So after the wild success of 5 bullshit words that make me want to hurt you (seriously, people REALLY liked that one), what I learned is that you people like lists of things.
…I don’t mean “you people.” That’s not what I mean at all. I mean, look, some of my best friends are you people.
Anyway, I’m not going to change my name to Listy LaRue or anything — not because I don’t like making lists, necessarily, but more because I think I would get tired of explaining to people that I clearly have no relation to Busty, and thank you SO much for calling that to everyone’s attention, you jerk, now I feel like crap — but I suppose it’s fair to offset my 5-point litany of negativity with a slightly shorter, but somewhat more constructive list of helpful words and phrases that will make you feel more writerly. And will possibly get you laid.
1. Ego Depletion
If I had to pick one phrase to describe the theme of this blog, “ego depletion” would probably be it. I think I stumbled on this one in a magazine article several years ago — no, seriously, an actual magazine — and for a week after, I kept finding little pieces of exploded brain matter in my carpet.
Ego depletion is the idea that willpower is a finite, quantifiable resource linked to our ability — and not just our willingness — to solve problems. It sounds like New Agey, crystal-rubbing bullshit until you think about it for more than 30 seconds. Which is what several scientists did.
They asked a bunch of people to skip a meal before conducting the experiment. The hungry test subjects were then sorted into three groups. The first group, the control, weren’t allowed to eat anything else until the experiment was over. The second group was put in a room with a bowl of radishes, which they were permitted to eat, and a bowl of chocolate chip cookies, which they were instructed to ignore. The third group was also put in a room with radishes and cookies, but were told to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes.
After snickering at the poor bastards through one-sided glass for an hour or two (I assume), the scientists had everyone solve a puzzle, which the participants were told they could quit at any time. Good thing, too, because the damn thing was unsolvable.
Spoiler alert: everyone gave up on the puzzle.
But here’s the thing: not only did the cookie-eaters persist longer than anyone else, the radish-eaters quit before the people who’d had nothing to eat at all. Their brains had already exerted so much effort choking down goddamn radishes that they simply could not deal with some bullshit puzzle. Presumably all the radish-eating participants just flipped the table over and stormed out in a foaming, obscenity-laden rage, while the cookie eaters looked on in baffled surprise, all, “What the hell is THEIR problem?” Then they ate some more cookies.
This is relevant to writers — to anyone who really works on anything at all, I suppose, but I’m not talking about THEM right now — because writing is already a laborious process of start-stop-start-stop. Your brain spins at a few thousand RPM for short bursts, winds down just before overheating, and then spins back up again. Even if all you do is sit in a chair all day, you go home feeling exhausted. This goes double for when you have a particularly thorny problem that needs solving, like condensing a 500-word script into 50, or searching for that one critical word you HAVE TO HAVE and just cannot frakking remember (fun fact: last night, I struggled for 10 minutes to remember the phrase “ego depletion”).
A lot of writers deal with this by trying to eliminate distractions like eating or taking a dump. Suddenly it’s 4 p.m. and not only are you tired, you’re hungry, bitchy, AND doing the awkward speed-waddle of the turtleheaded. You are no good to anyone like this. The copy you’ve been slaving over for the last five hours probably isn’t any better for your efforts. Get up. Walk around. Work on something else for a while. Eat a freaking cookie. Your brain will continue to work on the problem in the background, and in the meantime you won’t have a coronary in the middle of a cube farm.
2. Semantic Satiation
Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork.
Doesn’t even look like a word any more, does it?
Semantic satiation. Now you know.
“To defenestrate” is simply “to throw from a window.” Seriously. There is a word just for that. Apparently enough people have been murdered this way that the relevant Wikipedia article has an entire section on “Notable defenestrations in history.” TRY to read it without laughing. I DARE you.
It doesn’t have anything to do with writing, really, but it will make you sound cool at parties.
I use this one a lot, actually, and I realize that this places me pretty high on the Pretentious Scale of Pretentiousness. But it came up so often in my college English classes that eventually I was forced to cave to my professors’ evil whims and, like, learn it.
Put simply, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. I can’t think or read about this particular branch of philosophy too much without slumping over in a stupor, but the concept plays a vital role in the life of a successful, well-rounded copywriter.
If you work in advertising, you are going to encounter brands and products you know jack diddly about. It is not at all uncommon to be asked to write about engineering, computing, or other highly technical bits of esoteric jargon you could have gone the rest of your life not knowing. Not only will you be asked to represent this stuff, it’s expected that you will do so with confidence and authority.
Now, you COULD do what you did when cramming for a test in college: go on a caffeine-fueled research bender, jamming as much data and background into your cerebrum as physically, emotionally, and mentally possible, then purge it all the instant the project is approved and you can safely wipe your hands of it forever. No one will be the wiser, and you will regain all the mental space you had allotted for more benign information, like what’s on TV Thursday night or how to chew your food.
You could do that. And sometimes, you will have to do so out of necessity (though probably to the detriment of your ego; see Item 1, above).
OR you could — stay with me here — actually try to hang on to that information for future reference.
You never, never, never know when you are going to need to know anything about anything. Astronomy, biology, fluid dynamics, how to change a tire, what a monotreme is, the difference between latitude and longitude, em dashes versus en dashes, what “mauve” looks like, why Alanis Morissette doesn’t have the first clue what “irony” is. There is a reason why the most successful writers in the world have traditionally been some smart motherfuckers: excellent writers are excellent observers. Period.
But as important as it is to read, read, read, read, and visit museums, and watch educational television, and try a gajillion different hobbies, and go out in the world and just look at things for a while, sorting and retaining that information is so much easier if you have some idea of what knowledge is and where it actually goes. What knowledge do you use most often in your professional writing versus your personal writing? When and where did you learn how to write — how much is innate and how much is learned? How can you continue to evolve as a writer — what knowledge do you lack, and how will you know where to get it? Practice? Study? Failure? Do you ever find yourself emulating other notable writers? How flexible or intractable is your style? Does it change to suit each client, or do clients come to you because of what you bring to the table?
Whether you come up with any actual answers, the act of thinking about these questions — of thinking about thinking — can yield some very real insights about your identity and methodology. And when the act of thinking itself is interesting, going out and stuffing your skull with all kinds of random shit you may or may not ever actually NEED is just that much more rewarding. Plus, you know: I don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that vocabulary is directly tied to curiosity. More nuanced, engaged thinkers just have more shit to say.
So even if your next assignment is to sell a vacuum cleaner — no, not a Dyson, you’re not that lucky; I mean some random-ass, knock-off brand vacuum cleaner — try not to think of it as a chore (har har). Think of it as an opportunity to learn something new. You don’t have to get excited about it, that’s just fucking weird; it always freaks me the hell out when people splooge themselves over selling things. But try not to think of yourself as being above new knowledge because it seems trivial or useless. It’s good enough to pay the bills, after all.
And if you can’t manage that, go throw a radish cart from a window. Radish. Radish radish radish radish radish god what am I even doing with my life.