Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?
A Changing Conversation
We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.
This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.
The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.
The Diversification of Creation
What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).
Opportunities in Innovation
So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.
Reading through a heap of blogs each morning, one thing that stands out is the quality of the writing. Don’t get me wrong, many of them are excellent, but there are some that are well-researched and written by a professional who clearly knows his/her field, yet their writing is flat. It’s like reading an academic paper – very informative and valuable, but a slog, and most of the time I just move on, there’s other content to get through. Some of these posts would be significantly improved if the author noted a few simple changes, language economics, if you will, that can greatly improve the fluidity of your content.
Next time you write a blog post, try applying some of these to your work, test whether they might improve the flow of your piece. These are minor, simple changes that can make a significant difference to your content, and, by extension, it’s reach.
1. Remove all mentions of the word ‘just’. There are, of course, some places where ‘just’ is still necessary, but more often than not, ‘just’ just holds up the sentence flow. When writing a blog post you want to be authoritative, state what you believe. ‘It just won’t work’. ‘It just doesn’t add up’. Anytime you write the word ‘just’, go back and review the sentence and see if it might read better, stronger, without it. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, you should, always. And quite often ‘just’ ends up being just unnecessary.
2. Remove weakening ‘I’ statements. ‘I think…’, ‘I doubt…’ You’re the author of the piece, anything you say is your opinion. There’s really no need to state this again in your article.
‘I think a better way to do things is…’
You have to stand by your words and state them as fact. If you don’t believe they are fact, don’t say them, but if you’ve done your research and you’re making a point, that statement will be more powerful if you take out the self attribution.
‘A better way to do things is…’
Much stronger, that’s a voice readers will pay attention to. ‘I’ statements can be very strong in some contexts, so you shouldn’t remove them wholesale, but it is worth reviewing each to test if the sentence reads stronger without it.
3. Use definitive language. This somewhat reinforces the first two points, but it’s crucial that your statements be definitive when necessary. In my previous job, I remember seeing an e-mail where a salesperson had asked someone from my team whether a job could be done by a certain time. The response the salesperson got was ‘Should be fine.’ ‘Should be fine’ is not good enough – the sales team are dealing with clients, they need to know whether this will or won’t happen, and they shouldn’t have to waste time sending a clarifying e-mail because of this person’s weak response. ‘I think that’s right’ bears significantly different meaning to ‘That’s right’ – the second one gives you the answer, that’s how it is. That person knows what they’re talking about and you can have faith in what they say (so long as they are, in fact, right). You need to be definitive in your language and give clear, authoritative answers. If you’re reviewing your work and you find uncertain statements, clarify them or cut them out.
4. Be mindful of the over-use of adverbs like quickly, rapidly, slowly, etc. Sometimes these are already implied by the surrounding context and only serve to slow up your sentences. ‘He ran quickly’ – well, yeah, he ran, I’d assume he’d do so ‘quickly’. ‘It fell rapidly’. Yeah, gravity’ll do that. Sometimes that secondary adverb is not adding anything to the sentence and can be taken out to better suit the flow of the piece.
5. Try to frame things in the form of questions. This is one that will become more relevant in future, but worth considering now to try and get your head around how it’s going to work. In their most recent algorithm changes, Google made note of the move towards ‘conversational search’ – people speaking their search terms instead of typing them, then using follow-on questions based on the preceding search. When people do this, they won’t phrase things as formally as they would when writing. The functionality of speech based search relies on the text being conversational, how you would speak normally. You should be able to say ‘Where are the best beaches near me?’ and Google should come back with the relevant listings. In future, you’re going to get better search results for your content if you ensure questions like this are built into your blog posts. If you can match likely user questions, you improve your chances of showing up as a relevant item. It can be difficult to do, putting questions in doesn’t always gel with story flow (and the quality of the content should always come first), but keep it in mind. Can you build relevant questions into the piece that will work for both the flow of the content and for future search requirements?
And one other last note – where possible, always let your posts sit for at least twenty-four hours before publishing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something that I thought was brilliant, only to re-read it the next day and be totally deflated. You’ll always find errors and things you want to change if you give yourself some distance from it and clear your head.
These rules are not prescriptive, there are, of course, places where they won’t apply, but it’s worth keeping them in mind as you go, testing your sentence structures and statements and looking for ways to make your work stronger, more bold. Using definitive language will help establish your authority on a topic and make it a more compelling reader experience, improving your content quality and performance overall.
Now read this alternate last sentence and see if you agree:
These rules are not prescriptive, there are, of course, places where they don’t apply, but I think it’s worth keeping them in mind as you go, testing your sentence structures and statements and looking for ways to make your work stronger, more bold. I believe using definitive language can help establish your authority on a topic and make it a more compelling reader experience, improving your content quality and performance overall.
Makes a difference, right?