Recently, a writing student asked me about the dilemma of keeping to a publishing schedule, even when you can see all of the flaws in your own writing.
How can we publish content every week, or even every month, when we still have so much to learn?
Most of us run into this sometimes — and it can turn into an ugly case of writer’s block. We have a real desire to serve an audience with our work, but unhelpful perfectionism holds us back.
So let’s knock that one out before we start talking about how to get comfortable clicking Publish — even if you’re not a “great writer” yet.
Maybe you’ve seen Ira Glass’s famous quote about what he calls the gap:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.”
– Ira Glass
You know what “the good stuff” looks like, but you don’t have the chops yet to create work at that level. And that’s painful.
Honoring the writer you are today
Now, there’s a school of thought when learning to draw that “you have 10,000 terrible drawings in you, so get them done as quickly as possible.”
And of course, in the place of “drawings,” you can substitute blog posts, podcasts, videos, or any other kind of creative work.
Some people find this idea liberating. If you’re one of them — get on it!
I find it unspeakably depressing.
In the first place, I think 10,000 is an insane number. You don’t have 10,000 genuinely bad pieces of creative content to get through. Maybe you have 10. Or 20.
In the process of getting through those first rough pieces, you’ll improve your craft. And you’ll begin to write content that’s better than the content you wrote last month. That’s not terrible — that’s fantastic.
I also don’t believe in spending extended periods of your life gritting your teeth. If you want to learn to play the cello, but you’re going to be unhappy until you sound like Yo-Yo Ma, that’s an awful lot of time to spend being miserable.
Maybe instead, you could learn to appreciate what you can play today, and take pleasure in that, while still working on getting better.
In my experience, both in my writing and my teaching, I find it’s more helpful to honor the work that reflects where we are today. With all of its flaws and all of its imperfections.
You could look back on work you did a year ago, or five years ago, or 20, and cringe.
Or you could look at it and respect the care that went into it, while also seeing the elements that you hadn’t quite mastered yet. (And maybe even feeling great about the progress that you’ve made.)
Once you’ve decided to at least try to appreciate the early days, I’ve observed three things that will let you do well with your content today, even while you’re still working on your craft.
Give it some G.A.S.
The first element is caring, a lot, both about the quality of your content and the audience you serve with it.
If you actually care about what you’re writing, you’re ahead of most people.
Writers who put in the work, to the best of their abilities, still stand out, even in the overwhelming sea of content being published today.
And if you genuinely care about putting content out that benefits your audience, they’ll appreciate it and find use in it, even if it’s not “perfect” by some unreachable standard.
You don’t have to have the writing skill of an Ann Handley or a Malcolm Gladwell.
You do have to care.
Give it some time
The second really important element is giving yourself enough time to produce a piece you’re proud of.
Check your facts. Check your spelling. Make sure your arguments are well supported. If you can, strive to get most of your commas in the right place.
Let your content sit for a little bit, and you’ll see the places where your argument is weak, or your phrasing is confusing.
Time is a great replacement for talent.
A lot of crappy content isn’t crappy because the writer lacked skill. It’s crappy because they weren’t given enough time to do a good job.
Plenty of the writers you most admire produce dreadful first drafts. Between you and me, it’s one reason I don’t draft in the WordPress editor. I wouldn’t want my Copyblogger colleagues to see some of the total dreck I write as I’m getting my thoughts together.
I really enjoyed Kelton Reid’s blog post last week about things only serious writers do, and one of them was to think on paper.
“Some of your best work will come by virtue of you wrestling with the words on the page, not in your head.”
– Kelton Reid
Go ahead and meander. Let your mind and fingers ramble across the keyboard. The ideas that emerge can be much richer that way.
But it only works if you give yourself enough time to really polish the final results, and remove the tangents and cruft.
Give it some standards
The third element might seem not so sexy (unless you’re on the Copyblogger editorial team), and that’s having a clear set of editorial standards.
Stefanie Flaxman, our Editor-in-Chief, is all about this.
We publish a pretty good volume of content, for the blog, our podcasts, and our private communities. And our creative team is quite small. So we can’t get bogged down in perfectionism.
But we can make a conscious decision about our standards.
We can decide that we will carefully proofread everything we publish. Yes, a typo slips through occasionally, but they’re rare.
Stefanie goes through every post checking for wrong dates, imprecise word choices, and funky typing. No editor can check for everything. But our standards give us a list of the most important items to check off, to make sure they meet our standards.
When you decide on a set of writing rules to live by, you create more trust and authority with your work.
If you apply these three elements — caring, time, and standards — to your content, even if you aren’t a “great writer” (yet), you’ll be able to produce useful work that you can be proud of, and that will serve your audience.
We have a new resource for you …
We’ve created a new resource for you — small, but super useful — to help you click Publish with confidence.
It’s a framework that lets you check off the most important elements of good content, so you know you’re producing your best work.