There’s that old saying that art is what happens within constraints. Painters have to work within the confines of the canvas, sculptors within the size of the available display space and so on. If we’re given too much space, artists will meander and continue tweaking, adding and removing to the point where nothing is ever truly finished. It’s a symptom of the creative mind that we can sit there and endlessly mull what could be done better – or at least differently – until the end of time. George Lucas summed it up when he said “Films are never finished, they’re abandoned.”
That’s why, to me, my time writing for the Weblogs, Inc. series of blogs, particularly AdJab, was such a valuable experience. The philosophy espoused by founder Jason Calacanis and held by the editors of the various sites was simple: Publish fast, fix later. It’s not that he or anyone else didn’t want to be accurate. It was more meant to encourage you to not endlessly noodle with the phrasing or obsess about other details. Get the facts right, but don’t worry about flowery prose. You could always go back and clean up some copy later if you had the time.
The format on AdJab was simple: Keep it to around 150-200 words, be funny (when appropriate) and get to the point. Don’t get caught up in small details or extensive stage-setting. Assume the reader is there for a reason and treat them intelligently, informing at the same time you’re entertaining.
What I did at AdJab was indicative of where blogging was back in the early- to mid-2000s, when it was just hitting the mainstream culture. We took stories that appeared on Ad Age, Adweek, MediaPost, The New York Times and elsewhere and recapped them and commented on them, calling out some key points and helping to provide the reader with (hopefully) a fresh take on the news. We *always* linked back to original sources because that was the damn point, to serve as a digest for readers, a quick jumping off point where they could see most interesting news in one place and then go read the full story if they wanted more background.
Over the course of my time at WIN I got *really* good at the format. That’s part of what’s served me well for the rest of my career. Things like the “Quick Takes” feature I’ve published here (though that’s currently on hiatus) and the “PNConnect Weekly Reading” overviews I wrote at Voce/Porter Novelli for years are simply new versions of the “Ad Age in 60 Seconds” feature at AdJab, offering a few bulleted sentences on key stories the audience should know about. Even as I read any news story on any given day I’m still writing in my head the 160-word, two paragraph post that calls out the most important elements.
I know this may seem like a strange example to call out given my tendency to go on and on at times, taking advantage of the freedom allowed by online self-publishing to use as many words as I want to explore all sorts of rabbit trails of thought. But having to work within the AdJab/WIN model forced me to focus and, as the headline of this post says, made me a better writer. I had to economize my verbiage. While I didn’t spend hours on the editing process, I often reviewed first drafts that were over-long and found unnecessary sentences that were subsequently cut. Eventually I got to the point where such a review wasn’t needed and Draft 1 was a tight 145.
The point is this: Even if I *don’t* do that currently, I know I *can* do that. It’s a skill set that, as a writer, I have in my back pocket.
If you want to challenge yourself, put some constraints around your writing for a period of time. Sometimes the best way to grow is to work within what may initially seem like daunting limitations.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.