Have you ever reached for a brownie when you were trying to lose weight? Or stayed in bed when you intended to go to the gym? Or put off paying bills because it was "too much of a hassle"?
There are lots of different ways we sabotage ourselves. This is true of life in general and also true of the writing life.
Writing depends not just on discipline but also on the complicated interplay between what we know and what we feel.
I've worked as an editor for just about 30 years (honest, I was really young when I started), and I've noticed there are five key negative feelings or thoughts that tend to shut down our writing—in much the same way that a circuit breaker shuts down electricity. BOOM and the lights go out.
Often, simply being aware of these thoughts is enough to take away their power. At other times, it's important to challenge them head-on. So let's see which ones are disrupting your writing (and therefore taking a bit of your income) and figure out what you can do about them.
1. I'm a lousy writer; I don't have the talent to do this
This is probably the most common negative thought of all. My theory is it's usually born in high school when writing teachers single out one or two people in the class for praise and use their red pens too liberally with the rest. (To this day, when I'm editing, I make a point of never using red to make suggestions or corrections!) And too much of a focus on grammar and spelling in childhood often mean trouble for the adult writer.
But here's the interesting truth: We're all born lousy marketing writers. The people who become "good" are the ones who are prepared to do the following simple things:
- Read good writing and work to emulate it
- Write a lot—because writing is like exercise: The more you do, the better you get
- Spend double the time on self-editing that they spend on writing
If you discover that you're constantly bad-mouthing yourself as you write, replace the inner negative chatter with the following statement: "Writing is about practice. The more I do, the better I'll get. When I finish this article (letter, report, etc.) I'll have more experience and I'll have improved."
2. I don't have the time to write
This is one of my favorite negative thoughts because it's so common and sooo easy to blow out of the water. The writing world is littered with people who quit their day-jobs so they could work on their books. But here's the secret: The published novelists and non-fiction writers are almost always the people who continued with their regular work and wrote in their spare time.
Just as the cactus thrives in a hot, dry environment, writing thrives in the absence of time. Yes, you read that correctly. Writing not only can be done quickly; it is better done quickly. That's partly because, if you're fast enough, you can usually out-run and out-write the negative chatter in your head.
People often make the mistake of trying to set aside huge chunks of time for writing (especially for reports). Me? I love writing in 10-minute bursts. Not only does this allow me to get ideas out of my head and onto paper when they are fresh, but it also gives me a big payback down the road. That's because when I go back to the document I often discover my article is much farther ahead than I'd realized. No blank page. It's a great feeling.
I do like having a decent chunk of time to self-edit—a different task from writing—but I'm talking maybe 30 to 60 minutes. Not all day.
When you're planning your writing time, think in small increments, not big chunks. Remember: If you write 300-350 words a day, you'll have written a decent-length book by the end of a year.
3. I'd better do a really good job on this (article, report, letter) because my reputation/sales results hinge on it
Of course you want your writing to be good. And of course certain pieces of work you do can be important to your business or career. But to understand why this negative line will do you in, it might help to think about professional sports. Take tennis, for example.
Do you think Martina Navratilova won a record nine Wimbledon singles championships and 58 Grand Slam titles by telling herself, "I really need to win this game; if I don't, I'm in trouble." Of course not! I don't know about Martina, but I do know that many professional athletes work with psychologists precisely so they can learn to turn off this unhelpful chatter. After all, this sort of self-talk is more likely to cause them to choke than to win.
Similarly, when you're writing, you need to shut down the tiny yet persistent voice that tells you how much you have riding on this job. Instead, do what the athletes do. Focus on the ball—in your case, focus on what you're writing.
And if that doesn't work, tell the voice that you don't have time to listen to it while you're writing, but you'll attend to it when you're editing the piece (when it can't do so much damage.)
4. I need to write about this topic
Truth is, unless you're a journalist or someone else who writes professionally, there are precious few topics that anyone is going to force you to cover. Sure you might need to write a pitch for a bank loan or sales letter to promote your product, but if you're writing an article for your e-zine or Web site, don't be bound by duty. Instead, focus on topics you feel passionate about.
Readers can smell disinterest the way lions can smell a steak. I've seen too many consultants who start an article by saying to themselves: "This is a hot topic in my industry right now." Or, "I want the search engines to pick me up on this one." Or, "People expect me to be an expert on this." Yawn.
Instead, choose a topic that excites you and has you fairly bursting to write. Then think hard about how to make it relate to your business, your keywords, or your target market. Your enthusiasm will not only captivate your readers but also inspire you to write quickly and fluently.
5. Writing is too hard
Let's get something straight. Lifting bricks is hard; waiting tables is hard; telling someone they have cancer is hard. Writing is not hard. Writing is just writing.
There is a romantic notion—perpetuated by Ernest Hemmingway, Raymond Carver and others—that writers must be tortured. In fact, writing is just a job. Sure, sometimes it's more difficult than other times—just like it's hard to return voicemail messages when you're headachy and grumpy, or hard to go for a run when you're bone-tired.
But, overall, writing is actually pretty cushy. You get to sit in a warm dry place. You can have a steaming cup of tea or coffee beside you. You don't have to do any heavy lifting (with spell-check, you don't even have to lift the dictionary!) And best of all, you get the privilege of sharing your thoughts—the ones inside your head—with other people.
So, dismiss the notion that writing is an onerous act. Writing is something we all can do. Sure, some of us are better at it that others than others. But that's mostly because of practice. And if you write more, you too will improve.
Get at it.
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