Reading time: About 3 minutes
The year 2015 marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II across Europe, the 80th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth and, oh, the 500th edition of this column.
Welcome to the 500th issue of this column. I’m a big believer in marking important occasions — anything for a party! — so let me take a brief pause to pat myself on the back. To celebrate the day I going to focus on the lessons I’ve learned while producing what feels like a half-century worth of columns (although I produced them in nine years).
First, however, let me give you a spot of history. I started this newsletter way back in 2006 with only a handful of readers, most of them friends. Here’s a story you might find amusing. I worried intensely about the pressure of a weekly deadline. I addressed this concern by stockpiling 16 columns before I allowed myself to launch. Then, the first 16 weeks went by in a flash — without me doing any more writing — and the next thing I knew, I was entirely column-less. Since then I’ve managed to produce a new column each week, no problem, except for the short break I take at Christmas and the week I took off when I had a stroke.
I turned my weekly newsletter into a five-day-a-week blog in 2012 and even back-entered some (although not all) of my original columns. Now thousands of people from around the world read my blog every day. A special hat tip goes to Australia, where for reasons I don’t fully understand I have an extra large bevvy of readers.
Here are seven of the most important lessons I’ve learned while writing these 500 columns, which I estimate total more than 375,000 words:
1 Always mindmap
I learned about mindmapping back in 1982 when I wrote a magazine piece about Gabriele Rico, the California academic who suggested using mindmapping for writing. I’m a slow learner however, and it took me 20 more years to start using the technique for myself. (How I regret those lost years!) But what I lost in timing I made up for in passion. I now mindmap just about everything I write. Mindmapping is easy but to quote Steve Jobs, “simple can be harder than complex.” If you’ve never tried mindmapping or if you have and it hasn’t worked for you, see my video about it. I’m also a big fan of keeping mindmaps together in an artist’s notebook.
2 Don’t depend on willpower to make yourself write
Willpower is a finite resource, easily exhausted. We all run out of it every day. You can solve this problem by writing first thing in the morning when your supply of willpower is at its richest. But, better yet, don’t rely on the fickleness of willpower to get things done. Instead, develop a writing habit. Willpower is ephemeral. But habits persist. Put writing in the same category as brushing your teeth or making your bed.
3 Start your writing well before the deadline
Like many students, I spent my school years socializing and reading, leaving my essay writing until the very last moment – usually the night before it was due. If only I’d learned that writing is not nearly as scary when you approach it without a deadline screaming at you. Start early — really early if you can. I identify the topics for these columns about a month in advance and I write a new one every Thursday morning, giving myself lots of time for editing before it’s finally published on Tuesday. When I go away on holiday, I write them even further advance than that.
4 Don’t sit at your desk to think
For many years I had the bad habit of sitting at my desk — staring off vaguely into middle space — while thinking of what I wanted to write about. Are you aware that your desk is just about the world’s worst place to think? Instead of sitting, go for a walk! (Or a run or a cycle or a swim.) Getting the large muscles of your body to work helps allow your brain to operate in a more natural, less forced way.
5 Be satisfied with a crappy first draft
Do you insist on editing your work while you’re writing? I know. I used to do that. Until I understood how dysfunctional it was. Editing while writing is a bit like city driving. You’re forced to stop for pedestrians and stop signs and stop lights. It’s more time-consuming than freeway driving and uses way more gas. Editing while writing does the same thing. The switching back and forth costs us time and energy. Now, I’m satisfied with writing a crappy first draft very quickly, knowing that I can edit it into something much better, later.
6 Improve your writing by copying others
Clients often ask me how they can improve their writing. I used to tell them to read more because reading good writing, in fact, is an excellent way to learn new techniques. Then I discovered the best tip of all: Copy the writing you like. Yes, I mean this, word for word. Even though I’ve been a professional writer for 30 years, this is something I still do regularly and it helps me. It will help you, too.
7 Depend on the kindness of others
No one achieves anything worthwhile without the help of others. I consider myself very lucky to have more than a handful of people who have helped make my work more lucid and more accessible. It makes me nervous to name names for fear of whom I’m going to inadvertently omit (profuse apologies in advance). But let me salute my friend Eve, who reads every column before I publish it, my copy editor Naomi, my graphic artist Warren, my webmaster Matt and my colleague Barb O. And, of course, final thanks go to you, the thousands of loyal readers, all around the world, many of whom feel like friends.
Here’s to the next 500 columns…
What are the best writing lessons you’ve learned over the last nine years? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.