The psychological tricks every writer needs.
Writers, as a side effect of being creative folk, are masters of the art of the excuse. We create all kinds of psychological barriers for ourselves when it comes time to get work done.
Time to pitch a story or an idea? Yeah, I’ll have a cup of tea first. Then maybe check Twitter. Oh, look at that, I need to trim my nails.
I love writers—you’re my favorite kind of people—but I have to admit, you lot drive me batshit crazy sometimes. That’s because I routinely find the following gems in my Inbox:
“I had a really good story for the New York Times but I didn’t know who to pitch.”
“Would you be able to direct me to any publication that needs health content? The payment doesn’t matter as much. I’m not looking for very high-paying markets, just decent ones, but I do want to write about health. It really is my first love.”
“I sent an editor a letter of introduction like you suggested. She e-mailed me back asking for ideas, but the problem is that this is a very technical publication and I don’t really have any ideas for her. HELP!”
So, writer #1 has convinced herself that she doesn’t have the necessary “contacts” to get work from The New York Times. Writer #2 can’t seem to figure out which publications accept health content (um, ALL OF THEM. Seriously, literally every single publication on this planet will buy a targeted health story if it applies to its audience), and writer #3 is out of ideas. Ideas, the currency of our trade, the reason you want to quit your job and become a writer (or already did!)
You know and I know that these are not actual problems.
They are psychological barriers you’ve put in your path by convincing yourself that you’re not connected enough, creative enough, or smart enough to figure these things out.
My goal is to tear down those barriers. I will take you from a place where you view these bottlenecks not as challenges but as pieces of the puzzle that you’re yet to snap into place.
When you have the market and the idea, all that’s left to do is figure out who the editor is, and send. Some of you will find that you’re still facing resistance. That despite having everything right in front of you, you hesitate to write that email and hit send on that pitch.
The reasons are as varied as you are. Some combination of fear of rejection, not knowing how to start, feeling like you have no clips, feeling like you have no time, not knowing how to do it, thinking querying is too much work for no reward, finding fault with the publication, not liking the editor’s grumpy face, or any other random reason that you can think of. I’ve heard quite a few.
Pick any reason you like. Its root cause is fear. Fear is why you don’t get work done, and then feel like a failure.
We talk ourselves out of pitching all the time. Even the most experienced among us do it. I was thisclose to breaking into MIT Tech Review last year. The editor and I had an ongoing conversation and he’d asked me to revise my pitch about three times. The fourth time, when it was time for me to shine, to get my acceptance and my $2 a word assignment, I bailed. I couldn’t find the right twist to the idea, but more than that, I had simply lost confidence. After three revisions of my pitch, I convinced myself that I wasn’t ever going to break in and so I didn’t.
That’s not all. In the same month, an editor at Parents loved an essay I wrote for the New York Times Motherlode blog and asked me to submit something for the magazine. I convinced myself I didn’t have time, and that I didn’t want to write on spec. Excuses, excuses. I would love to get published in Parents and essays are almost always written on spec.
So why didn’t I? Hard to say, but I think I’m afraid I’m going to open the parent part of myself up and they’re going to reject it.
So yeah, we all do it.
How do we not? How do we get over ourselves and get work done? Read on.
Understand, Not Judge
“I know it’s stupid,” a writer said to me not long ago. “All I have to do is sit down and write up the idea that is in my head and send it. But I can’t. I sit there like an idiot and can’t find the nerve to send my query. I realize this is why I can’t succeed as a writer.”
I don’t need to point out all the judgment in that one short paragraph. We all do it. And I actually think being harsh on ourselves sometimes is not a bad thing. However, if it is constantly stopping you from achieving your goals, you need to calmly and rationally think about the reasons you don’t do certain things, such as pitching regularly, and ask how you’re going to fix it.
For instance, a few years ago, I found I was constantly coming down to the wire on my deadlines. I would send in my stories with only minutes to go. Twice, I missed a deadline. It was no big deal. But until then, I had prided myself on never having missed a deadline and I was an incredibly fast writer. But for some reason, I was suddenly frozen in front of the screen, unable to write anything.
I had to figure out where I was stumbling and why, so the next time I got an assignment, I just casually noted how and where the resistance started appearing. I got my research done in time, got the interviews done, and typed up the notes. Then, it was time to write, and I froze up. I procrastinated on the assignment for days and sure enough, the day of the deadline arrived and I hadn’t yet written the story.
Eventually, I figured myself out. When it came to stories I was passionate about, the words in my head were much better than the words I put on paper. The fear of not meeting my own very high expectations made me block up on the page. I thought it strange at the time, but psychologically, it makes perfect sense. This period of doubt happened almost immediately after I had won an award for my journalism. I was scared of living up to my own success. My very own Harper Lee moment!
Anyway, now that I knew the problem, I needed to meet the resistance in my head. I fought the fear by making detailed outlines of the stories I worked on. I told myself I could have ten, fifteen, twenty tries to get it right. There were a few times when I wrote about four different opening paragraphs for stories because I didn’t need the pressure of the perfect opening.
Most writers I know want to make marketing a part of their routine. Most struggle. What is it about marketing that puts you off? Is it the part where you have to search for information? The part where you have to write the pitch? Or the parts where you hear back? Try to narrow down which parts of the process make you uncomfortable. And then see if you can find ways to counter that discomfort.
It’s a personal battle and different for everyone. But here’s a universal truth. If you want to succeed—in anything, from running fast to writing well—you must get work done. And to do that, you must battle your inner demons.
If you’re facing a fear of rejection, for instance, my telling you that it happens to everyone is probably not very helpful. I’d recommend that you flip it around to make rejection a positive thing. My friend Angela Giles Klocke, started a group many years ago in which she encouraged writers to aim for 100 rejections in a year. If you fear failure, this is exactly what you should do. Make the rejections a positive. Collect them. Compete with someone to see who can get more first.
Your first assignment of the day is this: Think about the parts of querying that you resist the most and find ways to tackle that resistance.
If you’re struggling with confidence, find an easy win. The more work you have to get done, and the more daunting it is, the more beneficial that first easy win becomes.
When I went full time with my writing again after my son was born, I spent the first two weeks sending out queries to publications that had, so far, seemed out of my league. I pitched several magazines that pay $2 a word or more; I even queried an editor who assigns at $3 a word. Two weeks later, I had heard from none of those publications (not even with rejections), which, while completely normal and expected, can make a writer feel defeated.
When I told my husband that I was all but ready to give up, he said something that every writer should tape up on the wall.
“Give yourself a few easy wins,” he said.
What he meant was that since my confidence was shaky, I needed to regain it by doing something that would take minimum effort on my part, but would achieve the result I was after. A win is a win, even if it’s a small win. What I needed to do was send ideas to editors who love me and always buy my work. Or to lower-paying magazines that were eager to work with excellent writers and where I might have a higher shot at acceptance.
I sent out two queries almost immediately. One editor gave me a new assignment right away. Another not only gave me an article to write, but also the schedule for the next few months so that I could start looking for stories that could fit into future issues. Small, comfortable wins. Wins that made me feel like I had achieved something, taken a small step forward.
After that, I was back on track. I became productive as hell, in fact. I got work done. Made money. Kicked ass.
Go after an easy win today. I want you to feel a buzz after you’ve sent your first pitch. So, pick the easiest market off your list and send them a query letter. Just get work done and worry about the rest later.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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