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"Never write more than two pages on any subject."
How is your new year's resolution to read more and write better holding up? After tracing the fascinating story of the most influential writing style guide of all time and absorbing advice on writing from some of modern history's most legendary writers, here comes some priceless and pricelessly uncompromising wisdom from a very different kind of cultural legend: iconic businessman and original "Mad Man" David Ogilvy. On September 7th, 1982, Ogilvy sent the following internal memo to all agency employees, titled "How to Write":
The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.
Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.
Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:
1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
6. Check your quotations.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning – and then edit it.
8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
This, and much more of Ogilvy's timeless advice, can be found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners, a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence. The book is long out of print, but you can snag a copy with some rummaging through Amazon's second-hand copies or your favorite used bookstore.
A chronology of one of our most inescapable metaphors, or what Macbeth has to do with Galileo.
I was recently asked to select my all-time favorite books for the lovely Ideal Bookshelf project by The Paris Review's Thessaly la Force. Despite the near-impossible task of shrinking my boundless bibliophilia to a modest list of dozen or so titles, I was eventually able to do it, and the selection included Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton – among both my 7 favorite books on maps and my 7 favorite books on time, this lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.
The first chapter, Time in Print, begins with a context for these images:
While historical texts have long been subject to critical analysis, the formal and historical problems posed by graphic representations of time have largely been ignored. This is no small matter: graphic representation is among our most important tools for organizing information.* Yet, little has been written about historical charts and diagrams. And, for all of the excellent work that has been recently published on the history and theory of cartography, we have few examples of work in the area Eviatar Zerubavel has called time maps. This book is an attempt to address that gap."
* Cue in Visual Storytelling and graphic designer Francesco Franchi on representation vs. interpretation.
The Morning News has a wonderful slideshow of images from the book this week. A few favorites:
The Histomap by John Sparks,1931.
In this universal history Johannes Buno, 1672, each millennium before the birth of Christ is depicted by an image of a large allegorical being. This dragon represents the fourth millennium B.C.
In the 1860s, French engineer Charles Joseph Minard pioneered several new infographic techniques. Published in 1869, this endures as his most famous graphic, featuring two diagrams that depict the size and attrition of the armies of Hannibal in his expedition across the Alps during the Punic wars and of Napoleon during his assault on Russia. The faded-red color band indicates the army’s strength of numbers, with one millimeter in thickness representing ten thousand men. The chart of Napoleon's march also includes a measure of temperature.
While mapping the body, the mind, and the heavens might be traced back to antiquity, mapping time, Rosenberg and Grafton remind us, is a fairly nascent enterprise:
The timeline seems among the most inescapable metaphors we have. And yet, in its modern form, with a single axis and a regular, measured distribution of dates, it is a relatively recent invention. Understood in this strict sense, the timeline is not even 250 years old. How this could be possible, what alternatives existed before, and what competing possibilities for representing historical chronology are still with us, is the subject of this book."
A 'synchronous chart' from Meteorographica (1863) by Francis Galton, pioneer of the study and mapping of weather. The chart represents weather conditions, barometric pressure, and wind direction at a single moment in time across the geographic space of Europe.
Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s, is a paper chart with a pivoting central arm. Rings represent kingdoms, radial wedges represent centuries, and the names of kingdoms are printed on the moveable arm.
From literature to art history to technology, Cartographies of Time offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.
On reconciling the fussy with the fuzzy, or what Benjamin Franklin has to do with Drew Carey.
"The list is the origin of culture," Umberto Eco famously proclaimed. (Leonardo da Vinci, John Lennon, and Woody Guthrie would have all agreed.) But the list, it turns out, might also be the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction. So argue New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. While the book is fascinating in general – an unconventional "self-help" tome that, much like Timothy Wilson's Redirect, grounds its insights and advice in thirty years of serious academic research into willfulness and self-control – its third chapter, titled "A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey," is particularly interesting. In it, Tierney and Baumeister dissect the sociocultural anatomy of our favorite organizational tool, from the storytellers who crafted the Bible and wrote the Genesis myth with its six-step world-creation plan, to Benjamin Franklin's fastidious pursuit of virtue bound by goal-setting lists, to comedian Drew Carey's quest for supreme personal productivity.
These anecdotes and pieces of cultural mythology are interwoven with ample psychology experiments from the past century and, ultimately, distilled into insight on how to make the to-list a tool of fulfillment rather than frustration.
Franklin, for instance, demonstrated one of the greatest pitfalls of the to-do list: trying to do too much at once, letting different goals come into conflict with one another:
Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: 'Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.'
When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients – and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality ('Waste nothing') by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there'd be less time available for Industry at his job – or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he'd have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: 'Perform without fail what you resolve.'"
The result of conflicting goals, the authors argue, is unhappiness instead of action. But deciding on the right goals can be a daunting task.
Tierney and Baumeister recount a revealing experiment: When a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, he decided to warm up the elite group of generals with a short writing exercise. He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.
The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.
The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: 'First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.'"
Unscrupulous, perhaps, but the authors argue this is a simple version of an important to-do list strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, or "the fussy with the fuzzy."
Comedian Drew Carey took a different approach to mastering his to-do list – he outsourced his strategy to productivity guru David Allen, author of the cultish, modern Bible Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals. The latter loom in the back of our mind like a nagging mother, never fully silenced until specific actionable steps are taken.
In fact, our brain appears to be wired to nag about unfinished to-do list items as uncompleted tasks and unmet goals continue to pop up into our minds. This is called the Zeigarnik effect and explains phenomena like earworms – when you hear only a portion of song, the song is likely to run through your mind at odd intervals as your brain struggles to finish it. Originally, the Zeigarnik effect was believed to be the brain's way of ensuring goals are eventually accomplished, by prodding you into urgency until they are. But recent research has shed new light on the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in our cognitive to-do lists.
[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can't do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders."
The moral, then? Unless you are Woody Guthrie, keep your to-do list to a few very specific, actionable, non-conflicting items, then go fly your kite in peace.
Paul Rand (1914-1986) – design legend, professional curmudgeon, uncompromising businessman. He is best remembered as the author of Thoughts on Design (1947), one of the most important design books of all time, but nearly half a century later, he produced another indispensable tome: From Lascaux to Brooklyn, published mere months before his death, gathers his life's wisdom on the basic principles of design, creativity, and timeless visual communication.
From it comes this absolute gem, which echoes Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott's sentiments on intuition vs. rationality, succinctly captures Steve Jobs' famous advice on dot-connecting, and reflects my own philosophy of combinatorial creativity:
The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection. Imagination begins with intuition, not intellect."
Then again, The Little Prince said it first.