Tell them to write a story about anything. No guidelines, no limits!
There’s only one thing more scary than a blank page – a blank page and a totally free hand.
That’s because we are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. But isn’t more choice a good thing?
The Tyranny of Choice
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. Igor Stravinsky
Suppose you want to buy a jar of honey. On your way home from work you stop to fill your car. The filling station has just two kinds of honey so you pick one, job done.
But if you go to a major grocery store like Tesco they carry thirty-seven kinds of honey. Now you have to weigh many more options. Do you prefer clear or organic or lavender honey? It’s all too much so you end up grabbing the closest jar – or nothing at all.
Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. Choice overload leads to picking the default rather than consider options, decision fatigue, and choice avoidance.
Making a choice requires energy, and if you’re already tired or depleted from too many prior choices you’ll either avoid the choice or go for the easiest option. This is death to creativity.
Creativity is about connecting things, but it’s also about solving problems in novel ways.
Constraints help you innovate without having to consider every option.
My writing group has an exercise called Hot Pen. One person opens a novel to a random page, another chooses a random number, and the nearest noun or verb on that page becomes the one word prompt. We then have ten minutes to write a story based on that word.
Scary, yes, but the variety of stories is always amazing. It’s surprising how each writer finds a different angle within a very small space. How can you limit your options to release more creativity?
Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity. Martin Villeneuve
Constraints are good for creativity and can be set up in different ways.
Time – a deadline to force completion or a target to hit
Subject matter – writing to a set theme or prompt
Resource – limited budget, materials, or word count
Try these practical ways to get started.
Setting time limits – the Pomodoro technique is essentially a rolling set of mini-deadlines.
Work with limited forms like one hundred word drabbles or sonnets.
Once you’ve made a choice, stick with it. There will always be other options out there. Your job is to get started and then go on until the end, because only completed work can be edited, and only edited work can be perfected.
These techniques are useful to overcome inertia at the start of a writing session. Once you begin, you’ll find it easier to jump into your main project.
Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility – yet big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London
Can you create your best work without inspiration?
Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.
Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.
Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. Pablo Picasso
Creativity and inspiration are not the same. They can exist separately or together. We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.
It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.
The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.
You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
Add a spark, and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.
Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill
Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill
Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you ready and waiting.
The Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration
Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. Twyla Tharp
Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.
In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.
The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.
Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not. Agnes Martin
Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.
Some people get their breakthroughs while doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.
Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
Everything Is Material
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.
Get out from your routine and search out something new. Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.
Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.
Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.
Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Examine buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.
A Marriage of Opposites
It’s a dull, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.
Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it. If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.
Of course you do. You’ve got something to say and without an audience all that effort goes unnoticed. In a world where new content is everywhere, how can you get anyone’s attention?
Sadly there are no guaranteed routes to a bigger readership. But there are some changes you can make to shift the odds in your favour.
Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, (and) then decide whether or not they will look at the copy. John Caples
The headline is your shop window.
The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.
It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that too often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.
Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.
Sell the benefit of your piece.
Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There’s a reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.
The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.
This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.
Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/00
How to get better at writing = 78/100
Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.
How Hard Can It Be?
So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.
Hit the Wall
Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen.
We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.
Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.
The Long and the Short Of It
Pitch your writing at the right level for your readers.
Reading age describes the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. Compare the reading age of some popular media.
The Sun, UK tabloid 7–8 years
Harry Potter novels 12–13 years
Stephen King novels 12 years
Reader’s Digest 12 years
You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.
Keep It Moving
Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. These writing styles favour the passive voice. Active voice is more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page. For example,
The passive voice is disliked by modern writers.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.
Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.
Avoid The Angry Trap
Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.
I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions or insight into those issues.
Instead use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too.
Put Meat on the Bones
So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.
Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.
If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading.
Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.
Be conversational and friendly. Read it out loud to check that it flows well.
Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come. Dwayne Johnson
After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. But instead, you have to do it again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.
Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another.
Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. Slow down if you must, but keep moving.
Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.
You can’t predict which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.
Walk That Talk
An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. Karl Marx
How is it that we consume so much self-help and advice, and yet remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know — because I live the same struggle.
A few months ago I was very discouraged about my work on Medium. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Belief in the process didn’t make it any easier to deal with my disappointment.
Ileaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.
The result: more fans for this one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.
I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece was a new opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else was the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.
Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve — as a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in their routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.
Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to your results. Like any change, it will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.
You’re good now — and you can be better. Learn, improve, repeat.
One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt, so that you can say yes without resentment. Bill Crawford
Let me guess.
You’re a super-nice person who’d help anybody do anything at any time. You’re proud of your reputation too.
I bet you’re also secretly consumed by envy of people who put themselves first and know how to say no.. In fact they make you angry… because they please themselves and get away with it. Meantime you’re stuck pleasing everyone but yourself, taking five points for niceness that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself. Paulo Coelho
Society would crumble if we all said no to anything even slightly unpleasant. In fact society runs smoothly precisely because so many of its members are socialised to say yes, to smile, to be agreeable. But there’s always a price to pay.
Being agreeable on the outside often conceals inner wounds which go unrecognised. Anger comes from being wronged. Resentment grows from unmet needs. Pain held inside twists and surfaces far from its source as a myriad of physical and emotional symptoms. Pain turned outside, but restrained by fear of expressing it, manifests as a hypercritical comment and passive aggression.
So you hide all of that behind a smile. You’ll be punished by disapproval if you display anger. You’ll be rewarded by approval if you play nice.There lies another problem.
Saying no risks losing your “nice” badge, the one that says you’re a good person. Refusing to help your friend move apartments on your weekend off when you’re perfectly capable of so doing is plain mean, isn’t it? And you can stand yet another football game because your companion loves it and it makes them happy.
Weak boundaries invite others to walk all over you. Everybody uses the doormat, but nobody really notices it.
Each time you put your needs second, or last, you add another small piece of resentment to the pile. It drags you down, lying heavy on your back where you probably don’t see it. Sometimes you almost say no, but you swallow it – and agree.
Before you can learn to say no, you must wean yourself off the excessive need for approval. That need might stem from childhood or respect for authority or fear of rejection. Those around you have already learned the best way to manipulate your reactions for their own benefit. You’re probably hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal cues, so that you read sadness, disappointment, or anger instantly and move to soothe it.
There are times when it’s right to put others before yourself. Parents feed their children first, doctors drop everything for a crash call, firefighters rush into burning buildings. A good friend misses their favourite programme to comfort a bereaved companion.
As with so much of life, it’s about balance. You have an equal right to get what you want some of the time. Compromise feels a lot better than win/lose, yes/no outcomes. Unbalanced relationships don’t feel good, no matter how many smiles you paste over the cracks.
Take time to review your relationships objectively. Are you getting as good as you give? If not, maybe it’s time to make changes for your benefit.
That’s all very well, you say. Exactly how do you say no face-to-face without feeling like a heel and losing your nerve?
Just Don’t Do It
Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work. Seth Godin
Saying yes is seductively easy. Everybody smiles, everybody’s happy – except you. You’re angry with them for catching you again and with yourself for caving.
Saying no is hard. Saying no is risky.
But saying no for the right reasons frees you up for greater rewards down the line. It’s like the marshmallow experiment except you’re trading a crumb of approval now for the entire cookie of self-confidence based on strong boundaries.
Train yourself to take that hit by practising in low-stakes situations. Say no to your co-worker’s birthday cake if you actually don’t like chocolate cake. You’ll feel anxious, but that will pass. You’re building assertiveness and you don’t have to choke down any more cake, because next time they’ll know.
When we communicate in person we respond to the words spoken and their delivery; both verbal and non-verbal cues. Tone of voice, body posture and facial expressions all contribute to the message. Both sets of cues must match it we want our message to be understood.
If you struggle to say no, practise in the mirror. Assume a confident body position – head up, shoulders back. Make eye contact with your reflection and say, “No thanks.” If it sounds like a question, try again. A question invites persuasion in an effort to change your mind, and you don’t want to be persuaded.
Observe that person you know who can say no assertively and steal their script.
“That sounds like an awesome project, sorry I can’t be part of it. Best of luck.”
“Thanks for thinking of me, but I have plans that weekend. Have fun without me!”
“Sorry, I don’t have time.”
Work up to no by degrees.
Listen to the request and think before you answer. Start by saying “maybe” or “I don’t think so” and follow up with one of these.
I have to check my schedule
I have to check with my partner/friend/doctor
Let me get back to you on that
There’s no need to apologise or explain. A smile is absolutely optional. Then go on with your day.
Playing for time gets you out of a tight spot, and you can decline gracefully later by text or email. It’s not necessarily your job to solve someone else’s problem; therefore you don’t have to feel guilty for not fixing it.
Of course you also have to give up the buzz that comes from being the one who solves everyone’s problems. You might not even realise how much you need to be needed until you stop offering your services. But you’ll reclaim energy for your own life — a worthwhile trade.
You might worry that saying no will lose you respect. In fact, the opposite is true. When people learn that you have well-enforced boundaries, they’re much less likely to cross them. As Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.
Using the hardest word will make your life easier. Listen to requests, balance your needs against the requester’s needs, and say no with calm confidence. Two letters have the power to improve your life. Use them wisely.
Your definition of success is bound to vary from mine in the details, but deep down we hold the same desires. Once we satisfy the basic human needs for safety, shelter, and food, as described by Maslow, we look for higher level satisfactions.
The search for companionship in its widest sense, a sense of purpose, and above all autonomy, hide beneath many of our rational and less rational activities. We can dress up our motivations in fancy language if we want to, but it comes down to this.
We want to be safe. We want to belong. We want to matter.
Everything else is froth on the top.
So if everything we do can be stripped down to very simple drivers, what do successful people do that allows them to survive and then thrive in the modern world? I don’t know for sure. But developing as a whole human being, not a lopsided one with all the success in one corner, requires four keystone skills. Work on these, and see how far you grow.
Curiosity Won’t Kill The Cat
I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity. Eleanor Roosevelt
If you’ve ever shared living space with a kitten or a toddler, you know their principal quality is endless curiosity. They explore, get into tight spaces and sometimes even escape without help, over and over. They’re not very much afraid, until they learn to be.
Adulthood squashes your curiosity. If as a child you enjoy nature, books, or music, adults kill your enthusiasm with boring study and assessment. Forced to dissect books and poetry, learn the Linnaeus binomial classification, or study the life of Mozart, younger you learns a hard lesson.
You learn that study is pain, teachers are the judges, and parents aren’t interested in your interests unless they bring in top grades. Then interests become work.
You learn to mind your business and show no joy in anything, lest it be sucked from you as you’re forced to do anything but enjoy yourself. Play isn’t serious and it certainly isn’t preparing you for adult life.
Look again at the quote above. Every one of us comes into the world with that gift of curiosity. We ask questions that have no answers and some that do. But somewhere along the road to adulthood we lose our most precious gift.
Curiosity is an open mind and a sincere smile. The world is as amazing as ever, but you need to open your eyes to see it. Be amazed. Look up at the stars in wonderment, and down at a flower in awe.
People share incredible stories if you ask questions and wait to hear the answer. If you can be open enough to reveal a little of yourself, others are empowered to do the same.
Once, I made a flippant remark about how I’d rather be gardening to the woman sitting next to me in a boring meeting. We got talking and I discovered she was also a passionate gardener. Finally I had someone who understood my struggle, was sympathetic when my Meconopsis died before flowering, and was delighted to visit the Chelsea Flower Show with me.
Curiosity will also help you adapt to changes. Technology has disrupted industries and lives, often for the better. Sometimes it’s difficult to sift out the things that will help you from the mass of options.
Ask yourself simple, child-like questions about new things. What does this do? How do I do X with Y? What if I wanted to do something new, who could show me how?
Whether it’s a new food or a new country, if you attend to the basic need for security, try something different regularly. If you don’t like it, no worries. You have an opinion based on experience and since you’re an adult, you don’t have to do it again.
Curiosity and open-mindedness leads to the next keystone skill.
Feel My Pain, Feel My Joy
Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something. H Jackson Browne
We’re faced daily with the evidence of inhumanity both large and small. Opinions and positions are increasingly polarised, fed by echo chambers that spring up around algorithms showing us more of the same views we already hold. We are more connected but more divided than ever.
Cynicism and numbing of emotions are inevitable when we’re fed a daily diet of sensational news stories and disasters far from home that we have no influence over. Some even advocate a news diet to avoid the distress it causes.
And yet it remains true that humans want the same things. We may name our needs differently, we may take different routes to satisfy them. But mothers want happy secure children, adults want meaning in their lives, and no matter how twisted the expression of these desires they are at heart the same.
Most of us will never hold public office. But in the equally messy politics of our own lives, within our own circle of influence, we can choose to see the other side through a more empathetic lens. We can negotiate for win-win outcomes rather than seek destruction of the opposing side just because it’s the opposing side. After all, the last time someone wronged you the pain didn’t go away, did it? It went underground, festered and grew, until it found another way out.
Instead of raging, take a breath. Consider the possible reasons behind people’s behaviour that may have little to do with you as a person. None of this excuses or forgives wrongdoing, but it gives you the chance not to add to it.
You don’t have to practise random acts of generosity. Being kinder to the people in your life already is a big enough task for most of us, but one which is worthwhile. Hold the door, let someone into traffic, make a drink without being asked. If you’d love it, chances are someone else will.
On the flip side, empathy allows us to share in the joy of others too. There’s no truer friend than the one who can be honestly happy for and with you. Why not be that person for somebody else?
Empathy lets us feel the ties that bind us. We have more in common than we think. We must not give up on ourselves, which leads to the next keystone skill.
Until The End Of The Line
The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting. Walt Disney
There’s a saying that A students end up working for C students. Consider person A, one of the hardest workers in her class. She was never in the top ten percent, and that kept her hungry. She learned at an early age that hard grind would be the key to success.
Compare with person B. Gifted with intelligence, athleticism and charm, he excelled in sports and school almost without trying. But in those last three words were the seeds of his downfall. He struggled in higher education because for the first time it required effort. He never learned how to study and college seemed too much like hard work.
You can guess which person became director at a major brand, successful by their own and society’s standards, and which one has a great future behind them. They are separated not so much by IQ as by perseverance.
Call it grit, perseverance, persistence, bloody mindedness, or whatever you like. Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. If you give up before the tipping point, you soon find yourself back at the starting line, while others plod on with their eyes fixed on the finish.
If you have grit, the means to keep going, to stick it out, to tolerate not winning until you do, the road to success is open to you. It isn’t easy though it sounds simple; turn up, day after day. Write, train, sell, paint. Put it out there and go again.
Find your own ways to keep going even when you think you’re failing. Try a different approach if your current one isn’t working. If you have a habit of bolting when things get tough, try sitting with the discomfort. Journal it, dissect it, find the fear that sits under the surface.
If you think you’re not good enough, you’re afraid to fail, scared of success, worried about the future, panicking that you can’t do this – then welcome. Everyone feels the same and success doesn’t make that go away. Digest this fact, and get back to work. There are no medals for sitting on the sidelines.
Perseverance is a vital component for the last keystone skill.
The More You Know
Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer. Charles Caleb Colton
You’re curious, open-minded, able to empathise and relate to others, and have sticking power. That’s great, because you’ll need all these to supercharge the final key skill for survival in the modern world.
Ageing is inevitable, but have you noticed how some people get old really quickly? Their world shrinks, they stop asking questions, and they’re not interested in anything except the pain in their hip and how terrible the kids are these days.
I met many people like this in family practice. Often they were men who had retired without planning their next life stage. Without the structure of work they drifted, annoying their wives and suffering low mood.
When I asked what their hobbies were, or what they did with their days, they were blank. They shook their heads. “Nothing.”
Or they were older women without family ties for various reasons. They had a hundred reasons why they couldn’t join local groups, go to tea dances, try pottery, attend church lunches or knit blankets for charity.
These were people without curiosity and who refused to learn. They had time, but their mindset was fixed. They believed those activities were not for people like them. And so they remained stuck and unhappy, unwilling to leave their very small comfort zones.
To survive and thrive you need teachability – the ability and willingness to learn.
Embrace a growth mindset that welcomes the chance to develop. You’ll need curiosity to find out what might suit you and try it. You’ll need empathy to understand that teaching isn’t easy, and other people are just as worried as you are under their social smile.
You’ll definitely need grit, because everyone sucks in the beginning. And we hate to suck, but it’s unavoidable until we get better. We only get better with practice.
Leaving your comfort zone can feel like being dropped in a distant forest with no map or compass. Think of learning as going to the edge of your map and looking out at unknown but interesting forest nearby.
You still have your home base, which holds all the skills you have already. Now you’re ready to explore, bit by bit, with your teacher or mentor or YouTube video showing the way. Still a bit scary, but not so bad, right?
Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.
Don’t overload your brain by going too fast, too soon. Go at your own pace, but keep going. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. That’s humbling, but also inspiring because there’s always more to learn, whether in your own patch or somewhere else.
Rule of Four
Now it’s time for you to apply these rules in your own life.
Ask more questions and listen to the answer.
Be kinder and cut people some slack occasionally.
Stick with things until they bear fruit and don’t give up too easily.
Learn something new and enlarge your world.
It’s a crazy world but also full of good things, should you choose to notice them. Sometimes, like jewels, magic lies under the surface waiting for someone to dig it out, hold it to the light and make our lives a bit brighter.
(originally published in Publishous on 20 March 2019)
We’re only envious of those already doing what we were made to do. Envy is a giant, flashing arrow pointing us toward our destiny. Glennon Doyle
How are you doing with your writing?
Are you earning four figures every month and counting thousands of followers? Or are you only reading about those who are?
You know you shouldn’t compare your behind-the-scenes footage with someone else’s highlight reel, but it’s just so easy. Social media sites thrive on peacocks preening under envious glances from the rest of us, selling us their secret sauce along the way. Everyone wants to be a beautiful unicorn, not a plain carthorse plodding through a humdrum life.
Comparison leaves you dissatisfied and unsettled. Far from being a motivating force, it saps the very energy you need to move forward – because you’re number one or you’re nowhere. As Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Me Me Me
You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do. Eleanor Roosevelt
You’ve probably done this. You look at X who has something you don’t. You feel envious because you deserve that thing, angry because they don’t deserve it, or ashamed of your lack.
Notice that all these emotions point back at you. X is out there doing what they do, and you’re beating yourself up over it. Comparison is a thief. It steals your peace of mind and uses your own energy to do it.
None of this helps you to feel better, or achieve more in your own life. Worse still, when you think about it you’ll see that X is unaffected by all your angst. You are both the author and the sole beneficiary of this bad blood.
You can redirect that energy for your own good.
Envy is a magic mirror that shows your true desires. If you think you don’t know what you want, use envy. What makes you angry when other people have it? What object or activity cuts so deep that you have to cover up the pain with sarcasm or sweetness, otherwise you’d scream?
That. That’s what you want.
And you can go for it, because other people are paying very little attention to you. The spotlight effect makes you feel as if you’re the centre of attention, but others are as consumed by their inner dialogue as you are by yours. Even when they scrutinise you, that critical gaze is really a projection of their own self-talk. Just like when you watch unicorns and covet their rainbow manes.
But consider this – what if you could be a unicorn?
Because one truth lies at the heart of my work – I’m a writer and that’s what I do, good days and bad, fair weather or foul. Still… good days are more than welcome. It’s been a grind recently, for numerous reasons.
A writing group friend came up to me last week and said, “I read your articles and I’m amazed you’re able to write so much.”
He went on to say that he’d been sitting on a story for a long time. Inspired by Medium, he committed to writing one hundred words a day, and he was delighted to have a forty-five day streak under his belt.
This struck me for two reasons. First, I’d been beating myself up for not writing enough; and second because that’s how I started my serious writing journey. I read Shaunta Grimes and took on board her teeny tiny goals. I kept going, and now I’m here.
Maybe you’re not at the goal yet. But perception is relative. The top of the mountain is shrouded in cloud, but you are a speck in the distance to somebody who’s just left the starting blocks. Maybe you’re even an inspiration to them. Rather than envy, they recognise a kinship which motivates them to go on. If you did it, so can they.
Wherever you are, you’re further on than the person who didn’t start yet, further on than you were. The only useful comparison is with your past self. Make sure you’re pulling away from your previous position.
Then you’ll find the unicorns are people like you. Yes, they ran faster and/or started before you, but they all began where you did – at the starting post. They’re on their path, and you are on yours, but remember that there’s room at the top for everyone who works for it.
So keep going. Be inspired by those ahead of you, and an inspiration for those behind.
Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?
Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.
Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.
No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.
Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.
That’s That, That’s All
Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words. Jeff Lindsay
“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.
This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.
This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.
The sentence is more direct if you reword it.
She told me to wash this dirty plate.
Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.
The Thing Is…
I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. Vladimir Nabokov
What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing” is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him. Find a better way to express your idea.
The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.
We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.
Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.
What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.
What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.
Parts Of Possession
Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional. Liz Vassey
This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.
It’s not that big of a problem or
It’s not such a big problem or
It’s not a big problem
Which sounds better to you?
The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.
The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?
The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or
The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.
Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.
I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or This is Achmael Blein III.
The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.
The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.
Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.
What Was Going On?
No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.” Merilyn Simonds
Writers often use the word “was” paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.
“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”
Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.
Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.
For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.
“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”
Of This and That and Other Things
Four small words – that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”
Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.
Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
We all want to succeed. We want our hard work to pay off, and we dream of the benefits yet to come. But in the present, we’re consumed by the immediate and the urgent.
Putting out fires takes up time and energy we could otherwise devote to fireproofing the walls or fixing the faulty stove. We prioritise the urgent over the important.
You know this logically, but what do you do about it?
You don’t have time for the strategic thinking in sector 2 because you’re overwhelmed by stuff that has to be done right now. You spend your time in sector 1 firefighting, at the mercy of whatever comes up in the moment. You’re on a hamster wheel of busy work and you’re exhausted.
You think the future stuff can wait. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.
Here’s how to shift your focus.
The Seed Is Not The Tree — Yet
Every tree begins as a single seed. The seed needs the right conditions to develop. But properly managed, it will grow into a plant many times larger than the seed it sprouted from.
The biggest input into growth is time. Given enough time, growth can be amazing.
We underestimate the power of compounding.
The chart shows the difference in return from investing the same amount of money at different times, with the same growth rates. The earlier you start, the bigger your return when interest is allowed to compound over time.
In the same way, repeated daily actions add up over time. Whether you invest in yourself or in something external, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing your novel or building up a pension plan.
How can you get compounding to work for you?
You Have One Job
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.
Robert Louis Stevenson
There’s something small you can do which will more than repay the effort now. Its effects will build over time to get you much further along your path, whether your horizon is measured in days or decades.
You might think big gestures get the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards.No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.
If you draw an apple every day, you’ll improve. If you write a story every week, you’ll improve. If you walk ten minutes daily, you’ll improve. With these baby steps you can go further each time, and eventually, things will take off.
Do one thing your future self will thank you for. Repeat regularly.
Write 250 words on your current project
Exercise for ten minutes
Read a chapter of that book you meant to finish
Plant something — a tree or a window box
Save whatever you can afford each month — if only spare change
Paint or draw a small picture
Any gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter wind to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate, unlike my frozen fingers. But now, with little to no extra effort, the flowers cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.
So what will you do today, and tomorrow, and onwards to secure a better future?
Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.
The law of harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
You know success is out there but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.
You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thomas Merton
The Double-Edged Sword of Focus
You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one area. This can be good and bad at the same time.
Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, all your work will be in vain.
The same can be said for your writing.
How do you know where to invest your effort?
You need to go wide and then deep.
Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.
The gold miners need to survey the whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.
Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.
For example, I wrote an article about being let down by a former friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.
Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.
Readers like emotional stories
Universal theme of betrayal
Conversational style — written as a letter
Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
Performed best on Medium
So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the best writing style to use next time.
The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where.Spread your net wide.
You want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.
That means leaving the comfort zone and doing something new. Then assess your results and adjust your course. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.
Try a new fishing ground
Writing divides into three very broad categories.
Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.
Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.
Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.
The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline and appeals to more of our senses and emotions. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.
Crossing the boundaries could look like this.
Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
Tightly plotted fiction
Historical fiction with strong research base
Fiction plus poetry elements:
Lyrical writing style
Highly descriptive but concise style
Non-fiction plus poetry elements
Descriptive travel writing
Learn new ways to tell your story. Blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen area and play with it.
Try a different corner of your own field
If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.
Your next piece will benefit from a new approach.
Wave a flag and get noticed
This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers might still guard the doors to traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.
Enter a competition
In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition or even getting shortlisted in one can lead to new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.
The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.
I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio.
It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.
Competitions cover every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type. Many are free to enter so there’s no reason to pass on a chance for recognition.
Start a blog
Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s not easy to drive traffic to a blog, you can experiment with your style and start gathering fans.
If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.
Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, high quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.
Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.
Do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.
Submit to magazines
Study the websites for guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Editors need good fiction and non-fiction every month.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.
Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.
Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.
Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.
I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want. Stanley Kubrick
How much time do you spend doing things you don’t want to do? I’m betting quite a bit.
As a child, you race towards adulthood in search of a mythical time when you’ll cast off the powerlessness of childhood and start doing exactly what you want.
And yet, the older you get, the more you realise adulthood is more about what you don’t want. The shine wears off a job and lifestyle you thought you wanted. And to maintain them you’re bound to a whole series of actions you’d rather skip.
Maybe, as Thoreau said, most of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. From that position, the only act of power left is to say no. If you can’t get what you want, you can still avoid what you don’t want.
Is it that simple?
What Came Out In The Wash
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw
We all know that communication is the key to good relationships. Despite that, we carry deep-seated assumptions and prejudices into our closest interactions without thinking to question or even acknowledge them.
In the early years, doctors in training work long, long hours. I recall when my partner was pulling a heavy on-call burden of two nights per week and two out of five weekends, plus commuting to the hospital. He moved in with me; I did our combined laundry and housework.
Things went along fine until I came home one night after my own stressful weekend on call, while he had been at home resting. My house looked like a bomb had gone off.
“Why haven’t you cleaned up or done laundry?”
“I’m tired and I just didn’t want to do it.”
His response gave me an insight into his mind. It was a rare moment of truth, though I was too mad to appreciate that right then.
Much later, I was able to break it down as follows.
I realised that he relied on emotion to guide his actions.
He assumed that I did the same.
He observed me doing housework without complaint.
Therefore he inferred that I did it because I liked it.
This isn’t so much about gender roles as emotional styles. His was if it feels good do it but more importantly if it feels bad don’t do it.
The problem is, that commonly held attitude won’t get you ahead in life.
Sweat The Small Stuff
You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction. Alvin Toffler
You want to feel good and you don’t want to feel bad. That’s a basic instinct for every living creature. But the really good stuff lies on the far side of “bad” stuff. Any success is built on many hours of routine, boring effort. A great performance is an iceberg; one-tenth visible brilliance and nine-tenths hidden trial, error, and reiteration.
A painter cleans brushes, a gardener picks weeds, and a singer practises scales because these menial jobs build the foundations of their craft. Without a solid foundation, the most astonishing building will topple and eventually fail.
Without perseverance and the discipline to do what has to be done repeatedly, you’ll never develop the grit you need to succeed.
When you’re stuck with stuff that feels bad in the moment but still needs doing for various reasons, you need ways to take care of the things you really don’t want to do.
Feelings Don’t Work
Boxing is not about your feelings. It’s about performance. Manny Pacquiao
Perhaps you think my story about laundry was just a silly domestic spat. We should have agreed a rota at the outset or something like that. You’d just get stuff done without fuss.
But I bet there is something that you haven’t done.
Something you should do, but you can’t bring yourself to start. A conversation, a letter, an action. Every time you think of it, your mind makes excuses and shies away.
You know this action will ultimately lead to a real benefit. You still don’t do it.
You’re trapped in an endless loop of feelings. No matter how trivial or important the task appears, it conjures up anxiety and avoidance that are usually symptoms of something deeper; fear of rejection, fear of failure, or shame. Those unnamed emotions lead to procrastination, which only amplifies them.
There are ways to escape this trap without therapy or suffering.
Name your feelings and set them aside. This is the “just do it” school of thought. It is what it is. Push through your boredom or fatigue, load the washer, and get it done.
Put a reward on the other side. Made a difficult phone call? Have a cookie.
Focus on the outcome and not the process. You want clean clothes, doing laundry is the way to get them.
Feel the fear. Perhaps there are bad consequences to leaving your task undone. You’ll get fired for coming to work in ripped jeans, or laughed at for wearing a formal gown to your retail job because your work clothes were dirty. Rather than avoiding the task itself, avoid feeling even worse by doing your laundry.
Ask “Super Me” to do it. Super Me is you, but stronger. Super Me doesn’t agonise over a phone call or email, scared to make a fool of herself. Super Me knows that even if she stumbles a little, the world will not end. But she won’t stumble because she’s prepared and ready. Super Me knows how to deal with rejection and in that case, she’ll find another way.
Review the need for the task. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be done by you. If you can reasonably delegate, do so. Pay for a laundry service. Teach your older children to do their own laundry, which is a basic life skill. If it’s a precious clothing item, maybe it would be safer if dry-cleaned.
Drop it. This is only after careful thought that concludes this task demands much more input than the result deserves. Many “shoulds and oughts” drop into this category. It may be a friend who never listens and constantly demands your time; a relative you see out of duty; or drinks after work you don’t enjoy with people you don’t like. If the mere thought of dropping it fills you with relief, and you’ve been honest in your cost/benefit assessment, you’re on the right track. Go ahead and make a positive decision to decline gracefully.
Do It Now
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Mark Twain
Research tells us that willpower is a limited resource. Since procrastination is almost inevitable when it comes to doing the thing you don’t want to do, it follows that willpower needs careful management.
So when you’ve found the right strategy to do the thing, do it now. And if you can’t do it now, do it as early in the day as possible, before your willpower is depleted by forcing yourself to be civil rather than cursing at your co-worker or relative.
In other words, decide how you’re going to eat that frog and then, without hesitation, swallow it whole. It won’t taste as bad as you feared. As a bonus, everything else will taste much better, now that’s out of the way.
As for me and my partner, I explained that I subscribed to the “get it done” school and he needed to get with the programme. I despise domestic work to this day, but tolerate it in order to enjoy a tidy living space. We got on the same page, eventually. You can too if you can ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
You’re avoiding something. Get it done and off your plate. Get on with the next thing.