Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Henri Matisse And Self-Doubt

This short anecdote on Henri Matisse should resonate with anyone involved in any sort of creative work:

Matisse's continuing self-doubt is revealed in the story of his encounter with a group of schoolgirls in a Nice gallery where some of his paintings were on display. Years later one of the schoolgirls remembered, "At one moment we all stopped dead in front of a picture we couldn't understand... To our eyes, conditioned to perfect classical art, that work appeared as just 'bad.'" Matisse happened to be walking incognito among the students and heard their negative comments. When a girl asked him if he were Matisse, he did not identify himself, but when the group was about to leave he took their teacher aside and apologized for his lie. He said he had been afraid of the children's criticism: "I believe they are the only ones who see rightly, and for the moment I hate that picture in my heart for having shocked the eyes of a child, even if the critics should call it a masterpiece."
--from Matisse: A Portrait by Hayden Herrera

This story shocked me, to be honest. Matisse was one of history's greatest artists. If he gets down on himself when a schoolgirl criticizes him, who am I to have any confidence at all--about anything?

Then again, maybe there's an alternative, more encouraging way to think about this story. Yes, Matisse was one of history's greatest artists, but he's also a human being subject to self-doubt. Just like all the rest of us. But his self-doubt didn't stop him from creating. In fact, Matisse later went on to create some of his best-known works, including his famous late-career collages and cut-outs. It didn't stop him.

Maybe self-doubt is normal, and you just have to manage it--survive it--as best you can. But yet you still have the obligation to keep working, keep producing.

It's just another way to think about it. And framing it up this way makes me feel kind of lucky that sometimes, every so often, I get a random moment without self-doubt.

Readers, what do you think?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Avoid Complex Sentence Structure

What was different in the '80s--what ushered in the era of superstar corporate raiders and then made it disappear forever--were the rise and fall of Michael Milken, and the hard knocks education of large institutional investors.
--From Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism by Jeff Gramm

The otherwise exceptional book Dear Chairman gives QWT readers yet another example of how complex sentences and complicated writing inevitably hurts readers.

The sentence above is grammatically correct, although it sure doesn't seem so. In fact, it's the correctness of the grammar that makes it read poorly. Readers hiccup and lose their rhythm when they get to "were" after the second dash.

Why "were"? Because that verb's subject is plural: "Michael Milken" and "the hard knocks education of large instituional investors" were what was different in the '80s.

So, no problems with the grammar, but the sentence still needs help. It's confusing, it's unwieldly, and it reads like there's a grammar error even though there isn't. Do not fling sentences like this at your readers.

How can we fix it? Simplify it, make it direct... and omit needless words. Like this:

What was different in the '80s? The rise and fall of Michael Milken, and the hard knocks education of large institutional investors. This was what ushered in the era of superstar corporate raiders--and then made it disappear forever.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Low Information Diet

"Sociopolitical events, debates, and controversies are now lucrative forms of entertainment, as the media employs unpaid and fiercely motivated actors."
--Nicholas Taleb

Guess who the "fiercely motivated actors" are? Uh-huh: You and me. Arguing on Facebook and Twitter, in the comments on political and news websites, and clicking on yet more inane articles on the Huffington Post and Gawker.

If this isn't yet another reason to adopt a low-information diet, I don't know what is.

Less internet, more writing.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Two Simple Writing Devices Anyone Can Use

In May 1980, Texas Instruments' new personal computer arrived in the stores, chiefly J.C. Penney's, where there was no one who knew how to sell it, and the few computer shops of the day, where no one wanted to sell it.
--George Gilder, The Spirit of Enterprise

No, this isn't exactly the greatest sentence ever written. Yet it's notable thanks to two simple devices:

Parallelism: The parallel phrases where there was no one who knew how to sell it/where no one wanted to sell it give cadence to the sentence, making it more memorable and interesting.

Reversal: Readers get a surprise when they stumble on the reversal phrase where no one wanted to sell it. You'd think computer shops would want to sell computers, but not in this sentence. Clearly, this new personal computer from Texas Instruments is headed for some drama... and readers will want to keep reading about it.

Parallelism and reversals aren't sophisticated writing devices. Anyone, including you, can use them to produce more forceful and memorable writing.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reader Update

A brief update for readers. In order to dedicate time to some of my other projects, I'll be updating Quick Writing Tips somewhat less frequently for the next several months. I'll continue to share new material here, just not at my traditional twice-weekly posting schedule.

If you have thoughts, input or anything else you'd like to share, you can always reach me here.

As always, I am deeply grateful for your time, attention and support.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Don't Let Your Clauses Mingle and Conspire

If a well-understood business is offered to you at half or less than its underlying intrinsic value two to three years from now, with minimal downside risk, take it.
--from The Dhandho Investor by Mohnish Pabrai

Readers, what's wrong with this sentence? Let's break down the clauses one by one:

If a well-understood business is offered to you...
at half or less than its underlying intrinsic value...
two to three years from now...

Hmmm. Would you buy a business that won't be offered for another two to three years? I wouldn't.

Sure, we can tell what the author means: He's talking about buying a business now at a discount to what its intrinsic value will be--two to three years from now. But the reader is left stumbling over a multiple-clause sentence that's too complex for its own good.

Be careful cramming too many clauses together in single a sentence. A couple of clauses can get along well enough, but combine more than three or four and your clauses start mingling, planning things... Before you know it, they'll start a full-on conspiracy to confuse your readers.

The solution? Eliminate. Strip out clauses until your meaning is unmistakably clear. I'd start by eliminating the clause two to three years from now:

If a well-understood business is offered to you at half or less than its underlying intrinsic value, with minimal downside risk, take it.

There. Nothing unclear about that.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Worry Porn

You're using a Teflon pan? Aren't you worried about that?

Vaccines will give my child autism.

Are you concerned about Bisphenol-A in the linings of your canned food?

Have you heard about the risks of dihydrogen monoxide?

We all have friends who share concerns like these, via chain emails, articles on Facebook or idle conversation. And of course the news media immerses us in this stuff around the clock.

This is just another form of pornography. Yes, I said it: pornography. It isn't meant to inform you, it's meant to stimulate your limbic system. It's meant to provoke fear and worry (hence the term "worry porn") so you'll click, read or buy.

And it works so well that we can be fooled into fearing water.

Fear is a hindbrain reaction, nothing more. The information only has to be vaguely persuasive--easy to do since more readers lack basic critical thinking skills--and our forebrains follow along, quickly convincing us that the fear is real and worth worrying about.

Here's the problem for writers: When you worry you're not writing. Worry destroys creativity. It damages your work and your future.

Understand what worry porn really is. It's information constructed to keep us reading, watching, buying and lifestyle copying, but it never provides useful information. Don't consume it.

Visit Casual Kitchen for a longer discussion of this subject.