Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

Have you read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal? The story is gentle and kind, its pictures tender and sincere. It has quieted many a rambunctious child in my own chaotic house.

In celebration of its sequel, Amos McGee Misses the Bus, Philip Stead, author, and Erin Stead, illustrator, spoke on Weekend Edition Saturday (NPR) about writing stories untethered to time.

Aiming for classic status for Amos, the Steads approach their work not in terms of the risks they like to take but of the limitations they like to impose: “‘We didn’t want to necessarily be that rigid,’ says Philip Stead. ‘But…there’s something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project.'”

He refers to the deliberately defined color palette by which Erin Stead’s images, so delicate and precise, become durable. But he makes a more universal point. Limitations, parameters, and boundaries can be a conduit to creation.

We often perceive limitations as restrictions holding us back or obstacles keeping us from our goals. But limitations–certainly of color, form, and genre, but also of time, desire and will–can stimulate inventive solutions.

We see this at work in haikus, sonnets, villanelles (poetry in general), which raise expressions of limitations, or perhaps limited expressions, to an art form. But it’s a more flexibly applicable technique.

The task of creation is challenging, in part because the galaxy of invention is so vast. When everything is possible, it’s hard to make anything real. If we can choose all things, how can we settle on, much less commit to developing, any one thing?

But of course choices (usually) must be made. Decisions are very often required. In some cases, it can be surprisingly useful to narrow, even artificially, our choices. The Steads chose to limit their story to the subject of kindness and to restrict their color palette to “muted yellows, greens, blues and reds.” Other writers might find the imposition of a genre or a deadline a useful, even necessary, constraint.

It’s true that a limitation can be a hindrance. It’s also true that it can sometimes be a provocation.

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

The note-taker spectrum is broad: You might be a distractible doodler, an ambivalent-but-obliged recorder, a hyper-efficient graphomaniac, or a steadfast abstainer. While the devoted declare themselves by proximity to a favorite notebook, the reluctant might log random dates 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, project-oriented note-taking serves 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, and counterintuitively, note-taking forces us further from our subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between our subject and our sense of our subject. The resulting space offers—and sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Although note-taking fosters both intimacy and distance, both close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t the taking but the notes

When we take notes, we accumulate records of the things that mattered enough to us to be retained. Our notebook or app becomes a storehouse of observations to be consulted, used as evidence,  or considered a provocation for current or future work. It doesn’t really matter if the notes are clear or confusing: The simple act of retention invests our fleeting observations with the potential for future meanings.

Consequently, taking and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for those of us working on big or complicated projects. The practice might be an aid to productivity, but it will also 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.