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Sometimes, the most mundane habits that are the most useful. So it is with note-taking. 

The note-taker spectrum is broad: There are the desultory note-takers, the doodling note-takers, the distracted note-takers, the ambivalent but obliged note-takers, the hyper-efficient note-takers, the graphomanic note-takers, and everything in between. On one end, the devoted declare themselves by their proximity to their favorite notebook; on the other, the reluctant announce their status with random dates recorded in Notes.

(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, note-taking can serve important functions.

First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.

Second, note-taking extends our distance to a subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between the subject and our sense of the subject. The resulting divide offers—sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Third, while note-taking enables intimacy and distance, close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t necessarily the taking but the notes. Note-taking is the means by which we accumulate records. A repository of what we noticed stands as a material memory of the things that mattered enough, to us, at least, to be written down.

This is the case whether notes are clear or confusing. Ask any archivist: Notes are observations’ receipts, and those who collect receipts are the record-keepers upon which narrative power depends.

Consequently, taking notes and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for writers and narrators. Start or renew your note-taking efforts by having an always-open doc, always-available app, or always-ready notebook available in which to observe details, retain dates, and manage projects. The practice may act as an aid to productivity, but it will certainly provide past evidence for future meanings.  

Asking for feedback isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody, and it’s especially not easy for writers.

In our workaday professional lives, feedback is a necessary efficiency. It offers an opportunity to put in a targeted effort when it’s still useful to do so. We may grit our teeth and assume a protective position, but we ask for feedback anyway. Perhaps we’ll find our efforts have been sufficient and well-placed, but we know to prepare for the possibility that more, better effort is necessary.

In our writing lives, however, soliciting feedback and critique can feel a bit more impossible. Although writing is a professional pursuit, it often requires intensely personal inputs, not just the proverbial blood, sweat, tears, but also hours of time and muscular effort. When you have tried very hard for a very long time to express a very difficult idea that’s very important to you, it can feel almost dangerous to find out if those efforts have been well placed.

In addition, writers, whether part- or fulltime, nonfiction or fiction, often feel a deep sense of intimacy with their work. Passion projects, career capstones, or manuscripts that have been years in the making are frequently imbued with a writer’s hopes, dreams, and desires. Once a manuscript takes shape, you may feel it contains too much of your essential self to be offered up for critique.

Do it anyway.

We all know that feedback (almost) always makes its object stronger. This is particularly the case for writing, where feedback can help writers widen the gap between their experiences and their representation.

As previously discussed, this gap is necessary: We want the gap—we need the gap. Without it, our experiences are too insular and singularly referential to be meaningful to others. Feedback can let us know if our writing offers a real and useful guide through our interiority.  

Feedback’s value is ultimately universal: It’s (almost) always an aid to efficiency, enabling  that targeted, useful, and necessary effort. Writers may need to assume a protective position and armor themselves, but they should take every opportunity to solicit feedback, too.

Road Running

Brian Stevenson / Getty Images

For most of my life, I’ve found comfort and catharsis in running. The relentlessness of the pace and its imperative to persist (almost) always help quiet my busy brain.

Like many dedicated runners, I’d always assumed that, sooner or later, I’d run a marathon. For years, I waited for inspiration to strike. When it did—usually while clicking through finish-line pics of exhausted-but-elated marathoners—I expected motivation to follow. But the sustained urge never arrived.

Over time, I upped my mileage, hoping that, eventually, I’d need to, I’d just have to run a marathon. But many miles were logged, and still I failed to feel the urgency commensurate with the goal. It wasn’t until these last months of Covid-provoked upheaval and change passed that I remembered that I can change, too.

Among other experiments, I decided to try a training plan. Which I hated. Change is hard, and new learning curves are often very sharp. The plan insisted on showing me, with spreadsheet severity, that what seemed possible in the abstract was impossible in practice: I couldn’t hit my paces; my watch was constantly disappointed in my efforts; and marathon mileage felt totally out of reach.

I decided I wasn’t going to run a marathon after all—clearly, I wouldn’t be able to, anyway. Instead, I’d just have to work on disciplining myself to the plan, and that would have to be enough.

Surprisingly? It was.

Many weeks have now passed, and I’ve made that imperfect plan a part of my every day. This is not to say that I hit my paces (I don’t) or that my watch is happy with me (never). But marathon mileage is in reach, and its proximity has given me the motivation, the drive (if not necessarily the need) I passively sought in the past.

What lessons have I drawn from this experience? A few, but among the most meaningfully applicable: The discipline is the goal.

When a goal is too big, or too diffuse, or maybe even too quiet to command attention, a plan to start and a commitment to continue can bring it into view and therefore in reach. I didn’t have to need to or have to run a marathon. I could simply want to, and start from there.  

Chuck Close famously observed that “inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s one way to describe it. But here I think Rilke offers a more philosophical sourcebook: You don’t yet know the answers. That’s okay—you don’t have to. You inhabit your answers by first living your questions.

For some of us, the new year provokes a Pavlovian response. Every January, the month and year conspire, and time seems to be both starting over and running out. Some respond to the conspiracy by becoming, for a moment or more, their most industrious, goal-setting selves. Others might be paralyzed by illusory, elusive possibility.  

In a typical year, the first week of January means a new slate of queries at Modern Writing Services. The queries usually come from writers in the former category. They’ve been prompted, by the new-year fire, to grasp the hot iron of a long-envisioned book and make their mark.

But this year is not a typical year, and while it has closed so much down, it has also opened up a space for atypical queries. A number of writers who have reached out in this first week are the industrious, almost-finished kind. But a surprising number of others have reached out with goals they’ve only recently and tentatively identified as worthy of pursuit.

And this latter group is beginning to look like a trend.  

Because developmental work can be a long game, new-year queries often set a powerful focus. It’s early, but 2021 appears focused on women writers creating autobiographical passion projects that speak truth to power on issues of climate change, sex abuse, trauma and healing, and social justice.

It’s hard to make predictions from January’s vantage point, but if the trend holds, 2022 looks to be an incredible year. Not just for the health of our nation, but for writers and readers, too.

Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?

If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.

The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.

What should you do? You should take a break.

“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.

Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.

So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.

Stack of Papers

While most people benefit from plans, it’s often the preparation begotten by planning that matters more than the plan itself. This truism is attributed to Eisenhower, but its commonsense application pre- and postdates his mid-century usage.

First-time nonfiction authors, whether they walk the traditional or self-publication path, benefit from planning when they develop a completion* strategy in the earliest stages of drafting.

In most cases, this strategy begins by simply determining a completion date. The date is strategic not only because it encourages an author to set a realistic time frame in which to produce a book, but also because it invites an author to think ahead, anticipating the best-case timeline for publication and pointing to the larger continuum on which a book’s publication exists (on which completion is not completion but the beginning of the publication strategy).

Many authors are excited to set a completion date in the idea development stage. It’s only later, when faced with inexorable variables that limit progress, that authors feel the pressure of a self-imposed deadline. Of course, this is entirely as it should be. Everything feels possible before we begin—the exhilaration of possibility is the reason that some of us resist planning in the first place. It isn’t until we actually experience limitations (such as the inefficient cooperation of sources or coauthors) that we acutely feel their restrictive influence.

But pressure is often conducive to completion. And the date from which that pressure proceeds can help authors prepare for inevitable challenges, sometimes by helping to force different, more inventive, efforts at countering them.

There is another, less recognized reason for setting a completion date, too: The soft strategy authors develop for completion anticipates and readies them for that later stage of the continuum—the much harder, much more tactical strategy of publication.

*Let us stipulate that after reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, some of us will never be able to use the word “completion” without a sense of despair.

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I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s Instagram post on the top-ten of effective writing.

Of her successful, audience-tested suggestions, a few merit special attention, especially #1: Tell your story TO someone; #4: Don’t worry if it’s good, just finish it; and #9: What gets you [to keep going on a writing project] is not pride but mercy.

Although Gilbert’s expertise is in memoir and memoir-adjacent genres, every writer I know (including me) can benefit from the reminder that a story is always for someone. If you haven’t yet determined their identity, it’s you. Sometimes it makes sense to tell yourself your story, but the choice of audience will rigorously shape your delivery, so don’t abrogate the power.

Of course, it’s easy for a bestselling author to tell us that we shouldn’t worry if our work is good. But Gilbert is right: Perfectionism is the enemy of good; the challenger of completion; the rival of fulfillment. Getting the words down on paper is often the hardest thing writers do, but words can be revised, refined, and rarefied. Simply put, if you can’t get the words out, you can’t make them good. End of story.

Because getting the words out is so hard, writers do well to show themselves and their work mercy. Writers often write in spite of the difficulty and weakness of words, in spite of their inevitably truncated expressions. But writers who learn to view their efforts as temporary rather than permanent failures are better prepared to view revision as a compulsory part of their work. Unlike the writer motivated by pride and tripped up by missteps, a compassionate writer already understands that their words will never be quite good enough: They aim instead to make the words as resonant and meaningful as possible.

Writing is hard, but as Gilbert intimates, it can also be easy: Just pick your story, your listener, and your words…and then keep going until you’ve reached the end.

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Business owners and consultants frequently solicit our services for turning their content into a book. Niche business books can do excellent work in the world, but they often don’t because business-owning writers habitually mistake their primary audience.

A primary audience is the audience most likely to receive value from reading your book. These readers need your book because it has answers to their most-frequently-asked questions and offers them relevant and usable information.

Primary readers are not just inherently attracted to your book’s title; they also intuitively know where in the bookstore your book is likely to be shelved—usually because they read (or know the titles of) the other books with which your book is in conversation.

This means that your primary audience never has to work too hard to find and make use of your book’s value: Your book is written for—and to—them. You determine your book’s content, but your primary audience determines everything else, from the voice and style you adopt, to the types of evidence you use for support and persuasion.

Because the primary audience determines so much, correctly identifying it is crucial to your book’s success and should be completed in the foundational stages of strategizing your work.

This is not always easy to do. In fact, business owners often misidentify their primary audience as prospective rather than current clients. The difference may sound irrelevant, but the designation results in two very different books.

Books written for prospective clients have value, of course, but the value is usually narrowed to sales. Perhaps surprisingly, “capturing sales” is too-general a foundation: It may require comprehensive knowledge of your pitch, but it requires little to no knowledge of real readers. Without understanding them, writers will find it painfully difficult to meaningfully answer questions related to argument, voice, style, and even design and publication strategy. 

Mistaking prospective clients as a book’s primary audience will result in a bad book. But it’s a hard mistake to avoid because prospective clients are precisely the audience to whom business presentations are pitched.

In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss how to specifically identify your book’s primary audience so as to safeguard yourself from negative reactions, like, “This could’ve been a PowerPoint.” I’ll also show you how early identification of your audience makes the work of developing every other element of the book easier and more clear.

Most of us intuitively welcome sleep as one of the best and most important things in life. Its depth and duration redound not just in the quantity of our years but in the quality of those years, too. When National Geographic took an in-depth look at the benefits of sleep, it found that during sleep, spindles stimulate the cortex and help categorize new info according to the old info we’ve already acquired. And in episode two of its third season, Radio Lab showed how certain tasks can be better completed (or completed in the first place) after a good night’s—or even a good nap’s—sleep.

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Old research has frequently spoken to the brain benefits of this kind of “offline learning,” but new research argues that even tiny breaks are important to achieving new tasks. When we combine the ameliorating effects of resting and the incremental achievements gained through micro-ambition, we gain a better picture of “micro-offline gains”: the very small but very necessary work that enables skill acquisition.

Micro-offline gains suggest that skill acquisition depends not (or not just) on the active effort to learn a new skill or to complete a task but in the periods of rest we offer our brain to consolidate the information it’s working so hard to acquire. Ultimately, when we tax our brains with learning a new skill or staying focused on a big, integrated project, we accomplish more when we offer our brain more, very short, breaks.

Even when they’re just seconds long, these tiny breaks can aid our completion of the task at hand (or at least can aid our accomplishment in the steepest part of the learning curve). Unfortunately, the breaks aren’t the kind that include Instagram or other semi-conscious scrolling; rather, they’re micro-moments that mimic the consolidating effects of sleep.

Summer is a time for downshifting. Although I’ve already contributed to this cause by advocating for aiming lower, I’m now also arguing for interrupting your project with more guiltfree breaktime. This is especially true for my clients who struggle to make summer the most productive season of writing. It turns out that scheduling many opportunities for micro-offline gains can help with making connections and building arguments. The season requires it, and your brain will thank you by becoming smarter, faster.

Tiny trophy award

Tiny award available from Tokens and Trophies on Etsy

Micro-ambition, or “the passionate pursuit of short-term goals” is generally attributed to Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and somewhat of a renaissance man, who advocated for the term in a 2013 commencement address (which offers other truisms that I passionately endorse, including, “There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run”).

Whereas macro-ambition refers to the passionate pursuit of The Dream, micro-ambition refers to the work in front of you. Macro-ambition sometimes works for those with A Dream, but it doesn’t always lead to success, and the cost of pushing achievement into an indeterminate future can be high.*

That’s why while most of our clients procure our services in the pursuit of macro-ambition, we try to structure our offerings according to short-term goals and the work that needs to be done today. This sort of micro-ambition too neatly dovetails with the uniquely American dedication to life-hacking productivity, but micro-ambition does not advocate for productivity for its own sake. After all, there’s nothing either particularly ambitious or necessarily fulfilling about simply being “productive.”

Rather, we offer micro-ambitious services that we’ve typically described as “strategic.” For example, for an author working on a first draft of a memoir, we offer strategic prompts soliciting tiny stories that contribute to the memoir’s theme. Or, for an author testing out curriculum guidelines for inclusion in a guidebook, we help create smaller strategic publications to determine reader engagement and guideline efficacy.

Strategy has become too encompassing a word, though, probably because it has been just about fully pushed into the land of useless jargon (from which words rarely return). Micro-ambition, though at first glance just as useless, captures for the moment the very small achievements that can elicit the engaged work that ultimately adds up to A Dream, even if it’s not the dream the author first had in mind.

*Minchin’s existential takedown of the lifetime pursuit of A Dream: “[I]t’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter.”