Grind Your Way Into a Writing Career
Jeff Goins posted the above question on Twitter the other day, and I couldn’t help but reply. I’m ten years into a writing career, and the past five have seen some dramatic changes for me, so I naturally have some advice to share.
It was only after tweeting my response that I thought about what I really would say to someone just starting out on the journey, be they a blogger or other type of aspiring writer.
The Beastie Boys said it best, so I’m going to paraphrase their words a wee bit: You gotta fight for your right to…
Writing doesn’t come easy to any writer. That’s because writing is a process, and no process is easy — as anyone who’s ever assembled IKEA-type furniture knows. While it’s not uncommon for people to romanticize the idea of writing, most of us don’t sit down at the keyboard and have magic flow out of our fingertips.
If anything flows, it’s coffee, self-doubt, and frustration — usually in that exact order.
So what’s the secret to making a career out of writing?
In the words of my mentor, Charlie Wetzel, you must embrace the grind.
More Than One Giant Leap…
Writing is like a lot of other processes, in that true progress is made in small, consistent steps over time. It is a grind. And it’s only by learning to grind that you learn what writing really requires.
When I first started out 10 years ago, I thought of writing more as a series of leaps — you get a great idea, sit down at the keyboard, crank out everything you need, and then you’re done. Everything contained in a few tidy steps, like a hopscotch court.
But writing ain’t no game, and it certainly isn’t contained in just a few tiny steps. Writing can be an avocation, a vocation, or a calling, but it isn’t a fun way to pass the time while waiting for other things to come along. It requires focus, intensity, and commitment.
It requires a willingness to grind.
More Than One Small Step…
I learned about the art and act of writing during my undergrad years, so I brought that knowledge with me into my first professional role as a youth pastor. But knowledge wasn’t enough.
I needed a system.
I was responsible for teaching brand new lessons every Wednesday, which meant I had to churn out content. In college, I often had weeks between due dates, and often the professors assigned themes or directions. As a youth pastor, I was on my own.
So the first lesson I learned was how to develop a process for studying, thinking and crafting what I would teach. The first year or so, ideas flowed like sweet tea (AKA Baptist wine) but around year two, I noticed my weekly preparations were more of a struggle. The fun was gone.
But, deadlines are deadlines, so I couldn’t give up, which lead to my second lesson: I began asking questions of my students to see if I could mine some ideas from them.
Those were my first tentative steps into the grind.
In 2005, I became a lead pastor, which meant I was now responsible for the main sermon in church. This time, I incorporated the lessons I’d learned as a youth pastor and made them part of my preparation ritual from the jump. And the first year was once again glorious.
And once again, year two sucked eggs.
So I started talking about the growth of my own thinking, and how my understanding of theology was expanding and changing due to my studies. This was my third lesson about the grind — you can’t stay the same.
Taking risks with my talks meant stepping outside my comfort zone and away from the approval of others, because I was saying things that weren’t common for the traditional denomination to which my church belonged.
Some people didn’t always like what I said, but I learned to be okay with their disapproval, which was a big lesson in and of itself.
And then 2008 rolled around and I took the next step forward.
You Are What You Repeatedly Do
I left the ministry to take a job as the writer and producer for two radio programs. They were religiously-based, so there was a lot of transfer from my previous work, but there was a new element that kicked my butt.
Instead of having to deliver something once a week, I had to deliver something SIX days a week. Five weekday programs and one weekend program, all requiring fresh scripting and development.
And my deadlines shifted too: I had to write weeks in advance because we had to record, edit, produce, and ship program CDs to our affiliates (or upload to FTP).
So from day one, I was writing.
This was also the time I decided to launch my first blog, just for further practice. I committed to 500 words a day on my blog, every day, without exceptions.
I never missed a radio deadline. Blogs…not so much. But I stuck with it all, and in the process, there were several benefits to writing daily that I learned:
- I learned to write passively as much, if not more, than I wrote actively. Words were constantly rolling around in my head, being arranged and rearranged on an hourly basis. I did this because I couldn’t afford to sit and stare at an empty screen for 6 out of 8 hours each day.
- I learned to write even when I didn’t feel like it. Strangely, the radio stations expecting our programs weren’t interested in whether or not the words were flowing that particular day. Knowing that the deadline HAD to be met forced me to do the best I could for that day, even if it wasn’t the best I was capable of creating.
- I learned that having more than one project going helped with blocks. Every writer knows and fears the dreaded writer’s block, and I was no exception in the early going. There were days when the blog came to me a lot easier than the radio scripts, and vice versa. I found that when I got stuck on one, I could switch over and work on the other, often with great results.
- I learned that my crap was far better than other people’s best — and that I was the only one who knew it was crap anyway. This sounds arrogant, but here’s the truth: I have a really high standard for myself, and often what I consider garbage other people consider gold. It took hours with a therapist for me to understand that if I do my best in each moment (even if it’s not the theoretical “best” I could do given infinite time and opportunity), then the work I produced was still light years ahead of someone who wasn’t as committed or talented. And I can tell you that there were plenty of programs I pushed out that were WAY below my standards and people still wrote in to say how AMAZING they were.
- I learned the second rule of beating a block: crap on the page beats diamonds in the brain. I can edit, change, revise, massage or otherwise work with words on a page, even if they’re utter trash. What I can’t do is work on something that only exists in the ethereal spaces of my brain. Even though I do a lot of passive writing, it’s only what goes onto the page that counts towards creating something great.
- I learned to hit “Send”. Seth Godin calls it “shipping”, and I love that concept. At some point, you have to turn your words loose on the world. No matter how many times you revise it, polish it, send it to readers, or let it stew in a file, you’ll rarely ever think something is perfect. So you just have to hit send — on a submission to an editor, on an article for a website, or on your own blog post. Once you’ve hit send, you’re free to move on to the next thing, and that’s what keeps you growing — which is what keeps you writing.
I’ll say it again: writing isn’t an event, it’s a process. A daily grind to grow, to produce, to send, and to repeat it all again the next day. But it’s worth it. The world needs our words, and we need to share them.
So fight on, my friends. Fight on, and let the grind make you great.