Somewhere on the web, recovering from a content deluge that took not one or two text victims, there are 50-odd people on a mission to rescue the corporate world from the tyranny of linguistic mediocrity.
They are The Writer.
In love with words, naming and thinking, The Writer’s team focus on language, because it’s the thing they all care about most. They do it not only by writing, but also by training and running insightful events across the world.
I stumbled upon The Writer when searching for Steven Pinker’s talks. In 2014, Neil Taylor (Managing partner at The Writer) hosted an event where Steven Pinker spoke about the book The Sense of Style and what happens in your brain when you write.
Curious and excited to learn more about the people who had Steven Pinker to talk at their event, I landed on The Writer’s website and fell in love with them.
Shortly after that, perfectly aware of the fact that I could have picked a better way of confessing my love, I sent The Writer a message via their not very romantic contact form.
The romance continued with me getting in touch with the wonderful Emelie Rodriguez helping me out with the details and further reaching Colby, who, as I found out consequently, had an answer to a million dollar question: What does it take to be a word sniper or ninja?
Colby Brin, The Writer’s esteemed emissary, was kind and patient enough to answer all my questions, and to even sent me some back.
In his own words, Colby specializes in finding the resonant part of any subject, and crafting a cohesive narrative around it.
Before he joined The Writer, he worked his magic for topics ranging from a guide to predicting college basketball upsets to a book about sleep training babies. At The Writer, he’s done it for clients including Cisco, PwC, EBay, Two Sigma and Vaseline. Everything from internal email blasts to elevator pitches to homepage copy to product labels.
And before you immerse in the world of words, writing and scriptua continua (yes, that’s right), a note I had to (and gladly did) include: In this interview all Colby Brin’s opinions are his own. ☺
Words are things
Colby, what does it take to be a word warrior?
There’s a book called The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, where she talks about how the word word is part of the word sword. I hadn’t noticed that until I read it in ninth grade and it blew my mind. It had been sitting there all along. This question reminded me of that and I’d be remiss not to mention it.
But I think the term Word Warrior is almost oxymoronic . When we think of warriors, we think of brave, bloody fighting. It seems to me the equivalent would be a person who uses words as a cudgel. Who’s blunt and outspoken, but not necessarily articulate or eloquent. I feel like the spirit of the question is more ‘What does it take to be a word sniper or ninja?’
And my answer is: A facility with language that lets you use words so smoothly and apparently effortlessly that half the people you’re slaying don’t even realize the shiv was going until it’s too late and you’ve convinced everyone around them and they have nothing left to do but fall on their sword.
Is it really all a matter of wording?
Guess I answered this one above, implicitly. But yes, always. Words are thoughts. And thoughts are so damn malleable. They need good words to give them their best shape. It’s impossible to think clearly without lucid strings of words. I do believe in going from the gut sometimes, but you have to be able to articulate your interpretation of a gut feeling. Otherwise you’re flapping in the wind of your own visceral reflexes. A weak warrior.
The story is the message
What do you think defines a word apart from its dictionary entry?
What people mean by it. At this point, dictionary definitions are almost incidental. One of my favorite words is crazy. Because life is a trip, it’s totally crazy. But crazy, by the book definition, is a mental state of a sentient being. I don’t think the dictionary says life itself can be crazy. But who cares? It’s the word I need to describe that feeling. It works. People understand what I mean by it. Let’s say all the dictionaries disappeared tomorrow. Would all the words lose their meaning? Of course not.
Don’t get me wrong – I love nitpicking definitions. The more clearly defined the word, the more clearly defined the thought, as I said above. But the dictionaries don’t give the word its meaning. We do. We all do.
And what does it take for a word to jump over the fence of misunderstanding?
That’s quite a metaphor you’ve got there yourself!
[ed. note: blush]
Answer: The story you tell around it. The context. Context is so huge for everything. It’s easy to forget that. Particularly if you’re heavy into words themselves. It can be hard to see the forest (context) for the trees (words). By the way, the forest/trees metaphor is so great. A real evergreen metaphor.
The State of Words (from scriptua continua to the world where everybody writes … and searches)
What is the state of language and words in an era where everything needs more or less a textual existence?
I assume you mean everything needs to be written, printed or otherwise rendered somewhere, in some tangible place, to have validity in people’s minds? Then I’d say the state of words is more complex, and thusly stronger, than ever. Because they are putting down roots this way. They are bridging the senses.
Before writing, before texts, words were things you heard and thought about. They came and went. But now you can see them. Not just in the present. You can go back and read old articles, or emails, or books. So words and language are living infinitely multiple lives at once. I suppose you could say each individual word might suffer this way – it’s pulled in so many directions, it’s drawn and quartered, it’s weakened. But the totality of it all is this infinite network of connections that is its own living universe. There’s the word universe I just wrote. There’s universe in every physics textbook. There’s Universal Pictures and Mr. Universe. So the word universe is spread pretty thin. But it’s covering so much more space. Much like the universe itself. It’s all too much!
Do you think words felt better, or at least more understood, in the age of scriptua continua?
For the record, I had to google that. God forbid we get another cat, we might have to name it Scriptua.
Anyway, I have no idea, but if I had to guess I’d say a big fat NO. Because most people were illiterate in that era, right? (Context!) I definitely think being literate heightens the pleasure of words.
If the question is, did words feel better to the lucky literate? Well I guess they felt more fluid. Which is a nice feeling. Living in harmony and all. It seems such a foreign thing, to have no space between words, that I can’t even assume anything. With a gun to my head, I’d still say no.
What’s funny, though, is that we’re kind of moving back towards scriptua continua, no? Look at hashtags. Look at URLs. Look at texting, where we throw a lot of punctuation away. Look at hip-hop, where there’s a premium on how well words flow together. Hard to believe we’ll ever get fully back to scriptua continua, but who would have thought we’d ever even turn back in that direction?
If you were a search query what would that be?
“Brilliant Funny Handsome” obviously. And those are Boolean quotes, naturally.
On the web, where everybody writes (cf. Ann Handley), what does The Writer have to offer?
Just because everybody writes doesn’t mean everybody writes well. If someone does the types of writing we do as well as us, I haven’t seen it.
But we don’t only write and rewrite. We also help companies find their tone of voice, and train them on how to use it – and to write well, generally.
The following is an overplayed analogy, but hopefully that just speaks to its effectiveness: We’ll give a company a fish. A delicious fish. But we’ll also teach the company to fish. For delicious fish.
And we do the teaching better than anyone, too.
What do you think about content marketing, about machines producing content and writing stories from big data input etc.?
Forgive me if I don’t address content marketing because I have nothing new to add there. As for machines producing writing:
I think it’s pretty cool. I’m not gonna piss and moan about some robot possibly taking my job a couple of years from now. If the robot really does it better, if it can make people feel something like I’d like to think I can, have at it robot. When I leave this office, I’m getting on a subway, not a horse and carriage. What does that tell you?
Who is going to interview the interviewer?
(Colby is asking me a few questions)
I love the premise of your site: the metamorphoses of text on the web. To me that’s a metaphor for the metamorphoses of our very lives because of the presence of the web. Would you agree?
I love that question, thanks! I do agree and you captured the very essence of what keeps me up at night – the similarities between the essence and functions of the text and the web.
Most people, well, at least many people, think that the web is making our relationships more vapid. Do you agree?
I strongly disagree!
And do not argue with anyone, as this is a matter of understanding and personal experience. The web is a fascinating thing, yet to unfold to its full potential. And big thanks to W3C for working on that. I am so excited to think and create in an era when what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned (the Semantic Web) is evolving before our eyes (and computers).
So no, I don’t think relationships become vapid. I think if they are vapid on the web they were (are) vapid in the so called real life.
p.s. For the record, I had to look up vapid (and effid, but didn’t tell you) So if we keep a score – this is 2: 1 :D
Who’s your favorite writer?
This month my favourite book is: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk
What’s your favorite metaphor?
The way we use language to try to capture meanings is the same as the way we would use a net to try to capture wind in it. [And that is with a note to myself: nobody said this is not possible, we should keep weaving the web, because trying to capture meaning is meaning itself.]
And what’s your favourite metaphor, Colby?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a metaphor that’s literally more universal. It’s this: When I was younger, and I assume this is true for when much of mankind was younger, I assumed that winter came when the earth was farthest from the sun. And summer came when it was closer. But that’s not true. The seasons are caused by the tilting of the earth’s axis. When your hemisphere is angled more directly towards the sun’s rays, that’s summer. When it’s tilted farther away, that’s winter. Intuitively, you’d think it’s the distance that counts. But it’s really the angle. In fact, the sun is closest to us in January.
I think that’s a great metaphor for life and wisdom. For one thing, what seems obvious is often not true at all. For another, it’s all about the subtle changes. Different angles and perceptions.
Colby’s Quick Favourites
The gender of cats.
Because it’s so hard not to bring preconceptions of gender characteristics and roles to most people and creatures. But with some exceptions, cats are just cats. You only bring your cat prejudices to them; it has nothing to do with their sex. We humans, especially recently, spend a lot of time finding the right words for gender roles. Cats don’t have that issue. They’re post-gender. Now that I think about it, this is true of a lot of animals. But my wife and I have three cats, so I spend a lot of time thinking about them.
Favourite Latin root
It speaks to the grayness of most things. As importantly, it’s fun to say. Most importantly, I couldn’t think of another one.
Practical advice for people who want to make living with writing (a tough one)
First of all, to my mind, there’s no “want” to make a living with writing. I have to make a living with writing, because that’s my passion. After it became clear I’d never play in the NBA, this was the only other thing I could do. The only other thing that I could give my whole self to. So I’d say: Do you feel that way about writing? If you do, you’re halfway there. If not, you’re probably not going to get very far. Because it is a tough way to make your bread.
The Writer from the inside
Would you please share more about the writing process at The Writer?
We have very tried and true processes we use for our client work, but they’re kind of trade secrets, so you know, I could tell you but then you’d have to become a Tibetan monk.
But I’ll divulge two important pillars of our method:
The overall process we use at The Writer is that we’re all people who effing love words and language. Not just on the “creative” side. On the client side as well. We all grew up being interested in communication.
So in a way, the writing method at The Writer, for each individual here, is spend 20-30 years finding yourself helpless but to write, and to express yourself in unique ways, and obsessing over communication. Then get a brief from a client and apply what you’ve learned as a professional, but just as importantly, what you’ve learned as a lover of language.
The other important part of our method is what we call the “second brain”. On every writing project, there’s a main writer, and a second brain. Both writers get the brief and any supporting materials. The main writer then writes a first draft, and when they’re done, the second brain reads it and gives suggestions on how it could be better. Maybe that means nibbling around the margins, taking a slightly different angle on the subject, or restructuring the whole thing. The main writer incorporates these thoughts using their best judgment. It sounds like editing but it’s more than that. For the most part, it’s an editor’s job to take what’s there and make it the best it can be. But the second brain, if they feel this way, can come in and say “I think this should be something else entirely.” So it’s like the client is getting two writers at once, may the best idea win. After the main writer incorporates the second brain’s feedback, then it goes to an editor for proofreading.
With this our conversational search for meaning from the Dialogues series ends. Next month, I will have a Dialogue with Lucia Trezova and we will talk about about semiotics, branding and … what makes metaphors louder than words.
If you would like to continue the Dialogue with Colby or The Writer, you can find them on Twitter (@ and @TheWriter) and at The Writer’s website: thewriter.com.
Stay tuned and inspired!