Update: I started this draft as something to end ’22 with, and it ended up taking on a life of its own. Then my company had what’s euphemistically called a RIF, or Reduction In Force, and my team went from 6 to 2—me and the social media guy are the only ones left standing. So instead of a year-end wrap up, I turned it into more of a ‘lessons learned’ kind of thing, you can stay tuned for more updates on how my work flow has been altered, but it’s looking like I’ll be shifting from Senior Writer to more of a ‘managing editor’ and relying on a more contributor-based model for content.
It’s been nearly 5 years since I made the jump from IT into writing professionally, and almost exactly one year since I landed my current position, so I thought I’d take a minute to jot down some of the things I’ve learned on this journey. And now that I’m also making headway on the manuscript for what I hope will be my first novel, the differences I’ve noticed between paid writing (in my case, for a logistics tech startup) and personal writing have become clear enough, ironically, to write about.
My day job is as Senior Writer on the Brand Content team. That means I mostly create newsletters, e-guides, blog posts, and so-called “thought leadership” pieces for the C-suite to post on LinkedIn. I despise that phrase, but that’s a topic for my therapist. Working with an editor/manager (Ed: now former) who came to startup land from more than a decade in journalism means we have a slightly different take on what marketing content should look, feel, and read like. There’s more rigor on my current team than I saw in my first 2 years writing for content farms. For my last couple of pieces, I would estimate I did 5:1 research/interviewing SMEs/outlining to writing.
Contrast that to my novel. When I first started playing with the idea, I set out the same way I would with a long-form work paid piece—research, research, research. After 6 months or so, I had reams of notes, character studies, historical research on Seattle in the ’00s, etc…what I didn’t have was a single word of the actually story. And after another 6 months, same. I would rinse and repeat for another year before it hit me that maybe this wasn’t the right process for me so I turned my attention to figuring out if I could be what they call a ‘pantser,’ or someone who writes by the seat of their pants, letting the story grow organically as you write it. I wasn’t sure I could let the narrative guide how the story developed, but after this much time down the tubes I was game to give it a shot.
In early September of this year, I saw a post from someone who was getting ready for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month and something clicked. This was the kick in the ass I needed to get started. I spent September and October consolidating my previous 2 years of notes into what turned out to be less than 2,000 words of mostly broad plot points and character studies. Then I archived the rest. And on November 1, I wrote the first 1,667 words of my novel.
NaNoWriMo sets a word goal for the month at 50,000. That’s either a great start on a novel, or a solid novella worth of words. For me, that word count continued for 2 weeks before I had another epiphany, writing for both a day job AND trying to keep up that much production before and/or after work wasn’t working. It turns out that while I needed the external accountability the project brought, I didn’t need the external, and arbitrary, word count.
That’s enough of that ramble for today, let’s look at (a highly condensed and summarized version of) three main ideas that have coalesced over the last 5 years and counting.
Writing processes vary by writer. Or by project. Or maybe by genre. Whatever, they vary.
Do I need to preface this with a “your mileage may vary” warning? No, cool.
When I start working on a piece for work, whether it’s going to be a quick blog, newsletter essay, E-Guide, or something in between—I do some research. First, I check to see what if anything our competitors have to say on the subject. The last thing I want to do is turn out a facsimile piece, right? Then I compile my initial thoughts in a ‘notes’ document. Then, I sort those notes, adding more as I find it, into a rough outline. This outline only goes 2 steps deep, as it’s intended as something any stakeholders for the piece will receive and the other last thing I want is reams of notes on minutiae before I even start writing.
Once I have the green light, it’s go time, and the first thing to go is that rough outline. I bulk that thing up until it’s nearly the length of the finished piece. Why? Because now when I move each section into my draft, I can just rewrite it for flow and brand voice as it already contains the stats, quotes, and general idea for each section of the final piece. This final step may only take me an hour, because I’ve already put anywhere from 5-10+ hours into the research and outlining stages.
Compare and contrast that with pantsing this novel.
I had less than 2,000 words of notes left after the great purge, consisting of vague character sketches, some locations I wanted to be sure to include (it’s set in Seattle, naturally), and a plot outline that was so vague a bystander likely wouldn’t be able to identify it as a novel outline at all. The manuscript is currently sitting a bit over 40,000 words and has developed, grown, and morphed right before my eyes and under my fingers. It’s been wild!
Humans only have so much mental bandwidth to play with at any given time.
Have you ever reached the end of a day of sitting at your desk staring at a medium-sized screen and realized you didn’t have the energy left to get up and make it to your couch? That’s been pretty much every day since I started writing professionally. Add in the overload I feel when I have to be present in an office environment, and it’s a wonder I get even the simplest errands run.
That’s not to say I regret making the jump. On the contrary, I may be knackered beyond what seems reasonable, but I’m also more professionally fulfilled than I believe I have a right to be (I’m working with my therapist on that, imposter syndrome, and…some other stuff).
How in the hell am I supposed to also make progress on a novel, given the above? That’s a topic for, well probably another book I’m pretty sure someone else already wrote. For now, what worked for me is using my early morning for intense writing sessions, taking a tea break, then signing in for work. When I tried saving it for the end of the day, well that didn’t go well.
Context switching sucks.
I’m a big fan of the writing Cal Newport has been doing in recent years. In A World Without Email, he dives into the time-suck that he calls “The hyperactive hive mind.” For those of you who don’t wonk out over slow productivity or how to work when you’re inundated with Slack messages…Cal is a theoretical computer science professor at Georgetown who moonlights as a productivity writer/podcaster. In short, as I’ll have more to say on much of this at a later time—context switching sucks.
It sucks time, energy, and mental bandwidth. To the point where it can take as long as 20 minutes to bring your attention fully back to a task when you’re interrupted (if you really want a citation, I can find it…later). I’ve experienced that, in fact it’s been my daily grind for most of the time I’ve been writing full time. Folks often underestimate how much focus it takes to turn out great writing. Or code. Or financial documents. Anything that falls into the category of “the knowledge economy” takes focused attention to do, and even more of it to do well.
And when you’re being pulled away from that focus by Slack or email alerts, well it’s going to take you that much longer to get back into your groove and turn out the kind of work that you know you’re capable of.