This year has been quite transformative for me, and I’m still unpacking what it all means. Suffice to say, I am evaluating everything I’m doing, considering changing a lot both personally and professionally.
You’ll hear more about that soon.
For now, I’m sharing some crucial lessons that I’ve learned about the writing process.
If you’re like me, you consider yourself a writer but maybe not a very good one, or at least not as good as you’d like to be. I am constantly plagued by the gap between my taste as a reader and my talent as a writer.
Ira Glass addresses this quite well, and others including myself and Seth Godin, have approached this topic with their own respective spins. But the point is that we are all trying to get better, at least those of us doing the work and not merely talking about it (which are two camps I often vacillate between).
As we get ready to open up registration for the next round of our book-writing program, Write a Bestseller, we’re covering three important lessons on writing that will include articles, podcasts, and even some live teachings.
This article includes an overview of each lesson, and going forward, we’ll dive into each one individually.
Great writing requires great ideas
All great ideas start out as terrible ideas. The job of a writer is to constantly capture ideas, refine them, and decide which ones will see the light of day.
All great ideas start out as terrible ideas.
Someone recently asked me how much of my writing sees the light of day. At one point, it was probably close to 100%. These days, it’s more like 20%. The older you get, the more critical you get—of yourself, of others, of everything. These days, I tend to subscribe to Hemingway’s dictum:
I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit… I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.
Writing is a process of searching for the right idea and not stopping until you find it. Ira Glass once said of his show This American Life that the hardest part of telling a good story is finding one. Why is This American Life one of the most popular podcasts in the world? Because they are relentlessly seeking the best ideas and throwing out the average ones.
Malcolm Gladwell has said something similar about his own writing and how he tirelessly searches for the right story or the perfect piece of research to illustrate the point he’s trying to make.
Don’t settle for average ideas. Great books and articles and blog posts come from great ideas. If you need help with organizing your ideas, check out my 3-bucket system guide and sign up for the workshop I’m hosting live on how to find the right idea for your next book.
Writing is manual labor
Recently, while coaching a client who’s working on a book, she shared that she was behind her word count goal, clocking in at 17,000 words when she should really be closer to 25,000. I told her no problem. This is how it goes.
Inspiration tends to happen in fits and starts. It’s a bit of a crap shoot sometimes. One day, you turn on the faucet and all that comes out is a steady drip. The next day, it’s like a fire hydrant exploded. Your job is to go to the sink every day and turn the handle.
Your job is to go to the sink every day and turn the handle.
That’s writing. It’s an effort. It’s a job. We don’t control the inspiration. We don’t even know where it comes from or how it works. Our job is to just keep showing up, keep making ourselves available to the Muse or Universe or God or whatever you want to call it.
At the end of the day, writing is just good old-fashioned blue-collar work. You sit down and you write until you’re done. You show up at the factory in your coveralls, punch your clock, and stand at the assembly line doing your work until the day is done.
Writing is just good, old-fashioned, blue-collar work.
Some days, you may write only a few hundred words. Other days, you may write thousands. It doesn’t matter. Don’t try to figure out the mystery of the process. Don’t try to squeeze all the productivity you can get out of a single writing moment. It won’t work.
Those efforts tend to do more harm than good on creative work. Just trust the process. Show up, do the work, and trust that something good is emerging.
So when you do show up, what does that look like?
I don’t know a serious professional writer who doesn’t have some kind of routine, at least when they’re on deadline—which, for a serious professional writer is almost always.
What is a routine?
- Pick a place to write in every day
- Pick a time to write every day
- Pick an amount of time to write every day
That’s it. It could be your kitchen table at 9:00 a.m. for thirty minutes. Do that every day—or at least more often than not—and you’ve got yourself a writing routine.
Everything is marketing
As a writer, everything you do is marketing.
Marketing is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the professional writing life. Marketing is not the mere promotion of your work. As Ryan Holiday says, you should constantly be sharing your message wherever you can, and ever so often come out with a new book. That’s marketing. It’s constantly talking about the work you’re doing and occasionally selling something.
As a writer, everything you do is marketing.
People should never wonder what you’re about. They should never not know what you’re up to, creatively. That doesn’t mean there can’t be mystery. It just means your job is to live your message, to embody it.
Your message is your best marketing asset. Talk about it with anyone and everyone as often as possible without being annoying.
Get feedback wherever you can, because the best way to validate your message is by sharing it. People will naturally tell you what they think. And if they don’t, their silence is a message in itself.
As you are working on a book, you should constantly be talking about that topic, getting feedback, testing ideas, and so forth.
For more on this, check out my workshop on talking about your book ideas.