Quote from Tim Cook

The honest-to-God truth is that five minutes into the conversation I wanted to join Apple…. He painted a story, a strategy that he was taking Apple deep into consumer [marketplace] at a time that I knew that other people were doing the exact opposite. I never thought following the herd was a good strategy. You’re destined to be average at best. I saw brilliance in that.

         Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, at the D10 Conference, yesterday, on his first meeting with Steve Jobs, who was trying to hire him.

Editing as an Outsider

Recently a client asked me to edit a 100-page RFP response. The initial draft had been written by a team of experts who knew what they wanted to say. Unfortunately, not all of their knowledge came across in the writing, and some of it was rather muddled. As a result, the draft needed work.

The client had the right idea, not only to bring in an expert writer/editor but one who was not living the details of the proposal every day and who had not become so blinded by this closeness that he couldn’t see the parts that had too much information (including jargon and insider facts and figures) and those that didn’t have enough information (because the writers assumed that since they knew something, the readers would know it, too).

Bringing in someone unfamiliar with the work is one of the solutions to what Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, calls the “outsider problem.” He says that while we usually consider those who work day-to-day at a specific job to be the ones who will come up with the really creative solutions, often it’s the outsider—because he or she is an outsider—who brings the needed creativity to the problem at hand.

“To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws,” he says, adding:

 This is one of the central challenges of writing. A writer has to read his sentences again and again. (Such are the inefficiencies of editing.) The problem with this process is that he very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader and not as a writer. He knows exactly what he’s trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a clear sentence or a coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.

As those of us in corporate communications know, editing as if we know nothing about something we’ve written is not easy. Doing so requires putting on the third of our choice of hats—that of an editor—a hat that few of us have as an option on our rack of haberdashery apparel. It’s hard enough to switch from our expert’s top hat to a writer’s baseball cap, let alone to the eyeshade headgear of an editor.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks that help me comfortably switch roles from being a writer to being an editor, but even today it’s not a move I make suddenly. It takes some mental readjustment, some reading of different kinds of material, perhaps listening to a few songs, and maybe even taking a long walk. But most of all, it takes a little time (minutes, hours, over night?) away from the tasks of writing and editing.

When I’m refreshed, I can tackle the editing with a fresh eye, as if the words were put down by someone else, as if I’m an outsider from my own work.

Or if it’s writing done by someone else, like the proposal the client wanted edited, I truly am an outsider, one who has adjusted his editor’s hat and sees the work as paragraphs, sentences, and individual words that are struggling to reshuffle themselves into a clear, compelling message.

Walmart in Arkansas, Mexico and My Hometown

A few days ago, after our daughter completed her last final exam at Washington University in St. Louis, we took a short vacation to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Since the Ozarks are a short drive from St. Louis, we had talked about going there for the past four years, and this seemed like a good time to go.

In Arkansas

In part because of the countless Walmart stories that have been in the news recently (and must be keeping the company’s PR agents up at night), I decided to visit two specific places in northwest Arkansas that have nothing to do with the scenic mountains. The first, Sam Walton’s original Walton’s Five and Dime store in Bentonville (where Walmart has always been headquartered) recognizes the company’s earliest history. The second, the Walton Family Foundation’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, marks the company’s latest example of community involvement.

The company has had a long and less-than-stellar history of community involvement. So, its hard to think about Walmart as being a standup corporate citizen—a goal, I’m sure, of every PR and communications person working for the company, as well as its CEO and hoard of lobbyists in Washington and in cities and towns across the country.

In Mexico

Right now, the company’s reputation is being battered by news of its subsidiary in Mexico having “orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance” throughout that country, and by the company’s executives in Arkansas stopping an internal investigation, even after finding what its leading investigator said was “reasonable suspicion to believe that Mexican and USA laws have been violated,” according to The New York Times last week.

Now that the scandal has broken, Walmart’s communications department, we would like to think, is working long hours looking for a positive angle from which customers and other company advocates can view this PR mess, a mess described mildly as “a setback” by a university labor professor who has written a book on the company and who also has said, “Reputation is very important to Wal-Mart [sic].”

In the meantime, the company’s lobbyists are upping their game, making sure the company’s reputation remains on solid ground with what they consider their most important constituents: the U.S. Congress and the White House. In 2010, before the scandal became public, one of the company’s lobbyists boasted, according to The Times, that the company’s “reputation with elected officials is improved, not only in the U.S. but around the world.” He added that this popularity “makes it easier for us to stay out of the public limelight when we don’t want to be there.”

Unfortunately for Walmart’s corporate communications team, the limelight is aimed directly at the company today.

In My Hometown

But what really comes to mind when I visit Bentonville, and when I read about the company’s new PR situation, is the way Walmart has been, some people would say, responsible for the destruction of many small towns across America.

When I left my hometown many years ago, it had a population of 6,888—if I remember the number correctly, and I’m pretty sure I do. Now, much later, the town claims more residents. But it can do that, I believe, only because it has extended the city limits beyond their earlier boundaries.

It did so, it seems, to take in the new Walmart Supercenter built near what had been the western edge of town. That store is booming (aren’t they all?).

But downtown—where as a teenager I occasionally ate ice cream at the counter of a family-owned drugstore, and where I sometimes went to Benjamin’s antique store (should I really call it a dusty junk shop with more useless items than you could imagine would fit inside those four walls?)—is practically deserted.

The last time I was there, about all that remained from my youth were the offices of The Standard (it was The Daily Standard, when after school and on Sunday mornings, I used to throw the paper onto, or at least near, the porches of a hundred or so homes of eager readers) and a few doors away, Brunke’s hardware store, where even today the clerk can probably grab a fan belt for a ’47 Chevy off one of the shelves or from another shelf find the exact part needed to fix a broken pump responsible for bringing water up from the family’s well.

Now, long gone are the drugstore, Benjamin’s, and most of the other shops that thrived a few years ago.

More stores sit closed and empty downtown than are open for business. Most of the shoppers are at Walmart.

Quote from William Strunk

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.

This quote from William Strunk was noted by E. B. White in the 1959 introduction to his revised edition of Strunk’s Elements of Style, which had first been published by Strunk in 1918 and used as a textbook in his classes at Cornell (one of which White attended in 1919). By 1959, it already had become a classic on how to write; it remains one today.