Free Coordinates

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  • Published: Dec 5th, 2013
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Lovable letters…

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I’ve just added to my Christmas list Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story, a mighty fine sounding new book by Michael Rosen.

“Writing this book has been a fascinating journey,” says Mr Rosen. “The story of our alphabet turns out to be a complex tug of war between the people who want to own our language and the people who use it. I know which side I’m on.”

Me too, and I can’t wait to read these stories of A to Z. Thanks Santa!

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  • Published: Nov 8th, 2013
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To begin at the beginning…

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To begin at the beginning is, next to ending at the end, the whole art of writing; as for the middle you may fill it in with any rubble that you choose. But the beginning and the end, like the strong stone outer walls of mediaeval buildings, contain and define the whole,” says Hillair Belloc in On Nothing and Kindred Subjects.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” says Chekhov.

Two top takes on what goes into good storytelling, and what stays out.

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  • Published: Oct 19th, 2013
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The wrong kind of unreadability…

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Who owns English in a global market? asks Michael Skapinker in this week’s FT. The short answer is: no one, and everyone. Neither native speakers nor the many who have adopted English as a lingua franca (ELF), but both.

Thankfully, we have no real equivalent of the Académie Francaise stunting our language, just a few hundred million English speakers around the world keeping it very much alive and kicking and moving with the times and places.

Our wonderfully open and democratic English welcomes all comers – from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or should that be ridiculositous. In Democracy Has Bad Taste, the first of his Reith lectures, Grayson Perry recounts how an Art Forum editor said of a previous encumbent of her job that ‘English wasn’t her first language, so during her tenure as the editor, the magazine suffered from the wrong kind of unreadability’. Apparently her International Art English (IAE) wasn’t quite up to scratch. Her IAWhat? A particularly impenetrable form of art institution speak, designed to cultivate the seriousness of serious art and sounding like nothing so much as “inexpertly translated French” according to Monsieur Grayson. Witness this, again c/o of the great Mr Perry quoting a Venice Bienalle wall text: “Affectivity remans a central access in contemporary Uruguan artisitic production…”

Quintessentially Ridiculositous English (QRE). Don’t you just love it.

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  • Published: Oct 6th, 2013
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Character at the core…


What puts Paul Klee in a different league from his contemporary Johannes Itten? For Philip Hensher it comes down to character.

Dismissing Itten, he says: “There is no character there at the core. But Klee has an irreducible centre, and though he changed his style and approach many times in the 40 years of his mature career, there is always something there that makes you say “Klee” without hesitation.”

From Klees to companies, all great ventures need character – the irreducible centre that sets them apart and drives them on.

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  • Published: Sep 19th, 2013
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If it sounds like writing…

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“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” said the late great Elmore Leonard.

Expanding on the theme, here are his Ten Rules of Writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.

7. Use regional dialect and patois sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Wise words from a king of crime fiction.

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  • Published: Sep 4th, 2013
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Melodic fragments…

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I’ve just finished reading How Music Works – a mighty fine book by one of my heroes, David Byrne. It’s packed full of all kinds of good thoughts and insights – from the importance of context in any kind of creation to the need for empathy for any type of communication, from the vocal roots of song to the merits of amateurs.

Oh yes, and the multi-layered, non-hierarchical nature of acoustic culture compared to the relatively fixed views of visual culture – “In an acoustic world one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies.” It’s a point that’s all the stronger coming from a dude who’s known not only for great songs but also great images – he of the totally enormous big suit and collabs with the late great Tibor Kalman.

Along the way, he describes how he came up with the lyrics for one of my favourite songs, Once In A Lifetime. “I tried not to censor the potential lyrics I wrote down. Sometimes I would sing the melodic fragments over and over, trying random lyric phrases, and I could sense when one syllable was more appropriate than another. I began to notice, for example, that the choice of a hard consonant instead of a soft one implied something, something emotional. A consonant wasn’t merely a formal decision, it felt different. Vowels, too had emotional resonances – a soft ooh and a pinched aah have very different associations.”

So the trick is to treat consonants and vowels, the building blocks of your words, as melodic fragments – for as Mr Byrne highlights, the feeling as much as the meaning is key.

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  • Published: Aug 1st, 2013
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Strategies are stories…

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I’ve been doing a fair bit of work recently which has included discussing with clients what strategy is all about. The conversations have tended towards couching the strategy thing in terms of good decisions and actions. Looking at it this way, strategy comes down to a group of people (a team, a company, a country…) answering a few simple yet essential questions: What are we going to do? Why? And how? It’s a world away from those thick and expensive docs heavy with impenetrably overloaded matrix diagrams so beloved of a certain kind of consultant and belittled by the great information design guru Edward Tufte.

So strategies are social. They are action. And they are something else, too: they are stories. Bad strategies are tragedies, full of loss and woe. Good strategies are adventures – epic tales of worthwhile quests and real achievements, of great characters and grand deeds.

I know which strategies I’d like to read…

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  • Published: Jul 24th, 2013
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In defence of chartreuse…

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If you want your writing to appeal to a lot of people, keep it simple and emotional.

This is the wise point made by fast rising young writer dude from NY Simon Rich: “I’m trying to connect with as many people as possible so I’d only write about emotions I think billions of us have experienced… When you remove multisyllabic words from your vocabulary, you widen the net. You gain a lot by calling something yellowy-green instead of chartreuse. I don’t know what you have to gain with chartreuse. I haven’t looked up a word since college. If I come to a word and I don’t understand it, to my mind that’s the word’s fault.”

There’s a lot of truth in this, but I’d also advocate a place for chartreuse, not least because it has a very different feel from its admitedly more down to earth but rather ugly sounding relative. Chartreuse conjures a sense of elegance, of lazy hazy sun days at a French chateau. It’s a colour to accompany a champagne cocktail. Yellowy-green by contrast is no nonsense, gutsy, downtown. Stuff the cocktail – give me a double on the rocks.

Same colour; different vibe. The key thing is to be free to pick and choose the right one for your writing.

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  • Published: Jun 26th, 2013
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Why add the adjective?…

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In 1956, sci-fi horror doyen Richard Matheson wrote a story he called The Shrinking Man. When Hollywood came to make the movie they couldn’t resist mucking with the title: in 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man was released. It went on to become a cult classic but Mr Matheson was understandably irked by that extra word: “It’s already pretty incredible that a guy is shrinking!” he said. “Why add the adjective?”

A neat reminder to leave out what you don’t need in. Although, on reflection, you could make a case for keeping that “incredible” in as it adds a certain melodic rhythm to the title.

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  • Published: Jun 24th, 2013
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Shorter often takes longer…

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From The Guardian’s In praise of… telegrams: Mark Twain received this telegram from his publisher: NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. To which he replied: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

As with a fine cognac compared to a run of the mill brandy, it takes time to distill your words well – shorter often takes longer.

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