Frequent Questions: How do you deal with an idea drought?

Q: How do you deal with an idea drought—when you just don’t know what to write?
A: The same way you deal with a real drought: stock up your resources in advance.

rain. not an idea droughtIt’s raining right now in the Northeast, with more rain in the forecast every day for the next two weeks. Diagnosis: It’s April; happens once a year whether we want it to or not.

But people in desert climates treat rain as a much more precious resource. My rain falls off the roof and disappears into the land. In a desert, residents capture rain in barrels and cisterns and recycle every ounce of it for another use. They save their water because they know it won’t always be so plentiful.

Same with writers and our ideas.

Get an idea? Write that sucker down. Keep a small notebook or a couple of index cards in your back pocket. Or rely on that never-ending “notebook” on your phone. (But don’t rely on Siri to transcribe for you—not if you want to be able to decipher what you wrote.)

Ideas—maybe you’ve noticed this already—don’t grow on trees. It’s easy to sit down and write if you’ve snagged an idea. But what if you happen to feel idea-free—and you’re supposed to write anyway. Because that’s what writers do, right? Write every day. Keep those writing muscles well-oiled.

So pay attention to the ideas that honor you with their presence. Stop what you’re doing and write them down. Save them for a rainy day—or an idea drought.

Frequent Questions: How do I work with an editor?

Q: How can I get the new editor to stop crapping up my work?
A: [sigh]

frequent questionsMy friend Abe has been writing blog posts for their tech startup—very successfully. But as the company has grown, it’s added a marketing person. And that marketing person believes the intentionally informal tone Abe has cultivated for the blog doesn’t represent the company in its best light. He’s taken Abe’s work and sanded all of the personality out of it. “I don’t even want to write blogs for this company anymore,” Abe said.

While the question above isn’t quite verbatim, it’s certainly what Abe meant. My answer, however,  is verbatim. Many business writers have asked me similar questions over the years, and they all get the same response: a long, deep sigh.

As I ghostwriter, I don’t face this kind of challenge often. If I feel my client is making a grave mistake—taking out a key story at the beginning of a speech, because they’re too eager to get to “the facts”—I will tell them. But if they insist—hey, it’s their speech. My name isn’t on it, so it’s easy for me to release any pride of authorship.

Which is not to say I love it when clients crap up my work. I remember arriving to see a presentation I’d spent weeks putting together. As soon as my foot hit the pavement, the presenter rushed over to me crowing, “I was up all night rearranging the slides!” And of course he’d rearranged all the sense out of it. But I knew that as the presenter, he’d take the heat. And indeed he did—with the audience calling out the lapses in reasoning he’d created. In retrospect, I guess the hardest part of that experience was hiding my grin from the rest of the people in the room.

But Abe doesn’t have the luxury of anonymity. They’d cultivated a particular style and voice and it was being chopped to shreds, turned into something more appropriate for an SEC filing than a blog post.

The bad news, Abe, is that as long as the editor has license to crap up your work, that’s not something you can control. If the company hired the marketing guy because they wanted a change of voice in their blog, then you need to defer to his style. But you can ask for future blog posts to be unsigned. You may have to learn to write in the marketing guy’s preferred style, but no one can force you to put your name to something that doesn’t represent you.

One final piece of good news for Abe: the CEO looked at the marketing guy’s rewrite and bellowed, “This sounds so bureaucratic!” So at least someone over there has a sense of what their readers want. Abe should probably practice some grin-hiding techniques.

How much of my story matters? — Frequent Questions

Q: How much of my story matters?
A: All of it to you, but maybe not to your readers.

Everyone has a story. One of the most wonderful facets of life is getting to discover the unique or quirky or just plain different stories of our fellow human beings.

But unless you’re writing a memoir, you don’t need to tell your entire story.

Have you ever been at a networking event and had a simple question like “And what you do?” explode into a half-hour disquisition about every single facet of the other person’s job.

You hate those conversations, right? You’d welcome anything that would interrupt them—a colleague rushing over to say hello, a tray of hors d’oeuvres overturning, a small earthquake nearby.

When you’re leveraging your story to introduce yourself to an audience or to make a point about your subject, you don’t need to tell the whole story. Find the part of it that connects specifically to the readers’ interest. And tell that.

my story matters
Danica Roem, photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA – 2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA 7684, CC BY-SA 2.0

When Danica Roem campaigned for the Virginia House of Delegates, she based her campaign on transportation issues. She and her future constituents spent way too much of their time stuck in traffic; she thought the House of Delegates should address the issue.

Oh—and Danica Roem isn’t just a commuter. She’s also a transgender woman.

In another context—say, if she were writing a memoir—I’m sure Roem could tell a fascinating story about how she discovered her gender identity and what challenges and triumphs she’s encountered along the way. But telling that story in the context of a campaign would siphon attention away from her key campaign issue. Instead, she focused on what her constituents could expect her to do rather than on who she is.

As she said in a recent article in InStyle magazine:

“Even through the Democratic primary, when talking about red-meat issues, I said, ‘Well, Democrats get stuck in traffic too. Transgender people get caught in traffic too.’ LGBT people don’t just get to jump on the back of a unicorn and fly over traffic. We get stuck in it like anybody else.”

After she won the primary, her Republican challenger—whose seat she was trying to win—introduced a “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people. Roem used that as an opportunity to remind voters about the issue she was campaigning on:

“I came up with the phrase ‘Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more focused on where I go to the bathroom than on how you get to work.'”

Brilliant. She didn’t shy away from her transgender status—I would never advise you to try to bury an essential part of your story. But she reminded voters that she cares about the thing they care about. She focused on the concerns they have in common and her gender identity became just one piece of who she is, not the whole story.

By the way, she won the election.

Do you have a story to tell? Start telling it—join my 5-day writing challenge, starting January 22nd.

How do I know I’m a good writer? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do I know I’m a good writer?
A: Have you read the internet lately?

good writerI read a lot. More than the average person, though perhaps less than my most brilliant friends.

But all that time with my nose buried in a book (hmm…that metaphor doesn’t work as well in a digital world) my iPad has taught me one thing: there are all kinds of writers out there. And forget about self-published writers—some of the work being put out by major publishing houses would have barely gotten a 73 at my high school.

We fetishize published writers. But just because some company gives a writer an advance and slaps their work between hard covers before refusing to spend a dime to publicize it…Sorry, where was I? Right: Just because a writer scores a publishing contract doesn’t mean the writing is any good.

Read. Read widely. You’ll see what I mean.

Some writers encrust great ideas in so much turgid prose that you need to spend 20 minutes chipping it away before you can begin to see the dim outlines of the argument. Yet those writers get published. Others write clear, breezy, amusing prose that’s utterly devoid of ideas. They get published too.

I’m not naming names—God knows, someone could mine this blog for plenty of examples of less-than-stellar prose. But I will be using some published passages in my upcoming master class on revision. (You can get a taste of it in a free webinar on June 21st.)

A good writer ships

So if you find yourself making a distinction between yourself and “real” writers (and we both know when you say “real” you mean “published”)—stop. Just stop.

You know what the difference is between you and the “real” writers? They shipped. They shoved their work out of the nest. They shared it, opened themselves up for criticism, yes. And also for praise. Undoubtedly, they deserved some of each—most of us do.

So how do you know if you’re a good writer? You write. You revise. You ship. And then you listen—to people you trust, to people whose writing is as good as or (preferably) better than yours. And you revise again.

But put your work out in the world. Especially if one of your trusted advisors says it’s time.

You’re probably a better writer than you think you are. Better, even, than some “real” writers. So go ahead—ship it.

Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

How do I lose the academic writing style? —Frequent Questions

Q: How do I lose the academic writing style?
A: Stop writing.

I know my initial answers to these Frequent Questions tend toward the flippant, but with this one I’m dead serious.

One of the best ways to knock the stuffiness out of your writing style is to talk through your ideas. Write out loud.

Now, I’m not talking about improvising. Please in the name of all that is good, do not improvise your talk. Unless you’re a member of Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade, in which case I wish you Godspeed.

But unless you speak like an academic 24/7, you should be able to find a more informal way to talk through your ideas. Try it as if you were chatting with a colleague. (But make sure it’s someone you like.) Record your conversation, transcribe it, and the next day go back and sort out the great stuff you can use as is, the stuff you can make great with a little tinkering, and the stuff that needs to go in the Outtakes folder I’ve written about before.

Once you’ve translated your thoughts into English from the original Academese, make sure the level of detail works for your audience. Have you fallen afoul of the Curse of Knowledge the Heath Brothers talk about in their book Made to Stick? If you think you may be getting into the weeds with details, find a bright 10-year-old (real or imaginary) and talk through your ideas again.

Academic writing won’t fly when you’re out of school

Academics are not the only people who write like academics. Anyone who’s been trained by an academic will write like one, too. At least until they hit the real world and realize no one’s reading what they write.

After I spoke at the conference last weekend, several people told me that writing frustrated them because they hadn’t been able to shake the academic writing style.

That’s an easy fix: Just write more. And not just about work. Go outside your lane once in a while and write something completely different—a poem, a silly story, a meditation on the letter U.

Just 15 minutes a day will make a huge difference over time.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back? — Frequent Questions

Q: I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back?
A: Didn’t your mother tell you it’s not nice to push?

I realized the other day that I was doing it again: procrastinating. Day after day, this project appeared on my To-Do List. Day after day, it remained the only thing not crossed off.

And then I realized: Dammit, I’m afraid.

Afraid of writing? “The less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.” Elizabeth GilbertI’ve been doing this writing thing for a long time now. You’d think by now I’d recognize fear when it came calling. I do generally recognize it faster than before—that’s progress. (This piece isn’t due for another three weeks). But still, it chagrined me that Fear was able to slip on a trench coat and a fake mustache and slip right past my defenses. I tell myself I should know better by now.

Oh, one more thing. This project I was afraid to start? It’s a presentation I’m giving. About courage.

Afraid of writing? Join the club

Everybody feels fear around their writing from time to time. Whether it’s fear of starting to write, fear of your subject matter, fear of inadequacy…Fear, like the British royal family heading to a wedding, wears many hats. If only it would adopt their distinctive wave too, it would be so much easier to spot.

The best way to get over fear of starting to write is—you will not be surprised—to write. Make a commitment to just 15 minutes a day, every day. If that feels too long, do 10—or even 5. But do it. Find an accountability partner, or join a group. I’m in the middle of leading a 5-day Writing Challenge right now. But you can sign up to hear about the next challenge I’m launching. And proceeds go to charity—so if doing something good for yourself isn’t motivation enough, do something good for someone else.

If you’ve got it in your head that you’re not creative, or you don’t deserve to spend the time on yourself, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her book Big Magic especially for you. Seriously. Read it this minute.

One thing I often remind my coaching clients—and it’s something that helped me when I was so afraid of writing that I never did it—is:

No one needs to see it.

I emphasize this to take away the fear that someone will read your writing and say negative things about it. Also to stop you from saying negative things about it pre-emptively. While you’re creating, you can keep your writing safe and secure in your computer. Unless you print it out or email it somewhere, no one needs to see it.


Someone does need to see it eventually

First maybe a teacher. A writing group. We all improve with constructive feedback.

But don’t get so caught up in this semi-private feedback loop that you never open your work up to the public.

Trust your instinct, yes. But don’t trust your fear. If your writing group says it’s good, if your coach says it’s good—then push your little bird of a draft out of the nest and publish it. Start a blog. Put it up on Medium or HuffPo. This gets easier the more you do it. Validation awaits you—and validation feels so much better than fear.

If your writing is stuck in the closet, read Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work! I’m not usually a fan of exclamation points, but this subject deserves one.

Write! Now!

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

“I did some really good writing yesterday. What do I do today?” — Frequent Questions

Q: I did some really good writing yesterday. But what do I do today? It’s hard to get started.
A: Grab a crayon.

I know the feeling. It’s far easier for writers to think our work is crap—because so much of our work is crap. It’s even, I just found out, a law of nature: Sturgeon’s Law. As with so much else in this world, if you go to the primary source you find that the Law is actually a Revelation. In 1958, Sturgeon wrote:

“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.”

Here we have yet another clear case of eroding quality in the modern world. When Rudyard Kipling voiced a similar opinion back in the 19th century, he only damned 80% of creative output:

“Four–fifths of everybody’s work must be bad. But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake.”

But I digress. Whether your work is 80% or 90% crap, the non-crap portion remains firmly in the minority. So when you manage to turn out something you like—and that other people will (or already do!) like—you not only have a visceral appreciation of Kipling’s assessment that it’s “worth the trouble for its own sake.” You also have genuine cause for celebration, my friend.

Don’t let good writing yesterday overshadow any writing today

So you did some good writing yesterday. Congratulations.

But you do realize you still have to write today. And, yes, it may turn out to be not nearly as good as the writing you did yesterday. In fact, the laws of probability—not to mention Sturgeon—tell us it won’t be. Them’s the breaks.

But there’s good news, too. Every word you write today gets you closer to the golden 20% of non-crap that you turned out in your good writing yesterday.

Oh, I know, I know—all you want to do is open up that doc from yesterday and revisit your glory. You could spend all day doing that. I’ve been there. In fact, I am there at this very moment.

I wrote something really great yesterday. I’m justifiably proud of myself. But re-reading yesterday’s writing doesn’t get today’s writing done.

But I don’t have any ideas, the voice in my head whined. So I embraced process instead: I usually do a Q&A on Wednesdays, but I didn’t post a blog yesterday because of the Day Without Women. So, calendar be damned, I declared today as “WTF? Wednesday” (that’s how I settled on the day for this regular feature: I gave it a private nickname). Then all that remained was to pick the question. And yes, okay, if you insist on full disclosure, the person who submitted this particular question is me.

There was never any question of my not writing today. Not with 316 days of a writing streak behind me and the prospect of seeing the magic 317 appear on my phone app once I’m done. Someone recently asked me when I’ll get to the one-year mark. I suppose I could do the math, but really I’m not as focused on 365 as I am on 318.

I cannot recommend the daily writing thing highly enough. This commitment I’ve made has gotten me through a lot of upheaval over the past nine-ish months, and the sense of accomplishment I feel…well, it’s hard to describe.

But I don’t have any ideas as brilliant as yesterday’s

you did good writing yesterday; try writing with a crayon todayI’m sure that’s as true for you as it is sometimes for me. So stop aiming for one. Instead, shake things up a bit.

If you always write at your desk, find another place to sit. Go outside, weather permitting. Go to the library (I’ll have more on that this weekend).

If you always write on your computer, grab a pen and a notebook. Better yet, grab a colored pencil or crayon. It’s impossible to take yourself or your problems too seriously when you’ve got a crayon in your hand.

Spend 15 minutes writing as your 10-year-old self. Don’t worry about replicating your good writing yesterday. Have some fun with your writing today.

How can I learn critical thinking? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I learn critical thinking?
A: Don’t rely on other people for your answers. (Does that include me?)

I didn’t learn “critical thinking” when I was growing up. My high school would never have taught anything so pedestrian as that. No—but we did learn to think critically. I think the school probably saw that as its highest calling—far more important that stuffing our heads full of Shakespeare or frog-marching us through The Aeneid in Latin.

The school’s unofficial mantra, memorably drummed into us by one of our teachers, was:

“We worship at the Shrine of Text.”

Translation: Don’t believe what anyone else tells you. Go to the source—the primary source—and make up your own mind about it says.

What is a “primary source”? Thanks to the Ithaca College library for this definition:

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources.

The other kind of source we rely on in forming opinions is a “secondary source”—again, from Ithaca College, and again my own emphasis added:

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research.

The world is full of secondary sources these days, and very many of those sources are full of—what’s that technical term? oh yeah—shit. So the first thing we need to do is figure out if the secondary source has any motivation to lie. Or, conversely, any incentive to tell the truth.

learn critical thinking

from an infographic created by

Learn critical thinking: Who said it and why?

Imagine an academic who claims he has evidence that Shakespeare was an alien from another planet. We don’t just say, “Well, he’s got a Ph.D.—he must know what he’s talking about.” No—look into his motivations.

Did he just write a book called Shakespeare, Phone Home? Do spiking his book sales and goosing interest in a movie adaptation give him motivation to lie?

Or maybe he really believes it’s the truth. That brings up another set of maybes: Maybe he’s uncovered revolutionary information; maybe he’s a nut-job. Sorry—a “Dr.” Nut Job.

How do we figure that out? We see if other credentialed Shakespeare experts will back up his story (though you have to think that’s a long shot). More likely, they’ll either expose his financial motivation or convince us that he wears tinfoil hat under his mortarboard. At that point, it’s up to you, the consumer of this news: Does his profit motive cloud the facts? Do his delusions disqualify him as an expert?

The 24/7 news cycle has sparked an explosion of secondary sources. As my Texan granddaddy used to say, “There’s more shit in the air these days than a cow pasture in a tornado.”

Well…My granddaddies were both New Yorkers. One never traveled west of Ohio, as far as I know; the other never made it past Brooklyn. And they would never in a million years have said “shit.” But it’s a good line, isn’t it?—as long as you don’t look too closely into the backstory.

And that pretty much sums up the state of much of the “news” we receive these days.

Keep asking questions

We must all learn critical thinking. And that means we must all become experts at asking questions.

Question the information you receive until you find media outlets you trust: media outlets that rely, to the greatest extent possible, on primary sources.

Look at whether the outlet has a vested interest in the outcome of the story, whether it relies on credible, credentialed experts. Whether its journalists—and their experts—back up assertions with actual facts. And in case you’ve forgotten:

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”—Merriam-Webster

After the November election, U.S. News & World Report published a story headlined “Avoid These Fake News Sites at All Costs.” The first six on the list are satire-based sites—as I pointed out months ago, the absurdities being committed by our leaders do make it harder to tell satire from facts. But U.S. News & World Report labels the majority of the other outlets on the list as “propaganda”—including InfoWars, a site that our current Republican president is known to rely on.

It’s probably too late for him to learn critical thinking, but there’s still hope for the rest of us.

The Global Digital Citizen Foundation put together a handy infographic of questions to help us learn critical thinking skills. You can download it here. And if you want to teach critical thinking skills to your children—that seems to be the sweet spot of the Global Digital Citizen Foundation—check out their simplified infographic. It ends with a reminder that applies to people of any age:

Knowledge is a journey you do over and over again.

The need for critical thinking never ends. Bon voyage!

Beef up your writing skills by writing every day. My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts March 13th. Join us.

What’s the difference between blog-writing and writing an article? Frequent Questions

Q: What’s the difference between blog-writing and writing something like a magazine article?
A: You’re more likely to get paid for the article.

Yes, that’s a flippant answer. But any “difference” I might find would be flippant—like, “only one of them involves killing a tree.”

Writing a blog post, you have to source your own illustrations; a magazine has editors to do that for you.

A magazine editor might assign you a story; you’re on your own with your blog. And notice I said “might.” It’s much more likely that you’ll be pitching stories to the editors, at least until they put you on staff. And maybe even then.

You are editor-in-chief, fact-checker, copyeditor, and proofreader of your own blog. Magazines still have fact-checkers, copyeditors, and proofreaders on staff, don’t they? Well, the good ones do. The New Yorker even made a video of its in-house copyeditor Andrew Boynton recently, marking up the remarks Donald Trump gave at his Black History Month breakfast. That dude knows his way around a red pencil and it still took him nearly an hour to carve out something comprehensible.

But I don’t think my questioner was asking about the mechanics of publishing a blog vs. writing for a magazine. I think the real question was—does blog-writing require a different writing style?

Is blog-writing its own animal?

Different audiences expect different writing styles. What works in Foreign Affairs, for instance, would not fly in Vogue—not even the Spanish-language edition. Then again, those publications would likely not draw from the same pool of writers.

But I think we trip ourselves up if we decide that a magazine article is a completely different animal than a blog, or vice versa.

Yes, blogs can be more personal. I don’t mean that in the TMI sense; I mean you can write in the first person. You can express opinions. With a blog, you can filter the story you want to tell through your own experience. The good news is that automatically makes your writing unique—no one else has your set of experiences. The bad news, if you want to write journalism you will have to change that part of your writing style. Unless they’re paid opinionators, journalists don’t use the first person and they go out of their way to be even-handed. Sometimes too far out of their way, but that’s another subject.

Having gotten this far on my own, I decided to ask Mr. Google and discovered this, from a website called Making a Living Writing. The writer, Carol Tice, and I seem to be in agreement, except that she declares “good spelling and grammar optional” in blog posts. Well, yes, except if you want anyone to read more than one. She also says blogs are short, under 300 words. Not according to my SEO program, which chastises me if I post anything below 300 words. And some bloggers have been experimenting with longer pieces. Mine seem to be getting longer, too, though not due to any grand design.

Writing is writing

Other than a few stylistic tweaks, I don’t see much difference between blogs and magazine articles. Writing is writing. Bring your authentic self to the keyboard and give it your best shot.

Whatever you write, be scrupulously honest—and that includes citing your references and attributing quotations correctly. Check your facts, rely on primary sources whenever possible. And then just say what you need to say. If you’ve got ideas worth reading, you’ve won 90% of the battle.

blog-writing is like making blueberry muffinsIt’s like cooking. You mix up a batch of batter, add some blueberries and—hey—you’ve got blueberry pancakes! Pour pretty much the same batter into muffin tins and you’ll have blueberry muffins. Add more flour and a bigger pan and if you’re clever you can turn it into coffee cake. But fundamentally, it’s all the same thing.

You can make your words into anything you like, too. But first you have to write them. So stop worrying about the different dishes you can make and start mixing your batter.

Write now!

Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.