Writer's desk

A modern guide to pen, paper and writing

Dangerous metaphors — April 13, 2020

Dangerous metaphors

Why talking about the war on coronavirus is causing harm

Metaphor is not merely a tool reserved for poets. It soaks our language from our everyday conversation to the most high-flying rhetoric. We understand the world through metaphors. It helps lend physicality and understanding to abstract concepts. George Lakoff, in Metaphors We Live By, even says that our entire conceptual model of reality is metaphorical. Metaphors are powerful. We need to use them to come to a better understanding of our world.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many commentators, journalists and politicians to liken it to a war. It is a battle against an invisible enemy. It requires sacrifice and bravery to overcome. It is an easy and, at first sight, apt metaphor to employ. The response to coronavirus requires a collective effort and will, a coming together of the whole community in a single-minded focus, and a suspension of normality that does resemble nations during wartime. It creates heroes and famous battles that inspire stiff upper lips and helps us shoulder the burden of onerous measures. But the sheer quantity of such analogies does create harm.

Metaphors are powerful because they transform the general into the specific. Big ideas are shrunk down to graspable things. Metaphors allow us to budget time and shine a light on an idea. Situations can be looking up or going downhill.

Arguments become battles which allows you to assault an opponent’s logical position. Professional outrage merchants on YouTube post videos where they ‘destroy’ someone and their thinking through argument. These verbal battles between opponents leave one side victorious and the other defeated. War is a powerful metaphor in this context because arguments do mimic the contours of armed conflict. It places two sides against one another.

With coronavirus that is not the case. There are no good guys or bad guys. There is humanity and then there is this little packet of proteins and genetic code. Coronavirus does not spy or strategise, it does not invade or invent terrible new weapons. There are no allies or axis, no central powers and no entente. But constant talk of war can leave us creating an enemy where there is none. It leads to President Trump tweeting and ranting about the ‘China virus’. It allows us to forget the very real human suffering and hardship faced by the citizens of Wuhan. It is there on Twitter when people, escaping small and squalid flats, walk in a park and get called traitors or collaborators conspiring with a foreign enemy. Collective action on a global scale is needed to overcome coronavirus. But by overusing the war metaphor it splits people and nations apart.

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

It goes beyond that too. The war metaphor makes it easy to ignore the death and destitution the virus causes. When battles are won with courage and bravery those who succumb to the virus must have lacked fight. People do not die because they are without a certain quality. They die because a virus attacks their lungs and makes it impossible to breathe. Delivery workers, shop staff and healthcare professionals are called heroes. This verbal admiration, echoed praise, is not backed up by material action though. Those stocking shelves and delivering food packages are not given hazard pay or sick leave. Those working in hospitals and care homes are not given the protection they need. But by recognising them as heroes we can be blinded to what they actually require. We can pat ourselves on the back after a weekly round of applause for the health service or talk about minting medals. This does not help and is only possible because we are employing the language of war when we talk about this healthcare crisis.

Weneed metaphors to help us make sense of the world. In First You Write a Sentence, Joe Moran says that ‘metaphor is how we nail the jelly of reality to the wall.’ War is not a reality for many of us in the west. We know it through movies and videogames. That creates a false impression of what must be done. It creates sides and divides people. It underplays the seriousness of things. The coronavirus pandemic is not a war but a healthcare crisis. It is an unneeded metaphor. Plague is as much a rider of the apocalypse as war is. When a metaphor gets repeated too often, when it becomes a runaway metaphor, it risks obfuscating the real nature of things more than it clarifies them. We have reached that point by now. We must see this pandemic as it really is and face it together with the understanding that gives us.

Writing in pencil —

Writing in pencil

The pencil can be mightier than the pen

Writing tools exist in a hierarchy of prestige. Their place in executive offices, at high-profile public signings and as gifts that mark the stages of life make the fountain pen king. Below it come ballpoint and rollerballs, gel pens and biros. The pencil, humble and basic, looks down only on crayons – if those can even be called writing tools. The pencil is the first writing tool we use and the first abandoned. We graduate from tracing specimen letters and rubbing out our first wobbly attempts in trails of graphite early. Our scrawls, early efforts at cursive, are replaced by more masterful strokes drawn in ink. We go from the grey of our first pencils to the blue ink of the schoolroom before we are urged to match the seriousness of the adult world in sombre black. This progression has us leave behind an evocative and tactile tool. As I took up pencils again, as I started to write for pleasure, I have fallen in love.

My pencil case and desk drawers are full of three pencils. Yes, there are the strays, those branded pencils you forget where you picked them up, but I write with ones I have sought out and bought. The Ticonderoga is my workman. Its name recalls the woods of a newly settled America, a wild Thoreau-like landscape. It is familiar. Its yellow and green livery is more remembered from school off the television than any real-life experience though. It is for teasing out an idea, a thought, capturing it quickly before it disappears. It is a composer of first drafts. Robust and quotidian, it leaves behind a line more grey than black. The pressure needed to make your mark is not inconsequential; it feels like there is some work going into your writing. Essays and jottings are constructed rather than flow which matches my experience of writing out an idea more fully. It admits mistakes. Not full rewrites of final edits, but its crowning eraser, the only lasting innovation in the four century history of the modern pencil, does let you catch those better word or better phrases that pop into your head the instant you see an inadequate cousin on the page. The Ticonderoga implies that things are not yet done.

Things progress. Drafts are rewritten. Your text begins to come together. To help marshal ideas and expression I turn to my Tombow Mono 100s. It is a smoother writer than the Ticonderoga. It keeps its point longer and writes in a more authoritative black. Its purpose is picked out in gold on black. It is for ‘hi-precision DRAFTING’. It is serious. It tidies and straightens, evens out and tunes up.

Humans create personalities. Our tools and appliances each have their own quirks. We imbue them with character. How we found them, where we found them, their branding, context and our own experience inform this character. There is some shamanesque magic in tools. Maybe it is how it focuses the mind on different things, maybe it is just an overactive imagination, but I can’t help but feel it. It is why I enjoy using pencils, using different ones.

The final one I keep close at hand is the world’s most famous pencil. For people who see a pencil or pen just as what they are, who have the good sense not to create personalities or mythologies for what is merely graphite encased in wood, that may sound strange. But the Blackwing 602 is celebrated around the world. Authors and writers praise it. For good reason too. The 602 sings across the page. The gruff grit and grumble a pencil makes as you drag it along the page is tuned and smoothed by the 602. When you’re ready, after the thinking and rethinking, after the edits and drafts, the 602 is there. It flows. It adds flourish. It is eccentric. Its cuboid eraser is weird. Its boasting of ‘twice the speed, half the pressure’ is arrogant. Yet, with its wax and graphite mix, it can carry it off.

Pencils are humble but powerful. It is your path into the whole written world. Writing gives our thoughts an existence outside of ourselves. The connection between pencil and paper is closer than that with pens. It has a friction, a noise, a rough and bumpy physicality that is not matched with silky ink. Pencils mark our progress. They get dull; our minds need sharpening. Roald Dahl used to start each writing day with six freshly sharpened Ticonderogas. When they were worn and their points were dull and thick, the work must have been done. I still like to write with pens. But there is a permanence to ink that I am not ready for when I am journaling or setting out on a piece. A pencil, its smells and sound, its reflection of the work put in, its allowance for mistakes, is the perfect tool. A pencil gives its life for your writing. It gives it life.

All the Coffee in China — April 10, 2020

All the Coffee in China

The story behind Luckin Coffee’s $310m fraud

Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash

The world’s attention is fixed on coronavirus. That’s why you might have missed the news that a Chinese start-up admitted to an over $300m fraud. It’s a good time to bury bad news, but not so for Luckin Coffee. The markets took notice and hammered China’s largest coffee shop chain. Its share price has plummeted, from over $50 in mid-January to less than $5 today. That 95% drop wasn’t the end though. Its chairman was forced to default on a $500m loan and shareholders have organised and are suing the company. It is a fall from grace for a darling of the Chinese start-up scene akin to that of WeWork’s. What happened?

Tea reigns in China.

It has the beverage of choice for thousands of years. From the lowliest peasant to the highest-ranking bureaucrats and rulers, everyone in China drinks tea. Chinese cities are studded with teahouses. Patrons gossip, smoke cigarettes and play board games, often spending hours sitting sipping tea. Starbucks wanted to change that and launched in China in 1999. Beforehand coffee had only been served in hotels and other places foreigners congregated. With the launch of its first outlet, Starbucks tried to change the palette of regular Chinese consumers, unaccustomed to the taste of coffee. Sugary and milk-laden drinks were the way to get people drinking coffee.

But as important was presenting the drink as western, youthful and cosmopolitan. Young, urban professionals, working in China’s booming tech hubs, began to take to the new drink. A nascent coffee culture was appearing. Serving social media-friendly beverages and contrasting with the sedate pace of teahouses, coffee took on a glamour similar to the people it served. Its ambitious image struck a chord with the tech industry where late nights were fuelled by coffee. Enter Luckin.

Founded in October 2017, Luckin Coffee grew from its base in Xiamen quickly. By May 2019 it was already running 2,370 locations, a growth trajectory that fit in with the booming tech start-ups. It managed this by eschewing the type of stores favoured by its competitors. Starbucks was by now the largest coffeehouse chain in China with Costa in second. Their Chinese stores are familiar to anyone who knows the laptop strewn tables and young creatives nursing cups of frappuccinos, iced coffees or macchiatos in any western city. Luckin’s locations were a little different.

If you wander into any of Luckin’s outlets you won’t be able to order a coffee at the counter. A little strange for a business which makes money by selling coffee. Instead, you must place and pay for your order through its app. Customers collect their coffee at kiosks smaller and without the comforts of a Starbucks or Costa. This tech-first approach appealed to Luckin’s target consumer. It also helped keep costs low as the firm expanded.

Customers are served quickly, and the turnaround time is low. This low-cost ethos helped Luckin undercut Starbucks on price and appealed to price-sensitive Chinese consumers who could get tea for cheap. Luckin also offered free and discounted cups of coffee to new customers. This aggressive and targeted discounting could only have been done through an app which tracked customer orders, tastes and signups. Another feature of Luckin’s model that appealed to its chosen demographic was delivery. Customers could get their coffee delivered straight to their offices or studies within half an hour. It was a feature Starbucks eventually copied, though it took them a while to do so.

Luckin grew. It grew fast. But it needed money — and lots of it. Less than a year after it was founded, in July 2018, it secured $200m of funding in an early series round. A year after it had launched, it had 1,300 locations. It was on its way to achieving its goal of eclipsing Starbucks as the largest coffee chain in China. In May 2019, it launched an IPO in the US. It raised $561m to help its ambitious growth strategy and was valued at $4bn. It needed the money as it was burning through cash at around three times the rate it was bringing it in. From its cashless stores and data mining app to its clientele and areas where it opened, Luckin positioned itself like a tech start-up. It produced the growth required to stay in that company too. But much like WeWork, Luckin was a traditional business masquerading as a tech start-up. WeWork was essentially a landlord. Luckin sold coffee. The bubble was ready to burst.

In January 2020 Luckin continued its expansion by launching vending machines that served coffee. They achieved the long-term goal of having more locations than Starbucks. Though the people behind Luckin didn’t know it, it was to be the company’s high point.

Photo by Szymon12455 on Unsplash

That same month, on 31 January, Muddy Waters, an investment firm that backs up its positions with investigative research, tweeted out a report that claimed Luckin was fabricating its sales. By watching thousands of hours of CCTV, examining customer receipts and monitoring app metrics, the report claimed that Luckin had been overreporting revenue since the third quarter of 2019. Founded by Carson Block, Muddy Waters was a firm that investigated Chinese businesses and took a short position if they smelled something fishy. Block had dealt with tech entrepreneurs early in his career and had come away from the experience with a sour taste in his mouth. The lying and obfuscation had motivated him to start his investment firm. Seeing the numbers Luckin released, Block and Muddy Waters thought that not everything at the firm was kosher.

To grow as bigger than Starbucks in less than three years Luckin had to launch a lot of new locations. Over 4,000 of them. Often these were near existing Luckin outlets. They targeted tech quarters and university districts. When a firm opens new stores in such a manner, it is expected that sales per store will fall. The new shops cannibalise some of the existing customer base of the older ones. Despite how aggressive Luckin was expanding, this was not happening. Instead comparable store sales were going up by around two-and-a-half times. Those were unbelievable numbers — and for good reason.

After the Muddy Waters tweet, Luckin took a small hit to its share price. But it wasn’t until early April when things got bad. An internal investigation backed up the allegations. The Chief Operating Officer was fired after over $300m of sales were found to be faked. Luckin’s cofounder, Lu Zhengyao, may have to step down from his other companies as the stink spreads.

Luckin may survive, but it will tough. Analysis from Seeking Alpha shows that each Luckin store is averaging a turnover of only $350 per day. Even in China, with low labour and other costs, that is hardly enough for a viable business. And it’s hard to believe any numbers coming out of the company right now, so the situation could be a lot worse. One redeeming quality is that China’s coffee culture has a lot of room to grow. The average Chinese person only drinks around 5 cups of coffee per year. Americans drink over 400. The entire Chinese coffee market was worth only $8.2bn in 2019 but is growing at a rate close to 10%. Its economy is reigniting after the coronavirus lockdown. It may just be enough to keep Luckin limping on.

Why we write — April 8, 2020

Why we write

And why it should be slow

Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash

Simple questions sometimes have simple answers. But it is rare. A child’s questioning can reveal complex gears at work beneath a seemingly simple surface. Simple questions often have many answers too. Answers vary not just based on who you ask, but when you ask someone and where.

The earliest writers lived in Sumer. They spoke a long-dead language. We can still hear their voices though. What they were saying, at first, was not particularly interesting. If asked why they wrote they would probably have said that writing is permanent. Across gaps of space and time, hundreds of miles, thousands of years, we can still read their land deeds and inventories. There’s are stories built of lists and legal contracts. They wrote to remember and be remembered.

Stories have always been with part of us. We can’t help telling them. We can’t help listening to them. They filled the air around the dusk lit campfires of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and they are with us still in the Netflix bathed sofas of 21st-century apartment blocks. We search for and fill our lives with stories.

Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

It took a long time for storytellers to use the linguistic innovation of writing; to fasten breath in clay and ink. The oldest stories we can still read have all the hallmarks of a previous oral tradition. But we can only hear them now because of writing.

The answer the Sumerians might have given, the reason we can still hear the story of Gilgamesh, is the reason we write. We write because it is crystallised conversation, a lasting thought. But writing has also given us a mastery over our words and sentences. The rote phrases of Homer gave blind rhapsodes time to fill poems with their imagination, fitting their flourishes into metre and scheme. Writing allows us to edit. We can educate and train our sentences before we send them off into the world.

I write because it is easier to express myself in writing. The ‘likes’ and ‘umms’ of conversation are erased. There is no l’esprit d’escalier. I can snatch a fleeting thought and fix it still. I can poke and prod and mould it into a better version of itself. I take my time with my thoughts. I improve them. I turn them over, examine them, polish them and know my mind a little more fully.

Writing gives me time with my thoughts. I used to think this slow way of writing, with not a lot of published work, was a failure. I bought books, read articles, and watched tutorials that promised a better way. A faster way. But I could never write as quickly as they urged me to.

I have been able to build my life around words and sentences. I wanted to write more quickly because it would allow me to do more of what I loved. I have worked as an editor improving other people’s sentences. I have freelanced, writing copy and articles for blogs and businesses. I have written mass emails and marketing copy. In my spare time, I keep a journal, I have written private poetry and published my own articles on my blog and Medium. In all of these forms, I have rewritten, edited, polished and improved my initial thoughts. They have come out the better for it.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Online writing advice tells you to write every day, to publish every day. Build an audience and an income. I write every day. That is good advice. But I publish infrequently. Writing slowly allows you to know your thoughts better. It improves your thinking and your writing. Writing out my first few drafts in longhand with a pencil gives my sentences physicality. I can work them with my hands, slow and methodical, like a craftsman, an artisan, savouring the satisfaction of a well-made artefact. Writing becomes an act of defiance, against the world’s demands of always more, always faster and against my own stupidity.

There are many reasons to write. To inform, to educate, to entertain, to convince, to seduce. And we are all writers. Offices, universities, studies produce millions of sentences every day. Each email that pings into your inbox, each word on packaging and every advert tempting you to take your money out of your wallet has been placed there by a human hand. But we are not machines for pumping out word after dull word. There is a craft to writing that can’t be reproduced in the suffocating air of a sweatshop. Writing should revel in the telling, not just in what is told. It lets us build more beautiful sentences.

There are many reasons to write. Every person will have a different one. I write because it allows me to sound smarter than I am. It allows me to explore the lines of thought that crackle across the synapses of my brain, that fizz for an instant before they are gone. I can only do that by slowing down. I won’t ever be prolific. I won’t ever amass thousands of readers hanging on my every word. But I will develop my craft. That is something, however small, to prize.