CBS news posted a terrific article illustrating why giving money is so much more effective than giving stuff (or worse, organizing your own collection drive) after a disaster. But you want to help. Can you do anything more than just text ten bucks to Red Cross?
Donate to long term recovery. United Way of Greater Houston is a great option as they will know how and where to apply funds during the years of recovery after the news crews have left. Consider donating to other organizations that provide job training, child care, access to health care, education, and help with clothing, housing, or food.
Prepare yourself, your family, and your community for a disaster locally. If you’ve got kids, have them help. Learn the locations and phone numbers of your local relief agencies.
Give blood if you can. Your blood won’t help people in Houston, but donated blood has a short shelf life, and your local supplies always need replenishing.
Put a reminder on your calendar for six months or a year from now to check in on recovery efforts, and to see if it might make sense to hold a collection drive or fundraiser then, or to join an onsite volunteer effort.
Donate and volunteer locally. The best way for a community to recover from a future disaster is to build a strong, thriving infrastructure with the services in place to help when help is needed.
Also, please don’t forward those stories that go viral after every disaster. You know the ones… about the 8 year old who organized a collection drive of Pez dispensers, or teddy bears, or school supplies. Heartwarming and full of love, but ultimately not terribly effective.
And do not even think about going to the disaster area to help unless you are trained in disaster response and are mobilized by an aid organization. Seriously, no matter how willing and able you are, you will only add to the number of people burdening the water, food, security, transportation, and sewage infrastructure. Stay out of the way of the experts, but help them by giving money they can use to do their jobs efficiently.
The world ties cinder blocks to our balloons, and if we don’t cut them free, we will never fly.
I realized this morning that I haven’t created in a few weeks. I’ve journaled. I’ve tweeted witty things. I’ve produced work at my job. I’ve written a hundred insightful, well-crafted comments about world events.
But I haven’t created. I have responded.
There’s nothing wrong with responding; we all should participate in the debates of our time, add humor and critical thought to the human dialog. Help others learn while learning from them. But I want to create. I love having written stories like Lifelike that come purely from my imagination.
A person has only so much creative fuel, though, and the world conspires to burn it in a thousand little ways every day. Solving problems at work. Deciphering baffling health care bills. Explaining white privilege in 140 characters. I have to be careful of burning up all my creative fuel.
In order to create, though, I also need to cut loose the thousand stones the world ties to my ankles every day. Gut-wrenching news of terrorism, violent demonstrations, and hate crimes. Family members’ health problems. The worry of too many expenses and not enough income. Constant reminders like Facebook notifications saying “Peter Dudley – Author got no new views this week.” (Thanks, Facebook, for really brightening my day.) These weights numb my brain until I just want to sit and be empty for a bit.
It’s impossible to fly without fuel, or when you’re too heavily weighed down.
But life is life.
What do you do to cut loose the weights, and to keep from burning too much of your creative fuel during the week?
All writing starts with ideas, just as all stampedes start with cows. Good writing wrangles those ideas into a herd, then spurs them into motion. Weak writing plops those ideas down in ones and twos on the page, like cows milling about a pasture.
Ideas in your writing should be a lot more like a stampede than a pasture dotted by aimless, fat cows. Stampedes surge. Stampedes roar. Stampedes have no time for bullshit. You don’t forget a stampede, but if you wander around pastures you’ll probably end up with poop-covered shoes.
How, then, do you wrangle your ideas (the fat, aimless cows) into a strong piece of writing (the stampede)?
Note to self: Next installment of Editing Pony should be about not torturing metaphors.
In business writing, a good example for this lesson might be a languishing project that you inherit. Such a project is likely to have
multiple participants who aren’t personally accountable for the ultimate objective
lots of meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent trying to remember where we left off last time
These are listless cows, wandering about a pasture.
What the project does not have is focus, direction, or momentum. You can provide it with a tight project directive, created with three simple actions:
1. Gather the herd
Happy cattle dispersed into small, separate groups rarely stampede. When spooked, they just run a few feet and settle back into grazing. Your first step is to bring everything together into your own corner of the pasture. To do this, create four lists:
Deliverables What needs to be created, by whom, and for what purpose? (e.g., Frank write a data entry app to capture names at the event.)
Dependencies In order to create those deliverables, what needs to happen first, and who needs to do it? (e.g., Marketing needs to provide the data specs to Frank.)
Gaps Where dependencies and deliverables don’t have a name attached, call them out. Or if a critical step has been previously unidentified, list it here. (e.g., Frank has the wrong development tools for the target platform.)
Actions What immediate actions need to be taken, by whom, and by when are they needed? (e.g., Mary call Marketing to demand the data specs, by Friday.)
What don’t you see above? You don’t see executive summary or background. You don’t see templated document structure. You don’t see any “how we got here.” That’s all a waste of time. Spend a sentence or two on the ultimate goal of the project if you must, but no more.
In other types of writing, the same principles apply. The lists may be different, but you still need to put all your points together in one place and see where they connect, see the dependencies, and identify the gaps. It’s nothing more than simple storyboarding, really, but it’s shocking how often people skip this step and jump right to composition before they know what they’re writing. Which leads to crap output, or to “writer’s block.”
In high school essays, for example, this step forces the student to forget about “the paper” and focus on the points, which ultimately leads to better citations, stronger arguments, and a more complete product. In fiction, this step may identify themes, characters, major plot points, and timeline.
2. Thin the herd
When a project has stagnated or your ideas have been muddled, you’ll probably spend too long making the lists in step 1, and the lists will stretch out, full of rambling description. Kill all that crap. If a deliverable is not absolutely necessary for project success, eliminate it. If someone claims a dependency on a vague external event, nail that down or reject the dependency.
The goal in this step is to find and break those circles of discussion that keep folding in on themselves. Someone always calls for “another meeting to discuss it,” or someone whines about an external dependency no one in the meeting has accountability for. Stampedes can be stopped by turning the front cows back into the herd; get rid of the slow, easily frightened cows that are likely to thwart your stampede.
The output of step 2 should be a terse, tight set of lists free of needless description. A document that shows only those things that need doing, who has to do them, and when they have to get done. If an item doesn’t drive to your ultimate goal, cut it.
Again, this step is critical in other writing. In high school essays, this is where structure is imposed on the arguments. In fiction, this is where you fill in plot holes and get rid of extraneous scenes and characters; for some authors this looks like an outline.
3. Direct the herd
In our project example, it’s time to kick the team into action. But don’t just toss the project plan out to the group; connect individually with each person assigned to a deliverable, gap, or action. Avoid sending anything to the whole group–that wastes the time of the uninvolved and gets ignored by people who need to act. Where gaps exist, assign people to fill them. Where dependency delivery dates don’t support the project, get them tightened. You’ve now got a document that shows why.
With these simple steps, you’ve taken a stagnant, aimless project and pointed everyone in one direction. You’ve told them exactly what they need to do and when it’s needed. You’ve eliminated the pointless and extraneous, and you’ve illuminated the gaps. And really, all you’ve done is what any good writer does.
If your project is huge, or you’re writing a novel, this set of techniques nests and scales. I do this before I start a novel, focusing first on the entirety of the plot arc. Then as I write, I do it again for each major section, and then for each chapter within each section. The same could be done for a project or a research paper. All my novels were written this way.
Conclusion: Not all metaphors work
I really was hoping that my cow stampede metaphor would carry me through this post, but it kind of stinks. Even though I’ve been to a rodeo in Texas, inside I’m just not cowboy enough, I guess.
The Editing Pony
The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.
Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.