Writing 90 days & more — could YOU do it?

Today may look like just another Thursday to you, but to a handful of writers it’s a big freaking deal. They’ve been writing 90 days in a row (why not “writing for 90 days”? You know the answer: SEO). Yes, they have completed my second 90-Day Writing Challenge.

Ninety days in a row can be a pretty daunting commitment. I started my streak accidentally, but I still remember where I was when I hit 90 days, and how proudly I proclaimed it to the people I was with.

A dozen writers plunked down their money to join the challenge. As I write this on Wednesday night, it looks like only three will complete the full 90 days, with another two fulfilling their commitment of writing Monday through Friday for the 13 weeks.

The rest? Some of them never even started. One missed the full 90 by a single day—but to his credit, he picked back up and started writing the very next day. I have enormous respect for that. One of the reasons I’ve continued to write daily—even when I need to drag myself out of a sickbed to do it—is that I’m afraid once I break my streak, I’ll never recreate it. He’s well on his way, though.

What does writing 90 days get you?

What do my writers get out of the experience? Well, here’s what Harold Waisel told me today:

“I’ve learned a lot in the 90-Day Challenge. More story, less passive voice, trying to use more active verbs. And the more you practice, the better at it you get.”

“The more you practice, the better at it you get.” Exactly.

That’s one reason my Writing Unbound program lasts for 10 weeks. That’s more than enough time to solidify new habits, like writing every day. Yes, I ask participants to commit to 15 minutes a day, just like my Challenge writers. And just like me. (Day 520 on Wednesday Sept. 27th.)

I probably won’t run another 90-Day Challenge until sometime next year. It’s quite a—well—a challenge for me too, keeping track of who’s written, reading all the marvelous and inventive things they come up with.

But I will be running another 5-Day Writing Challenge December 26th-30th. That’s when all this craziness started last year, with the Jumpstart 2017 5×15 Writing Challenge, so it’ll be an anniversary. And I’m planning a great celebration.

Click here and I’ll keep you posted.

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.

Free-range writing – Variations on the letter K

Kooky, isn’t it, how if we just allow ourselves to experience the chaos of free-range writing, words and phrases emerge, some of which even make sense? Kerplunk! my eye focused on the letter K and now I am kompelled (oh, Elaine, honestly—you’re better than that) to create five sentences beginning with that letter.

free-range writing about free-range kangaroosKinsfolk and klezmer bands and kalamata olives volunteer their services, but I can’t find sentences they approve of. Kangaroos hop by; at least that’s entertaining.

Kidnaper? Dear online Scrabble dictionary, that is not an 8-letter word: Unless there’s a profession I’ve never heard of: Kidnaper, n.—someone who shears only the necks of baby goats.

Free-range writing: a rusty tool in my toolbox

My tribe is a lovely mix of business people and artists. When I wrote the prompts for my Jumpstart 2017 five-day writing challenge, I wanted to give the artists a chance to write in a more business-y vein and the others an opportunity to stretch their creative wings, perhaps for the first time in awhile. So I included some free-range writing prompts, arbitrary exercises like the one I wrote about the other day. Everyone seems to be enjoying the experience.

One thing I hadn’t planned on when I created the writing prompts: following them myself. But fair is fair, so this morning I closed my eyes, pointed my face toward the keyboard and found myself staring at the letter K.

K? Nothing begins with K (hence my desperate Google search for Scrabble lists).

I will match my storytelling abilities with anyone’s, but I only know how to work with facts. So I guess I need this exercise as much as any of the participants in my group.

Actually, I’ve needed the whole challenge as much as any of the people who signed up for it. Not to establish a daily writing practice—today is Day 248 for me. But to scrape the rust off some of the tools in my writer’s toolbox. Even grown-ups deserve playtime now and then. I do not play with writing, just for the pure enjoyment of it, nearly enough. Okay—ever.

Jump(start)ing for joy

I’m writing this on Day 4 of the five-day challenge. Someone asked me this morning how it was going and I replied:

“It’s exceeding all of my expectations. People are posting really remarkable work in a range of styles, and forming a community by leaving supportive comments on each others’ posts. It may just be the best thing I’ve done all year.”

I mean that, too. The Challenge wraps up tomorrow and I’ll have some final words on it next week. In the meantime, look for a “very special” (as the advertisers always say—apparently “special” is no longer quite special enough) New Year’s Eve blog featuring Seth Godin tomorrow.

Wishing you all a happy and productive 2017.

Steven Pressfield on practice and life

Steven Pressfield knows from practice. His daily writing practice has taken him from broke taxi driver in New York to the cushy oceanside life of a best-selling novelist in California. No doubt he could coast through the rest of his life without writing another word.

Well, he could—if his writing was about making money. But listen to this:

“If somebody says to me, ‘Steve, you’re going to live to be 97.8 years old. Are you going to be writing the last day of your life?’ I’d say yes. And I don’t give a shit if it sells or not.”

Because it’s not about the achievement. It’s about the practice:

“I’m in it, like, someone will say you have a meditation practice. And meditation is about ‘sitting,’ as they say in the Zen world. Right? The practice is about the sitting; it’s not about achieving enlightenment. It’s not about an object. It’s about the doing of something every day.”

These quotes come from his interview with James Altucher, host of one of my favorite podcasts, The James Altucher Show. It took Altucher two years to land Pressfield as a guest; the result—a two-hour, two-part episode—was worth the wait.

Practice: “It’s not a habit”

Steven Pressfield talks with James Altucher about practicePressfield has a lot to say about persistence, rejection, success, golf (he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance), and writing (he also wrote The War of Art, a book creative types love).

Listen to the whole thing if you can. But what struck me most happened about 25 minutes into the second part of the interview, when he talked about daily practice.

“I have a trainer at the gym and I was saying to him, ‘This is a habit, getting here every day.’ And he said, ‘It’s not a habit. This is your life.’ And at some point, that’s what it becomes. A practice becomes, it’s your life, this is what you do…”

The episode popped up on my playlist just a few days before my Jumpstart 2017 writing challenge began. About four dozen writers and would-be writers had taken a deep breath and committed to write for 15 minutes a day, for five days in a row.

We’re on day 3 as I write this and I’m happy to say our attrition rate is near zero. People are interacting, posting encouraging comments on each others’ work. They’re not just building a practice; they’re forming a community. And here’s some of what they have to say:

“I can’t tell you how helpful this is.”

“I really feel I am finding my voice.”

“Great to get in the habit of creating on a daily basis.”

“…wrote for 18 minutes. What was astounding was being in the middle of noise and chaos yet I felt like it was just about the writing.”

“What a gift.”

I’ve done a lot of good things in 2016, but I have to say creating this challenge may be one of the best. Practice, practice, practice—it’s not about getting to Carnegie Hall. It’s about getting to the core of who you are.

Where’s your joy? Not just a writing prompt

What gave you joy in 2016?

That was the essence of the writing prompt for the first day of my Jumpstart 2017 five-day writing challenge. I decided that I would play along with the challenge participants, so I wrote this blog you’re reading yesterday, with my timer set to 15 minutes.

Of course, I wrote the prompts, so I know what’s coming. That won’t help me every day, but today I did get to think ahead a little: What was my happiest moment this year?

What joy looks like
Joy? You bet. This is my brain on jazz.
I decided it was the hour I spent listening to my friend the jazz singer Donna Byrne in concert at the Provincetown Art Association & Museum this August. 

For reasons I am completely unable to explain, I had not been to hear live music for many months. But almost the moment Donna and her very fine band started playing, I started smiling. And I don’t think I stopped until I fell asleep that night.
I’m not a big selfie-snapper, but as I left the concert I knew I needed to commemmorate the joy. (Yes, it’s a terrible angle. I need to hone my skills if I have any hope of becoming a professional narcissist.)

What could possibly make me happier than that?

I thought that was a rhetorical question, but it turns out it has an answer: Today.

Waking up this morning to find posts from my Jumpstarters, nervous and uncertain—but writing. And excited to discover that they’re writing.

Our Facebook group is filling with stories: A “crazy cat lady” in Africa; a man extracting life lessons from a Habitat for Humanity build; a new entrepreneur exploring ways to reach her audience, and more.

I’d marketed the challenge as a way to “start 2017 with a win,” but I had no idea how much of a win it would feel like already—not even half a day into the process. 

I am proud of these 44 writers from four continents. Proud that they’re doing something they’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Proud of the connections they’re making among themselves as they read each others’ work and leave encouraging comments on it. And, yes, I’ll say it—I’m proud of myself for following the flash of inspiration I had after the Seth Godin workshop just 19 days ago and putting this challenge out into the world.
It’s too late to join Jumpstart 2017, but I’m taking names of people who’d like to jump in for the next challenge. Click here and I’ll keep you posted.

Neil Pasricha’s “Do Circle”: Happiness and writing

In his book The Happiness Equation, Neil Pasricha writes about the linear way most of us approach a new task: We can do it; we want to do it; so we do it.

Pasricha argues that removing logic from this line can make us happier. After all, if we only do things we already know we can do, how can we explore or grow?

Neil Pasricha's "Do Circle"
illustration by Neil Pasricha from The Happiness Equation

So he takes the same elements but arranges them in a circle. “Do” sits at the 12 o’clock position, so it seems a logical starting place. By doing, we learn that we “Can Do” and so we “Want to Do” this new thing even more. And so the cycle repeats. But really, you can start anywhere and end anywhere. Or not end at all. It’s up to you.

Accomplishment generates happiness. More doing = more happiness. And who can argue with that outcome?

Neil Pasricha’s “Do Circle” and Writing

So you want to write something? Pasricha describes the linear-thinking approach to the task:

“Want to write a book? I’ll take a writing course to learn how. Then I’ll find the perfect coffee shop to get inspired. Then I’ll write a masterpiece.”

Um, no.

I mean, yes, you can study—you should study writing. But don’t wait for someone to certify you as a “good writer” before you launch into it. And by all means go to the coffee shop when you need a freshly ground espresso. But don’t fetishize your workplace.

I remember reading about one author—I wish I could remember her name—who wrote her first novel on her toddler’s bed, barricaded in his room, during the hours he thought she was at work. As I recall, she and the nanny had worked out a good-bye ritual for the kid to send her off to her job, then the nanny distracted him in the laundry room while mom sneaked back inside the apartment.

That woman was a writer. She had a story to tell. She would have written her novel standing up in a closet if she had to. I hope she had a good chiropractor.

And if you’re a member of LinkedIn, check out this piece by Olivia Barrow, called

“The hidden spots where top writers do their best work: in the pool, on the lawn mower, or while waiting for a bathroom”

So how do you become a writer—whether or not you have (or need) a nanny or a lawnmower? You write. Here’s Neil Pasricha again:

“Write one page. Even if it sucks. The fact you did it will convince you that you can do it. Then you’ll want to do it! Why? Because we love doing things that confirm our belief that we’re able to do them.”

Confirm your belief: Write

Start writing. Right now. Just pull up a document and write for five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good; just do it.

And then join us in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge. You write for five days in a row, for at least 15 minutes a day. Complete the challenge and you get an unparalleled sense of satisfaction that will make you want to write more. The perfect recipe for happiness. Oh, and when you complete the challenge I’ll donate $15 in your name to a wonderful charity. Click on over here for the details and grab some happiness in time for the new year.

1s and 0s, an unlimited resource: Part 2 of 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the precious resource of paper and how writers have dealt with it. Today we turn to an unlimited resource: the bits and bytes of digital reading material.

Whether we’re reading blogs (thank you, by the way) or journalism, essays or novels, many of us do our reading on screens. Like everything digital, e-books are just a series of 1s and 0s, artfully transformed by technological wizardry into words, sentences, and paragraphs.

We’ve cut out the papryus-pounders and ink-grinders. But we’ve also cut out the editors and publishers. Anyone who can find the “Submit” button can publish something.

In the past, self-publishing meant paying large sums out of pocket. Today, the sums have shrunk even as the options for gaining an audience have grown. You don’t need a dime to publish a blog, or to post on any of the social media sites that seem to be multiplying like rabbits.

“Technology has advantages and disadvantages,” my friend Sher Downing said. “The advantage is, it’s easy. And the disadvantage is…it’s easy.” You can say that again. And Sher should know: She’s an educational technology expert, who’s created and delivered online learning programs for clients all over the world. Easy access has affected those offerings, too.

Yes, we no longer have to jump through hoops with editors or convince publishers of our work’s merit. On the other hand, a professional editor can help you strengthen your work. And maybe it’s good that publishers are no longer the final arbiter of taste. But at least we can count on a published work to be relatively well-written and coherent. Sadly, that’s not always the case with an e-book.

Sometimes the gatekeepers get it right—sometimes a manuscript really does need more work. When anyone can publish anything with just one click, all that stands between writers and readers is autocorrect. And that’s a pretty flimsy barricade.

The best intentions

Last year a friend of mine published an e-book of children’s stories, soliciting contributions from a number of people. She trusted that her writers knew more about writing than she did, so she barely glanced at the submissions before she published the e-book. Hundreds of sales later, she tried reading some of the stories aloud to an actual child and realized something was very wrong.

When she asked me to look at the book, I ran it through the invaluable Hemingway App (bookmark it) to check the grade level. Some of the stories in this “children’s book” would have confounded a college student! I think one even hit Ph.D. level—Grade 20. The moral: Merely writing about a toy train does not a children’s story make.

The other moral: Gatekeepers aren’t always bad. Find an editor before you self-publish.

And keep writing. Every day.

Whether or not you work with a coach to hone your skills, always get a second opinion before you hit “Publish.” Because digital “ink” may be an unlimited resource, but your readers’ time sure isn’t.

Register for Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge and start the new year with a win—and a practice that will improve your writing. Complete the five-day challenge and I donate your $15 registration fee to charity.

Precious resource: Technology & writing, part 1

I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been to be a writer in the ancient world. Papyrus doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

papyrus was a precious resource for ancient writersThat’s a joke, of course; it grows in swamps. But my point is that you couldn’t just toddle over to the Staples in downtown Alexandria and pick up a nicely packaged ream of it. Someone had to make it, sheet by sheet. Here’s an illustrated guide for those of you who’d like to try. It takes weeks, and no small amount of elbow grease.

Papyrus scrolls were a precious resource. Writers must have thought long and hard before dipping their styluses into their ink—which someone also had to make, crushing up carbon and mixing it with water and gum—and setting their words down for readers.

Paper: precious resource or creative roadblock?

I used to collect blank books—beautifully bound notebooks. A writer always needs a journal handy, right, in case inspiration strikes. But I found that the more beautiful a notebook was, the less I wanted to “mess it up” with my writing.

Ridiculous, right?

The truth is, I didn’t start writing seriously until the company where I was working installed a Macintosh computer on my desk, back in the penultimate decade of the 20th century.

Fun fact: Two nights later I dreamed that they were about to remove the computer. I woke up screaming Nooooo! That’s how fast you become a Mac person for life, folks.

Anyway, I quickly discovered the advantage of writing on a computer: No one sees your drafts. Those rumpled legal pads with sections angrily crossed out? Gone. The sea of half-typed sheets crumpled in your wastebasket (oh, who am I kidding) on the floor around your chair? You don’t have to hide them because they never exist. Only the computer knows about your many false starts and failures. And in those pre-NSA days, it wasn’t telling.

So I have a soft spot for technology in my writer’s heart. It helped me break through a creative roadblock and start writing regularly. And shortly after that, I started writing for a living, which has been wonderful.

But as a reader, sometimes I miss the old days when paper was a precious resource. More on that tomorrow.

What’s the secret of writing better? Write more. Join my challenge and start the new year with a win, and a new habit: Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge.

To work or not to work (holidays)? Yep, that’s the question.

“Are you taking time off for the holidays?”

I don’t know why, but my client’s question caught me off guard. And my honest reply shocked her: “I’m trying to talk myself into it.”

The funny thing is, I write a lot about the importance of unplugging—and for this client, evenso I know the “right” answer. But I also know the real answer: This year, yeah, I’ll work holidays.

For one thing, I’ll be keeping my streak alive—writing for at least 15 minutes a day. (It’s Day 235 when I finish this post. Start a streak of your own by joining my end-of-year writing challenge.)

And holiday or no holiday, I’ll end each day by writing a to-do list. Granted, it’s a shorter list on my “days off”—and one of the entries may even be:


Still, I’ve got stuff to do, so I generally work about 6.5 days a week. (This horrified my client.) Maybe I’ll cut back to 5 during the holidays—but, really, how much knitting can a gal do?

Is it wrong to work holidays?

Lately I’ve been seeing articles that validate my drive. Like this Quora answer from blogger Todd Brinson, published on Inc.com:

support for those of us who work holidays

Brinson writes:

Consistency is power.

I don’t know if it’s biology. I don’t know if it’s a habit thing. I don’t know if it’s the universe testing you or some strange thing like that.

I do know this:

The weekends, like every other day, are a chance to grow, a chance to move forward, a chance to be happy, and a chance to change your life.

That’s what I’m doing as I work holidays: moving forward, changing my life, learning things I can share with you. And reading all the great writing the folks in my writing challenge produce. Join us in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge and start your new year with a new habit.

From the heart – plain talk in the business world

Plain talk isn’t easy to find in the business world. Or in politics, for that matter, though I suspect that’s another blog post.

In any setting, most people have no trouble saying what they mean—as long as they’re just talking to each other. But turn on a recording device, or try to capture their thoughts in writing, and the Obfuscation Instinct kicks in. All of a sudden, those clear thoughts become very opaque.

You can find examples of this trend daily at my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff’s blog, Writing Without Bullshit. But I’m at the other end of the funnel—trying desperately not to produce anything for my clients that’s worthy of Josh’s consideration. What’s a writer to do?

  1. Stay outside the bubble. You’re most valuable to your client if you can maintain the perspective of an external consumer of this message.
  2. Keep focused on the objective. Especially when they’re writing about a subject they might consider controversial, clients may fall back on meaningless platitudes. Remind them of what they want this communication to accomplish. And remind them that platitudes do nothing but put the reader to sleep.
  3. Don’t settle for what’s possible. Does your writing go through a number of staffers before it gets to the ultimate client? I feel ya. Staffers often believe their job is to eliminate friction points; that’s where the platitudes come from. Stick to your guns; you have the client’s best interest at heart. If a staffer says, “I don’t think the lawyers will let this pass,” counter with, “Why don’t we run it by the lawyers and see?” Sometimes you’ll hit a lawyer who understands what you’re trying to do.

    I once went back and forth for with a partner at a big law firm about something I was writing for our mutual client. Five email exchanges and a phone call later, we were both happy. I thanked him for sticking it out with me and he said, “I understand. It’s the opening line of the piece—it’s important to get that right.

When your client has something challenging or sensitive to say, nothing’s more important than plain talk. In those cases, we writers have to give them something more than great language—we have to give them courage as well.

Start the new year with a win. Join me in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge and do something good for yourself and for girls around the world. More information and registration links here.