Big Ideas. Short Books.

Want the business rewards of becoming a published author? START HERE

Founded by Debbie Weil, author of The Corporate Blogging Book

Lessons on writing that sucks: from Pam Slim and Betsy Rapoport’s workshop in the red rocks of Sedona

Sedona_walk_020813I attended my first writing workshop recently. The red rocks of Sedona were a magnificent setting. The attendees were thoughtful and smart. And the workshop leaders were a perfect blend of inspiring and practical. It added up to a magical weekend whose effects linger still. Oh, and there was a lot of swearing which, somehow, was very helpful.

The participants were a group of about 15 women of all ages – and one brave man, who is in the military, a lawyer, a triathlete and hugely creative. Although few of them were professional writers, all wrote with clarity and passion. We read aloud after each freewriting session and I was struck over and over by the power of their words.

And then there were our teachers: Pamela Slim of Escape From Cubicle Nation fame, the wisest, warmest and most practical person I know. She is a speaker and business coach for entrepreneurs and is working on a new book, Body of Work.

See my recent interview with Pam.

And Betsy Rapoport, a veteran book editor who was previously executive editor at Random House and has edited or worked with numerous New York Times bestselling authors including Martha Beck and Pulitzer Prize winner Lucinda Franks. She is also a published author herself. She is funny and irreverent. In fact, she is deliciously profane.

In truth, I didn’t know what to expect. Although I’ve been a professional writer for decades, first as a journalist and then as author  of The Corporate Blogging Book, I had never been to a writing retreat. And even though I am a book coach to business writers, I believe in what yogis call  beginner’s mind.

Takeaways from the workshop

I came away with big ideas, practical tips, positive energy, clarity and so much more. In the spirit of generosity that we cultivated at the workshop, I’d like to share some takeaways with you. I hope you find them useful. It’s useful for me to write them down.

First, I returned with a feeling of calm and purpose about my writing. I have been working on a new book and haven’t made much progress, nor do I like what I’ve written so far.

The biggest takeaway? Suckiness is good. As Betsy put it, “Have I convinced you that it’s good to be bad?”

Anne Lamott famously exhorts us in Bird by Bird to write a “shitty first draft.” Betsy believes in shitty fifth and shitty tenth drafts. And told us stories of best-selling authors she’s worked with who revised and rewrote their manuscripts multiple times.

Writers write, as Betsy pointed out.

And if you write every day, without judgment, you can be sure that most of what you write will suck. And that is OK. In fact, it’s good.

“There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere”

To illustrate, Betsy told us a version of an old joke: a man comes along and notices a boy who has climbed to the top of a pile of horse shit. The boy is digging down like a maniac. Finally, the man asks, “What are you doing?” And the boy replies, “With all this shit, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere.”

[Interestingly, this joke is said to have been Ronald Reagan's favorite.]

I won’t get into all the details but I will tell you that there was a lot of profanity in our group. FFS (for f*ck sake) was a favorite. And yes, we called it horse shit and not manure. There’s something about writing – the doing of it and the talking about it – that prompts a lot of cussing.

This blog post sucks and that’s OK

I am staring at the pile of notes I took to see what leaps out. And reminding myself that this blog post is supposed to be crappy. Heck, this is only my third draft. Sorry Betsy, I couldn’t get to five drafts although I did take out a lot of stuff. Here are some nuggets in no particular order:

Challenge your assumptions about writing

Do you need to be in an environment that is perfectly quiet? Does your desk need to be in perfect order? And the chief obstacle: you don’t have enough time so why start writing.

Turn it around, Betsy advised us. Distraction is perfect. A limited amount of time is good. What’s wrong with five or 15 minutes? It makes you focus.

Do you have a big idea for a short book?

Registration for the March 7, 2013 – May 2, 2013 session of Beta Author Boost is closed. You can watch the replay of my free webinar: Knock Down the Three Stumbling Blocks Preventing You From Writing a Short Book.

Develop a writing practice 

WritingThe most important thing, in addition to challenging the voice that says you’re not good enough and that your writing is crappy, is to develop a writing practice.

This means:

- Butt-in-the-seat time. Writers write.

- Write every day even if it’s for five minutes. You can do that, right?

- Give yourself permission to write crappy drafts, FFS. Allow was our word for Day 1 of the workshop.

- Non butt-in-the-seat time can count as writing time. I knew this intuitively but how seductive to hear it from Betsy. Walking outside or on the treadmill at the gym – in other words, repetitive motion – unlocks ideas. We challenged ourselves to come up with creative ways of writing when you’re not writing.

[Update: I'm joking. Ultimately, it doesn't really count as writing unless you're, um, writing.]

- Be patient with yourself. Don’t rush. If your mind is blank, wait. The ideas and words will come.

- Assemble a few writing totems: a special stone, a candle, a pen. My new writing stone is the purple amethyst in the photo above. The candle is rosemary eucalyptus.

After fondling Pam Slim’s writing crystal, a group of us made a dash for the Sedona Crystal Vortex shop to find just the right totem. This all made perfect sense in Sedona but heck, it’s still comforting back in DC.

Ask yourself: how do I want to change my reader?

Ask yourself how you want your beloved reader to be changed by what you’ve written. Yes, we used phrases like “beloved” a lot. Again, this made perfect sense in Sedona.

What story are you telling yourself about your writing (whether it’s a blog post or a book)? Is your voice saying, “I shouldn’t be writing this… I’m not worthy or good enough”? Turn that around and think about how you can be of service to your reader. Pam says she is doing that a lot as she sprints to finish Body of Work.

An accountability partner

We were introduced to a nifty idea: find an accountability partner to help you plant your flag and commit to a daily writing practice. Choose someone whom you respect. If he or she is doing their daily writing, it puts pressure on you to do yours.

I asked one of the participants if she would do this with me. We are emailing each other every day with a word count in the subject line. That’s all. Her email says 1097. Mine says 534. No judgment. No explanation. It’s the daily doing of it that counts.

Remember when you loved to write

Remember back to the time you felt exhilarated about writing. Was it second grade or was it fifth grade? You loved to write, you had no guilt or shame, you felt supremely confident. Recapture that feeling.

Be your own sherpa. Have faith that you can pull yourself forward one step at a time and resist the judgment of others.

[Top photo taken with my iPhone on our silent walk through the sandstone cliffs.]

Does your writing suck? I invite you to join me for a free webinar on Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013 at 2:00 PM Eastern to Knock Down the Three Stumbling Blocks Preventing You From Writing a Book. Oh, and sign up for my free e-newsletter below.

  • arielsnapp

    Lovely post Debbie, thank you for sharing it in your voice. I can imagine the word count on this one is pretty decent :)

    • http://voxiemedia.com/ Debbie Weil

      Ariel, I miss the group already, don’t you?!

  • http://mohitpawar.com/writing/ Mohit Pawar

    Love this Debbie.

    Worth coming back once in a while.

    “Writers write” – to know and practice only this is enough as a lesson.

  • Bob Wilson

    Debbie – great post. Sounds like an awesome workshop and you did such a fantastic job of describing it. I especially like the idea of emailing word counts to your accountability partner. How cool! Thanks again for sharing!
    Bob

    • http://voxiemedia.com/ Debbie Weil

      Bob,

      It sounds so simple – emailing each other the word count. But it seems to be quite motivating as well as satisfying. I’ve created a folder in my email so I can look back and see what the numbers are. Kinda cool.

  • http://twitter.com/KOMcLaughlin Kevin McLaughlin

    Very nice post, and some really great thoughts. I disagree with only two points:

    1) Writing time is when you put new words onto paper (or the screen, or into an audio file for speech to text, these days!). Revision time is not writing time. Reading blogs on writing is not writing time. Thinking about writing on the treadmill is not writing time. Reading a book on craft is not writing time. These things can all help improve your writing – but none of them are writing time. Put new words down. Ultimately, nothing else will improve your writing as effectively as writing does.

    2) I agree that it is OK to write poor drafts. Most professional writers produced 1-3 unpublishable piles of dreck before they began approaching a professional level. That said, I think we should always strive to produce good work, to tell fun stories. And there is a word for professional writers who do ten drafts of their work: broke. Important to also realize that you will fix almost all the issues that you (at your current writing level) are capable of fixing in your first revision. If you wait another few years and then revise again, you’ll likely be able to make it better (assuming you wrote a few more books in the interim). But revising the same work ten times back to back will a) not improve your writing skill much, if at all and b) will not noticeably improve the work beyond what the first revision did – and may even make the work worse. The exception here is if you are getting professional outside help (say, from the editor at a publishing house that’s accepted your book).

    • http://voxiemedia.com/ Debbie Weil

      Kevin,

      Really enjoyed your comment. I agree with you – and with Seth Godin. Shipping, as Seth calls it, is key. You’ve got to hit the publish button (if it’s a blog) and go public. You’ve got to move forward with a professional editor, even if you’re writing a short eBook, so you can finish and publish. I tell my Beta Authors that the beauty of writing an eBook is that you can always update it.

Sign up for Debbie's surprising tips on how to write a short business book. You'll get a 37-page blogging manifesto right away.

Want help writing a short, remarkable eBook?
Interested in Debbie's short courses on Ruzuku?