Everywhere you look these days you are bombarded with headlines that promise 7 ways to improve sex life or 28 sites that will change your life or 76 ways to stop going insane from reading articles with titles with numbers in them. That and articles with bullet pointed lists.
I thought headlines like these died circa 1960 when Bill Bernbach revolutionised advertising with intelligence and wit. But no. Someone who was not on the memo sent by all the great ads from Bernbach, Abbot and the like crawled out of a stone, found a keyboard and just continued from where they left off. If it were up to these guys, they would rewrite (using write loosely here) the classic Lemon ad with "3389 reason why a VW is better" because that's the number of inspectors checking each VW. Or worse. I don't know when it will stop, but it's spreading like a cliche.It is as worrying as the spread of SMS lingo (omg!).
Close on its heels are the bullet points (bullets don't kill good copy, people do). While bullet points have their place in copy, they shouldn't be the only way to express one's point of view. It's just plain lazy or incompetence. But that's dictated by the headline, which, these days is all about '15 ways to something' or '27 ways to not do something'. With the proliferation of online material on every topic, and given the short-attention span of the audience, it is a genuine worry.
But you do see decent pieces sprinkled across the web, dodging the bullets so to speak, which give you hope that there is still hope for well-written articles.
Recently, someone asked me this on Quora, I thought I'll reproduce what I wrote to that question:
Curiosity. Being curious about the things and people around your will lead you to interesting discoveries about them, and eventually yourself. You'll read more, study more and observe more. It will help you step out of your comfort zone and teach you important life lessons. Knowledge gathered in this way, will hopefully make you an expert on some topic or the other and help you earn a livelihood. But all knowledge is limited, and almost all the decisions you make will be based on insufficient data. And you realise this is why great men like, from Socrates to Feynman, have always said ' I don't know'. Because when you say you don't know, you learn. And that teaches you:
Humility. You understand that you are not the be-all and end-all as your ego would have you believe, and that the world doesn't revolve around you or your opinions. And that just like there are people worse than you, there are people better than you. Humility teaches you that the more you know, the more there is to know, so you don't become arrogant. And that when things are not going your way, it doesn't mean that they are not happening the way they should. You learn not to rush and this brings us to:
Patience. Everything takes its own time. The emperor and the beggar will have to wait nine months for the baby. A seed will take its time to become a tree, physical or metaphorical. It will teach you to be gentle with yourself, your loved ones and the planet. It'll make you realise, as sages have said, that the universe is unfolding as it should whether you are aware of it or not. This leads us to wisdom, which will teach us that there are probably more than three qualities you should possess.
On our recent trip to New Zealand which included a visit to Kaikoura where we were lucky to watch four sperm whales, Hector dolphins and the Dusky dolphins, which was a rarity, said our whale watching guide. They know when the whale is going to the Flipper thing, so they tell you to wait and tell you exactly when to press the button as their experience in the business and the elevated seat in the boat gives them the advantage.
She also said something very insightful and true. "See with your eyes, and then take the photos". Seems obvious but ever since we have been given the power to take a photo in our palm, we don't seem to "see" our world through eyes anymore. Everything is seen through a social media likeability lens. See a rainbow? Snap and forget. See a fight? Snap, post and wait for 'likes'. See something cute? Snap.
Don't get me wrong, we need to keep records of what we see to share and treasure them later, especially something rare as a sperm whale. But we don't have to rely on our phone camera all the time, do we? Can't we see the world with our eyes, enjoy the sights, take in the beauty, marvel at Mother Nature's creations and then take a photo?
I know you are supposed to be sparing with the use of exclamation points but if the culmination of a year of writing, rewriting, deleting, trashing, coming up with new story ideas, revising, editing, rewriting doesn't warrant a single !, I don't know what does.
Well, so it's finally here, my second collection of short stories with a twist. It's titled 'The Last Meal on Haight-Ashbury and other short stories with a twist'. Here's a brief description: It takes you from the sixties hung-over Haight-Ashbury to the guilt-ridden mind of a mother who feels relieved over the death of her special child. From the powdery white snows of Kanazawa to the dark, deceitful schemes of an antique dealer. There are tales of an incorrigible Casanova helping a couple on the brink of breaking up and those of a five-dollar bill changing the life of an advertising veteran with twenty years under his belt. A phone call goes awry in Napoli while a grandfather clock may prove to tell more than just time.
I've read it so many times while revising and editing that I feel like Henry Ford, who, when he asked his staff at a board meeting when they were going to stop the campaign for his latest car, was told that they hadn't even started running it yet.
I should thank my wife who went through it with a fine tooth-cliche and made sure I didn't stop at the good enough stage. She probably read it more times than I did during the process of editing.
I did a final check before publishing it to Amazon, it should be live by tomorrow. I've published it on Gumroad which took all of two minutes, you can buy the PDF by clicking the 'Click to buy' on the right-hand side of this page, and also on my other site, www.shortstories.guru.
Hope you like it. Do let me know what you think, your feedback helps. And help spread the word.
"Communication is about being pithy and telegraphic", my eight grade teacher used to tell us while teaching a portion of the Indian epic, Ramayana (the Kamba Ramayana version). "And no one does this better than Lord Hanuman."
When Lord Hanuman came back to Lord Ram and his army after completing his mission to Lanka as a messenger, the first words he uttered were: "Found Sita". Not a word more. Nothing on the numerous hardships and problems he faced on his trip.
A little background to this portion of the story:
Before Lord Ram and his army crossed the ocean to Lanka, they wanted to send a messenger of peace first. Hanuman was chosen and he flew across. On the way, he faced a multitude of problems: a mountain rose hindering his flight; a monster challenged him to enter through her mouth; another fought with him unprovoked and was defeated. On entering the enemy country, he still faced many challenges. He was insulted, ill-treated and was almost executed but spared when the king's brother intervened. Instead of being executed, his tail was set on fire and he was dragged all over the city. But when he flew back to Lord Ram and the army, all he said were those two pithy words: "Found Sita"
"The point to note", said my teacher, "is that Hanuman never once mentioned, not even hinted at all the hardships he faced or how he overcame them. Not even the bit about getting nearly executed. All he said was that he found Sita. Because that was the point of the mission. That was brevity in communication. That was what needed to be said."
Which somehow reminds me what Jonathan Ive said about design in the documentary, Objectified (a must-watch documentary btw): "When you see the indicator come on, I wouldn't expect anybody to point to it as a feature, but at some level I think you are aware of a calm and considered solution that speaks about how you are going to use it, not the terrible struggles that we as designers and engineers had in trying to solve some of the problems".
"All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie", rasps Dylan in Things Have Changed. Which is what Advaita Vedanta alludes to in general. Once you know the rope to be a rope, then the fear of it as a snake disappears. It's not that everything you see in the world is an illusion. It's not that there is no cruelty around, or that people are not killing people, and that there is no violence. It's the wrong identification with the body that gives rise to the sense of reality curated by the five limited senses. As Ramana Maharishi would often remind people, "Did all these occur to you in deep sleep?"
Meaning, all of this came to life with the waking up of the wrong 'I'. We see the world after we open our eyes, the world doesn't come and tell us it exists. In deep sleep, we have no nationality, no religion, no beliefs, no gender, no family, no name, no worries, no anxiety, no plans and we don't even have our body. Yet, we wake up and declare that 'I' slept well. Bhagwan Ramana would ask questioners, "Who is the I that says I slept well and who is the I that has all the problems and questions and doubts?"
Or that's what I understand (that's the trouble with limited knowledge, isn't it?). So all that we think is true, all that we think is the 'snake' is, in fact, a strand of rope.
Kannadasan, the greatest Tamil lyricist of the 20th century who distilled the most profound truths into easily digestible, simple cinema songs, has a similar yet more powerful take on it. In a song titled "Yaarada mandihan ange" (meaning "who is the real man there?") he says, "In laughter, Man isn't. In tears, Man isn't. In his heart, Man isn't. In sleep, man is. Living beast, sleeping god, in between is Man". Brilliant.
It is the Man in sleep who is real. Not the beast that reacts and repents. Not the Man in between two stages who is confused and confounded. It is the Truth that lies behind one Big Lie.
So says one of the graffiti messages in a book compiled by Nigel Rees I found many years ago. It sums up the way the language is heading these days. People don't craft anymore. Nobody seems to spend any time weighing the words before hitting the keyboard. And nobody bothers to check before subjecting innocent members of the public to horrendous misuse of the language.
We grew up writing and rewriting copy, in David Ogilvy style, with his seventeen drafts regime. We were told never to use words like 'That's not all', or 'What's more' to link sentences. Not even in brochure copy. Because that was a lazy way out. We were told that body copy should flow from the headline, linked syntactically and conceptually so it flowed better, with the last line looping back to the headline. We were told to use tactile words, like 'bristle'.
And we studied the work of masters of writing, legends such as David Abbot, Tony Brignull and Tom Thomas among others. In one ad, Abbot had used 'on the contrary' as a paragraph. I spent many days trying to mimic that, and when I was able to, I was so thrilled I drowned that immediately in a few beers.
But not many care for the language or the crafting part of it these days it would seem from what you can see in the newspapers. One could live with laziness, blaming it on the era of smartphones (people still read on their smart devices, don't they?) and short attention span, but what is irking is the total lack of respect for the language (it goes for any language incidentally, not just English) evidenced by headlines such as 'Path your way to success'. Since when is path a verb? You can beat a path, carve a path, create a path but you can't just 'path'. Here are some more examples that I'm sure will irk you too:
Irregardless. It's not a word. It's like saying 'unirrelevant'. It's regardless.
Should of. If you are writing that instead of 'should have', you need to go back to school. Like now.
It's vs its. Its is possessive as in 'the metal has lost its sheen'. It's is a contracted form of 'It is'. If in doubt, use the expanded version, it'll be clearer. Whenever it is sounds wrong, it's quite likely its, if you know what I mean. There are a few good sites that can clear your doubts such as grammar girl. I keep 'Elements of Style' recommended by Stephen King and Fowler's Modern English Usage recommended by my former boss many years ago. You could try these methods if you're between it's and its or discrete and discreet.
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This is about writing (mine and my favorite authors'), and e-publishing. Hope you find it useful. You can click on the covers below to read excerpts and purchase my ebooks.
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