not the usual reaction, of course. Most folks would think first of a designer or a tech person. But it’s possible that this particular website is a mess because someone with some tech training (he or she obviously didn’t have graphics training) slapped up the basic elements and declared it done. Most designers wouldn’t know what pieces go together or what parts to emphasize where, and most techies wouldn’t know how to make it all look appealing. Lucky for me, this nonprofit decided to take the unusual step of asking “a communications expert” (that’s what they call me) to reorder the thing.

So I hereby make the case for us writers and editors, us communications experts, to organize or reorganize websites. Why? Because we can interview and listen to the stakeholders inside and perhaps outside – ask them what they need to accomplish, what they want to say and show, who their audience(s) is, who their competitors are, and so on. We can study similar organizations’ websites, gathering information on what works and what doesn’t, what the good ones have in common, what the competitors are doing and saying and showing, et cetera. And we can poke around every corner of the site in question, testing it from a user’s perspective, making outsider assumptions, asking the “dumb” questions, noting the dead links, following trails to their logical – or illogical – ends. We can bring both logic and common sense to the process of communication – which is, after all, what a website is supposed to do.

In a few days, I’ll report to the people in charge how I would completely rework their site, where I’d move the many reorganized parts, what I’d get rid of, and the like. Having neither technical nor graphic training, I’ll then turn the project over to a designer for that part of it and then to IT to get the parts to work. Meanwhile, I’m glad the leaders of this nonprofit could see the real problem with their site: not that it looks bad or has nonfunctional pieces but that it doesn’t achieve its mission of communicating. So they hired a communicator.

Such logic and common sense!

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Change Artist day!

July 11, 2011

Today you can find my Washington Post Express article on a young man who left the homebuilding business at its height to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. It’s the 56th article in this Change Artist series, which highlights people who’ve gone back to school to change careers.

Way back in 2006, the editor asked a few writers to propose subjects. I sent in several, took the first assignment, and have done them ever since, on everyone from a chef, a yoga teacher, and a financial planner to a Foreign Service officer, a firefighter, and even a trapeze artist. Certainly never expected the gig to have more sequels than the James Bond movies — let alone last this long.

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.