When I was in college, I had the great fortune to meet a very insightful developmental psychology lecturer who turned into an informal mentor for a time. He’d been all over the country, he’d done a lot of wild things and he had a lot of complicated thoughts about success.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately because I’ve been on a journey of a sort. I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going wrong in my life, just that something was out of balance.
As it turned out, a lot was out of balance. I’d let others dictate my own needs for so long that I forgot I even had any. It sounds like the sort of thing that only happens in Hallmark movies, but I can assure you, it happens to people every day.
We forget that we deserve to have peace and joy and success and redefining moments. We forget we deserve more than to merely exist. We forget we need more because we’re told there’s nothing left for us at the end of it all.
Today’s blog is for you, the writer with a teapot that’s constantly filling the cups of others, only to find that there’s nothing left for you. This blog is for you and I give it freely, while leaving something for myself.
The Journey and the Destination
Back to that psychology lecturer I once knew. His name was John. A lot of men are named John, so that alone wasn’t terribly remarkable. He was an old hippie, which was also not terribly remarkable, though at the time I hadn’t met a lot of hippies and for me maybe it was a bigger deal than I realized in the 1990s.
John knew better than I did what my journey was going to look like. I don’t know quite how that was, but maybe it’s the kind of thing that comes with that specialty. I’d already been in and out of school a few times, trying to work and have a life and not doing particularly well at juggling any of it. Maybe that’s why he’s wedged so firmly in my mind and why those times spent with him still resonate.
See, at the time I felt like I was all alone in the world, facing a lot of challenges no one else faced. I was trying to get a degree that was constantly having roadblocks thrown up in front of it, from my initial diagnosis of diabetes and subsequently learning how to manage it, the financial fallout from developing an autoimmune disease so early in life, the loss of a Big Dream when the whole concept of the local newspaper started imploding around me, the loss of people who meant the world to me.
The 1990s were a wild time for me. Won’t lie.
John, though, he never once let me lean on these things or treat them like defeats. I wasn’t even in his department, but he didn’t care. He was a kindred soul of sorts. He would remind me that every time it felt like I’d been hit in the face with a rock, I needed to pick that goddamn rock up and figure out what I can learn from it.
And, although I have never been short of mentors who helped me get to where I needed to be, John was a sort of umbrella that I still open in times of peril. Even though we’re not in contact anymore and he’d probably not even remember me now, he’s up there on that list of people who influenced me so profoundly that I can’t begin to thank them.
The Big Thing He Taught Me
Sorry, I’ve sort of buried the lede here, but it’s also a bit by design. See, the big takeaway from my time with John was that there’s not a lot to be had from a life lived without adversity. Not that it’s a great thing to always live in turmoil. I mean, you’ve got to have balance. But in tough times, it can be tempting to look at people who seem to have had some pretty smooth sailing and just envy the fuck out of them.
Trust me, I feel that so hard. Some days I’d trade all these character-building scars for some straightforward success and a lot fewer speedbumps.
But that’s when I drag that man out of my memory bank. Because the thing that old hippie taught me – that the journey was the thing, not the destination – you can’t begin to understand how many times that has saved me. From myself, from others. From the world.
John taught me to see hope and wonder in a world full of booby traps.
It was a gift.
It was a life preserver.
There are people you can never thank in the moment because the words won’t come. There are people you may not even realize have made such a profound impact until they’re long gone. There are people you will always need, even long after they’ve forgotten you.
When times are tough, remember the philosophy of my friend John. It’s about the journey and how you handle the troubles along the way, not how quickly you get to where you think you need to be going.
And also remember that you deserve to have your own needs met, even when that means you get to add a whole minefield to the road ahead of you. So when that client is being overly demanding, when that person in your life can’t respect you and your choices, go forth boldly. You are not alone. John and I both have your back.
It’s funny, the longer I spend on the Internet, the more I forget what a truly terrible place it can be. This goes doubly when you’re working for clients that don’t realize how difficult it is to intuit their intent from a few pointed words. Most of the time, these clients are corporate or working on behalf of corporations.
For example, I have done a great deal of work for a particular window manufacturer that I won’t name (but there’s a cartoon Martian that has the same “goes by”). When those suggestions and edits come down the pipe, it feels like a ballistic bean bag to the heart. Every time. Even though I know this is the way they do things.
This is probably why so many freelancers avoid corporate clients like the fucking plague.
Rub Some Dirt In That Wound
As painful as it can be, those edits are semi-solicited comments. They’re included in your content package. You told them to bring you comments, in not so many words.
I mean, you still pray to God and Dog and whoever else ya got that you don’t hemorrhage during the process, but you persist because you like having a roof over your head and whatnot.
You do the thing because that’s your job and you are the adult in the room.
But it’s not kind, it’s often not fair and frequently very confusing. When six people are editing your work at the same time, they will end up contradicting themselves. Then your head explodes.
Of course, corporate clients aren’t the only people in the world dropping buckets into the Ocean of Negativity that is the virtual world. Sometimes it’s smaller clients — or worse — your social network.
I Get By With a Little Help…
Last night, a thing happened in the Tubes that shook me up more than it should have. And I did eventually walk it off, but it took me by such surprise that it took the breath out of me for a minute.
I posted to my social network something kind of personal about how this calendar I bought in — who knows, let’s say the 90s — profoundly affected my outlook on life and whatnot. It was called “Nuns Having Fun.” Literally, this is a calendar series full of nuns having fun. What could be less objectionable?
Apparently we can’t have nice things because it wasn’t long before someone came along to shit on my parade. Because there are bad people in the world and a few of them happen to be nuns, we can’t secretly spy on the joy of those nuns that aren’t doing bad things and enjoy it.
This was the lesson. Or, so it tried to be. Several of my very clever friends came in with sarcasm and sharp wit and potentially ruled the day. If anything that happens online can be considered to be real.
Face That Ish Head On
I realized in that moment that the two things, the edits we endure as writers and the slings and arrows chucked at us by online moral purists aren’t really all that different.
Edit-By-Committee means to weed out all the imperfections in short editing rounds by involving every person who might be remotely attached to a project; Online Moral Purity seeks to weed out all the problems of society by raising awareness, even if that means shitting on everything you love.
Now, as to what to do about it.
Face that ish head on. Here, have five ways to do that:
Remember that you’re in control. Even when you aren’t in control of the situation, you’re in control of how you respond to it. You can cry, you can freak the fuck out, you can punch a pillow (not a person), but do it in the goddamn closet. You rule the day, keep a handle on yourself.
Bitch loudly to your friends. Get that poison out of your system, but not where there’s anyone in your professional network to see. Tell your friends, who almost certainly don’t understand what it is that you’re upset about, that your client is squirrely. Just saying it outloud can give you some perspective.
Sleep on it. Seriously. This makes all the difference for me. When I have a good night’s sleep after an edit, I wake up with an improved outlook. I can see those comments in their very best light, as awful as they may have felt the day before. Sleep. It’s really awesome.
Address the offense. Hey, that’s a perfectly valid point about your stupid windows, you dumb window making people. Or, hey, boot makers, guess what? Women work construction, too, so don’t be telling me that only a man can review your dumb work boots. Because you’re all dumb. (but be more eloquent)
Get down to business. Look, you’re a pro or you at least want to be one. There’s absolutely no reason to act like anything but. Don’t let them see you sweat, just clean up the mess of comments in your working document and move the fuck on. They’re paying for it, so if they want something changed, just do it. Let them kill your darlings. You can make more.
Social media and clients can both be full of malaria and alligators, much like Florida, but you don’t have to spend your life bogged down in the fucking swamp. Remember that you are amazing and that the swamp is also a great place for orchids, which really makes some of the malaria pretty tolerable.
For the last several weeks, I’ve been streaming Bob Ross pretty much non-stop during writing time. At first, I did this because I believed his soothing voice was keeping my high strung dogs from flying off the handle every time a garbage truck drove by, but as time went on, I also found myself lulled by his dulcet tones.
Then it happened.
Bob said, “You’re going to need a friend when Nature rises up and takes over.”
That was in season 25 or so, I can’t remember the exact episode now. But I remember the shock. I’m pretty sure I had a happy accident.
Happy New Year!
This is how I’m opening my New Year’s Letter for 2019. If you’re still reading, I really admire your ability to digest bullshit. I really did hear him say that and as the seasons roll on, he says a lot of very weird shit. Then he goes on to justify it by saying that if you’re a painter, people expect you to be a little strange.
Number one, Bob, you’re way more than a little strange. You’re potentially deranged. And yet the world loved you and I think that’s ok. I’m just not buying that wholesome act you’re putting on any longer. There’s nothing more terrifying than the look on his face when he cleans a brush with paint thinner and “just beats the Devil outta it.”
Number two, Bob… seriously? Are you going to continue to perpetuate that tired stereotype? Blerg.
In the New Year, I will be continuing to watch Bob, listen to him tell stories about being in the military, living in Alaska, his dreams of living inside his paintings and Steve, his sorry excuse for a hippie son.
Even though he says very disturbing things.
Maybe because he does.
Welcome to 2019, Plebeians
This letter was written on December 27, so not quite the New Year, but certainly in the run up to it. The last several years have been indescribably difficult. I would say it was epic, but you wouldn’t get the impact I intend. I mean epic like Odysseus’ voyage home… or like one of those dreams where you run and run and run, but you can’t ever get to where you’re going.
A good friend of mine has, at various times, compared times in this life to a coma dream. She was actually IN a coma, so she knows better what that means than I do. But I assume that there’s a sort of eerie sense that things aren’t quite real, but they’re not fake either. It’s like how I feel about those multiverse theories. But I digress.
A lot of fucked up stuff has happened the last few years. It started… well, I can’t tell you when it started because it’s been like waking from a dream. I know you guys probably don’t realize it, but I have been in a really bad way and basically on automatic pilot for a while now. Pieces of me were always there, but not like now.
Let me start over.
Finding Yourself Again is Tricky
About a week after Terry Pratchett died in 2015, The Guardian ran this long essay that he had written about his fight with Alzheimer’s. The deeper I got into it, the more I cried. And not for the reasons you might think. In 2015, I was still losing myself, a piece would fall away here and there. Sometimes I’d find an odd bit, but I’d lose another. What caught me was that the weird Jelloy world I was living in was what Pratchett was described in vivid detail.
“I have posterior cortical atrophy or PCA. They say, rather ingenuously, that if you have Alzheimer’s it’s the best form of Alzheimer’s to have. This is a moot point, but what it does do, while gradually robbing you of your memory, visual acuity and other things you didn’t know you had until you miss them, is leave you more or less fluent and coherent as you have always been…. [while] the disease slips you away a little bit at a time and lets you watch it happen.”
This was my lightbulb moment. Or, rather, it was sort of a dimmish-nightlight-in-the-hall sort of moment. I wasn’t together enough to realize how important this description would be for me or how it would shape my future.
I knew something was very wrong, but most days I couldn’t tell you what it was. I couldn’t tell you what I had for lunch. But somehow I could still write and so I did. That’s all I did. That’s all I could do.
Then the muscle spasms started getting so bad that I couldn’t deny them. My abs would buckle so hard that it looked like I was in some kind of mad sit-up contest for one, my hands would shake, my arms refused to swing as I limped slowly along. I brought these things to my neurologist in Missouri and she did a few tests, but ended up writing it off as “spells.” I was having spells, but I didn’t get better (but to be fair, no one turned me into a newt).
All My Exes Live in Texas?
We moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 2017, and I lucked onto a neurologist who was a genius diagnostician. He said almost nothing to me the first several times I was in his office. He ordered an MRI, he checked my arm swing and how well my muscles responded, all that normal stuff. Then, one day, he asked me to try a drug I’d never heard of: ropinirole, a dopamine agonist.
I had already been reading up on what might be said one day by that quiet man with the big computer of a brain. That’s why I cried as I left the office. If the ropinirole helped, it was another nail in the coffin. And, like Pratchett describes his own moment of clarity, I was suddenly experiencing pretty much every emotion at once.
“When Milton’s Satan stood in the pit of hell and raged at heaven, he was merely a trifle miffed compared to how I felt on that day. I felt totally alone, with the world receding away from me in every direction, and you could have used my anger to weld steel.”
It took about two days before I was confident enough to call Dr. Dhaliwal to tell him that yes, the drugs were working. And in ways I never expected. Things I didn’t know I had lost had returned like a not very funny cream pie to the face. Colors were brighter, scents were scentier, emotions were deeper, oh and that lmp I’d had since I was a teen (always blamed on a soccer injury) had disappeared entirely.
After all the things that had happened in Missouri, including a suicide attempt and two (!!) cancer scares, this was the worst thing I could have ever imagined happening. My neurologist would ultimately diagnose me with early onset Parkinson’s with Essential Tremor. And I would take more ropinirole. And I would get worse.
The funny thing about starting the drugs you desperately need is that the more you need them, the less you notice how sick you are. So, as I regained function bit by bit, I also got worse. More ropinirole. More symptoms.
Today we’re at a reasonably middling dose of ropinirole, plus a few other drugs that help keep the many symptoms of Parkinson’s in check by helping me sleep, giving me a little energy boost or working on other parts that we never knew were connected.
Really, it’s very good. But understand that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s share a lot of features and may actually be related disease.processes. So as you read that essay, know that it could just as easily be me writing it.
The takeaway should be that 2018 was the year I got my mind back. There’s nothing more important.
Oh, and Then There Was That Time I Died
2018 was such a weird year.
It was the year that I died.
Did I tell you? If not, please don’t feel bad. I was still trying to find my feet in a world of neurological issues when it happened. I was overwhelmed.
The plan this past summer was to have a relatively routine surgery that I won’t go into the details of here, but I assure you that it was seriously no big deal. My body had other plans, though. Once they had me prepped and the really deep anesthesia started, my blood pressure bottomed out.
And there it stayed.
I’m not sure what it took to bring me back from the brink, but when I woke up in the recovery ward, I was surrounded by the anxious eyes of the entire anesthesiology team. They were pale and shaking and fearful, as if they’d seen the dead rise again.
Having had many, many surgeries over the years (autoimmune disease, yay!), I knew that it wasn’t normal to wake up to a fan club. But they didn’t want to tell me what had happened. I was moved to a private room at the hospital (woo woo!), where the hospitalist and my surgeon explained it all.
They really thought I was going to die. At first, this was all a big joke to me. I mean, not really, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so instead I made dumb jokes. It was all I could do.
Mostly, I was kind of embarrassed. I mean, I thought people were supposed to have life-altering epiphanies or see visions or something when they die. I got nada. It was just another Thursday in my world, albeit one where I scared a lot of people, a hobby I don’t generally engage in.
So that happened. And even now, I don’t know what it means. Or if it means anything. We all live, we all die and some of us do stuff in between.
And Then We Opened In The Cloud
To be fair, ITC had been around a while already, it was meant to be a rebranding of Waterworth Writes, a company I know you’re all familiar with.
See, a friend told us the winter prior that she was very sick. She’d always been supportive, even trying to help raise the past iterations of a ship like this one that we could never quite get to sail. So, with her terrifying news, I was determined to launch In The Cloud before she posted her last Breitbart article to social media.
I had launched it, but nothing happened. I was just… still me and a big empty, useless boat. I assumed I’d figure it out as I went. I didn’t do well with that until after I came back to life. After that, I kind of got a headwind.
This is mostly a roundabout way of saying that I want her to know that she was a big reason to move the timetables up. And even though she’s sick enough that she doesn’t check in sometimes for weeks, she’s the reason I keep pushing forward with it.
She’s the reason I keep pushing, even when I don’t have anything left. So there’s that. After losing Don, Kat, Our Judith, Rich, Billy, Earl and so many others, I couldn’t let her slip away without really understanding that she changed my world profoundly. That’s about the best that she’ll ever get out of me.
2019 Had Better Hold on Tight
I’ve made some great connections in the world of copy, copywriting, marketing and general shenaniganry over the last few years. I completely believe that we will create something profound in 2019. And if not profound, then we might at least settle for profane.
In The Cloud should roughly double in orders this year, if current signs are any indication. We’re on fire and even though I am one of the more inept business owners around, at least I keep getting back on that horse and riding. We’re in high demand, so that’s always nice.
I just have to remember what we’re worth. My Jewish Second Mom will keep beating this into me until I buy it, I think. We’re worth a lot, she says. There aren’t a lot of people who can do what my team at In The Cloud does, nor with so much flare.
We make this Internet look good, that’s what I’m saying.
Goal-Setting for 2019
The days and nights and nights and days of effort it has taken to set 2019 up for success have not only shown me what I’m made of, but what those around me are capable of. And they’re pretty damn awesome. That being said, I need to get some of my life sort of rebalanced. So here come the 2019 goals!
Double ITC’s output and revenue. We already discussed this. But I thought it was worth mentioning again. Maybe I can actually get my taxes paid on time for once!
Spend more time exploring. I have barely left the (home) office in a year. I have my groceries delivered, I have a postage machine, Amazon brings me everything else. I need to get out of the house and look around at the world. I need to find out what makes it worth living in Fort Worth, Texas (besides Dr. Dhaliwal).
Write more for our company. I have seriously neglected my duties as head blogger at the companies under my direction. That’s already in the process of being fixed, but I need to make it last. Keep it up. We used to blog here all the time, me and you. Time to do better.
Cut the fat. I spend a lot of time fucking around. There’s no way to say it other than like that. I’m a real good fucker arounder. I have to concentrate my fuckery so I have time to do anything besides fuckery and work. Like, you know, take a walk or eat an orange.
Improve focus and productivity. Sometimes it’s everything I can do to focus on the day ahead. Or the one that just got away from me. This year that’s getting attention. Sleeping well and better is the first phase.
Stay active. I am currently doing about an hour of cardio daily to help keep myself moving. It has helped dramatically, but it’s hard to start after I’ve stopped. So I’m not stopping. I need to keep on movin’ on.
Own my shit. You may not believe this, but there are certain people in this world that I am genuinely concerned about what they think of me. It makes it hard for me to have an honest face to face without falling to pieces. I need to own my shit. I’m owning this today.
I guess that’s about it. I have some big goals for next year, but I have no doubt that the people around me will help turn our company into something really magical. Something real special. We’re not a lot now, we’re just learning to crawl, but we’re going to get there. This is everything. We’ve got this nailed so hard.
Thank you for reading all the way down.
Thank you for believing in my vision, if you’re Team ITC. Thank you for being patient.
Thank you for being an inspiration, if you’re a particular reader. Whatever you’ve done in your life and whatever mistakes along the way, know that simply knowing you changed my life profoundly. In my eyes, all those sins are forgiven. Well, except Breitbart.
Thank you for being a friend, if you’re a bee enthusiast. Those long, dark nights of the soul can get pretty bleak. Having so many bees in my corner has been… what’s the word, even? Nonetheless, I would not be here without you.
Thank you for letting me go, if you’re part of the clan back home. I would never have gotten better there. They didn’t know how to help me, I had to leave to realize my potential.
Thank you for everything. All of you. There are so many people who need hand-written notes that I’m very likely to not actually write any due to the overwhelm. But I’m shouting out to you right now, in this blog that gets easily six views a month.
Happy New Year from Waterworth Writes and In The Cloud
Happy New Year, you jerks. May your champagne be bubbly and paper horns noisy and annoying. I’ll be here, clicking the keyboard, trying to figure out why Whataburger is such a big deal and generally feeling my way around in the dark until I find another door.
Oh, and if you need any salty copy written for your company, we’re here to serve. Check out our leaky ship, In The Cloud Copy for more details.
Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really incredible people. Intense, talented, fucking extra terrestrial people, but most of them ebb and flow in and out of my life. That’s how freelancing works, that’s the life.
But a rare few stick around a bit and you start to really like working together, you know? They go from just people you see here and there to someone you consider an actual colleague and friend. When that chemistry works, it turns everything into rocket fuel. They give you the idea that maybe you can be more.
And, hey, I don’t know you, maybe you can be.
Ten Gallon Hats and Mercy Killings
Sometimes, though, you’re going to find yourself on sinking ships that you can’t find a way off of. You may really like that project at first, even, but over time it becomes glaringly obvious that the client or the client of the client doesn’t give two damns about you.
Maybe you even find out that they would actually replace you or your team with someone who would work for less than the almost nothing you’d agreed to years ago because this project was supposed to grow both in scope and dollars as time went by. (Let that demoralizing little apple bob around a bit….)
When those people who set you on fire as a creative still have your back despite it all, you can’t just walk away from them, you know? Those are YOUR people. You’ve chosen each other, for better or worse. And in this industry, worse is almost guaranteed to be a thing that happens often.
Those are the same people who give you the strength and words to pull the plug on that project that’s been eating you up for years. You can’t please everyone, they remind you. You have to live for today because tomorrow isn’t promised. But the loyalty of a few good friends and contemporaries, well, that’s a big deal.
Loyalty. That’s just… everything.
Moving From Lone Wolf to Freelancing Team Spirit
I work with a team that I adore. I also work on a few projects with a few lovely and wonderful people that I respect deeply. When I started in this business, though, I started out on my own. I didn’t really know anyone and I was like, “I don’t need nobody.” Which, let’s face it, isn’t true. Or it is if you work out the double negative there.
Anyway, the point here is that being a Lone Wolf can be ok for a while, but if you really want to make it in the changing climate that is freelance writing, someone needs to be watching your back and you need to be doing the same for them. Just because it’s highly competitive doesn’t mean that you have to turn other writers into the enemy or be an asshole. Not to other writers, anyway.
The truth is that I have found much more success thinking of myself as part of a team or a partnership than I ever did alone. That being said, I’m going to tell you how to find that same sort A-Team of writing as I have.
Remember: There’s nothing as important as loyalty when the odds are stacked against you as hard as they are in this writing life.
Finding Your Creative Posse
We’ve discussed the power of networking at least once, I know. Maybe a few times. But we never really discussed the longer-term implications of that, so that’s where we’re going right now. How do you find and form a creative posse? Like this.
1 Hang out with other writers online. Check Facebook, LinkedIn, fucking Reddit if that’s your thing, there are bound to be professional writing groups. A lot of them are shit, so keep that in mind as you plunge in. Many are supposed to be for the writing industry and turn out to just be a lot of people who want to “wait on their muse” to do their fucking job and beg everyone for work. If you see that, just block all those fuckers. Or leave. You could just leave.
2. Cultivate relationships with your clients. Believe it or not, your clients are people, too. Sure, they’re kind of the boss, but also they’re kind of a creative collaborator. If you consistently meet or exceed their expectations, then after several months maybe you can do something nice for them. Like, maybe it’s Boss’ Day (that’s still a thing, right?) and you start out delicate by sending an eCard. Or maybe Facebook tells you it’s their birthday, snag a $10 Starbucks gift card for them. Who doesn’t like Starbucks? Shoosh.
3. Meet creatives in your own town. I understand there are still Meetups and other sorts of, you know… social things out there. I don’t participate because I’m essentially just a head in a jar. But I hear things. Go grab a cup of coffee and hang out with some people in your city that do what you do.
4. Attend a writing conference. I mean, I haven’t yet, but it’s on my list. After all, those guys paid to be there, so they’re at least a little serious. They’re not going to show up on a first date with their unpublished manuscript asking you for notes. Instead, they’ll try to impress you with their most recent article in Tiger Beat or something.
5. Help others. Your next door neighbor’s kid just graduated from college with a technical writing degree and is having a hard time getting work? Hey, this is where you offer to take said kid under your umbrella and help them get started. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, that’s a friend who absolutely knows you inside and out.
I can hear you now: Sure, it’s all well and good to make friends and be a social butterfly, but I’m in this for the money. Oh, you special little unicorn, I hear you. I smell your precious farts.
I haven’t been in this business for 23 years for the kicks. Well, I like the kicks, but I also really like the fat stacks of cash. Like totally in my top three.
When you make friends in this world, you expand your network, you rub up against new possibilities, you learn things you’d never think to learn and, you selfish asshole, you get to experience that thing about rising tides and boats. It’s a beautiful thing. And one that will ensure you’re stocked up on Ramen and beans and rice for life.
You don’t get ahead as a creative by stepping on others or using them to make a buck. You get ahead in this writing life by sharing, networking and writing until your fingers bleed.
This message is for all of you: choose your friends wisely and your best creative team will follow. This job isn’t a fucking contest. It’s not a fucking sideshow. It’s not a goddamn charity. But it is hard, you will work long hours, and sometimes things will go to shit completely.
And in those moments, if you’re very lucky, your team will be there to help you reset your compass and guide you back to sanity.
I’m about to reveal one of the biggest secrets in the writing trade. Are you ready?
We don’t write to perfection. We write until it’s good enough.
“Wait,” you say in a sad, almost childlike voice. “But you’re a seasoned professional, that means you’re among the best at this job. How can you just phone it in?”
Ah, little grasshopper, that’s not what I said. I said we write until it’s good enough. That doesn’t mean I have low standards. That means I know, deep in my black heart, that I will never find every misplaced comma, not every turn of phrase will be gold, I won’t always spell everything right. There will be typos. There will be mistakes.
But I’m ok with that.
Perfectionism, Writing and You
One of the biggest problems I’ve see among the newly minted writer is an insidious sort of perfection that looks and sounds like fear. These kids will literally edit all the life out of their work, they’ll write until the piece is begging for an early death.
When this happens, I tell them that they’ve “touched it” too much. If you can imagine a piece, any sort of piece, as a butterfly’s gossamer wing, then you can get what I mean. You catch Mr. Butterfly and those delicate colored scales start to fall off. The more you touch his wings, the more color disappears. In the same way, the more you touch your work, the more you fuck it up.
I’m all for a first and even second proofing pass. I do this myself. I read work out loud so I know it flows properly. But after a pass or two, I’m done. I walk away. Your client, your readers — whoever is judging you — may demand changes that you may never have caught on your own anyway. Because of shit like the Gestalt effect, it’s hard to see your own errors. Your brain fills in the blanks and makes it look right.
This is the biggest unsecreted secret of all pro writers. It’s not about having the right latte or the perfect typing machine or even having a vision of pixies to guide you. IT’S THIS. Good Enough. It’s THE secret to it all.
Time is important when you’re writing, the more you spend, the less you make. So learning to proof quickly and walk away, that’s the secret. I can’t possibly give you any better writing advice.
When I Was a Young Writer…
Not that I’m an old writer now. I’ve just got a few miles on me. And a spare tire…. shut up.
When I was a very young writer, I read every piece of writing advice I could get my hands on. And the thing I didn’t realize then that I do realize now is that there’s no formula, there aren’t any magic tips that’ll make it work. Experience and effort will guide you. They will.
So how do you know you’re “good enough…” Or rather, that your work is?
OH LOOK A LIST!
Being good enough is sometimes harder than being perfect because it’s tricky knowing when to stop. But, these are a few rules I’ve made up just now that you can live your entire life and steer your career by:
Use spell check, but also learn how to spell. I am one of the world’s worst spellers. That’s my Kryptonite. If my spell check stops working, I literally have a meltdown because I can’t spell those five dollar words. And some of the nickel words…. but spell check is there for me most of the time. And while I always look at what it has to say, I also read through everything to check the spelling myself, because that’s the biggest fucking thing, dude. If your spelling is shit, no one will listen to a word you have to say — and spell check can’t always catch errors. Like, for example, accept vs. except. Which one do you need? They’re both spelled correctly. But they’re different….
Read your work aloud. I know I already mentioned this above, but I wanted to discuss this method of proofreading down here, too. Take a rough draft, any rough draft — the rougher the better — and just read it to yourself, but do it out loud. This is an old technique writers use to ensure that their prose is following a proper rhythm for the type of piece it happens to be.
Let’s say you’re writing a really exciting fiction scene and the protagonist is being challenged and he’s kicking ass six ways from Sunday. You want to use a lot of short, choppy sentences to really get that heart rate up. When things calm again, you want to go back to softly melodic sentences. Those things are hard to gauge just staring at the page, but when you hear them read, you can tell where the problems are.
The more practiced you get, the more quietly you can read these things. I give you my permission. When it all sounds like a song, when the words flow effortlessly, you’ve found good enough. It’s funny how sometimes the not quite right word will do, contrary to what that asshole Mark Twain had to say on the subject.
Try to write it in one go. Depending on what you’re writing, this may be impossible, but at minimum, write a whole section, a whole thought, all at the same time. This does two things for your writing: first it ensures that the voice remains consistent and number two, it helps you to finish faster and not ramble. Rambling may be fun when your grandfather’s telling stories at Thanksgiving, but it’s not awesome for a commercial writer. Instead of rambling, get to the fucking point, use as few words as possible and kill more when you do your read-through. It’ll be easier to accomplish this if you do the whole piece at once. When you’re done writing, proof it. Right then. And then send it. Just… all in one session, bickety bang.
Don’t begin to pretend you’re flawless. PAH-LEESE. You’re not perfect. Fucking Stephen King, one of the best writers of our age, isn’t perfect. We all have our weak spots. Mine currently is the overuse of the words “often” and “so,” it’s happening so often that I really have to watch what I write so no one notices that it’s often a serious mental stutter for me. So, anyway…. no one is perfect, so know yourself.
Learn what problems you tend to have, that way you can sort of cheatsheet it and look for those items a little extra hard. What hangs you up will change over time, but something always will be a consistent pain. If time is short, just look for those things that you always fuck up. It’s better than half-assing your proofreading.
I’m so glad you joined me today on the blog. Usually I tell you go to fly a kite or something around this point, but instead I’m going to leave you with these immortal words (I seriously can not make this kind of thing up):
“There’s nothing wrong with making friends with nature. [muttered] One of these days nature is gonna take over and you’re gonna need a friend…” ~Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting, Season 12, Episode 2.
I heard an incredible story over the weekend about a woman who was found in the Atlantic ocean treading water. She wasn’t into extreme sports or out for a water jog, she had apparently fallen into the drink and had no idea what else to do.
She spent 10 hours like that. Ten. Freaking. Hours. It’s unimaginable to me that anyone could tread water for that long, but then I look over my writing career and I see that, in some ways, both myself and other writers I know have had periods when we’ve done just that.
Starting Out is the Hardest Part
Whether you’re getting started as a freelance writer or you’ve just gotten a job at an agency as some sort of creative, there’s going to be a massive learning curve and a lot of stuff is going to get away from you.
Starting out is always the hard part.
Your friends, family and possibly even your co-workers are going to expect that you’ll get over the initial shock in a week, two weeks… and then you’ll be ready to tear the world up.
The truth is that it can take a long time to develop the skills needed to fit well into your new position. As a freelancer, you’ve got to be fast, agile, accommodating and willing to give up your lunch break and sleep in order to build a name for yourself. In an agency setting, you have to be a team player, learn to decode directives that may be contradictory and do it all on tight deadlines for less pay than you might think.
Neither are ideal for the writing process, which requires both caffeine and sleep to execute properly. Also, a little sugar never hurt.
Are You Sinking?
Like the lovely Brit who was collected by the Croatian Coast Guard, you’re probably just doing everything you can to stay afloat. You might lack the systems and processes required to do your job well and keep everything organized or you may be learning how to write fast in order to meet all these deadlines that keep popping up. You may even feel like you’re failing horribly and will never make it.
I have news for you, Bucko. You’re still working, so you’re still winning.
Step one is to tread water successfully. Then you can work on the fancy stuff. Those breast strokes are for the Glitterati. You’re functional. You’re utilitarian. At least for now.
Moving From Treading to Transcendence
Now, I’m not saying that you’re in shark-infested waters, but I’m also NOT saying you’re not in shark-infested waters. That being said (or not said), it’s a good idea to move beyond treading water as fast as possible. I mean, it gets tiring, so at some point you’re just going to give up and sink into the deep, dark depths, where Schrodinger’s sharks might or might not be.
Let’s get you into a higher state. I’m throwing you a lifesaver, grab on!
Invest in time management. I wrote on this recently, but I think it bears repeating. If you’re easily distracted by Facebook or the television or some random pop-ups that keep happening on a certain website, for fuck’s sake, close it down. Pay attention to your time sinks and limit your exposure to them.
Organize thyself. Your shit is literally scattered all over the house, from tip to stern (this is your houseboat, right?). Your brain is equally scattered and I don’t even want to get into your desktop. Take a day — take a whole weekend if you need to — to get your house in order. Create places for things to live, put them away when you’re done, prioritize projects, get all of that on a calendar so you can see when everything is due. Organization is key.
Ready, set, go! Challenge yourself to write faster while still maintaining quality. This week, just write like you would, but keep track of how much time it takes to do each piece. You can average them or whatever you want later, but we need a baseline. The following week, set a timer that’s five minutes shorter than the time you spent writing similar content last week.Do this repeatedly until you’re fast enough to actually make a living. For me, that’s around an hour for a 500 word blog, but someone I know can crank ’em out in half that time. You should always strive to improve this time.
Exercise regularly. I don’t mean writing exercises, either. I mean, get outside, go to the gym, do something to move your body. Hey, I used to think this was business bullshit, too, but physical stimulation and mental stimulation can go hand in hand. Also, you’ll sleep better and it’ll help cut your anxiety down. I know you’re anxious AF. I can see right into your soul through the power of the Tubes ™.
Delegate properly. You can’t do everything. Well, maybe you can, but it’s not going to be pretty. Get a buddy, hire an assistant, something. They can do the little stuff so you can focus on doing the things that your reputation will be built on over the longer term. There’s enough room on that door for someone else, Kate Winslet.
Treat yourself like your best employee. I mean, you probably are, anyway. Your best employee will always be treated with a little bit of extra care since you can’t bear to lose them, right? If they need a day off, you’ll give it to them. Or, say they need an upgrade to their laptop because the one they have is too slow to get anything much done. You’d dig deep and find that ish, right? Why not be as generous and kind to yourself? Get what you need and take no shit.
Well, kids, that’s all I have today. If you’re treading water, remember that you’re still not sinking. As long as you tread, you can work toward summoning that Croatian rescue boat into being. You don’t need luck, though, you just need to work smarter (man, I hate that phrase).
Today is your day. Today. Do it for yourself, then do it for anyone else who might be watching. Like me. Or Santa.
No, no, really. I needed a reminder that time management is a thing that adult people do, so I figured I’d just put you on blast while I was at it. See, last week I had another procedure for a chronic *THING* and the lead-up plus the actual doin’ of the thing has thrown my schedule into chaos. So, let’s fix this ish, yo.
Living in a massive metro area means that I have even more things to cram into every day because it takes so damn long to get anywhere. Ugh. But this isn’t about me and my sloppy habits, it’s about you and your sloth.
You know that’s one of the seven deadly sins, don’t you?
The Domino Effect is a Bitch
It starts so simply. It’s a nice sunny day or you’re a little over-tired from staying up too late the night before, and you think to yourself, “hey, I can just do this tomorrow, it’ll be fine.” But some part of you knows better. You’ve already got a packed tomorrow. But you put it off anyway because, hey, you’ll do better work tomorrow anyway.
And that’s the moment you’ve just condemned yourself to weekend after weekend of digging out from under your one moment of poor judgement.
In the almost nine years I’ve been running Waterworth Writes, I’ve done this more times than I can possibly count (I was educated in the Missouri Ozarks, though, so…). One day full of poor judgements leads to a month of working weekends. One month of working weekends leads to slower and slower writing, more and more working weekends — and eventual collapse. Because we’re none of us fucking robots.
I know you want to be WordOBot 5000, but you’re not. If you were, you’d not do dumb things like take off early on a Tuesday because there’s a sale at the market. You’d be a robot who didn’t need food, but who also knew that you could shopping go after you finished that last stack of blogs. But mostly, the not eating thing.
Step 1: Ignore Outside Interference
Dudes, I know. I do. I have the worst problem with this, but with a lot of effort, it can be done.
Did you know that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all those other jerks are actually sites you can close to get some quiet? Did you realize that everything that happens while they’re shut stays around when you’re not looking so you can check it all at once at a time when you’re not so busy?
I’m not being an asshole. Not right now, anyway. These questions very much represented my attitude before I went on a social media diet. Even though I have a group that I’m officially in charge of, I check in a couple of times a day at best. Used to be that I was always on, always there, always lurking. Now I walk away as much as I can.
It’s hard because that’s where my coworkers, contractors and friends (often all the same person) live, so as a compromise, Messenger is open at all times. That, too, can be ignored until you’re ready for it. If it’s an emergency, someone will actually telephone or text you. I swear on my grandmother’s grave.
Other outside interference can be harder to ignore. For me, this is email. OMG, EMAIL MAKES ME ITS BITCH EVERY TIME. I treat these like emergencies. I shouldn’t. I should write a thing, then check email and repeat. That’s a much healthier way to do it. It also makes you look less desperate, even if you’re extremely desperate.
And, hey, for all the sayers of nay at Windows 10, the email notifications that pop up when one comes in helps me be less anxious when I see that number going up in a background tab. I can be like, “Oh, look, another wasted email from Amazon.” and go on with the next sentence. (It’s wasted because I buy basically everything there. We’re a little bit married.)
Step 2: Set up a Structured Schedule
You’ve turned down the noise, but cramming everything in is still proving difficult. I have a solution for that, too.
Google Calendar, 10to8 or pretty much any other calendar system is your best friend if you’ll use them. I use the two mentioned, which is probably no surprise considering the name dropping. Anyway…
You know it takes you about 75 minutes to write a short blog, three hours to write a really killer homepage for a website. You need 30 minutes for a professional email, five minutes to hit the bathroom. You know how you do.
Get in there and start blocking off time. Do you do most of your writing at night or in the morning? Even if you’re not dialed down to the minute, you can block off time for writing from, say 11 am to 4 pm. Block off things you do for yourself first: shower, gym time (this one is so important for us since we sit on our butts all day), lunch, etc. Then fill in with client calls, consultations and so forth. Last, but not least, stick in those writing blocks.
It’s kind of the reverse of that modern parable about the sand and the rocks in the jar.
Self-care, client care, the shit that makes actual money. In that order. And don’t forget to plug in some time for your bookkeeping and other business garbage. Cuz you need that, too.
Man, you’re really busy, I should let you get to it….
I know there are some number of young writers who read this bloggo, which I take as a deep complement and also a statement about the situation your generation finds yourselves in. I am not a role model. I am a neurotic mess of caffeine- and sugar-induced hysteria.
But I guess that’s better than the hero of my youth, Hunter Thompson. He was a psychotic amalgamation of prescription and recreation drugs, coated in nicotine and hard liquor. Oh, Hunter, you were hilarious. And brilliant. And fucking terrible.
Anyway, I know a lot of these blogs are pointed toward people already in the industry, but once in a while I like to write a bit for those of you looking into doing this for a living (God help you).
If I could give you one piece of advice that would improve your copywriting career and make you far more competitive, it would be to really learn how to be a journalist. There are certain superpowers we Journos are imbued with though our Jedi training that really come in handy when you’re trying to sell stuff or segment audiences or what have you.
The Differences Between Journalists and Copywriters
First of all, let’s define our parameters. Obviously, this isn’t going to be totally complete, both because I’m a lazy fuck and because that would just be nearly impossible. Journalists and copywriters are very different when it comes to the foundations each builds their education upon.
A copywriter’s primary pillar is persuasion. They are taught from the get-go how to manipulate the emotions of their audiences. There’s a reason some of the most influential writers of the 20th century happened to also be copywriters. They can paint with pain points. It’s kind of impressive, really.
A journalist’s primarily pillar is balance. No, stop laughing right now. Stop it. In a perfect world, journalists are unbiased and exist outside the story, or at least they approach stories with balance in mind. It can be tough to present both sides of an argument that’s obviously stupid and should be handled my way, but hey, that’s the job.
Although these foundation issues are worlds apart, they share something in common: they require that the writer understand, on a deep and fundamental level, their audience and material.
Copywriters and marketers get more education in business; journalists get more education in research. Both ultimately become masters at telling stories, even if they tell them differently.
Hey, Look, Examples!
Let’s say that your business wants to bring a new product to the market. It’s a whistling electric kettle, why not? If you presented the problem to both types of writers (in a perfect world where they were wholly exclusive), this is sorta what you’d get:
“Life is full of distractions. Between the kids needing help with breakfast in the morning and your husband losing his keys for the fourth time this week, it’s easy to forget you’ve put the kettle on. Modern electric kettles are great for consistency and convenience, but it’s hard to know when they’ve properly heated your water. Why not start the day right with a kettle that whistles when it’s ready to serve up that first amazing cuppa?”
“Acme industries has announced an innovative electric kettle that they say will change how tea lovers make their tea forever. Instead of simply boiling quietly, which can sometimes lead to significant evaporation if an electric kettle is set and then forgotten, Acme’s kettle emits an audible whistle, much like a traditional stove top teapot.”
You see what I mean? As someone who wears both hats (HELLO!), I feel that I’m — well, not uniquely because I’m far from the only journalist who had to learn how to copywrite in order to feed my eating and having electricity addiction — I feel that I’m positioned to see further than either a pure journo or a pure copywriter can. I see that horizon and these worlds are absolutely convergent.
Achieving Ultimate Journo-Copywriter Status
If you want to be a writer in this modern era, if that’s the ember that burns in your black, black soul, my best advice is to go to school for journalism and minor in marketing. Had I to do it over again, that’s the only change I would have made. They’re two sides of a whole. Journalism gives us the outlook and the framework and copywriting the passion and ferocity.
From where I’m sitting, it looks like it’s going to be a long time before copywriters are extinct. Even though THEY continue to threaten us with bots who can do our jobs, the truth is that the right turn of phrase and the proper sentence pacing is (for now) a rare human ability. Writing is like singing, but in your head and also there’s no music.
Alexa’s an amazing pal, but she’s not got that spark. Maybe one day, but that day is not today.
This is where I tell you to go fuck off or something, but today I’m going to offer this up instead: be a journalist in your youth and mature into a copywriter. The pay from copywriting is way better, but the experience of handling news ethically is invaluable.
There you are, flying around all glorious and free, flapping your obscenely painted, oversized wings, sweating glitter and promise, then BAM! It’s all over. That Chevy Citation ends you in truly epic fashion. This is how I feel every time I do agency work.
Why? Well, those kinds of jobs tend to practice “edit by committee,” where you’re not edited by one person representing the client, but half a dozen. So you get things back that are commented all over, have requested changes from different peopleon the same item that are literally contradictory and there’s no one to go back to in order to ask specifics. It’s enough to kill you a little bit inside. Or at least smear you on a windshield.
But, as a pro, you can’t let that ish get you down. At bare minimum, you have to pretend you can walk it off so you can function and write the other six things that are due that day.
Rub Some Dirt In It: Tips for Surviving a Brutal Edit
Now, some writers will advocate for drinking heavily and taking lots of interesting drugs in order to get past these kinds of things, but since I’m not that fucking person, I’m going to give you some real advice for functioning workaholics. Edits aren’t the end of the world, even truly epic ones, but damn, they feel like it might be around the bend. Rub some dirt in that shit with these tips:
1. Repeat “It’s not me, it’s them.” Sometimes, people have the idea that editing a document means having to make lots of comments. We know better. Often, a good edit is just taking out Oxford commas or breaking up run-on sentences. Clearly the corporate clients of your agency don’t really understand the process, so they’re bumbling along blindly the best they can.
2. Remind yourself that the only joy in corporate life is belittling others. Working in a corporate setting, I’ve read, is sort of like sitting in a pressure cooker. The people below you are always trying to undermine you in order to get your job and the people above you won’t retire, so you can’t move forward on your career trajectory. You have little control over your own life. The one thing you can do is make a writer cry, so you stick with your strengths.
3. Go for a walk on the beach with your laptop. We writers have all been promised that we’d be able to go work on a beach somewhere, and it’s high time we did! With the sound of the surf hitting the sand and the gentle “woosh-woosh” of the waves out at sea, it’s hard to be too intimidated by edits that have gone horribly wrong. Watch out for those seagulls, though…
4. Take a kickboxing class. Even if you haven’t yet reached “writing on the beach” level, you can still take those frustrations out on an innocent punching bag or trainer. Take a kickboxing class and beat those edits out. Imagine you’re punching the client over and over again (just the logo, not, you know, the person who did the edits). Beat the fuck out of Coca-Cola, show Johnson & Johnson who’s boss. Pound Walmart like you know you want to.
5. Check your bank balance. Last, but not least, some universal advice for all sorts of writers. When edits get you down, log into your bank account and check the balance. Unless I’ve just had a client pay, I’ve found this to be the most effective way to motivate me to grab my big girl panties and move along. Edits happen, they’re part of the process. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it.
Sometimes, those edits will mindfuck you a bit. You’ll feel like the worst fraud ever and that no one likes you. While this may be true, if you’re still making money at writing, then at least you can keep the lights on and the fridge stocked. I don’t know you, you may be a tragic mess of a human.
Client work can be hard, it can be sad, it can be totally heartbreaking and doubt-inducing, but at the end of the day, it’s better than being a professional dog poo scooper.
If there was only one piece of advice I was allowed to dole out to writers and potential writers and kids who want to grow up to be writers, besides the obvious “don’t!”, it would be this fancy pants line from Shakespeare: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
I dunno if I’d push it as far as not being false to any man, I mean, that’s on you, but I definitely support being true to yourself. That goes double for when you’re writing. There’s a certain rhythm that you develop as you go along, some people refer to this as your “voice,” but if you’ve done this for long you know that your voice can kind of slip along with whatever you’re banging out.
Sometimes you get bits of other voices stuck to your own. Gross.
That’s what this blog post is about. Shaking that shit off and just being you. Because your audience can tell. They can see when you’re phoning it in, they can tell when you’re trying to write someone else. There are always tells.
What Does it Mean to be Genuine?
Being genuine is one of those things, like being in love or being an asshole, that’s a little bit hard to define. We seem to basically know it when we see it, but explaining it to someone else is difficult. Yet, Writers, we’re the masters of written communication, so let’s give it a go. Merriam-Webster defines “genuine” like this:
a : actually having the reputed or apparent qualities or character genuine vintage wines
b : actually produced by or proceeding from the alleged source or author the signature is genuine
c : sincerely and honestly felt or experienced a deep and genuine love
d : actual, true a genuine improvement
a : free from hypocrisy or pretense : sincere His apology seemed genuine.
I’m going to assume we’re talking about 2a. I think that’s the one I mean. Free from pretense. Yeah. That. So, thanks, dictionary!
Anyway, what it really means in a functional sense is that you’re not trying to write like anybody else. Because it doesn’t work that way. You can only write like you. If you try to write like Douglas Adams or fucking Thomas Jefferson or whoever you please, it’s not only going to sound awful to the ear, it’s going to be an assault on the person you’re trying to imitate.
Readers can tell when something’s just a little off, especially if they read a particular author often. They might not be able to put a finger on it, but something… maybe in the way you use commas or how you punctuate phrases, or where you find paragraph breaks to make the most sense. They just know. It’s intuition.
And this sort of goes back to the post on ghosting from last week, too, I guess. I never try to write like the person I’m ghosting for, I try to write like a version of me that’s in their pants. For example, I write for a successful marketing professional who shall go unnamed. I’m certain he and I have very different writing styles in reality, which is probably because he sells commercials and I write words. But when I write for him, I just do my best to sound like a version of me that knows a lot about selling commercials. I don’t pretend to believe I can write exactly like him.
Benefits of Being a Genuine You
Believe it or not, writing like you has some pretty massive benefits. Yeah. Being yourself can be cool, who knew? This is the part of the blog where I list some shit and you read it. So, here we go! Benefits of writing like you!
Increase your writing speed. This is probably the most important for us, especially considering how many of us work by the piece. Writing speed is vital, if you can’t crank a blog in an hour, you’re not going to survive. When you write like yourself, it’s almost effortless. You know what you want to say about the top ten travel destinations in Texas or the six most infectious types of parasites or five ways that turnips changed the world. So just say it! Don’t worry over every word, use the words you’d use. Just get the tone right and you’re glorious.
Improve engagement with the audience. As I stated above, your audience can tell when you’re not quite yourself. There’s something wrong with the cadence of the sentences, the paras don’t flow properly and everything is just a little… skewed. It’s obvious that you were trying too damn hard, so stop. Just stop. Instead, be genuine and invite your readers in. They’ll be more likely to become engaged because they won’t smell a rat. Or a turd. Whichever applies.
Create a thing that’s never been. Here’s the ultimate goal of every writer, creating a thing that’s never been. It’s the ultimate goal of all creative types, really. And you can make a thing that’s totally new by taking a topic and infusing yourself and your special little brain into it. So go marrying some shit together, go fuse stuff and see what you get. I never said it would always be great, just that it would be new. New is new.
If you’re struggling to tap into what makes you you, you may want to try a really basic writing exercise that many young writers spend hours and days and years at. Freewriting is a technique where you just write, whatever comes to mind, for five or ten minutes and you don’t stop. You just write. You don’t edit, you don’t erase and for fuck’s sake, you don’t try to be anybody else. It’s stream of consciousness and it’s a delightful way to yank your own youness out of you.
Go getya some words, my word warriors. You can do the thing!