For the love of words…once you start writing that is

There’s busy. And then there’s my life for the past two weeks. I know that’s a weak excuse for being behind on this “weekly” blog. On the plus side, the insane work load I’ve been managing lately got me thinking about why I do what I do. Or, for that matter, why anyone would do this.

In short, it can only be for the love of noodling around with words. You have to find some joy in finding a new way of saying something. Otherwise, you certainly would not stay up way past your bedtime still tapping on the old keyboard, trying to fix your lead.

For me the hardest part of writing anything is getting started. Once I do, I’m totally hooked. Take this blog. I knew I should be writing something for it, but I had so many other things to do, it was too easy to put it off. Once I started though…

So the key to getting some writing done–at least for me–is starting. So, I’ve perfected a few tricks to force the issue:

  • If you interviewed a few people, starting pulling out all the best quotes—the ones you knew you’d use the minute you heard them. Once you see a few of those pulsing on the screen, how can you resist getting underway? If for no other reason than to share those perfect comments.
  • For a dryer piece, just put down some key facts you know will have to be in there. They’ll either sound so boring you can’t resist spicing it up, or one or two of the facts will pique your interest.
  • Type or retype your notes. It forces you to start thinking about it. You’ll end up editing and reorganizing the notes and soon you’ll be writing the piece outright.
  • Take the Swiss cheese approach. Tell yourself you’ll just write one paragraph you might be able to use. Come back to it and write just one or two more paragraphs; and etc. Until you’ve carved out enough holes either to get it done or to get it to the point where you no longer need a mental trick to polish the rest off.
  • Write an outline or just a list of what you’ll need to include. It doesn’t feel like writing so you can kid yourself. Once you’ve got the framework, the whole task won’t seem so heavy.
  • Write the end first. If you know where you want to end up, it is easier to start the journey.
  • If you are truly stuck, do a quick Google search on the topic you are writing about. Either you’ll find something great that inspires you, or you’ll see that everything out there is so dismal that you’ll want to contribute something more meaningful.

Spending time on your writing is certainly a good thing. Taking a thoughtful approach takes time. Deciding on the best way to order things takes time. Editing.  Takes even more time. That would be hell, if it weren’t so inexplicably enjoyable.

A cautionary word is in order. I’ve learned (yeah, the hard way) that a love of words can also get in your way. You can get too close to things.

Go over what you’ve written a few dozen too many times, and not only won’t you see the forest for the trees, you likely are blissfully staring up at the sky, having not even noticed there are trees! That is, until you smack into one.

That’s where other editors come in…but that’s a whole new subject.

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Writing with Sound or Silence?

Have you ever worked in a construction zone? While still at your desk job?

Recently, in what used to be a conference room adjacent to my office, some new offices were framed and dry-walled into existence. At the same time that a power tool extravaganza was underway on the floor directly above me to finish off some other new spaces. And just down the hall a half dozen cubicles got expanded—by method of continual hammering.

Oddly, I didn’t find it difficult to concentrate in this environment. I say oddly, because I consider myself on the high maintenance end of noise sensitivity. My all time favorite time to write is early on a Saturday, before anyone else gets up.

Here’s my theory. Irregular but normal decibel noise—like people talking—can be much harder to ignore than loud, constant sound.

It got me thinking about the best environment in which to write. Total silence? Mechanical chaos? While enjoying public transportation? Or as a nature-lover? With music or without? And, if with, what kind of music? Vocal or instrumental? Soothing and in the background, or upfront and personal? Or does it just depend on the project? Or on your personality?

Julie Platt, an author at GradHacker in her blog A Work Soundtrack, says this:

I have a hard time working without music. No matter what grad school related task I am working on, it just feels strange to be doing it in silence. In a world where a pair of earbuds are as expected an accessory as a pair of pants, it’s clear that I’m not alone in my need to have music playing whenever I’m engaged in some serious cognitive activity.”

What??? I thought silence made for peaceful concentration. And I didn’t think my lack of earbuds was as unexpected as not wearing pants. Her comments left me feeling seriously and cognitively out of touch.

A variety of research has been conducted on the effects of music on learning. Just google “Mozart Effect” to learn more. So, maybe I am missing out on a serious, cognitive boost from music by stubbornly enjoying silence for writing?

I’ve owned an iphone for more than a year, but never put a note of music on the thing. Ten months ago, I even bought myself a higher end pair of ear buds. I’ve never used them.

But today that changes. I’m uploading music. (I’ve got loads of it. I just haven’t been using it for working.) And I reclaimed the ear buds from a certain family member.

I hope it will be a fun experiment. I’ll revisit it in a future post.

Meanwhile, what is your favorite environment for writing?

And if you are a fellow silence enthusiast who wants to join me in this experiment, you can check out Julie Platt’s good advice on getting the right kind of music for productivity at insidehighered.com.

Procrastination: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

To say that procrastination can be bad is almost an insult to bad things.

Like when a project is hanging over your head. And anxiety is piling on. Yet, you can find 101 other things to do each day. Finally—in the nick of time—you pull the task from the jaws of disaster (or at least public humiliation). Only to find it wasn’t even that challenging?

But, that’s just bad. Sometimes it’s ugly. That’s when you finish an assignment but know it could have been many times better had you simply started earlier.

If you’ve worked in any kind of professional job for more than a week, you are no doubt all too familiar with those scenarios. My question is, when it comes to writing, can procrastination ever be a good thing?

One time, I gathered more than enough great material, quotes and research for an article I really looked forward to writing. Yet I put it off in favor of developing strategic and measurable goals for the publication. Okay, that never happened. But wouldn’t it be good if it did?

Essayist, computer programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham, says the most impressive people he knows are good procrastinators. That is, they don’t dutifully check off item after item on their to-do lists. They ignore busy work in favor of sneaking off to tackle an important problem; uninterrupted. (See “Essays”: Good and Bad Procrastination for more on that.)

For me, procrastination isn’t so much a problem for things that inspire me. I can be utterly ruthless in avoiding errands in order to delve into pieces of writing I’m excited about. Once I’m in the flow, there’s no stopping me. I screen calls. Shut my office door. Take it home with me. Stay up until 2 a.m. Happily.

Yet, I’ve also learned the value of delay. Such as when I’m tempted to call the results of any of those inspired bursts of creativity “done.” Often, taking another look after taking a good break makes some rather embarrassing omissions, sophomoric phrases and errors; become rather obvious.

There’s an art to delay. It’s when ideas percolate; you can bring teammates in to the process; when the better way of framing your content suddenly comes into focus.

My morning commute consists of roughly four miles down a pretty two-lane highway with minimal traffic. I pass through some of the most serene countryside around. There’s a long stretch of green between miles two and three. It’s where a lot of my edgiest headlines, most compelling leads and most intriguing approaches suddenly pop into my head, seemingly from nowhere.

To me, that’s good procrastination. And it can be powerful. When you put something aside for a bit, you allow for a certain creative synergy that I think can’t be forced. No matter how disciplined or inspired you might be.

Do you think procrastination can play a positive role in your writing? Share your story. Good, bad or ugly!