Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Confidence-Building: Avoiding writing mistakes that kill confidence

Many months ago, fabulously successful writer Alisa Bowman wrote on this blog that revisions still spike her insecurity. I believe her exact words were:
Lots of revisions generally cause me to blame myself. I think, "I really screwed that up. That editor hates me."
Amen, sister! I feel that, too. In fact, I think we all feel that. Of course, Alisa goes on to say that's not true, that it's an editor's job to, well, edit your work. But it's also true that making small mistakes over and over again for the same editor can be demoralizing--both for you and for your editor. There's a simple way to address this: First, slow down. Second, make a list.

Slow Down
This is not my first impulse with revisions. Often I feel such a stew of emotions when I get heavy revisions back--embarrassment, shame, anger at myself and sometimes my editor, defensiveness, anxiety--that I want to get the edits done with as quickly as possible. On the outside, this is a good thing. Being prompt with edits will make you your editor's darling. I worked for a year as an editor for a trade magazine in 2010 and 2011, and I can tell you that professionalism is sometimes hard to come by.Writers who take the editor's timeline into account--basically, writers who prioritize making their editors' jobs easier--make you want to work with them again. Period.

But it's often our haste to get edits off our desks--and to wipe away what we think of as the stain of our mistakes--that cause our simplest and most embarrassing mistakes.

So take a page from the editor's handbook: Slow down. If you have the time, walk away from it and come back to it an hour or a day or two later. Then, read through it three ways:

First, read through it on screen, looking for content mistakes.

  • Any weird word choices? 
  • Any transitions that don't work?
  • Any dropped source names or titles? 
Second, have your assignment letter and whatever style guide your client uses handy. Review the story for common errors. Big ones for me are:
  • Says or said: Every client differs on tense for this.
  • Starting paragraphs with the word "And."
  • Small style peccadillos you know your client has. I have some clients who hate short transitions sentences that end in a question mark. Others hate em dashes. Whatever your particular style (and I'll admit to using both those things more than I probably ought to), check to make sure it conforms with your client's preferences. That way, you can feel free to write in your style while also meeting your client's needs.
  • Special capitalization or terms of art specific to the client or industry.
Finally, print out the story and do what editors do right before final publication. Read only the most outstanding bits:
  • Titles;
  • Headlines;
  • Source names and titles; and 
  • Sidebars.
This way, you'll catch any glaring mistakes that might catch your editor's eye right away. I always use this as an opportunity to follow my gut as a writer. If I'm a little unsure of a statistic or a quote, this is my chance to check it one final time. At the very least, I'll feel confident in the work if I root out those niggling doubts early.

Make a List
Once the story is filed, don't move on just yet. Take whatever style guide the publication uses (or if it doesn't, create a Word doc or write on a sheet of paper to be displayed prominently) and write on it your common mistakes:
  • Do they always ask for additional sources? What type?
  • What are their style peccadillos? Record them so you'll remember next time.
  • What common mistakes do you make?
Get a Reality Check
Finally, take a moment to compare what you're worried about to reality. I, for instance, often feel like I'm failing if I can't get edits in by a certain date. Sometimes it's a date set by the editor. Sometimes it's an internal deadline. I have one of those right now. Tomorrow I have edits due back, and need to find a difficult-to-track-down "real person" source. I feel the pressure mounting to get it all in--and perfect--by tomorrow. 

But the reality is my editor told me he has some wiggle room and, knowing that he's asked something difficult of me, is willing to extend the deadline. So am I--are you--creating pressure and problems that aren't real?

This is another great opportunity to enlist your editor onto Team You and to ask for help--both of which boost confidence and serenity.

The Upshot
The bottom line is that we all want to feel good about our work, and our relationships with our editors. Taking a few minutes to do these edits is not only our obligation as professionals, it's a gift. It's a chance to acknowledge that mistakes and indeed growth as a writer is part of our journey. 

We don't get better without recognizing the places where we're weak. But we also don't get better by believing that weakness is all we are. To quote a very wise friend: We can cease believing that because we make mistakes we are a mistake. 

And then something amazing and lovely happens: We are more in our bodies. We are more present for our work. We discover we are capable of growing and, just maybe, capable of becoming the writers we always wanted to be.

How do you approach revisions?

Photo by dingler1109

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday Mantra: Start

Hello all. I'm back again, and thrilled to be. Perhaps another time, I'll give reasons for my absence. But for now, let's get centered for our week.

Monday's Mantra: Start, Don't Finish.

I know what you're thinking: What? Isn't this blog about getting things done? Well, not precisely. This blog is about staying serene despite what's happening in your business. While getting things done can contribute to serenity, an obsession with getting things done often has the opposite effect: It makes us rigid and harsh, focused on the thing we can't control (when we finish an article, an edit, when someone will call us back, etc.) rather than what we can (scheduling the next interview, spending 30 minutes on writing).

The fact is, the finishing will take care of itself. It's the starting (or continuing) that's hard. I know this personally. This week I have two rewrites, a long reported feature to write, a fellowship to apply for, pitches to send, and four stories to set up and do interviews for. It's enough to make me throw up my hands and decide my bed--and those books on my Kindle--really need my attention.

This was driven home to me recently by a coaching session with an energetic and prolific client. Like everyone else, she's had her go-around the ring with procrastination. We were talking about the problem and I noticed the way she was talking about it:

"I was supposed to write this story yesterday, but then I wasted two hours paying a bill."

"Then I was going to do it today, but this other thing came up and I let it get in the way."

"And tomorrow I have five interviews, and I'm just going to have to make time for it."

Wasted. Let it get in the way. Forcing it. Pressure. Stress. They create an urgency to finish something--anything--even if it's not the thing we're worried about in the back of our minds. So, not surprisingly, we focus on the things we can get done, not the things we need to do. The bills get paid. The email gets responded to. And the article (or edits, rewrites, interviews, drafts) go undone. Rinse. Repeat.

Now, time management is an issue for all of us, and we could always probably be more efficient. And let's be honest: Starting to write a story can feel like clawing yourself out of a pit. But it's this kind of pressure that stops us in our tracks. Because every day we put it off, every day we excoriate ourselves for delaying and delaying, we hunker into a stance of having to make it up to ourselves. We imagine our clients standing there and tapping their toes in impatience. We tell ourselves over and over again that we are letting ourselves down. We dread work. We get that sick feeling of just wanting it to be over with.

And finishing becomes more important than ever.

What we forget--and what my client and I discussed--is that amid all this chatter about get-it-done and make-it-up-to-me, we forget to get started. Because getting started is insufficient. But it's also the only thing that will bring us back to our center and give us the priceless sense of serenity.

So here's what I intend to do this week: Rather than focusing on the deadlines bearing down on me, I am going to remember just to start. Just make a list and do the first thing on it. When I begin to feel that keening impatience and that feeling of inadequacy attempts to pull me under, I will start again. I will just set the timer for 30 minutes and write. I will set the timer for 30 minutes and contact sources. I will set the timer and spend a few minutes working on the revisions. I will just do the next right thing.

As E.L. Doctorow says, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night: You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

So get started today. Pick up the phone. Open a Word document. Read a few paragraphs in a book. Believe it or not, persistence will get you all the way there, if you just keep starting again and again.

And, when you do finish, you may just find that you've arrived with your serenity in tact.