Thought Catalog
January 26, 2015

If Writers Don’t #CreditWriters, Who Will?

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iStockphoto / Minerva Studio
iStockphoto / Minerva Studio

Do I Have To Draw You A Picture?

Have you seen the hashtag #IllustratorLove?

Probably it won’t be trending any time soon, but it’s not as new as you might think. I can see it being used all the way back to 2010.

And it has come up this week as children’s book illustrators in the UK complain that their books are hailed for their authors but not for their illustrators. And of course in picture books, in particular, the artwork is usually fully as much a part of the work as the writing.

Charlotte Eyre
Charlotte Eyre

At The Bookseller in London, my colleague Charlotte Eyre’s story is called Children’s illustrators say: ‘we’re undervalued’ and she writes:

American-born Ted Dewan, who created the Bing Bunny series of picture books for HarperCollins Children’s Books, said the lack of respect for illustration is a particularly British phenomenon, and that the country has traditionally revered the written word ahead of pictures and images. He said: “So long as members of the public say to those of us who write and illustrate our own books, ‘oh, you did the pictures too?’, it would appear that the illustrator’s role in crafting what is predominantly a visual medium isn’t appreciated by the general public.”

Somehow this problem rings true, doesn’t it, even in the States?

For years, I’ve been frustrated at how few film and television fans pay any attention to the composers behind the scores for those shows. When I did some coverage years ago of John Powell’s soundtracks for the Bourne films — and he talked me through how he scores his music to race forward, then fall back during chase scenes, for example — readers were fascinated. And some of them confessed to me that they’d never given film scores a thought. The music was “just there” for them.

To me, however, the really strange omission from so many people’s conversation about essays, blog posts, media articles, and even whole books they read is that they don’t mention who wrote those things.

The worst offenders? Other writers.

How many times have you heard, “Did you read that story in the Times?”  As if the Times had written the story.

Guess what: No medium — no newspaper, no television network, no radio system, no publishing house — has ever written a word. People write those things.

And the people who write them, in my experience, may be the last to credit other people who write them. What the hell is the matter with us?

Science: Breathing Down Your Narrative

One reason that writers might want to be sure to credit each other for their work — in tweets, on Facebook, in their own posts and stories — is that there are alternatives not just in the pipeline but on the pages and Web sites of some news outlets near you.

Narrative Science fields a remarkably effective system, led by chief scientist Kris Hammond’s team, for turning data into highly readable copy. Sports stories, for example, have been found to follow such predictable patterns that scores can be fed in to the right algorithmic structure and turned around by the system as surprisingly convincing sports-news stories.

I’ve seen this work myself, and I can tell you it’s pretty remarkable.

Tom Simonite
Tom Simonite

Just days ago at the MIT Technology Review in Robot Journalist Finds New Work On Wall Street, Tom Simonite wrote up the software called Quill — an ironic name for something in a galaxy far, far away from a bird’s feather used as a pen.

Quill, Simonite writes, is a creature of Narrative Science in Chicago, set up in 2010 “to commercialize technology developed at Northwestern University that turns numerical data into a written story.”

Quill, Simonite tells us, has graduated from mostly sports writing to financial settings:

Narrative Science is now renting out Quill’s writing skills to financial customers such as T. Rowe Price, Credit Suisse, and USAA. One of its main tasks is to write up in-depth, lengthy reports on the performance of mutual funds that are then distributed to investors or regulators.

We hear from the Narrative Science CEO, Stuart Frankel, in the piece — which we must assume was, actually, written by Simonite and not by Quill (!):

Quill’s early career success generated headlines of its own, and the software was seen by some as evidence that intelligent software might displace human workers. Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel says that the publicity, even if some of it was negative, was a blessing.

“A lot of people felt threatened by what we were doing, and we got a lot of coverage,” he says. “It led to a lot of inquiries from all different industries and to the evolution to a different business.”

Before you apply for that MBA in artificial intelligence applications for financial writing, do realize that the Narrative Science context is always one of numbers, data.

A cousin to the kind of “natural language processing” (NLP) that Boston’s Trajectory is using in creating new potential discoverability for books — our story on that one is here — Narrative Science is using “natural language generation.” And the “natural language” being “generated” is rooted in data: scores and stats for sports writing, trading figures and factors for financial writing.

Still, as Simonite tells us:

Companies can tune Quill’s style and use of language based on what they need it to write. It can accentuate the positive in marketing copy, or go for exhaustive detail in a regulatory filing, for example.

Quill can also take an “angle” for a piece of writing. When writing about sports for an audience likely to favor a particular team, for instance, Quill can write a story that softens the blow of a loss.

Creeped out? Good. That’s right where I want you. Because surely by now you can see a new, digital reason to get some credit for other writers into your daily romps on various social media.

It tweets for thee, human, so credit others as you would have them credit you.

Cheers, Human

A few years ago, I started hashing #CreditWriters as I saw myriad tweets flying by promoting various stories, blog posts, and essays, with no writers’ credits on them.

A lot of this comes from the problem of the automated tweets.  You click on the botton, right? — it gives you a pre-written tweet with the headline, the link, and the name of the medium.

Yeah, no, don’t use that. Or if you do, you know what? Let me bullet this out for you.

  • In using automatically generated tweets and other messages from stories, insert the writer’s name before you hit send.
  • Better yet, look up the writer’s Twitter handle and insert that. Good media put their writers’ handles in your face, you can’t miss them. Other media need to hear from you, saying that you want to see the Twitter handle on the page right along with a writer’s byline.
  • If there isn’t room for both the writer’s name/handle and the medium’s name? Lose the medium. Keep the writer’s name/handle.

I’m not kidding. The medium is the house. It’s great to credit it as well as the writer. But give preference to the writer. Because that news or entertainment medium is going to benefit far more from a following gained for its writers than it is by one more tweet.

In the same way that tweeting must be done person-to-person, not corporation-to-person — see Author Publicists Who Don’t Tweet? And Under Their Own Names? Fire Them — the winning over of a following is done hand to hand, human to human, mano a mano in the collaborative sense, not as conflict.

The best media know this and they promote their strongest writers for this very reason.

The best writers know this and they always, always credit each other. Always. No exceptions.

When you see someone tweeting about “that story in the Times,” you know what to do? You go to the story, you find the writer, you turn that tweet around as an MT (a modified tweet) with the writer’s name in it, preferably the writer’s Twitter handle.

And you add #CreditWriters. Send a message to the tweeter. The next time, she or he will remember this, believe me. Many have asked me about it once I MT-ed them this way.

Think of it not only as the decent, collegial thing to do, but also as job security.

Because our buddies Frankel and Hammond at Narrative Science one day may surprise even themselves when their sparkling software starts clinking Campari-gorgeous diodes — cin-cin! — and pumping out: #CreditAlgorithms. TC mark

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