How to Establish a Writing Habit

Writing is the foundation you’ll build your success upon. Believe me. Whether you’re working on a business plan, a marketing kit, looking to start a blog, a newsletter or write an ebook… writing is always the first step.It can be daunting for various reasons. Yet, it’s worth the effort. First, your thinking will get clearer. Second, your ideas will get out there for the world to see and add to. In any case, you and your business will benefit. Ready to give it a try?

Just Start Writing

The first priority is to start. Grab tools that will mark the page and get to it. Forget everything else. Forget about finding a topic. Forget about the delete key and publishing. Stop your research. Ignore your inner judge and your inner editor for now. There’s just one thing that matters: you’re going to put words one after the other.

The Resistance

Obstacles might pop up along the way. Be prepared. Research, tinkering and other weird obsessions might conspire to stop you. Don’t listen to them.

Curators get plenty of input and we often crave more, right? Because we’re curious and like to explore. Our time and attention get sucked into our favourite Paper.lis or Wikipedia. It should follow that we often have plenty to say. Yet, once we become information gluttons, the fear of not knowing enough never goes away. We think to ourselves “The next link could lead me to the information nugget I’ve been seeking all my life”. So, we continue to explore the web long past the point where we know enough to write.

There’s another well-documented way of not writing: to get stuck on the tools. You don’t need a distraction-free writing environment or a fancy Moleskine notebook right now. Nor do you need to figure out which blogging software you want and which premium theme to buy. Blogging is especially tricky. It’s full of intricate details that you can get stuck on. There’s a whole advice industry living off of your confusion about these. These details don’t matter now. Just write.

Merlin Mann, productivity consultant and entertainer, has more advice about starting creative work, the different kinds of obstacles you’ll encounter and how to overcome them. He presents his insights in a 28-minute NSFW talk which has been featured in Bullseye.

Edit, Then Publish!

Once you have finished your first draft, set it aside for at least a few hours before reading it. Promise yourself to not get discouraged. You’ll realize that first drafts are most often terrible, as Anne Lamott points out in her “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”. Her book, which focuses on fiction writing, contains nuggets of wisdom for all writers. You might enjoy it, I did.

When you come back to your first draft, resist the temptation to delete it right away. Most drafts can be redeemed by rewriting and editing. It won’t always make it good to publish or be worth the time… while you’re building up your expertise, you should give it your best anyway.

Editing is a different skill set. It is taxing in a different way: you have to read the text over and over each time looking for different things. If you can’t hire an editor or make a deal with a friend to trade editing services, you’ll have to edit yourself. It is possible but not ideal. Copyblogger has a very good guide to editing your own work in five steps. You should take some distance with the text and with yourself.  Trim it and trim it some more. Look at the style and the form. Read it aloud. For more details on what to look for and what to do, you can refer to this complete self-editing checklist.

For web writing, there are a few more things you should always take care of:

  • Test your links in “Preview” mode.
  • Illustrate your posts and credit your images.
  • Add five to seven tags.
  • Craft an excerpt if your blogging tool can manage them.

Now, you’re all set! Ready to let go of your work and send it off into the world? The “publish” button can be the hardest button to push. Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author, calls this the fear of shipping. Exposing oneself to criticism is always hard. Yet, you have to ship because as he writes:

It’s not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.

Click the button. It’s going to be relieving. I promise!

Repeat

Now, you’ve written, edited and published at least once. What’s been done can be repeated. It is a state of mind that you have to reach each day anew. You can make the process easier by training yourself to write in a specific position, place and at a specific time of day.

Mornings are popular among writers of all kind. To start your process, you may commit to Morning Pages. They are three leaflets that you should fill with stream of consciousness prose. You don’t even have to make full sentences. Total freedom. Julia Cameron, American teacher and writer, suggests making it a daily practice in her “Artist’s Way”. After you’re done, you’ll be able to work on other assignments with more ease.

As for the place where you write, experiment with different ones. You can write anywhere that suits you best, everyone has their own preferences. In this post about the best places to write, Joe Pawlikowski says he gets the best results in hotels and libraries. I find libraries to be dangerous places to write: whenever I get frustrated by my writing, I jump to the comics section and there’s no turning back. So, yes, your mileage may vary.

The trick to getting good at beating the resistance and ship, is to do it often. It’s never trivial to sit down and write or push the “publish” button. It is hard emotional work. Once you’ve done this enough times, you can work towards better tools and smarter strategies. You can follow Penelope Trunk’s guide to blogging, subscribe to ProBlogger and other such resources. Happy writing!

Image credits: Princess of Lamballe by Anton Hickel, 1788 at the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.

I wrote “How to Establish a Writing Habit” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on June 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Report and Curate With the Same Passion

Recently, I wrote about the focus on original reporting that online magazines such as Salon.com and Gawker have decided to develop. According to this article by David Skok, these changes in editorial strategies are normal and have historical precedents: TIME magazine went through a similar transformation.Skok, therefore, concludes that “the aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow”. Yet there will always be a place for smart curation. Each publication has to find the right mix to serve its audience.

Curation Lacks In Journalistic Institutions

However, original reporting and curation aren’t mutually exclusive and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They both need to be used in their place and adapted to our purposes.

As Mathew Ingram writes in this GigaOm article about the debate around aggregation and curation as theft, “the question that matters is whether it serves the reader”. Patient, thoughtful and enthusiastic curation is helpful to both author and reader as another way to make sense of a complex and noisy world.

As journalistic institutions take the narrow view of journalism, they miss out on opportunities to bring value through curation. This is what Martin Belam calls the “curation gap”. He writes:

For me ‘the curation gap’ is that, at present, most mainstream media organisations seem lacking in the tools, or the will, or both, to bring the best of the voices in those niches and make them relevant to the mass audience.

He also says that journalists have the right tools with their “ethics, legal training, mass cross-platform audience” to become great curators. I second this with all my heart.

Some institutions and old-school journalists have a hard time understanding the value of curation because they focus on their feeling of being ripped off. They don’t make the distinction between content scraping, aggregation and curation. They fail to see that curation and writing share most their core processes.

Writing and Curating, Same Skills

So much so, I would argue curators are bound to be good writers and good writers have it in them to be tremendous curators. Both are a labour of love, a constant learning experience, and take courage. The courage to face the gaps in your argumentation and build bridges over them to be clear.

Taking different arguments made by other people, using them in a new argument, and taking the whole thing one or several steps further than the preceding authors did is the essence of essay writing, isn’t it? Curation is like that: curators summarize, quote and link other people’s work. They also add contextual information which tells audiences what the information means and — more importantly — why they should care.

Like strawberry picking, the process of curation is difficult, time-consuming and impossible to fully automate. Sometimes the ties that bind collections together are shy and take time to come out. The context is hard to explain clearly and the purpose of the collection might be hard to uncover and convey.

There is a real difference between reposting content and creating meaningful collections. Gawker’s lone strange goat pales in comparison with Buzzfeed’s collection of disappointed animals, for example. Both are trivial but the latter represents a greater curation effort.

disappointed-animals

The result of these efforts is valuable, too. Journalists need not fear but join curators as we touch the audiences who wouldn’t understand or relate to the relevance of a piece right away. We make the wonders of the world more accessible. We need more attempts at making sense of the world, not fewer.

If you need a quick way to understand or explain curation, Percolate offers a thoughtful definition of curation and a manifesto packed in a short video (via Brain Pickings). Time and attention, contextualization, communicative enthusiasm: the most important aspects are covered in the video.

Thorny Question of Money

Since curation is an emotional and intellectual labour much like writing, true curation can’t be cheap. The thorny question of publications’ business models is still hanging over our heads. Whether they produce curation, original content or a mix of the two, money remains an issue.

Brain Pickings is supported by donations. Salon.com has a freemium model. The Browser makes money through Amazon referrals and plans to move to “a mixture of sponsorship, advertising and ‘freemium access’,” according to The TelegraphGawker‘s 100% ad-supported.

There’s no single business model for web-based publications and probably will never be. Curation is as expensive and hard to monetize as any content but it is a useful service and represents true opportunities to serve needs which aren’t fully served yet.

Top image credit: “Strawberry Picking” by bigbirdz. Creative Commons License BY.

I wrote “Report and Curate With the Same Passion” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 3, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Writers, how do you organize writing files and papers?

It’s late, so very late and I am once again desperate for something to publish thanks to the #back2blog challenge.

As I crawl through all the unsorted text files on my computer and through more than forty drafts in WordPress, I say to myself: «That’s crap. That’s not ready. Ah, that’s just a funny title and no more. Oh, I can never publish this». I begin to question the sanity of my process — and my own. Writing is bound to be messy. Some of that will show in the writer’s file organisation, I know. However, there has to be better systems out there.

So, I would like to seize this opportunity to ask you #back2blog participants and other writers how you keep your writing organized.

Many years ago, I’d print out and keep every version of every piece of teenage-angst poetry in a single giant binder. This binder’s subdivisions matched with the folders and subfolders in my computer. The system blew up when puberty hit, I think. I started writing pages upon pages of prose and couldn’t afford all that paper anymore.

In adopting Getting Things Done, I banned grey binders for yellow Manilla folders. Altough my reference material, my financial and other administrative documents are better organized than ever, my writing’s a mess.

If you would be so kind, please, tell me how you do it. In the comments, on your blog, in a private e-mail. Just tell me. If your writing’s messy, how do you cope? And if you have a system to keep your writing under control in your computer and out, how does it work?