Why I Write

Revised from a January 2012 post.

This week is National Words Matter Week and I couldn’t let it pass without sharing some thoughts on why I love the written word. The roads that lead us to the writing profession are varied, but we wouldn’t be here if words weren’t imprinted on our souls, or part of our blood. This is just a tiny glimpse into why I love writing.

My mom’s best friend from high school made me a coloring book for my seventh birthday. One particular page was blank, except for some simple script at the top that read “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.”

I listed different things on that page over the next few years. My occupations of interest ranged from reference librarian (Don’t judge me, the mom on Wishbone had this job) to a dolphin trainer (What kid hasn’t wanted to be this?!) and several other um…random careers.

However, one occupation was listed on every entry, without fail: author.

I got to make that dream a reality at age 26, but for as long as I can remember, I have read and been read to, and consequently developed an abiding love of reading and writing.

In honor of “Words Matter Week,” I wanted to share three reasons why I am passionate about writing.

“We Write to Taste Life Twice.” (Anais Nin)

While perusing the journal aisle at Target several years ago, I saw this quote on a journal.

I have never felt more understood as when I read that quote. We taste life as we experience it and as writers, we enjoy it a second time as we relive the moments in our head and carefully select words to frame those moments. I wouldn’t give up that rhythm for anything.

We Write to Find Connection

In one of my undergrad classes, we focused quite a bit on why people will always read stories about other people. There is an innate pull in all of us to make some kind of connection between our life experiences and others’ life experiences. Whether it is an in-depth profile piece or an anecdote or a comedy bit, we enjoy it, we laugh at it, and we remember best the stories that make us say, “I’ve done something like this,” or “This is something that has happened to me.” Through this, we see that writing is so much more than just the transmission of facts. In his book “Talk to Me,” author Dean Nelson shares this perspective, speaking specifically to the interview process, “When interviews are done well, they have the potential for a human connection that goes past the level of merely gathering information. They become an experience where you are fully present with that other person, and she is fully present with you…

That’s the power of a well-written story.

Writing is Therapy

Writing is a creative activity and a therapeutic one. Two for the price of one, y’all! Whether I jot down thoughts in my journal (I’ve been keeping journals for 16 years now!) or am working on a piece to be published, I have found that it truly clears my head and allows me to move past certain emotional or mental blocks. This is certainly not a groundbreaking observation. In their book “Expressive Writing: Words That Heal” authors James Pennebaker and John Evans write, “Since the mid-1980s, an increasing number of studies have focused on expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The first studies indicated that writing about traumatic experiences for as little as twenty minutes a day for three of four days can produce measurable changes in people’s physical and mental health.”

Life can be hard, and I want to use all the tools at my disposal to be my healthiest, balanced self. If one of those tools happens to be what I do for a living, well, no complaints here.

Whether you are just starting out on your writing journey or have been traveling this road for a while, know that you and your words are valuable and needed in this space. Beyond that, we all have immense power with our spoken words which those in our circle experience every day. Let’s wield that power for good.

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Proverbs 12:18

Where to Start For New Writers

So you have an idea for a book, or a blog, or some writing-based idea. Where do you start? There is such a wealth of info out there that it quickly gets overwhelming. The road to becoming a writer in 2021 is well-documented but depending on your experience, goals, resources, and time, where you step onto that road is vastly different from the next writer. Sometimes it may feel you have too many options, which can lead to paralysis.

This post serves as a stripped-down guide on how to get started writing, and my perspective focuses on building a writing habit before you start making lofty writing goals. Because without the right habits in place, you won’t ever be able to reach your goals. I’m also not going to list every single resource because again that defeats the purpose of you taking action to meet those goals. I will give a few recommendations, and I’ll trust that you can take it from there.

Decide on Your Writing Tools

Decide on how you want to collect your ideas and flesh them out. For instance, I always have a physical notebook to brainstorm ideas and outline posts or to take notes from trainings and webinars. My brain needs that tactile interaction to get the words flowing, but it’s only my starting point. I then turn to my computer. For several years, I kept my personal “in progress” pieces on Evernote but have moved to Notion within the last year. I like having a place to keep notes from my Kindle reads and other odds and ends that haven’t made it into a full piece yet. After I’ve workshopped them there for a while, I’ll move them into a Word doc or WordPress to get ready to publish. A lot of it just depends on my mood or the piece that I’m working on if it lends more to typing or handwriting. So take some time to experiment with what works for you and pay attention to what seems to flow for each phase of the writing process. Do your ideas really get flowing when you have a pen in hand? Or do you like the speed of working on a computer? A mixture of both, like me?

Develop a Writing Habit Before Making Writing Goals

It is one thing to sit down under the glow of sudden inspiration and pour your heart onto a page (or screen). It’s an entirely different matter to intentionally structure a book or blog post, self-edit, and then submit to the editorial process under someone else’s keen eye. One phase is like the glow when you are first in love with your partner and the rest is learning how to make the relationship work decade after decade.

So if you want to make writing a regular part of your life, start by establishing some good habits. For instance, if you’ve never regularly written, don’t start by saying, “I’m going to write a book in a week.” You are already setting yourself up for failure.

In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear puts it this way:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

If you’ve never consistently written, a book isn’t going to materialize within a weekend for you. You need to start by establishing systems or habits that help you reach that goal.

So begin building the habit of writing three times a week. That’s it. It could be brainstorming new ideas, working on a new one, or tinkering with a piece you’ve already written, but commit to writing three times a week, with no time or word count requirement. Same time and place if possible in order to cue your brain: this is when we write.

Once this baseline habit is established (and it will take more than a few days!), you can try upping it to five times a week or incorporating a word count goal or time goal. As this habit gets stronger and stronger, you can branch into a more formal writing process (brainstorm, research, write, revise, publish) and begin to work on whatever specific project you’d like.

Document Your Process

Studying journalism in school helped me focus on the writing process and keep it grounded: identify the story angle, gather your facts and research, conduct your interviews with relevant and credible sources, additional research, writing, and re-writing. And after reading The Art of Slow Writing last year, I came to see how valuable documenting your process can be. Yes, you are writing about your writing and that may feel a bit meta, but this practice can unlock parts of your brain that are keeping you from making progress on your work or even finishing a project.

For instance, I was having trouble finishing a post for a client, so I turned to my writing journal and began describing the resistance I was feeling in connecting two thoughts in the article. As soon as I verbalized that struggle, I realized those two thoughts didn’t actually connect in real life. I quickly made some notes, and even though I was done writing for the day, I revisited the notes the next day and worked through the difficult parts of the piece and finished it.

Whether you do end up writing a book or launching a blog or take up writing for non-profits or businesses, the key to success is embracing the process of writing. Because that’s what writing is, repeating a process over and over until the project is finished. It’s not glamorous, but it is powerful and effective as you build the muscles to launch your words out into the world.

“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”

― James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Helpful Resources That Won’t Overwhelm You

4 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Freelancing

This week is National Freelance Appreciation week and this month also marks six years since I started my own freelance career. In that spirit, I’m sharing a few things I wish I knew before I started freelancing. If you find yourself contemplating launching your own freelance business, I hope some of my experiences can help you.

Plan to Experiment

So many times I wanted the first thing to be “the thing” that worked: that one post would draw all the business, that one ad would drive all the traffic, that one thing that would shape the course of my business over the next several years. And if and when these efforts didn’t pan out, “failure” was the only category that experience could be filed under. I didn’t understand that experimenting was the lifeblood to a freelancer’s career. I tried my hand at a lot of writing-related ventures and while some things opened doors and led to great contacts or further honing of what I love, some were just duds or not a good fit for me. Not failures, but all helpful info. There’s just no way to predict how something will turn out. Instead of looking at it as something to avoid, I better understand now that it’s something to embrace and plan for. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and then, keep trying new things.

Treat Your Home Office Like a REAL Office

I have said being homeschooled uniquely prepared for me for working from home. But the fact remains in order to be successful, you have to treat your home like an office during work hours. Structure your workspace (mental as well as physical) in a way that minimizes distractions (well, as much as possible in this pandemical setting) and schedule your time in a way that sets your efforts up for success. For instance, if you are focused and ready to go in the morning, don’t continually schedule non-work appointments or hangouts in your prime working time. Shift those to the afternoon. Likewise, if afternoon is your prime time, schedule those appointments in the morning.

Be aware of how your surroundings affect your mental state. I need relatively clutter-free surroundings in order to focus, so some of that prep work may start the night before to ensure the kitchen is clean, laundry is ready to be started, and my workspace is clear. Otherwise I may start organizing a closet that hasn’t been touched in three years instead of sending out queries or following up on leads.

And as much as possible I:

  • Leave my phone on DND until a certain time in the morning and I leave it in the other room
  • Turn off notifications on my computer
  • Use the Freedom app to block certain sites when I need to really buckle down (just started using this and I love it so far!)
  • Make sure I have water and tea before starting a project
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones

Your techniques may look different than mine, but the point is to treat your freelance work like the business it is. Just because there is the element of flexibility doesn’t mean it deserves less respect than an office job.

Learn to Steward Your Mental Resources

I haven’t spoken about this in a while, but interestingly enough, my freelancing journey has coincided with my husband and I’s infertility journey. I left my office job in February 2015 to begin writing “Bloom” and that spring marked the start of our infertility struggles. The next year when I was in the thick of publishing my first book and figuring out what to do with my “Bloom” series, I did five IUIs and the medication I was on made me moody, depressed, and fatigued…not the best combo for pursuing maximum productivity and trying to establish your own business. But through those difficulties, I learned a lot about myself, creativity, and how to listen to my body. And on the other side of that, I have also learned to better manage my focus and energy. I have learned that some days when I feel “off” or not in the mood, I can still push through and accomplish more than I anticipated. Especially over the last year, I’ve enlarged my capacity for picking work up in the afternoon, and pushing through is the right choice for that day. Other days, it is okay to just call it a day. Writing and editing are extremely mentally taxing, and you don’t have an unlimited attention span or mental resources. So learn to steward your own resources well.

Following Up is Not “Rude”

Similar to my first point, at the beginning of the process, I wanted one call or one email to be enough when following up with potential leads or clients because I thought follow-up seemed…well…rude somehow. Now there are for sure ways that following-up can be done distastefully, but more often than not, it’s not being rude to follow up on an inquiry or possible lead because people get distracted or forget. If you care about your work, you’re going to go the extra mile to make sure people benefit from your business. Plan for following-up and you’ll be surprised at the progress you make.

As a freelancer, every day is so different, and sometimes it’s hard to see progress as the days slog by, and even as the weeks go by. But take a look back over the past several months and years and you’ll see how each decision, each time you put your butt in the chair and written has added up to meaningful progress. Don’t give up.

The world needs you and your brave, creative work.

Favorite Books on Writing

When you are a freelance writer/indie author, you don’t just get to “write.” You have to be your own marketer, HR department, project manager, and boss. That means the ethereal writer side of you that wants to gaze into the forest and wait for inspiration will have to meet up with “boss you” who wants “writer you” to put your bottom in the chair and write. But that’s easier said than done.

And reading books on the craft of writing and the business of writing has helped me accomplish just that. Of course, reading books on writing and not ever actually practicing the craft of writing will get you nowhere. You have to get out there and run the drills and rehearse and train. But hearing what your fellow authors have to say about their process and their journey is absolutely beneficial. The truth is that authors need help and encouragement in other areas of life beyond just writing in order to be a successful writer. And that’s where I’ve tried to educate myself on the business of writing by reading books that unpack marketing, planning, goal setting, and staying motivated.

The following is not an exhaustive list but does highlight some key books that have proved crucial in refining my writing process or helped me with the business side of writing. I hope they will encourage and help you as much as they did me!

“The Art of Slow Writing” by Louise DeSalvo

This gem has some of the most practical, relatable, and easily implementable writing advice. Drawing from her own vast writing experience and a treasure trove of other renowned authors’ experiences, the tip that made the most impact on me had to do with documenting your writing process for your projects to highlight themes and patterns…all to help you with future projects. With the previous four books I’ve written, I obviously still have early notes and drafts, but it never occurred to me to write down how I developed ideas or moved through obstacles during the drafting. I definitely have never done that with shorter projects, but now I see the value. I’ve started my own writing journal to specifically document my thought processes when I’m working on new material. Already it’s proved helpful!

“Finish” by Jon Acuff

All of Jon Acuff’s books have helped me think critically about my job as a writer and I wish I had come across his books sooner in my career. They will help you take your work seriously and evaluate decisions about your day job (if applicable), structure your projects, and set goals. In the case of “Finish,” it will help you actually get across the finish line of whatever dream project you’ve been working away at.

Also, it’s Jon Acuff and so you’ll be laughing AND learning. Bonus points if you listen to the audiobook versions of any of his books because he narrates them all and throws in extra tidbits that aren’t in the print versions.

“Atomic Habits” by James Clear

There are many quality books out there about creating healthy habits and rhythms, but James’ book still stands out to me because of his focus on starting small in building new habits, which I think is particularly helpful for writers. It’s tempting to make lofty writing goals. If you make a goal of “finally writing that book” but you’ve never strung five days together of writing consistently, writing an entire book may not ever happen for you. You have to start small, like by committing to write for 30 minutes a day, then go from there. If you want to be a writer, the sole goal is not necessarily to write a book, but to create a replicable writing process that reliably gets your ideas from your brain and refines them on paper. Without that process, a blog post, let alone a full-length book, will elude you.

“Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein

This is such a classic writing craft book. I was first introduced to it in college and got my own copy when I started writing full time. It is the most referenced book of mine when it comes to refining the mechanics on writing and the resource I used the most when I was teaching writing to high schoolers. His section on “Show Don’t Tell,” which is always a hard concept to articulate, is very accessible and helpful.

“On Writing” by Stephen King

This is the only Stephen King book I’ve finished (I’ve started and then abandoned a few) but it’s still a fascinating look behind the curtain. Writing is HARD and King makes no bones about it. New authors always seem to underestimate the time a book takes from drafting to editing and revising to finally getting out in the world. I know I did when I was just beginning. King presents an unvarnished look at the process along with practical writing tips. And you need that does of truth if you’re ever going to learn how to pace yourself in this job.

“Bandersnatch” by Diana P. Glyer

I read this book last summer after listening to an interview with the author. It will probably help to be somewhat familiar with Tolkien and Lewis’ work before diving into this one, but it’s not necessarily required. Writing can be very isolating, but the truth is we need other authors and writers who get us and our work and can help critique, encourage, and refine us through all of our writing projects. I had known before that Lewis and Tolkien influenced each other in the writing of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Glyer reveals in grander detail just how much the legendary authors really did influence each other. And it blew my mind. Don’t discount the power of community in your writing!

The amount of “craft books” available can be overwhelming, so I stick to this rule of thumb borrowed from another author: I tried to read (or listen to) one craft book a month. You may be able to absorb more or less, but I find this pace plenty doable along with your actual writing.

What has been your favorite craft book that you’ve read? Leave some titles in the comments below!