The Write Noise

Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.

It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.

optimal-noise-level

The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:

We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.

In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.

Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?

Not quite.

Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.

But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.

So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**

Hat tip: Jane Friedman.

* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.

** Which is all too common in these studies on artistic endeavours. I’ve previously discussed how many wild claims are made from either marginal data, misrepresentations, or feelpinions.

Scamming writers

scam-artist-_kar_-_fotolia

Welcome to the internet. Sucker.

Scams are nothing new and at this stage neither is the internet. Whether it be someone offering to enlarge your penis – in the porn sense, the dating sense, the dysfunction sense, or the extra inch sense – or someone encouraging you to hate an out-group, the internet appears to be filled with scammers.

It was only this morning I received a very convincing looking invoice for a large order of books from a publisher I have been known to buy books from. Fortunately, I know some people in high places, like my friend the Nigerian prince, and they were able to warn me that I hadn’t actually ordered any books this week and should probably not click on the link to pay for them. Targeting readers and writers with scams are where I have to draw the metaphorical line in the metaphorical sand.

Most writers are hobbyists, writing because they love it. The handful that do get paid enough to be full-time writers are few and far between. So targeting writers with scams means that somewhere a monkey at a keyboard is not being fed today.

Let’s dissect a writing scam to see if we can spot the tricks used to part you from your potentially hard-earned money. This article was for a New, Amazing, Adjective, program that promises to give you the tools to write a 400-word article in 7 minutes. My comments are in blue.

Dear Fellow Article Writer

TA: This is a strong start. It creates kinship from a cold open. It wouldn’t read as well if they just called you a mark or sucker. Unless your name happens to be Mark. Or Sucker. But why would anyone call their child that? I mean, no offense to any Marks, but it’s a terrible name.

Did you watch the video above? It’s hard to believe so many people would send me such raving, unsolicited testimonials about my product, “How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes or Less“.

TA: I haven’t included the video but it is amazing how many unsolicited video testimonials appear to be shot with professional lighting and cameras.

If you did watch the video, you saw with your own eyes how I was able to take people who spent more than an hour writing an article down to as fast as 5 minutes per article!

TA: 5 minutes? I thought you said 7 minutes. Does this mean I get a 2 minute abs program as a bonus?

Would you like to experience the same results, without risking a penny? If so, then let me extend to you this unusual guarantee:

If you don’t cut your current article writing time down by at least 65% in less than a week after trying my methods, then not only will I refund every single cent of your purchase…

I’ll Give You DOUBLE Your Money Back!

TA: Cool, cool, cool, cool. But what if my average article writing time is 30 minutes and you only manage to bring it down by 65% to 10 minutes? Do I get 65% of my money back?

All you have to do is show me three articles you’ve written using my simple “7 minute formula” and tell me honestly that it didn’t at least increase your article writing speed by 65% while still maintaining the same quality and…

I will give you double your money back.

TA: This, folks, is called a caveat. 

Also, if for any reason at all you are unsatisfied, you can always ask me for a refund — no matter what — and I’ll promptly and quietly return every penny you paid in full.

TA: Is anyone else’s cynicsense tingling?

Either way you can’t lose.
How I Stumbled Upon the
Secret for Writing Articles Quickly!

Not too long ago I earned my keep ghostwriting for internet marketers.

If you read articles, forum posts or follow the “gurus” in anyway, chances are you’ve read something ghostwritten by me.

I have written thousands of articles for my clients, and along the way discovered a simple process for generating content quickly for almost any topic.

TA: Notice that this pitch pretty much precludes any allusions to quality writing.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Open my 3 special research sites. TA: Wikipedia? 
  2. Use my “skim and grab” research technique to find your
    3 main points (Takes about a minute).  TA: Yes, because reading comprehension is for suckers. 
  3. Outline each main point with two “sub points.” (another minute here). TA: What if there is only one point?
  4. Use the “opening paragraph” template to quickly create the first paragraph (About 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph, got it.
  5. Use the “main point” template to write paragraphs for each of your three main points. (2-4 minutes total time) TA: So, standard writing….
  6. Use the “conclusion paragraph” template to quickly create the conclusion. (another 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph at the end.
  7. Proof read your article, and then submit it to the appropriate directory. (1-2 minutes) TA: Click spellcheck and hope it doesn’t miss anything.

The cool thing about using these templates is you never have to pause to think…but… you also enough leeway so each article remains 100% unique, and of the highest quality.

TA: Yes, why would you want to actually put any thought into your writing. Highly overrated for quality content. This approach screams quality writing.

Don’t worry: My method has nothing to do with plagiarism!

TA: Of course not, copy and pasting clearly takes too long.

Anyway, you can learn all about my 7 minute article technique by reading my special report, “How to Write an Article In 7 Minutes”, and by watching the videos I made showing step by step how I do it.

But that’s not all… TA: Steak knives? Please be steak knives.

My first thought upon seeing the claim that you could learn to write an article in 7 minutes was that it was bullshit. The fact that people would find this plausible left me a little stunned, a little thirsty, and thinking about having a nap. Clearly, some people are going to be taken in by these kinds of scams. So I want to just illustrate my critical thinking process and how I avoided being scammed for $37 (I know, huge amounts of money).

Drawing from personal experience, I know that I’d spend more than 7 minutes just copying in the links to the research I’d be citing, let alone reading the 3 magic research sites. So the first check is to understand just how long certain tasks actually take you. This scam works on the idea that you don’t really measure the time it takes for common activities. You may know how long you spend on a full article or day’s writing, but not on the little parts, like one paragraph or one sentence. So when someone presents you with some figures, you are bound to think, “Well, I do spend a lot of time staring at the screen and checking my Twitter feed.” Suddenly you are partly receptive to the con.

Let’s have a look how long writing actually takes the average person. Being a science nerd, I like to have a few figures around on writing, reading, average number of Facebook posts per hour; you know, important stats. The average person has a typing speed of 60-100 words per minute, which gives you 400-700 words written in 7 minutes. The page claims a 400-word article with 5 minutes of actual writing time. So the claim is physically possible. Just. But that is typing speed, not writing speed. Typing is just mashing a bunch of keys in the correct order, writing requires a little more thought as to what those mashed keys actually communicate.

What about editing? Nothing is perfect on a first draft, nothing! So even if this is a 400-word article written in 5 minutes, you still need to edit. Reading speed is not the same as proofreading speed, with average speeds of 180-200 words per minute. That’s another 2-3 minutes.

Aaannnddd, we’re out of time. Sorry, folks.

Just the physical act of writing and reading your new article chews up the time allocation. Unless this program comes with a Deloren or Time Turner it is unlikely to have you churning out 8 articles an hour.

But what if the program can reduce my writing time by 65%, I hear a brave new bridge owner chewing on brain pills ask.

Well then, send me $40 and I’ll send you some templates that I guarantee will improve your writing by 69%, add inches to your IQ, and make Nigerian royalty give you money. Trust me, no-one lies on the internet.

Story Arcs

tumblr_lctxer4JSc1qcfl10

I’ve written before about plots and how there aren’t as many of them as you’d think – somewhere between 1 and 36 depending upon how you want to break them down. Often writers utilise some of the well-known plot structures, such as The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat or The Plot Hole.

Some 70 years after Kurt Vonnegut proposed the idea of mapping story shapes for a rejected Masters thesis, some researchers decided it was time to crunch some data. They analysed 1,737 fiction novels to figure out how the story arcs are constructed. Let’s pretend there is a big difference between a plot and a story arc

The study used Project Gutenberg – i.e. public domain works – and the results suggest that there are only really six story arcs:

Fall-rise-fall: ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘The Wonder Book of Bible Stories’, ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘The Serpent River’.

Rise-fall: ‘Stories from Hans Andersen’, ‘The Rome Express’, ‘How to Read Human Nature’ and ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.

Fall-rise: ‘The Magic of Oz’, ‘Teddy Bears’, ‘The Autobiography of St. Ignatius’ and ‘Typhoon’.

Steady fall: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The House of the Vampire’, ‘Savrola’ and ‘The Dance’.

Steady rise: ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, ‘Dream’, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘The Human Comedy’.

Rise-fall-rise: ‘Cinderella’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Sophist’ and ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’.

The most popular stories have been found to follow the ‘fall-rise-fall’ and ‘rise-fall’ arcs.

Or for those that prefer to read graphs because it makes them feel intellectual:

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 8.22.03 PM.png

For those that just saw a bunch of squiggles in those graphs, what you are looking at is the story arc plotted over time for each story analysed. They’ve broken these into similar groups then added an average (the orange line). You can see how some of the story arcs follow the average more, whilst some types vary more. To see an individual story arc, they picked out Harry Potter as an example in the paper, but have the rest archived here (Project Gutenberg books) and here (a selection of classic and popular novels). As they note:

The entire seven book series can be classified as a “Rags to riches” and “Kill the monster” story, while the many sub plots and connections between them complicate the emotional arc of each individual book. The emotional arc shown here, captures the major highs and lows of the story, and should be familiar to any reader well acquainted with Harry Potter. Our method does not pick up emotional moments discussed briefly, perhaps in one paragraph or sentence (e.g., the first kiss of Harry and Ginny).

Harry Potter plot

It is interesting to see how close Vonnegut’s proposed shapes aligns with the research.

story arcs vonnegut

Source.

The above is from graphic designer Maya Eilam and can be viewed at her website.

Here is Vonnegut explaining the story shapes:

This is all nice and good, but why is this interesting? Well, aside from the study using my favourite statistical technique – principal components analysis – it shows that authors create, and the audience expects, structures that are familiar. The fact that two of the story arcs (rise-fall and fall-rise-fall) are the most common emphasises this point. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful and familiar to us. There is scope to play within the formula, but ultimately we desire stories that fit conventions.

So yes, there is no original art being made.

Word limits: or how to learn to stop writing and love the full stop

 

140-characters
Source

Every now and then I masochistically log onto Twitter to see what passes for civil discourse amongst the people trying to sell you stuff and those not quite racist enough to be booted to Gab. When I recently logged on, a couple of the authors I follow were updating their fans with their novel progress, or what was currently distracting them from writing.

What interested me about these updates was that several authors were talking about having to trim their draft by 50-65%. That’s right, authors who needed to hand in a 100,000 word manuscript to their publisher were having to trim 100-200,000 words from their novel.

Word limits are a funny thing. I’ve never had a problem being succinct, to the point that my editing usually involves added 15-20%. Yet these successful authors* are having to sit down with their editors to cull half their manuscript. And if we’re being honest, some successful authors** should have culled a lot more and saved their readers all that page skipping.

One of the good things that Twitter trains you to do, aside from teaching you that trolling people is perfectly okay, is how to express yourself succinctly in 140 280 characters. It forces you to practice creating a thought or sentence in a manner that may be foreign. For example, the complex phrase:

I disagree with your supposition as it is currently unsupported by any evidence, either presented by yourself or in the scientific literature, thus there is no reason for me to support your statements. I would also question how rational your supposition is, because despite the lack of evidence, there is no reason to suspect that there is any industry conspiracy trying to deny Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson an Oscar for Best Actor.

Can be replaced with:

Lol, moron!

This says everything that is needed and doesn’t dance around the topic. Conversely, the reply to this can be shortened from:

Whilst you are allowed to disagree with me, my opinion still stands. I cannot provide a summary of the relevant scientific literature at this time, but this is information that is readily understood and referenced in the literature. Thus I will endevour to provide a few examples when I am able to, but in the meantime I’d invite you to read further on the topic, as I suspect that you will agree with me once you have. I will admit, however, that the literature on this topic is currently inaccessible due to paywall restrictions, thus this unsourced blog post will have to suffice until such time as the academic publishing model is reformed.

Can be replaced with:

Well screw you and the horse you road up on.

The trick is to start with what your key points are and not overuse exposition to explain those points. The 140 280 character limit can help with this a lot.

In the meantime, if you aren’t a fan of See Mike Draw, I suggest you become one now.

* Maybe that is why they are successful authors and I’m still in that emerging author category. Perhaps it is time to write double the amount I need.

** Obviously not the authors I follow.