A Guaranteed Secret to Becoming a Better Writer

There’s really only one way to become a better writer, and that’s to write every day.

Okay, that’s not really a secret, but if you’re not doing it right, you could write every day for years, and never get any better. Meanwhile, other newbie writers are leaving you in the dust, improving by leaps and bounds in a matter of months, because they know a shortcut.

And that’s the secret.

It starts with understanding how elite musicians, athletes, and artists all achieve great results in a relatively short amount of time

Start with Deep Practice

The toolkit of the writer: pen, notebook, and laptop computer

Every good writer tries to write every day, practicing their techniques deliberately.

In his book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyne breaks the pursuit of talent and skill into three “easy” steps: 1) Chunk it up. 2) Repeat it. 3) Learn to feel it.

Coyne is a believer in highly-targeted error-focused practice.

In the book, Coyne uses an example of a young clarinet player who’s learning a particular piece of music. She struggles on one passage, and works over and over to get it right.

A poor musician would just play the entire piece, start to finish, over and over, mistakes and all, until she’s put in her required practice time. But a good musician, like this girl, follows Coyne’s three steps.

She stops when she makes a mistake, backs up a few measures, and works on the part that gave her trouble. She runs through the fingering a few times, making sure her fingers understand what they’re supposed to do, then plays again. But she plays it slower, and does it a couple of times before moving on.

Once she makes it through the difficult part, she continues on until she reaches the next trouble spot in her song, and repeats the process.

The researcher Coyne interviewed for this example said that just 10 minutes of this deep practice was more effective than playing the song straight through, over and over, for an hour. In other words, our musician is getting better in one-sixth the time of a poor musician.

Athletes do this as well. They focus deliberately on different problems and facets of their technique. They don’t just mindlessly do the work or go through the motions.

A professional basketball player doesn’t just shoot free throws to say he practiced his free throws. He visualizes what he’s about to do, focuses on technique, and analyzes what he did right and wrong each time. It’s not just a matter of shooting the ball 100 times in a row, it’s a matter of purposely, intentionally, deliberately practicing proper techniques.

My youngest daughter, an aspiring illustrator says when professional illustrators are learning a new figure or character, will create character studies and draw the same face over and over. Or they’ll “rotate” the head, drawing it from every angle; it’s called a “turnaround.” They’ll repeat the studies and turnarounds until they feel comfortable enough to do it on their own.

How this Applies to Writers

While every writer is told to “write every day,” they usually think it means to schedule a special private writing time, say, one hour in the morning or over lunch, and just churn out words. They focus on quantity of words created, not technique. Once the hour is up, they’re done.

They’re missing all kinds of golden opportunities throughout the rest of the day, and if you capitalize on them, you’re not limited to that one hour a day to get better.

(And if we’re following the 10,000 hour rule, you’ll become a literary phenom much faster if you can practice five hours a day, not five hours a week.)

Writing is writing. Regardless of the reason you’re tapping out words on your keyboard, you’re writing. Every time you write something, you have an opportunity to practice.

When you write an email, that’s practice. When you post a lengthy response to your cousin’s stupid political rant on Facebook, that’s practice. When you write a report for a client, that’s practice.

Whatever you’re doing, pick a technique you’d like to improve, and work on it in everything you write.

Not just during Special Private Writing Time. Not just on your preferred genre and style. If you’re a fiction writer, but send a lot of emails during your day job, use that time to practice background narrative. If you’re an aspiring TV writer, use texts and chats as a way to practice dialogue. If you have to create a lot of reports for work, practice journalism-style writing by writing short, easy-to-read sentences.

And that’s the big secret: If you can harness deep practice, and use it consistently everywhere, you can greatly improve your writing. Just like our clarinet player, if you can do deep practice for 10 minutes, you’re racing past anyone who’s just doing poor practice for an hour.

And best of all, you’re writing every day. You’re following the writer’s maxim, and you’re doing it better than those who save it only for Special Private Writing Time.

Four Personal Branding Secrets from Joy of Painting’s Bob Ross

One of my pleasures — I wouldn’t even call it a “guilty” one — is recording The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross on my DVR, and then taking a nap while I watch. Bob’s voice is so smooth, so relaxing, I’m often asleep before he finishes showing all the colors across the screen.

If I could make three or four of them autoplay in a row, I’d slip into a coma.

Bob RossI’ve been watching the show for over 25 years (it started in 1983 and ran until 1994), because not only is he fun to watch, but because Bob teaches us important lessons, even if we never paint a single canvas. (Also, he filmed his shows at my alma mater, Ball State University, so I feel a sense of obligated pride.)

Lately, I’ve been watching and relistening, because a lot of what he says applies to personal branding and networking. Here are four lessons we can all learn from Bob Ross, he of the happy trees.

(Why four? Because if I had an odd number, one would be left out.)

1. Everyone Needs a Friend

Bob never paints just one of anything — one mountain, one cloud, one tree. He paints a happy little tree, and then he declares, “I think he needs a friend. We’ll put him right here.”

Everyone has a friend in Bob Ross’ world, and so it goes in our own. If you’re going to become an entrepreneur or grow your personal brand, you’ll need friends. We all need a network of support.

Whether it’s family and friends, community groups, colleagues at the coffee shop, or your online social networks, you need people to help you out. People who can shield you from the wind and give you someone to talk to when you think you’re out there all on your own.

Make connections with mentors, mastermind groups, networking groups, and professional associations. Find your tree friends and your support will be stronger just by having them around.

2. There Are No Mistakes, Just Happy Accidents

Bob never wanted people to worry about their quality of work when they were learning. The great thing about his method, he said, was that if you make a mistake, you just scrape it off and try again.

Even so, the mistake was still a learning experience. You learned from it, so you could do it better the next time.

As you grow your business or personal brand, you’ll make plenty of mistakes and bad decisions. You’ll start down the wrong path, spending hours or days on a project or problem, or in a business relationship, only to find you made the wrong choice.

So you go back and start all over. You scrape off what you did, and do it better the second time.

In the end, you fixed the problem, it looks good, and now you know more than you did before.

3. In Your World, You Do What You Want

Bob Ross - In Our WorldBob never worried that much about colors. Purple skies, green oceans, or on a recent show, everything — clouds, grass, even the water — was a different shade of brown.

One of the things I appreciate about owning my own business is that I get to do things the way I want. I hire who I want, I work when and where I want, and I take on the clients I want. The only thing I need to worry about are the results, not the process.

I’ve had employers, like my stint in the state government, where the process was more important than the results. As long as I was there from 7:30 to 4:00, it almost didn’t matter what I got done.

Sure, I had tasks that needed doing, but we weren’t beholden to shareholders, clients, or anyone who gave us money. As long as we all trudged on the same treadmill, the bosses were happy. That was a paint-by-numbers job if I’ve ever had one, and there was no room for experimentation or change.

Now that it’s my own world, the only people I need to keep happy are clients. And as long as I deliver what and when I promised, they’re happy. They don’t care if I work between 8 and 5, or if I’m working at 2 a.m. at home, or 2 p.m. in a coffee shop.

4. It’s That Easy

Every time I watch The Joy of Painting, I think I could actually paint like Bob. He describes different techniques, and occasionally murmurs, “It’s that easy. Just two hairs and some air. It’s that easy.”

When I see the outstanding work my friends are doing, I know I’ll never be a painter. But when Bob does it, I believe I can do it too.

Not only is his confidence in me contagious (he’s like Mr. Rogers for grown-ups), he shows that his method isn’t as hard as some of the more traditional methods.

He also explains that there are plenty of classes, resources, and even certified instructors who are there to help you out.

So it goes with entrepreneurship. While it can be difficult at times, it’s not like you’re recreating a multinational corporation from scratch in six months. Start small, start with what you know, and make sure you learn along the way. There are plenty of classes, resources, fellow entrepreneurs, and even certified instructors who are there to help you out.

Bob Ross may not be one of the best painters of our day, but I think there’s a reason his show is on 21 years after he died. His lessons and his techniques are applicable, not only to create your own art, but creating your own business and your own personal brand. Start watching him on your local PBS station or on YouTube, and see what gems you can pick up from Bob and his happy little trees.

Stories of Rejection to Soothe the Artist’s Soul

Yesterday, I wrote about how it’s a good idea that some people quit their art after receiving a couple of rejections.

If you really love your art, you won’t let a few haters keep you from it. That’s because it’s a passion, not a daydream. It’s not a whim. It’s not something you do during commercials. It’s what you do instead of everything else, every day.

If you’re easily persuaded to quit, just because someone somewhere didn’t like what you were doing, then quit. Quit now. Quit wasting your time in pursuing something you don’t really love, just because you thought it “sounded neat.” Save the rest us the hassle of climbing over you later.

railroad spike

One of these things could hold a ton of rejection letters.

For the most part, the editors, publishers, and judges are pretty smart. They’re not know-nothing mouth-breathers. They know what their publication or venue needs, and they know you’re not the one to fill the spot they have open.

But occasionally, there are those who, well, pass up a good thing, and will be remembered long after they die as the poor schlub who let [insert blockbuster artist here] slip through their fingers. These are some of the stories we writers tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better after receiving yet another rejection:

  • Stephen King used to hang rejection letters on a railroad spike, because there were so many of them. After he became famous, he found an old, rather nasty rejection letter. He pulled out the original story, which was not very good, and sent it back to the same magazine that had rejected him. They were so excited to get a story from the master of horror, that they made sure it got into the next issue, and emblazoned his name on the cover.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was once rejected with the line, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” The Great Gatsby went on to be published, with that Gatsby character intact, and is now ranked #2 in Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
  • My favorite book, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is #7 on Modern Library’s list. But it was rejected by several publishers, including one particularly facepalming line, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. . . Apparently the author intends it to be funny — possibly even satire — but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
  • Speaking of Stephen King, his book, Carrie, was rejected with the line, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” I always love to hear from editors and producers who “know” what the public wants, only to find out they have absolutely no clue.
  • e.e. cummings’ very first work, The Enormous Room, is considered a masterpiece of modern poetry, but it very nearly didn’t see the light of day. cummings had to self-publish the work, because it was rejected by 15 publishers beforehand. But he at least dedicated the book to the 15 publishers who thought that his work wasn’t good enough.
  • J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. And they only accepted it because the chairman’s 8-year-old daughter had been given the first chapter to read, and then demanded more. Bloomsbury auctioned the US rights to Scholastic for $105,000, and then Rowling went on to make more money than the Queen of England, over $1 billion. Meanwhile publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, and TransWorld had all turned the book down because it was 120,000 words long.

In doing my research on this post, I found something interesting, and the biggest, most important lesson out of all of this for us artists: James Joyce, like every other artist, had received many rejections over his career. Dubliners was rejected more than 20 times. But more importantly, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (#3 on the Modern Library list) was only published after he re-wrote it several times.

That’s the key.

Joyce reworked and reworked one of his most famous novels many times before it was finally accepted. While artists like to console themselves with stories about Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, and the idea that our original work is an undiscovered masterpiece, the more common outcome is that we have to take Joyce’s path and rework and redo our original work several times before it meets the acceptance of someone who’s willing to pay for our efforts. We like to think that the people who turn us down are idiots, but with a few exceptions, they know what they’re doing.

The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowling’s of the world are, quite literally, one in a few million. They’re the outliers.

For every Stephen King, there are tens and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts editors will encounter over their lifetime that are an absolute waste of paper. So if you were rejected by a publisher, call them all the names you want in your own home, but never write back and tell them how stupid they were.

Brush yourself off, rewrite your manuscript again, and find another publisher.

Do as Frank Sinatra said, and live the best revenge through massive success, so that one day, your name and your editor’s name will be put on a list like this.

Photo credit: wizetux (Flickr, Creative Commons)

If Rejection Makes You Quit, Good.

Back in 1994, when I was first starting my humor writing career, I had been included on a guy’s website that listed funny writers on the Internet. A few months later, when I was checking the site again, he had removed me from his list.

When I emailed him about it, he replied, “Because I don’t think you’re that funny.”

My first reaction was “well, f*** you!” But I didn’t say that. I said it a lot to the computer, and vented to another humor writer about it, but I didn’t tell him what a little twit he was. I swore I would “show that humorless little bastard who’s funny,” vowing to become the funniest newspaper humor columnist this side of Dave Barry.

Then I did something even better. I outlasted the guy. I worked and honed my writing and my humor year after year. The humorless guy killed his page after about 12 months, and was never heard from again.

But it did hurt my feelings. It made me feel like I wasn’t very good at what I loved to do. But the one thing I never did was quit. I never stopped writing humor. (Mostly because I was so full of myself, I believed the guy was an idiot, and that I was better than he thought. So quitting never actually occurred to me.)

But regardless, that’s the pivotal event that every artist faces: the successful ones keep going, the wanna-bes and poseurs quit and go through the motions.

Rejection Does Not Mean the End

I hate watching American Idol and X Factor because so many people see their rejection as the end of their career, sobbing that this was their one and only chance at stardom.

How asinine are these people? If they were true artists, trying out for a TV show would be just one rejection of many on the road to success. The true artist would shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well. I’ve got an audition at Cadillac Ranch I have to get to.” But these morons sob like it’s the end of the world and they give up on a dream that was nothing more than a flight of fancy.

That’s how you can tell the difference between a real artist and a poseur. The real artist does their art every day. The poseur waits for inspiration, which comes every few days, but only if they have time for it.

The poseur has plenty of time to stew over the sting of this new rejection; the real artist barely has time to think about their successes, let alone being passed over by the mouth-breathers who wouldn’t know real talent if it kicked them in the ass. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger

If you quit your art because someone didn’t like what you did, you weren’t that serious about it in the first place.

There are plenty of people who quit pursuing what they think is their dream after they receive a couple rejections, believing they’re at the top of their game after a few short months, or even a year or two. They get voted off the show, turned down, or otherwise rejected, and they’re done.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tells a story about how impaled every rejection letter he received on a nail. It eventually became so full, and the letters weighed so much, he had to replace it with a railroad spike. This is the guy who has published thousands of novels and a kajillion words. And he was rejected so much that he needed an industrial-sized rejection letter holder.

But he never quit. Never, ever. And now he makes millions of dollars scaring the bejeezus out of millions of people.

We Need Rejection to Weed Out the Poseurs

If you really love your art, you won’t let a few haters keep you from it. That’s because it’s a passion, not a daydream. It’s not a whim. It’s not something you do during commercials. It’s what you do instead of everything else, every day.

If you’re easily persuaded to quit, just because someone somewhere didn’t like what you were doing, then quit. Quit now. Quit wasting your time in pursuing something you don’t really love, just because you thought it “sounded neat.” Save the rest us the hassle of climbing over you later.

But if you’re serious about it, you can get discouraged, you can get sad, you can think the other person is a big stinky jerkface. We all have those moments. We all think the people who told us “no” are know-nothing mouth-breathers.

The difference between the serious artist and the poseurs is that we don’t quit when we get rejected. We impale the rejection letter on a spike and start on the next project.