How to Crank out the Work (without Becoming Cranky)

Most of us who work for non-profits have more work to do than we have time to do it. So we prioritize, focus on the task at hand and try not to think about what’s waiting for us when we’re finished with the task at hand. So what’s a writer to do?

Do the minimum amount of work required, and then pass the project on to the next level. Repeat. There is little room for perfection or excellence. Do your best work, make it count, but do the minimum amount of work required, then pass it on.

If you write stories about the work of your non-profit, find one big idea. Why did someone pick this story to best illustrate how your mission works? How is this person accomplishing the goals of your organization?

Anyone remember the move City Slickers? Three men in the 40s, each having a mid-life crisis, leave wives and children behind to join a cattle drive out West. On the drive, the wizend, crusty, aging cowboy who has spend a lifetime doing what he loves, gives one of the men a valuable piece of advice. To paraphrase the scene, the cowboy says that the meaning of life is one thing. Taking the bait, one of the 40-somethings asks what that one thing is.  “That’s what you’ve got to figure out,” the cowboy answers.

Fortunately, while you do have to figure out what your one main point is going to be, you have a few guidelines. What’s the stated purpose of your mission? How about your vision statement? With purpose and vision statement in hand, ask yourself:  How the people in this story best demonstrate the mission and vision of our organization? 

Let that become your focus statement. For example,

Insert name here, fulfills our mission of insert mission here, when she insert description of work here

Now, smooth that out so it’s readable and interesting to your readers.

Next, pick the details that match your focus statement. Details could include:

  • a scene from her work
  • statistics collected during the previous year
  • her background (how did her life circumstances prepare her for the work she’s doing?)
  • the background of the work she’s doing (what happened before she arrived, when she arrived, now that she’s been there?)
  • a statement about the future (leave room for growth. No work is ever truly finished.)

You’re done. Turn it in, take a well-deserved break, and then repeat the process with the next assignment.

Improve your productivity by working faster. Set absurd deadlines for yourself. If you have the information in front of you, see how much of this you can get done in an hour. Do your best work, but know when you’re done.

As I have written, edited and coached other writers, my own skills and the skills of the people I work with have improved based on the numbers of projects they have written. As you repeat the process, your work improves. This is a case where quantity over quality, as long as you are doing the best work you can in that moment, leads to more work done and better writing skills.

How can you keep from becoming cranky? Know what done looks like. Know what is expected. Fulfill the requirements of the assignment and pass it on.

Happy writing.

How Long does it Take to Write a Blog Post?

How much time does it take to think of an idea and write a blog post? It’s a good question.

I’m part of a team curating content for an online community. We invite our members to submit their best ideas in the form of 600-800-word blog posts. Normally we give them a 2-week deadline to add urgency to our request. If they need more time, we give them an extra week.

So far, most of the menbers who have promised to write something have done it in the timeframe we have asked for.

Why don’t we give them more time? A few reasons.

Two weeks is long enough for our members to figure out whether or not they can do the assignment. If they can’t do it, giving them more time only adds to their frustration.

If they are busy and they need more time, we give them an extra week. If that’s not enough time, then they are too busy, and we invited them to write a different time.

If they are perpetually too busy, or, if don’t want to write it themselves, we schedule an interview. We can write their story for them in first-person. That becomes a piece that is by them, with us. Or, we can write their piece in third-person. That becomes a piece about, by us.

Either way, we accomplish our goal of giving them a voice in our community.

So, how long does it take to write a guest blog post for another site, or, even a blog post for your own site? Under two weeks. If that’s not enough time, switch gears and conduct an interview, then write up the interview as a blog post instead.

Happy writing, and happy editing.

 

 

Is Good Enough Good Enough?

So, your standard is good enough. Aren’t you settling for mediocrity? Not at all. You are doing the best work you know how to do. It’s good enough. Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time.

Let’s set some minimum standards.

Does your piece have a main point? Think high school English. Or Freshman Composition 101. What’s your thesis statement? Look for the one idea that ties the entire piece together. In journalism circles, we call this the focus statement. It’s a single sentence (or two) that makes a promise to the reader. If they read the words you have written they will learn (insert your focus statement here).

Think about a train. A focus statement is the engine that drives your piece forward. The details are the train cars connected to the engine, heading in the same direction, arriving at the same location.

Once you’ve picked your focus statement and the details, decide how you want to order them. Which cars are you going to attach to the engine? Are all of the details heading the same direction? Does it make sense for them to arrive at the same destination as the engine?

Every analogy breaks down somewhere. Here’s where this one breaks down. In real life, the engine of a train always comes first because it pulls the cars behind it. While the focus statement of your story should appear early in your text, you don’t have to begin with it.

If you’re writing or editing a short piece, you might want to lead with the focus statement. If it’s a longer piece, you might want to find an interesting story or example to begin with that illustrates your focus.

So, here’s a standard for good enough:

  • Find the main point of your story, the engine that drives the piece along.
  • Choose the details that support your main point, the cars that follow the engine.

If a piece meets these two criteria, then it’s good enough. Your writing style or the style of the author of the piece you are editing will improve with practice. Be willing to allow yourself of the person creating the content to be where they are right now today. And then to find a way to be better next time.

What’s your Standard?

What’s your standard? It’s a good question. Most of us can agree that perfection is unattainable. At Mirriam-Webster.com, perfect is defined as the state of being entirely without fault or defect: Flawless. Who wants to attempt to write to that standard? No one I know. Let’s agree that perfection is unattainable, at least in this life.

What about excellence? Certainly excellence is a good standard to strive for? To call work excellent, it means the work is done to the highest possible standard. Very few of us begin any enterprise by doing excellent work. For most of us, excellence comes after years of practice. If a writer can’t attain excellence, it’s too easy to quit. Then writing becomes a task for the experts who have already attained excellence. Novices need not apply.

How about good enough? Anyone with a big idea can type words onto a screen, publish those words almost immediately, and gain a worldwide audience. Or not. But, the secret it to be the best you can be today. If you show up, do your best work today, and then show up again tomorrow and do the same, your best work will improve to the point where someday it will be excellent because you have practiced.

So make a decision. Show up today. Write. And be good enough. Do it again tomorrow. And the day after that. Continue to practice and your writing will improve. Be good enough today. Be even better next week. And watch your writing improve over time.

Peer Editing–Be Brave

Earlier this week, I sent an email to my daughter’s academic advisor explaining I was supportive of her plans to finish the semester at home if her professors would allow it. In the email, I wrote that Bethany is a conscientious student. I copied her and my husband, Mark as a courtesy.

The next morning, Mark very gently pointed out to me that I had written Bethany is a very contentious student.

No, she’s very agreeable. I’m the one who’s contentious. Sigh. Mark would have caught the mistake had he read my email before I sent it.

While it’s not practical for someone else to read every email we send, we can improve the quality of our work if we allow each other to read what we have written before we turn it in. We call this process peer editing.

If you are the writer, consider finding someone to read your piece. Then ask these questions:

1. Does it make sense?

2. Is it interesting?

3. At what point did you want to stop reading?

Pay close attention to the spot where your reader wanted to stop reading. Check your verbs. Are they active enough? Can you find a more compelling way to move the action along in your prose?

If you read someone else’s work, ask yourself these questions:

1. Does the writer pull one main point all the way through the piece?

2. Is the piece organized so that you can easily understand it without the writer’s help?

3. Is it interesting?

Use the answers to these questions to give helpful feedback.

From time to time, my son, the engineering student, sends me research papers to read for him. I’m the perfect audience. While I don’t understand much of the technical material, I can figure out whether or not his information follows a logical progression. After I provided feedback on one of his pieces, he added illustrations so that his readers could see what he described.

Your work isn’t published until someone else reads it. Maybe the bravest part of the process is turning your work over to someone else so you can listen to their feedback.

 

 

Stories on a Plane

 

southwestPlease don’t sit here, I silently willed to the people passing by. It’s an almost full flight. I continued hoping that the travelers would keep moving toward the back of the plane, passing up the empty middle seat next to me.

“Mind if I sit here?” one shy traveler asked.

I looked up to see a man 10 in his mid-60s asking the question. He sat down, yielding the armrest to me, and smiled a playful grin. How could I not like him?

“So, what do you do?” I asked, thinking I might be able to start and finish the obligatory conversation, and move on to the book I was holding. He had no carry on luggage.

“I farm,” he said. “In Central Nebraska.”

And then he told me his story. He runs a family farm in Central Nebraska, approximately 30 fields that span 30 miles. From Kearney to Gibbon, much of it on rented land.

At first, he and his father farmed. Then he and his brother farmed. Now it’s him and his two sons. His grandsons have said they want to farm, too. Sure it’s hard, but they find ways to keep going.

His wife suffers from MS, a debilitating disease that shuts down muscle groups one by one. She’s had it almost 20 years. Five of her high school classmates were diagnosed with it and have passed away. She considers herself fortunate.

I’m leaning in. “How do you cope?” I asked.

Every morning he gets out of bed, fixes her breakfast and helps her get dressed before he heads off to farm. She reads a lot of books, he tells me. Including the Bible. Friends call her and grandchildren stop by after school to visit with her. She gets around in a wheelchair. She keeps a phone close by so that if she falls, she can call him and he can help her.

One day, after a faithful friend who calls every morning didn’t get an answer, the friend called her husband, the farmer who immediately went home and found his wife on the bathroom floor.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he asked.

“I knew you would be home soon,” she said.

Another day he came home and found her on the floor surrounded by grandchildren. She had fallen, and they couldn’t help her up. They made the best of it by playing cards together until he returned. They looked up and smiled at him as he entered the house.

I want to meet this woman, I thought to myself. She sounds wonderful.

Yes, it’s hard, he continued. She’s frustrated that she can’t do more for herself, but she refuses to give in to self-pity. “You can leave me,” she once said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

“No,” he said. “This is the life God has given us. We’ll find a way to make it work as best as we can.”

Children, grandchildren and a network of friends, including those from church, help him keep that promise to her. The plane descended toward the airport and the captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign.

After thinking for a moment, he said, “I get up every morning and I know God is with me. That’s how I cope.”

The presence of God, that’s his secret. Friends and family help, but his faith is the glue that holds it all together. God never promised a pain free life, but he did promise his presence. “I will be with you always,” Christ said. “Even to the end of the age.”