8 things that still tick me off as a writer

Writers are very particular about their craft. We can be docile and quiet around you, but just disrespect the craft and you’ll see us all up in arms.

It’s not just the grammatical errors that scratches our vinyl.

There’s about 7 other things that happen every other week that makes me feel like tearing out my hair or beating someone up.

I know I should rise above and beyond, but it’s exhausting. The following list, in no particular order, are 8 things that get me ticked off:

 

  1. Everyone thinks they can write.

Everyone can write, but not everyone is a writer.

Look, we’re grateful for social media but tweeting and chatting is not writing. If you think everyone can do it, you honestly don’t understand what writing is.

  1. When people say writing is not so difficult.

“You just sit there and punch letters on a keyboard all day. How hard can it be?”

Bruh, writing is hard!

Most writers have to deal with crippling perfectionism and a constant fear of failure all the time. We agonize over every choice of word.

Sometimes I read and reread a paragraph until the words are a blur.

Writing is not for the faint hearted! It requires practice, diligence and focus.

  1. Editing is way easier than writing.

Writing is a bit like giving birth.

There was nothing, and then with patience, and lots of pain, something emerged.

And that something makes everyone happy.

Editing on the other hand involves honing someone else’s idea – after the person is done with all the hard work!

So it grates hard when some editors tear down your work.

Of course, most professional editors  wouldn’t.

But within an organization where every communication is subjected to peer review, writers suffer a lot under the reviewers/editors who usually have no idea what good writing looks like even if it hit them in the face.

Let me put it this way, it’s easier to paint a wall than it is to build it from scratch.

Writing is building. Editing is painting.

So take it easy with the snide commentary.

  1. Ask me to write or edit your [insert something] for free.

For some reason, a lot of people believe writers exist solely to serve their own needs.

After all, “you writers have so much free time. You just sit down in front of the PC all day.”

Uhm… would you ask your surgeon friend for free surgery?

Writing or editing your work would take me more time than getting rid of your appendix would take the surgeon.

Think about that!

  1. When people put up horrible notes on Facebook, tag everyone & wait for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This right here is the sole reason why I’d vote for Facebook to be shutdown. (This and Candy Crush invites).

Yes, there is freedom of speech and you are allowed to use your platform as you wish.

But please, write, hit publish and just leave it at that.

Don’t expect world hunger to cease simply because you put up a post.

Resist the urge to tag everyone. That voice telling you to ignore that previous sentence is the devil.

  1. When people write sentences using SMS lingo, even when they are not messaging.

I sometimes get emails with sentences like, “I hope 2 hear from u soon, thank u” or “U will defn8ly luv dem” and I often have to bite my tongue.

I do have some questions for them though. Like, are some of the letters on your keyboard missing? Do tell.

  1. When people use “affect” in place of “effect”, “I couldn’t care less” in place of “I could care less” and the most annoying of them all “their” in place of “there”.

For the love of all that is good, it would save us all months of migraines and therapy to learn the difference between these words. I think it’s best I leave it at that. Expatiating on this point may take the whole day and open up deep seethed wounds.

  1. Assume I am less busy because I sometimes get to work from home.

Don’t assume I have time to go pick up every single family member that comes into town from the airport. I do not have time. I may be in my drawers at 3 o’clock in the afternoon (as I am right this very minute) and I may be having a conversation with Molara, one of my madeup characters (which I also am right now) instead of being present at an office, but I am busy.

I am writing which means that I am working.

 

Phew, it felt good to get that all out.

What tricks you off and grinds your gears?

You’re talented; So what?

“Sometimes, good things end so that better things can begin.”

I just read this quote somewhere and it put a smile on my face. 2019 was a really good year. So it’s safe for me to assume 2020 is going to be epic!

Anyways, it’s the beginning of the year; I’m yet to resume work and this is the first post of the year. I thought I’d share one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

There’s a maxim about talent that goes, Talent is not enough.

I agree.

However, I didnt always see it that way until last year.

Last year, I began leading a team. As head of communications, I get to work with several vendors and freelancers including graphic designers, videographers, editors, writers, and printers. There’s also media houses and PR agencies to balance in the mix.

Obviously, this involves managing different quirks, egos while juggling a hundred deadlines every month.

These are not fun tasks at all.

Having so many things I want to get done, I need to work with reliable people. To my amazement, many of the talented people I know often drop the ball, a lot.

I began to realize that truly, talent is overrated. In business, dependability is what really counts.

That doesn’t mean I’m knocking talent.

When you read books by Brandon Sanderson, or listen to a score by Howard Shore, or watch Zinedine Zidane play football, talent is pretty dazzling and hard to ignore.

The G.O.A.T.

In my career, I’ve also experienced the power of talent.

Last year, I had the (unenviable) task of writing the 2019 State of Market report for Digital Financial Services in Nigeria. Considering the fact that the past 3 annual reports (from 2016 – 2018) have been compiled and written by my boss who happens to be a Professor of Information Systems, well let’s just say I had humongous shoes to fill and I had no clue how to begin.

And this is where talent matters.

After about 2 days just staring at the blank page, feeling helpless and terrified, that trusty voice came to my rescue. Every writer should know that voice by now.

Whenever I want to write something, I hear a tiny voice accompanied by a sweet feeling in my gut. The voice is confident but very silent. Sometimes all it offers is just a sentence.

A perfectly formed sentence.

Other times, it’s a nonsensical combination of words that gets me curious enough to wander, okay where is this going? Regardless of what the voice offers, I always treat it as my prompt to start writing. And it’s never failed me yet.

(I finished the report in about 5 days, by the way).

So talent matters.

But, there’s a clause – talent matters to a degree. There’s a minimum threshold of talent required for people to function effectively in a field. Beyond this point, what separates one professional from another is – dependability.

I got your back, boss!

In my brief time heading my department, I’ve seen myself shrink away from engaging some freelancers. These are uber-talented guys with impressive portfolios. However, their knack for delivering work behind schedule is scary and disruptive. Some fail to communicate that they will be late. Others just go AWOL on me, attempting to raise my blood pressure.

What really pushed me to my limit was just before we closed for the year, I got a contract to develop copy for a really big brand and so I needed to assemble a team I could work with.

Two freelancers came to mind immediately. Freelancer A is extremely talented and a great copywriter while Freelancer B is pretty average. I offered the gig to both of them.

In an ironic twist of fate, only Freelancer B came through. Freelancer A didnt even turn in anything, for reasons that remain a mystery till today.

To be fair, it may have been a genuine enough excuse (some emergency perhaps) but at that point, with so many deadlines to manage, I just needed someone to be on time.

Not perfect. Not super creative. Not Picasso.

Just competent enough to deliver the job, ON TIME.

Correct, complete, on time. Can you manage that?

This is the key to a lengthy business relationship seeing as I’ve worked with Freelancer B a lot more since then. And Freelancer B is getting better by the day. I offer helpful tips and resources to aid with skill improvement.

However, dependability? That’s not something that can be taught. It’s a trait that must be inwardly nurtured.

So, would you consider yourself talented? Congratulations. Join the club.

Are you dependable?

If your answer is not a resounding yes, my advice is you spend enough time thinking about why and then spend the first part of 2020 fixing that.

10 Important Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Writing Career

I started out as a freelance writer in 2013 but eventually got what I’d call a big break in 2015. After four incredibly hard yet fun years, and with the scars to show for it, here are lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Grab a coffee. This go’n take a while…

 

  1. Writing professionally means way more than just writing.

Diversify your skillset.

A career in the creative arts is never exclusively about being creative. When you’re not writing, the life of a professional writer includes other activities, many of them tedious including sales and marketing, networking, publishing, distribution, and accounting.

Yup!

If writing is the flashy frontend that draws us in, these “boring” activities are the gears in the backend that will make sure you have a writing career at all.

Creative people tend to shy away from these other activities, claiming they are either too boring, or too depressing. Yes it can sometimes feel like grunt work but guess what? Unless you can afford to pay someone to do it for you, you’ll just have to suck it up and get with it.

Thankfully, there are tons of resources online to help anyone’s who is looking to learn.

 

  1. When you’re starting out, it’s okay to work for free.

Note I said, when you’re starting out.

For me, this lasted for 6 months. I did pro bono work for friends, classmates, my local church, and even an NGO.

At this stage, I lacked enough confidence to ask for money in good conscience cos I didn’t even think I could deliver something worth paying for. My biggest fear during this period was producing writing that would ruin my client’s chances of making money or some other unreasonable disaster.

While this helped me work harder than I’ve ever worked before, it also prevented me from asking for money in exchange for my services. I basically worked for “exposure” but more importantly, I gained invaluable experience and built a reasonable portfolio.

 

  1. Pricing your services is a tricky science.

And it’s okay to be nervous about putting a price tag on your work. The anxiety comes from the possibility of pricing your services either too high or too low.

When you’re just starting out, I believe it’s okay to underprice yourself.

When I started earning money for writing, I used to get paid N3,000 per article. Sometime later, I was able to raise my prices to N5,000.

As my skills got better, and my portfolio increased, I raised my rates again, this time to N10,000.

I know people who charge a whole lot more than that.

It all depends on what you can live with at the end of the day. My rule of thumb is, charge whatever will not make you grumble during the job but try to be considerate of the client as well.

  1. Still on pricing…

For big projects, always collect at least 40 percent of the total cost upfront.

That 40 percent upfront does two things for you:

a. It helps you weigh the client’s commitment. I learned the hard way how fickle human beings can be. Committing funds to a projects helps us make up our minds. So think of it as helping your clients make up their minds.

b. It gives you some much needed runway. Big projects are long projects and usually involve rigorous research, interviews and sometimes, travel. The last thing you need is not being able to complete a project because you ran out of cash.

Make it a precondition to taking on big projects. It could be 50 percent or 60 percent upfront. But 40 is the minimum.

 

  1. On marketing and promotion.

As a fresh writer, nobody really knows (nor cares) what you do. You have to be up in people’s faces in subtle (and not so subtle) ways.

To put it bluntly, you have to be shameless about trumping your own horn. That shyness? Bury it and attend the funeral.

The goal is to ensure that with your family and friends, your name should be the first one that comes to mind when they see writing opportunities.

I got my first full time writing gig through a referral. The Editor in Chief of TechCabal had been on the hunt for good writers for months and ran into a good friend of mine at a mixer. She didnt hesitate to recommend me immediately. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

  1. The client is always right.

This one requires some humility.

Regardless of what you think, your client is never wrong.

There’s sometimes the proverbial client from hell (and experience will teach you to spot them over time), but most clients just want someone competent enough to deliver what they want. The challenge sometimes is they need help expressing their desires.

Part of the customer relationship process is educating clients on the nature of services you provide, what is possible within certain timeframes and when it is not.

If you are being asked to do something you know is not possible, let them know you don’t think it is possible. If they insist it is, don’t get into a back and forth match. Politely decline.

Every client is unique and hiring a writer over the internet has many quirks. So be courteous, be respectful, and be patient with everyone.

Another thing to take note of: You’re a hired hand. You’re being paid to deliver a service. You can offer advice, you can make suggestions or recommendations, but at no point should you become too attached to YOUR own ideas. The client has the final say on what stays or what goes in their commissioned writing.

If the client says they want their work done a certain way, do it that way. Don’t try to push your own ideas on them. Sure, your way may turn out better but let’s face it, you’re not being paid to push your own ideas. You’re paid to help actualise theirs.

Remember that.

Expect this to happen, a lot!

  1. Write wide, Read wider.

Pulitzer winning author, Jennifer Egan, once said, “Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do.” In other words, the quality of your writing is directly influenced by the quality of your reading.

It’s not just quantity but also quality. Reading helps you get accustomed with different styles, rhythms, ideas and concepts. Find the time to settle down with great books by great authors, subscribe to excellent newsletters, avoid drivel, social media fluff and whatnots.

As you read, write. Put down your ideas. Try different genres. Do satire, do fiction, do non-fiction, do interviews, do listicles, do it all. Have fun with your craft.

Writing is a job but it’s also fun. Exploring genres widens your audience, stretches you out of your comfort zone and forces you to try new things.

 

  1. If you want to be taken seriously, be professional.

This is the last thing you wanna hear from a client

Arrive on time for meetings. Send reminders on deliverables. Above all, meet your deadlines. I cannot stress how important this is. I once had to relocate to an aunt’s home on the other side of town, for 3 days, just to meet up with a killer deadline.

Excuses are a forbidden thing. If there’s a complication and your ability to meet the deadline is compromised, inform the client way ahead of time.

Call, explain the situation and then humbly request an extension. Follow up with a thank you email which also doubles as documentation about the extension of deadline.   

 

  1. On taking advice, stick to people who know what they are talking about.

This one is harsh but it needs to be said. Unless your mom is an ardent reader and knows how to critique a book, her feedback doesn’t really count. Ditto for your friends and families who also don’t really read.

These days, people are very careful with coming off as offensive so we pull our punches when we give feedback. But as a young writer, you need objective feedback. And it has to come from people who are mindful about good writing. Who can see flaws in your work and know how to fix it.

I wrote something about objective feedback some years ago.

These people don’t have to be writers (though they are usually your best bet) but they have to have “the eye” for good writing.

 

  1. It gets lonely.

Extremely lonely. Especially when you’re working on a piece that is kicking your ass. You will lose hours in your own mind, thinking, planning and rewriting entire chapters.

This is inevitable but please, don’t stay too long in there. Get out of your own head, talk to people often, make phone calls, leave the house, enjoy the company of others.

I’ve discovered that ideas flow easier when you have a healthy social life. The writing recluse caricature is a cliche and a harmful one at that.

Like Stephen King once wrote: “[Writing] starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

Write, then go ahead and live a good life.

 

I’d like to know if this helped.

[Photo Credit: Brad Neathery on Unsplash ]

Rejection is an Essential Part of the Creative Process

It’s safe to say everyone above the age of five has experienced rejection at some point or the other.

My first memory of rejection is a bit vague but I know it involved a fine art competition in primary school. We were all supposed to draw something and the best one wins the prize. I remember standing in front of a classroom with the other kids presenting our work and mine not getting picked. I think some of the kids even laughed at my drawing.

I remember crying all the way home that day. I was inconsolable. It wasn’t until my dad got back and sat me on his lap that I stopped wailing.

I will never forget what he said to me that day – “I don’t know why they laughed at you but I know they can never laugh at you if you’re the one with the highest grades and taking the first position” (he spoke in Yoruba).

That statement hit me deep. I went on to score the highest grade every year onwards, from Class 3 to 5.

I’m grateful for that day, even though I had no idea how significant that day would be for me. With my dad tactfully redirecting my pain and embarrassment, he laid the foundation for something I’d have to do, and I’ve been doing, professionally everyday.

 

Creative work and rejection

I don’t know much about other industries but in the creative industry, rejection comes rapidly and often, and it hurts every single time.

It hurts because creativity involves tapping into the deeper cores of your soul. It requires a lot of emotional commitment and courage to bare your soul to the outside world. Then, to have that creation critiqued and shot down, or flat out rejected, is painful beyond measure.

Often, it feels like a part of you is being squished into tiny fragments and the aftermath can be psychologically intense if not properly managed.

Quick career tip for authors: Never ever ever read reviews of your book. Resist the urge. Also, stay away from Goodreads, if you love your self confidence. You’re welcome.

There was a particular month my stories got rejected by so many publishers, I actually gave up writing short stories for about a year. I mean, I had read about how hard it was to get published but my first hand experience overwhelmed me.

Creativity takes a lot of grit. Not only in producing new and awesome stuff, but also in receiving and managing rejection.

But here is the thing – over time I have come to appreciate the rejection process. Of course, no creative person presents his ideas or art with the hope of getting them rejected. But when (not if) they do get rejected, you should welcome it with open arms.

You know why?

Because rejection can make you even more creative, if you handle it right.

 

How rejection helps me write better

Creativity needs 2 things:

  •  a steady supply of diverse content for stimulation
  •  a feedback mechanism.

Rejection is simply feedback on steroids!

It forces you to look again at your work, exploring it from new angles.

I’ll use an example from my day job which involves a significant amount of writing everyday.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), my boss is also a writer and she has very high standards. We publish articles in two national newspapers every other week and every month.

However, the journey from blank page to press is always rocky.

I’ve poured my soul into some articles, writing and editing all night to meet a deadline, only for my boss to say, “This is not good enough.”

I’ve written articles that I swore couldn’t be improved upon, only to be told to go back to the drawing board and bring back something better. As depressing and often painful as that usually feels, I always end up coming back with something better.

Everytime.

Creativity is like a precious resource – you have to dig deep to reach the good stuff. And when you think you’ve run out of it, you dig deeper.

With experience comes the tendency to be complacent, lazy even. When you’ve been writing professionally for a few years, you can more or less do your job with your eyes closed. So we tend to “phone it in”.

Eeeh, whatchu gonna do?

Well, rejection is a really loud wake up call.  

No matter how good you get, you will still face rejection.

Tobias S. Buckell puts it this way – “I have oppositional defiance in me. Being told I suck fuels me to try harder.“ (Read the full article).

I like that. I think every writer should have that kind of attitude towards criticism and rejection.

Rejection, even though it hurts, can also be helpful, if you let it.

It also helps if you quickly learn to distance yourself from your work.

Like I always tell my friends – “Don’t tell me what I did well. Tell me what I didn’t do well. You don’t need to pamper me. I know I can write, I just want to write better. So tell me how I can do that.”  

I’m also reminded of this quote:

Be prepared to get knocked off the pedestal that all copywriters, art directors, and designers put themselves on. Because, when you think you’ve done your best, the right leadership will always tell you that you can do better, and they’re almost always right. – Mishal Jagjivan

I really love this quote because it is so true.

You can always do better.

Does it mean more work? Yes.

Is it worth it? Usually, yes.

In August, I wrote this piece for The Guardian on development and women inequity. I must have rewritten that piece several times over before it got a pass mark from my boss. I actually gave up on it at one point and simply moved on. But my boss didn’t want to give up on the idea. So she kept on my back.

I’m grateful for that because it is a really important piece and when we finally published it, the response has been humbling. In fact, if you walk into Lagos Business School today, right there on the screen behind the receptionist, you’ll see excerpts from the article, displayed for all staff and visitors to see.

It’s been there for two months and counting.

It resonated that much!

Everytime I feel exasperated and dejected at having my work rejected, I remember how much work it took to write something that really mattered, how many times it was rejected, how many times I started over and came up with something different each time.

Truth be told, the more awesome you think your work is, the more it needs to be critiqued. We are often too myopic to see the flaws in our creation, so flat out rejection is usually the only remedy.

Rejection is part of the creative process.

Expect it. Embrace it. Use it.

 

Writing Well For a Modern Audience: Rule #1 – Use White Space

Rules are meant to be broken.

I’ve heard that somewhere before, can’t remember where.

It’s a lie.

A more accurate statement would be, “Rules are guides and they can be broken but you must be armed with a “why”. A writer should only break rules when he knows obeying the rule is counterproductive.

Like I mentioned in the previous article, rules are not mandatory. They are like safe havens you run to when in doubt. You can ignore them but only when you know what you’re doing.

If you’re just starting out however, you need to appreciate rules.

Writing is a lot like juggling. It involves you throwing up so many words and ideas onto the page, trying to deliver some measure of coherence in your story. As you juggle, rules are your training wheels. They help you build your confidence and ensure you don’t get egg yolk on your face as you do your juggling act.

There’s a universe of incredibly useful rules out there. Today, we’ll be discussing the use of white space.

White Space

Let’s do a quick test. Which do you find easier to read?

This? :


Or this:


There’s a reason that first article has gotten 81,000+ claps on Medium (mindblowing, by the way!). The text is way easier to read than the second one which is clunky and claustrophobic.

The difference is the use of white space.

What is white space?

Whitespace is the portion of a page left unmarked or blank. It is the space between your words, sentences and paragraphs.

Quick note: even though it’s called white space, it doesn’t mean the actual space must be “white”. The blank space may be filled with any color as long as it is free of any text or words.

White space is all about formatting.

“Alternatively referred to as spacing, white space helps separate paragraphs of text, graphics, and other portions of a document, and helps a document look less crowded.”

White space is one of the tricks in a good writer’s repertoire. It’s way up there in the “tricks that will improve your writing exponentially” category.

White space gives your writing a shot in the arm, albeit in a covert way. Readers rarely notice your use of it unless you use it poorly.

So why do many people refuse to use it?

I don’t know but I have a hunch. I’ll use myself as an example.

I wrote my first essay (or composition exercise if you attended a missionary school like mine) in Primary 2. The topic was “What I Like About Myself”.

Just before giving us classwork, my class teacher scribbled four “rules” on the board:

Rule 1: Essays have 3 parts. Introduction, Body and Conclusion.

Rule 2: The introduction and the conclusion are one paragraph each.

Rule 3: The body has between 3 to 5 paragraphs.

Rule 4: Limit each paragraph to carry just one point each. Only one.

She spent about 30 minutes explaining each rule and its implications.

As my first introduction to prose writing, this would become the foundation of my career, who knew?

That was over 20 years ago.

It’s been several years of classes, courses and workshops, and more rules have been added. However, Rule 4 stuck with me. It’s safe to assume most literate people have this rule stuck in their heads as well.

To be clear, it’s a good rule, when taken in context.

Limiting each idea to a single paragraph helps you to reel in your thoughts and gives your writing some structure and clarity. In fact, it’s a great rule for kids learning to write prose. It’s also helpful if you’re writing for a print publication because space is a premium on that medium.

Weirdly, one of the things that put me off reading newspapers when I was younger was the cluster of words on each page. They looked so intimidating!

However, as a professional writer, Rule 4 has officially run its course.

We’re in the center of a digital revolution that means most of the prose being generated today will not be consumed on a sheet of paper but through a screen of some kind.

This means that, space is no longer at a premium – you can have as much white space as you want when you write.  

Look at all that beautiful white space!

However, using white space takes practice. It’s not as easy as saying, limit every paragraph to 4/5 lines of text (even though that’s a good start).

Using White Space

As a writer, think of yourself as a director. You’re in charge of what people experience when consuming your work. You have the control, whether you know it or not.

The trick to using white space is putting yourself in the reader’s shoes.

It’s easy to get lost in the writing itself as you try to capture your thoughts and give them life. But it’s also important to view your writing from the readers’ perspective.

How I do this?

Imagine yourself giving a presentation., let’s say a TED talk. The hall is packed with people ready to hang onto your every word. You have a 10-15 minutes for your presentation.

How do you deliver it?

You could decide to cram your words and sentences together, rushing through your presentation. That’s a bad idea though. It doesn’t matter how clever or original your ideas are, rushing will exhaust your audience quickly, or worse still, bore them.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a few TED talks and I noticed the best presenters always pace themselves. They pause often, sometimes for dramatic effect, sometimes to ask rhetorical questions, sometimes to let the audience soak in the gravity of what has been said (or about to be said).  

It’s subtle yet incredibly effective. It engages the audience and enhances the presentation.

Think of your articles as a presentation and the reader is your audience. Cramming your words together is like rushing through your presentation. We’ve agreed this is a terrible idea.

Instead, use white space the same way you’d use pauses during your presentation. As you write or edit, whenever you come across a sentence you feel you’ll pause before saying, start it on a new line.

Like this.

See?

It’s easy.

As a personal rule, I keep my paragraphs at a maximum of 3 lines, 4 maximum.

You can give your writing even more “pauses” using bullet points and sub headings.

Using white space is like a sculptor taking a block of text and chiseling at it till the project looks good, smooth, pleasing to see.

Without adequate white space, your writing looks claustrophobic, unfinished. And if it looks horrible, it will be hard to read.

When writing, your ideas are important. But if you want to give your ideas to have legs, to travel far, you have to work on your presentation.

So go on, start experimenting with white space today.

Cover Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash