Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Nobody Knows Nothing

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 17, 2014

I used to work for a big New York ad agency named Ted Bates. The agency was constantly pitching new business.

Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in "The Matrix"

The way it worked was the entire Creative Department, about 150 people, would be assigned to come up with new campaigns for Burger King or Seven-Up or whatever business Bates was going after. You were supposed to put 20% of your time against this, with usually a two-week run-up before the first inside-the-agency meeting.

These meetings were called “gang bangs” because everybody took part. They were held in the giant conference room around a table that felt like it sat a hundred people. This was back in the days when everybody had a pack of Camels or Marlboros in their purse or shirt pocket. The room was so thick with cigarette smoke, you could barely see from one side to the other.

In turn, each creative team (art director and copywriter) would stand, pin its storyboards to the wall and do their pitch. The entire room got to comment, though the ultimate verdict would be pronounced by the Creative Director, who sat at the end of the table like Morpheus or Zeus.

What lesson did I take away from these sessions?

Nobody knows nothing. (To paraphrase William Goldman from his wonderful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade.

What I mean by that is that when people critiqued the campaigns, their judgments were wildly variable (Hate it! Love it!) and almost always wrong. You could see it. Everyone could. Even though the critics were highly-paid professionals at the top of their game almost every one was incapable of objectively evaluating creative material.

I sat through at least twenty of these all-day sessions. My conclusion was that out of eighty or ninety people making comments, no more than two or three were sound, insightful judges of the work.

This was a very sobering experience.

Later, when I got to Hollywood and started receiving “notes” (i.e. critical assessments of work) from production execs and “development people,” I saw the identical phenomenon.

Nobody knows nothing.

My writing partner in those days was Ron (“Alien,” “Total Recall”) Shusett. He used to say (and he was absolutely right), “It’s unbelievably rare to find someone who can tell you what’s wrong with a script, and ten times rarer to find someone who can tell you how to fix it.”

(By the way, I would place Ron in the latter category.)

But what if you’re the writer? What if it’s your work? How hard is it, then, to objectively assess your own stuff?

The task, we have seen, is ridiculously difficult, even for an impartial reviewer. How much harder is it for the writer herself, who cannot help but be subjective about her own work, who is almost by definition in love with it (or at least with its subject matter, or she wouldn’t be able to work as hard as she has to to complete it), and who has attached consciously or unconsciously all kinds or hopes and fears, aspirations and emotions, to its success.

How do you know if your stuff is any good?

If it’s good, what’s good about it? Is it working? Why? What parts are working and what parts aren’t? Why?

If it’s not working, what’s wrong? Is it all stinking or just part? Which part? Why?

Now add Resistance to the mix. You may have just completed Gone With The Wind, but that voice in your head is still telling you to hurl it into the trash. You suck. The book sucks.

Does it? Or is that just Resistance talking?

Please don’t show your work to your spouse. That’s a straight shot to divorce court. Your wife or hubby is not trained to do this kind of duty. Don’t put that kind of pressure on him/her.

What’s my own policy when people compel me to read their stuff (and yes, they do have to compel me)? I lie. Not 100% of the time. But I lie a lot. You have to. I tell them their stuff is great. Do they know I’m lying? Hell no. They’re so desperate to hear a friendly word, they’ll believe anything.

Why do I lie? Because I’ll lose a friend if I tell the truth.

And, in absolute candor, I, like the guys in the gang bangs at Ted Bates, am a highly flawed evaluator of work. I don’t know nothing neither.

What does all this mean?

It means that you and I as writers have to be extremely careful in assessing others’ material and, even more scrupulous with our own. We have to be aware of our limitations and aware of the limitations of others.

It seems so easy to render judgment, right? Read something and tell me what you think. But in truth it’s unbelievably hard, and very, very few people can do it.

If you find one, hang onto them for dear life.

More on this subject next week.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

17 Responses to “Nobody Knows Nothing”

  1. Mary Doyle
    September 17, 2014 at 5:18 am

    This is timely for me. It’s on my mind more now as the finish line on my novel, while still a ways out there, is at least in sight. I remember reading your advice to stay away from critique groups, and I’ve done that, although I’ve repeatedly been told I’m nuts.

    One other piece of advice has stuck with me, and I’m sorry that I can’t remember the source, but it’s basically this: find one reader you can trust and ask him or her to read your manuscript with only two things in mind – to tell you where things get boring, and where things get confusing. That sounded like decent advice at the time I read it, because it doesn’t put the reader on the spot as much as “tell me what you think” does. Looking forward to next week’s post – thanks!

  2. September 17, 2014 at 6:11 am

    This is a great piece, but it leaves me with a lingering question…

    Steven, you say that only two or three people in those day-long meetings were any good at critiquing. What were the characteristics of those people? Can you describe what it was about their process and their critiques that led you to believe that they were good?

    If we can pinpoint the characteristics of a trustworthy opinion, maybe we’ll be less inclined to tear our insides out when we find the opposite!

    • September 17, 2014 at 10:55 am

      Great question, Jennifer. The thing about the smart critiquers was that they were able to articulate their reasons for thinking an ad worked or didn’t. They had an actual philosophy. For instance, they would ask (in their minds), “Is this ad or campaign original? Will it catch a reader’s attention amid all the competing clutter?” Then they’d ask, “Is the ad generic or specific?” Meaning does it sell ALL airlines and ANY airline or does it sell OUR airline? “Does it make a promise that is meaningful to the audience? Is that promise something that our airline or product or whatever actually delivers?” “Is the ad or campaign in keeping with the audience we’re trying to reach?” “Does it reinforce the idea or feel or emotion that we want to convey?” “Is it consistent with what we’ve done before?” And most important, “Is it a strong enough idea that a number of different versions of it can be produced that are all different and thus fresh but still cohere around a single, unified selling idea?”

      I know that’s confusing. Here’s an example from a TV campaign that’s running now, the “Villains” campaign for Jaguar. Are you familiar with this?: The premise, stated in the commercials’ voice-over, is something like this: “Have you noticed that so many of the great movie villains lately are English?” The on-camera actor is Ben Kingsley, but they have a couple of other recognizable British movie villains–all urbane, suave, all dressed in tuxedoes. The VO goes on to say something like, “A great villain needs a great getaway car.” Then they show you some hot-looking Jags, streaking away to mansions, private jets, etc. The whole thing is shot at night, very glam, very hip. It ends with the line, “It’s good to be bad.”

      What works so well in this is that the idea is fresh, it presents Jaguar as hip, daring, tongue-in-cheek funny, edgy, glamorous … and very very English. And because the typical Jaguar buyer is sophisticated, urbane, etc. he or she is going to get the humor and appreciate the originality of the idea. Everything comes together around an image and a feel and an emotion that fits with where Jaguar wants to be and how it wants to be perceived. I’m sure that over time we’ll see a number of Jaguar commercials on the “Good to be bad” theme; they’ll all be different and thus fresh but they’ll all cohere around and reinforce this unifying idea.

      • September 17, 2014 at 1:15 pm

        I once heard that as long as your art is “on purpose”–it works.

        Art On Purpose.

        That is, you know exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it and who you are doing it for. As Steve said, marketing to the masses is useless. There is no masses. Are no masses?

        This is a wonderful post, by the way. Sending it to all my art friends who got fried in critiques this week.

  3. September 17, 2014 at 6:15 am

    When I gave my MSc thesis and later a PhD thesis to some friends or colleagues to read and critique I use one simple trick to make sure they felt OK to give me negative feedback: I included a red ballpoint pen.

    To me, this is the number one permission you can give people to critique you.

    (Still, half of them came back with a simple “looks good”, of course. But others had quite some red ink in them).

    Reinout

  4. September 17, 2014 at 6:35 am

    Yep. As Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism:

    Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
    Appear in writing or in judging ill,
    But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ offense,
    To tire our patience, than mis-lead our sense:
    Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
    Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
    a fool might once himself alone expose,
    Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

    Etc.

  5. September 17, 2014 at 6:43 am

    As someone who’s also been in many similar creative meetings, I’ve also noticed that if there’s a consensus on one idea which stands out from the rest, it’s usually not that great or groundbreaking. It ends up being just a spinoff of an already existing great idea.

    The only way to know if it’s good or not: will the critic proudly share the novel/song/video with their friends? Will they want to read it again in a couple months, or at least highlight passages from it to revisit? If not, then it’s simply not that good, or not meant for them as an audience.

  6. September 17, 2014 at 7:03 am

    Ohhhh, thank you, thank you. I have been saying “There are many experts, but they don’t all agree,” for ages. To try to get these same points across. “Nobody knows nothing” is so much better.

    It’s my job to improve people’s writing or help them improve it. There IS subjectivity to that. I’m now in the nano version of the Ted Bates scene you described–and often I’m directly pitching to/brainstorming with clients.

    I have learned a way. Honesty about facts and grammar (that is to protect them); while framing any comment about creative approach as a suggestion from my own possibly flawed perspective. Because honestly, I can only go by my experience and opinion and …well, there are many experts and they don’t all agree.

    Some love Hemmingway, others love Faulkner and so it goes. I have my approach and if you agree or like my style, that is why you should hire me. Hopefully!

    I spent time as a copywriter at those kind of meetings, but they were much smaller, and we called them “dumps” instead of gang bangs (why the hell no one came up with anything better with all those creatives around I’ll never know).

    It was the 90s so we had to leave the room to smoke afterward (ironically, like after a gang bang or a dump). Still nobody new nothing–and 90% even the good stuff we created only mattered for a very short time.

    There are always the blockbusters and breakthroughs to cite–novels, ad campaigns, or otherwise. But even with those, if you read the stories of their creators, you’ll often learn they weren’t spotted right away by the experts. Or they were ignored, almost abandoned, or nearly ruined… or my favorites: the last minutes saves and how the mistakes become the masterpieces.

  7. Basilis
    September 17, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Nobody knows anything…thank god!

  8. September 17, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Dear Steven,
    I laughed out loud as I read this post. I’ve listened to enough of your books that I hear you talking as I read, and there were a few moments that I just burst out laughing. “That’s a straight shot to divorce court.”

    So true! Kelly is in way to close. She is the only one that can send me spiraling from 10 time zones away simply by a sigh while talking on the phone. I’m simply too vulnerable with her. My thinking is so biased with her that I’m not sure if she knows nothing or not. I just know it hurts like nothing else in the world when she critiques my stuff.

    I look forward to next weeks post.
    bsn

  9. BING
    September 17, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Dear Steven,
    Well for starters, that was a great piece of writing. I found it shocking, funny, insightful, riveting, wise and as an older guy I to remember the camel, marlboros rooms of smoke, in my case they were AA meetings.

    Thanks for the great read,
    Codger Bing

  10. September 17, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for the great quote you provided for my next book. I think…

    -RG

  11. Currer Bell
    September 17, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    “I realized that the good stories were affecting the organs of my body in various ways, and the really good ones were stimulating more than one organ. An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips.”
    ― Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

  12. September 17, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Well, this post is certainly timely for me, as I’m currently querying out my latest novel. I not only welcome honest, thoughtful critiques of my work, but treat them like gold when they are given. Of course we all receive the rejection letters that state, rightfully so, that “reading, like writing, is subjective”, and not to let the rejections stop us in our quest for getting our work published. After all, aren’t those rejections just another form of Resistance? I also remember an old real estate broker I worked with years ago saying two things when I first started: 1) Just showing up is half the battle. 2) Every “no” is one step closer to the coveted “yes”. Thanks, Steven!

  13. Mike B
    September 17, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    I also follow Hugh McLeod’s blog, gapingvoid.com.At the beginning of his book, Ignore Everyone, he riffs on this topic. From the book:

    You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. And trusting your feelings is not as easy as the optimists say it is. There’s a reason why feelings scare us. And asking close friends never works quite as well as you hope, either. It’s not that they deliberately want to be unhelpful. It’s just they don’t know your world one millionth as well as you know your world, no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard you try to explain. Plus a big idea will change you. Your friends may love you, but they don’t want you to change. If you change, then their dynamic with you also changes. They like things the way they are, that’s how they love you- the way you are, not the way you may become. Ergo, they have no incentive to see you change. And they will be resistant to anything that catalyzes it. That’s human nature. And you would do the same, if the shoe was on the other foot. – See more at: http://gapingvoid.com/ie/#sthash.VvTWxNqP.dpuf

  14. September 18, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Dear Steven,

    This was the write-up that motivated me to write continuous 555+ blogs. I allowed the muse in me to flow out everyday to pour out a lesson from that day. I am happy to share that 180 selected blogs out of these shall form a book soon. Thank you for a great article Steven.

    I am still eagerly looking forward to your reply to my question on ‘Why #5?’ article and for a free copy of ‘The Authentic Swing.

  15. Utelene Nugent
    October 6, 2014 at 5:37 am

    I’m an aspiring writer, and would like the name of an objective critic. You see, I am very passionate, to-the-point, and very frank many times in conversations and/or meetings, I offend people, even if they don’t say it. The fact, that I usually do my research and know what I’m talking about just serves to exacerbate the problem, even if they make sure that I’m at every meeting to pick my brain. I’m fearful, that this kind of energy might “carry over” in my writing.

    I know that I write good business correspondence and letter, most of my friends, as well as everybody at my office from the CEO to my peers are always asking my to write B2B letters; advertisements, and/or to read and edit business correspondence before they are sent out.

    Would be a good idea for me to start a blog? How would you suggest that I go about this?

    Thank you very much.