My so-called writing life

I think I was born an editor, not a writer. In fact, for most of my life writing has not come easily for me. Throughout my life before I retired from BNA, I was able to do it successfully from time to time – occasional good research papers during college come to mind, along with one or two well-done market research reports and product proposals near the end of my employment. But being a freelancer with a heavy writing project load was difficult. And, until recently blogging was particularly difficult.

As I noted in mid-December, I went through a fairly severe writer’s block last fall – the first time in my life that I remember it being like this. Typical me – I tried to make it go away by ignoring it through most of November and into December. Then, I started thinking about what might be different this time, hoping to come up with clues that would help me unlock my words. Eventually I came to understand that the style of writing I’m doing now (mostly blogging) needs a different approach.

I never found covering meetings particularly easy, and it was my least favorite part of traveling for business during my time as editorial product development manager for BNA’s tax subsidiary. I needed to go to meetings to meet people, to find out what was going on and figure out how we should cover the subject of whatever project I was working on at the time, but I dreaded writing about the meetings afterwards. The press of deadlines helped me push myself to make sense of what I had heard and file a story or two, usually the same day, for Daily Tax Report. Most of the time I think I did ok, but probably not as well as a reporter would have if we had been able to send one with me.

Editing was always my thing. Someone else gives you the words, and all you have to do is think about what they wrote and figure out whether/how it could be clearer, more complete, easier to understand (sometimes, more correct). Prototyping publications was always easier when I had someone else’s words to work with. When I didn’t – when my job was to write, to demonstrate the kind of material we would publish – I would labor over it, outlining and planning and finally making myself put the words out there. “Labor” is the important concept there.

Market research reports and data-driven articles, both before I retired and as a freelancer, were much easier. I think that’s because you had to spend a fair amount of time analyzing the data before you could write anything down. For me, data analysis is coming up with a series of bullet points, observations, questions left unanswered – writing down my thoughts. The main activity is thinking, not writing – but once I have those bullets, fleshing them out is more like editing to me.

Now that blogging is my primary writing activity, I had to find an approach that would break through that block. For some blog posts I have been able to assemble a “notes” file so that I would have something to run through while thinking about what to write. That helped for a lot of my early melanoma posts, when I was still researching a lot about the disease and trying to figure out what everything means. It’s not as good, though, for more personal posts – like this one, for example.

What  seems to have worked best for the posts I’ve written since mid-December is to capitalize on that “main activity” I mentioned before – thinking. If I spend enough time just thinking about a subject, figuring out what I think about what I’m writing about, I have an easier time getting the words out. That’s how this post got written. And the same goes for many of the ones I’ve written over the last six weeks.

I’m lucky that I have the luxury of time for thinking, now that I’m mostly retired. We live such busy lives during our “productive years” that time is at a premium; we just can’t get everything done if we steal minutes (let alone hours) to figure out what we think. But the lesson for me over the last month is that taking that time to think makes my working/writing time so much more productive.

Now I’ll try to make myself think about what to write for my chapters in the SPJ Freelancers Guide ... Wish me luck with that!