10 Things I’ve Learned From Writing 20 Books

Laura Gale - Blog

In the last four years, I’ve worked on 20 books.

That’s about a million words in print… not to mention the three million or so cut out during editing!

I’ve learned a hell of a lot, and I want to share the top 10 lessons I’ve learned from writing so damn much.

1. Develop a process and stick to it.
When you can clearly define what’s going to happen in the course of the project, it does two things: first, the client has a great experience with you, because they’re not wondering what’s next or if you’re screwing them around.

Second, YOU have a great experience, because you know what needs to happen and when, and you feel much more in control of the project.

2. Learn how to ask good questions.
Every client you write for will have certain spiels they’ve reeled off a thousand times in response to the cookie-cutter questions they’re regularly asked.

What’s your business? What do you do every day? How’d you get started?

BORING. These are lazy questions that get boring rote answers. Learning to ask interesting questions is the only way you get interesting content. Go for things that are much more probing and open-ended.

What’s the best and worst thing about your work?What don’t people understand about your industry? What do you wish people would ask you more often?

Most importantly, ask why. Ask how. If something seems like a stretch, ask them to say more about it. Don’t accept surface level answers.

3. Shut up.
There’s no tool more powerful in an interview than silence. Pick your question, ask it, and be silent. Most people are very uncomfortable with silence, so they scramble to fill it.

And don’t just rush right on to your next question once they’ve answered. Train yourself to handle the discomfort, and wait. Give it a few seconds after each question. If you can wait them out, they’ll give you even more.

4. Seriously, shut up.
Shutting up also gives you space to think in the midst of the conversation. Sometimes your client will make some throw-away comment, that actually holds the key to the whole story you’re looking for.

Take a few seconds in silence when they’ve told you something to really think about what they said, and to plan any follow-up questions that will open up even more interesting discussion.

5. Trust the process.
When you start writing, you won’t always know exactly where you’re going with the material. This is the Michelangelo approach — your job is to find the angel hiding in the stone.

It’s OK if you don’t have the whole thing perfectly plotted out when you start. The most important thing is just to start, and to trust that as you pull pieces in from all your conversations and research, the golden thread that ties the whole thing together will start to form.

6. Use everything from everywhere.
You can find an immense amount of additional information about your client or subject without talking to them. Look at their Instagram account for 10 minutes and you’ll understand immediately what they care about. Read blog posts they wrote years ago. Ask other people about them.

People rarely see themselves as clearly as they think, and sometimes the best details come from what you observe independently from the outside.

7. Don’t be scared of what you don’t know.
In this line of work, starting with zero knowledge of a particular topic is actually a huge plus — you come to the work with no bias and no ego-driven position to protect. You can ask all sorts of questions that an ‘expert’ could never ask, and so you’re then able to then explain everything to readers in a clear, concise way that simplifies even very complex ideas.

Buddhism has a concept called Beginner’s Mind: the practice of bringing openness, eagerness and no preconceived ideas to what you’re doing, so that you can fully appreciate and explore what you’re doing. Cultivating this approach to each new project gives your work a fresh and dynamic feel.

8. Don’t box yourself in.
‘Pick a niche’ is maybe the most common advice given in the copywriting and marketing space. It can help, particularly when you get started, simply because it narrows what you focus on, and so more of your energy is used productively.

But once you’ve got a few projects under your belt, a niche becomes more like a box. You get stuck and stale if you stay in there too long. Creativity needs variety, multiple inputs, different perspectives — so say yes to things that are completely different to what you’ve done before, and allow serendipity to take its path.

9. Try things that feel too big for you.
The only way we get better is to stretch and work and struggle through something that’s just a bit beyond where we are right now. Writing in a different format, experimenting with different styles, agreeing to a project that’s more high-profile than you’ve done before — all these are opportunities to grow. They’re all opportunities to bridge The Gap between where you are and where you know you could be.

10. Rest strategically.

Creativity is like a well. It drains when you dip into it, and it requires specific conditions to fill back up. Choosing not to rest, to constantly push yourself on to the next thing, is self-sabotage. You can white-knuckle your way through creative work but it won’t be your best work and eventually the whole thing will go to pieces.

Pick strategic moments to refill your well — when you finish a first draft, when you hand in the final project, when you finish a launch — and take time specifically to rest. Do all the fun, indulgent, naughty stuff that you don’t allow yourself to do when you’re in the midst of work.

Sleep all morning, have wine at lunch, read until 3am, do whatever the hell you want for a few days so that you feel refreshed and full of beans and can’t wait to get into your next thing.