There Is No Shortcut, No Easy Way to Your Best Writing

I’ve been writing professionally for more years than I usually care to remember, and I am still struggling to fully accept some basic truths that other professionals have been freely sharing every one of those years: There is no shortcut, and no easy way forward.

Naturally lazy, and given to an “organized” frame of mind (see the plug for my book: “How To Organize Your Work and Your Life”, at the bottom of this post), I have been searching long and hard for a way to write great material in half the time using half the effort – without success. And I still have not given up!

In some ways, I’m like the kid looking relentlessly through the pile of horseshit because I just know it: in there somewhere must be a pony.

But I’m adult enough to realize at some level that my search for a shortcut and an easy way to write great material – totally driven by my intrinsic nature rather than by any rational probability of success – is pointless.

That’s right: In my mind, I understand I’m almost certainly not going to find what I want. So I offer you the same advice I have been getting – and hoping but failing to disprove – for many years. There is no shortcut, and there is no easy way forward.

What this reality boils down to for professional writers is that you must nail your butt to the chair and work. You must log the long hours. You must push through the tedium and the pain and the temptations of other things you could do instead. You must write long. You must write hard. You must write steadily.

Once you are willing to concede that writing professionally is not a walk in the park, you can begin to do the hard work that’s necessary to succeed at writing. As a bonus, you may also begin to see the value of other truths about the plight of the professional writer.

For example, you and your writing are separate. Writing a bad poem or a crappy song or a stupid story or a worthless novel does not make you a bad, or crappy, or stupid, or worthless person. You’re still a wonderful human being, and you must begin to recognize that a far more accurate description of what has happened is this: you have merely made one or more mistakes in your work. You can fix them, or you can leave them as milestones in your wake. Either way, you can and should keep working.

Here’s another important truth about writing professionally: that inner voice calling you bad, or crappy, or stupid, or worthless is just a voice in your head. Sure, it’s a strident, tenacious, negative voice. But it has no more direct connection to “The Truth” than you do, or than those other voices in your head.

Maybe that negative voice got planted during a misfortunate moment in your childhood. Or maybe it took root during a series of mistakes or misadventures you experienced over a period of time. Or maybe somebody intentionally inserted that negative voice into your head for some nefarious reason of their own.

It almost doesn’t matter.

Just don’t pay it any mind, or at least no more than the absolute minimum you can muster.

You might be able to get rid of that negative voice if you come in and lay on a couch five days a week and pour out your heart and soul to some therapist. But there’s probably no way you’ll ever entirely eradicate it.

So it’s more practical just to turn down the volume and credibility on that voice as best you can, and get on with your writing.

A deeply spiritual teacher used to talk to me about how he had done so much hard work over such a long period of time to get rid of his ego and be one with the universe, and how whenever he began to suspect he was making some important progress on that journey, his ego would tap him on the shoulder and say “Great job!”

That’s the eternal struggle. That and the search for a short, easy pathway to your best writing.

You will never “win” either struggle.

Which leaves you with the only fruitful course of action if you want to be a professional: don’t get involved in the struggle. Just write. And then write some more. And then keep writing.

Eventually, you will strike your own form of gold. And that, I can assure you, will be its own reward.

 

Over the years, I’ve tried and taught pretty much every writing trick, strategy, tactic, and plan I’ve heard about, and while some of them were helpful to me and to those I’ve coached, none of them has proven to be a shortcut. I feel something like the person about whom others say “He’s lucky.” The only response that seems to make sense is that the harder I work, the luckier I get.

Not so incidentally, I’m re-issuing my classic book on productivity and effectiveness: “How to Organize Your Work and Your Life,” totally updated, revised, and expanded for the 21st Century. Please visit my website for that book to follow what I’m working on over there, and to see if any of that material can benefit you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.

Converting A New Client to A Long-Term Client

As I’ve already touched on in a previous post, one of the easiest ways to get additional assignments is to work more often for your favorite clients.

In that post, I discussed three important strategies for getting existing clients to hand you new assignments. These were:

  • Always having a “next” project to offer existing clients.
  • Asking your best clients for more work, again and again.
  • Adding new skills and abilities so you can pitch existing clients on additional types of assignments.

These are all good ways to extend the time frame in which you’re doing work for particular clients – in effect converting new and presumably “short-term” clients to “long-term” clients. To save time and space, I won’t go over these time-honored strategies again in this post.

But there are some other specific techniques you can use to encourage new clients to steadily offer you additional, sometimes even on-going or regularly-repeating assignments. These include:

  • Offer to update or expand on previous work.
  • Investigate client activities to find additional areas in which you can contribute.
  • Develop key relationships so you become the “go to” professional.
  • Bring new ideas and information, some with an eye on generating assignments for yourself, some just to prove yourself valuable to the client.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Offer to Update or Expand on Previous Work

It’s quite common for professional writers to be given assignments that are more important and more long-term than a simple “one off” piece of work.

For example, if you’re asked to write the President’s Statement in a company’s Annual Report, chances are the company is going to need another one next year. Or if you write an article for an insurance company on ways to avoid winter weather damage, chances are the company will want a similar article when next winter rolls around. And you’ve already got the experience and contacts to do these assignments effectively.

Similarly, if you’re asked to write up a client’s capabilities and current contract for a website or a marketing brochure, it’s fair to assume that sometime down the road the client will have expanded capabilities and new contracts. Who better than you to do this new write-up, particularly since you are already up to speed?

In addition, more sophisticated professional writers, and their clients that either are or can be educated to appreciate more sophisticated work, recognize that many writing projects – blogs, content marketing efforts, strategic branding programs, newsletters, seasonal information efforts, “insider” reports, and so forth – are natural candidates for ongoing updates and continuations.

To help keep more of your clients on your “active” roster, get in the habit of thinking about each assignment you accept as not only the specific work the assignment involves today, but also as whatever additional work the assignment can reasonably lead to in the future.

Investigate Client Activities to Find Areas in Which You Can Contribute

Whenever you’re working for a client, you’re in a great position to find out more about what the client is doing now, as well as what the client hopes to be doing in the future. Be curious about all this. Look for clues. Sniff out this kind of information. As you find out more, think about possible ways you can add your skill set, experience, creativity, and know-how to the client’s current, definitely upcoming, and future hoped-for activities.

For example, when I was writing “professional education” audio programs for a major association, it came to my attention that key marketing people had the idea to expand into producing films, as well.  Guess who got the contract to write and produce the first one.

Develop Key Relationships So You Become The “Go To” Professional

Many professionals obtain a great deal of their work through the good offices of people who know you and think highly of your work. This provides an excellent avenue by which you can convert new clients to long-term ones.

The strategy here is not only to deliver good work to the client, but to cultivate honest, close relationships with key decision-makers. I’m not advocating that you suck up to jerks or endure insults from abusive people who happen to wield power. I’m simply saying that a savvy professional should be open to finding friends among his or her clients, and allowing these friendships to endure even when the client relationship itself appears to be tailing off.

You’ll find that when you have friends who like you and appreciate your professional abilities, they will enjoy offering you additional assignments that cross their desks, perhaps over a period of many years.

Bring New Ideas and Information

One of the reasons large organizations often have both in-house departments and outside consultants working on the same problems and opportunities is that no one has a monopoly on good ideas or information. In fact, the supply of good ideas and information is often quite limited.

That’s why you can help convert new clients to long-term clients if you not only deliver your high-quality work on time, but you serve as an outside consultant who brings your client useful ideas and information as many times as you can.

Becoming a source of useful ideas and information for your client will help to keep you “top of mind.” It will also help strengthen your client’s perception of you as a knowledgeable professional who can help with a wide range of valuable tasks.

Obviously, you’ll want to call your client’s attention to an idea or a piece of information that can lead directly to a new assignment for you. But it’s almost – some would say “equally” – important that you also bring your client useful ideas and information that may not immediately tie in with your capabilities. The more valuable you can be to your client, in any and every way, the more likely they will keep you busy with assignments over the long-term.

 

Over the years, I’ve worked with lots of different clients – some one-offs, some over the long-term. Although I can’t claim a 100% success rate in converting new and short-term clients to long-term sources of work, I’ve had a lot of success in my efforts to do this, and in helping other professionals do the same. I’ve found that success in prompting these kinds of client conversions is often a matter of knowing and using the right strategies, coupled with maintaining the right mindset.

Not so incidentally, I’m re-issuing my classic book on productivity and effectiveness: “How to Organize Your Work and Your Life,” totally updated, revised, and expanded for the 21st Century. Please visit to follow what I’m working on over there, and to see if any of that material can benefit you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.

 

How to Meet Every Deadline

As a professional, you make explicit commitments to every client you accept. Chief among these is your commitment to deliver your work-product on time.

You and your client may differ on matters of taste, opinion, values, payment, and more. But there is no room for disagreement as to deadlines. If you promise to deliver your work on the first of the month, delivering it any later than the first is a major violation of your professionalism and your commitment.

With professional deadlines so important, here are some techniques to help you meet every delivery date to which you commit:

Plan Your Work

Some creative work, and some creative people, are not amenable to planning. If the work is too loosely defined, you may not be ready to plan what you’re going to create, how you’re going to create it, or even what tools you’re going to need to complete the project. If you need the Muse to rev up your creative engine, it’s improbable that you can schedule a creative work session for any particular time, such as 10 AM next Tuesday.

Nevertheless, you can strive to make some progress toward completing the work, even if that progress is merely to do some preliminary thinking and feeling about where you want the project to go.

As you firm up your thoughts and feelings about the creative goal, you can usually begin to flesh out a more practical plan that specifies the tools you’ll need, the hours you’ll spend, the steps you’ll need to complete, the sequence in which you’ll want to complete them, and so forth.

Not everyone wants or needs a plan for every creative project, but it’s often a good idea to have one because it helps you focus, recognize your next step toward your goal, and appreciate the work and the steps you’ve already accomplished.

Work Your Plan

Many people say “If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail.” That’s mostly true, as far as it goes. But if you want to meet your deadlines, it’s equally important to work your plan once you have it. Otherwise, what’s the point of planning?

As I’ve learned from my son, a plan need not be frozen in place. It’s OK to revise your plan in light of new information or new developments. But a willingness to revise a plan when and as needed does not invalidate the importance of having a plan in the first place.

Think of a plan as a roadmap. It gives you the advantage of knowing the lay of the land, where you’ve been, and where you’re heading. It lets you know where you are in relation to your goal, and it helps you identify your next step in making progress toward it. With all these advantages, the roadmap doesn’t prevent you from taking excursions off the main route, or staying longer at some waypoint that attracts your interest or demands your attention.

In terms of deadlines, your plan helps you recognize how much more work remains in the project you’re trying to complete, and helps you calculate how many hours of effort that work is likely to require.

Without a plan, your next deadline can loom up suddenly out of the darkness and slip on past before you can deal with it effectively.

On the other hand, if your plan shows that you have, for example, 100 hours until a deadline, and it helps you estimate that you need to put in 50 more hours of work before then, you’d have to be the opposite of a professional to let that deadline slip past you.

Work in Sync with Your Natural Patterns

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, creativity is a flow that almost always exhibits patterns you can follow to generate more and better work.

The basic idea is to recognize and sometimes even anticipate, based on your creative history, the dates and times you’re likely to be doing your best work – and your worst. This can help you select which project to pursue during upcoming periods of prime creativity, and which projects you can afford to kick down the road a while longer.

Allow Extra Time in Case of Work Problems and Delays

Let’s go back to that hypothetical where you had 100 hours remaining in which to complete 50 hours of creative work. Hypothetically, any professional worthy of the name can meet that deadline.

But in the real world, there are unpredictable variables that can turn those 50 hours of remaining work into 75 hours, and can eat into those 100 hours of available time until there are only 50 hours of actual working time left. In other words, completing a project in time to meet a deadline can be far more difficult than you anticipate.

That’s why a professional interested in meeting deadlines does not schedule work too tightly, with too little room for delays and errors. A novice or amateur may be proud of finishing a project an hour before it’s due. But the prudent, experienced professional plans to finish a day, maybe even a week, in advance of the deadline. This way, when delays crop up – as they very often do – the seasoned professional still has a reasonable possibility of meeting the deadline.

Learn to More Accurately Estimate Your Time Requirements

Much of this discussion on meeting deadlines has involved estimating time requirements. Obviously, if your estimates are overly optimistic, you’ll run the risk of missing some deadlines that you might have met had you estimated more accurately.

For this reason, accurately estimating time requirements for a project’s remaining work is a valuable tool in meeting deadlines.

One of the best ways to learn to more accurately estimate how much time a project will require is to log the time you spend, and later review those logs to learn from your own experiences.

Your time estimates will naturally become more accurate as you gain professional experience. But keeping and reviewing at time log will significantly shorten your learning curve. In a future blog, I’ll go over some techniques for tracking your time accurately and easily. On your own, you might find software to help you with this kind of a task.

The main point here is simple: The ability to set and meet deadlines without stressing yourself to the breaking point is a critically important tool in the professional writer’s toolkit. I’ve seen lots of professionals sharpen their deadline-meeting skills to better match the increasing scope of their projects, and the prestige and importance of their professional challenges. You can do this, too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.