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Grammar Is Sexy

I’ve been struggling lately. Even though I got two weeks ahead on blog content, I’ve been fighting to put words on the page. It’s not writer’s block per se. I can get the words out and form thoughts that make sense. It’s a kind of ”style block” if you will. I don’t feel like myself.

When I write for other sites such as College Info Geek or Listen Money Matters, I feel like myself. Which is odd, since those sites are run by other people and require me to contribute content on specific topics. Even though this site is ostensibly about grammar, writing, and editing, I can write on whatever topic I want, but somehow the constraint of writing for someone else’s site allows me to be more creative and show more of my personality.

Maybe I shouldn’t worry. Maybe this is just ”the dip.” This blog has been going for almost six months now, and it’s only natural that I find myself questioning it.

I’m sure that you’ve experienced the same with your writing, so I thought today I’d take you inside this struggle and offer some ideas for overcoming it. Hopefully I can help both of us in the process.

Impostor Syndrome

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Nothing says ”keep out” like a padlock.

”I feel like a hack. I feel like a fake. This blog, what I’m writing, it isn’t me. At least, that’s what I’m afraid of. Who am I to talk about editing and style and writing as if I know what I’m doing? I’m only twenty, after all. I’m hesitant to mention my age when I talk with other professionals or with potential clients. I know I should be proud of it, own it, but I hold back, for fear that I’ll just seem like a kid. Who would want to work with someone who’s still a student?”

– me during my dark night of the soul

The above is from a recent journal entry of mine. After reading this passage with a bit of perspective, I realize I’m experiencing a case of impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is the psychological term for the feeling that you don’t belong in a position or situation because you lack authority, experience, charm, whatever it may be. It’s common any time you’re entering a new field or even a more advanced stage of a field you already belong to.

It makes sense. I would never want to steer someone wrong. That would be the worst thing I could do.

But come on, I need to have a bit of perspective. I mean, it’s just grammar and writing and editing. It’s not like I’m going to ruin someone’s career or wreck their book by giving advice that, at worst, might be mediocre. If people think I’m full of shit, they’ll just ignore me.

Whenever I feel like an impostor, I think of what William Zinsser says in his excellent book On Writing Well:

”Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going” (23).

– William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Anyone who puts some idea, some advice, some personal experience out there is taking a risk. You have to have a healthy touch of ego to assume that anyone will benefit from what you have to say at all.

Always a Student

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The ideal cookie to coffee ratio.

As I look at my journal entry, I also notice my fear of being ”only” a student.

For one thing, that label of ”student” is arbitrary…and, I would argue, flawed. After all, should I be less of a student just because I’m not in school? I would never want to work with someone who has professed to stop learning. I’ll always be a student, and I should be proud of that.

I think of what legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier said:

”In all professions without a doubt, but certainly in cooking, one is a student all his life” (550).

– Auguste Escoffier, in Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef

And besides all of that, the best way to learn a profession is to do it. Again, it’s not like I’m a brain surgeon. If I mess up, the worst I might get is an upset client or a lost email subscriber. I want neither of those, but no one’s life is on the line.

How to Be Authentic

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My mouth is already watering, and I haven’t even seen the food.

Still, the question of how to be authentic remains. What does that even mean? Is it something you can strive for, or does it just happen?

William Zinsser cautions that you shouldn’t try too hard. He’s talking about style, but what he says applies to the general struggle for ”authenticity”:

”This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself” (19).

– William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Everything has been written about by someone. People don’t just want information. There’s way too much of that. They want wisdom and personality and (dare I say it) heart. They want to hear it from a real person.

I know my writing could stand to show more of my personality. How much have I talked about the music I like (I’m listening to Radiohead’s In Rainbows as I write this)? Or the books I read for fun (I’m trucking through Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear at the moment)? Or “impossible” goals of mine such as setting foot in all fifty U.S. states before I turn twenty-five?

Some of the best bloggers out there make their personal and family life an evident, if not essential, part of their business. Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income comes to mind. His about page features a picture of him with his wife and kids! Doesn’t get much more personal than that.

You should share what makes you unique as well. Make the best gluten-free brownies on Earth? Tell the world. Even if you don’t run a food blog, people connect with those details.

”Only connect!”

– E.M. Forster, Howards End

Have kids or pets? Put up the occasional picture. As Chase Reeves points out in one of his excellent videos for Fizzle, pictures of babies and pets are almost cheating, they work so well.

Just don’t worry about being so professional all the time. Be a human being!

What I’m Doing Next

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Obligatory photo of a path.

Hope you don’t mind listening to my self-therapy. I know today’s post might have been a bit more soul-searching than most, but that’s what I want. I want my writing from now on to have a fun, personal element.

How are you injecting your personality into your writing? Share what works in the comments.

If you want to receive more advice like this, read sneak previews of my posts before they go public, and get a free copy of my e-book Blogging Is Sexy: Ten Steps to Exceptional Online Writing, enter your email address below.


History doesn’t celebrate great thinkers. At least, not if their thoughts go unwritten. Everyone that we now regard as a great ”thinker” certainly was, but what we’re really celebrating is the translation of their thoughts into writing.

Often, the thinker and the writer were the same, though not always. Celebrated philosopher Socrates, for instance, wrote nothing himself, but he did quite a bit of teaching and debating, providing ample material for the Dialogues his student Plato would later compose.1

No matter how great the philosopher you may be, it’s not enough just to have great thoughts–you have to write them down and put them out into the world for them to matter.

Yet writing is not just a byproduct of thought, a mere transcription of thoughts into words. Writing is thinking.

Maria Popova put it best:

“Thinking in public, that’s what writing is…that’s what art is.”

– Maria Popova, in an interview with Tim Ferriss

More precisely, publishing your writing is thinking in public. The act of writing is more like thinking in private, except that with writing (as opposed to pure thinking), you can compose and shape your thoughts.

Thinking on the page is very different from thinking in your head. It’s agile and kinesthetic. When I get into the ”flow” of writing, it feels performative, as if I’m pressing piano keys instead of buttons. This flow of words proceeds from a flow of thoughts, thoughts pouring out of my brain, into my fingers, onto the page.

At best, it's like magic.

On the best days, writing is like magic.

David Allen might call what I’m describing a ”brain dump”: getting ideas out of your head and onto paper so that they don’t clutter up your mind and sap your energy.

Brain dumping doesn’t just apply to productivity; it applies to crafting a piece of writing as well, in that fresh ideas often come when you write, not only because you’ve made room for them, but also because you’ve invited them.

These fresh ideas branch off of what you’ve written and expand all which way.

And this is just in one session of writing. Imagine what you could do with multiple sessions of drafting and editing.

BS Alert (?)

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I know this all sounds rather mystical, but that’s because it is!

I mean, come on, to write at all is a miracle. It shouldn’t be possible.

Even more remote is the possibility that we can do it with competence or style or even genius.

Make no mistake: despite the prevalence of bad writing today, the standards are higher than they’ve ever been. How much did ancient people think about the craft of writing beyond scratching words onto a tablet or papyrus? Did they worry over verbs and usage and style and spelling and all that? I imagine that for them the very act of writing at all was so miraculous that no one bothered with any further concerns.

Nowadays, people at least expect you to be able to spell and use decent grammar. And if you’re going pro…needless to stay the standards are rather high (as they should be).

Still, every time you get frustrated with writing, remember this : to write at all is a miracle.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

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I find the mantra “writing is thinking” helpful for overcoming writer’s block.

Whenever I find myself staring off into space, I remind myself that writing is thinking. Not that pondering a word or a sentence is a bad idea–active thought applied to the problem can sometimes be helpful.

More often, however, it’s best to keep going and come back to the trouble spot later. Mark it if you like. I generally find that after taking a break from the trouble spot, the correct word or phrase is evident.

It’s hard for me to follow my own advice, though. Even in the course of writing this post, I caught myself pondering instead of typing.

Resist the urge.

Don’t ponder–type.

Type it out.

Slap it on the page.

No one cares.

No one’s watching.

That’s the beauty (and often the curse) of writing: it’s solitary and not overtly performative. Unless they’re trained as writers, people watching you can’t offer the kind of armchair critiques they might to a dancer or a football player, for example.

Even if they do, they won’t stick around long. Unlike dancing and football, most people don’t find writing particularly interesting to observe.

Football: I'm not a big fan, but most people find it more interesting than watching someone write.

Football: I’m not a big fan, but most people would find it more interesting than watching someone write.

Even people who say they enjoy reading about other writers’ processes don’t really mean it. What they enjoy is reading the writer write about his or her process. Translation is essential to the appeal. Actually watching someone write is pretty mind-numbing, unless they’re doing it in fancy script (which verges more into visual art anyway).

So go ahead. Write down the crap in your head. I mean, you have to get it out somehow. Better that it’s on the page than in your brain. Think of it as a detox if you like.

If you’re struggling, setting a time limit really helps with this. In drafting this post, for instance, I gave myself thirty minutes. It didn’t matter how much I ultimately produced (or how good it was)–all that mattered was putting in the time. With this approach, I wrote over 700 words. Most of them crap, of course, but the seeds of something decent were there.

If you want to be really hardcore about it, you could write in a program that doesn’t allow you to backspace. I remember that when I learned to touch type in school, we had both masks over the keyboards and also a program that made backspacing or deleting characters impossible.

This was a pain in the ass at the time, but it worked. You learned to type at a steady space without overusing the backspace key. Nowadays I don’t always write that way, but I still try to keep my use of the backspace key minimal, at least in the drafting stage.

Do yourself a favor and aim to do the same.

Be Deliberate

“Today everybody in the world is writing to everybody else, making instant contact across every border and across every time zone. Bloggers are saturating the globe….But as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well” (xii).

– William Zinsser, On Writing Well

If writing is thinking, then rewriting is thinking deliberately. Since 2006, when Zinsser wrote the above words, the connection among people and saturation of written communication have only increased. There are more blogs and more ways of connecting. Clear thought (and by extension clear writing) is more important than ever.

If you want to stand out from the noise of blogs out there, you must write with clarity and purpose.

But before you can do that, you must dare to write at all.

Go ahead. I dare you.

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Notes

  1. Information on Socrates and Plato from the following links: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/athenians.html and http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/

If you want to receive more advice like this, read sneak previews of my posts before they go public, and get a free copy of my e-book Blogging Is Sexy: Ten Steps to Exceptional Online Writing, enter your email address below.


Recently, I had a breakthrough in my writing process. The breakthrough didn’t come from some new writing software, book, or technique. It was far simpler than that.

What if I told you there was a way to cut the time spent writing a post in half? Well, there is.

What is this magical technique?

Taking notes.

Yep, it’s that simple. I had always heard that taking notes on what you read (especially nonfiction) was useful for later retention of information. While that made sense, it was only a little bit compelling. I figured that I would remember anything, well, worth remembering.

That changed with the last nonfiction book I read. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a dense, long read. Every page is packed with so much information that in order to process it all I decided to take notes on each chapter.

Specifically, I underlined important passages and occasionally make marginal comments as I was reading the chapter. After I was finished, I would go back through the chapter and create a bulleted summary of the information in Evernote.

TF&S-Notes-Screenshot-for-Blog-Post

A small selection of my 7,844 words of notes on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

By the end of the book, I had almost 8,000 words of notes.

The notes really came in handy when I began writing a post for College Info Geek a couple days later. I pitched Thomas, my editor, a post summarizing what the book had taught me about cognitive biases and fallacies.

In the past, my process for such book-based, research-oriented posts had been to flip back through the book as I wrote, copying out previously underlined quotes that seemed useful. While it was better than if I hadn’t annotated the book at all, it was still pretty time-consuming; I would sometimes spend thirty minutes pouring over the book for a quote.

With my detailed notes, though, it was simply a matter of using Evernote’s search function to find key terms such as ”bias” and ”fallacy.” I had already copied most of the quotations I needed, so I just had to paste them into a new document, add relevant examples to each, write the intro and conclusion, add images and formatting, and then be done.

It still took time, but it was a lot less than my previous efforts.

Writers Read

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Beyond the value of taking notes, this experience got me thinking about how some of my best writing (in my opinion) has begun with things I’ve read. Indeed, much greater writers and thinkers than I have built whole blogs around the concept:

“Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.”

– Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

The above quote doesn’t just apply to books–it can apply to your blog just as easily. Brain Pickings and Farnam street are quite literally ”about other books,” and no one’s accusing them of being unoriginal.

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, while not limited to books, is primarily based on Maria’s voracious reading of authors varied as Carl SaganAlan Watts, and Susan Sontag. And when I say ”voracious,” I mean it. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Maria says that she reads fifteen books a week on average. With a site averaging 5 million visitors a month, she’s clearly doing something right, and I suspect it starts with her habit of reading.

Reading is similarly central to Shane Parrish’s blog Farnam Street, though his focus is more on business and decision making, whereas Maria’s is more on literature and art. He reads an impressive three to five books a week, which, while well above average, seems more reachable than Maria’s enormous intake. He’s so casual about his process, too:

Early in the evening, say around 8 or 9, I’ll grab a glass of wine and sink into something serious. Something I want to read without interruption. Some nights I’ll read well past midnight, other nights I’ll stop reading around 10 or 11.

I’ll then do a little bit of blogging and plop myself into bed and read till I fall asleep.

And then there’s James Clear. Many of his habit-focused articles are inspired by books, and he also leans heavily on relevant scientific studies. You can bet that he’s doing his share of reading.

Caveat: Now, I’m not saying that what you read is the best or only valid starting point for writing. Personal experience is just as important. Including personal stories makes your writing more, well, personal and thus more relatable.

Nonetheless, you could do worse than follow the example of the above bloggers and base at least some of your writing on your reading.

In Practice

Samuel Johnson in 1775, via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Johnson in 1775, via Wikimedia Commons

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

– Samuel Johnson, in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson

How exactly do you create quality blog posts based on what you’ve read?

A starting framework would be something like this: quote, comment, and repeat.

Quote

Self-explanatory. Whether it’s a blockquote like the Johnson one above or an in-text quotation, you accurately transcribe the source quote and provide attribution, ideally of the quote’s original source. If you’re unsure of a quote’s original source, Quote Investigator is handy (thanks to Zen Pencils for recommending this website).

Comment

When I say ”comment,” I don’t mean ”offer a redundant summary of the quoted material.” The best writers:

  • Engage with the quoted text, critiquing it and adding their own reflections. For instance, here’s Vladimir Nabokov engaging with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
  • Distil dense material into a form their audience can understand (Josh Kaufman does this masterfully with the topic of business in The Personal MBA)
  • Connect the book in question to other books they’ve read (Shane Parrish and Maria Popova do this all the time)

Repeat

See above steps.

Start Reading

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What are you waiting for? Put the method into practice. Find a book relevant to your blog’s topic, read it, take notes, and create something awesome!

What books have inspired content for your site? Share them in the comments below.

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For Further Reading:

Images: “Boeken Kringloop Woerden 03” by Onderwijsgek via Wikimedia Commons.

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Originally, this was supposed to be a post about how to get ahead on blog content, using my own process as an example. I had a detailed system outlined, breaking down the work I do each day.

But then I realized that publishing this post would make me a total hypocrite! For despite writing out this detailed system, I failed to apply it to my own work–I failed to apply it to this very post!

So instead, I’ve decided to document what I did wrong and what I’m doing differently in the future, in the hopes that you can learn from my mistakes.

The Dream

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Recently, I read an article by freelance web designer and writer Paul Jarvis describing his 7-day cycle for generating content that gets read and shared by 30,000+ people/week.

It all seemed so obvious after reading this: I needed a system.

And so I set out to create one, and what I came up with is what I had originally planned to share with you:

Monday: Rough outline of post idea and a bit of initial writing/drafting.
Tuesday: Focused period of writing (1-2 hours)
Wednesday: Finish writing of previous post and draft idea for next one, same as Monday
Thursday: Copy edit and add media to post for following Monday. Schedule Monday’s post. Focused writing on following Monday’s post
Friday: Finish writing of following Monday’s post
Saturday: Off.
Sunday: Add media and edit following Monday’s post schedule.

Theoretically, this system would allow me to get a couple weeks ahead on blog content, providing some cushion for the inevitable week where there weren’t enough hours in the day to write a blog post (or if I decided to do something crazy such as take a vacation).

Theoretically.

The Reality

”The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gan aft agley…”

– Robert Burns, ”To a Mouse”

My grand plan quickly fell apart. I’d accounted for everything that went into a blog post, sure, and had provided fairly accurate time estimates for at least Tuesday’s writing. What I hadn’t accounted for, however, was everything else I had to do.

I had committed a classic error of goal-setting: failing to schedule tasks for specific times. This is (primarily) why things fell apart.

And I had no excuse. My schedule for the summer is fairly regular, and I’ve no shortage of hours in the day.

In addition, I had been much too optimistic about my ability to be productive on the weekends. I failed to plan for how much of my Saturday would be taken by going for a three-hour (not including driving time) bike ride and how much of my Sunday would concern pet-sitting for one of my professors.

And never mind that I prefer to relax on the weekends (which doesn’t seem that unreasonable).

I needed a better system, and I think I’ve found it.

The Revised Plan

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After consulting my calendar and honestly examining how long it takes to write a typical Grammar Is Sexy blog post (including editing, adding images, and sharing via social media), I’ve come up with this new system, which even allows for leisure time on the weekends:

Monday

  • 11-11:15 AM: Brainstorm blog post ideas
  •  12-12:30 PM: Share current week’s post via Buffer
  •  8:00-9:00 PM: Pick idea from brainstormed list and create bulleted outline of it

Tuesday

  • 5-7 PM: Focused writing of blog post to create rough draft

Wednesday

  •  12-12:30 PM: Share current week’s post via Buffer
  • 8-9 PM: Edit and add media to next Monday’s post
  • 9-10 PM: Create bulleted outline of following Monday’s post

Thursday

  • 5-5:30 PM: Final read through of next Monday’s post. Then schedule it.
  • 5:30-7:00 PM: Focused writing of following Monday’s post to create rough draft

Friday

  • 12-12:30 PM: Share current week’s post via Buffer
  • 8-9 PM: Edit and add media to following Monday’s post
  • 9:30-10PM: Final read through of following Monday’s post. Then schedule it.

Saturday

  • Off

Sunday

  • Off

The items in blue only apply to weeks (such as the coming one) when I need to get ahead on blog posts. On a normal week, my process will only include the non-highlighted tasks, leaving Wednesday-Friday available for client work or writing for other blogs.

In addition to keeping a more specific schedule, I’m also going to use a time tracking app called Toggl to keep track of how much time I actually spend creating each blog post. I’ll primarily measure the amount of time I spend in the Grammar Is Sexy WordPress editor, but I’ll also manually account for any time in other programs such as Evernote, Photoshop, and any stock photo sites.

Going Forward

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I’m not certain how this process will turn out. I’m open to changing it as I test it, but at least it gives me something more usable than my original plan.

Most of all, I hope you now understand some of the common pitfalls of planning and how to avoid them as you schedule your own writing. If you have any personal stories of how you’ve scheduled your own writing, I’d love to hear them–please share in the comments.

And if you want to receive more advice like this, read sneak previews of my posts before they go public, and get a copy of my free e-book Blogging Is Sexy: Ten Steps to Exceptional Online Writing, enter your email address below.


As I’ve done more online writing, I’ve struggled with taking my writing from short (less than 500 words) to long(er) form (1000+ words). The longest post I’ve written to date is for College Info Geek–it clocks in at over 4000 words. Don’t worry–today’s post won’t be quite that long.

Being able to write long-form is an important skill to have, since most sites you write for have a minimum word count, and longer is generally better (though not always–refer to your site’s specific guidelines to be sure).

The preference for long-form writing makes sense. People want detailed, in-depth content. Skimmable blurbs have their place, but most sites are after content that delivers real value for their readers.

How do you do this, exactly? It’s not as hard as you might think. It just requires a little planning. [click to continue…]