This Week On This Writing Life – 11/10/17

You can keep up with my Medium posts on my personal writing thoughts and experiences by following This Writing Life

Measuring Performance Comes Later: I truly believe how well a piece, whether it’s a 300-word blog post or a 40,000-word novel performs is any indicator of the quality of what’s produced or a signal of the value or health of the writer behind the keyboard.

 

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Dr. Formattinglove: …getting over my own stubborn adherence to the old way of doing things and embracing the same best practices I apply for other work is part of putting my best foot forward. It’s not enough to be a talented writer.

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Steadfastly Ignoring Advice: The problem I’ve always had with such advice is that it all seems to be geared toward creating a monoculture. Everyone’s output is basically the same because it all comes from the same foundation of ideas and practices.

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One Long Post or Several Little Posts?: Do what feels good for you and fits into your schedule and balance it with what goes over well with your audience and moves you closer to achieving the goals you have for your content.

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Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Starting Is The Hardest Part

I have four or five story ideas that are in various stages of being fleshed out and written. They range from the novel (?) I’m currently working on the third draft of to ideas that I’m still trying to develop the arcs for.

Most of these ideas have come to me around 10:00 pm as I’m lying in bed succeeding spectacularly at not sleeping. A stray thought will occur to me, maybe influenced by something I’ve heard or read recently, and I’ll find there’s a thread there for me to grab on to. I’ll start to fumble around with it, turn it around in my fingers and look at it somewhat obsessively.

There are ideas I’ve been mulling for months that I still haven’t committed in any way to paper, or its digital equivalent. I’m still sitting there reminding myself of the premise, asking who the characters are, what the story I want to tell is and how I want to structure that story.

While the details and the actual execution elude me for time being, I can kind of see the whole thing and have a clear idea of how it will turn out. It’s like looking at a mountain range from 20 miles away, able to see the entire length and height of the entire expanse but am too far to see the trees and paths that truly make it what it is.

I’ll get there eventually, but the starting is the hardest part. This isn’t something unique to me or any great insight I’m offering into the writing process. If you polled 10 writers you’d have 12 respond that yes, the first word, the first sentence, the first paragraph are often the most imposing. It’s our initial offering, the lead pitch to the audience that has to hook them. We need to avoid cliches, be engaging and encapsulate the story while still promising more.

Eventually (hopefully some time soon) I’ll get these ideas at least outlined. I might start writing the first chapter and see where it goes from there.

For now I’m still spending most nights in bed thinking of what that first line is, the one that feels organic and establishes the momentum for both for myself and the eventual reader to continue down the path and finish the story.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Multiple Outlets, Multiple Writing Voices

Over the course of my career, I’ve been able to write for a variety of blogs, websites and other projects. Those have generally fallen into one of four categories:

  1. Personal blogs
  2. Employers
  3. Industry news
  4. Client (agency or freelance) work

Each one has required me to establish and adhere to a different writing style.

Flexibility is an essential skill in any writer. While it’s great to idealize the idea of writing as one that allows you to unreservedly express yourself, the reality is that you’re going to have to adapt and conform your writing to the expectations if you’re going to make a living at it. At least if you’re going to make a living at it while working for other people. The dream is still alive if you’re working on becoming an author (which I am) and taking control of your own destiny. Until then, you get to play someone else’s game by their rules and in their own style.

For each one of the above categories, here’s how I’ve gone about making my writing work with the grain of what’s expected by myself, the audience, and the company and/or client I worked for.

Personal Blogs

It should be obvious this is the category that’s allowed the most freedom of self-expression. I can do basically whatever I want here or on Cinematic Slant and in whatever style I choose. There’s no one to answer to or hold my feet to the fire about tone or anything else.

That doesn’t mean it’s the wild west here, though. There are goals I want to achieve, including getting more freelance work or finding a full-time job. So the tone I strike here still has to be in service of those goals. This may be the field on which I have the most control and can experiment most freely, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work to make every post as good as it can be. If I’m failing in other regards, it may be that I’m failing here.

Still, if you’re looking for a clear and relatively accurate representation of the voices in my head, this is where you’ll find it. This is me sounding out my thoughts and working out the issues I have.

Employers

I’ve contributed to five employer blogs – Bacon’s Information, MWW Group, Spout.com, Voce and Porter Novelli/PNConnect – in the course of my career. While I’ve always enjoyed a generally favorable amount of latitude in terms of what I’m allowed to publish and what style I effect, there are still restrictions. Sometimes those have been stated outright, other times they’re more implicit. At the very least, they’re present in my mind as I write a post.

My primary consideration when writing for one of these blogs has been that I am, by publishing a post, putting forward my thoughts, opinions, and perspectives as being representative of the company employing me.

Sorry, but if you’re not humble and careful in light of that, you’re just not paying attention. Countless people over the years have been fired because of what they’ve posted to the blogs or social media profiles of the company they worked for. Indeed, I’ve had a couple close calls myself. It all means I need to be more thoughtful, more well-reasoned and more balanced than I might otherwise be. An opinion is certainly (at least usually) allowed, but you have to back it up and show your homework to make it viable. Otherwise, you can damage not just your own reputation but that of your employer, which puts the fate of others in jeopardy as well.

My employer-driven contributions haven’t been limited to public blog posts, of course. I’ve written a number of internal documents and white papers meant to use as sales lead material as well. Each one of those necessitates their own voice depending on who the intended audience is. These are often more dry and factual than compelling and engaging.

Industry News

Beginning with AdJab and running all the way through Adweek, I’ve written about one facet or another of the marketing industry via bylined posts/articles for professional blogs and publications.

The freedom to “express myself” has varied somewhat from one outlet to the next, but they’ve all had in common one factor: They’re meant to speak to other industry professionals. Yes, that’s the same basic audience as a corporate blog, but in a different way. These posts are just meant to be educational and informative, not carrying the additional goal of converting to new business.

There have been a few times where, in retrospect, I was essentially hijacking a freelance outlet like this as my personal blog, writing something cheeky or sarcastic on a topic that was on my mind. By and large, though, I try to fit in with the overall tone and goals of the site.

That’s sometimes tricky considering these sites have multiple authors, all writing in their own styles. There’s no “house style” as there might have been in the glory days of print magazines controlled by iron-willed editors. Everyone is free to do their own thing, but as with an employer blog, I never want to abuse the trust that’s been placed in me. That can get access cut off in a hurry.

Agency/Freelance Clients

A significant percentage of my writing over the last 10 years or more doesn’t carry my name and in fact may be presented as coming from someone else entirely. That’s alright, though, since part of the job when you’re a writer is doing a little ghostwriting here and there.

That means I don’t just have to keep other business-related goals and considerations in mind but I have to actively work to sound like someone else. In some cases that’s relatively easy because it’s someone I work and talk with regularly. In others it’s more difficult because I’ve never met the person and don’t know who will be attaching their name to my words.

So I have to work from an overall program style guide. I have to use the preferred terminology and positioning statements as well as adhere to a host of other guidelines and standards.

That’s largely not a problem not only because of my experience in doing so but my background in creating just those sorts of documents. I know the rigor that goes into their formation so can appreciate the *why* behind a particular decision and don’t just have to blindly accept it regardless of how much it does or doesn’t make sense.

Conclusion

Adapting my own writing style to the needs of any particular assignment isn’t what I’d call easy. Draft 2 is usually a lot closer to what the client is looking for then Draft 1, which is usually me hearing myself talk. But it’s a necessary reality for the working writer. Indeed I’d go a step farther and say the challenge of conforming to the stylistic choices I wasn’t part of creating has made me a better writer over the years. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s certainly true for me.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Why The First Thing I Write In the Morning Is So Important

I’ve never been much for exercise. I tend to get winded quickly and easily when running and enjoy a good walk much more. My few attempts at series “get in shape” exercise have been frustrating as I realize after a period of time that maybe I’m just destined to be the kind of doughy guy you’d see being harassed by a gang of hooligans in a 1950s B-movie. Let’s just lean into that. I know enough about exercise, though, to know that warming up is a good idea. Do some stretching before you run and all that.

While I may not be a great example of discipline when it comes to physical exercise, I do a lot of writing, which should be obvious. What I’ve found over the years, particularly since entering the freelance market full-time, is that warm-ups are no less essential in this field.

At any given time I have a handful of things I *need* to write. That might be a movie marketing recap for Cinematic Slant, it might be a project for a freelance client or something else. Those things need to be done and there are deadlines associated with them. So it might make sense that they’d be the first things I tackled when I started the day or otherwise got in front of the computer.

For a while I did just that. I’d pull up the project or post I needed to work on and stare at it. Whatever inspiration I needed just wasn’t there, though. I’d pick at it for a while but only really made any progress after a substantial period of writing, deleting, reconsidering, clicking over to YouTube to watch Talladega Nights clips and other distractions.

Eventually I found inspiration for a new approach to productivity from an unlikely source: Comic book artists.

When I was working with DC Comics on their content marketing program I started following a number of comics writers and artists on Twitter from my own account. These were people I was a fan of myself so wanted to see what they were up to beyond the immediate client-based need to find opportunities to RT them or at least see what they were working on. What I noticed eventually was that many of these artists would post pictures of “warm up drawings” they did before they started in on their actual work. These were usually sketches of other characters they weren’t working on, sometimes tied to something happening in the entertainment industry. So they might sketch a Xenomorph when a new Alien movie was coming out. Or the other day a few did portraits of the newly-announced 13th Doctor. Sometimes they add color to their drawings, sometimes they’re just rough pencil sketches.

I realized that this was their own version of stretching before exercise. They were loosening up their hand, they were clearing the cobwebs out of their head, they were focusing on a task that didn’t carry the pressure of deadlines but was just for fun. It was about getting the muscles they’d need to do their job ready for what was ahead.

That’s why I recently gave myself permission to goof around a little when I’m first settling into the writing environment. I’ll write something that is just for me. It may wind up getting published or it might just sit in Google Docs or Evernote in perpetuity and never see the light of day. If I can pound up 300 or 500 words or whatever the muse is allowing me at any given moment, then I’ve straightened out my own mind. I’ve gotten my fingers warmed up and established the neural connections I’ll need later in the day to approach the project that’s important with a fresher mind.

What I’ve found is that my creativity and skills are much clearer and sharper after doing this. I’m able to approach a problem from a fresh perspective and get to the crux of the issue quicker. I’m able to tackle that client blog post with a better approach because it’s not the first thing I’m forcing myself to do. I’ve warmed up the engine a bit and now we’re ready to go.

Warm ups, in short, aren’t just for physical exercise. I’m not sure there’s an equivalent for someone in accounting or other fields. But for myself as someone who relies on my ability to communicate creative ideas in fresh, interesting and compelling ways, that time spent stretching the muscles important to my job have become an essential part of my day.

Rules, guidelines etc

latinabbrevsCJR has a great post about some of the Latin abbreviations that we writers love to use when we either want to look smart or are tired of typing.

All of those expressions above—“i.e.,” “e.g.,” “et al.,” and “etc.”— are signals that you either are about to elaborate on something or expect the readers to understand that you are not being comprehensive. Each has a specific use, though people sometimes mix them up.

It’s a fantastic reminder since a lot of these can often get mixed up and misused.