On Writing: Off Ramps, Ice Barbarians and Jon Hamm’s Hair

A friend shared a smart blog post from TechCrunch with me over the weekend about Publishing’s Kickstarter Moment. It’s a good piece about ‘Indie authors’ with some valuable points and cogent analysis. But I couldn’t get past the first paragraph because when the piece was originally posted, it had a really embarrassing typo (typo underlined):

While the tools are far simpler than they have ever been, the perception that and Indie book is an inferior product, at least in the eyes of established media, is strong.

It looks like it’s since been fixed but I spent more time talking about and thinking about that ironic fumble than I did about the rest of the piece. It unfortunately undermined the blogger’s point but it provided me a good on ramp to discuss something I think every storyteller (or job hunter/first dater/Ren Faire soliloquy-er etc.) needs to be cognizant of; the dreaded off ramp. Let me explain what I mean with that term by recounting an anecdote from a time when I had much cooler hair: 1996.

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It’s like Jon Hamm was my 90s hair spirit animal.

Back in college I was an editor for a literary journal. It was my first experience with that kind of environment. I was an eager and idealistic teenaged English major, drunk on reading Faulkner, Hemingway, and Eliot for the first time. As the first submissions poured in, I wanted to give every piece a thorough and fair reading. Even if I hated the first 5 pages of a 10 page short story, I kept reading until the very end before I would make my final recommendation. But I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t keep that up. There were just too many submissions and I had too few hours. I had to start sorting pieces based on technical merits. I started by giving authors that followed the submission guidelines (typed, word count within range, numbered pages with their name in the footers etc.) more consideration than the authors that didn’t. Then I started making faster judgments based on spelling, grammar, and rudimentary craft. I wouldn’t completely dismiss a submission with six spelling errors in the first paragraph but it definitely got less of my attention and had a tougher time getting past my first round of reviews. I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass on anything that shouldn’t have been passed on but if I did because the writer failed to run spell check, I can’t feel too bad about it. Those authors gave me an off ramp and I took it.

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Right now there are millions of books for sale on Amazon.com and more are being written and posted every day. The gatekeepers are gone and now everyone has an equal chance to get that magnum opus directly to readers. That’s awesome! … Except now every single potential reader is exactly where I was as a literary journal editor; buried beneath an overwhelming number of options with only a limited amount of time to pick the best ones. It wasn’t that long ago when you could find maybe one book a year about bear-punching ice barbarians if you were lucky. Now the floodgates are open and you can find all kinds of self-published books about bear-punching ice barbarians. How is a discriminating connoisseur of ice barbarians supposed to pick the bear-punching tales that are most worth his time? I think you start by tossing out the ones that have cheap covers and messy, poorly edited first chapters.

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Coming Soon: Son of the Bear Puncher by Erik Grove, Book 9 in the Ice Barbarian Saga!

An off ramp is an excuse to stop reading and it’s the last thing you want to give your audience. All it takes is a typo in your first paragraph and suddenly a reader stops engaging with the point you’re trying to make and gets off your ice barbarian (or blog post about Indie publishing on TechCrunch) freeway.

There are a lot of off ramps a reader can come across. Some you can control. Some you can’t. I have blog posts about some other off ramps that I’ll be posting in the future, but the most obvious one here is professionalism in your copy and presentation. It can seem nit-picky in the digital age to harp on content creators about silly 20th century things like spelling, grammar, and clear presentation. I’ve certainly made plenty of these same errors myself (I’m cringing even now as I imagine my wife, the proofreader, mentally highlighting all of my errors in even this blog post) and I’ve taken it on the chin from readers (and my Aunt Lisa, who has a really good eye for details). I’ve posted blog posts here and columns for Bleeding Cool that got more commentary about my commas, excessive use of parenthetical statements, or sloppy proofing than they did about the quality or substance of the content. Nothing stings more than carefully crafting over 2000 words of copy only to have the 1 or 2 that you flubbed steal the show.

Here’s my final point: I’ve been involved in hiring people a few times and I’ve talked to a lot of hiring managers about what they need to see in resumes or online applications before they advance a candidate on to a first interview. The most important thing you can do to make your application or CV stand out is to make sure your application or CV is professional, neat, and polished. I have always been much more ruthless with reviewing and hiring people in a professional environment than I ever was as a literary journal editor for a college that didn’t even have the budget to pay authors. Whenever I get a sloppy resume, I delete or recycle it pretty much immediately. Here’s the part you want to quote when you tell all your social media friends about this post: Your resume/cover letter/first paragraph/online dating profile bio is the answer to a question about your attention to detail, self-respect, and respect for your hiring manager/reader/date that you didn’t realize you were being asked. It’s the first, and if you blow it, the only tangible example of who you are to the stranger reading it.

Everybody makes typos. Not everybody fixes (most of) them. If you do, not only do you avoid giving your readers an excuse to stop reading, you also distinguish yourself as a writer that re-reads your own stuff for quality and that can be the difference that it takes to make Son of the Bear Puncher by Erik Grove, Book 9 in the Ice Barbarian Saga, a best-seller. Coming soon. Pre-order. Tell your friends.

 

EDITING NOTE: I am not, in fact, actually Jon Hamm. This blog post has been edited to reflect this. Sorry for the confusion. Special apology to my wife. I probably should have been clearer about this point earlier in our marriage and omitted the part where I said that I was Jon Hamm in our weddings vows. Also, I don’t care what Jake told you – I have punched a bear on at least two occasions and it was super cool, I’m serious.

EDITING NOTE 2: Typo in first editing note corrected.

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