Is This What You Really Meant to Say?

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In our last post, we told you to embrace the ugliness of the first draft. Whether this exercise was fun or grueling, we hope it propelled you further down your writing path. But don’t assume that the next step is to simply edit your way from a first draft to a final draft. No. Now it’s time to find your voice. Your tone. Your message. It’s time to answer the question, Is this what you really meant to say?

If today you emailed your first draft to 10 different writers to finish, do you think you would receive back 10 very similar works? Absolutely not. In fact, they might be almost unrecognizable from the original. Why? Because those writers will have applied their voice to the text, crafting it into something unique and exclusive to them.

So that’s the next step. But maybe you’re asking what is my voice? What makes it unique?  That’s where we turn for advice to national bestselling author Jeff Goins, and his article Ten Steps to Finding Your Voice. Goins writes,

Spending some time deliberating over voice is worth your attention and focus. Whether you blog for fun, write novels, craft poems, pencil melodies, or inspire people with your prose, it’s essential that you find your unique writing style.

If you struggle with getting people to read your writing or with staying consistent in your craft, you need to stop chasing numbers and productivity and reboot. It’s time to start finding and developing that voice of yours.

An Exercise for Finding Your Voice

Not sure where to start? No problem. Most of us need help understanding our voice. Here’s a short exercise that can help you — just follow these 10 steps:

  1. Describe yourself in three adjectives. Example: snarky, fun, and [ambitious] 
  2. Ask (and answer) the question: “Is this how I talk?”
  3. Imagine your ideal reader. Describe him in detail. Then, write to him, and only him. Example: My ideal reader is smart. He has a sense of humor, a short attention span, and is pretty savvy when it comes to technology and pop culture. He’s sarcastic and fun, but doesn’t like to waste time. And he loves pizza.
  4. Jot down at least five books, articles, or blogs you like to read. Spend some time examining them. How are they alike? How are they different? What about how they’re written intrigues you? Often what we admire is what we aspire to be. Example: Copyblogger, Chris Brogan, Seth Godin, Ernest Hemingway, and C.S. Lewis. I like these writers, because their writing is intelligent, pithy, and poignant.
  5. List your favorite artistic and cultural influences. Are you using these as references in your writing, or avoiding them, because you don’t think people would understand them. Example: I use some of my favorite bands’ music in my writing to teach deeper lessons.
  6. Ask other people: “What’s my voice? What do I sound like?” Take notes of the answers you get.
  7. Free-write. Just go nuts. Write in a way that’s most comfortable to you, without editing. Then go back and read it, asking yourself, “Do I publish stuff that sounds like this?”
  8. Read something you’ve recently written, and honestly ask yourself, “Is this something I would read?” If not, you must change your voice.
  9. Ask yourself: “Do I enjoy what I’m writing as I’m writing it?” If it feels like work, you may not be writing like yourself. (Caveat: Not every writer loves the act of writing, but it’s at least worth asking.)
  10. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. How do you feel before publishing? Afraid? Nervous? Worried? Good. You’re on the right track. If you’re completely calm, then you probably aren’t being vulnerable. Try writing something dangerous, something a little more you. Fear can be good. It motivates you to make your writing matter.

So we encourage you to take that ugly first draft and decide how to craft it into what you really meant to say. Your future readers are waiting!

How to Write Like Max Lucado

04.01.16 max lucado copyIf you haven’t heard of Max Lucado, you’ve been in your writing closet for too long! Lucado is one of the most prolific Christian authors whose almost 100 books have 80 million copies in print. He practically lives on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Now that I have your attention, let’s dive into what makes Mr. Lucado so successful and how you can imitate his process.

First, watch this quick video interview with Max Lucado by Michael Hyatt, former publishing CEO.

M A X   L U C A D O   O N  :: editing 

In a recent quote Mr. Lucado describes the benefit, and agony, of the editing process:

Ernest Hemingway espoused rewriting: “I rise at first light . . . and I start by rereading and editing everything I have written to the point I left off. That way I go through a book I’m writing several hundred times . . .  Describing A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway said, “I had rewritten the ending thirty-nine times in manuscript and . . . worked it over thirty times in proof, trying to get it right.”

I find it helps to read the work out loud. First to myself, then to anyone who is kind enough to listen. I vary the locations of the reading. What sounds good in the study must sound good on the porch. What sounds good to me must sound good to my editors. Sure, editing hurts. So does a trip to the dentist. But someone needs to find the cavities.

Let editors do their job. Release your grip on the manuscript. A little red ink won’t hurt you. A lot of red ink might save you. My most recent manuscript was returned to me sunburned in red. It bled like raw steak. Of its fourteen chapters, thirteen needed an overhaul. I was depressed for a week. Yet the book is better because of the editors.

And isn’t that our aim? The best book possible? We need good books. We need your best book. The single . . . the lonely pastor . . . the stressed missionary— we need you to give them your best words. We need you to write.

And now I believe we can all see why Max Lucado’s skill is worthy of our esteem. If he can write that well about writing, imagine the beauty of the rest of his work!

M A X   L U C A D O   O N  :: clarity

Can you summarize your entire book in one sentence? If not, Max Lucado suggests that you need more clarity. He says,

Distill the message into a phrase, and protect it. Stand guard. Defy interlopers. No paragraph gets to play unless it contributes to the message of the book.

M A X   L U C A D O   O N  :: the work of writing

In his writing space Mr. Lucado has posted the quote,

You wanna write? Put your butt in that chair and sit there a long, long time.

This reveals his view of writing… that it is hard work. Mr. Lucado suggests that if an author tells him that writing is easy or natural, his or her work is likely lacking in quality. So be encouraged that the struggle you feel each time you put pen to paper is actually a credit to the caliber of your work product.

Whether you are a New York Times Best Selling author or simply working on your first manuscript, consider employing Max Lucado’s time-honored tools of self-editing, striving for clarity, and hard work.

First Things First :: Writing the Rough Draft

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After months, maybe years of hearing “You should write a book!” you’ve finally sat down at your computer to release your wisdom and wit for the masses. And it hits you. Panic. Never has a blank page looked so large or so… blank. Sure you have an outline and key points, but how do you turn that into the life-changing, bestselling manuscript you thought for sure you were capable of?

Never fear, dear writers. We have all been there. There are few harder components of writing than the beginning, so we are here to help!

3 Ways to Get Started on Your Rough Draft

1. Embrace the ugliness

It’s going to be ugly. Accept it. No one will be impressed. Embrace it. If you can begin with this mindset about your rough draft, you’re on the road to success!

Dan J. Fiore, winner of the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition states,

Know what one of the most frustrating things about first drafts are? They’re always terrible…

Instead of letting this discourage you, flip it around and use it to your advantage. Remind yourself over and over again as you’re writing that you give yourself permission to write terribly. Tell that little voice in your head that keeps saying to you, This is awful, that it’s okay. Name an author, any author. Go ahead. Guess what? His or her first drafts [are terrible too.] Keep reminding yourself of that.

By embracing the ugliness of the rough draft, you can simply pour out your ideas onto the page without concern for their readability. Are you missing the perfect anecdote? Skip over it. Are you still waiting for just the right voice for your character? You can fix that later. Are you realizing that a certain portion needs further research? Set aside some time to do that soon.

Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes, suggests,

Ban self-slandering remarks. Don’t beat yourself up by saying things like I’m a crappy writer or this is awful. [The first draft] is the content equivalent of staying home alone in your jammies all day and eating peanut butter straight from the jar. Revel in it. There’s no one around to judge.

2. Be willing to take a step back

Often it isn’t the writing that is so hard about the rough draft, but instead the thinking. If you’ve been stuck on that first page for a while, perhaps you need to spend more time thinking about the message.

Have you really honed in on the key points? Do you have a great deal of clarity on what you want the reader to walk away with? If you are muddled here, you will really struggle to get those first words on paper.

Doug Kessler, a successful content writer, is quoted as saying,

If I’m really struggling, it’s usually not about the writing – it’s about the thinking: I just don’t really have the story down yet. So more research or groping with the outline can unstick me.

3. The best outline is one you don’t always obey

We believe in outlines. We do! But we also know that often the best parts of a story emerge as we are writing it. So begin with an outline, perhaps using one of these methods:

  • The traditional format we all learned in school
  • A simple list of ideas
  • Key point headers with sub-points underneath
  • Mind mapping
  • Or one of these methods

However, once you begin writing, don’t let the outline boss you around too much. Or, as Dan Fiore thinks of it, the outline shouldn’t be a GPS barking at you when you deviate off course. He states,

If a character wants to go in a direction you hadn’t anticipated, by all means go check it out. See where that scary road leads. It might lead to a better story. It might lead to fixing a problem you had earlier (or will run into later) in the story. Or it could be a dead end. But guess what, dead ends are okay. Dead ends make you a better writer. Just go back the way you came and find a new route.

By embracing the ugliness, giving more thought to your main point and utilizing an outline, the daunting task of writing your rough draft can easily be accomplished!

Once you have that ugly rough draft finished, the fun begins! Be on the lookout for our next post, Is this really what you meant to say?  where we discuss voice, tone and how to craft your words into your message.

How to Ignore Your Inner Editor…for now

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It can happen at any time and while working on any piece. Your writing session is going smoothly when suddenly a thought hits you out of nowhere: “That’s the worst phrase/sentence/chapter ever!” This voice in your head leaves you feeling self-conscious and paralyzed…

Don’t be discouraged! This internal message doesn’t have to plunge you head first into writer’s block. Recognize the voice and its message for what it truly is—your inner editor repeating old insecurities and expectations that need to be drowned out.

All writers have heard this foreboding voice and cringed at its pointed words (or at least felt the effects of its criticism). You might stop mid-type and stare at a blank screen. Maybe you begin pacing aimlessly around the room. No matter how helpless you feel, though, only you can break through the block to quiet your inner editor.

But how?

Start by typing “fix” every time your inner editor starts to speak. Brush past your critical thoughts by vowing to revisit the passage at another time. Why is “fix” so helpful? It reminds you that this is only the first draft and no words are permanent. It is a marker of which sections to return to. It helps you acknowledge that you’re aware of the possible imperfection of your passage, giving yourself permission to move on without accepting it as a final draft.

Somehow, writing “fix” after whatever words are bothering your inner editor allows your words to flow again with renewed creativity. Once you’ve moved on to the next part of your writing, you’ll often discover new words and phrases popping into your head that are perfect for “fixing” your prior issue.

So next time you hear the condemnation in your inner editor’s voice, reply with a simple “fix” and move along. Trust yourself to move forward in your piece and return to the problem areas when it’s time!

10 Essentials for Your Author Website: Part 2

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Are you struggling with how to build or update your author website? Whether you feel like your website is ineffective, outdated, or simply nonexistent, this article is for you.

Your author website must be a connecting point with your fans, a source of valuable information, a portal for communication, and always dynamic.

Simply put: more website visits translate into more books sold. 

So why wouldn’t you develop an effective, professional hub for your online presence and interactions?

Check out the final 5 essential elements of an author website. Did you miss the first 5 in Part 1? Find it here.

  1. Connect your social media

It’s important to make it as easy as possible for visitors to find and follow you on social media.

  • Add links to your relevant social media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Goodreads, etc.) profiles on your Home page, About page, and Contact page.
  • Simply ask people to follow or like you.
  • Add a sharing plugin to each page on your site.
  • Next, be sure to consistently share content on your social media accounts that’s valuable and interesting. This will keep people engaged.

 “Optimizing social media requires you to focus on creating content that is unique, engaging and shareable.”

  1. Create a page for your books

Include a high quality image of your book cover, a concise synopsis, and purchase details with links. Make the Book Page obvious and easy to find for your readers.

  • If possible, have a media kit created for each book. (Don’t know what this is? Keep reading!)
  • Another option, in addition to creating a Book Page on your website, is to create a separate book website or landing page.
  1. Have an Author Blog

Websites with blogs get a significantly higher percentage of traffic than websites without blogs. A blog creates fresh, valuable pages of content perfect for SEO (Search Engine Optimization). If you want to be seen by more people, bring potential buyers to your site, and prove your credibility as an authority on your topic, a blog is a necessity!

  • Intrigue your readers (both new and old) with exclusive content such as unpublished passages, the inside scoop, behind the scenes photos, sample chapters, etc.
  • Take advantage of this platform to network with your peers, recommend other authors, and review books similar/related to your own.
  • Use the comment section of each blog post to engage with your readers.
  • A blog is the perfect way to keep readers naturally coming back for more.
  1. Don’t forget an Upcoming Events page

Include a section on your site to inform your visitors of your latest news and any upcoming events.

  • Post your most recent interviews, reviews, radio appearances, blog mentions, etc.
  • Share the dates of your upcoming book readings, signings, speaking engagements, conferences, workshops, interviews, etc. with details so your fans can keep up with you.
  1. Create a Media Kit

The purpose of a media kit is to provide your information to the press or anyone wishing to profile or interview you. Having a thorough, professional looking media kit sets you a part. Be sure to make it an easy to find page on your site. The contents of a media kit can vary, but the following are a few of the basics:

  • Author bio and photo
  • Contact information
  • Information about the book, including a review and excerpt
  • Press release
  • Testimonials
  • Product Information
  • Potential Interview Questions

Which of these 10 essentials do you already have implemented on your website? How can you improve upon your current site? Or are you ready to start from scratch? Don’t let all of this information overwhelm you—take one step at a time.

If you put in the time and hard work, you’ll certainly see the benefits!

 

10 Essentials for Your Author Website: Part 1

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Feel like your author website is outdated or ineffective, but don’t know how to begin revamping it? Overwhelmed by the thought of creating one from scratch? Check out these 10 must-have elements for your author website.

Websites are no longer static, digital business cards—their purpose is to do more than just relay information.

Your author website must be a connecting point with your fans, a source of valuable information, a portal for communication, and always dynamic.

When readers visit an author’s website, they’re able to show their support and get to know their favorite writers better—and strong relationships between writers and readers means incredibly devoted fans, which leads to stronger word of mouth marketing.

Simply put: more website visits translate into more books sold.

So why wouldn’t you develop an effective, professional hub for your online presence and interactions?

  1. Make a good first impression

It may be tempting to whip something together and quickly share it with your fans, but it’s important to remember that your website truly represents who you are and what you can offer others. Develop an author brand consistent with how you wish to portray yourself. With this in mind, consider the following questions:

  • Will people know what I write within seconds of arriving at my site?
  • Does the voice and mood of my site resonate with my ideal reader?
  • Will visitors understand the page they are on and what it’s about?
  • Will they know what to do next? Does the site flow well?
  • Does my site appear professional and credible?
  • Is there a clear call to action, such as “buy my book” or “subscribe to my email list”?
  • Is there honest reasoning as to why someone would respond to the call to action?
  1. Include an About Page and Author Bio

Your readers want to know more about you, and this is the perfect place to tell them. About pages are some of the most frequented pages, so you don’t want to leave this element out. While the surface purpose is to share more about yourself, the deeper purpose is to quench the reader’s unspoken “what’s in it for me” question. Keep this in mind and consider the following tips:

  • Have a professional headshot taken. Whether you prefer a clean, studio portrait or a more relaxed photo in a natural setting (e.g. in a park or at your desk), it’s important to have a well lit, high quality photo. A grainy cell phone snap often gives off the wrong impression.
  • Introduce yourself.
    • Start with a persuasive opener, informing your reader what they can expect to find on this page, as well as your site as a whole.
    • Tell your personal story—focus on what led you to start writing, what has inspired your books, and why you love it. Let your personality shine while still keeping it professional. Browse some of your favorite authors’ websites to get inspiration.
    • Be sure to mention your writing credentials and associations
    • Then, gain some credibility by providing testimonials and reader quotes.
  • By now, your reader has invested in you and your site enough to provide them with a call to action. Provide a link to your books, invite them to join your email list, etc.
  1. Have a Contact Page

If you want people to engage with you, don’t make it difficult to find your contact information. Make it as easy as possible for people to get a hold of you.

  • Include a “contact” tab in the main menu of your website. On this page, include your preferred methods of communication.
  • If you have a contact form, keep it simple and to the point—don’t ask your readers too many questions about themselves.
  • If you list your email address, use the following format to avoid spammers: “yourname[at]gmail.com” or “yourname@yourwebsite[dot]com.”
  • List your social media profiles
  1. Build an Email List

Even if you don’t have grand plans for a newsletter or an impending book launch, it’s never too early to start collecting email addresses. These early sign-ups will most likely be some of your biggest fans, supporting your work by word of mouth recommendations, forwarding your emails, and sharing your posts on social media. Why is an email list so important, and how can you make one? Check out this article for more information on how to get started!

  • Don’t worry! You don’t have to send out a newsletter each week. You can be upfront about the frequency of your newsletter. Don’t feel pressured to send one out too often.
  • Don’t try to sell something every time you contact your subscribers. It’s important to add value (link) to your audience, not just use them to promote to.
  • Make your opt-in box or sign-up form very easy to find on your page, but not obnoxiously large.
  • Consider including a “sign-up incentive” such as a promo code for your books, a sneak peek at your next story, or a free chapter download.
  1. Gain Credibility Through Testimonials and Reviews

Your website visitors will instantly find you more credible if you include positive reader quotes, social proof, and testimonial reviews to your website. Without being sales-y, even your most critical visitors can be won over through the words of a third party. So gather real, succinct reviews from readers, and include them on your site.

  • Email your list of address for feedback, reviews, and thoughts from those who have purchased and read your books or who follow your blog.
  • Whenever you receive a great comment, tweet, or email from a reader, get permission to use their words as a testimonial on your site.

Keep an eye out for the next 5 essentials in the upcoming Part 2!

The Writer’s Guide to Building an Email List

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Written by Kimberley Grabas

 

Ahh, the ‘List’.

As a writer, building your email subscriber list may not (yet) have become paramount in your quest for an engaged audience.

Setting up and tweaking your blog, learning the intricate language of Twitter and ensuring your brand is hallmarked for longevity has, thus far, consumed every moment of your free time, right?

But if you spend any time online, and particularly within the marketing community, you will hear this important proverb ad nauseam:

The money is in the list.

The reason?

Building an email subscriber list is one of the best ways to ensure the long term success of your business.

How Does This Apply to You?

Building an email list is arguably the most important element to building a following and getting your message heard. It is the most direct and cost effective way to communicate and engage with your fans and subscribers on a personal level. The bigger your list, the bigger your online marketing asset—and the more interested publishers are.

A large Twitter following, significant traffic to your site, or an active Facebook community is great, but an email list is better. Here’s why:

You own your list. If Facebook deletes your fan page or Twitter kicks you off, you are effectively kicked out of the conversation. You don’t own the content, and what’s worse, if you don’t have an email list, there is no way to contact your followers to let them know what happened.

Blogs, websites and RSS readers can disappear. Once you have an email list, you can always stay connected with your audience and keep them informed of what you are doing.

Here are a few more benefits to building and maintaining your email list:

  • The conversation via email is personal, direct and private. It provides an excellent medium for staying in touch with your readers.
  • It’s cheap, cost effective and everyone online has an email address.
  • You will always have a way to communicate with your audience. Pat Flynn of the Smart Passive Income Blog and  Jeff Goins at GoinsWriter both had issues with their sites recently. They were able to communicate to their readers via email and mitigate what might have been significant and expensive consequences.
  • Use your email list to broadcast every time you have a new blog post and send a surge of traffic to your site.
  • Inform your readers and fans of a book launch, new product or freelance service and provide a link to your sales page.

Here’s a tip: Subscribe to successful authors, marketing gurus, popular self-publishing blogs and so on to get a free marketing lesson in each email you receive.

Look at the subject line for their email. Did it catch your attention or intrigue you? Did you open the email? Why?

Analyze the copy used in the body of the email. What was the tone they used? Was it conversational or salesy? Was there a ‘call to action’? (Were you asked to do something, like click on a link? Did you?) How did they get you to take that action?

So, If the Money is in The List, Should I Use My List to Sell?

Use your email list like you use social media–as a way to connect further with your readers and fans. Interact and inform your readers; don’t constantly promote and sell.

Use your own experiences as an email recipient to define what is great content. Spammy, hard selling is out. Remember, as with everything involved in building your writer platform, you are trying to build trust in you and your brand. It only takes one click to unsubscribe, so make it worthwhile for your reader to stay.

If your subscribers trust that your newsletters or updates provide awesome and unique content (and are not just filled with shameless self promotion), your open rate will increase and your subscribers will be happy to spread the word about you–and what you have to offer.

Provide a call to action or link that directs your reader back to your site where you are promoting your book launch, speaking engagements, new post or other events and services. Keep it conversational, engaging and have a single purpose or action.

Think quality, not necessarily quantity, and consider managing your readers expectations by letting them know when and how often to expect emails from you. By attracting relevant pre-engaged visitors (for example, through guest posting, social media and great on-site content) and providing the most useful information you can, you should see a steady rise to your email subscriber list.

Getting Started

One of the biggest oversights many writers make in their book marketing efforts is not starting an email list right from the start. In fact many successful online entrepreneurs have stated that waiting before developing their email lists was a big mistake they made early in their careers–and a costly one.

Don’t wait for perfect. It’s tempting to put off list building until your site is tweaked to perfection, you have a killer “ethical bribe” (more on this below), or you finally have a book to market. It also might seem easier to just work on your social media strategy and leave list building for a later project.

The problem is, that building your email list is just too important to ignore.

Online marketing strategist, Derek Halpern of Social Triggers urges those of us marketing online to stop promoting our social media profiles at the expense of our email list. He notes that “email marketing crushes social media marketing”, and he uses some statistics from his own extensive platform to prove his point.

With this in mind, move building your subscriber list to the forefront of your book marketing efforts and ensure it has a prominent position when developing your author blog or website.

Building your email subscriber list is a key component in creating and maintaining a ‘captive’ audience. By doing so, you will grow an accessible, thriving fan base that will be the cornerstone of your successful writing career.

Why You Should Always Carry a Notebook

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written by Srinivas Rao (lightly edited by Certa Publishing)

There isn’t one prolific creator of any kind that I know that hasn’t abided by the policy of carrying a notebook. I have stacks of Moleskine notebooks on my bookshelves. All the projects, books, and ideas that I’ve turned into reality started in the pages of my notebooks.

If you let it, a notebook can become a platform for your imagination.
It can give you the opportunity to rewrite the story of your life.
It can enable you to create more than you consume

AJ Leon wrote the following:

I use a tiny Moleskine as my idea notebook. I jot down every business idea, prospect idea, project idea, potential blog post, poem, art or social project, whatever. Every single thing I’ve done in the last four years can be traced to one of my notebooks.

In his piece on advice for recent graduates, Austin Kleon said the following:

Carry your journal around with you and write in it all the time: make notes in between job interviews, doodle while you’re watching Netflix, daydream about what you want out of life, etc. Any old notebook and pen will do…

Ideas Emerge at Odd Times

Like falling in love, moments that announce themselves as your subject are rare, and there’s a magic to them. Ignore them at your own peril. —Dani Shapiro

If you haven’t noticed, ideas don’t always show up according to our schedule. The muse is fickle and makes appearances at her own convenience.

Ideas emerge when we’re at dinner and someone says something.

Ideas emerge when we’re at the gym, surfing the perfect wave or flying down a mountain on a snowboard.

Ideas emerge when you’re sitting in LA traffic wondering why anybody in their right mind would voluntarily drive in this city.

If you’re going to consistently come up with ideas to write about or do something with, you have to be able to capture them regardless of when they show up.

Ideas don’t show up fully formed

Ideas are like babies. They don’t show up in our lives fully formed. They need time to bake, grow, and evolve. They have to be nurtured and cared for. When we don’t put them down in our notebooks, it’s like letting our kids play in traffic in the middle of a busy intersection.

Notebooks are fertile soil for creative seeds

Creative success requires us to plant seeds and play the infinite game. A notebook is fertile soil in which you can plant those seeds. While you could plant the same seeds on your computer, just think of all the other seeds that have been planted there. The likelihood of the seed bearing fruit in a digital wasteland is lessened.

In a recent article Benjamin P. Hardy said the following:

Your thoughts are the blueprint of the life you are building one day at a time. When you learn to channel your thinking — both consciously and subconsciously — you create the conditions that make the achievement of your goals inevitable.

Garry Reynold tells the following story about visiting a designer at Apple:

Most professional designers- even young new media designers who’ve grown up on computers- usually do much of their planning and brainstorming on paper.

This became very clear to me one day at Apple when I visited a senior director for one of the creative teams on the other side of the Apple campus to get his input on the project we were working on. He said he had sketched out a lot of ideas the wanted to show me. I assumed that he had prepared some slides or a movie or at least printed out some color images in illustrator or Photoshop to show me. But when I arrived at his office, I found that the beautiful Apple Cinema Display on his desk was off. (I learned later at this talented creative director worked forays without ever turning on his Mac)

I always write by hand before I ever turn on my computer. It allows you to limit the inflow, and there’s tremendous power to pen and paper in an increasingly digital world.

What Should You Put in the Notebook?

 Sometimes people get tripped up because they have no idea what they’ll put in their notebooks. Other times they don’t want to ruin something as beautiful as a Moleskine with their chicken scratch. But as Amber Rae once said to me, “Fall in love with your chicken scratch. Accumulate pages not judgments.”

Any of the following can be put into your notebook:
Quotes
Ideas
Thoughts
Sketches

The surprisingly simple act of carrying a notebook can change your life and allow you to become the author of your narrative.

A Day Without Distraction: Lessons Learned from 12 Hours of Forced Focus

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An article by .

What if you had to focus for at least 30 minutes on every single task that you did? Would it improve your productivity?

Here are the rules: All work must be done in blocks of at least 30 minutes. If I start editing a paper, for example, I have to spend at least 30 minutes editing. If I need to complete a small task, like handing in a form, I have to spend at least 30 minutes doing small tasks. Crucially, checking email and looking up information online count as small tasks. If I need to check my inbox or grab a quick stat from the web, I have to spend at least 30 minutes dedicated to similarly small diversions.

I followed these rules for one full work day. This post describes why I did it and what I learned.

Continuous Partial Attention

The motivation for my experiment should sound familiar. Over the past half-decade, researchers have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of multitasking. Gloria Mark, for example, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, found that the technology workers she studied would make it, on average, only 11 minutes into a project before being distracted. It then took 25 minutes to return to the task post-distraction.

For some jobs, where responsiveness is crucial, this work style might be necessary. But as an academic, I’m a to-do list creative — to keep my job, I have to keep up with logistical tasks, but to advance, I need long bouts of focus on hard problems. For a to-do list creative, ignoring the small stuff isn’t an option, but living in a state of continuous partial attention (to steal a phrase from Linda Stone) won’t cut it either.

The solution to this quandary is well-known by now: batching.

Check email only a small number of times per day! Work in big chunks without distraction!Everyone has heard this suggestion. But almost no one follows it.

This is why I launched my experiment. I wanted to see what would happen if I forced myself to batch.

Ignoring the small stuff isn’t an option, but living in a state of continuous partial attention won’t cut it either.

I have a doctors appointment scheduled for 10 a.m., so I decide to focus on a writing project from 8 to 10.

I feel the normal temptation to check my email while writing — just in case — but my rules forbid it. Even a glance at my inbox would trigger at least 30 minutes of similar small tasks.

When I arrive at my appointment at 10, I discover I had the wrong time. The appointment is not until 11.

My rules force me to think in blocks of 30 minutes or more, so I decide to spend from 10 to 10:30 continuing work on my writing project at a nearby library. Then, from 10:30 to 11:00, I do my first small tasks block of the day. I have high hopes during this first small task block that I will efficiently knock off many items from my logistical backlog. Instead, I end up bogged down in my email inbox, trying to sort through who needs what and when.

After my appointment, I head home, go for a run, and make myself lunch.

It’s now 1:30 and I’m in a tight spot. My goal for the afternoon is to continue work on an important research problem. To do so, I need to retrieve the latest draft of our write-up from my email. But this will require a small task block of at least 30 minutes, so I have to be careful about how and when I do this.

Even more tricky, I need to meet with my collaborator to help work through some kinks in the research problem. On a normal day, I might send him an email saying, “when can you meet?”, and then just keep my inbox open until he responds. My rules, however, forbid this strategy (that is, unless I want to dedicate my entire afternoon to checking my inbox and similar small tasks).

I come up with the following solution:

I convert my commute from my apartment back to campus into a small task block. That is, I will retrieve the write-up draft and check my email right before I leave my apartment. I will think through my emails and how to respond while traveling. Then when I arrive at my office, I’ll send off those replies and shut down the small task block.

I feel the normal temptation to check my email while writing – just in case – but my rules forbid it.

To handle my meeting dilemma, I send my collaborator an email that reads: “During the following times this afternoon I’ll be working on this  project, if you happen to be free anytime in here, stop by my office,  otherwise tell me some times when we might meet tomorrow and I will get back to you at the end of the day to fix one.”  I’ve now freed myself from needing to keep my inbox open during the afternoon.

From 2 to 5:30 I’m working on my research problem. The rules remove any possibility of distraction — no matter how brief — and this seems to improve my focus. “There’s a real sense of momentum here,” I write in my notes.

At 5:30, I decide to do one final small task block to shut down my day. I treat this like a challenge: how much can I squeeze into one 30-minute block? The time constraint provides a certain urgency to my actions usually lacking at 5:30 in the evening. I end up finishing my work emails for the day, answering some blog reader emails, paying the rent, approving a design concept, sending a message to a pair of old friends, planning the next day, and recording the notes from this experiment.

In the end, the momentum carries me past 6:00 and I end up finishing closer to 6:30. This is later than I normally like to work, but the day ends with a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

Conclusions

I’ll start with the negative aspects of this experiment:

Batching, as it turns out, is hard.

It requires that you plan ahead to make sure you have the material and information needed for focused blocks. It also requires careful communication. Answering emails, for example, is complicated when you need those emails to include all of the information needed for the next actions to be taken. (It’s much easier to use email for informal back and forth dialogue.)  Because of this, tackling my inbox during the experiment was surprisingly draining.

In other words, batching requires more work than not batching. This is why, I now understand, most people are quick to abandon their good-natured attempts to enforce more focus in their day: once it becomes non-obvious how to continue, they toss the goal.

But then there are the positives:

Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing. I still felt drawn toward diversion, but knowing that acquiescence was not even a possibility reduced its urgency.

On the flip side, the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.

Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing.

At the same time, the careful pre-planning required to satisfy my batching rules increased the efficiency of my small task completion. Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.

My bottom line:

To do batching right requires the type of strict rules I deployed in my experiment. These rules, as I discovered, will absolutely make your day more difficult. There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.

This is a pain.

At the same time, however, if you survive the annoyance, there’s also no avoiding the reality that your work will be of a much higher quality.

Ultimately, this is the batching trade-off: inconvenience in your daily workflow in exchange for an increased quality of your work.

From my experience writing about productivity, most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult. My experience with batching, however, leads me to question whether we need to rethink where we place our emphasis.

What’s Your Take?

Have you experimented with forced focus? How did it go?

It Takes Value: How to add value to your writing & gain readers’ trust

it-takes-value

Every writer believes that what they’re saying is important and interesting—not only to themselves, but others, too. We think our unique creativity alone should be enough to build an audience. But the reality is…our audience decides what’s worth paying attention to, not us. This doesn’t mean you should stop writing for your own enjoyment or alter your style and message to suit the masses. It does mean you should pay attention to the desires and needs of your target audience.

Are you writing, blogging, and posting to social media and constantly receiving little response?

Remember: it takes value.

It’s imperative to ensure that your writing is adding value to the lives of your readers.

Wit, skill, intelligence, humor—all of these are great tools that help develop your voice, but tools are not enough to create a committed fan base. Writer Jeff Goins says, “In a world full of noise, the way you get people to care about you is to care about them first.” Showing an interest gains the attention, and eventually trust, of your readers.

Many writers think of their work as art rather than communication with their readers. But even art has an audience, and as a professional writer, you should have a target audience in mind! How can you relate to them? How can you provide pieces of writing that consistently adds value to their lives? How, in turn can they add value to your life?

“This is what it means to add value: listen first, speak second.”
— Jeff Goins

Start by brainstorming. What struggles have you battled? What victories have you seen in your life? What problems do you have that others might also have? How have you solved or are you working on solving those problems? Do you have personal stories to tell? Share what you know, what you’ve learned, and how you’re still growing. Soon you’ll discover your exact niche and connect with the readers that matter.

A few practical ideas to get you started:

  1. Create an email list. There’s no better way to capture the sustained attention of your dedicated readers and more easily begin conversations.
  1. Build relationships. Find likeminded/related blogs and begin guest posting to build your audience your own reliability.
  1. Acknowledge other conversations. Listen to what people are already saying on a particular topic and get informed.
  1. Engage with people. Leave meaningful comments on the conversations and blogs that you find. Be helpful, not salesy.
  1. Contribute. Having now researched your niche and observed the conversations happening on certain topics, you’ve probably noticed areas needing improvement. Here’s where you come in.

Start with these steps and repeat with consistency, and your readers are sure to notice and buy in. Don’t believe that just because you build it, they will come. People’s attention must be earned, and the way to do that is by caring first. 

“If you have a message the world needs to hear—a book you want to write, a song you want to sing, or simply an idea worth spreading—the way you get others to care about it is to not just come out and share it.”
— Jeff Goins