Tag Archives: writing

Happy 6th Birthday, Culture Cookies!

29 May

It’s that time of year again: my blog birthday! I love that WordPress sends an alert, because it’s truly a reason to celebrate. Six years is a pretty long time to keep up any sort of personal project, don’t you think? Especially when you’re not monetizing it ūüėČ

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Just feels fitting to give this post a cake. Even if it’s only a picture of cake.

I started this blog as a personal outlet for things I loved to do, but wasn’t getting out of my job at the time. Back then, I was a management consultant and my days mainly consisted of spreadsheets, process flows and PowerPoint slides. I missed writing essays, and¬†decided to start a blog so I could¬†write about anything on my mind.

This blog has carried me through so much since then: a cross-country move,¬†several apartments, job swaps, relationships. I ran into one of my loyal readers the other day¬†(Hi Mary-Lynn!) and we¬†chatted¬†about how I post less frequently than I used to. That’s partly because of my second blog, which¬†often steals my attention away from this one. But it’s also because my relationship to this blog shifts over time, depending on what’s happening in my life. Like any hobby, its role fluctuates depending on what I’m doing and how I’m feeling.

Culture Cookies began as a¬†space for commentary and long-form writing. Then I shifted into¬†a brand strategy job, and spent my days thinking about consumer behavior. I’d read trend reports, conduct consumer research and think about how brands should express themselves. That meant marketing and behavior were always on my mind, so many of my posts ended up touching on consumer psychology, social commentary and brands. Even though the blog synced somewhat with what I did at work, it was still an outlet for long-form writing since most of my “official” work still ended up in PowerPoint slides.

Now here we are, May 2017, and suddenly: writing¬†is¬†my job. I get to write for work, day in, day out.¬†But¬†while I do see lots of¬†data (I’m a business writer!), and I do often write about consumer behavior, my daily work¬†doesn’t focus on spotting behavioral patterns anymore. ¬†And I do think that has had an impact on this blog. In the past six months or so, I’ve written much more personal reflection than¬†social strategy or marketing analysis. It makes sense: switching jobs last fall marked a big change in my life, a change that prompted lots of self-reflection. So naturally, the blog evolved again.

But as I told Mary-Lynn the other day, I miss the old Culture Cookies. I enjoy writing personal essays, and don’t plan to stop, but I do want to beef back up the other parts of this blog that I’ve sort of abandoned for the past ten months. Consider this my blog birthday pledge: I¬†pledge to reboot my marketing talk and behavioral commentary. It’s time to turn more of my scheming scribbles into actual posts.¬†I already have a couple of drafts in the works, and promise to share them in the next few weeks.

As always, thanks for reading. Hope to see you back here soon!

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The Mighty Pen

15 Nov

Packing to move earlier this year gave me an insightful trip down memory lane. Digging through belongings, deciding what to keep- it makes you think a lot about your past and your priorities. I loved seeing old photos, souvenirs, and the like. But even the smallest, most ordinary-seeming things can inspire reflection. This time, it was a bag of pens.

20150902_092440As I cleaned out the drawers of a dresser I wasn’t keeping, I¬†found myself overwhelmed by stacks of paper and bags of pens. When I say “bag of pens,” I mean a giant Ziploc bag stuffed with them. Probably 50 pens of the ordinary sort, plus a selection of Sharpies and some pencils in there for good measure. Some of the pens brought back specific memories, like the ones from hotels, or the one shaped like a baton, or the one I remember buying as a Disneyland souvenir back in the day.Most the pens were rather generic, though: significant for what they represented, but not that significant in themselves.

I’ve always been a writer- ever since I could write, I was scribbling short stories and poems on every piece of paper I could find. My childhood desk is still filled with the remnants of this hobby- little bits and pieces of poems, song lyrics, and reflections on life at a tender age. My current room has some of these scraps, too, but it’s a mix of travel journals and¬†college publications rather than the fiction and poems of my youth. Over time, I’ve shifted more toward non-fiction writing in general. And I’ve also shifted toward more writing on my computer. Though I still use a pen to write the first draft of many blog posts and work presentations, ultimately everything ends up captured on this little machine, in a digital font, preserved for what we believe to be eternity- or at least until the next technology breaks through.

The bag of pens made me smile, though, for a number of reasons. I vividly remember how proud I felt when my elementary school teachers let us use pens instead of pencils. Pencils felt so juvenile: a pen felt more confident, wiser, more mature. Pencils, with their built-in erasers, suggested that you didn’t fully know what you were doing.¬†I loved the way it felt to write with a pen, gliding over the surface of a piece of paper. It felt more real to me, more hearty, if that makes sense.

But, without its built-in eraser, it sure was messy.¬†¬†A pen means messy paper, ideas crossed out with lines rather than cleanly erased. It means starting over on a new sheet of paper if your pen-scribed thoughts need to be shared with anyone else. It means trying to write as neatly as possible, so the ink doesn’t run and blur out what you’re trying to say.¬†My personal writings from childhood are a mess of lines and crossed out words, especially the poems. I might have whipped out the White-Out or used a new sheet of paper for schoolwork, but personal writings gave me freedom to be messy.

A shift to computers meant even more editing and even more drafts. It just isn’t the same feeling, though. I¬†switch between handwritten drafts and computer drafts these days, depending on my mood. I’m still that person who whips out a notebook and a pen on the bus, scribbling down whatever came over my mind. And I’m that person who carries a notebook in her bag when she travels to capture in-the-moment insights and ideas.¬†But did I really need that entire bag of ~50 pens?

I ditched most of the pens when I moved. The baton pen made it, as did the Disneyland Minnie ears. A¬†few of the¬†“boring” pens made it, too, but only a few. The bulk of those pens never saw the light of my new apartment.

Let’s not pretend, though- in a few years’ time, I’ll likely have a whole new bag of pens, “meaningful” and “boring” alike. I think it’s just part of being a writer, and the feeling of inspiration I grab a pen in my hand, ready to tackle another blank page.

Choose Your Words Wisely

10 Feb

If you’ve ever used the review website Yelp, you’ve probably noticed that you can sort a specific company’s reviews by date, rating, etc. But have you ever scrolled all the way down to the bottom of the review list? If you do, you’ll see that Yelp uses some sort of algorithm to push specific reviews behind a digital wall. It just takes a more couple clicks to access them- but why are they hidden in the first place?

How it currently looks on Yelp.com

How it currently looks on Yelp.com

Yelp claims that these hidden reviews are less helpful, created by bots, or otherwise unsuitable for the main page.¬†Currently, the website’s copy describes these shunned reviews are “not recommended.” But that language is on the newer side. Previously, there was a button at the bottom of the page that offered you the chance to read “filtered reviews.” ¬†Why the change from “filtered” to “not recommended?” I obviously don’t know what actually made Yelp change its wording. But as a language major turned brand strategist, these sorts of word choices trigger my curiosity. “Not recommended” certainly sounds less like censorship than “filtered reviews,” and more like a helpful service. “Filtered” implied that Yelp was exerting control. “Not recommended” sounds like they’re doing you a favor.

How it used to look before the wording change (screenshot from NPR)

How it used to look before the wording change (screenshot from NPR)

Strategic wording is important for brands to think about. The words you choose can truly shape the impact that your company makes, as well as the image it portrays. Another interesting word choice that I noticed lately was over on the website Zappos. Zappos sorts users’ product reviews by whether the review is “favorable” or “critical.” This is¬†much more precise wording than “good” and “bad,” or “positive” and “negative.” Because reviews are inherently subjective, it makes sense to describe the user’s disposition toward the product, rather than implying that the product itself is good or bad. Zappos is seen as a friendly, customer-centric brand. Putting the emphasis on its customers’ opinions fits well with this brand culture.

From a Zappos product page

From a Zappos product page

Sometimes, smart verbiage is simply a way to extend a brand’s voice. That’s why Bloomingdales.com calls its online shopping carts “Big Brown Bags” instead of “carts” – they make use of a longstanding brand icon to breathe some personality into their website. It’s why Trader Joe’s lists out “trading hours” and not “store hours.”

Of course, words can just be words, chosen simply because they sound nice, or because they were the best someone could come up with, or because the company’s copywriter really needed to finish an assignment by a certain time. But often, analyzing word choice gives you another level of insight into what a brand is trying to say. Are you ready to listen?

Send My Regards

16 Mar

It’s a popular debate these days: is technology making our communication skills weaker? Critics like to argue that that using digital communication means we aren’t getting the right level of social interaction. They worry that sending texts and short emails cuts down our writing skills. They claim that we’re all going to end up completely incapable of explaining our thoughts in more than 140 characters.

Heh. From farm6.staticflickr.com/5267/5637471718_f893249d38.jpg

Personally, I don’t worry about my social interaction skills going downhill, or my writing skills disappearing. However, I do think that technology gives us more ways to mess up. Think about this: you’re really mad at your friend, so you fire off 10 texts using harsh language to tell her why she’s terrible and you never want to be friends again. You do this right after your fight, and you’re all worked up. Do you think you’ll be happy with what you sent when you read the texts again a couple hours later? Probably not. The immediacy of digital communication can certainly be to our benefit, but it also gives us the ability to act on urges and emotions before we really think them through. And an additional risk: there’s always¬†the possibility of misinterpretation. My girlfriends spend a lot of time analyzing the texts they get from guys. Probably 98% of that effort is wasted effort, because there isn’t usually a hidden meaning at all. It just seems like there¬†might¬†be, because tone is unclear when something is written out. And since it’s so easy to write and hit send, I think people put less thought into word choice.

Earlier this week,¬†Slate¬†ran a piece about how to sign off from emails. The author, Matthew J.X. Malady, proposed that we get rid of email signatures altogether. ¬†Malady argues signatures don’t add much to our emails, and are often rather generically used. Even if someone writes “best regards,” they likely don’t mean their very, very best regards. He pokes fun at some silly sign-offs, and I have to agree with him here: I find it really weird when someone signs an email “warmest regards,” especially if it’s a work email. In fact, I find those signatures off-putting rather than aiding, because they feel hyperbolic and fake. I also agree with Malady that we waste time fretting over the proper sign-off. Does it really make a huge difference if I sign my email “best” or “thanks?” I doubt it. There is a consideration set of sign-offs that are all perfectly polite and normal, and switching between them probably doesn’t change things very much.

Still, I don’t agree with his proposal that we cut signatures altogether and end emails¬†“with the actual last thing that we want to say.” I think that’s totally fine for friends, close colleagues, etc. But when you’re writing to someone you don’t know very well, or someone you need help from, or someone you need to impress (like a potential employer), I think it’s important to convey the right amount of respect. It’s important to show that you’re interested in an actual human relationship and not just favors. And sending an email that’s nothing but instructions, demands or requests wouldn’t convey that. So while I might not write a “dear so-and-so” or a “best” in my emails to my friends, I will certainly do so when I email someone I don’t know. Otherwise, I think we’re treading those dangerous waters in which communication no longer feels like it carries any weight, and we forget that our words are a representation of who we are.

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