Making Time to Write—Two Strategies from Bob Pozen

pozen_HBSAre you too busy to write? Before you answer, consider Bob Pozen.

Bob Pozen is busy. As chairman emeritus of MFS Investment and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, he essentially works 2 high-profile jobs. At the same time, he’s a prolific writer. In addition to producing an avalanche of articles, he wrote Too Big To Save? How to Fix the US Financial System and other books.

How does he get all that writing done?

Pozen revealed his productivity secrets in a series of interviews conducted by Justin Fox for the Harvard Business Review blog network. These led Pozen to write yet another book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.

Focus on thinking—not time

Fox asked about how to write quickly, and Pozen’s reply blows me away. He turned the question around:

A lot of people confuse a thinking problem with a writing problem. In order to write quickly, I need to see the line of argument very clearly. If I don’t fully understand the line of argument, I cannot write even a paragraph. My brain won’t let my pen move.

In order to spell out the logic of the argument, you need to compose an outline before writing. Only by playing around with an outline can you get comfortable with the key steps in the argument. For an article or a speech, an outline does not have to be long or detailed. Just the four or five key points, with a few sub-points under each.

True, a book is more complicated than an article. For books, Pozen writes a detailed outline and then sends it out to reviewers before drafting chapters. The strategy is essentially the same—start by thinking clearly through the whole of what you want to say.

See the first draft as a process of discovery

Even though your outline (table of contents) represents a complete prototype for your book, you’re going to learn a lot more when you flesh it out into a series of chapters. As Pozen said:

After you clarify your thinking by writing an outline, you’ve got to be willing to write a first draft that is rough. Most people feel they have to write a really good first draft and that’s why they get writer’s block. In many cases, it’s only when you actually finish your first draft that it comes to you how the whole piece fits together.

That short paragraph unpacks a lot. First comes one the most common pieces of writing advice—let the first draft be rough. Keep your expectations low.

Then Pozen adds something profound and easy to forget: When creating a first draft, you’re still finding out what you want to say. In fact, we could justifiably call this process something other than “writing”—like creating a “discovery document” or “expanding the table of contents.”

Don’t even say that you’re “writing a book” until you start the second draft.

Semantic games? Try it and see what happens.

Are Your Writing Deadlines Meaningless?

I need cofeeA colleague once said to me, “I don’t just do my best writing under deadline. I do my only writing under deadline.”

However, there is a time to set deadlines—and a time to avoid setting deadlines. Until we understand this distinction, the deadlines we set are likely to be 1) arbitrary and 2) a source of suffering.

What makes setting deadlines so hard?

Estimating the amount of time that a book project will take is the toughest part of my job. I’ve been known to screw up here. Man, that stings, because estimating time is the basis of budgeting as well.

There are many factors at work:

  • Almost every book is an unknown. Your freshly minted manuscript is as unique as a newborn baby. Nothing like it has ever existed before. It presents unique problems and that call for unique solutions. As much as I want to apply a template to book development, it never works.
  • Ideas are fragile. They break easily. Push on them and they might just scurry back into that hole in the floor. Translating ideas into words and images exposes them to the harsh glare of objectivity. I’ve seen reams of pages disappear under this light. Sometimes you even discover that you have nothing to say. Has it happened to you yet? It will.
  • Your collaborators are fragile. Are you writing with a co-author? Yikes! That person differs from you. He or she has a different schedule, a different way of thinking, and a different writing process. Giving each other feedback on your writing is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Bruised feelings can slow down your progress or grind the project to a halt.

The above mean that you’re in for surprises. Any of these factors can throw a wrench into your schedule.

Ask three questions first

If you answer to any of the following is no, then don’t set deadlines yet:

Write a proposal first

Beyond the one day test and one page test is the book proposal. A good proposal makes the business case for your book, articulates the major ideas in a compelling way, and states your plan for fleshing them out into a full manuscript. With a proposal in hand, you’re in much better shape to set deadlines.

There are many ways to approach a book proposal. Start with my post. Then see Michael Hyatt andJane Friedman for guidance.

Still, it never gets easy. As David Foster Wallace said at the end of this speech, “I wish you way more than luck.”

Building a Marketing Platform and Online Presence—Three Alternative Viewpoints

JMM_0564Every day I get an email from someone who wants to sell me a course about building a marketing platform and making money online. Lately my eyes glaze over when reading the stuff. It’s an echo chamber that’s rife with repetition:

Get as many eyeballs as possible on your website…. Blog, blog, blog…. Build your email list…. Get more followers on Twitter and Facebook…. Start podcasting now…. Master video today….

I got a heavy dose of platform building tips during my time on Michael Hyatt’s Platform University. I also canceled my membership after one month.

Lately, though, I’ve read some inspiring posts about building an online presence that go beyond counting eyeballs.

Maria Popova on Brain Pickings

Maria Popova created Brain Pickings—ad-free, reader-supported, and wildly popular. In an interview with Jocelyn K. Glei about Staying Present and Grounded in the Age of Information Overload, Maria said a couple things that took the top of my head off:

You know, it’s funny because I frequently get emails from young people starting out and asking, “How do I make a successful website or start my own thing?” And, very often, it’s tied to some measure of success that’s audience-based or reach-based. “How do you build up to seven million readers a month or two million Facebook fans?” But the work is not how to get that size of an audience or those numbers…. The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers—on that constant positive reinforcement and external validation….

I read things that stimulate me and inspire me and help me figure out how to live and then I write about them. The fact that there are other people who enjoy it is nice, but it’s just a byproduct.

Leo Babauta on Building Zen Habits

Leo Babauta claims that over one million people read his blog Zen Habits every month. I have no reason to doubt him. Though I have some reservations about Leo’s content, I don’t question his integrity.

In notes on writing, Leo describes his vision of a great website:

Writers and other creators really want to make a living online, so they fill up their blogs with junk that they think will make money. But the junk is disrespectful of the reader, and so the reader goes away. Trying to force people to be on your mailing lists by making them sign up to get stuff, or putting a popup in their faces before they can read your content, is disrespectful. Ads and affiliate stuff are tiresome for the reader. Here’s how to make a living online: create great stuff that will help people, and build a readership. Then create great stuff and sell it to those readers in a respectful way, while still giving away your free great stuff.

In Confidence in Your Business, he reiterates:

Maybe you see people who’ve made millions online: How did they do it? Internet marketing. They built mailing lists, then manipulated those lists through emotional tactics, social proof, creating false urgency, building funnels, warming up the lists, making the potential customers think they need this or they’ll fail….

All of a sudden, your excellent blog is pushing me to join a mailing list to get a free report. There’s a popup trying to get me to enter my email address. If I do, I start to get all kinds of emails I don’t want, trying to push me into a funnel. You post a thousand things to social media trying to get me interested in your sale….

What if, instead, you had confidence in your business? You created something of value and believed it would help people? You made its value and how much it helps people your metrics.

You can learn more about Leo’s approach in How I Conduct My Business and his interview with Jessica Jalsevac about Principles for Running Your Business.

James Altucher on Writing for a Living

James Altucher is one of the most prolific and omnipresent people on the Internet. His book Choose Yourself has sold over 100,000 copies. So I was surprised when I found this sentence in his post How to Write for a Living: “PLATFORM IS SHIT.” He elaborates:

I agree it’s important to have some Internet presence. You need to sell your first 1000 books once you publish and the Internet is a good way to do it.

But your free audience is not the way to do it. They read your blog for free. They don’t even want to fork over 99 cents to buy your book.

I will give you an example: on my last book, “Choose Yourself!” I obviously encouraged my readers to buy it. But another group, Stansberry Research, recommended it to their paying subscribers.

In two weeks through them I sold tens of thousands of books. It took my free audience, which was millions bigger, three months to catch up in sales to an audience that had never even heard of me before.

Even though your blog won’t sell books, it’s still important to build an online presence, says James:

I encourage people to find online communities that they like and feel like participating in and start blogging there or guest posting there.

If you are unsure of where and how to blog, start by practicing on a site like Quora, which is a question and answer site that also hosts blogs.

Practice answering questions there. See what gets upvoted and what doesn’t. Improve your skills. See if you enjoy it. Then start taking some of your answers and making them into a blog. Then start guest posting on other sites.

Bonus: Patrick Rhone on His Personal Brand

I live in Minneapolis, and on the other side of the Mississippi, in exotic Saint Paul, dwells Patrick Rhone. He’s got several websites, including Minimal Mac and The Cramped—The Unique Pleasures of Analog Writing.

Patrick’s wise and compassionate presence is as refreshing as a slow, deep breath. I especially enjoy his ideas about personal branding. Basically, he ignores it:

Because, I now know that worrying about “personal branding” and “social media strategy” and the rest of that silliness has ZERO to do with success….

Seth [Godin] doesn’t even host a blog on his own domain name. He uses TypePad for gosh sake! The only personal brand he has is this: He shows up, every day, with helpful advice about (mostly) marketing and life. He shows up with a desire and willingness to create things that help people be better at sales and marketing.

The only personal brand I strive to develop is genuine kindness and a desire to help others.

Are you willing to do the work? Do you, or do you not, want to help people?

Is Your Content Good? Test It With These Three Questions

DSCN8165In creating the marketing platform for your book, what counts most is the quality of your ideas. David Ogilvy, the legendary advertising executive said, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.”

An essential task for idea entrepreneurs is sifting through all the content we create and choosing which ideas to develop. Sometimes we’ll float an idea online and ask for initial reactions. But when it comes to going public with an idea over the long term, we need to ask some tough questions.

Following are questions that matter most to me. They won’t surprise you. But are you willing to ask them consistently—and answer them honestly?

1. Is This Idea New?

Perhaps you’ve read a book or sat through a presentation and said to yourself, I’ve heard this all before. When a critical mass of our audience members react this way, we have a problem.

Why would anyone bother with our content unless we offer something new—or present familiar ideas in a fresh and compelling way?

2. Have I Tested This Idea?

According to Ryan Holiday—whom I admire and wrote about here—the most “self-destructive” impulse you have is “believing that thing it took you two seconds to come up with was a genius idea.” He adds:

Contributions come from taking the time to develop a deep understanding of everything at play and more often than not, coming up with gradual improvements and suggestions. They come from the rigor and discipline of really knowing something. Half your ideas get thrown away. More than half deserve to be thrown away. Maybe there is some vaunted genius out there whose every thought is mind-blowing but that person is not you.

That’s in-your-face (and mine), isn’t it? But think about what we ask of our audiences—to invest their precious time, energy, attention, and money in our ideas. They will be tough on us. Let’s be prepared.

I’ve written many times about the why’s and how’s of testing ideas. For example:

The Art of Crap Detection

Before You Publish, Try to Destroy Your Ideas

Won’t Get Fooled Again—Three Levels of Credibility in Self-Help Books

Does Your Personal Experience Prove Anything?

Three Questions to Ask Before Writing a Book

The Ultimate Challenge for Idea Entrepreneurs—Practicing What You Preach

Three Complaints About Self-Help Books

John Butman on Stories, Methods, and Metrics—Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Backfire on Authors

3. Does My Message Fit the Medium?

One way to develop a book manuscript is to draft it as a series of blog posts—the blog to book method.

At the same time, remember that a collection of blog posts is only a rough draft of your book. Those posts will need a radical makeover before they remotely resemble a book manuscript.

Why? Because online content and books are starkly different media. For details, I’ll refer you to this article by Jakob Nielsen, an expert in user experience research. If you are an idea entrepreneur and read only one thing today, make it this.

Finding Time to Write—One Thing That Actually Works

DSCN5673Idea entrepreneurs need to write. Writing is the most precise way to collect, incubate, test, and share ideas. The problem is finding time to write.

You can bore through the time management literature for suggestions. But I’ll save you some time. Here’s what actually works:

Stop doing other things that are less important than writing. Then schedule a regular time to write every day.

Hardly sexy advice. But then again, the useful stuff often isn’t.

Eric Barker—author of the blog Barking Up The Wrong Tree (“How to be awesome at life”)—expands on my suggestion in the following posts.

6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every DayApply some “80/20″ thinking: 1. What handful of activities are responsible for the disproportionate number of your successes? 2. What handful of activities absolutely crater your productivity? 3. Rearrange your schedule to do more of #1 and to eliminate #2 as much as possible.

Spend time wisely: How to focus on the things that matterPlan ahead and protect a period of time every day, probably in the morning, and use it to do the long term things that matter.

Here’s The Schedule Very Successful People Follow Every DayIn studies of geniuses, most did their best work early in the day…. Can’t do the work of your choice when the day starts? Get in early or work from home before you head into the office.

Chris Bailey echoes Barker’s posts and adds some juicy suggestions of his own in The top 10 lessons I learned from A Year of Productivity.

Also remember that you can ease into regular writing by making it a tiny habit.

This effort it worth it. As Ben Casnocha points out, regular writing is as essential as breathing if you value critical and creative thinking:

A lot of busy people say they wish they had more time to “think” — to be proactively thoughtful rather than reactive. But “thought time” is a hard thing to actually schedule, let alone measure. Writing, on the other hand, is something you can schedule to do and then evaluate and measure the output (e.g. 700 words a day or a blog post a week). When someone tells me they don’t do much writing anymore, I sometimes wonder, When do you think deep-ish thoughts? And how do you ever know how coherent your thoughts actually are?

John Butman on Stories, Methods, and Metrics—Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Backfire on Authors

breaking-outAuthor John Butman got a daily email from TED—the organization dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading.” This got John to wondering: “Are these really ideas? Are they truly worth spreading? Who is trying to spread them and why, and to what end?”

In a talk at the Chautauqua Institution’s Hall of Philosophy, John Butman shared his answers. Before you make plans to write a nonfiction book, set aside an hour to watch the video at the end of this post. It’s essential viewing.

Two Key Terms

First, a bit about John and his wonderful book Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas, which I’ve posted about here and here. He coined two terms that turned my head around.

One is ideaplex, which John defines as “all the activities by which we create, we distribute, and we consume ideas.” This includes publishing and other media, academia, consultants, think tanks, conferences, and events such as TED. John describes the ideaplex as “an enormous idea generation and consumption industry in this country like never before seen on the face of the Earth and like none that exists anywhere else on Earth besides the U.S.”

Second is idea entrepreneur—a “new kind of cultural player” who emerges from the ideaplex and fuels it. These people don’t primarily sell products or services. They sell ideas about “how other people might think differently and behave differently and act and make decisions differently.”

Meet the Idea Entrepreneur

So who are the idea entrepreneurs? Stephen Covey was one. So was Gandhi. So is Cesar Millan, Sheryl Sandberg, Atul Gawande, Al Gore, Reid Hoffman, Malcolm Gladwell, and even Eckhart Tolle. If you want more examples, just check any list of best-selling non-fiction books and look for the authors, especially in the “advice” and “business” categories.

“They’re all sort of hybrid characters,” says John about idea entrepreneurs. “They come from very different backgrounds. But they bring together aspects of the educator, the entertainer, the practitioner, the evangelist, the entrepreneur—and, yeah, there’s a bit of huckster in most of them.”

Three Key Methods

So how do successful idea entrepreneurs cut through the vast noise of ideaplex and actually change people’s beliefs and behaviors? According to John, idea entrepreneurs rely on three methods that are “seductive—and fraught with complications”:

  • Personal stories, which can be gripping—and apocryphal.
  • Methods—instructions for how to do things, which can be useful but not cover every contingency.
  • Metrics—measure of success that can yield valuable feedback or meaningless data.

Check out John’s talk for the details.

The Combination Self-Help/Memoir Book—Five Reasons to Avoid It

photoPeople have told me that my life is so interesting…. I’ve overcome a lot of adversity…. I really think that my story could help people…. My family thinks I should write a book.

My heart breaks when I hear these words. People do suffer unspeakable horrors. But then some people want to write about it in an uplifting way. And it’s my job to tell them that their efforts are almost certainly doomed. Here’s why.

1 These Genres War With Each Other

A memoir, by definition, is all about you.

Self-help is not about you. It, by definition, is about what helps the reader.

These two aims are fundamentally opposed. They are almost impossible to reconcile.

Of course, many self-help authors include personal stories. But stories in this context serve only as illustrations and examples. They are not the point.

2 Overcoming Adversity Is Not Enough

You suffered and lived to tell about it. I celebrate that—really. But this alone does not qualify you to offer help to other people.

People are infinitely complex, and their circumstances differ widely. Do you actually have the credentials and experience to help all of them?

Yes, we learn from experience. But your particular experience may be so unique that it can’t be generalized. And, the lessons that you drew from your experience can self-serving, biased, or flat out erroneous. If that’s true, then what you have to say might actually hurt people rather than help them.

3 You Have to Ignore Feedback From People Who Care About You

Your friends and family members care about you. They’ve known you for a long time. They’re naturally interested in you. Of course.

This is exactly why they are worthless as sources of feedback on your writing.

If there are gaps in your writing, friends and family can often fill them in. They have a rich context that most readers will never have. Plus, these folks want to protect your ego. This means that they will stroke it instead of telling you what they really think.

4 Your Life Story Must Be Compelling and Unusual

Most of what we do is utterly forgettable. We get out of bed, run our routines for 16 hours or so, and then go back to bed. Honestly, who cares?

Beyond that, many of us live for decades with complications that are never fully resolved. This is not uplifting. It’s just sad.

Yes, there are people whose raw life story is inherently dramatic (Malcolm X, for example). Are you one of those people? Really?

5 You Have to Write Well

Writing a good book is a long slog. Chances are that your first attempt—and your second and third—will not be worth publishing.

It takes time to get good at writing—a lot of time. Usually this means cranking out hundreds of thousands of words for practice that never see the light of day.

Here is what amazes me: People commonly acknowledge that mastery of a field—anything from plumbing to brain surgery—takes years of time and effort. Yet these same people want to strike gold with their first attempt at writing.

Go figure.

For more on this topic, turn to people who are wiser than me:

Turn Your Notes Into an Extended Brain

SONY DSCWhen explaining how he finished three books in three years, Ryan Holiday said: “Always be researching.” In fact, Ryan’s books all begin as a humble collection of note cards, which become blog posts and then book chapters. (He describes his method here.)

Ryan’s method is one form of distributed cognition — using tools such as note cards and computers to extend our thinking. After all, your mind does not reside only in your brain. It’s distributed across all the objects that you use to incubate and share ideas.

For me, the practical application of distributed cognition is to change the way that I take notes. My goals are to:

  • Capture ideas faithfully from many different sources
  • Recall ideas easily (and never forget them)
  • Combine ideas creatively
  • Ease into writing projects

Instead of a simple pile of archived notes, I want a personal bank of ideas that grows organically over time and becomes an active partner in thinking.

Turns out that there’s a word in German for such a thing — zettelkastenChristian Tietze defines it as “a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.”

Christian has written about this extensively and has a book in process. His blog posts tagged Zettelkasten are here. Following are some of my favorites.

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten: Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes.

Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten: In short, you and your note archive can communicate with one another if the results your archive produces are sufficiently surprising and thought-inspiring.

You Only Find What You Have Identified: The objective of a Zettelkasten note archive is to store notes and allow connections. Both are necessary to extend our mind and memory.

Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing: Notes can and should stimulate new associations and foster your creativity just like a good talk does.

The Need to Craft: Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.

Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing: A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through.

Note: The zettelkasten is another version of the commonplace book.

Shakespeare on Crap Detecting Ideas

Quote

 

Edwin_Booth_Hamlet_1870

Thus has he—and many more of the same bevy that I know the drossy age dotes on—only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter, a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.

— Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

 

He’s like so many successful people in these trashy times—he’s patched together enough fancy phrases and trendy opinions to carry him along. But blow a little on this bubbly talk, and it’ll burst. There’s no substance here.

—Modernized version of the above quote, from the No Fear Shakespeare rendering of Hamlet

Celebrating Mistakes—Or, The Joy of Wrecks

DSC_9955I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot . . . and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed—Michael Jordan

I never learned a thing from a tournament I won—Bobby Jones, golfer

Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses—Rosalind Russell, actress *

This is an ode to mistakes.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from instructions in books, and from people who serve as positive role models in my daily life.

But my most powerful and persistent teachers have been my mistakes.

And, the mistakes that embarrassed me the most have also taught me the most.

Please understand: I do not mean that I set out to make mistakes. Instead, I strive to do my best. And, if I do make a mistake, I look for a lesson to learn.

*****

I can write about mistakes with authority. Why? Because I have made so many.

Once upon a time I reduced a client to tears by editing her work. She had no idea that there are different kinds of editors. As a content editor, I spent hours crafting structural changes to her book manuscript. She thought I was a proofreader who was merely going to “dot her i’s and “cross her t’s.”

Big mistake.

The lesson: Always explain to clients what you do. Don’t assume that they know.

For another project, I spent weeks editing a book manuscript and greatly expanding the content. Then the designer “poured” the text into his book template.

The result: I’d submitted 200 pages of material beyond the client’s desired page limit.

Two. Hundred. Pages.

Another big mistake.

The lesson: Clarify word counts up front. Then use your text editor to regularly check word counts before you submit a manuscript.

When people approach me about working on a book project, I’ve assumed that they have something to say—and enough content to justify at least 20,000 words of text.

Yet another big mistake.

The lesson: Ask yourself three crucial questions before starting a book project. If the answer to all three is yes, then begin with a book proposal.

My wish for you: May you forever be blessed by the lessons you take from your mistakes.

*These quotes are taken from But They Did Not Give Up—something to read whenever you make a mistake.