Marcia Riefer Johnston, special to The Content Wrangler
This month, I was asked by the editors at The Content Wrangler to review a few books, including:
- The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
- Writing Riches: Learn How to Boost Profits, Drive Sales and Master Your Financial Destiny with Results-Based Web Copy by Ray Edwards
- The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing (Or, Getting Things Done by Putting Them Off) by John Perry.
At first glance, these books may seem atypical of The Content Wrangler content. None of these authors talks up some next big thing. They do not extol new uses of technology. They do not celebrate disruption. But each book taps into the core of what it means to communicate effectively—a core that we content professionals need to stay in touch with if we’re to bring value to all the shiny new things on the Internet and beyond.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs, makes a case for deep, sustained reading. Never mind that today’s human attention span is often compared with that of a goldfish (or that of a fish stick, as Robert Rose says). In fact, author Alan Jacobs make his case because the human attention span is supposedly shrinking.
“I miss my old brain,” Jacobs quotes Nicholas Carr as saying (p. 7)—the same Nicholas Carr who writes, “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” Technical communicator Tom Johnson says, “The shift in media from books to television, and then to video games, Internet, social media, and smart phones, has slowly rewired our brains.”
Do you know that feeling? I sure… hey what’s that over there?
Where was I? Oh yeah. The age of distraction. Jacobs urges us not to lose the skill of reading long pieces of well-crafted writing—and if we have lost it, to rebuild it. As an English professor, he focuses naturally on works of literature.
For one thing, Jacobs points out (quoting W. H. Auden), “There must always be … escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep” (p. 131). For another thing, long user guides aren’t known for repaying sustained reading.
Jacobs recalls a high-school teacher who supposedly read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past every summer because “the book was so great, and so deep, and so subtle that she always found something new in it, always had more to learn about it and through it” (p. 131).
Rare is the goldfish that can sustain the attention required to read Proust even once.
Jacobs encourages us all to read widely and deeply, to continually grow in our ability to appreciate writing of all kinds, to stretch toward what he calls an “expansion of being” that only deep and varied reading affords. He urges us to cultivate a “cone of silence” in our lives, a place of “deep solitude,” a “special silence, a reading silence” (pp. 124–5) so that we don’t lose the “solitary and silent aspects of reading” that are becoming “endangered species of mental experience” (p. 142).
This author has nothing against snacking on blog posts. He has nothing against chatting in 140-character exchanges. He takes no issue with scanning for the morsel of information we need in a set of instructions. What he wants is for us to remember, and make time for, the more substantial reading fare the world has to offer.
Some books don’t merit deep, thoughtful reading. Take, for example, Ray Edwards’s Writing Riches. I wasted as little time as possible between this book’s front cover (“RICHES” in all caps) and its back cover (“If you aren’t yet making six-figures”). I did read the first few pages carefully. Then, on page 7, I hit the passage explaining the difference between persuasion and manipulation. The author sensed that his readers would need this clarification. I might not have minded—philosophers discuss this distinction, after all—if I hadn’t been feeling manipulated from the moment my eyes landed on the cover’s banner: “BONUS Free Membership & $197 Free Gifts Included.” So from page 7 on, the pages flew by.
The few minutes I spent “reading” were not a complete waste. Some writing insights bear repeating.
- The headline’s job is “to make the reader want to keep on reading—specifically, to get him or her to read the next sentence. That’s all your headline has to do” (p. 3).
- People “skim, scroll and scan … they never read anything at first … they never believe anything at first … the job of your copy becomes to overcome their disbelief and skepticism and tell them the story they wanted to hear from the beginning” (pp. 6–7).
- “I write lots of headlines, always over a hundred” before choosing one (p. 32).
- “The number-one [headline-writing] mistake is being focused on you and your product instead of on your prospects” (p. 32).
- Like an irresistible movie trailer, a persuasive piece of business writing needs to convey a DSI: dominant story idea (p. 150).
If Edwards’s tips help you get to six figures, consider writing your own version of Writing Riches, preferably a version that doesn’t need to bring up manipulation. That’s a book I’d like to read.
The Art of Procrastination
In The Art of Procrastination, with the wisdom of Aristotle and the wit of Dave Barry, John Perry appeals to—and affirms—the procrastinator in each of us. Here are some of my favorite bits:
- “I realized that I was what I call a structured procrastinator: a person who gets a lot done by not doing other things” (p. xv).
- “Many procrastinators do not realize that they are perfectionists” (p. 11).
- “What the tasks on your priority list are supposed to do is disappear. One way for this to happen is for you to do them. But there are other ways for them to disappear (p. 66).
- “Don’t confuse structured procrastination with providing proof to your spouse that he or she doesn’t control you. Trying to prove something to your spouse by not doing things should be reserved for really unreasonable demands” (p. 77).
- “Zoom out some. It will all be over soon enough. Sun go boom” (Jim Stone quoted on p. 79).
If you read only one chapter of this book, make it the first: “Structured Procrastination.” Perry describes structured procrastination as “an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they accomplish and the good use they make of time” (p. 2).
The author acknowledges Robert Benchley for writing about this strategy in 1930 in a Chicago Tribune piece called “How to Get Things Done.” Benchley wrote, “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment” (p. 2).
Here’s the gist of Perry’s structured procrastination strategy. Put something at the top of your to-do list, something that’s important to you but that you can ignore for now, even if—no, especially if—you feel guilty doing so. He means it. He cites his own top task of the moment: finishing an essay for a volume on the philosophy of language. Every time he considers that top task, he avoids it by doing something else that he also wants to get done. “The trick,” he says, “is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list” (p. 5).
To convey this book’s playful insightfulness—make that insightful playfulness—I give you that first chapter’s closing paragraph:
“The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception … Exactly … Virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deception skills. And what could be more noble than using one character trait to offset the negative effects of another?” (p. 7)
Each chapter increases my ability to go easy on myself and everyone else who’s facing yet another day’s worth of Things We Feel We Ought To Do. Acceptance communicated. Check that one off your list, Mr. Perry.
The main message of this book leaps out in its closing: “Pat yourself on the back for what you get done … Above all, enjoy life” (p. 83).
If your procrastinating ways cause problems for you or for the people you care about, add this book to your list. Just don’t put it at the top.
I leave you with one call to action per book:
- As a reader, make time for substantial, well-crafted pieces of writing.
- As a business writer, don’t focus on your company and its products; focus on your prospects—as people who care about more than pulling down six figures.
- As a procrastinator, pat yourself on the back for what you get done.
Finally, as a human, take John Perry’s parting words to heart. Above all, enjoy life.