Don’t Let Perfection Kill Creativity

I’ve been in a creativity drought these past few weeks. I’ve spent hours just sitting and staring at my computer but words wouldn’t come. I have read, hopeful that proximity to great literature would motivate my own muse. I’ve tinkered with old drafts and attended author events. Through it all, the creative juices have failed to flow.

Until I tried painting.

Let’s get this straight: I am a writer – not a visual artist. But, when an illustrator friend invited me to a mini art session at her house, I jumped at the opportunity. Why not? I thought. I’m not accomplishing anything else.

Seating us at easels, my friend distributed paper and brushes. We would do something called intuitive painting. She handed us cups of water and tubes of watercolor paints. Nothing about this felt intuitive. In fact, the whole thing felt very Age of Aquarius to me, but I did as I was told.

Our illustrator friend provided little in terms of instruction. She would play some music but there should be no talking. Other than that, she simply urged us to paint what we were feeling or thinking – no planning. There was to be no right or wrong, no judging.

I sighed deeply and, after some initial difficulties trying to figure out how to use these fancy, adult watercolors, I put brush to paper. I created waves of blue and green, yellow and orange. I painted thin lines and fat, opaque sections and transparent. I was still painting when our self-appointed leader stopped us for a quick check in. How were we doing? How were we feeling?

Somehow, we’d been painting for well over an hour, yet it seemed like we’d only just begun. I was no Claude Monet, but my page was blooming with color. I had entered into this process with zero expectations, yet somehow I was creating and having fun. I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

When I returned home from our painting party, I picked up my laptop and started typing. I was focused on maintaining this No Stress, No Judgment mindset. And something strange happened: Words came. I typed scene after scene, page after page. I had stopped trying to be the next Harper Lee or William Faulkner. By giving myself the freedom to simply write, I’d allowed myself space to experiment and make mistakes.

Perfection can kill creativity.

I know this from teaching, as well as from my personal writing experience. It’s why I’ve never graded students’ first drafts. Yes, I want to see that they’ve done the work, but those raw words aren’t ready to be assessed. Early drafts are about getting the story down on paper; fixating on grammar, description, or punctuation too early in the process can get in the way of the actual storytelling process. Trust me on this. I have a drawer full of “perfect” first chapters that have gone nowhere because I focused on improving what I had before I allowed myself to figure out where my story was headed.

Unfortunately, most of us set such unreal expectations for ourselves, that we don’t allow ourselves to take risks or fail. It’s a lesson I was reminded of by my intuitive painting experience.

A few years ago, I had the great honor of hearing author Judy Blume speak. She talked about writing her stories on a manual typewriter. As the audience groaned, she continued by explaining that when you type, you don’t stop to Spellcheck or use the online thesaurus. There’s no copying a sentence from one paragraph so you can paste it somewhere else. You don’t get caught up in making the first paragraph absolutely perfect – so perfect that the second, third and fourth paragraphs can’t possibly measure up.

With a typewriter, you simply type the story – beginning to end. When you’re finished – and only when you’re finished – you start reviewing your stack of pages. You know there are typos and overused words and entire pages of dialogue that need to be cut or reworked. But you don’t fix any of that until you have the whole story on paper, beginning to end. Allowing yourself to make mistakes during this drafting process, she reminded us, will free your creativity.

To those who say they have a good idea of where their stories are headed, I say, “Bravo.” You still need to write it down. It’s so much easier to react to and begin reworking a story that’s been written down than it is to mold an idea that’s still running wild in your mind.

Do I always allow myself the luxury of a no-expectations first draft? No. That’s reality. Sometimes I’m in a time crunch and sometimes I fall into bad habits. But when I do allow myself to fail – with the promise of time to refine later – I almost always produce sharper, more creative and brighter copy. More importantly, I produce completed stories or essays or articles. No surprise here: Judy Blume knows what she’s talking about.

Try it.

No judgment, no expectations, no rules. Give yourself the chance to write without restrictions and see where your creativity will take you.

Stop Being Clueless About Communication

Some clients are clueless – at least when it comes to communication. And there’s a good chance you’re one of them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re a small business owner or nonprofit manager or politician and you’ve got five minutes to spare, I can teach you what you need to know to make your communication efforts more effective.

This isn’t top-secret information and it’s not intended to eliminate the need to work with a professional communicator. Rather, it’s knowledge that will make your next meeting with a writer or public relations specialist more productive – because you’ll have a better sense of what you really want to say and to whom.

It all starts with S-M-C-R, a straight-forward model that describes how information is distributed. This timeless model can be applied to all forms of communication, from emails to TV commercials. Learning it can help guide all your future communication decisions. Write it down. Remember it:

Source – The creator of the message.

Message – The actual content or idea for the communication.

Channel – The medium through which the message is being sent.

Receiver – The person or group who receives the message.

The next time you think about web content or direct mail copy you need to have written, run it through this model. You can start the process by writing the letters S-M-C-R across the top of a sheet of paper. Then jot down what you know about your project beneath each of the letters. “S” is typically the easiest place to start; you have a message, so that makes you the source.

Next, it’s important to take a step back and figure out what you want to accomplish with the communication piece you’re having created. Do you want to:

  • Create awareness?
  • Educate about a trend or issue?
  • Introduce a new product or service?
  • Announce an event or promotion?
  • Attract new customers?

There’s a good chance that you want your email, brochure, or news release to accomplish several things – and that’s OK. Just try to limit yourself to two intended outcomes and then prioritize them so you’re certain your messaging does what it’s supposed to do.

Settling on an intended outcome can be the toughest part of the process. It’s OK to take a day or two to think about this before you proceed with their project. If you don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve with their new communication piece, it’s impossible to produce something that’s effective. The important take-away here is that a single communication piece cannot communicate everything to everyone. Focus is key.

Once you know what you want to accomplish with your new communication piece, you can begin to think about the “R” or receiver. If you run a nail salon and want to reward loyal customers with a coupon, your “R” is your current customer base. If you run a nonprofit that’s offering afterschool tutoring for middle school students, your “R” is likely the parents of middle schoolers. If you run an insurance company and you need to justify your request for a rate increase, your message must be targeted toward government regulators. Identifying your primary receiver will ensure your communication stays focused.

Next up, it’s time to focus on the “M” or message. What do you need to tell the receiver? It’s not important for you to come up with a polished and complete message – that’s what you’ll hire a communications professional to do. You simple need to capsulize the message in a sentence or two so that you’re prepared to tell the writer exactly what you want.

The last step in this process is to be sure you’re using the best “C” or channel to get the message to the intended receiver. Think through the pros and cons of various channels, from free news releases and web copy to paid radio spots and social media. Be realistic. Having great web copy is important but, if your goal is to attract new customers, how likely is it that they’ll just happen upon your site? It’s possible to share the same messages with the same intended receivers via two or more channels. Be open to guidance from the communications professional with whom you’re working.

Does knowing about the S-C-M-R model make you a bonafide communications pro? No, but it does better equip you to ask the right questions and make the right decisions. And it’s a sure step toward making sure you won’t be “clueless” again.

5 Reasons You Should Hire a Professional Writer

I’m a decent baker. I make pretty awesome chocolate chip cookies, but I’d never dream of baking a wedding cake. That takes real expertise.

So why are companies having “decent” writers create web and brochure copy? If you’re a geophysicist or a banker, go ahead and write your own emails and business letters. But when it comes to creating sales, marketing, editorial and web content, those things require expertise. Here are five reasons you should hire a writing professional:

  1. A pro can identify your communication needs. It’s not unusual for a client to call and say, “I need a brochure.” When I follow up with questions about what messages they want to include and what action they hope clients will take, I’m often met with a blank stare. They just want a brochure because their competitor has one. A professional writer will help you identify your message and the best channel – website, social media, brochure, article – through which to send it.
  2. Audience matters. Your basic message may be the same, but the way you need to say it will vary depending upon who you’re trying to reach. Are you talking to potential clients? Long-time customers? Vendors? Regulators or governmental officials? A communications professional can help identify your intended audiences and tailor-make messages for them.
  3. Sometimes you’re too close to the subject. For example, a real estate agent who sells a couple dozen homes each year, doesn’t think twice about terms like “amortization,” “adjustable rate mortgage” or “bridge loan.” But if you’re a first-time home buyer and you encounter a website filled with these foreign words and phrases, your heart will start to race and your anxiety level will rise. A professional writer can make even complex subjects easy to understand.
  4. Mistakes make you look bad. Sure, Spellcheck will catch a lot of errors, but it won’t stop you from using the wrong there/their or its/it’s. You may argue that no one is hiring a plumber or landscaper based on their spelling ability. You’re right. But people do want to hire someone who projects reliability and professionalism. Silly errors make you look amateurish.
  5. Efficiency matters. Unless your expertise is content creation, you’re liking spending far longer writing and editing than you should be. Wouldn’t your time be better spent doing your real job? You have processes and knowledge that allow you to get your job done efficiently and effectively. The same is true of professional writers. By hiring a pro, you’ll save time and money and end up with content that draws people in.