How to Fight Your Way Through the Writing Gap

How to Fight Your Way Through the Writing Gap

One of the biggest barriers facing a new writer – a blogger, a novelist, a copywriter – is the self-knowledge of just how far away you are from their ideal.

When I first started copywriting, I was afraid to show my work to anyone. I was afraid to show first drafts to my colleagues. I was afraid to show fifth drafts to my clients. I was afraid to show my work to my peers, even though they had offered to look at my work and help me figure out how to make my writing better.

This was because I was highly aware of what Ira Glass calls “the gap.”

Ira Glass has worked in public radio for 30 years, during which he was a reporter and host for several NPR programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation. He currently hosts and produces This American Life, and is a well-known and much-loved minor celebrity in the United States.

What most don’t realize about Ira Glass is that from the time he began to the time he became the beloved host of a national radio show, he slogged through about ten years of being truly, self-admittedly bad at being on the air, and another five of being just okay.

He gave an interview in which he tries to describe how difficult that part is, the part where you are confronting the immense gap between where you are, and where you want to be.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap.

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer, and your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.

Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase of years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing we want it to have.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s totally normal and the most important thing you can possibly do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on deadline so that every week you will finish one story. Put yourself in a situation where you have to turn out the work, because it is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.

It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

This is an intense and powerful series of thoughts, and I have trouble applying it to my own work, so let’s break it down slowly and look at what this means in practical terms.

You Already Have What You Need

I’ve worked with a lot of would-be writers, and here is the difference between the ones who are going to make it as professionals and the ones who won’t:

When you explain what’s wrong with their writing, the ones who will make it understand what you mean. The ones who won’t make it do not understand.

If you’re having a hard time as a writer because you look at your own work and you think, “This isn’t good enough,” that’s a good sign. It means you know the difference between what is good and what is not good.

It means that when you do produce something good, you will know it. It means when you produce something bad, you will know that too.

You will never insist that something is good when it is not.

That is all you need. Everything else is leg work. Everything else is practice. Everything else is trial and error. There are people out there who will founder around forever, practicing and practicing and never getting any better, because they honestly cannot tell the difference between good and not good.

Sometimes they will produce something good, by accident. But they won’t know that it’s better than the bad stuff. The good stuff will get buried in all the bad stuff, because they simply do not have the understanding – the taste, as Ira puts it – to know that it is special, that it should stand on its own.

If you are aware of the gap between where you are and where you want to be, then you have the ability to close the gap.

Closing the Gap Takes a Long Time

Closing the gap will take years. That is honestly not negotiable. Even geniuses, even people who were practically born with their blood humming with prose so gorgeous it makes the greatest poets weep in their graves, even those people wrote screeds of bad, bad stuff.

They may have done it when they were five years old. But they went through those years. And so will you.

Those years never get any shorter. There is no way to jump to the end. You just have to show up and produce stuff that’s bad, and then stuff that’s okay, and then stuff with potential, and then stuff that’s pretty good, and finally, finally, finally you will get to stuff that’s good.

And after that, it’s all glory. It’s really good stuff, amazing stuff, phenomenal stuff.

But you have to go through those years.

If you’ve been putting off starting because you can hardly stand to look at your own work until it is good, if you are waiting for someone to invent a short cut so that you never have to go through those years, you are fooling yourself.

Start now. Start today. Count off your 10,000 hours.

Those years do not get shorter. The end only gets closer if you actually start.

It’s Going to Be Difficult

While it’s completely normal to take those years, nobody ever claimed that “normal” was easy.

It’s normal to go through a lousy couple of years when you’re a teenager. It’s normal to fall down and hurt yourself pretty badly – a cracked skull, a cut that needs stitches, a broken arm – when you’re a child. It’s normal to flounder a bit when you first enter the workforce.

It’s normal. But it sucks.

A lot of people do not want it to be hard, and a lot of them will quit. They will want those years to be over sooner than they can be. They will want their work to be better sooner than it is capable of being better. They will want to get to the end, where all the glory is, and they will be frustrated that hasn’t happened yet.

And they will quit.

You can do this. You can say it’s too hard, and you can walk away.

Those years will still be sitting there, waiting for you to go through them, when you decide twenty years from now that you really do want to be a writer.

They are patient. They can wait. You can go through them any time you want.

They will never stop being difficult. But you may stop being daunted by difficulty.

The question is whether you want to stop being daunted now, or in twenty years.

I’m struggling with this question now. I struggle with not wanting to go through the years. I struggle with not wanting my work to be so far short of what it could be, and I struggle with being able to see the gap every day between what I can do and what I want to do.

But I know that in twenty years, I will still be facing it down. I will still want to get across that gap. And I may be too old then, have too many responsibilities, too little freedom.

I may not be able to do it then. And I know I can do it now.

That’s what I can do, right now. I can show up. I can create work that is not as good as I want it to be. I can close the gap day by day.

What I can’t do is wish away those years.

How big is your gap? How many years have you written through? How much farther do you have to go?

Post by Taylor Lindstrom

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO, who believes that we're all too good to fail. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. Simone moore says:

    Thank you for giving us permission to accept the reality! It gives hope, a spark to the determination required the inspiration. A writer never truly stops trying to write THE novel/book, the artist never stops trying to paint THE painting/drawing or capturing THE photograph. A true artist of all types is never truly satisfied we have created THE ‘whatever it is’. Whether this means we are always FINE (ie. freaked out, neurotic, insecure and emotional), perfectionist control freaks or just constant searchers for the new and expanding universe of our soul seeking to mange or heal our doubts, traumas or just be! We have a voice and for some strange reason, there are others out there that gain from it! Ok – having a moment with that rant…did you connect to as well?!

  2. Good article, Tei.

    I wouldn’t say you’ve got a large gap — your posts here are some of my favourites on MwP. Though that may be more for your willingness to defend me comments here over the years… ;)

    What’s been interesting to me is the variety of things that have closed my gap over the years. I’m grateful for the eight years (yes, eight) I spent writing at university — without those I might not know how to put together a sound argument. Lots of people put down university, but… I don’t buy it.

    Likewise writing email newsletters at my old firm while still in employment was good training for communicating direct with clients.

    What really helped fast forward things was professional tuition, like the sort James provides. Once you know a problem is far easier to work on fixing it.

    The gap that’s pretty large for me right now — and that I have no intention of fixing anytime soon — is fiction writing. I can write entertaining non-fiction, but making stuff up… forget it.

  3. Just what I needed today. Thanks Tei.

    This message is about life–not just writing. I’m not sure we ever feel “good enough.” But we have to keep trying, and trying…and trying.

    Progress–not perfect, is my new mantra.

  4. One of the biggest takeaways I got from working through”The Artist’s Way” Is you have to give yourself permission to make bad [art].

    Over and over again.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Hi Taylor,

    Writing is hard. I’ve probably logged more than 10,000, maybe 15,000? I’m including thought time in that, too. Sometimes I may be staring at the page, but I’m rehearsing different endings in my head. Oddly enough, I get some of my best writing lines in the middle of the night. Probably because I’m not controlling myself at that time. Then the best one just floats in.

    All writers, even seasoned writers need a mentor or someone to show his/her work. You cannot write in a vacuum. You cannot write alone. It’s solitary but it isn’t.

    Learning to accept the feedback of others and see where it has merit and where it doesn’t will separate the published writers from the unpublished writers.

    Good article! G.

  6. Ah . . . this is inspiring.

    Either 10,000 hours or 100,000 hours as long as us writers practice the craft everyday whether it’s reading, studying, writing, drafting, editing, it will make us better day by day.

    The writing I was producing 10 months ago is a completely different person.

    It helps to go back to old posts, observe your writing and how you were relaying information to readers, and then looking at it now. If you notice even a slight change, you have improved.

    One method that helped me incredibly was studying for numerous hours. Balance the time you write and read, but mostly if you’re a beginner such as myself, reading everything from news, novels, headlines, magazines, and blogs will help build a style and structure of writing. It can help you find a voice.

    I enjoyed this article, great work.

  7. Thank you so much for this. I needed to read this and face reality and get back to work. Been blaming on myself for quite a while…

    thanks..

  8. Great article! I sent it to my son who’s been writing a book for a few years and I’m an artist who’s been wanting to write a book for years. Good inspiration.

  9. So now we know!

    Now its all in crystal-clear perspective. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do any serious writing even though I knew I had it in me. It’s funny how you recognize truth when you see it. Now I realize I kept pushing the writing bug away because I saw the gap… and it was huge. I also can now take stock of the fact that I’ve always been able to recognize exceptional writing even when I couldn’t put a finger on what made it so great. I still can’t tell sometimes.

    Once you reach that point in life where you stop denying that there is an essential contribution to this universe that only you can make, you recognize at the same time that you have to hone your skills, learn who you are at the deepest level, and then start living a life that reflects the reality of your inner essence. Steve Jobs gave us a wonderful example of what one can achieve by selling out to what he was at his core. He also taught us that once you become familiar enough with the details, it almost becomes second nature to navigate them on automatic pilot. On automatic pilot, our existence appears simple and free from complexities. It becomes artful. And that quality attracts others to us. It magnifies the influence you need to to take your life’s work to the highest level.

    I sense that reading this post is going to become an event that I look back in retrospect as a significant milestone in my own development. In some quarters, it is being debated whether or not good writing as we know it, is fast becoming a relic of the past as the digital era unfolds. You know what? For as long as the human brain remains highly adapted to manipulating graphic and other types of symbols, writing has a really good chance of being involved with impacting the lives of others. As such, it will always play somewhere along the line as you start operating at higher levels.

    What we need now is a more detailed description of the the road between the milestones mentioned in this illuminating post. For instance, what exactly lies between “with potential” and “pretty good?”

    Perhaps more importantly, I’m thinking aloud of a measuring tool. We need to be able to assess ourselves on some sort of scale. I need to know exactly where I am on that road, and I think I can figure out a way to find out now.

    Thanks for making me see myself, Taylor.

  10. I’m not sure I agree that, “When you explain what’s wrong with their writing, the ones who will make it understand what you mean. The ones who won’t make it do not understand.”

    First, different coaches resonate with different people. The problem may be the coach and not the writer! (Or, indeed, the relationship between the two.)

    Second, few people understand what’s wrong right away. It takes TIME to be able to make a paradigm shift in your writing.

    Just my two cents…

    • It does take time, but my experience has been that’s been down to replacing habits, and learning all the different ways of doing things, and making all those ways a habitual part of writing.

      A good example is outlining. We’ve all been told the importance of it, and even the how-to. It’s easy to spot where something wasn’t outlined correctly, and easy to ‘feel’ it when writing… you’re constantly trying to think through your argument instead of writing it.

      But it’s only after consistently using outlining that you actually implement your own approach in every project.

    • Daphne I would have to say that a coach would know how to nurture the relationship with the writer, and how to resonate with almost anyone. To me, that would be a measure of how good they are as a coach. It is only when the rapport has been built, that a wise master teacher would venture to be a critic, for it is only then that the writer would be apt to accept the critique.

      I do agree on your second point though. It takes time to be able to understand and improve on skills that are difficult to learn. But isnt’ that the main point of this post? I think Taylor’s description of it as “the gap” is fitting. It’s not a hole that you plug with one go. Its a space that you traverse with time. The paradigm shift is not in making the transition itself. Its in your approach. You finally realize that its a journey that you enjoy, and not a milestone that you cross.

  11. It happened to me in school. I would never be satisfied after giving an exam. Why?

    Because if I did well, I would assume the whole stuff was too easy and if it was tough well I didn’t too good.

    This has continued with my writing. I do not get satisfied with it.

    Recently I found a solution. Mimic the masters. Steal their structure.

    Heck all great writers did that.

    The point is start with mimic and copy. Do that over and over till it becomes second nature. Then go ahead and improve it. Many people give up on the improve it stage.

  12. This is a great article, I’m a web designer who read the article because my copy isn’t good. It’s personally more relevant to my main career as someone who re-trained after children.

    There is some reassurance that I’m heading in the right direction after reading this.. I am my worst critic and I’m now proud of that fact!

  13. I have been working on a book for over a year. Unfortunately, I haven’t made much progress on it because I look towards the end, and it becomes intimidating.

    I love this article you’ve written! And this…”Those years do not get shorter. The end only gets closer if you actually start.”

    I wish I could give a big “Duh!” to that sentence. But, I can’t. I guess I’ve been looking at it backward this whole time. Great article. It’s a kick in my a**. :)

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