Can you have too many ideas? Frequent Questions

Q: Is there such a thing as too many ideas?

A: Are you high?

A friend of mine is writing a book. “But I have too many ideas,” she told me. “I don’t know what to do with them all.”

This is what’s known in the trade as a high-class problem. Many writers with this “dilemma” would get down on their knees and kiss their keyboards.

But my friend is trying to write a book. And until she can domesticate some of those ideas, organize them into tidy little stacks, it’s going to be hard for her to see exactly what kind of book this book of hers wants to be.

So, yes, my friend has a problem. I suggested she solve it the low-tech way:

  1. Get a folder—or better yet, an envelope
  2. Label the envelope “Strokes of Genius” (hey—a high-class problem deserves an aspirational name)
  3. Every time you get an idea, write it down on an index card or some other paperlike substance
  4. Toss the card into the envelope
  5. Every couple of weeks (or month, or…), dump out the contents of the envelope and sort through them.

You’ve captured the ideas, so they won’t disappear. And you’ve also bought yourself some time.

So many ideas, so little genius

When the ideas tumble out of the envelope weeks later, most of them will make you question your sanity. No doubt they seemed brilliant when they first appeared. But in the clear light of day, they’re clearly just ordinary. Toss them out.

Some of the ideas—and be warned, this will likely be a minority—you’ll still like almost as much as when you scribbled them down. Maybe even more. Perhaps these really are genius ideas. Set them aside for further investigation.

But the majority of your ideas will fall somewhere in between madness and genius. Sort through them if you like. But I generally just shove them back into the envelope until next time. If they still don’t excite me on second viewing, I deposit them in the circular file.

Life is too short to waste on ideas we’re not passionate about. Or people, for that matter.

Do you write every day? It’s the fastest way to improve your skills. Challenge yourself to start a daily practice: My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts January 23rd.

What’s with the procrastination? Frequent Questions

Q: What’s with the procrastination?
A: Ah! You must be writing.

One of the participants in my Jumpstart 2017 5-day writing challenge last week was surprised to find that when she sat down to write on Monday, her to-do list suddenly became quite compelling. The writer, Janice Hall, gave me permission to quote her piece:

“So, here I am, finally, beginning my first Writing Challenge entry. I had planned to begin this with my morning coffee, but so many IMPORTANT things kept getting in the way: I had to tidy up first, then wrap that one remaining present, then look at some emails, and make a grocery list, take a shower, and then Facebook…(‘No, no DON’T go to Facebook…don’t do it…NOOOOOOO!’)

Well, anyway. Now, it’s 2 pm, and I’m sure I could find some more important tasks to distract me, but, what is that about, anyway? This is the kind of work that, once you sit and actually begin to do it, is engaging, challenging, enjoyable. Same thing with exercise, and working on music (I’m a singer). So, why do I want to do anything but that work?”

Ah, writers and procrastination. Yep, that’s a thing. I fall prey to it myself, from time to time.

every writer deals with procrastinationSometimes I know exactly what’s going on—like around tax time, when my office gets so tidy an untrained observer might think I’d moved out. Other times it sneaks up on me. Like when I’m slogging my way through the kind of client assignment that reminds you why it’s called “work” and suddenly realize that the loaf of bread I bought yesterday has disappeared. Into my stomach.

Then there are those times when it doesn’t feel like procrastination because you’re not eating or cleaning your house, you are actually smack dab in front of your computer, making words appear on the screen. You’re writing! Um…but not the thing you’re supposed to be writing.

Which reminds me: this blog isn’t going to post for another week. Maybe I should get back to writing that marketing material…

No procrastination here (2 days before posting)

Yes, I really did start this post a week ago. I would spend all day writing blog posts and other things for myself if I could. But I have clients (love them!) and obligations (tolerate them!), so I don’t always have the luxury of losing myself in the keyboard.

During the writing challenge last week, I decided that I would play along with my participants, writing to a prompt every day.

So did I write and post on the same day, as I had my challenge participants do? Reader, I did not. Next-day posting is as close as I want to get to my deadline. I never want to find myself overdrawn at the blog bank. Too much stress. Avoidable stress.

But that’s the opposite of the problem our questioner faced, isn’t it? So let’s get back to it.

Don’t know what to write? Procrastinate!

Most procrastination comes from fear. I’m not your shrink, so I’ll leave it to you to figure out what you’re afraid of.

I’m fortunate that early on in my career as a freelance writer, I caught myself in a lie. I was about to start a new project—writing an annual report.

I don’t know how to do this! I wailed inside my head. And then I snapped myself out of it. Because even in my fear, I knew that was a big fat lie.

Of course you know how to do that, my better self chided me. You’ve written a bunch of annual reports.

And I had to admit it—I had. I did know how to write an annual report. So I sat myself down at my desk and did it.

Now each time I start a new project, I wait to hear the subconscious wail of I don’t know how to do this! (Yes, even after decades it’s still there.) And then I laugh at it. Because 99 times out of 100 it’s just a big fat lie.

But sometimes it really is true—sort of. Not that I don’t know how to write, but that I don’t know enough about the subject. Maybe the client has left me a little short in the research department. Maybe I don’t quite understand what I need to understand yet.

Ah…food for another blog. Stay tuned.

How can I monetize my writing? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I monetize my writing?

A: That is absolutely not the right question.

“I wrote something today,” my friend told me.

“That’s great!”

He asked if I would read it. It was good, and I said so. But I was not expecting the question that shot out of his mouth next: “So. How can I monetize this?”

Write to write, not to monetize

My friend had written something memoir-ish. A really compelling story that I hope he finishes someday. There are many reasons to write memoirs; the urge to make a buck is not one of them. how can I monetize my writing?

When you’re just starting out, write because you want to write. Because you need to tell the story. Because you have something the world needs to hear. Especially when you’re just starting out—when you’re beginning a practice of daily writing, for instance—thinking about who might publish it or who might buy it can paralyze you. Writers already have enough fears to battle on our way to the keyboard; we don’t need to add any more.

Write until the whole piece is finished. Then you can start to think about the audience most likely to buy and read it. Just as you can turn a lump of dough into either dinner rolls or a baguette, you can edit your writing to appeal to any audience you like. That’s the time to evaluate its commercial potential, or lack thereof. Not when you’re just starting out.

Just because a piece may not be commercial, may not be easy to monetize, does not mean you shouldn’t write it. In fact, “Who would buy this thing, anyway?” is a really effective roadblock to throw in front of yourself. In most cases—especially for a beginning writer—the answer may well be “no one.”

If your only goal is to monetize your writing, you stop there. But if your goal is to build your skills as a writer—to one day write something that is worth buying—then keep going. Write what you need to write, whether it’s good or bad, saleable or not. The more sentences you create, the greater the likelihood that some of them will be good.

Challenge yourself to write every day. Start slowly—commit to writing for five days in a row, for at least 15 minutes a day. Join Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge and when you complete the challenge, I’ll donate your $15 registration fee to a great charity.

How do I write in someone else’s voice?: Frequent Questions

Q: How do I write in someone else’s voice?

A: First get their voice in your head.

Remember that scene in the movie Working Girl, where Melanie Griffith vacuums her boss’s house while listening to the boss’s dictation recordings?

If you don’t remember the part about the recordings, I forgive you. You may have been distracted by the filmmaker’s choice of costume for the scene: a bra and skimpy panties. I don’t know what your go-to housecleaning outfit is, but mine sure doesn’t come from Victoria’s Secret. Ah, the magic of movies. But I digress.Melanie Griffith's character learned to speak in someone else's voice

My point is that Melanie Griffith’s character was immersing herself in her boss’s voice. She needed to erase her Staten Island accent because in the ’80s, it would have marked her clearly and unequivocally as a secretary. (We didn’t even call them “assistants” back then.) By listening to the dictation tapes repeatedly, she also immersed herself in her boss’s syntax, her way of speaking, her tone and pace, the kinds of words she chose.

You want to sound like someone else? Do that. (Lingerie optional.)

Listen, read, type really fast

The Working Girl method doesn’t adapt all that well to 21st century: Who records dictation tapes anymore?

So when I start writing for a new client, the first thing I ask for is videos of them speaking and anything they’ve written. Those are imperfect proxies, though, because it’s safe to assume that they didn’t actually write the speech you’re watching them give. How can we assume that? Well, they hired you, right?

If you can score an actual sit-down chat with that client—even on the phone—that is golden. I type very quickly, so I generally take notes verbatim. Yes, I write down every word they say, even the “ums” and the verbal false starts and the “ums.”

If you can’t type that quickly, ask for permission to record the call. (Actually, I may start doing that too.) Explain that listening to a recording is the best way to learn to write in someone else’s voice. And the closer you can come to their voice, the better your first draft will be.

Once you have the recording, make like Melanie Griffith and play that sucker nonstop until you can repeat it word for word.

Then write.

And every time you sit down to write for that client, schedule five to 10 minutes to listen to the recording as a warm-up. After a while, you won’t need the reminder. Work with one person long enough and you get to the point where you know what’s going to come out of their mouth almost before they do.

What makes “white papers” white?: Frequent Questions

Q: Why are they called “white papers”?

A: Blame Winston Churchill.

Clients love them, and I’ve written several. But inevitably someone will ask, Why a “white paper”?

It’s a fair question. I mean, any visitor to Staples can see we have a veritable rainbow of paper colors to choose from. Still, unless you’re promoting a bake sale or a PTA meeting, chances are you’ll never buy a package of non-white paper.

And, anyway, as the world goes digital will the “paper” half of that phrase become as inscrutable as the “white” part is to us?

But I digress. Let’s get back to blaming Winston Churchill.

White versus Blue

Wikipedia tells me that the phrase may have entered popular discourse courtesy of a page-turner written when Winston Churchill was serving as Foreign Secretary of Great Britain. The actual title of this historic document was (try to stay awake): British White Paper of June 1922.

Despite its plain brown wrapper of a title, the paper was—and remains—a controversial moment in Middle Eastern diplomacy. But that’s for someone else to blog about. Why did they call it a “white paper”?

The reason is so simple, dear readers, that I fear you’ll think I’m mocking you. They called it a white paper because it was not blue.

Most government communications arrived in “blue books.” Presumably a higher-end version of the blue book than the ones I used for exam answers in high school and college, but blue books nonetheless.

White papers serve a specific purpose

Like many things in our language, we have co-opted and corrupted the meaning of the phrase “white paper.” It originally referred only to government communications; one pair of Canadian researchers described white papers as a

“… tool of participatory democracy … not [an] unalterable policy commitment.”

This “tool of participatory democracy” has now become a tool of participatory capitalism, as businesses issue white papers that are little more than overly wordy brochures, often with—gasp!—no photographs! And with footnotes; can’t forget the footnotes—at least all in the white papers I’ve written.

The delightful Wikipedia entry on the subject ends its first paragraph by introducing yet another color:

“White papers may be considered grey literature.”

Grey literature? I  had honestly never heard that phrase before. Yet apparently it’s—well, it’s what I’ve spent my career producing. Go figure.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that another day. Maybe we can go right around the color wheel of writing.