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A blog focused on writing process, effective writing, effective narration, the writing culture at large, and supporting writers and authors as they do their best work.

The Message in a Bottle Philosophy

Brenda Errichiello

 
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An Editorial Note, of sorts: In last week's post, I talked about how doing your best work matters. And it does. But if you never "ship" your work, never hit publish, never get your stuff out there, it doesn't matter how good it is.

(Unless you're shooting for the Emily Dickinson method of recognition, in
which case, sit on everything you write for your entire life, and then die. And hope your sister reads it before she burns everything, on your instruction, of course.) 

So. I'm not trying to contradict myself here. Instead, view this for what it is: an ode to the perfectionists among us. All right. Carry on. 

How long should you spend working on a blog post? An e-product? A book?

Obviously, the answer depends on who you are, what your experience level is, and what you’re trying to accomplish. A hundred-thousand-word YA dystopian fantasy is always going to take more investment than a five-hundred-word blog post.

Generally, based on my experience, I’d say a couple of hours, a couple of weeks, and eight months to a year and a half seem to be good estimates, respectively.

There’s definitely a sweet spot here. As much as I advocate good craftsmanship when it comes to writing, you’re always going to learn more by starting, working on, and finishing two of a thing than you are agonizing endlessly over one.

That’s not to say that you need to rush things, either—I’ve seen book coaches claim they can help you write your book in twenty-four hours, and I find that to be pretty suspect as well.

Also, blog posts that are dashed out in fifteen minutes are generally not going to offer any content that’s useful—and for you fans of Seth Godin out there (Is he still cool? I have no idea.), I guarantee he spends more than fifteen minutes thinking, even if it takes him a small amount of time to actually write.

But that’s beside the point. I’m not particularly interested in focusing on underwriting or underthinking here.

Instead, what I want to talk about is the agonizing gulf between first draft and finished product—the no-man’s-land of half-finished work that languishes on your computer and makes you feel like crap.

For most writers, especially with the short-form projects, it goes something like this:

-You get a sweet idea, and are super pumped to write about it.

-You sit down and pound out some words.

-What you’ve created is pretty good, but you know that it needs a little love to get from “pretty good” to “this is awesome.”

-You give yourself some space, so that you can return to it with fresh eyes.

-A week passes, and you haven’t picked it up again.

-Another week passes.

-The critical internal narrative starts.

-You never look at the thing again.

If this is you, if your writing has a tendency to be a charged, agonizing slog, a push/pull between “I should write” and “oh, why is this so miserably hard,” take heart.

For those among us whose writing process devolves into unfinished work and some measure of self-hatred, I find it generally comes down to one of two things: (1) a desire to make all work perfectly transcendent (this is impossible) and (2) a lack of clarity around how to effectively edit without just making a lot of random changes that you aren’t really sure are improving anything at all.

For point number one, which is essentially the writer version of perfectionism, here’s some of the best writing advice I have: treat your work like it’s a message in a bottle.

If you’re trying to communicate with another human across space and time, you’re definitely not going to search for a bottle, get to the sea, and seal that bad boy up with a message like “Yo.” inside.

Whatever you put in that bottle, it’s got to mean something to the person who plucks it out of the drink. You want their effort to retrieve the bottle to mean something, and you want to be able to communicate with them.

But ultimately? You don’t have a ton of control. The bottle could break and the ink could fade. The vessel might never reach land. Mermaids. So many things could happen.

There is beauty in this too, though. Because ultimately? It absolves you from some responsibility for how your work is received. You can’t follow the bottle into the sea. You can’t guarantee transcendence.

All you can do is write the best message you can, find the sturdiest bottle you can, and seal that sucker to the best of your capacity.

Then? You chuck that thing in the ocean and move on with your life.  It’s no longer your responsibility.

And the thing is: the more bottles you chuck into that river? The better chance someone will come along, notice your little gift, and read it. The better chance your words will reach someone who is struck by them.

The better chance you’ll write a thing that is good enough to matter.

For point number two? Get some feedback from someone you trust. (Want mine? Get it here.) It doesn’t need to be a professional, though it can be. Have someone put their eyes on your work, ask them what they like and what they didn’t like. Tell them about your intentions with your work. Be humble and grateful, and don’t fight back.

Make a few changes.

And then? Sling that sucker into the sea...and start writing once again.

If you struggle with this kind of writing perfectionism,
I can help.
Let's talk about how to keep you moving forward.
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