Last month, I challenged myself to publish a blog post every day from the 1st through the 30th. It was fun, exhilarating, even mind-numbing—and I posted 34 times in 30 days. While I’ve achieved many goals over the years, I was rather surprised at how satisfied I felt on June 30:
Just look at all those posts! Okay, okay, so there were times when I thought my brain was going to eat itself. But I made it!
Then July 1 arrived:
Up next: Thirty-one days of FAIL.
Although I hadn’t expected it, I learned some great lessons during the June 2012 Challenge. I gained fascinating insights into my writing, my creative process, and how I really can produce worthwhile material under pressure. Perhaps these lessons will help you, too.
Lesson #1: If you post on the weekends, make it worthwhile (of course)—but also make it something that you’re okay with people not reading.
Saturdays and Sundays are incredibly slow for blogs. I found this out, oh, the second weekend of the Challenge, when I looked at my site stats—just three or four or zero hits?!? But I put up some good stuff!
At first, I wondered, “Did my post suck today?” Probably not. It’s just that internet users have lives. On weekends, they’re doing everything except reading blogs (even the ones they enjoy).
I realized that weekend posts needed to be worthwhile, but also nothing I’d busted my butt or brain to put together. People just weren’t going to read on weekends. So I got over myself and posted “good enough” off-day content.
Lesson #2: Daily posting is really, really hard work if you want your writing to be any good.
Even I underestimated how much work this would take—and I write for a living!
In her classic essay “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott describes the general public perception of what writers do every day:
People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
At first, I was bursting with ideas and couldn’t wait to get them all out. After ten or 12 days, though, the giddiness wore off. Putting together even a shopping list was too much effort. The words would not come out.
“My God, this sucks,” I said as I re-read draft after awkward draft. “How can I put my name on this? Why can’t I seem to make it go anywhere?” Panic set in nearly every afternoon. “My students are going to read this. My clients are going to read this. What have I done?”
Then I remembered Lamott’s words, and felt much better. Only “the uninitiated”—people who aren’t writers—believe that fantastic writing flows out on the first try, elegant and effortless. It’s a common and seductive lie.
It’s never easy to write well. It only looks easy because we see the finished product; we never see the awful first efforts. We miss the inaccurate wording and clumsy transitions. We never read the things a writer cuts from early versions or adds to later versions, or the things that had to go even though they were such good ideas.
Think about it another way. In an NBA playoff game, we watch the elegant plays and perfect jump shots and masterful dunks, but we never see the preparation. How many hours of practice has each player put in from junior high school up until this game? Tens of thousands of hours—which, of course, we never even consider. Similarly, we read excellent writing and see the end result instead of the author’s years of frustration and hard work. How many drafts and ideas did the author discard before this wonderful final version? How different does that first awkward draft look from this polished one?
We expect it to be easy, yet we’re surprised when writing well is damned hard, even for really good writers. Case in point: Writing and revising this 2,700-word article took this experienced professional writer 19 hours over 13 days. It spanned eight drafts, the first five of which were embarrassingly clunky.
Lesson #3: Most days, however, you can write good stuff—if you’re disciplined about it.
I have never been a morning person. If you value having your head firmly attached to your neck, don’t even look at me until I’m fully awake. None of that “rise and shine” crap. And for God’s sake, don’t sing.
For years, I’d hoped that as I got older, I’d become morning-friendly. But no. Forty gets closer every day, and I’m still grouchy before 11:00am. However, the Challenge surprised me—my best ideas actually come between 7:00am and noon! Yes, my “writing mojo” is strongest and freshest then. So instead of lying there half-asleep with great ideas and then griping later about how I’d forgotten them, I learned to roll out of bed as soon as possible and get to my desk. (Keeping a notebook and pen by the bed also helps a lot.)
Now, I know scores of morning people who say they could never do this. These people practically live to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn and drink coffee and be cheerful and whatever else it is morning people do at that God-forsaken hour of the day. I always want to say, “So you can get up at oh-dark-thirty and bounce around the house like a squirrel on PCP, but you can’t write?”
Here’s the secret: When what you write is truly, vitally important to you, you’ll do whatever it takes to capture those ideas. When you value that work highly enough, you will sit down wherever and whenever to get those words onto paper or screen or MP3 file. You have to decide to do it. Until you do, your work remains trapped inside you. It’s up to you, whether you’re a college student or a seasoned professional or even if you’ve never seriously written a day in your life.
I’ll probably never be a morning person, and that’s okay. Having learned to listen to my ideas when they arrive makes the unpleasantness worthwhile. I protect my prime writing hours fiercely. Not appreciating and listening to ideas when they arrive is to revert to Spoiled Teenager Mode: “You can’t tell me what to do! I’ll do what I want, when I want!”
It’s up to me to use this priceless gift right when it’s handed to me. If I put it off, it will disappear. I know this because it’s happened so many times before.
When I work at home, I write steadily from 8:00am until 1:00 or 2:00pm—no matter what. I’ve learned to schedule errands, appointments, chores, and family time around my writing. If I don’t listen to the early-morning ideas and guard that work time, I will not write even the first word.
This discipline pays off many times over. Trust me.
Lesson #4: It helps if you have nothing else to do but blog.
It’s possible to have a full-time job and post good content every day. Notice that I said possible, not easy or feasible.
During the June 2012 Challenge, I spent a minimum of 35 hours a week creating content. Naturally, I spent most of those hours writing and revising. About 20% went toward research, saving hyperlinks, taking and choosing photos, working with PhotoShop to edit my images, and then carefully deciding where which photo needed to appear in which post.
Worth it? Yes. Possible if I’d been working a full-time job instead of freelancing from home? Not if I’d wanted to eat, sleep, or pee.
Lesson #5: When you have a flurry of ideas, get them down—then let them sit. What sounds great now may sound silly after a few days (and vice versa).
An old writers’ saying goes, “You can never know if something is good while you’re writing it.” A similar one says, “You almost never know what you need to write until you’ve written for a while.” Both are true.
In 30 days, I drafted and then trashed at least 50 blog post ideas. I’m serious. I came up with and eventually discarded 50 or more beginnings, blurbs, and short drafts. I spent anywhere from five to 45 minutes on each, eventually deciding for one reason or another that it wouldn’t work.
At the time, the posts seemed like fantastic ideas: Sandwiches that should never have seen the light of day. A bi-weekly analysis of obscure 1980s music videos. The reasons people need to stop wearing pajamas and slippers out in public. An explanation of Taylor Swift’s popularity despite the fact that her lyrics sound like something out of a sixth grader’s Trapper Keeper.
All decent ideas, but ideas I ended up shelving after a day or a week of staring at them in my Drafts folder. And there were so many more where those came from. Most of them focused too narrowly, or said nothing original. Some required more time than I could spare. Others just seemed dumb.
Sometimes that’s a liberating feeling, clicking “Delete Post” on something that’s been giving me hell. Sometimes it’s sad and discouraging. Did I waste my time creating posts that I would eventually discard? No. As Anne Lamott says later in “Shitty First Drafts,” there’s “no way to get to this [the quality stuff] without getting through the first five-and-a-half pages.” Or the first dozen ideas.
Although I ended up tossing out or shelving so many ideas, the time I spent on them helped me see what was possible, and what was not. Taking a break to generate new ideas often gave me unexpected insights into other (publishable, really good) posts that had been troubling me.
Lesson #6: Know when to take breaks. You’re going to need them.
Before the Challenge, I knew this in my head, but not in my heart. As my students begin a new essay, I tell them, “Step away from your first draft for at least 24 hours before you do anything else to it. When you come back, you’ll see it with fresh eyes.” Those who take my advice report that after a day or two away, it’s easier to see what works and what doesn’t. They’re not so close to the words anymore, and can look at them as an outsider might.
With much of my professional writing, I had followed my own advice. Whether it was a conference paper, an English 1101 syllabus, a workshop proposal, a feasibility report, a client’s brochure, or a sales presentation, I could always recognize when I needed to leave it alone and do something else: bathe my dogs, go for a walk, call my mother, stare at the wall—whatever would let my brain relax for a while. Later, I’d be able to see my work more objectively.
Somehow, though, I thought daily blog posts would be different. Nope! It took three weeks for me to learn when I needed to step away. “Save it and walk off,” I finally began telling myself. “Just sitting here isn’t helping. Come back later.” Eventually, I’d go do something else. When I sat back down a few hours or a day later, everything was fine. My ideas returned, and I could see new possibilities.
Lesson #7: Save, save, and save again.
I can’t stress this one enough.
Servers crash. Thunderstorms knock out the electricity. Pets walk across the keyboard. So save as if your life depended on it. Your work certainly does. If you lose six pages just because you haven’t clicked Save in the last three hours, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Lesson #8: Good writers are never really “done” with a piece, no matter how good others may think it is.
Even after I publish a blog post (article, syllabus, student guide, etc.), I still see places where I can eliminate words, or change a phrase so it flows better. While I do go back and make small changes, I’m learning to resist the temptation.
I can’t spend my life tinkering with old work. If it’s been published, on paper or online, I can’t alter it. My words are now permanently out there. There’s no tracking down each copy with White-Out and a pen. And anyone can access the original version thanks to the internet archives.
The secret is to learn when to let go—when it’s “done enough” so that I can live with it. That’s tough, but I’m getting there one document at a time.
Lesson #9: The only way to get better at writing is to do it consistently, even when you dread it.
Sometimes, writing was such tough work that I nearly abandoned the June 2012 Challenge. “I mean, it’s not like I promised anybody anything,” I told myself. “I don’t have to keep this up all month long. If the ideas have dried up, they’ve dried up. No sense in fooling myself.”
But I stuck with it because:
- I made myself a promise, and wanted to follow through.
- It wasn’t as if I’d fallen ill or had a family emergency—I was just low on ideas. I’d survived that before, and could do so again.
- I hated the idea of quitting at the first sign of trouble.
- What if my students saw that I’d just given up? I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, all “Do as I say, and not as I do.” Writing’s too important for that.
- Something good might come from my frustration, even if I couldn’t see it now.
- “Waiting for inspiration” is a load of crap. If I “wait for inspiration,” or until I’m “in the mood to write,” it’ll never happen. Once I sat down and started writing, even if it stabbed at my soul to put that terrible mess onto the page, after a while it got easier—and better.
These reasons and others floated through my mind when I considered giving up. Sure enough, as I sat down every morning, the initial dread wore off, and crappy writing gave way to decent writing.
Lesson #10: Use the Schedule Post feature. It’s your friend.
Let’s say you have a run of great ideas, and then manage to complete a few shorter posts with relative ease. Good for you! While you’re still thinking about it, go ahead and schedule them to appear over the next few days. Doing so will take the pressure off of you so you can work on more complex material.
My longtime readers know that, if nothing else, they can count on two regular posts each week: Nearly Wordless Wednesday and Friday Photo. These posts feature an interesting photo plus a brief caption with the photo’s date and location. They let me showcase my rapidly improving photography skills, and also provide readers an escape in the middle of a busy day.
Scheduling every June photo post ahead of time meant eight days of posts were ready to go—that’s nearly one-third of the month! This was great, especially when time and ideas ran low. Having those eight days out of the way freed me to concentrate on more complex writing and revising.
The June 2012 Challenge was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done. It frightened me at times, making me doubt my abilities and my career path. But I’m incredibly glad for the experience. I’d happily do it again, too, perhaps next summer. Writing all the time truly is the only way to write better—I know this because I’ve done it. And as long as I live, I’ll continue to write all the time.
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)