Forget Your Writing Career for an Hour and Write One Damn Story
Focusing on building a writing career is not really focusing at all. It’s staring at a forest that doesn’t exist yet. You can stand there imagining trees reaching for the sky all day, but until you get your hands dirty and plant the seedlings, you’ve got nothing but dirt.
It is so easy to get caught up in the non-writing part of career building — and every bit of it is important stuff. Networking, audience building, social media posting, marketing in a bazillion different ways, sending out queries and pitches, reading the brilliant words of others in your field, and organizing your thoughts are all critical time sucks that will prevent you from growing your forest.
I am lucky enough to be surrounded by thirty years worth of trees. Some of mine are lush and tall and provide that coveted prize of passive income. But the truth is that there are days when I forget that the trees are the career — without them I’m just a schmuck wasting time at a keyboard, same as everybody else who thinks they’re building something big by reading social media posts. I forget that those trees were all once seedlings over which I knelt in the soil and gave my undivided attention.
Here’s my 5-step plan when the call of the career overpowers my ability to get down in the dirt and put words on the page.
Assign yourself an idea
I want you to utter the freelance writer’s favorite three words, “I’m on assignment.” Say it out loud. More than once. Feels good, huh? Try this one instead, “I’m on deadline.” How does that one feel? (BTW, it’s never “I’m on a deadline.” Dropping the a adds urgency. It’s journalist-speak for “Don’t talk to me, I’m busier than you are.”
I presume that among your career-building tasks you have stocked up on ideas you plan to someday write. Today is that someday. Pick the one that feels like the easiest one to write and make it your assignment. Give it a due date — like the end of business today.
Those kinds of deadlines are rare for freelancers, but not unheard of. I once had an editor call me on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving asking for a story titled 50 States of Pie. She just thought of it and felt it was a perfect fit for Thanksgiving Eve’s edition. Well sure, except that if you don’t already have your Thanksgiving pie ordered by the week of, you’d better learn to bake it yourself.
The point is that as you build this imaginary career of yours, there will be times when the pressure is smoking hot. Get used to it now by giving yourself short deadlines. (See you can incorporate career-building activities into writing. Imagine that!)
Choose a template
Your goal is to make this as easy as possible. The template for my pie story was dare I say it — easy as pie. I needed a quick intro guaranteed not to be read, and a list of all fifty states. I happened to have that template already in a folder ready for copy and paste because in case you don’t know it, 50-state listicles are among the most popular. Roll your eyes all you want. They attract huge numbers — just ask the editors at Food Insider or Thrillist.
If you don’t have templates stored in a folder somewhere, make a note to create that on a day when you are back in career-building mode. For today, go with the basic: intro, three subheads, and conclusion.
Type that up and write one sentence of your intro. If it begins to flow, keep going. If not, stop and move to the subheads. A well-designed sub-head can inform not only the reader but can direct the path of your writing.
Leave the conclusion blank for now. You’ll get to that.
If you chose wisely, your research should be minimal. (Remember, I said assign yourself the easiest idea.) But no matter how well you know a topic, everything you write needs at least one piece of research. This morning, I wrote an opinion piece about living in Texas without a mask mandate. My research consisted of quotes from the Governor’s statement and the social media reaction. The point is to give the reader at least one thing that verifies what you are telling them.
Now put on your “I’m on deadline face” for all the world to see and start hitting those keys. Write the story. It’s all laid out for you, you’ve got your research. Now put it all into words the world can read tomorrow. Don’t slow down; don’t edit as you go. Spew the words onto the page without any thought about their quality.
Once you have something, anything on the page, it becomes easier to see the finished product. You have your seedling. Take a bit of time to trim the roots before it goes into the ground. Start back at the beginning and first make sure you said everything you intended to say and that it makes sense. Rewrite anything that is not clear. Then correct grammar and punctuation, listen to the rhythm of the words by reading out loud and by using a text-to-speech reader. And don’t forget to buff up your headline. The final step I make is reading from the bottom up.
These are only the five creation steps. Obvs, the final step is to put the damn tree in the ground, i.e., submit your work to the world, but that’s a whole other subject for another day. Here are a couple of further thoughts that might make tomorrow’s assignment even easier:
- If for any reason you get stuck, stop and file the work as is in an appropriate folder. That eventually gives you folders of work in all five of the stages, waiting for you to complete them.
- Notice how I made the writing part the least important part? Do that and your brain eventually loses its fear of writing.
- It all begins with those ideas. If you don’t have an idea list, start one as soon as you finish planting the tree you wrote today.