the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Month: April, 2012

The Importance of Mentors

by MDY

Writing well didn’t come naturally to me. Any writer who tells you that it did – they’re lying. Writing needs other people, otherwise it’s just scribbles on a flat surface. So do writers.

My first mentors were my parents. They, for whom a simple missive would take hours to pen, wanted better for me. Every night when I was little, my mother would read to me while I lay in bed, filling my young and pliant skull with tales of heroes, monsters, and delicious irony. Whenever I wanted to go to the library – at least once a week, often more – they would bring me there and wait while I took my pick from the shelves: an alternate universe here, the end of the world there, and so on. I won a story-writing competition when I was 10 and my mother drove me to the winners’ workshop, waited hours for me to finish, and had her car rear-ended in the parking-lot while she did so. My parents gave all they could for a rather modest goal: that I grow up with the confidence in writing which they didn’t have. They taught me to love words.

I was lucky enough to have not one, but two esteemed authors who took me under their wings. The first was a prize-winning academic and writer of short stories, but he seemed much happier looking after the school library than attending awards ceremonies. When I wrote pieces – turgid short stories, pretentious poems, a heaving melodrama of a novel – he would always have time to read them and tell me what he thought. Even now when I proof my own work, I hear his voice commingled with my own. That sounds good. I like the metaphor, but does it fit? You’ve let it run on a bit, but trimming it here might get you started.

The second was a novelist and tyrant of the literati, whose criticism I came to fear. I would offer up manuscripts and he would snort them back at me weeks later, pockmarked with red ink and sarcasm. He was the destroyer of worlds, and to approach him was to face death by annotation. But he did so to make us stronger, and while many came away bitter and broken I vowed to keep on building. Together, both these men turned my desire to write into an ability, a weapon which I could wield with total and utter confidence. They taught me to command words.

My words serve many purposes, but I write them all with one person in mind. I don’t believe in inspiration, but I believe in support, and this friend never fails to remind me that she will always be my reader – even if nobody else will. She quotes to me the turns of phrase which affect her most; my rhyming couplets amuse her to no end. I think of her when I write because it’s a lot easier to write for one person than it is for a thousand, especially when that one person believes unswervingly in your ability. You can love words with your entire being, but they won’t love you back. She taught me that writing needs other people.

Writing well didn’t come naturally to me, but that’s okay. Good mentors teach you not only that everything you write matters, but that you do too.

Selling yourself in 500 characters

by MDY

Today’s post deals with a rather unsavoury topic: selection criteria questions. These are the leeches of the hiring process: draining, mindless, and best taken with a pinch of salt. Personally, I’d rather slap myself in the face than apply to work for people who use standardised questionnaire results as a litmus test of talent. Then again, we can’t always get what we want. Here are some tips for when you can’t avoid having your soul bled dry:

NUMBER ONE: Bullet points. Questionnaires are usually online. They have character limits. These limits hurt – particularly because they negate one of your best assets, which is your unique voice. But also because they often include spaces. So what do you do if the rules suck? Remove their adhesive and BREAK THEM.

So instead of:

Describe a role where you demonstrated leadership capabilities (250 chars)

When working as Chief Security Officer in the Special Taskforce Group of the 21st Ninja Battalion, I oversaw a large-scale interdiction operation against around 800 pirates, co-ordinating several heavy weapons strike teams to I have less than 25 characters remaining.

Try:

Describe a role where you demonstrated leadership capabilities (250 chars)

-Chief Security Officer, 21st Ninja Battalion’s STG

-Stopped 800 pirates with 2 heavy weapons teams and 1 grappling hook

-Cool under fire, kept teams organised, held morale strong

We won. (185 characters)

NUMBER TWO: Get factual. Obviously, these selection criteria questions aren’t aimed to test your creative flair outside of egregious ASCII art (which, sadly, usually gets formatted out of all recognition by the time it gets to the target of your job-seeker’s ire). They’re looking for “quantifiables”, by which they mean “things which sound impressive”. Fluff-words like “synergistic concatenation” or “exquisite sales extenuations” are not impressive. Put down the core facts which answer the question, and move on.

NUMBER THREE: Answer the question.

NUMBER FOUR: Be sneaky. Already attaching your CV to your questionnaire? Reference it in your answers (with page numbers!) Got online portfolio samples, testimonials, or a decent-looking LinkedIn profile? Add the URLs. The questions may have character limits, but the Internet doesn’t.

NUMBER FIVE: Be terse. Certain situations demand certain tones of voice. Terseness is often considered rude, but it’s very appropriate when addressing hostage-takers, telemarketers, and selection criteria questionnaires. Cut out unnecessary adjectives, personal pronouns, and verbs. Not only does it save your breath, it demonstrates to the other party that you mean business. Don’t kowtow to the (wo)Man. Give him/her a respectful kick in the balls.

Bad:

What do you believe your main strengths to be?

I like to think my key strengths are an ability to work well with others while also retaining strong leadership control in achieving deliverables targets. I try to be a “team player” in order to better imbue my colleagues with a sense of the important mission and values of the company, focusing on strategic-level goals while recognising the individual skills of my team.

Badass:

What do you believe your main strengths to be?

Unswerving loyalty from team. Never misses a deadline. History of terminating obstacles with extreme prejudice. “No negotiation” counter-terrorism policy.

NUMBER SIX: What is this question actually asking you? Selection criteria questionnaires are as blunt and direct as a face-to-face interview, but without giving you the chance to start a conversation or ask a question. So you have to get it “right” the first time. Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule to reading the mind of a glorified online survey. But you can at least make a decent guess. Here are three common questions:

Tell us about an important achievement in your career. Good chance to extend the definition of “important” beyond promotions and sales deals. How about the time the school bully made you sniff his underwear? Or when you had to rescue your dog from the garbage truck? The really important experiences are the ones which only you could have had.

What is your greatest flaw? They want honesty, not fob-off answers. So speak what you think to be the truth, but also say how you’ve aimed to address that flaw. Trying to hide your weaknesses is a sign of greater weakness in itself: people who cover up their mistakes inevitably cause businesses to die. So don’t say you “work too hard”. You monster.

If you were a fruit, what would you be? This is when you hit the big “X” button at the top of your browser and NEVER APPLY FOR THAT COMPANY AGAIN.

In brief: I really hate these things.

How to break writer’s block

by MDY

Just keep writing.

It’s the only way, really. “Writer’s block” implies that writing is inherently connected to inspiration, or creative “flow”, or any number of other nebulous externalities over which you have no control. Bullshit, I say. Nothing and no-one is responsible for your writing except you. That’s not to say writer’s block doesn’t exist – it does, and it’s one of the hardest things to overcome. But I disagree with its name because calling it “writer’s block” implies you just have to sit and wait for the stars to align.

There are a few types of writer’s block (or, as I prefer to think of it, obstacles to progress). I’ve encountered each of them many times and I’ve had to come up with various means to beat them:

The “CBB” Block: Turgid academic essay. Mind-numbing report. 100-page tactical briefing. There are some things which are just plain dull to write. Eventually you find yourself ready to dance on hot coals, drink poison, go jogging – anything to avoid typing another word of that hulking dirigible of text which you need to finish. Most commonly felt by students, business writers, and 5-star generals.

The breaker: Go and do something else. Yes, that’s the solution. When you feel this, you’re usually sick and tired of slaving away at the same prose for hours on end (unless you haven’t started yet: see the next Block). Your mind is a muscle like any other, so give it a rest once in a while. Alternatively, you can be crazy like me and just keep writing until you finish. I once finished a 3000-word article simply by typing until my fingers went numb. True story. Mostly.

The “It’s too much” Block: SO MANY WORDS I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO DO THEM ALL AAAARRRRGHHHHH. Almost exclusively felt by students. And copywriters.

The breaker: Set yourself easy goals. “This essay needs to be 4000 words, but I’ll write 200 of them today.” Then write them. If you feel like going on, keep going. If not, don’t. Writing a book sounds impossible, but writing one word, then another, then another? Not so tough.

The “I don’t know what to say” Block: Sometimes you’re just not sure what words to use, or how to frame a concept, or whether you can find another simile for “groundbreaking”*. Of course, you could just leave a blank and keep going, then return later. That’s the magic of word processing. But that’s like building a bridge with a hole in it. Or no pylons.

The breaker: Do some vocab-exercises. I got this idea from a workshop with Markus Zusack and often do things like

  • The “rhyme game”, which is useful for finding synonyms or more interesting words to fill your prose/poetry. Start with the boring word which first comes to your head. Let’s say we have an “old car”. Boring, right? Now think of words which rhyme with “old”. Bold, cold, sold, mould, gold…list goes on. See how each one sounds in place of the boring word. If none fit, keep going, or otherwise follow the associations generated: “mould” could be “mouldy”, which makes you think of “grime”, which rhymes with “time”, and so on.
  • The “alliteration game”, which is the same as the rhyme game except you look for words with the same letter as the boring one.
  • The “opposites game”, where you find antonyms to the boring word and continue until you find something interesting.
  • The “casual speech game”, where you phrase what you’re trying to say in as colloquial and conversational a tone as possible. Particularly useful for fleshing out theoretical concepts, then converting them into more rigorous prose.

The “It sounds like a wet fart but I don’t know how to make it less flatulent” Block: You wrote your entire article but it smells like garbage and tastes like paper. That was delicious.

The breaker: Get a second opinion. Ask a friend, family member or other unqualified individual to read your work. Listen to their most instinctive reaction. If necessary, push them to tell you what feels right and what doesn’t. Proceed accordingly.

In brief: Writer’s block can always be broken. Find what works for you, and apply when necessary.