Constraints force brevity
In No Resistance Is Futile, Paul Ford talks about how constraints (write without the letter “e”; use only one-syllable words; make every sentence exactly N words) can force you out of windbaggery.
Now when I face a new writing project, I open a spreadsheet. I want a grid to keep track of sources and dates, or to make certain that the timeline of a story makes sense. The grid imposes brevity. Relationships between sentences are exposed. Editing becomes a more explicit act of sorting, shuffling, balancing paragraphs. In this spirit, I’m rewriting some blog software to read directly from Excel. We’ll see how that goes.
It’s not “I have a nightmare”
In Challenges to Both Left and Right on Global Warming, a pair of young environmental thinkers argue that gloom and doom environmental messages will fail if applied to global warming.
Instead they call for an aggressive effort to invest in energy research, while also building societies that can be resilient in the face of the warming that is already unavoidable.
In a recent interview, Mr. Shellenberger reprised a central point of the essay and book. “Martin Luther King didn’t give the ‘I have a nightmare’ speech, he gave an ‘I have a dream’ speech,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “We need a politics that is positive and that inspires people around an exciting and inspiring vision.”
Polarize Me says, “If you want people to like you, first decide who needs to hate you.”
As a dater on Match.com, you have two key ways to communicate something quickly about yourself: a picture and a headline. The pic, of course, should embrace the social norm and be from 10 years and 20 pounds ago.
With the headline, you can start from scratch. Given the stakes, these headlines should really zing. They don’t. We examined more than 1,000 Match.com ads—from men and women, old and young. Our search yielded headlines like this one: “Hey.” Folks, if your opening line is “Hey,” you better be hot.
Another said “Looking for love.” Well, duh, you’re on Match.com. At least two-thirds of the headlines said nothing—and did it poorly.
Why do these headlines suck so much? Fear. Fear of saying too much. Fear of saying something clever that someone might think is stupid. Fear of saying something revealing that might turn someone off. The headlines try desperately not to exclude anyone. In doing so, they succeed at boring everyone.
Road sign copy
Make it short analyzes road sign verbiage and the need for instant comprehension.
Very few people are able to read this fast. And driving at high speed makes it impossible for most. First of all, it is hard to read because it uses only uppercase letters. Secondly, excessive and irregular gaps annoy the eye. Thirdly, lack of space between the lines turns the text into a mess.
The lesson: Sometimes the words need to sink in right away. “Any message is to be designed with regard to the circumstances in which it is going to be received.”
“The most successful single piece of advertising in the history of the world”
The fabled “Two Young Men…” letter written by freelancer Martin Conroy, first sent out in 1974 and mailed continuously for over 25 years.
On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both—as young college graduates are—were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.
What Made The Difference
Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t a native intelligence or talent or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.
The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.
And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: to give its readers knowledge—knowledge that they can use in business.