TV has done us wrong…
If you’ve watched any show featuring a writer in the last twenty years, all you have to do is put out a column once a week (I’m looking at you Carrie Bradshaw), and then hang out with your friends in bars or coffee shops talking about how the men in your life have done you wrong.
That’s the dream, right?
So I was feeling justifiably ripped off when my friend asked me out to breakfast and we made the date—seventeen days from now.
I’m a writer. I should be able to have breakfast whenever I want. Right?
But, like in every other way imaginable, life does not imitate TV. At all.
I’ve had so many jobs throughout my life, my husband is still occasionally surprised when I bring up a past profession. (“Wait, you were a merchandiser for Hallmark greeting cards at Mervyn’s Department Store in the 90’s?”) But, with all sincerity, I have to say that being a writer has been the job that has required the most time, energy and laser focus of my life.
It’s fine if you want to be a writer and are not actually worried about accomplishing anything, but for most of us, that is not plan. We actually want to get things written. And we actually want people to read those things. And we (not some magical New York publishing house), are responsible for making both happen.
There are many types of work we need to make happen in our day:
- Social Media
And this doesn’t even include a side gig (which most of us have to supplement the writing) we need to stay on top of.
The solution to this, at least for me, is not long days in coffee shops, feeding my muse Petite Vanilla Scones.
It is a lot of not-glamourous, short sprints.
Let me explain.
I am writing this right now in the midst of a daily short sprint. At 5:00 AM (it used to be 5:30, but I needed to get more stuff done), my alarm goes off and I find my way in the dim light, propelled by the smell of coffee. I warm the milk, feed the herd (our cat and our puggle), and then from 5:15 -6:00 every morning (except Sundays), I sit down and write 500 words.
I don’t have time to sit around and be inspired. The clock is what drives me forward. The deadline of 500 words in 45 minutes propels me to write fast and get it down on paper.
But that’s just the start to my day.
The rest of my time is short sprint: a 30-minute meeting with my manager to set the focus for my team. 30 minutes to research titles for my next several blog columns. 30 minutes to prepare my Facebook live interview with an author I’m promoting for a publisher as part of a sponsorship.
My life as a writer looks nothing like those on TV, because I actually get stuff done.
How to be a Professional Writer Step #1: Time Blocking.
Here is what I’ve learned: When you are on deadline, you have to make the writing happen on airplanes while on a business trip, at soccer practice for your seven year old, and in the driver’s seat of your minivan waiting for your son to get out of art class.
Time blocking is simply the art of seeing where you can block out a time for writing – and then scheduling that time on your calendar. It could be in the parking lot of your daughter’s high school as you wait for her to get out of track practice. That’s fine — but block it off. Bring your laptop and write for those 15 minutes instead of jumping on Instagram.
How to be a Professional Writer Step #2: Work with Other People
On TV shows, writers all sit at their desks or a coffee shop and bang out prose. Maybe they fly to New York to be taken out for drinks by their editor, or their publicist shows up at their book signing, but otherwise, it’s a solitary endeavor.
But in this real writing world, you need your people.
You need to be constantly learning from others, and sharing with them. I feel great at the end of a writing hour, but I feel glorious at the end of an hour while brainstorming with another writer about book ideas, book promotion and more.
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Unknown
How to be a Professional Writer Step #3: Write in Short Sprints
The TV writer is seen looking out their window, daydreaming until the inspiration hits.
But the writers I know? Sit down at their laptops, set a timer, and write for small stretches until inspiration hits.
Saying you are going to sit down and write 2000 words today is like saying that you are going to chug four Red Bulls and stay up cramming for a final all night; that craziness is only for those of us who are either in our twenties or desperately behind on a deadline. Either way, it should be rare and avoided at all costs.
Set your timer for 15 minutes and see if you can get 150 words written. If you do that three times a day, that’s 450 words. In two days, that’s a blog post. In three months, that’s a book.
But if you’re waiting for the cabin at the beach to appear so that you can “work on your book,” your book may never happen. (But if someone does offer you the beach house, by all means, take them up on it.)
How to be a Professional Writer Step #4: Stop Whining about Platform, Marketing and All the Other Things You “Shouldn’t” Have to Do
My friend was at a conference where everyone was sitting in a circle, whining about platform.
“I wish I could just write my books, and someone else could take care of the marketing and platform,” was the overriding sentiment.
If all you want to do is write, and platform and marketing are just seen as necessary evils, you are missing the whole point.
Marketing and platform are how you serve your audience before, during and after they read your book.
How to be a Professional Writer Step #5: Managing in the Margins
Your day is scheduled. You’ve got your Time Blocks and Short Sprints all laid out. You have meetings with those who make you better and you’re not complaining about all that needs to be done in order to write. You’re just writing.
Now, this last step? It’s what will set you apart.
My husband, Roger, is an amazing guy. He works fulltime plus for his Silicon Valley job, and then is in charge of a large chunk of our business, not to mention serving on the elder board of our church and working every weekend on the tech team.
Why do I tell you all this?
So I can share his secret.
It’s a little technique he developed called “Managing in the Margins.” Managing in the margins is when you have five minutes between conference calls, or eight minutes after you turned in that proposal when you had an hour scheduled and it took 52 minutes, or your phone call ended early, and you take those minutes and make them count.
You use those minutes in one of two ways:
- You check something off your list (because friend, you always need a list).
- Or take a look at today’s plan and see how you can manage it better.
What I used to do with those times? Hop onto Facebook.
Now, I keep a list on Trello (see picture) of all that I need to get done and will chip away at that list in the three or four minutes I have to get stuff done.
If I have a few more minutes, I will see what my day looks like and figure out the best way to attack the rest of the day—how I can get something in motion to one of my team members, answer a question that will helps someone get unstuck, or consider a new idea that will move us forward.
Being a professional writer looks a lot more complicated than it does in every play, movie or sitcom. But the beautiful thing about being a real writer? We get to interact and serve our audience in a way that some fictional writer turning in their article to their editor and then running off for a “research” trip to Paris never will.
Real writers get to make an impact on their audiences. And that is the what being a professional is all about.
Kathi Lipp is the founder of Leverage-The Speaking Conference and a national speaker. She’s authored 17 books, including Overwhelmed, Clutter Free, The Get Yourself Organized Project, and The Husband Project. Over the past 10 years, Kathi has helped hundreds of people increase their platform through teaching and coaching. She is a frequent teacher at writers’ conferences and has helped countless authors and speakers find their audiences. Learn more at kathilipp.com.