10 Ways to Be a Better Writer—Right Now
Recently on my podcast, Write About Now, I talked to writer David Hochman about the secrets behind his success. Hochman, who calls himself “The Freelance Whisperer,” has penned hundreds of stories for magazines, newspapers, websites, and books. And his UPOD Academy workshops offer freelance writers valuable tips and tricks for getting published.
The guy knows from writing, so I asked him to share some whisperer wisdom to help other writers improve their game. Here are some of the highlights of what he said...
1. Notice What You’re Noticing
Hochman credits this Buddhaesque phrase to New York Times journalist, Taffy Akner, a talented and prolific culture writer who also appeared on a podcast episode. What she means is that there is no better arbiter of what makes an interesting story than your own instincts. If you notice that you're noticing something, there's a good chance what you're noticing is pretty interesting.
Writers ask me all the time, “How do you come up with story ideas?” and I wish I had this answer at the ready. Notice what you’re noticing. Damn you, Taffy, it's so simple but true.
"Be a good observer of what people are talking about but not naming," says Hochman. For example, I noticed that I was getting a lot of telemarketing calls on my cell phone from phone numbers that were almost exactly the same as mine. It really bothered me and I wanted to know why. So I pitched that story and got an assignment.
"Be the person who is putting those strings together and putting meaning in them that you can then take to an editor," Hochman says
2. Explore the Adjacent Future
It sounds like an episode of Nova on PBS narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson but bear with us. David explains, "It's the idea that there’s this shadow future that exists right next to you." All you have to do is look at something familiar in a new way and a whole new reality opens up to you.
So how does this future stuff apply to writing? David gives this example from his own life: One day as he was training his son to go potty, he said to his dad, "I want to go on the potty train." A lightbulb flashed, violins began to play. This was a children's book idea just waiting to happen.
David had never written a children's book in his life. But he sat down and wrote his masterpiece, The Potty Train with the catchphrase "chugga chugga poo poo" in 45 minutes. He sold it to Simon & Schuster who found him an illustrator and now the book is #71 in all sales on Amazon.
David is amused and horrified at the fact that his most successful piece of writing is for an audience of readers who can't even read.
3. Find Your Diddy Hours
On the podcast, David tells the story of the awkward interview he did a while back with Sean "P-Diddy" Combs for Playboy. The interview was not going particularly well, and Diddy was reluctant to answer in more than one- or two-word sentences. Sitting with Combs in the backseat of his Maybach, David began to panic a little. He asked him how he's able to keep it all together running so many different companies. Something about the question caught Diddy's attention.
"We all have Diddy hours," he said. "You have the same diddy hours I do. You have the same 24 hours I do."
In other words, that excuse that we all use that you just don't have enough time to write or to finish your story or to pitch ideas doesn't really fly in a P-Diddy timezone. We all follow the same clock. It's how we manage our time that's the difference.
4. Take a Social Media Timeout
I'll admit, when David dropped this tip I checked out for a minute. I could get with the whole P-Diddy thing, but give up my Instagram and Facebook feed? That's blasphemous. But David correctly believes that going cold turkey on social for an hour or two a day gives you extra time to really get stuff done. It will also put you in a better mood. Studies show that social media causes acute anxiety, which doesn't help your writing—unless you're Larry David.
5. Be Done, Not Perfect
Here's another pithy phrase I wish I'd thought of first: "Done is better than perfect." Damn, that's good. How often do you tweak and polish your copy over and over again, fearing that it's just not ready for general consumption? I would imagine, like, often. Like, I'm doing that right now and it's late and I really should be going to bed soon.
"Don't agonize over getting it perfectly," says David. It's not going to happen, especially if you're the final judge. Sometimes the simple act of just finishing something is enough. Someone once said, "Perfection is the enemy of progress." It took him four hours to come up with the perfect way to say that phrase, but that's not the point.
6. Exit Your Bubble
Like it or not, we all inhabit some sort of bubble of common interests and values. It's human nature to want to seek out similarities. Familiarity might breed contempt, but similarity breeds contentment. Just witness how happy you are when a friend shares an article or a TedTalk on a topic that you totally agree with.
But living in an echo chamber can also make us deaf to new ideas. Good writers know when to put a pin in it and enter alternative realities that might not be as comfortable. David recommends wandering out of your neighborhood (maybe write in a cafe in a completely different part of town), meet new people, and do something that's totally not you, like take an improv class or learn taxidermy.
You don't have to do it all at once. Slow and steady bursts the bubble. "Build a bridge to a bridge," David says, "If you feel overwhelmed think about what are the next things I am going to do. What are the next two things I can do? Remember to build little bridge to another bridge and eventually you get there."
7. Ask for 100 Percent
You want to be an accomplished writer, act like one. "Ask for 100 percent of what you want from 100 percent of people in your life 100 percent of a time," says David. It's very easy to not commit fully to something. I do it all the time. Not eat sugar for a week? Maybe just one bite of a donut. Meditate every morning for 20 minutes? Maybe five minutes when I'm really busy.
No! You need to be in all the way. That means if you tell an editor you're going to get them a story in on time, you get it to them early. If you call accounts payable about where your money is, you don't hang up until you have an answer.
As someone much smarter than me once said, "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
8. Ask If Not You, Then Who?
It rhymes and it's the truth. Doesn't get much better than that from a writing perspective. Seriously, though, we all need to ask ourselves this question a lot more. "If you’re not going to be the one to tell the story, you’re leaving it to someone else," says David.
Don't allow yourself to stand there in the dust while someone else steals your thunder, says me, the Mixed Metaphor king. If you have a great story to tell, tell it immediately. Which leads me to the next crucial question: "If not now, when?"
9. Capture the Unicorn
Every editor has that one story or book they really want, but are too busy, too stuck in the weeds, too distracted with a million other things, to find. We call these ideas unicorns. And if you can catch one, you will make magic happen.
How do you track a unicorn? You can start by asking the editor what they are, says Hochman. In a move that I have since blatantly stolen, David likes to sit with his editors and future employers and ask them point blank, "What's the one story you've been wanting to get but haven’t been able to find?"
If there isn't a unicorn on their wish list, ask what kind of stories they're looking for, what their audience wants, "thenI go back and re-engineer it to fit that need. This is so much simpler than "trying to squeeze your idea into their thing," he says.
10. Thumb Slam!
This is a technique that David suggests you use when you need to send a difficult email, or you're pitching a story that may be a stretch for you. He advises lifting your hand up from the keyboard and then, in a forceful motion, slamming your thumb down on the send key. "It feels good doing that twice a month," he says. Sounds good to me.
Writers don't often get a chance to high-five or chest bump. They're often a team of one, alone in their offices or coffee shops, quietly reveling in their own triumphs. The act of doing a thumb slam might bring some well-deserved joy into your life.
Listen below to hear the full interview with David: