This is a little “inside baseball” for a lot of people here, but it’s an important topic to me, at least, and I’m sure that at least some of you have jobs and responsibilities that require creativity as much as mine does. Being a full-time writer like I am now has definitely picked up my passion for writing out of the passion category and put it squarely in the “things I have to do” category–meaning that while I still love what I do, I have to do it, and I have to produce a certain amount of content, regardless of whether I feel especially creative or inspired that day. I have to deal with editors and colleagues who won’t hesitate to shoot down an idea that I think is otherwise brilliant, and the lack of recognition but overwhelming criticism that comes with putting your name out there in a place as expansive as the internet.
And all of that said, I still adore doing it (for the most part), and I continue to look for ways to get inspired, stay creative, and fiercely defend my personal time and my ideas against those things that would drag me down, make me frustrated and depressed, and get me bogged down in thinking about writing more than actually writing. That’s why this piece from Buffer founder Joel Gascoigne really resonated with me. More about this behind the jump.
In Five Realisations that Helped Me Write Regularly, Joel explains something that I think every creative professional–or even any professional forced to think creatively about the problems they work with–have come to understand: the more you think about it, the more you plan for it, and the more mental cycles you devote to planning and thought over it, the less likely you are to actually do it, do it well, and get through it with little hassle. Don’t get me wrong, speaking as a recovering project manager myself, there’s plenty of room for adequate planning and thinking about how you’re going to tackle a problem – there’s no excuse to skip it – but if you over-think, you’ll miss your window to act effectively, and you’ll lose your confidence. Here’s an example of what Joel means:
2. Delaying an article with the belief spending longer will make it better usually just means it won’t get written
I used to create a draft in Tumblr every time I had an idea for a blog post. Then I’d let it sit there for a while, because I believed the idea wasn’t fully formed yet, or I didn’t have enough points to share about the topic. I believed by delaying, the perfect post would eventually come to mind.
What I’ve realised is that there is no better time to write the article than when the thought first enters your mind. I should only write it at another time if I simply can’t open my laptop and write it all the way through right at that moment. The content is freshest when it first appears in my mind, and in that state I write the best posts.
I’ve gotten much better at this over time, but I have 10s of drafts lying in Tumblr from the early days when this caught me out time and time again. If you delay, the more likely outcome is that it just won’t get written.
This is something that even in my personal and professional writing career I can back up. The longer you have that item on your to-do list, the less relevant it’ll be to you, the duller your sharp feelings of inspiration will be compared to when you added it to your list, and the less likely you’ll be to tackle it at all. New ideas will have taken over, new thoughts, new things that have made you angry and inspired to pick up your pen. If you feel passionate about something, do it now. Doing it now is better than not doing it at all – and that’s something else Joel points out specifically: if you’re worried that you need to do a lot of research to make a piece happen, or to bring a new idea to the table, don’t–sometimes some is required, sure, but don’t delay; let your personal experience be the driving factor, and flesh out the details while you work.
Granted, this doesn’t work for research papers, but it’s great for articles and meeting ideas. Remember, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong and you can always go away from the table, take your lumps, study up, and come back when you’re ready to play ball. I’ll give you an example. At Lifehacker not too long ago, I ran a story on some of the best VPN service providers on the market. Granted, it was one of our Hive Five features, where we ask our community for their picks in a given category as the “best.” I collect them up, do some research, and put them together as a representative example of what our community thinks is the best in a market.
After publishing that piece, I got a firestorm of email from readers who complained their favorite wasn’t included (that’s normal), from other VPN providers begging to be included (that’s normal too), from service providers who wanted to alert me to some drama in the field concerning some of the picks that they thought I should be aware of (okay, that’s unusual), and one from an angry and insulting CEO of one specific company I won’t name, who accused me of not doing my research, rigging the poll, and overall poor writing and journalism, all because his company didn’t make the cut (okay, that’s just wierd.) Of course, my responses were few and far between, but after huddling with my editor, I decided to really dig into the topic, do some more homework–not that I especially needed to, I was comfortable in my own knowledge, but hey, more never hurts–and come up with my own recommendations, vetted by me, and researched by me, without the burden of (or the safety net of) the crowdsourced opinion.
I came up with this story, which I can happily say was a universal success. I picked the five listed, I vetted them myself, and if anyone has a problem with my suggestions, I can back them up. And by the way – that offending CEO? His company isn’t listed. In fact, over the course of my research, I found that his company was specifically bad, and deserves to be specifically avoided if possible.
All that said, I took my lumps, did my homework, and came back to the table ready to throw down. You don’t need research and data to put yourself out there, but when you do, remember to speak from personal experience, and be ready to do that homework if it’s called for. That said, if you’re driven to do the work, get started now.
Something else Joel mentions that really hit home for me:
3. We should fear not publishing articles, rather than fearing the bad outcomes of putting something out there
Over time, the concept of “shipping” started to really fascinate me. I forced myself to, despite it being uncomfortable, “ship” everything I did earlier and earlier. Whether a product, a blog post, a speaking opportunity, I’d quit delaying and just put it out there or say “yes” to speaking.
One of my biggest learnings in the last year is that there is immense power in doing a huge volume of work. If I write a blog post every week, I learn a massive amount about what works, and it gives me much more inspiration for more articles. Also, if I write each week, I’m gradually reaching more people, growing my connections on Twitter and Facebook, and putting myself in a better position overall. I know now, that if I don’t publish one week, I’m missing out on these benefits. Therefore, I actually fear not shipping.
There are a couple of things about this that resonate. First, Joel is absolutely right that sometimes you can’t obsess over something. “Fuck it, ship it,” as they say. Another way to put it is that done is better than perfect, something I don’t think many people would disagree with.
The second point that’s worth considering is that there are more forces out there that want you to shut up, that want you to be quiet, and that want to silence your voice than you really want to know. And because they exist, you have to keep talking. I won’t pretend that those people won’t be the first ones to cotton on to your work–they will. There’ll be a dozen people silently reading and thinking about what you’ve said, but one irritated person who disagrees and dislikes you as a result who’ll spend their precious time doing nothing but letting you know how terrible you are and how wrong you are, and how you should sit down, shut up, and stop challenging their perspective and opinion. Haters are always gonna hate, but in this case, when these people appear, they need to serve as a reminder of why you write, or why you’re creative, or why you’re bringing your own solutions to the table. Let them encourage you–there’s nothing in the world like doing something that someone else tells you that you shouldn’t, or can’t, do.
Ah, and before I leave you to ponder the rest of Joel’s piece, yes – I’m aware of number five. I’m working on it! Stick with me!
Header photo, “writing in the journal is by Flickr user Erin Kohlenberg. Iecond in-line photos are: Creativity is Not Device Dependent by Flickr user eliztesch, and Furiously Writing, by Flickr user Vinni. All photos are CC-licensed.