Before the advent of the Internet, authors were often prodigious letter-writers, pen-pals and literal scribes. Many of the most prolific authors of the past century could not afford the freedom of writing full-time and quite a few held strenuous jobs that revolved around copy in some form or another.
They’re excellent sources of inspiration for entrepreneurs and I’ve found that some of the best tricks come from the newspapermen and magazine editors.
Here are three great examples:
1. Lead strong, keep it short, and shoot from the hip
Oftentimes, emails are a necessary evil.
Say you’re chasing down an invoice, or a piece, or just trying to get in touch with a suspiciously unavailable writer. The email is the most formal, business-oriented format–but how can you make your message stand out from the crowd of subject lines crowding the recipient’s inbox?
Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo pioneer, is popularly remembered for pushing the limits of the human body in pursuit of the American Dream and dragging journalism into the 21st century by its collar and waistband in the process. His day job as an editor at Rolling Stone meant that he spent his days chasing down writers on deadlines.
Anthony Burgess, perhaps best-known for writing the lurid, dystopian fiction masterwork A Clockwork Orange, once blew a Rolling Stone deadline so spectacularly that Thompson sent him the following reply (warning: crude language):
CREDIT: Hunter S. Thompson
Like I said: collar and waistband.
Thompson never got the thinkpiece he demanded of Burgess, but his letter’s lesson still stands: Lead strong with the task at hand and the relevant parties; state your case early and often. Even before subject lines and digital inboxes, Thompson had an implicit instinct: The first two lines are always crucial. Thompson even goes so far as to write Thinkpiece with a capital T, reminding Burgess of the task at hand while also giving it its due respect.
Keep it short. Even Thompson managed to bottle his rage onto one page of A4. As always, eviscerate at your own risk.
2. u shouldn’t email like this, tbh lol
Gary Shteyngart is a master of modern fiction. One of his novels, Super Sad True Love Story, tells a story of a society five minutes in the future where people are constantly glued to their personal devices (known as apparat in the novel). In this hyper-technologized vision of the future, books are described as “smelling like wet socks” and literacy is all but dead.
Speaking on NPR, Shteyngart had the following to say about technology’s constant barrage on our brains and senses:
“Sometimes technology outpaces humanity’s ability to process it. I think that’s where we are right now… It’s just shocking: how is literature supposed to survive when our brain has been pummeled with information all day long at work. When we go home, are we really going to open a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it?”
Shteyngart’s protagonist, Larry Abramov, still reads books, though. Abramov’s diary excerpts include IM conversations, as well as posts from his love interest, Eunice Park, who keeps writes primarily in blog posts rich in an acronym-heavy form of Newspeak.
The lesson from Shteyngart’s vision of the not-so-distant future is that while shorthand is a useful way of communicating, a flash of the literary helps candidates and pitches stand out.
3. Remember the value of a face-to-face meeting
British author Zadie Smith is known for her depth and breadth of empathy and knowledge. In her latest novel, Swing Time, Smith’s nameless narrator describes a self-imposed exile that’s all too familiar these days: “I had been offline for seventy-two hours and can remember feeling that this should be counted among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times.”
As professionals in the age of the smart-phone, it is easy to feel all too plugged in all too often. Smith herself noted as much in email correspondence with none other than Lena Dunham, where she observed:
“I’m in the middle of my life, and I just don’t have enough years left to spend a large proportion of them inside an iPhone. For one thing, I know I would be an addict. I live inside my laptop plenty enough already. I don’t have a moderate temperate with these things. If I were going to live to 150, perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much spending half of every day online. But there’s so many things I haven’t read or seen or experienced.”
Sometimes, the best email is the simplest: setting up a time and a place to put the iPhones down and have a face-to-face conversation.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.