CTRL-A & DELETE

I just caught myself hitting  CTRL-A & DELETE with touch-typer speed and precision.  No hunting and pecking for that odd combination of keys required.  In case you’re not a complete computer nerd like me, the key sequence highlights everything on your screen and deletes it.  It’s the quick and easy way to start over with a clean slate, or the modern equivalent for ripping the sheet of obnoxious writing from the typewriter, wadding it up, and pitching it toward the trashcan (only not as cathartic).  For whatever reason, this time I paused and thought about why I did it.  It must have been the third or fourth time I had hit those keys in the preceding five minutes but I hardly remember doing it.  I only remember trying to get an article off the ground and not liking my results.

I had started an article I wanted to publish on Medium.  You see, I’ve been “saving up a couple good ideas” for pieces I believed had some legs and could launch my Medium presence with a bang.  Saving an idea is a silly notion, I know, but that’s the reality of how I thought today.  I wanted this to be a great piece, though, and I was not meeting my expectations.

As I re-read the first six or seven sentences of the article (for the third or fourth or fifth time), I judged it as unworthy of a venue where I could expect people to pay to read my work.  So with a flash of thought, my fingers twitched and the offending words were obliterated.  As I pondered my action I tried to figure out on what grounds I based my judgment.  I was, and still am, at a total loss for anything that made sense.  I simply did not believe it measured up to other articles I have seen on the site but I can offer no concrete evidence as to why I believe it.

My actions were obviously a symptom of publishing fear.  Somewhere, deep inside me, despite my strong words and bravado, despite my month-long record of posting blog content, I am scared of how the public will judge my work.  I don’t want to be laughed at or ridiculed.  I don’t want my work to be found wanting by the internet literary mafia.  Instead, I expect it to strike a chord with every person who reads it.  I want it to move them enough so they not only reward me with their dollars but they are compelled to tell all their friends about the wonderful article they read.  What tripe.  I know the futility of approaching the work with some sort of “greatness goal” from the outset.  It’s just not how it’s done.

“The writer’s job is to write.  Let the public and the critics decide what to do and think about your work,” says every guru on the internet.  With clear instructions like that, why is it so hard to separate yourself from thinking about how your words will be perceived?  It’s a conundrum.  There has to be a trick to dissociate yourself from the feelings of inadequacy and impending doom.  If I can find that trick I’ll retire a millionaire.

In the meantime, I need to end the habit of judging my work as I write it. The CTRL-A & DELETE cycle must be broken.  I suspect I am not alone in fighting this problem.  I also suspect it will be similar to the addict giving up the needle or the bottle. There will be a few relapses, but my resolve shall remain strong.  To ensure I do not wimp out and delete the next great article I conjure, I commit to writing and publishing an article on Medium within five days.  You should do the same!  If we can’t do that, maybe we should pry the DELETE key off our keyboards!

15 Tricks to Help You Become a Professional Writer

When I decided to write as a professional, I committed to a daily output of at least five hundred words. Notice my commitment is not qualified with conditions like “most days” or “provided I’m not busy with other projects.” It’s an everyday requirement. It has to be. To take a day off, or worse, to have the ability to skip a day’s work on a whim, invites procrastination and laziness into my life. Once they have a foothold they become insidious and cripple productivity.

Below I have listed the top fifteen tricks I use to stay true to my commitment as a professional.  Before I show them, I want to make certain you understand why they are important and why you should adopt them. Without a thorough understanding of their purpose, they’re just simple ideas. Once you have changed the way you think about your commitment to writing as a professional, they can change your life.

When I started, I thought I knew how to make myself write every day. I didn’t. I am insanely busy and had trouble making time to write every day. I thought I needed outside help.  I thought I could write when my schedule allowed.  I was wrong on both counts.

In hopes of boosting my resolve to write every day, I joined a Facebook group called my500words. Jeff Goins started the group to encourage budding writers to write every day. It’s was fun to have a little bit of external accountability via the group, but it’s not the source of personal motivation I hoped it would be.  I had to change the way I approached my work because the group was not helping.

Through my participation, I realized my goal to write is truly mine alone.  It’s a simple concept but was a revelation to me.  I think a lot of writers, including me, start by looking for external validation to help overcome the fear of putting their work out into the world, to provide the motivation to keep writing in the face of the fear and to get some positive feedback to encourage them to continue.   That doesn’t work.  I learned no one is going to care if I fail to do the work because no one noticed when I didn’t post my daily word count, and I didn’t care when they didn’t post their own. They are just hundreds of anonymous writers trying to make their way in the world. They have no stake in my success. Why should they?

I struggled to make my daily output goal until I internalized the realization that no one cared about my work. Once I fully accepted responsibility for my own productivity I changed my daily habits and scheduled the time to write.   I began writing for me.  The more rigidly I controlled my time, the easier I could do the work.  I also began to understand why so many people fail.

It always appeared to me that most members pounded out their daily words and posted their accomplishment to the group.  Then I did the math.  Given the number of people who belong to the group and then noticing that it was the same fifty or sixty people posting their word goal every day, I understood it was a very small percentage who were actually doing the work.  Kudos to them. The truth is that most people, if they posted at all,  posted the reasons why they failed to reach their five-hundred-word goal. It’s common to read comments such as “I’m behind because <reasons>, but I’ll catch up.” Or my personal favorite, “This has been a day. I had to put my writing on the back burner because <reasons>.”  They think we care why they missed their goal.  They don’t understand it’s their goal, not ours’.  We don’t even know them.  This misconception is exactly what kept me from doing the work every single day.  I wanted people to notice my work or lack thereof.  They didn’t and that rejection kept me from doing the work.  Then I changed.

Reading the “I’m not able to make my five hundred words because…” comments depresses me now.  People either do not realize how easy it is to make the time to get the work done or they are not serious about writing in the first place. Either way, they are missing the opportunity to achieve their writing goal because of their personal failure to make it happen.

Now I believe that unless you are in the hospital and are physically incapable of writing, or a loved one has died or is on death’s doorstep, whatever reason you claim for not doing the work is just a personal crutch.  This is now one of my professional guidelines and its validity was proven to me by the repetition of the excuses on the my500words group.  Ultimately, this was the change in thinking I needed to alter the way I approach my work.  If the work is not getting done, it’s your own fault.  Don’t make any excuses.

Too harsh? I don’t think so. I’m a busy person and I get my writing done. How busy am I, you ask? I am a husband to my beautiful wife and father to four awesome kids, each of whom requires my attention every day. I am the operations manager of a thirty-million dollar per year business, where I work a minimum of fifty hours each week. I’m a paramedic student, where studying and class attendance require fifteen to twenty hours per week. I’m a part-time 911 emergency medical technician in Las Vegas, a job which requires about twelve hours per week. I’m a professional competitive shooter, a job that requires a few hours of practice each week. I’m a hobbyist traditional woodworker, an activity I enjoy as I have free time. I’m now a professional writer, a job at which I spend at least one hour each day, often more. I believe “busy” is a cop-out, a label that means nothing but sounds important. It’s not objective reality. How you use your time determines what you can accomplish.

If you want to be a professional writer, don’t make excuses why you cannot do the work.  Take the responsibility to produce every single day and get it done.

Below is a list of methods I use to schedule my writing time and come up with new ideas every day. The first three are absolutely critical. Skip them at your peril. Somewhere in this list are the keys to unlocking your own ability to write every day.

  • Commit to writing at least five hundred words every day, without excuse;
  • Adopt the absolute belief that any excuse to not do the work is, by definition, bullshit. No exceptions;
  • Understand no one cares about your success except you;
  • Get up an hour early and write before work;
  • Stay up an hour later and write before bed;
  • Write on my lunch break instead of socializing;
  • Write or come up with ideas on breaks from work (quit smoking if you have that vice, you will live longer and you will have more time to write);
  • Write while sitting in the ambulance waiting for a call (or anywhere you have unproductive downtime);
  • Write while waiting for appointments to start (they’re always late anyway);
  • Think of new ideas and ways I want to write about a subject while exercising;
  • Write instead of watching television;
  • Write instead of going to the bar with friends;
  • Record writing ideas between meetings or other work tasks when I need a couple minutes for a break;
  • Think of new ideas while cooking meals for my family;
  • Think of new ideas while driving;

I did not write this article intending to bust anyone’s chops. I hope that is not how it is perceived. That said, you must accept responsibility for your writing success. Don’t make excuses for why you fail to write. Adopt some of these techniques, adapt them to your own life circumstances and quit making excuses. Quit looking for external validation to keep you motivated.  Just do the work.

Five Great Ways to Handle Criticism

You’ve put your heart and soul into your work. You’ve slaved over the words for hours, days, maybe even weeks. It’s as good as you can make it. You send your message out into the world and the feedback starts. Some people will love it, some will not. That’s reality, and it sucks. No one likes to know their work has been judged and found wanting. That said, it’s not the end of the world, or your writing career, either.

How you respond to the inevitable criticism of your work will define how quickly you grow, and ultimately, how far you go, as a writer. Contrary to popular belief (mostly irrational fear, at that), criticism is not bad. Here are five of my best tips on how to turn criticism into fertilizer for your writing.

Know Your Critic
Everyone’s a critic these days. Because of the availability of instant feedback and the personal internet soapbox, unsolicited opinions are ubiquitous. Not everyone is a qualified critic, though, and that is the crucial difference with regard to your work. People will spout their opinion and rate your work because they can, not because their review is valuable. Their input may not be informed, accurate, or even warranted. There is also growing evidence to support the notion that when faced with the opportunity to rate something, be it a restaurant, a new car, or your novel, people will feel compelled to report at least one negative thing about it, if not more. The operational principle behind this behavior is “nothing is completely perfect.” While true, that does not, by itself, make their critique accurate or necessary, especially with regard to something as subjective as art.

This phenomenon is seen all the time on Facebook and Yelp. Examine your Facebook feed and consider whether the opinions put forth by your friends on any substantive topic are informed opinions given what you know about their background, education, and life experience. Most people are just regurgitating what they have read or heard, or giving their raw, irrational reaction without thinking about the issue at hand. Check out your local restaurant reviews on Yelp. Look at your top three favorite restaurants and see if the reviews are accurate. Don’t worry, they’re not.

When it comes to negative critiques of your work you need to apply the same critical eye to your reviewer as you should apply to Facebook posts and Yelp reviews. If it’s some internet troll on your blog who uses the handle “bigpoppaGrump” you can safely ignore their input. You do not need to worry about the next four ways to handle criticism because what they have to say about your work is invalid. If, however, it’s your editor at a well-known magazine or publishing house, you should give them your undivided attention! In other words, the authority of your reviewer matters. Do not give authority to those who have not earned it. That’s right – you give the authority to the reviewer, though people will constantly attempt to usurp it from you.  Only you can decide who has the right to criticize your work.

Start With the Assumption The Critique is Accurate
I know this tip may alarm you, but stay with me. This is a powerful technique. Assuming you have given your reviewer authority to criticize your work, starting with the assumption the critique is accurate puts you in the best mindset to make your writing better.  By doing so, you are consciously willing to admit that you have made mistakes and want to rectify them. If you approach criticism from the standpoint that it is always inaccurate or unfair, you close your mind to the possibility of being wrong.  It is then up to the reviewer to convince you of your work’s shortcomings – a difficult task to say the least!
Do yourself a favor. Listen to what your critic has to say. Think about it objectively. Put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine why they are giving you the negative feedback. The chances are good the negative feedback you receive is valid. You may not choose to wholly incorporate their suggestions, but you may get some good advice that makes your work better. Be brave enough to put your emotions aside for a bit and listen with an open mind.

Use Comparison to Validate Questionable Critique
Assuming you have given authority to your reviewer, and assuming you have considered the critique from the standpoint that it is correct, if you still doubt the validity of the criticism, compare it to something similar. Doing so puts it in context. This is important because anything in isolation can be misunderstood, misconstrued, and seem wrong and out of place.

Consider an example from science fiction. Let’s pretend that your work involves spaceships that are engaged in an epic battle with alien forces. You have chosen to arm your fictional ships with energy weapons, kinetic energy projectiles, and guided missiles. This seems like pretty standard fare for a space war. Then your reviewer comes along and claims your use of guided missiles is unrealistic and breaks his suspension of disbelief because he knows that guided missiles will not work in the vacuum of space. He concludes his review by dismissing your work as amateurish and unworthy of anyone’s time.

Does the reviewer have your authority?  We’ll assume he does for this example. Have you considered his remarks from the standpoint that he may be correct? Again, we will assume you have, and you still believe that the idea of guided missiles works in a space war, despite what he says. Now you need to compare your use of these fictional weapons to other sources you have seen. In our example, you would compare your use of guided missiles to Heinlein, or Hubbard, or any other science fiction writer who has stories about space wars. You would likely find the use of guided missiles in a vacuum is a well-accepted convention in the genre. Are there legitimate technical inconsistencies that exist with using such an object in a vacuum? Of course, there are. In this case, however, they are not so incongruent with reality as to be out of the realm of possibility. Because of this, perhaps you dismiss the critique. If the lack of comparative confirmation were more substantial, perhaps you would give it more attention. Understand?

Try It On For Size
You are now on the other side of the criticism coin. You are starting to think there may be some validity to the review and you need to consider either incorporating the suggestions into your work or making changes in future works based on it. It’s time to try it on and see if it fits. Open up your editor and change your work to be in line with the critic’s suggestions. Don’t worry, you can change it back later! Now read it objectively. Is it better? It may or may not be. That’s for you to decide. Regardless, you are now taking the criticism the best way and using it if it’s helpful and ignoring it otherwise. There is no good or bad criticism now.

Be Thankful
To be thankful for the receipt of criticism is an odd concept to get your head around. It amounts to being happy when people tell you how poor your work.  It seems illogical but it’s not. It’s the key to becoming great.

To be clear, you should not be thankful for the negative feedback. It may or may not be useful to you. You are thankful for the engagement. Someone has felt compelled, for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, to use their time to talk to you about your work. By itself, that is worth celebrating. It is incredibly difficult to build an audience.  Have gratitude for their effort whether or not you choose to accept their critique.  Thank them when they knock on your door and want to make you better.

The main takeaway from these five points can be distilled into three sentences. If someone is worth listening to, listen to them. Then make up your own mind whether or not you want to use what they tell you. Be happy people are reading your work no matter what they say about it.

How to Hate Your Writing But Ship It Anyway

Every writer hates their work to some degree. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who has never questioned the quality of what they write. It seems to be a universal phenomenon. Yet magazine articles and books get published, websites get their copy, and there are certainly enough commercials on television to conclusively prove someone’s writing is worthy of the public’s attention. So why do you hate our own words? More importantly, how do you overcome this feeling so you can ship your product? It requires a simple commitment to yourself.

Making the commitment starts with defining the emotion you feel when faced with the decision to publish. Is it really hatred? It’s not likely that you truly hate your own thoughts. Perhaps it is mere dislike? Rather than dislike, maybe it’s better described as distrust. I can understand a lack of trust in what I write versus what I think. The root of distrust is fear, so maybe we should just call it that. Fear makes the most sense, too. You are scared of sending your work into the world and having it found wanting. I know I think about that pending judgment every single time I publish an article or submit a manuscript to a publisher. That’s why fear is the best description of my feelings toward my work. Your description may be slightly different, but you can figure out exactly what it is if you try. Doing so allows you to structure your commitment to minimize the effect of your emotions on your actions.

Once you have your dislike appropriately labeled, devising a strategy to overcome it is fairly simple, but not always easy to follow. In my case,  the strategy is to be bold. I just damn my fear and send my work out. I have tried to manage the fear by having friends review my work before I publish but that sort of thing never works. Your friends have a hard time telling you the truth when your work is terrible. I’ve also learned that if I allow myself any possible way out of shipping, I’ll delay sending my work out (sometimes permanently). Instead, I acknowledge I have committed myself to publishing my work, either personally or via a third party, without exception. Everything I write gets shipped. There is no hiding my work on my hard drive or in the depths of a drawer. With my commitment I have removed any personal choice about publishing it. It goes out. Like it or not. I give myself adequate time to perform revisions and editing, and then off it goes, good, bad, or indifferent.

Such a commitment sounds too easy, too contrite a solution to be feasible. Perhaps it is, but it works for me. If you doubt the power of such a simple act, you may not fully understand the depth of my commitment. It may help you to conceptualize it by comparing it to taking a trip on an airplane. Once you’re on the plane and it starts shooting down the runway, you’re going along for the ride whether you like it or not. There’s no changing your mind and ringing the bell to tell the pilot you want off the hurtling death machine. That’s the sort of all-in mentality you need to have with regard to your own commitment to publish your work. It does not remove the fear, but it does remove your ability to tell yourself “no.” That’s the secret sauce.

After you ship the fear and loathing do not fully go away. To continue the airplane analogy, once the plane leaves the ground and you’re headed into the skies you have to relax.  It’s the same when you publish your work.  What else can you do? Worry about what every visitor to your website thinks about every piece you’ve written? Not hardly. Once you have posted it on your blog or sent the manuscript off to your agent or editor, it’s done. You may still hate what you wrote, or, as in my case, fear the judgment of what you wrote, but it’s out of your hands now. Move on to the next piece.

Over the past decade, I have written hundreds of pieces for my work and personal pleasure. On the occasions where my work was made public I had the fear of judgment. I still do. Not all of my creations were treated kindly by those who read them! It sucked. I wanted to quit writing. I wanted to delete the offending pieces. I didn’t die, but I did quit publishing for a long time. It was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made, all over what some mutton-head thought of a tiny article on the internet. I vowed never to make that mistake again, and I promised myself I would travel the path of publishing every single thing I write from now on. I hope you slap your fear into the corner and follow me on the journey.

What Is The Value of One Human Voice in a Sea of Voices?

I’ve often wondered what value a single human voice has in today’s age of instant information. I wonder if I will make a dent in the world at all simply because the task of getting my message in front of a large number of people seems so impossible given the number of other people trying to do the same thing. If I do happen to get my words in front of the masses, will it make any difference? Continue reading “What Is The Value of One Human Voice in a Sea of Voices?”

The Fear of Wasting Your Time Writing

It’s easy to commit to being a writer.  It’s a simple thing to make any commitment, for that matter.  People make commitments every day, but they rarely honor them.  Think of the countless commitments made on New Year’s Eve each year.  I’ll go to the gym five times each week.  I’ll eat nothing but healthy food.  I’ll ride my bike to and from work every day.  I’ll save ten percent of my salary every year.  You know all about the hollow commitments that are made but never met.  You’ve made a few yourself.  So have I. Continue reading “The Fear of Wasting Your Time Writing”

Why Start Now?

A friend asked me why I decided to start my site on the 20th of December.  He thought it odd.  He said, “wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until the 1st of the year?”  No.  Not at all.  I’m done waiting.  The question, however, piqued my interest.

While I agree the impulse for most people is to wait for some sort of universally recognized “start date,” waiting makes little sense to me.  I refuse to believe that beginning anything on some arbitrary date will make any difference in my (or anyone’s)  overall success or failure ten years from now.  Without a doubt, however, the belief that it matters persists among most people.   If it didn’t, no one would make New Year’s Resolutions.

The above aside, I’m curious as to why people, myself included,  put off chasing their goals at all.  After all, I waited half a lifetime to seriously pursue my own endeavors, and I certainly continue to procrastinate on some things in my life, so there must be some good reasons for it.  The least I can do is try to figure out why.  Google-fu to the rescue… Continue reading “Why Start Now?”