Daily writing practice —consistency breeds success

Some people practice yoga. Other people practice their golf swing. Me, I practice writing. Every day for the last 511 days (as of yesterday). That’s what you call a daily writing practice.

Why is a daily writing practice important? Two reasons:

  1. Consistency and
  2. Consistency

First, consistency: a daily practice makes you better at whatever you’re doing—the old 10,000-hour rule. I’ve written about this a lot (here and here, among other places) so I won’t revisit the discussion.

The second point of consistency, though, is not for you. It’s for your audience. You might call that the Field of Dreams rule. And my friend Melissa Smith is a shining example.

Daily writing practice leads to 1400% more readers

daily writing practice
Daily writer Melissa Smith

Back in March, her blog had about 250 subscribers. She says she remembers the date well “because that’s when I was sure it couldn’t still be just family and friends.” Six months later—with zero marketing—she’s at 3600. That’s more than 1400% growth. With—did I mention?—zero marketing.

Melissa says:

“When people ask why I have been having success with my blog I tell them the single biggest reason is because I write and publish every, single, day. They would rather me give them magic answers, tips, tricks, and awesome SEO. It’s so much easier and so much harder for them as well.”

I added the emphasis there: Every. Single. Day. No, it’s not magic; just work.

If you show up, people will show up with you. Of course, then they’ll expect you to keep showing up. Meet their expectations and you’ll develop a relationship with your followers, sustained by your daily writing practice.

Melissa runs ThePVA.com—an excellent matchmaking service for VAs and employers like me—but it’s not her work blog that’s attracting so much attention. Melissa is documenting her year as a “Roamer,” a group of entrepreneurs settling in a new country every month. It’s not shiny travel porn, and that’s key to its success. Melissa is a real person writing about her real life. The homesickness. The joy of discovering new places, new pursuits. The friendships she’s forming. It’s like a one-woman Amazing Race.

I don’t know what Melissa plans to write about when her year of Roaming ends. But I do expect she’ll be writing. Once you’ve seen what a daily writing practice can do, there’s no going back. That’s why I hit Day 511 yesterday and why I’ll do all I can to make sure I hit 512 today.


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Judy Gitenstein’s Commandments — Guest Post

Judy GitensteinJudy Gitenstein has worked on staff at Dell Publishing, Random House, Avon Books and Bantam Books, and now independently with writers who want to get the inside scoop on the industry. She is a writing coach, editor . . . and secret weapon.

Especially this week, she’s my secret weapon. I’d asked her to guest back in August, when I went on vacation, but she wasn’t able to fit it into her busy schedule. But—hallelujah!—her blog arrived at exactly the right time: when my doctor ordered me to bed for two days. Thank you, Judy Gitenstein!

 

Commandment 3 (of my ten commandments of writing and publishing): Do what works for you

by Judy Gitenstein

When I was growing up, I liked to figure out people’s names backward. Mine was Yduj Nietsnetig, and sounded like “E-dudge Ni-etz-netig.” Other kids played with their food; I played with words. Go figure. As an editor I’m in the right business.

So, thank you, Eniale, for offering this guest slot on your blog.

I started in publishing before anyone was called a writing coach and now I find I am one. It’s what I’ve always done, just with a new title. Writing coaches nowadays freely share their process by which you can—pick one—write/deliver your essay/book/memoir/speech. By following 3/5/10 steps during a weekend/week-long workshop/boot camp or six/eight/ten webinars, you can finish your essay/book/memoir/speech in record time.

There’s only one problem.

You’re learning someone else’s process. Workshop and boot camp leaders are teaching you what works for them. It may work for you while you’re taking the course because you’re being helped through the process. Their process. But it won’t work when you’re on your own.

Find your process

So, the very most important thing I can tell you, Elaine’s readers, is to find what works for you. Figure out, try out, and refine your process, whatever it is, no matter how weird it may seem. It’s the quirkiness, the “you-ness” that distinguishes you from other writers. This is what I tell my clients all the time.

Yes, take the course. Learn someone else’s process. Then create your own.

The next time you have to write something, do what you normally do and simply notice your inclinations. Do you think first or write first? Do you write a little every day or write it all in one sitting? Do you spill out a draft or craft each sentence as you go? Do you work in the morning or in the middle of the night?

There is no right answer. There is only the answer that works for you.

My process

I write best under deadline, real or self-imposed, and I pretty much write best in crisis mode, with fear as my motivator.

There are those who get a certain amount done every day. If something’s on their calendar, they do it and check it off. I’m not one of those people and I realized only recently that I’ll never be one of those people. In fact, I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to follow my natural pattern. I kind of like immersing myself in what I’m doing so that I can take walks, ponder, fiddle, nap, and get down to work, often in the middle of the night. I isolate myself so I can focus. I love the feeling of swimming upstream while I’m working and I love the feeling of joining the world again when I’m done.

I have on my wall a New Yorker cartoon of a king looking out over a parapet in the middle of the night. The caption is: “It’s nice when it’s quiet.”

What a relief it’s been to allow myself to be even more who I am, and in the process be even more productive and effective.

This method is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for anyone but me. As for you, figure out what you do, embrace it, refine it, and most of all remember it so that you don’t reinvent it every time you write.

What starts as the hardest, most insurmountable task can in a flash become the most wonderful, satisfying experience—so much so that you’ll quickly forget the excruciating part when you sit down to write again. Find something for your wall that reminds you of that while you’re struggling with the tough part of your process.

What’s your process?

What’s the thing you do that seems the most useful but that might also be counterintuitive, simple or just downright funny? Share it with us in the comments.

And please visit judygitenstein.com. I’m working on all ten of my commandments of writing and publishing (each one in the middle of the night, of course) and am eager to share them with you. Join my mailing list to read them all. And please note: by making this promise to you I’m creating a crisis whereby I now have to write them. My crisis, my process. My way.


Write better when you write daily. My next 5-day writing challenge kicks off on September 18th.

Why do I have to do it if it’s hard? — Frequent Questions

Q: Why do I have to do it if it’s hard?
A: You don’t. It’s a choice you make.

I call this feature “Frequent Questions” rather than Frequently Asked Questions. But I don’t see this question all that often. And I’ll be honest, I’m glad about that.

creating can be hardCreating is hard. You bare your soul and sometimes all you get in return is a yawn. You spend months preparing—whether you’re sweating over your computer while everyone you know is off partying, or scraping the dried paint off your skin after a day of Jackson Pollock-ing in your studio, or rehearsing your cabaret show until you can sing it in your sleep. Then the big reveal and…

[crickets]

No one reads your book. No gallery even hangs your painting. People stay away from your lovingly crafted cabaret show in droves. I’ve got lots of personal experience with that last one.

Yeah, it’s hard. So?

Of course it hurts. When you’ve got six people in a room that seats 100 and three of them talk through the whole show—not fun. Once I was in a musical at a tiny, non-air-conditioned theatre during a heatwave. One night, two-thirds of the audience left at intermission; we played the second act to one person. Got a standing ovation, though. Or maybe he was just trying to beat the rush to the taxis (in New York City, you never know.)

The musical thing didn’t really bother me (except for the heat). It wasn’t my show; it wasn’t my story. My cabaret shows, on the other hand, each new show was better than the one before. I won awards, I got a review in The New York Times. And I was still scrounging for audiences.

But I had something to say, so I said it. I chose to say it. I made the decision to put myself out there, whether or not an audience came along for the ride.

You write (or paint, or sing) because you have to on some level. But creating is also a choice. If you make that choice, embrace it. Do the thing you love because you love it. If the hard part feels too hard, then by all means stop doing it. What you don’t get to do is complain.

Next question?


Write better when you write more often. My next 5-day writing challenge starts September 18th: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


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Draft Z — the nightmare of endless revisions

New clients are often surprised when they open up my first draft and find “DRAFT A” at the top. Don’t people usually number their drafts? Show me a numbered draft and I’ll show you a writer who’s never had to do endless revisions.

endless revisions make a writer unhappyI switched over to letters early on in my career, when I had a client who got me to Draft 23, or perhaps beyond. They were paying me well for the privilege of being picky (or indecisive), so I couldn’t complain. But I did celebrate when the project ended.

That’s when I decided I needed a more opaque draft-identifying system. Letters.

Yes, I could figure out that Draft W was actually Draft 23 in disguise. But that would take effort, and in the midst of revision that was effort I was unlikely to expend.

My numbering system got a bit more baroque when I worked in-house for a bit. My boss was a serial reviser and we also sent multiple revisions to the external clients. I needed to identify the drafts that had managed to escape—er, that the external folks had reviewed. So it became letters for external review, numbers for internal. Thus Draft B3—the third in-house revision of the second draft the external client would receive.

Did I say endless revisions? The external clients would approve before we got too far into the alphabet, but the internal numbers routinely broke two digits. You’d better believe I celebrated when I escaped that situation.

Endless revisions — the search for perfection

Look, I understand the constant search for “better”—my own personal writing projects can hit Draft L before I push them out of the nest. Fortunately that’s just a letter, not a Roman numeral.

But sometimes revisions make things worse.

So how do you know when to stop?

In the beginning, the best practice is just do to it. Stop. A lot. Stop after each draft and let the piece rest—overnight if you can; for 15 minutes if that’s all you’ve got. Heck, take a five minute walk around the office. That’s enough to refresh your perspective a little. Maybe enough to recognize that the piece is good.

Good. You can live with “good.” Good is better than average, better than most of the stuff out in the world. Good is good enough to ship.

Once you’ve sent “good” out into the world and the sky hasn’t fallen, it’s easier to do it a second time. And a third. And you’re on your way to stopping the cycle of endless revision.

Which is also good. And feels better every time.


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What makes a great lede great?

You want pressure? Try to write a lede for a piece about writing a great lede.

My resident critic swats away every phrase I think of. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal in my head, like Navratilova vs. Graf at the 1985 U.S. Open (still the best tennis match I’ve ever seen). Steffi seemed on the cusp of beating the then-best player the women’s game had ever seen. And Martina’s superhuman ability threatened to become merely human. I remember screaming at the television, almost with each point.

Ah…nothing like a good digression to take the pressure off. Okay, ledes.

I found this lede in an article by Chris Smith on VanityFair.com:

"Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan"—a great lede

The lede paragraph is supposed to summarize the key points of the article. But is this piece really about Robert Mueller’s melanin? Or his work schedule?

No, it’s about Robert Mueller’s inexhaustible pursuit of Donald Trump. But I love the laid-back opening; it mirrors Mueller’s image. Cool. Indefatiguable. The exact opposite of the central figure he’s investigating.

Break the rules to make a great lede

“Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan.” It’s not a classic lede—it breaks the all the rules of a lede for a news story—and that’s exactly what makes it a great lede.

It pulls you up short. Say what? It’s like walking past a person in a business suit wearing a gorilla head. You can’t help but notice the incongruity. You want to know why it’s there. And so you keep reading.

In a newspaper article, the lede paragraph needs to sum up the story for readers who don’t have time to keep reading. But in a profile or a magazine article, the lede needs to capture the readers’ attention and draw them deeper into the story. We may think about Robert Mueller’s work, but who thinks about his skin? It’s an incongruous detail.

Now, incongruity is great, but only in small doses. You don’t want to become the writer who starts every piece from an odd angle. Or an outright digression (see above).

Well, I didn’t actually begin with the digression, did I? That might alienate the reader. You start reading an article about the best tennis matches of all time and you end up with an instructional piece about ledes. Tennis fans would be pissed off and the writers—well, they might have skipped this post altogether. And see what you would have missed?


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Writing vs. crafting — “doing my autobiography”

writing vs. crafting —baseball editionSo there I am, watching a baseball game. I thought it was the Mets vs. the Nationals but the contest quickly turned into Writing vs. Crafting.

One of the announcers started talking about a long-ago incident and then explained, “It’s been on my mind because I’m doing my autobiography now.”

Anything strike you as odd about that sentence?

(I guess I gave it away in the title of the post.)

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the announcer’s honesty—as opaque as it is. Clearly he—like many a baseball player before him—has hired a ghostwriter. No shame in that. But that leaves us with this extremely odd sentence:

I’m doing my autobiography.

Stories about “doing” rather than “being” provide a much richer experience for your reader. But when I create those stories, the verb I reach for is “write.” I write blog posts, speeches, books. I don’t “do” them.

He could have said “I’m working on my autobiography.” That’s true enough, whether or not he’s writing every word.

Writing vs. crafting

I think I object to “doing” also because it somehow makes the act of writing sound like, I don’t know, building a cabinet. “I’m doing some woodworking in the basement.” “I’m doing some collaging these days.”

Is writing a craft? Well, I guess we call it that sometimes. I often craft speeches for my clients—yes, I use the verb to blur things. I don’t want to take too much credit for the words that come out of my clients’ mouths, even if I did write every one.

Playwrighting—I still remember the lecture my Playwrighting teacher gave us the first day of his class. It’s memorable not just for what he said but because it was pretty much the only thing even approaching a lecture that we heard for the rest of the semester. He very carefully explained the spelling of the thing we were about to undertake. That it’s “wrighting” not “writing” because we are crafting something.

But playwrighting is a participatory sport, at least once you get a director and a bunch of actors involved. Book-writing tends to be much more solitary. Unless, of course, you’re working with a ghost—and then the ghost puts in the bulk of the alone time.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with crafting. And nothing wrong with hiring a ghost—unless you lay all the blame on the ghost for your own mistakes. But please don’t “do” writing. Just write. Or work with a writer—either way, I’m happy.


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Look ahead — “old sayings” vs. clichés

“Don’t look back. (You’re not going that way.)” Or, to translate into the preferred language of the SEO gods: “look ahead.”

look ahead

Do you read that as wise counsel? As a New Age-y cliché? Or as the worst driving advice ever?

It’s undoubtedly the last. My father the insurance man always instructed us to check the rear view mirrors before turning on the ignition. To be fair, he’d be perfectly fine with “Look ahead” too. He spent his days looking at wrecked cars and deciding how little—er, how much his company ought to pay for them. He knew everything that could happen to you in a car. So look back, look forward, look to your left, to your right—he insisted on all of it.

But in a metaphorical sense, “Don’t look back”—is it wise or trite?

I think the answer is

Yes.

If all you do is toss it into your writing, then it has all the weight of a fortune cookie saying.

But if you use it to make a larger point, if you can connect it to emotion and story—then you’ve got the making of something powerful.

It’s like anything, right? You don’t just drop a quotation into the middle of your work and then never mention it again.

“No man is an island entire of itself.”—John Donne

Well, yes. And…? As your reader, why should I care about that? How does it relate to me?

Look ahead

“Don’t look back” resonates for me now because I’m packing. (Argh.) And looking back is pretty much 90% of the packing game, right?

Do I really need to keep my 1980s edition of Trivial Pursuit? What was trivial then is now, like, super-obscure and useless information now. But I remember buying it, carrying it home, being one of my first friends to own it. Nope, Goodwill that sucker.

The handmade ceramic tile with my two-week-old footprints on it—even more trivial than the Trivial Pursuit. Completely useless to every conceivable Goodwill shopper. But my baby footprints! Jury’s still out on that. Oh, I would drive Marie Kondo crazy.

“Don’t Look Back” could make a fine Story Safari for a company in the throes of change. (And when is a company not in the throes of change?) When do you honor the legacy processes? How do you implement new ones without alienating half your workforce? Well, don’t look back; you’re not going that way. So what’s next.

In that context, “Don’t look back”—or, pace, gods of SEO—”look ahead” isn’t a cliché at all. It’s a great hook for a story.

Now, excuse me. I’ve got more packing to do.


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I love podcasts — and you might too

I love podcasts — I love listening to them and I love being interviewed on them.

Regular readers have already heard me sing the praises of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell doesn’t just deliver a fascinating story each week, he also offers a subtle lesson in how to write well. Well? Brilliantly.

I talk a lot about the importance of reading good writing. Gladwell reminds me that it’s equally important—actually, maybe more so—to listen to good writing.

i love podcastsI should have mentioned Revisionist History when Pete Mockaitis, the host of the podcast How to Be Awesome at Your Job, asked me about good material to read. Guess I was in a literal mood that day. And while pretty much every episode of Revisionist History would make a damn fine book, it’s still a podcast.

I love Gladwell’s podcast so much that I included it in the “great writing” I analyze for the writers who subscribe to my Weekly What program. You’ll hear more about that tomorrow. But—seriously—when was the last time you heard a podcast put together with enough thought that it deserved a deep analysis? Yeah, I thought so. If you haven’t heard Revisionist History yet, start here at episode one. You’re welcome.

I love podcasts (lots of podcasts)

I also love more anarchic podcasts, like the ones from the Crooked Media stable. Actually,  Pod Save the World, Pod Save the People, and Friends Like These have too much structure to call them “anarchic.” Lovett or Leave It, Jon Lovett’s podcast, has been gradually acquiring more structure, although the lineup of guest comedians remains hit-or-miss. (This episode, however, shines.) But their flagship show, Pod Save America, feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between some really smart friends.

Whatever the format, I listen because—well, because Lovett and Jon Favreau are speechwriters. Ya gotta support the tribe, right? And because I appreciate the insights of all of the “Crooked” podcast hosts in these baffling, frustrating, and scary times.

But there’s a qualitative difference between podcasts that capture free-flowing conversation and tightly scripted podcasts like Gladwell’s. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game and a baseball documentary. Both tell stories, but the stories may be a little harder to tease out from the live event. Unless a junior league outfielder falls over the fence in pursuit of a sure home run and catches the baseball. Now, that’s a story.

Anyway, you can catch up on all my podcasts here. Can you tell the difference between the ones I prepped for and the ones where I winged it? Whatever the format, I’m just happy to be contributing to this fabulous new medium. Because—I’m not sure if I mentioned this: I love podcasts.


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What’s with the Rule of Three? — Frequent Questions

Q: What’s with the Rule of Three?
A: Depends. Which one do you mean?

I know at least two Rules of Three. I’ve written about the one in comedy—jokes are funnier when you break a pattern with the third item. But a fellow participant in Seth Godin’s “The Marketing Seminar” just reminded me of a second Rule of Three. (There really ought to be a third one, don’t you think?)

Jared Dees has his own Rule of Three
Jared Dees, from “Jared Dees Teaches” Facebook page

Jared Dees—who’s branded himself as as “The Religion Teacher”—posted a video to remind his community that less is not more. (Watch it here on Facebook.) Leave aside all the religious stuff if you like; his message about great communication technique works as well for an audience of agnostics as it does for catechism teachers—and everyone in between. It’s simple, as it should be:

People retain more when you say less.

So plan your speech or presentation to deliver three ideas. Not four, not five. Just three.

I can hear you wailing: But I have so much to say! I know you do, dear. We all do. The question is, do you want your audience to remember what you have to say? If you do, you can’t stuff their heads full of facts—they need space to integrate all that content.

So Jared says you need to be “crystal clear” about what your three things are. And if you can’t state them all in one sentence, then maybe you’re not as clear about all of this as you’d like to think.

Rule of Three, with details

This is not about dumbing down a presentation; it’s about organizing it. If you’ve got lots of details you need to fill in about each of your three points, then by all means detail away. Let the Rule of Three give you a frame on which to hang those details: a Christmas tree, a coat rack, a hall chair (I don’t know about you but that’s where all my coats end up).

Make it easy for your audience to create their own story, using the details and facts you provide. Once they’ve done that, they’ll remember you—and your ideas.

By the way, Dees practices what he, um, preaches. A quick trip to his blog reveals posts like “3 Lessons I Learned from Reading Real Artists Don’t Starve and Creative Blocks: 3 ways to find great ideas (great suggestions, by the way). Yes, I’ve only listed two blog posts. Another way to play with the Rule of Three is to keep an audience waiting for the third…“How to Be a Writer: 3 Lessons I Learned from Jeff Cavins.” Enjoy.


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