Austin Kleon Comes to Houston

This one is long overdue, but I was flipping through my notebook and found my notes back from one of my favorite days this year. Back in April, Austin Kleon made it to Brazos Bookstore in Houston on his “Show Your Work” book tour.

There were a ton of points I loved from his third book, but his talk reiterated something that got me thinking bigger than just self promotion, the basis of Show You Work. There is a chapter on this concept of a sharing spectrum that exists with one end consisting of hoarders and the other consisting of spam. Kleon spent a good amount of time on this and also drew and talked it out at the same time.

The hoarders want to keep all of their information, research, thoughts, work to themselves and absorb it so that no one else can benefit. And the spammers, “they don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs. They don’t want to go to shows, but they thrust flyers at you on the sidewalk and scream at you to come to theirs.”

You have to find a happy medium in the middle where you share what you take in and contribute what you put out.

There are so many people and companies that would benefit from this.

“If you want fans, you have to be a fan first.”

“If you want followers, be someone worth following.”

(All quotes from Show Your Work.)

Here are a bunch of photos from the talk and of course, a selfie.

Watercolors: Learning a New Medium in the Open

testing123

A while back, I was showing my work to a friend, expressing that I don’t know where my black and white doodles and notes were headed next. “Have you ever tried color?” they asked. I couldn’t remember the last time I tried using color, and if I could it was an awful attempt. So I decided, what the hell, let’s introduce some color. I’ve followed the work of Wendy Macnaughton for quite awhile and it would be a lie to say that I’m not influenced by her or her style of writing and drawing. It seemed clear that I would grab watercolors.

I posed a question to Twitter along the lines of: since I’m obviously a beginner, should I grab cheap Crayola watercolors or pay an extra $10-15 and get something a bit better. The response was in favor of not being so cheap. I received my watercolors and opened them up, scared of them, not knowing where to start. I let them sit on my desk for awhile to acclimate.

watercolors

Finally, I had a little more time to sit down at my desk. More so, I had a thought to create something. Of course, I grabbed some white paper and a black pen. For the past few years, I’ve been using black and white, pen and paper exclusively when I make things. It’s always felt right and raw enough in some way. But this time with my paints staring at me, I decided to test the waters (pun intended) and apply them to the ink and paper doodle I made.

I quickly made the mistake of too much paint. I opened up my browser and searched examples and realized I needed to not be afraid of water. I also made the mistake of starting with the dark colors, to which I remembered all too late an art teacher in high school advising to start with the “lights” at first. Needless to say, the first piece was trashed.

But I’ve been playing with the watercolors ever since, and I’m obsessed. Last night, I was showing my work to a friend to build up the courage to show it publicly (F you, impostor syndrome!). And she asked me very seriously, “Julia, when did you learn to watercolor?”

I felt silly, and I replied, “I haven’t.”

Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve just been enjoying playing around and sort of honest about learning this new medium out in the open (based on Austin Kleon’s latest book). But in the search for what I’m supposed to be creating plus the consistency of making something small every day, a new medium was exactly what I needed.

In conversation before he left, Pavlos mentioned to me as I was sort of feeling down about the silly doodles I make, “I think you’re one thought away from it. You’re one thought away from something bigger.”

Sometimes you just need the reminder that your best friend believes in you. Or you just need them to leave for 3 months for work, so you have too much time to sit and make art. Let’s go with the first one.

For the first time I’m making art that kind of makes sense. And so far everyone I’ve shown it to has been impacted by it some way. I can’t wait to start sharing some actual pieces from this mini-amateur collection I’m working on.

Making Business Writing Better

I write a lot. It’s a huge part of what I do both at my day job and outside of it. Getting my thoughts down on paper either with words or pictures (usually both) is how I think. When I say I write, I mean that I regularly make sentences that have a purpose, and I review and revise them like nobody’s business. 

Lately, I’ve become very interested in business writing and a trend I’ve seen ever since I’ve worked at a company where I consult and improve on other companies’ writing.

Most business writing is pretty bad.

How I’ve come to this opinion is solely based on the fact that so often after reading something business-related, I ask myself, “what did that even mean?”

How many times have you read website content, emails, descriptions, unique selling points…and not really taken away anything from it? How many times have you read business writing and it’s filled with loaded words that just feel like sales fluff?

I consider myself someone that has a decent reading comprehension. And I don’t think this idea of awful business writing is really a question of intelligence or reading comprehension at all. It’s more of a question of why can’t businesses write more clearly so that normal people can understand what they are trying to say. You shouldn’t have to be a genius to follow along. More so, you shouldn’t have to fight the fluff to get to the true meaning of a piece of writing.

So why is it like this?

Honestly, I think it’s a lot of the same reasons we all probably used to pull out a thesaurus (or thesaurus.com) and look for big words we didn’t know to replace the small words we knew. It made us sound like we had an impressive vocabulary and maybe it masked the fact that we didn’t have much to say.

I read an article that was tweeted over the weekend and I think the writer, Jason Fried put it nicely.

“Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler — “stuff” that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you’ll agree.”

I completely agree. I’m a marketer and it pains me to think people with titles like mine are contributing to the noise, crap and meaningless sentences filling business writing.

Instead of giving all this research and reasons I think business writing sucks, I prefer to be part of the solution. Here are some steps that I go through when I’m trying to revise, create or work on any type of writing.

5 Ways to Make Business Writing Better

1. Identify the Goal of Your Writing

I think this is overlooked a lot of times with all writing. Every time you write an email, begin a strategy or put your pen to paper, identify what your goal or purpose is. “I want the recipient of this email to understand/do/be aware of X.” “I want readers of this content to perform X action.” This gives you a clearer idea of what you’re writing for and paves the way for the actual content that should make up your writing.

2. Identify Your Audience

Even if your audience is full of lawyers, philosophers, etc. they’d probably appreciate if you cut the fluff and got to the point. Write for real people. Don’t use big words because you feel it makes your writing seem better, more elite or profound. It just makes it harder to cut through. If you want someone to get something from your writing (because you’ve identified your goal), keep it simple. Say what you want to say.

3. Identify All the Questions Your Writing Should Answer

It’s the same as going into a presentation or an interview or anything. You need to identify as many questions as possible that you may get based on your writing. Identified them? Great. Incorporate the answers.

4. Get Out a Piece of Paper. Make an Outline.

Sometimes we forget what it was like to write before a blinking cursor in a big white space staring at us in the face. There’s something about pen and paper. Make an outline using your hands. They help with determining the flow and direction of your writing.

5. Say What You Mean

Again, avoid the fillers. There are still plenty of ways to write compelling content with style that exclude the big words, sales speak and jargon. Having trouble with this? Say what you’re trying to say out loud as if you were explaining it to someone. Now write that down.

6. Get Someone Else to Read It

Another set of eyes is always useful. They see things that you may have overlooked over and over again from grammatical errors, awkward sentences to important things you forgot. Also, another set of eyes will tell you if you’re making sense or not.

Writing is hard. But the best advice I give to people is to say what you mean. Actually, the best advice I give to people on writing is to “write the shitty first draft” already and then worry about editing. Keep these points in mind when you write that first draft.

“A Subtltree”

Yesterday on my afternoon walk with my dog, I had an interesting feeling. The best way to describe it is maybe to give some light on what was going on in my head during our walk. The work day was over. Dinner plans were set for later in the evening with friends. The only thing I really needed to do when I got home was feed my dog, which is part of our normal routine. Nothing else important was in my head, only the odd chill in the air for March, the quietness of the street I was on and the sound of my dog’s tags as she walked.

In the 20 minutes where I could really focus and just be present on the walk with my dog, I noticed a tree in the yard of one of the fancy houses I pass by on our normal route. It was a tree I’d never noticed before, which was odd for a few reasons — I’ve walked this street hundreds of times, it’s the first house on the street and it’s the only tree in their yard. Like most plants right now that have flowers, this tree was starting to bloom. I’m not sure why the tree stuck with me so much, but when I got home, I immediately pulled out my sketchbook and drew the tree.

A Subtltree by Julia Alaniz

I haven’t sketched or drawn anything with this level of focus in years, maybe not since I was a kid. I call it “A Subtltree” because really there was nothing incredibly special about it. I just saw it in a way that I knew had to be let out.

 

Review of Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

show your work book review

There’s no secret that my favorite artist who draws is Austin Kleon. I like to call him my internet hero, and much like he suggests in Steal Like an Artist, I steal and remix from him as well as study his work and the work that inspires him. Recently he came out with a new book called Show Your Work, which sort of piggy backs off of Steal. Steal was all about, “hey, stop trying to create something no one has ever done before, because it’s all been done. Study the artists’ work you love and become inspired by it. And freakin’ make something.”

Show Your Work is more like, “hey, that stuff that you’ve been making? If you want people to see/notice/care, freakin’ show it off already. There’s beauty in the process.”

steal remix steal remixwork show work show

Now there’s way more to it than that for both books, but what I love about them is that they get to the point. You don’t have to sift through tons of information just to get to “the secret.” The secret is in just doing, and Kleon offers some great guidelines on how to enhance what you’re doing for marketing your work.

Be an Amateur.

There’s a great quote that Kleon references from Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

I feel like there’s so much pressure these days on becoming an expert in something. Having other people see you as an expert is great. You want people to have a certain level of trust in your work for what you do, but when you start believing you’re an expert, you’re in trouble. Like Kleon says, “we’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs.” But it is the amateurs often who have the advantage because they “don’t know enough to know what can’t be done yet.” Amateurs are learners and make a point to stub their toes in the open so that others can learn from it.

“Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.”

show your work book review

Share Something Small Every Day

Out of everything in the book, I feel like this chapter spoke to me the most. I think for anyone who puts their work out in to the open, they always feel a little bit of vulnerability once they hit publish. It’s the same feeling you get before you send an important email. It’s the same feeling when you speak in front of a room of strangers or play in front of a crowd. The internet is both a scary and friendly world in which you have to “Learn to Take a Punch.”

But just like all the scenarios above, once you do it enough, it gets easier. Once you create enough and share it, each little piece you share feels like less of a big deal out in the world.

Kleon suggests that once you’ve done your day’s work, go back to what you documented and share a piece of the process — a photo, sketch, quote, video, idea. What if you got your next job or opportunity not because of your resume but because of what you share from your work?

For me, that’s motivating. I have all these interests and I practice them weekly, but I haven’t quite figured out how they fit together or where they are going to get me. In other words, I haven’t figured out what I’m supposed to do when I grow up. Sharing something small every day. I can handle that, because maybe through that is where I figure it out.

Upcoming

Austin Kleon will be in Houston on April 30 at Brazos Bookstore as part of his Show Your Work book tour. I’m stoked and hopefully will have pictures and notes to post from the talk.