On bad writing

October 1, 2014 § 14 Comments

There’s some writing advice I’ve been dispensing often of late, and it’s this: write badly. Odd, I know, from someone who writes for a living and coaches other writers, but it’s the best way to overcome that “Aaaaaaargh! I’ll never get this damn thing written!” feeling.

Without wanting to brag, I’m a bit of a writing machine. As long as I have a brief – the briefest of briefs, even – I can pretty much sit down and write something decent, no matter how I’m feeling. But every now and then, I can’t. And I’ve finally figured out what the problem is: perfectionism!

Every single time I can’t write, it’s because I’m utterly terrified I won’t be able to produce Good Writing. As if I get one go at it. As if I chip every word out of the Rock of Gibraltar and then that’s it. Posterity will witness my shame forever. (I have a flair for the dramatic.)

But here’s the thing – there’s a backspace key on my computer. And the option to cut, copy, paste and edit until it’s as good as I can get it. And it’s never going to be perfect – there’s always something you can change or improve.

So when people tell me they are struggling to write something now, I tell them to write badly. Because, most often, the hardest part of writing something is getting started. And most excellent writing doesn’t just flow from the writer’s brain fully formed – it is edited and rewritten and rejigged and tweaked and crafted into a thing (hopefully) of beauty.

And then, when it’s been printed or published somewhere, every writer I know will look at it again and wish they’d left out that word, or inserted a comma just there, or rephrased that paragraph completely. It will never be perfect.

So stop hankering after perfection, or even Good Writing. The thing is just to start. Get the words on the page, and keep going. And then leave them there for a bit and get some distance from them for a couple of hours at least. By the time you come back to them you’ll be able to see what needs fixing, I promise you.

Don’t give up on writing just because you’re struggling with the words. Start. Write badly. You can always fix it.

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Making space

May 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

I should not be writing this blog post.

I’ve just returned from a meeting with someone who wants his book edited. I have another book to write by the end of August. I need to send my own novel out to do the slush pile sashay and a recipe book sitting at an e-publisher that I really must follow up on. I have a couple of small bloggy-type pieces to write for one of my clients. I have a business writing course to design. I’m hatching a plot to record some of my songs, and writing new ones in what feels like a mad frenzy. I want to do a life coaching course, but I haven’t had time to look for one. My office is a disaster. My home admin is non-existent. I don’t have the time to write this blog post.

And I am as happy as the proverbial pig in mud.

A little over a year ago I sat in Judy Klipin’s office and sobbed for an hour. I was burnt out – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I think I probably sobbed for most of the first four or five sessions while Judy listened and passed the tissues.

At some point I remember her asking me what my ideal working life would look like, and I answered that I’d like to be writing books, predominantly. I didn’t mind doing a bit of journalism, but I loved the substantial body of work that a book gives one, the sense of achievement when you hold it in your hand. I’d like to continue teaching writing as well, I said. I love seeing someone’s face light up when they finally get it.

So, look at my to-do list again. Admin and tidying aside, largely I’m doing everything I want to do, and more. And the songwriting is just the lushest, plumpest, darkest, juice-running-down-your-chin cherry on the cake. Nothing makes me happier than producing a song I’m proud of.

How did I get here? By making space. With Judy’s help I put down all the things that weren’t serving me, all those things that were draining the life out of me, that I was doing out of a sense of duty or guilt or any number of other negative emotions.

I’ve had a fallow period since I did that, one where having nothing to occupy me in the evenings has been the weirdest sensation on earth. Because I’m a doer. Like my grandmother, I always have Things To Do.

But now, after a long recovery period and plenty of time to think and ruminate and plot and plan, I feel like I’m back. Like I’m me. I’m starting to dress like me again, I’m thinking like me, I’m speaking like me, I’m doing the things I like to do. And mostly importantly, I’m giving myself the space – the permission – to be whoever I want to be. It scares the hell out of me, but I’m doing it anyway.

And that, dear friends, is the very best feeling in the world.

Solitude’s the only game in town

January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m in a strange kind of mood. I suppose the closest word I can find to describe it is ‘melancholy’. But it’s a mood that arrives when I’m a little tired, a little overwhelmed, a little sad about something.

Right now I’m missing a dear, dear friend so much it hurts a little. It physically hurts. I can feel the ache of their absence just behind my sternum. We talk often – a couple of times a week at least – but it’s just not the same as being together. There’s an energy in our meetings that replenishes me, but which I find incredibly hard to walk away from. It’s a wrench, and it’s the wrench that hurts a little. It leaves me feeling lonely whether I’m alone or in a room full of people. So yes, I’m melancholy and out of sorts.

The upside, however, is that it’s the perfect frame of mind for songwriting. Well, for me it is. Somehow when I’m in this state, I find it easier to express myself in lyrics and melodies and harmonies. What would probably bore someone to tears if discussed over a cappuccino, somehow works when I pick up my guitar and begin to sing. My melancholy leaves me through my fingers on the strings, or my pen scratching at the blank page trying to find just the right word in just the right place.

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I started working on a song last night; the chorus came to me late one night in November and it was time to add some verses and a bridge. The bridge was half-written when my husband got home from work, and immediately I stopped writing, because the melancholy isn’t enough. I need solitude as well.

The melancholy isn’t enough. I need solitude as well.

And now that’s all I’m craving. I’m alone in my home office, but it’s not solitude, because everywhere I look are distractions, tasks, deadlines, all manner of things demanding my attention. I’m too easily diverted by them.  And I need to be able to try things out: sing the same thing over with a different word or phrase, without wondering if someone else is listening or getting irritated.

So if anyone wants me this afternoon, I’ll be far from the madding crowds in a park somewhere, with just my journal, my guitar and a pen.

Please do not disturb.

Confessions of a blogger

January 8, 2014 § 11 Comments

Okay, so here’s my sordid little secret: I started blogging because I’ve always wanted a newspaper or magazine column, and no-one’s ever offered me one.

So I started my own, here, partly as a bit of a brand-building exercise, but mostly because I wondered if I had what it took to produce something completely out of my head on a regular basis. And I wondered if anyone would read what I write in the vast ocean of bloggery that exists on the internet. Perhaps there was a good reason I’d never been offered a column.

It started off as a fairly haphazard thing, and then I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to test my competence unless I set a deadline. Which is why I decided that Wednesday would be blogging day, and that I would blog at least once a week. A daily blog seemed too much, a monthly blog too little. But I’ve worked on a weekly newspaper, and even though the deadlines come around pretty quickly, that felt manageable. (In reality, that basically gave me 24 hours in which to publish something each week – being a proper journalist, I seldom start writing anything until the very last minute!)

And perhaps this will sound like a humblebrag, but I am still astounded that just over 600 people follow this blog. Because I don’t offer prizes or give-aways or anything of that nature. These are just word-based snapshots of me.

I write about whatever takes my fancy on a particular Wednesday, whatever has been occupying my mind. There have been the odd rants, a couple of remembrances and other assorted ramblings. And somehow, people seem to enjoy them. It really does astonish me.

It’s been an enormously beneficial process for me, from a number of points of view. It’s my space, first and foremost. No-one tells me what to write, how long it needs to be, or what angle to take. That provides simultaneous freedom and sheer terror. The nature of my day job means that I can write almost anything as long as you give me a good brief, so not having one is a quite anxiety-inducing. It means I have to ask myself what I want to write about – and I don’t always know, as my crowdsourcing of topics (this one included) on Twitter will testify.

I think it has improved my writing. As people have responded to the way I write, it’s given me courage and self-confidence to push myself a little more, experiment with different kinds of posts, really craft the words I produce here, and not just churn out the transactional kind of writing I do on a daily basis.

It has built my personal brand a little – I have had a few offers of work as a direct result of the blog, so that’s been really positive.

I’ve also learned a few lessons along the way. Here they are; perhaps some might help you:

1. Be yourself. Find your own voice. Without wanting to sound all Oprah-ish, it’s about authenticity.

2. Rewrite. Give yourself time and distance from what you’re written if possible, and go back and edit it with a fresh eye. Get it as close to perfect as you are able. Don’t question, just trust me. You’ll thank me later.

3. If you are looking to build a following, and you’re an ordinary Joe or Jane like me, you need to blog regularly. It doesn’t have to be rigid, but if you can blog a couple of times a month at least, you’re more likely to build an audience.

4. Don’t blog too often. Remember that people are assailed by vast amounts of information every day. If blog posts are popping into their mailboxes every five minutes, they are going to delete them without a second glance.

5. Be ruthless about the content you produce – have you tackled the topic in a new way, or from a fresh angle? Ask yourself: “So what?” If you can’t answer that, you’re less likely to engage an audience. And be assured that if you get halfway through the post and think, “Meh!” then so will your readers. I find this the hardest part to get right. Today I started and discarded half a dozen posts because I couldn’t even interest myself in what I was writing. And sometimes I write something and think it’s wonderful, and hardly anyone reads it. Other times I dash something off in a hurry and it gets a big response.

6. Don’t get hung up on the numbers. If you obsess about how many people are reading your posts, you’ll drive yourself nuts.

7. Followers do not equal reads. I have 600-odd followers, but apart from one or two posts, a really good stat for me is about 150-200 reads. More often than not, I get around 50 or 60.

8. Keep on keeping on. It does take a fair amount of discipline to blog regularly – especially when it’s all you and no-one is paying you to do it. And often, life gets in the way. But there’s a reason you started blogging – unless that reason has changed, keep on keeping on.

9. Write for you. Perhaps I’m making an incorrect assumption, but people blog because they enjoy writing in some form. So enjoy it. And bugger what anyone else thinks.

10. Finally, and most importantly, if your blog allows comments, distinguish between honest engagement and trolling. And then repeat after me: don’t feed the trolls.

Criticism and creativity

October 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

I have to confess that I’ve been spamming my friends and followers a little on social media today, punting a music video that my kids made. But I couldn’t help it. With the simplest of tools – an A4 white board, some basic stationery and an iPad app, they produced the most awesome stop frame animation music video for Train’s Fifty Ways to say Good-byeAnd, parental bias aside, it’s amazing.

I know at least some of you are tutting and saying that an iPad app is hardly a simple tool, but for me, the marvel is to be found in the conceptualisation – in the way that they chose to illustrate the song’s lyrics. Anyone who’s ever tried to make a music video will know exactly how hard that is to do, and my daughters are just 11 and 14.

I’m a fairly creative person, but somehow I feel like they’re in a different league, and it really got me thinking about creativity and how important it is to nurture it.

As a child, almost all of my extra-murals were in the cultural arena – I sang in a provincial youth choir as well as the school choir. I sang, danced and acted in amateur dramatic productions from my second year of schooling until my last. I took part in debating, wrote plays and poems and short essays… I was really pretty creative when I think about it. But over the years, I seem to have forgotten a lot of that.

Or perhaps I’ve just had it knocked out of me. Because when I try to explore why I don’t value my creativity as I should, or have much confidence left in my abilities, here’s what comes to mind:

  • The drama teacher who went off at me because I missed a single rehearsal in ten years of attending her drama school, ending her tirade with: “You don’t have any talent, anyway.”
  • The newspaper editor who told me I didn’t have the ability to string a sentence together in basic English.
  • The person who told me my singing voice was better suited to backing vocals.
  • The constant admonition that a career in the arts is not worth pursuing; that one always needs another career to fall back on.
  • The person who said they didn’t like it when I was involved in theatre because my personality changed with my character.
  • The person I no longer show any of my creative work to, because they can’t be bothered to pay any real attention to it.

The interesting thing is that most of the messages contained in those few bullet points were throwaway, one-line comments made over about thirty years. Just a handful of thoughtless remarks, and yet they’ve burned themselves into my brain, and coloured my creativity for decades.

Of course, I shouldn’t have allowed that criticism to stop me from doing what I knew then I was good at. I have to own my part in it too. But most of it came at a time when I was young and moving out of my sheltered environment in a smallish town, and into the wider world. I was becoming a small fish in a very big pond.

It was not constructive, and I took it to heart. And I’m only starting to unpack those statements now, in my mid-40s, and attempting to undo the damage that was done.

But what I really want to say is that there’s a lesson here for all of us. First, if you’re the one who’s being criticised, it’s important to try and view it objectively and not take it as gospel – because in at least some of the examples I mention above, the criticism was a kneejerk reaction motivated by spite – I know that now. So weigh that criticism. Ask yourself if it’s valid, because it may be. You may need to work on your technique or get some coaching: raw talent is seldom enough.

But more importantly, if a child or a friend or a lover shares something they’ve created with you – especially a child or young adult – pause and think before you criticise. Be honest, sure, but be constructive. Because if you’ve produced a poem or a song or a painting or a film, putting it out there for others to view is an act of extreme courage. It’s like sharing a small part of your soul.

So, if someone brings you that small, delicate soul fragment, carefully cupped between outstretched hands, realise how privileged you are that they’ve chosen you. This is an intimate moment.

Be careful when you take it from them. Pay attention to it, examine it closely. Don’t squeeze too tightly or you may suffocate it or shatter its delicate framework. And be honest with them, always.

But above all, be kind.

Content in the shallows

October 9, 2013 § 10 Comments

My daughter is working on a huge project for English, so big that the teacher insisted that each child hand in a section halfway through to ensure everyone was making progress.

My child is diligent and creative, and she spent hours painstakingly putting the first part of her project together, and making a beautiful cover that I know I couldn’t even have conceptualised, let alone executed. And on the appointed day she took her partial project in for its first assessment.

The teacher, by all accounts, cast a cursory eye over the content of the project, gave her 9/10 for the work submitted so far, and sent her away with the admonition that she needed to work a bit more on her presentation.

Even with a good dose of parental bias thrown in, I was gobsmacked. First, what kind of message does that send to a child – that 90% is not good enough? No wonder we have kids committing suicide over school marks.

More concerning, though, was the emphasis on presentation over content that I’ve seen before: a book review earlier in the year had to be presented as a scrapbooked page, for example, and some children were made to redo their page because the scrapbooking wasn’t up to the teacher’s standards. I would be far more concerned with which books the kids had read, and what their impressions were given that the subject is English and not Art, but perhaps that’s just me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m the last person to suggest that things should be presented in a slapdash way. But it got me thinking. All of this is a microcosm of the world we live in, isn’t it? We live in a world where form seems to be trumping content more and more, and I find it desperately sad.

As one wag quipped on Twitter recently, it’s depressing that some people have a favourite Kardashian. Paris Hilton is famous for being famous . People who can’t really sing are making money hand over fist as singers, but they are autotuned in studio to such an extent that their ‘live’ performances either feature them lip syncing to everything, or singing live and making a mess of it. And let’s not even begin to talk about politics, which is all about smoke and mirrors.

I’ve even encountered it in my own career – a few years ago I gave up paying work when a magazine asked me to take the little parenting column I’d been writing for them for years and “make it more boutiquey – feature cute prams and dresses and stuff”. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I could go on, but there are too many examples. I think it suffices to say that we appear to be getting more and more shallow, and on a global scale.

So, it’s taken me a while to get there, but all of this has relevance for business communication. Think about some of the company websites you encounter. They’re beautiful, they have all the bells and whistles and features that open and shut, until you try to find some useful information, or engage with the content in any way. Within minutes you find yourself floundering in a sea of business buzzwords and platitudes that say precisely nothing and leave you feeling bewildered and confused.

Here’s the thing: if you focus too much on what things look like, and less on what they say or how they work for those reading or engaging with them, one thing is certain – people will move on, and they will move on quickly. The distractions of modern life mean that we imbibe an enormous amount of information daily, and if something is confusing, insubstantial and not useful to us, we move on to the next thing very quickly. And when that happens, you’ve lost a potential client, or perhaps even an existing client.

So I’ll just continue to beat the same old drum in the hope that someone out there finally gets it: content is king, plain language rocks, and adding real value to your clients’ or customers’ lives is what you should be aiming for with your business communication.

Once you’ve done that – and only then – do you start to worry about making it look pretty.

PS. Here’s a free tip: if you have a ‘contact us by email’ form where people can make enquiries, do make sure someone monitors it at least on a daily basis. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve asked to contact me about a product or a quote and the deafening silence continues years later.

Plain language paradox

July 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

When I teach business writing courses – and emphasise the importance of plain language – one of the most common complaints I hear is this: “If I write like that my boss won’t accept it.” They are often referring to the same boss who sent them on the course, which is something of a paradox.

But the complaint is a very valid one – many of the top dogs are, in fact, dinosaurs when it comes to modern business correspondence. And I’m willing to bet those same bosses are surprised that their employees sprout fewer buzzwords rather than more, by the time they’ve finished the course.

Here’s an example. Last week someone called me and asked for my help – he’s coaching someone and the person being coached needs someone to look at their correspondence and give some pointers before it’s sent. (It took him about 15 minutes to explain what I’ve just said in a sentence, so mired was his speech in ‘stakeholders’ and ‘outcomes’ and ‘engagement’.) On Monday I sent him an email to say I couldn’t make the suggested meeting time, and this is the response I received:

“No problem. Subsequent to our brief discussion last week further developments on John’s side have pushed out the need for the communication. I shall keep in touch going forward.”

This is fairly typical business English, and it makes me want to go and curl up under a cabbage leaf and die, frankly. Here’s a translation:

“No problem. Since we spoke things have changed, and John’s letters are no longer as urgent. I’ll keep you updated.”

Do you see what I mean? The message is the same in both versions. My version has a more friendly tone, you know exactly what I mean, and there’s no slight furrow in your brow when you read it.

The writer of this email is the MD of his company. And he wants John to learn how to write better. Does anyone else see the irony here?

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