Paying For the Unicorn’s Food: Content Marketers Should Not Accept Minimum Wage

When it comes to writers working for cheap, or feeling guilty about what they charge, I always tell this joke. I’ve told it before, but it’s worth repeating:

A business owner is horrified one day to discover that her business server is completely broken. Kaput. Shot. Frazzled. Stick a fork in it, it’s done. Problem is, all her company files are on there, and she’s dead in the water without it.

In a panic, she calls a computer repair expert. He shows up, and examines the server. Runs his hands over it, listens to it, even sniffs it. Then he pulls out a tiny hammer, and taps the computer. It starts right up.

The business owner is overjoyed, but that joy turns to annoyance when she receives the bill a few days later: Computer repair, $500.

She calls the repair expert in a huff, and demands to see an itemized bill. “You just tapped the thing with a tiny hammer. That was so simple What makes you think that was worth $500?”

A few days later, she receives the itemized bill: Tapping the computer with a tiny hammer: $1. Knowing where to tap it: $499.

I get this a lot in my work.

Unicorn running

Surprisingly, unicorns only eat cheeseburgers and drink bourbon. At least that’s what Jason Falls tells me. I’ve been paying him to feed my unicorn.

I’m a writer. I do the thing that we all learned to do in middle school and high school. As a result, people think that what I do is easy, and that they’re also good at it, which means they’re not willing to pay for it. (We also took shop class and art, yet there aren’t more professional woodworkers and artists.)

It also means a lot of new writers are afraid to charge what they’re worth, and they accept lower prices out of guilt, and the belief that everyone can do what they do.

Recently one potential client told me my rates were way too high — higher than anyone else he had encountered — and that he had been quoted $100 per month for similar content marketing services.

My first thought was “I’ll take it! I can use the money to pay for my unicorn’s food.”

But rather than say that, or explain how he would be getting a professional writer with nearly a quarter century’s experience under his fingers, I gave him some advice instead. I told him I’ve seen similar “writers” charging similar amounts, and that he should watch out for a couple things when he received his content:

  • Blog posts written in such poor English, they need so much editing and repair that it’s just easier to delete them and start over.
  • The content is syndicated and shared among many so different clients, which means Google won’t accept it as original content, which means he’ll never get the SEO benefit.

Writing may be one skill that was taught in school, but it’s not one we all do equally. If that were the case, we would have all been professional athletes. We would all be musicians. We would all speak German, Spanish, or French fluently. We would all know chemistry. We would all be experimental physicists. We could balance our checkbook and solve for X. We would be equally awesome at everything we learned in school, and would never have the need for accountants, chemists, or landscape architects.

The fact that we don’t should be a clue that not everyone is a good writer either. Just because people write emails doesn’t make them writers. Just because people write reports doesn’t make them writers. Just because I can make a vinegar and baking soda volcano does not mean I’ll develop the next cure for baldness.

Writers are those talented individuals who can write a press release in 20 minutes, can write a blog post that ranks high on Google and is shared and read by thousands of people, and write a book on their chosen subject in a matter of months.

We know where to tap the hammer.

Writing is not a talent that everyone can do well, no matter how many emails you write. Writing is a skill that we spend years and years developing and improving. If everyone could do it, we would all write books.

In every other endeavor, we know true craftsman will charge according to his or her skills. The master carpenter charges more than the new apprentice, because he knows he has more and better skills. The master chef makes more money than the kid chopping vegetables, because she has worked and studied for years.

So when you compare two writers who are charging vastly different amounts for the same work, look closely at the background of the writers. Who has been doing it for 25 years, and who just got out of college? Who has written 2,000 articles, and who has written 2,000 words?

Freelancers, if you’re good at your job, and you know you’re worth your price, stick to it. Don’t be offended by those who want a lower price, but don’t lower your skills and standards either. Just keep doing what you’re doing and prove you’re worth every penny.

The clients who value good writing are the relationships you’ll value more and do better work for anyway. The clients who buy your services based on price will be quickly wooed away by someone else who bats their eyes and waves a 5% discount at them.

 

Photo credit: Rob Boudon (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Three Secrets to Writing Fast

I was once sitting at a meeting where an interesting question came up, so when I got back to my office, I wrote a blog post about it, and it was up an hour later.

“How did you get that up there so fast?” someone else from the meeting asked.

“Well, I had to drive back to the office first,” I said.

typingMy friend thought I was being a smartass, but that’s actually how and why I was able to write that blog post.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can write most things very fast. It always seems to surprise people, but it’s actually not that hard. Here are my three secrets (plus one bonus) to writing fast:

1. Write when you’re not in front of the computer

Remember, writing is not an activity you must perform with a laptop computer. That’s typing. Writing is the act of putting the right words into the right order.

That means you can write anywhere, at any time. I write when I’m in the car. I think of the basic ideas of my piece, how I want to lay it out, and any points I want to make. The blog post I mentioned earlier was one I was actually able to write in 30 minutes, because I thought about it for the entire 15 minute trip in my car.

You can write in the car, in the shower, going for a walk, or any other time you don’t have to engage the language portion of your brain somewhere else. That means you shouldn’t do it when you’re having a conversation, watching TV, or listening to talk radio.

I wrote this blog post in my car on a recent road trip.

2. Sketch out basic notes

Whenever I have a cool idea, it will often get stuck in my brain, and won’t let me work on anything else. So I write it down in my notebook, which frees it from my head, letting me work on something else. Once I do this, it also reboots my brain so I can start sketching out that idea a little better.

If I want to work on an idea for an article or post, I write down the three main points I want to make, and then think about it in the car. With that tiny bit of pen-and-paper work, I open up any logjams in my head, and I can think about the piece a lot more effectively.

3. Write like you talk

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

Do you talk to yourself in your mind? Do you have an inner monologue going in your head? (Don’t lie, I know you do.)

What tone does it take? If you’re like most people, it’s conversational. You talk like you, well, talk.

And yet, most people try to write very formally, using big words and lo-o-o-ong sentences. They ignore their inner monologue, and channel their Inner Professor. As a result, it takes three times longer than it should to write something. They think of the word they would have used, and then think of the bigger, “smarter” word instead. Since they’re not used to writing that way, or even speaking that way, it slows them down.

If you want to write fast, write like you talk. Get your inner monologue to sound more like your public speaking voice, using the language you use in real life (assuming you’re not a chronic cusser). Imagine speaking your words out loud, as if you were giving a speech to a room full of your friends and colleagues.

After a while, you’ll be able to sync your speaking voice and your writing voice, and you’ll write down what your inner monologue is saying, exactly as it’s being said. This will save you all kinds of time from trying to use your formal writing voice when that’s something you should have left behind when you graduated from college.

BONUS: Learn how to type fast

This may seem hardly worth mentioning, but once you start doing these other things, you’ll find that you may not be able to type fast enough to keep up with your brain. If you’re still typing with two or three fingers, and cannot touch type, learn it.

(Note: If you’re still battling with the traditional QWERTY keyboard and are clocking in at 50 words per minute, consider switching to a Dvorak keyboard. I still use the QWERTY, because I can type 90 wpm; Randy Cassingham says that if you can type that fast, you won’t be any faster on the Dvorak. But if you’re running at half that speed, take a few weeks to learn the new keyboard, and you’ll find you’re blazing fast.)

Otherwise, what will happen is that you’ll find your fingers are moving slower than your brain, which means your brain will not only outrun your words, but you’ll find that you’re forgetting what you were going to say. You’ll have to stop and try to remember what it was, which is a big drag on productivity.

While there are plenty of writers who still prefer to write with a pen on a notebook or note pad, because they like to “be in the moment,” I have retrained my brain over the years to function better in front of a keyboard. This is where I do my best work. And it saves me plenty of time to be in the moment for other things later on.

Eight Writer Archetypes: Which One Are You?

What writer archetype are you? Not the kind of writer. Not the genre, fiction or nonfiction, poet or PR flak classification. But your tribe of fellow writers who think and do the same thing you do, even if it’s for a different company, publication, or industry.

Carl Jung originally used the term archetype to refer to a collective pattern of thought present in every individual — self, shadow, animus, anima, and persona. And we have seen other archetypes in different books, plays, and movies throughout the centuries — great mother, wise old man, trickster, hero, child, devil, and so on.

Writers can be collected into different archetypes as well. Different collective patterns of thought that help us define who we are. We may not know it, or put words to the ideas and motivations, but these collective patterns of thought are what drive us into the form of our work.

I started thinking about writer archetypes this week, and tried to come up with my own classifications. Based on my own extensive research (i.e. I did three different Google searches), I can’t find anything else like it. (Which is odd, because writers love to talk about this kind of thing.)

So here are the eight Writer Archetypes I’ve come up with. Which one are you?

    • Informer: These are the journalists and the news writers. They tell us the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the world. If you read it in a newspaper or watched it on the news, you’re hearing from an Informer. Sports writers and entertainment reporters are also Informers.
    • Analyst: What does the news mean? What can we infer from the latest political polls? What does the Arab Spring mean for the rest of the world? The political pundits, the economists, the financial gurus are all Analysts. The Informer gave you the latest Dow report, but it’s the Analyst who goes on CNBC and tells you why it’s good or bad. A news story will tell the latest job numbers, but the economist tells you whether that means the economy is up or down.
    • Educator: Writers who convey knowledge to help others learn. It’s more than just being an Informer, because the readers presumably already know how something works. Whether it’s a text book, a technical manual, or even just a series of blog posts that show you how to take advantage of Google AuthorRank, the writer who writes to intentionally teach is an Educator. A lot of bloggers and marketing book authors live in this space, choosing to build their personal brand and expertise by teaching instead of selling directly.
    • Chronicler: The Chronicler is the observer of the human condition. You find a lot of newspaper columnists here. They’re not quite news, but they don’t fit anywhere else. Matthew Tulley of the Indianapolis Star is one, as was Studs Terkel and his 45 year radio program. Historians are usually found among the Chronicler ranks, as are a few novelists and many creative nonfiction writers.
    • Advocate: The rabble rouser with a pen. They not only observe the human condition, but they speak for those who have no voice, in order to effect change. The Advocate brings awareness to a cause in order to get people to care about it and even take action. The Bilerico Project is an Advocate for the LGBT community. You can even learn to be an activist writer at Bowling Green State University.
    • Persuader: One step beyond the Advocate, the Persuader works to get people to take action on something, but not necessarily a social cause. Political speechwriters are Persuaders, people in ministry are Persuaders, as is anyone who wants their reader to change their mind about a belief, opinion, or value. Public relations people work here, but marketers do not. That’s because a marketer is actually a. . .
    • Merchant: The Merchant is a Persuader who gets people to spend money. You could call this a subset of Persuader, but this is the only writing archetype where the primary focus is to get people to spend money. The other writers may hope to get money for what they do, but it’s not their sole purpose. In addition to marketers, advertisers, grant writers, content marketers, and even sales copywriters are Merchants.
    • Entertainer: Fiction, poetry, stage plays, screenplays. Anything you would read, watch, or hear for entertainment or escapist reasons lives here. You read a novel, watch a play or a TV show, or listen to a radio play that was written by the Entertainer. Many Entertainers can easily put one foot in the other archetypes — the Chronicler novelist, the Educator radio theater playwright, the Advocate stage playwright.

 

As I thought about these archetypes, I envisioned them on a wheel. Each one is a modified version of the one that came before it. The Analyst builds on the work of the Informer, while the Educator teaches you to understand what the Analyst meant. The Chronicler educates people about life in another place, and the Advocate wants you to know how important it is. And so on.

Writer Archetypes

The 8 writer archetypes. Each one is a progression of the one that comes before it.

But, this is not a natural evolution of writing. You don’t start out as an Informer, and move around the clock as time goes by, moving from one state to the other. You can make the jump from archetype to archetype within a career, a year, or even switching gears and topics in a single day.

There are plenty of journalists who became novelists, or Educators who take the plunge into the marketing world, especially as marketing becomes more educational in nature. And, of course, there are plenty of people who stay in the same archetype their entire lives.

This is still a rough idea, and one I’m hoping to develop further. If you have any changes, ideas, or recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Stop Telling Students “Said is Dead;” They Shouldn’t Use Anything Else

One of the most fun, yet annoying things I’ve ever done for my oldest daughter is to undo the writing “rules” her teacher taught her in the 7th grade.

“Paragraphs have to be 3 – 4 sentences long. Don’t use contractions. Don’t start sentences with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘or.’ Don’t end your sentences with a preposition.”

When she was in the 7th grade, I had told her not to follow one of her writing rules “because,” I said, citing my full 20+ years of experience, “it’s stupid.” She did, and when the teacher corrected her, she said, “My dad told me not to do it, and he’s a professional writer.”

Nude woman with the words "write or be written off" written across her front shouldersBelieve it or not, that was the end of that little rule, although the teacher did explain that she wanted my daughter to at least know the basics, so she could understand what rules she was breaking.

“They shouldn’t be rules in the first place,” I started to tell my daughter, but my wife stopped me.

Now that my daughter is home schooled, and writing (especially blogging) has become a central part of my daughter’s education, I’m able to teach her the right way to write, and not the school way to write.

And yes, there’s a difference.

This is What Happens When You Focus Too Much on Math

I was more than a little annoyed and disheartened to read John Warner’s “Said Is NOT Dead” article on InsideHigherEd.com.

Recently, the most disturbing news I’ve heard in a long time came across my Facebook feed. It was supplied by Matt Bell, a writer and creative writing teacher of my acquaintance who had heard this very troubling thing from the students in one of his classes.

They told Professor Bell that when it comes to tagging dialog in their fiction, “said is dead.” He inquired where they learned this, and they answered, “school.”

This is what annoys me about our educational system. We have people who don’t write teaching people how to write. We make science teachers have a background in science, history teachers have a history degree. And yes, I know English teachers have an English degree, but they’re usually readers, not writers. Or they’re not very good writers, otherwise they wouldn’t be telling students to use “enthused,” “squealed,” “chortled,” and “shrieked,” instead of “said” and “asked.”

That’s not good writing. That shows you have a thesaurus, and it’s actually very distracting. The whole point of dialog is to relay a conversation, not show how clever the author is. I want to hear the people speaking, I don’t want to see how many different emotion words the author knows.

To paraphrase Warner’s friend, Jim Ruland, “A tag on a line of dialog is like a tag on a garment: you’re not supposed to notice it and it’s slightly embarrassing when you do.

By teaching “said is dead,” these teachers are violating two other important rules of writing:

  1. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t describe a verb, use a better verb.
  2. Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me she’s enthusiastic, describe it through her actions.

Good dialog should flow like a good TV show. When you have good actors doing good dialog, you don’t need a lot of visual fluff to go with it. When you’re writing dialog, you don’t need all that pap and fluff to tell the reader what to think. You show it with the rest of the narrative or the other character’s reaction.

Teachers Need to Learn to Write

Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. And the better you get, the harder it gets. But people who teach grossly incorrect ideas like “said is dead” are making it harder for people who actually want to write for a living.

Anyone who has to unlearn a bad habit is at a disadvantage compared to the people who learned good habits early on. Teachers who tell their students “said is dead” — or any of these other grammar and language myths — are doing their students a horrible disservice. And employers like me end up with an entire generation of students who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag without a quiver full of adjectives.

Teachers, if you want to help your students be good writers, start writing yourself. Write essays and short stories. Don’t just read them, produce them. Invite professional writers and college writing professors to your class to talk about what the writing life is like. Start reading blogs from professional writers and creating writing teachers to see what kinds of advice they’re giving and what ideas they’re teaching.

Give them sound writing advice that every professional writer is following in the real world, and not something from the Pollyanna School of Saccharine Pap.

(Update: As my friend and published novelist, Cathy Day, said in the comments below: If any K-12 teachers find their way to this post and feel inspired to focus on their own identities as writers, this is just what they need: The Indiana Writing Project (or if they don’t live in Indiana, many states off similar summer institutes).)

Three Unrelated Skills to Make You a Better Writer

Every writer gets the same advice when they’re starting out — write every day, read a lot, practice writing exercises — but that can only get you so far. There are other skills to develop.

It’s like a baseball player who only practices hitting and catching. Yes, those are important skills that he needs to practice over and over. But there are other skills he can practice that will also improve his playing ability: lifting weights, sprint workouts, and even off-season work like chopping wood and playing basketball, will improve his ability to swing a bat.

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

For writers, there are related skills they can develop, through other activities that exercise their writing muscles, but don’t actually have them writing the same same stuff over and over. These other activities can improve your communication skills, which will ultimately improve your writing.

Twitter

I always thought I was good at concise writing, until I fell in love with Twitter. After using it for a year, and learning how to fit a single thought into 140 characters, I realized I was doing that in my regular writing. When I went back and compared my work to the previous year, I could see how everything was tighter, and how I expressed ideas more fully with fewer, better words.

Twitter has especially helped my humor writing, because I’ve learned how to set up a joke and deliver the punchline in a single tweet. This has had a huge impact on my humor column writing, because I’ve been able to squeeze more jokes into the same number of column inches.

To learn how to tweet effectively:

  • Distill your thoughts into the most expressive nouns and verbs.
  • Cut the adverbs.
  • Use adjectives sparingly.
  • Avoid first person references. Instead of saying “I had lunch at @BoogieBurger,” say “Had lunch at @BoogieBurger” or even “Ate at @BoogieBurger.”

(This last one is more of a space saver, but it also teaches you how to write with greater punch.)

Want to make it a real challenge? Avoid abbreviations if possible, and never, ever use text speak. Then, make your thoughts fit into the required space. That’s the best training you can ever do for yourself.

Public Speaking

If you speak in public, you already know how to deliver information clearly and directly, making it easy for your audience to understand and be interested in it. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve already got a speaking style. (And if you don’t, find your local Toastmasters club, and learn to speak in public.)

As you develop that speaking style, try to tailor your writing style to match it. As you’re reading, imagine yourself delivering the material to your audience. If you speak with strong declarative statements, write them. If you’re funny in person, be funny on paper. If you’re calming to your audience, be calming to your reader. Basically, your spoken word choice and delivery should affect your written word choice and style. And as more people hear you speak, the more they’ll hear your voice when they read your work. Match the one to the other in tone, word choice, and even rhythm.

Storytelling

I don’t mean become the kind of storytellers you see at festivals or hear on The Moth, although that helps. Rather, focus on telling stories to friends over dinner. The story should have a beginning, middle, and end. It should create suspense, and have an interesting payoff at the end.

If you can easily tell those kinds of stories out loud, you’ll learn how to tell those stories on paper. Any story or blog post you write should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to have an interesting payoff. (Of course, with blogging and journalism, the payoff comes at the beginning, so you’ll need to learn how to deliver the punchline first, and turn the setup into its own a-ha! moment.)

As you’re writing your articles, write it as if you were going to deliver it in public, but as a five-minute story. If you can shift the storytelling architecture to your writing, that makes your work easier to follow. You learn how to keep people involved from a post or article from beginning to end.

These are the three skills I have worked on over the last several years, and they have made a big difference in what, how, and how well I write. And I’m always looking for the next new challenge or skill to master to make it even better.

How about you? What challenges are you taking on yourself to become a better writer?

How to Make a Living as a Writer

A lot of people dream of making a living as a writer, or at least making money from it, but it’s getting harder, thanks to the Internet.

Stupid Internet.

The irony is that the thing that’s made it easier for people to get published has also made it harder for people to get paid for doing it. And yet, it has also created new ways for people to get paid for writing.

But here’s the sad, scary irony — you will almost never make a decent, full-time, support-a-family living as a professional writer.

Paul Lorinczi, president of Professional Blog Service

Okay, we’re NOT really ghosts. I mean, you can actually see us.

Every other novelist I know, and I know a few good ones, makes their living doing something other than writing novels. Most of them make their living as teachers, and they write novels as their nights/weekends job. (Even William Faulkner was a postmaster. One of our country’s greatest novelists, and he sold stamps!) The few magazine writers I know only write articles as a sideline. And I have yet to meet a blogger who writes for himself or herself as their only source of income. (There may be a few in existence, but I haven’t met them yet.)

Here’s why:

  • Novelists get paid advances, and then receive royalties on book sales. Advances and royalty checks are getting smaller as publishers’ margins get smaller. So unless your last name is Grisham or Patterson, you’re not going to make a living this way, unless you work it at constantly. There are a few novelists who write 10 – 12 hours per day and produce a novel a month which they sell as ebooks, but they’re few and far between.
  • Magazine writers get paid a few hundred dollars. Let’s pick $500 as a nice round, almost-attainable number. If you wanted to make $60,000 per year, you would have to write 10 magazine articles per month. That’s doable, but you’re working constantly, more than you would at a corporate job. Also, you’ll take quite a while to reach that level, so be prepared for a few years of that constant work at little to no pay.
  • Nonfiction book writers (me included) make squat from our book sales. I own my own business. My friend, Kate, is a freelance book editor. Other authors support their book sales with public speaking gigs, or use it to promote their actual business.

The sad truth is that it’s very difficult to make a full-time salary solely from writing, unless you’re a journalist, and even those people are facing uncertain futures.

The Secret to Making Money as a Writer

There’s really only one way you’re going to make money by sitting down at a computer and churning out words by the bushel: write for someone else.

Seriously, that’s it. That’s all there is to it.

The people who make money writing are the people who don’t get to put their name on their work. They give up the credit and recognition in exchange for a paycheck.

Political speechwriters get paid to write speeches for people who will never give them public credit. They don’t get to put their name above, and the speaker will never say, “I’d like to publicly thank my speechwriter who crafted these words.”

Marketing copywriters write copy that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for their employer, but they never get to put their byline on a brochure. (They also rarely get any bonuses for their work, even if their work directly led to a 30% spike in sales.)

In my own company, we ghostwrite for other people, not ourselves. This blog post right here? I’m publishing it under my own name, but I won’t get a dime for it. I’m hoping it will attract the attention of a client who’s willing to hire us though. Instead, we write blog posts for clients under their name, help them win search, and convince clients they know what they’re talking about. But because we’re ghosts, we don’t tell anyone who our clients are.

For people who want to make money by, as Hemingway put it, sitting at a typewriter, opening a vein, and bleeding, be prepared to do it for other people. Farm out your talents as a hired gun and craftsman. An ink slinger and a wordsmith. The pro from Dover who does what no one else can.

Ultimately you have a choice: be well-known and struggle, or be hidden and satisfied.

My suggestion is to do both. Write for other people during the day, and write for yourself at night. Ultimately, you’ll get the best of both worlds.

There’s No Such Thing As a Gifted Writer

A recent email newsletter from Jeff Goins posed the question, “is writing a gift or a skill?” That is, are you a gifted writer, or did you work at it?

The better question is, “are the things we do well born within us (innate or a gift) or are they developed through hard work (learned or a skill).

It’s an age-old philosophical question: are we born with all the knowledge and abilities within us, and that knowledge is uncovered as we go through life? Or are we a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and we fill that slate up as we go through life?

If writing is a gift, I want mine to be wrapped in Thomas the Tank Engine paper.

I lean more toward the blank slate side. That we learn what we know through experience, rather than uncovering it. That it takes hundreds and thousands of hours to get good at anything. That we need to practice over and over and over to get something right.

For those people who are very good at what they do — writing, football, music — we work our asses off at it every day. It’s not a gift, it’s not innate. There’s no such thing as a gifted writer.

To call it a gift is to minimize that hard work. It says that only by some quirk of fate and randomly firing neurons did we become writers, athletes, and musicians. It means that we don’t have to work at it, we just have to discover that we’re good at it, and then run with that. It means you can pick up that skill any time you want, and with a little bit of work, you can be awesome a it.

The Myth of the Gifted Writer

While there certainly are people who have specific gifts, these gifts are usually physical in nature, and can’t be developed. For example, Peyton Manning is 6’5″, which contributes to his success as a quarterback, but that’s a gift. You can’t learn “tall.”

But beyond that, the person’s skills — strength, quickness, shooting ability, hand-eye coordination, game knowledge, even Manning’s laser rocket arm — are all developed and/or learned. You can train and learn everything else. You can work out and gain strength. There are drills that will develop quickness. Even fast-twitch muscles can be developed and enhanced (and built up). You may never be as strong as a lineman or as fast as a sprinter, but you can certainly do it better than most people you know just by working at it for a while.

Think of it this way:

  • Peyton Manning is a student of the game, and has been since he was a young boy. He watches countless hours of game film over and over so he can understand and learn what every opponent and coach does in certain situations. He will even watch the game film of a head coach’s former boss to see where the coach learned his game calling skills. The guy is a computer who dumps GBs of data into his brain like they were candy.That’s knowledge and experience learned over the years.
  • After Manning was forced to take 2011 off, he had to rehab not only his neck, but his arm. Sports journalists talked about how Manning’s arm had lost its zip, and they worried that he lost his ability. But his arm strength is back and the laser rocket arm is firing correctly again. That’s not a gift, or the strength would never have gone away. That’s exercise and redeveloping muscle memory.
  • Several years ago, the US Women’s Softball team had an unusual training exercise to improve their reaction time. Their coach had written different numbers on different tennis balls, one per ball. He then fired them out of a pitching machine while the women took batting practice. They had to call out the number they saw before they swung the bat. He was teaching/training them to see and react faster.
  • WNBA Indiana Fever player Katie Douglas grew up in Greenwood, Indiana, graduated from Purdue University, and is now a star in the WNBA. A few weeks ago she became only the 10th player to score 5,000 points in her career. But she got that way because she spent countless hours shooting baskets, over and over and over, from the time she was a little girl up until she scored that 5,000th point. And she still does it. She wasn’t a gifted athlete, she worked constantly.
  • One of the things that every good writer did when he or she was little was read, and read a lot. In fact, they still read constantly. And writing expert after writing expert will tell you that the best way to practice writing, other than actually writing, is reading other people’s work. That’s because we’re still learning and honing our craft
  • When you listen to stories of successful musicians and how they started out, especially the guitar players, they’ll tell you the same thing every time: “I used to play for hours at a time. I was obsessed. I would just sit there and try to learn that new song from the radio, and play it over and over until I got it right.” I met a guy this past Sunday, the lead guitarist for The Plateros. At age 20, he’s better than most guitarists. I asked him how long he had been playing. He said he started when he was 9, and would come home from school every day, start playing, and play until bedtime. At 4 hours a day, that’s 1,000 hours a year. In 10 years, he’s put in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to become an outlier.

My point is this: nobody is gifted. Nobody picks up a guitar and starts playing at age 27, and is immediately awesome. Tall, athletic kids don’t go out for the high school football team for the first time, and become the starting quarterback. Serena and Venus Williams were not goofing around with tennis rackets one day and decided to give this tennis thing a try.

Every one of them worked hard from way back when they were kids and pursued their dream of doing what they loved when they were adults. They developed the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue the game. There was no gift. There were just thousands of hours of hard work.

So it goes with writers. We were all readers as little kids. We all liked telling stories, and even wrote them down. And we did it obsessively, never realizing that we were building skills that would make us writers when we were adults.

Is writing a gift? No, unless you count the gift of those thousands of hours we all used to read and write when we could have been playing football, tennis, or a guitar.

If writing was so easy, then every athlete who wrote a book wouldn’t have a co-author.

Photo credit: Donovan Beeson (Flickr, Creative Commons)