Keep Your Work Safe

Over the last few weeks I’ve been writing the first draft of a book about writing a book about your business. As I was preparing to print the first draft so I could start revisions, it struck me that reading this excerpt sooner rather than later could save some of you from a future headache.

Practise safe writing

Imagine having written 20,000 words of your book, saving it on your laptop, and having your laptop stolen. Alternatively, imagine finishing your first draft, saving it, and coming back to it the next day to find that your computer won’t turn on at all.

I know writers who have had such experiences. To keep you from having to add your name to the list of the unfortunate, I want you to put some healthy habits in place before you start writing. In this chapter I’ll address how to keep both hard copies and digital copies safe.

Protecting paper copies

Many writers still write their drafts out longhand before they type them up. For some people this both frees and focuses the mind. If you are one of these people, carry on, but take some precautions.

Risks to paper

Fire

Massively destructive fires are, thankfully, less common than they used to be. But they aren’t unheard of. For a few pounds, you can get a small fire safe in which to keep your completed manuscript pages/notebooks.

Flood

Don’t store your manuscript on the first floor if your house is prone to flooding. Also, don’t store it in the bathroom or kitchen (I’m not sure why anyone would, but stranger things have happened).

Water and paper are not good friends. Water and ink get on less well. Try to choose a pen that doesn’t run when it gets wet.

Wild animals

Okay, maybe not wild animals, but pets can wreak havoc with your paper manuscript. When she was younger, my cat took great pleasure in sliding my papers around the flat. Now, she takes pleasure in chewing on them. Keep an eye on your pets, and keep your papers out of reach.

Children

If you have children, until they are old enough to understand that they mustn’t touch your papers, keep them well out of reach. You don’t want to come home to find that chapter one has been used for your little one’s latest masterpiece, or to find that they’ve smeared the carrot they weren’t happy about at lunch all over the first page.

Backing up your work

Backing up a hard copy requires more work on your part than backing up digital copies. I recommend you do all of these:

  • Get in the habit of photocopying, scanning, or photographing new pages as you produce them.
  • If you choose to scan or photograph them, skip to the next section.
  • If you choose to photocopy your manuscript, keep a copy in your firesafe.
  • In addition to this, at least once a month, take a second copy to store somewhere else – at a trusted friend’s house, in your office (assuming you don’t work at home), or in a safe deposit box at the bank.

You may think these suggestions are extreme, especially the safe deposit box, but think about how you’d feel if you lost your whole book before you could type it up and publish it. That would mean throwing dozens, if not hundreds, of hours away because you didn’t take the time to back up your work.

Protecting digital copies

We’ll start with how to keep it safe while you’re actually writing and work forward from there. We all know that the main risks to a digital copy are failure to save, virus infection, and power surges. Install good virus protection software and use a surge protector. For everything else, read on.

Autosave is your friend

Word has an autosave function. If you’re typing your manuscript in Word, click on File — Options — Save and then choose 1 minute for how often you want autosave to save your document. You can also toggle the autosave function on in the upper left corner (this saves your document to your OneDrive and works similarly to Google Docs). If you use another kind of software, it is worth your while to check whether it has a similar function.

Hard save regularly

If you haven’t already, you’ll soon learn that I don’t trust computers. In addition to using autosave, get in the habit of manually saving your document at least once an hour. Doing this will massively increase your chance of saving everything should there be a power surge, or should your computer take a funny turn.

Save to a flash drive and/or email yourself a copy

At least once a week, save a copy of your manuscript to a flash drive and/or email it to yourself. I suggest doing both just to be absolutely certain you don’t lose anything. If you don’t email it to yourself, make sure you keep your flash drive in a different building than the one you keep your computer in. You could also consider saving a copy in Google Docs – since that is not saved on your computer, so long as you don’t get locked out of your Google account, you’ll be able to access it.

Invest in the Cloud

Saving everything to the cloud is affordable and easy. If you didn’t buy the cloud backup package when you bought your computer, now is the time to look into it.

Print a copy

At the end of each draft, I strongly recommend that you print a copy and ask a trusted friend to keep it or store it in your office if your office is not in your home. As I said above, I don’t trust computers. Also, I recognise the fragility of paper. Printing a copy, in addition to the other steps, almost guarantees that you will have a copy somewhere. Though computers sometimes seem to have minds of their own, paper always behaves as you expect it to.

If you’ve finished reading this and you think I’m just being alarmist, ignore this advice at your own risk. Losing your book draft is much worse than losing your homework or even a term paper could possibly be.

How a Writing Ritual Puts You in Control of Your Creativity

Have you thought about your writing ritual lately?

Rituals are powerful. We all already know that. If rituals weren’t powerful, we wouldn’t see so many of them in, say, religion and government.

They’re powerful on a personal level too. When we have a writing ritual, we’re in charge of when we’re in the mood to write.

This is crucial, because if we stand around waiting for inspiration to strike we may get to this time next year or the next or the next and your book still won’t be started let alone published or your blog will still be sort of limping along with irregular updates to keep your readers engaged.

The inspiration problem

A lot of our problems around inspiration have a really long history. Our inspiration problems go back at least to the Greek Muses – a capricious lot to say the least.

In addition to the Muses, the Greeks brought us other unhelpful ideas about creation like Athena springing as a fully formed adult from Zeus’s forehead – I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your book’s not going to arrive that way.

Brilliant though your book is, a Greek goddess it’s not.

I could list lots of writers through the ages who have lamented their lack of inspiration or who looked outside of themselves for inspiration: John Milton and William Wordsworth to name only two.

The problem with looking to some uncontrollable and often external source for your ideas is evident. It gets to decide when you write, not you. Milton does this when he appeals to the ‘Heav’nly Muse’ in the opening of Paradise Lost.

If you’re a wealthy gentleman wandering round the Lake District with a notebook waiting to see the perfect cloud formation to inspire a poem (Wordsworth) is fine. If you’re a busy business owner who needs to get her credibility-building book written and into her readers’ hands, it just won’t do!

Writing ritual, not inspiration

What if you don’t happen to have time for a walking holiday or a cooperative muse whispering in your ear?

Take responsibility for your own writing practice by creating a writing ritual. This puts you in charge of it.

Our brains love routine and ritual. That’s why sleep experts advise us to develop bedtime routines. When you do the same things in the same order every time, your brain comes to expect the desired outcome.

So if every night you have a cup of herbal tea in a special mug while you sit and read a chapter of a book before brushing your teeth and getting in bed to go to sleep, your brain is going to learn that when we have tea out of this cup and read a chapter and then brush our teeth that it’s time to go to sleep. If you keep up the routine for several nights, you’ll start feeling yourself get tired faster. It doesn’t take that many nights for your brain to get trained so that you’re nodding off more easily than before.

The same is true of other routines.

Some writing ritual ideas

If you write to music, create a playlist. If you just need music to get in the mood but then need silence while you write, create a short playlist, listen to a song or two, turn it off open the document and start writing.

This doesn’t have to be an elaborate, time consuming ritual, and really it shouldn’t be because the point is for you to be able to write little and often (read about snack writing here). So you just need a quick signal to your brain that it’s time to do this thing and then you do it.

If music isn’t your thing, you could try always writing in one particular spot – obviously this is going to be easier if, say, everybody in your household is over 18 and reasonably self-sufficient. For the parents reading this, I wouldn’t get too tied to one space – you know your kids have a way of taking over everything.

Instead, you could develop another simple habit like one of these:

  • putting on a particular sweater,
  • lighting a candle,
  • making a cup of tea or coffee in a particular mug that you only drink out of when you’re writing,
  • putting on a particular scarf, or
  • opening a particular notebook.

Whatever you choose, find something that you can tie to your writing that you’re only going to do when you write. Now obviously, you’re probably going to have tea and coffee at other times, but maybe you could have a special brew for your writing or a special mug for your writing.

Just find a way of setting the mood so that you do the thing and then you can write. That way, it won’t take a lot of time to get into your writer’s headspace.

Will my writing ritual always work?

There are going to be times that your brain’s not going to cooperate. If you’ve followed me for any length of time at all, you that once upon a time I used to plan to have writing days. Laughable, I know. As though I could sit down and write for an entire day.

That never happened, but I could make myself sit in front of the computer for an entire day.

If I was at the computer, why didn’t I write? Because planning to write for 6+ hours was just too big an ask. It invariably caused my brain to turn into a toddler at nap time. My brain would do anything else, but it was not going to write for that long just because I asked it to.

If your brain is having one of those days, you need to develop techniques for clearing your head so you can carry on with your work.

What to do when your writing ritual isn’t enough

How you approach clearing your head on the days when your ritual doesn’t work depends on your mood, your personality, and where you are at the time. It also depends on what exactly is distracting you at the moment.

Sometimes you need to give yourself a break

If you’re distracted because your mother is seriously ill, it’s probably not a good day to write. Instead of trying to force the issue, spend 10 minutes writing about how you feel about your mother’s illness and put your writing away. That way, you’ve kept your promise to yourself that you were going to write which will keep guilt from attaching to the act of writing.

It’s important to not connect writing and guilt because that’s a recipe for prolonged writer’s block. We humans quite reasonably avoid doing things that feel bad. Guilt feels bad. If guilt and writing are connected for us, we’ll avoid writing because writing will feel bad.

Sometimes you just need to focus

When your distraction is less serious, like you’d really rather watch another series of whatever you’ve been binge watching on Netflix, then find a ritual that will help you clear your head.

If this distraction hits and you’re in a co-working space or a café (we will eventually return to such spaces), you’ll need to choose something quiet like a deep breathing exercise. That way you can simply close your eyes and breathe in and out slowly until you feel more focused. If sitting in public with your eyes closed freaks you out, then look at a picture of something calming on your computer or your phone screen while you focus on your breath.

Wherever you’re working, you could try putting on headphones and listening to a short, guided meditation or some calming music. You’ll find lots of apps on your phone that can help you do that and there are lots of free videos on YouTube. Of course this option requires that you have access to the internet.

If you’re not in public and you are somewhere that it would be appropriate and you have the space, you could try a short yoga or stretching routine. That will help quiet the mind and can help you focus back in on your writing.

Finally, if you’re struggling to focus because you keep worrying about the rest of your to-do list, keep a piece of paper next to you while you write. If something that needs to be done pops into your head, write it down and carry on with your writing. Once you’ve written it down you, don’t have to worry that you’re going to forget it, so it should let you focus on writing while you need to write. Then you can move on to something else, like clearing your to-do list, later.

Join the Entrepreneurs’ Writing Club for more support

Have a think about what ritual would work for you and share it with us in my Facebook group. Also, join us for our free #WriteWithMe sessions – click on the events tab in the group for the date and time of the next one!

How to Write Like You Talk to Your Friends

In a blog post from 2011, Seth Godin famously pointed out: ‘No one ever gets talker’s block.’ He goes on to argue that writer’s block should be equally uncommon because we shouldn’t be any more afraid of making mistakes in writing than we are in speech.

While I disagree with his suggestion that we should all write badly in public until we learn to write better (instead, write badly and then fix it before hitting publish!), he’s right about how easy most of us find it to talk about what we do.

Why is writing harder than talking?

When you compare writing and talking you find a lot of similarities. Both use language to communicate ideas and feelings to other humans. One of the big differences is our sense of the audience.

When you’re talking to a friend or even a new acquaintance at a networking event, you know who’s listening. But when you write a blog post, it just sits on your website. You don’t know for sure who’s reading it.

This uncertainty makes writing harder. Yet we all know that as readers, we prefer to read something that feels like the author is writing or speaking directly to us.

I don’t think it helps for writing coaches to keep telling their clients to write the way they speak. It’s not quite that simple.

How can you make it easier?

You could try finding a dictation app that is reasonably accurate and speak your posts into that. For some writers, this works brilliantly. For others, and I’m among them, it’s even weirder to talk to a machine.

I find it helpful to keep my ideal reader in mind. While I hope lots of people read my blog posts, I write them to one, imaginary, person.

If you’re thinking this sounds an awful lot like your ideal client avatar (ICA), it is; but it’s also more than that. When marketing people ask you to develop your ICA, you list her desires, her pain points, and some demographic details.

I’ve never come away from an ICA development session feeling like I really know my client. To fix this problem, I’ve applied what I know about literature – particularly about characterisation.

Characterisation

Characterisation is the construction of a fictional character. So, if you approach developing your understanding of your ideal reader the same way a novelist would approach the development of a character, you’ll end up with an ideal reader that feels more real and relatable than any ICA.

To do this, you need to go further than the ICA development exercises you’re used to. In addition to asking yourself what your ideal reader wants, what she fears, and what solutions she needs from you, you need to figure out who she is.

How you go about doing this depends on your preferences and personality. You could paste pictures of her living and working environments, food, clothes, friends, and family into a Word document or pin them in a private board on Pinterest. If you prefer words to images, you could also describe where and how she lives, works, and so on. All of these things are part of the setting in which she lives.

Once you have the setting figured out, you need to understand her feelings and personality. Start with a simple exercise of making a few lists. What does she read, watch, and listen to (music and podcasts)? Then take this further and spend some time writing about questions like these:

  • Did she vote in the last election? If so, for whom?
  • Does she practice a religion? Which one/if not, why not?
  • How does she feel about major political issues? – Brexit, Trump’s second impeachment, …
  • How does she feel about major social justice issues? – Black Lives Matter, Women’s rights, Trans rights, …
  • How does she feel about herself? Is she happy with her body? Does she see herself as smart and capable, or is she always worried she’s not good enough?
  • How does she feel about her relationships?
  • How did she get to where she is now? What obstacles has she overcome? What are her achievements?
  • What was her childhood like? How does she now feel about the people who were around when she was growing up?

Test it

Now that you’ve got a better understanding of your ideal reader, try writing a letter to her about your latest offer. Is it easier to find the words? Keep working on it – as your relationship with your ideal reader develops, it will get easier to write to her.

If you need some help with this, join my free Facebook group – we’re a supportive bunch.

The Stories of Our Lives

If you’ve come across Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand (2017) – or work by anyone who’s been influenced by him – you’ll know that story and narrative are of vital importance to your business and marketing. Sales and branding are important, but in this post, I want to look at the importance of story more broadly and explore the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we live by in the context of the recent violence in Washington DC.

Humans rely on stories, not facts, to make sense of the world. When we encounter something (an event, an object, or a statement) that doesn’t fit into the story we live by, we reject it. For example, if you were raised to believe you can do anything you set your mind to, you’ll reject anyone who disagrees. By the same token, if you were raised to believe you are incapable of doing anything right, you’ll dismiss all successes and talents as flukes or freak accidents.

National stories

Stories govern our lives on a national scale, too. If you look at the major divisions in the US (Trumpism vs. the Democrats and others) and the UK (pro and anti Brexit) objectively – in so far as such a thing is possible – narrative discord explains why neither side can understand the other. This week, we saw this play out violently in the US.

Trump and his followers insist the US election was fraudulent and that Trump won ‘by a landslide’. The Democrats and others insist that Biden won in a free and fair election. Neither side can view the issue from the other’s perspective because the story they live by rejects all contradictions. (If you’re thinking, ‘but the facts are …’, take a moment to become aware of which story you’re living by.)

The flashpoint of the election has been a long time in the making – it started at least as early as the 1930s. In Out of the Wreckage (2017), George Monbiot looks at the history of this division, shows that neither side’s narrative can create the kind of peaceful, inclusive society so many long for, and argues for changing the story to one of belonging.

Healing Stories

It’s all too easy to be paralysed in the face of the failures of large national narratives. We feel like we’re not big enough or significant enough to make a difference. Too often, this leads us to put our hopes on a larger/stronger figure. Staying with recent American history – Americans on the left wanted Obama to save the country and grew disillusioned when he couldn’t, those on the right expected the same of Trump, and we’re poised to repeat the pattern with Biden.

This cycle is doomed to repeat itself until enough of us learn that while we cannot make huge changes on the world stage, we can make significant changes to our own narrative and those of the people who are close to us.

As coaches and healers you know the value of changing the story you tell yourself. The entire coaching ethos is built on changing the script. This is why so many of us turn to guided meditations and positive affirmations when we’re trying to make changes in our lives.

In our work, we help our clients take control of their own stories, and through our books and blogs we widen our reach and help even more people. Our challenge is to maintain faith that the work we do ultimately leaves the world better than it was before. In the face of a pandemic and major national crises, this will be more difficult than usual.

To help you stay the course and continue your work of improving the narrative, please make sure you have a supportive group around you. If you’re looking for such a group, please consider joining my free Facebook Group, the Entrepreneurs Writing Club.

Closing note

The magnitude of Wednesday’s attempted coup and everything that led us to this point is too big to cover in one blog post. In closing, I want to briefly mention the problem of racial inequality that was brought into sharp focus this week.

If you’ve read my post titled ‘Race, LGBTQ+, and Business’, you know that I think America (and every other country I can think of) needs to make significant structural and cultural changes to achieve true equality for all. The stark difference between how BLM activists or disability rights activists over the summer and the Trumpist mob on 6 January were treated make clear that nothing has changed and serious reforms are needed. The resignations we’ve seen in the last couple of days are a start, but they’re only just a start.

Half Lives

I recently asked a former client, Lucy Jane Santos, to write a post about her recently published book, Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium. I edited some early chapters of the book, as well as the proposal Lucy put together for her agent. We stayed in touch, and I eagerly followed the book’s journey to publication. If you’re interested in beauty products, medicine, and/or science, you need to read this book.

Lucy’s account of writing Half Lives

It had been at the back of my mind to do a PhD for several years, but I couldn’t come up with a good topic. As a self-funding student, it needed to be good enough for a supervisor to consider, the institution to let me do it and something that could sustain my interest for almost a decade, as there was no way I could do full time study.

I knew I wanted the project to be something about beauty or makeup but what aspect? It was a struggle.

Tho Radia

Tho Radia packaging - the inspiration for Half Lives
Tho Radia (c) Sonee Photography

But one day the topic fell into my lap. I had been in the habit of scouring antique shops and auction houses for years and buying up weird and wonderful beauty products. And on one of these trips I happened on a pot of face powder from a brand I had never heard of before: Tho Radia. The ingredients, which were listed on the base, included the little nugget of information that it contained radium bromide. I was hooked.

It got me thinking – where, when and why did these products arise? Why would anyone buy this? What did it promise? What was their cultural significance? I got very frustrated because honourable exceptions aside like the wonderful website Cosmetics and Skin, I found very little about the use of radium outside of hospitals that didn’t seem to dismiss it as something that was merely fraudulent – quacks – or the people that bought it were just foolish.

This then, I decided, would be the PhD topic.

And it was, for a couple of years, anyway. My passion for the topic remained intact but I found the PhD experience too restrictive and the history too wide and unwieldy. So, I pulled out of the university, said goodbye to my (brilliant) supervisors and put together a proposal for a book. An agent picked it up and we soon had publishers’ interest before landing a contract with Icon Books who shaped my work into Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium.

Half Lives tells the fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of the radioactive element radium through its ascendance as a desirable item – a present for a queen, a prize in a treasure hunt, a glow-in-the-dark dance costume, a boon to the housewife, and an ingredient in a startling host of consumer products – to its role as a cure-all in everyday 20th-century life.

Eight years on and still passionate about the history of radium, I remain very grateful that I found that pot of Tho Radia.

About the author

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th-century health, beauty and popular culture with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. She writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Jump in at the Deep End: Be a Fearless Writer

Before a swimming lesson when I was about two years old I jumped in at the deep end of the pool.

I loved jumping into the water, so while we were waiting for the lesson to begin my mum had been putting me up on the side so I could jump in, in the shallow end, where she was waiting to catch me.

I had other plans.

Mum put me on the side and she saw me walk towards the other end of the pool, where my swimming teacher had just entered. She thought I was just going to get a pre-lesson hug.

Instead, I was headed for the deep end. I stood next to the diving board and jumped in. My mum figured out where I was headed and got to me shortly after I jumped.

At two, I’d already learned to swim the width of the pool unaided, but I really had no business tackling its length. But of course toddlers don’t think of these things. For me then, there was no real difference between one end of the pool and the other (I couldn’t touch bottom anywhere) except the diving boards where the big kids got to jump in.

I had no fear. I wanted to jump in the deep end, so I did.

Child-like fearlessness vs the ‘shoulds’

Parents and carers everywhere are relieved that not all children express their fearlessness as dramatically (and potentially dangerously) as I did – but all kids are fearless.

When you first started drawing pictures and doing colouring in, you thought nothing of making the sky bright pink with green clouds and a purple sun. It was only when you got older that you started editing yourself: you learned (whether you were formally taught or not) that the sky should be blue, clouds should be white or grey, and the sun should be yellow and orange.

These are just a few of the ‘shoulds’ you bumped up against early in life. None of these shoulds, on their own, made a huge difference in who you were or how you acted, but taken together, they have a massive effect on your life.

Some of these changes are good, life-preserving ones: I no longer jump without looking, but I still have no fear of water. Others can get in the way. Why can’t the sun be purple; it’s your picture, isn’t it?

Using play to keep the shoulds at bay

It can be helpful to know how to quiet the shoulds any time they’re getting in the way of what you really want to do – whether they’re interfering in a business decision, a life choice, or in your writing.

Unsurprisingly, we’re going to focus on how they get in the way of your writing. If you look back at early examples of your writing, you didn’t let little things like not knowing how to form letters or spell words get in your way. You wrote what you wanted to write anyway.

Now that you’ve grown up, you do need to edit your writing to make it easy for others to understand, but only after you’ve made the beautiful mess your inner child delights in.

How do you do this? You get creative.

Keep a stash of brightly-coloured, unlined paper and some crayons or glitter pens on hand. When you need to write fearlessly, step away from the keyboard, get your art supplies out, and create.

When you do this, your inner editor (the keeper of the shoulds) will get out of your way and let you write freely without fear of judgement. She knows that when you’re colouring, you’re not writing copy that’s going to go out into the world. Since she knows you’re not going to post things from your colouring pages to your website (though you could if you wanted to!!), she doesn’t mind how many ‘rules’ you break.

When you use play in the early stages of creation, you make connections and have ideas that you wouldn’t have had if you were following the rules. Being a truly fearless writer gives you the freedom to express yourself, explore ideas, and find your voice.

Once all the words and ideas are out of your head and on the page, your inner editor won’t be so fearful of them. She’ll see that you wrote them and nothing bad happened to you – she doesn’t need to protect you from them.

‘Anything can happen’

This post has reminded me of a poem by one of my favourite children’s poets: Shel Silverstein.

LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

from Where the Sidewalk Ends



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Conversation, Writing, and Coaching

On one level, it seems fairly obvious how I got from studying and teaching literature and writing, to being an editor, to being a writing coach. My training as a writer and a teacher are crucial to my work as a coach. But it goes deeper than that.

George Eliot

My thesis was on how George Eliot (penname for Marian Evans – see note) used music to represent emotion in her novels. If you feel your eyes glazing over and you’re wondering what the hell Victorian novels have to do with being a writing coach, bear with me a little longer.

Eliot wanted her novels to change the world one heart at a time. She didn’t believe that top down change imposed by a religion or a government could ever bring about meaningful or lasting change. The only way, she argued, that you could make the world a better, kinder place was to teach people to feel empathy with one another – especially with those they had very little in common with.

To do this, Eliot sought to teach her readers to empathise with her characters, in the hope that they would then empathise with the actual people they encountered in their everyday lives. Thus, she set herself the difficult task of making her readers understand how other people experience feelings like love, sympathy, and hatred.

Think about that for a minute – you know how you experience those feelings, but how do they feel to your partner, your child, or the person behind you in the queue at the supermarket?

That’s where music comes in – you can’t explain feelings without comparing them to something else. Eliot’s favourite comparison was music because music can evoke feelings without the need for words.

That’s nice, but what does this have to do with being a coach?

Good question. With my background, I could be a full time editor, a private tutor for pupils sitting their A-levels in English literature, or a teacher. I could also be a project manager, a time-management/organisation coach, or help people learn to give better presentations. So why be writing coach?

I gravitated towards being a writing coach because I’ve spent most of my adult life studying and working with words – and the better part of the last 20 years thinking about how words can change the world.

Over the years, I came to realise that Eliot got frustrated with trying to change the world through her novels. She saw that no matter how many people read them, the vast majority were not going to be more understanding of their scullery maids or try to really understand the feelings of their business rivals.

In the last few years I realised, first on an unconscious level and recently on a conscious one, that the problem wasn’t with her novels or the difficulty of communicating emotion. It was with her approach.

We do need to learn to empathise with each other, but we won’t do that by reading one writers’ novels. We need conversation to develop understanding and empathy.

Joining the conversation

Every time you publish or read a social media post, blog post, or book, you’re joining the conversation. When you publish, you’re presenting your view and inviting comments and reactions, even if your reader doesn’t share them with you. And when you read, you’re listening to and thinking about another perspective.

This conversation can be very quiet (though obviously not in some comments threads), but it’s vitally important to society that we have as many voices in it as possible.

I became a writing coach to help my clients join the conversation. It’s only when we welcome and celebrate multiple perspectives that we can create a kinder, more tolerant society.

How can I help you?

If you want to have a chat about how I can help you join the conversation, book a call below!

Note

Marian Evans changed the spelling of her first name several times – she was born Mary Ann. After studying French at school, she changed it to Mary Anne and then Marianne. As an adult, she settled on Marian. I use that spelling because it’s the one she chose as an adult.

Race, LGBTQ+, and Business

Over the last several weeks I’ve been quiet on here because I’ve been doing a lot of listening, reading, and thinking as we’ve seen problems that have been around for centuries come to the fore in ways that they haven’t in my lifetime.

I’m not going to respond to particular people or incidents, but in recent weeks, we’ve seen people with power over life and death choose death. And we’ve seen people with the social and/or political power to shape public opinion choose to stir up hate.

I’ve seen individuals get defensive and defend their privilege when they’ve felt threatened by others simply asking for life and equality. I’ve also seen individuals recognise their privilege and lack of understanding as a problem that they need to address – these are the people who give me hope.

Some of the issues I’m responding to here have had more press coverage than others, but they are interrelated. We can’t talk about race to the exclusion of gender or sexuality, or vice versa; and we can’t talk about any of these things without class, education, nationality, health, neurodiversity … Human beings are complex, and we don’t fit comfortably into the boxes we’re asked to tick on monitoring forms.

This post will focus more on race than other issues because race is putting more people’s lives at risk than anything else right now. Or in the terms of Chris Straub’s cartoon, race is the house that’s being gutted by fire, while the other issues I’ll touch on have burning embers on the rooftops that are threatening to engulf the whole structure.

Why am I addressing this here?

I grew up in the States, and when I was a child, on the rare occasion that race came up, the adults around me were very uncomfortable. The attitude seemed to be that if we didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be a problem. Gender and sexuality just weren’t discussed when I was a kid – I was in a cisgender, heteronormative bubble. Attitudes and awareness have changed dramatically among those I grew up with, but that’s not enough. If you’ve paid any attention to the news at all lately, you’ll have seen the tragic consequences of societies that haven’t, as a whole, learned to embrace difference.

In recent weeks, I’ve watched the various business communities I’m part of struggle to decide whether they should ‘just focus on business and carry on as usual’ or ‘address the issues of the day’. You’ve no doubt guessed which side I’ve taken in this debate.

As a business owner, I feel I owe it to my current and potential clients to let them know where I stand. I’ve seen other business owners worry that taking a stand will cause them to lose clients. I understand their concern, but I know that the people who will refuse to work with me (and some will) because of this post or the Black Lives Matter banner that’s currently on my website are not my ideal clients. I also know that by taking a stand some of those who have felt marginalised, threatened, or dismissed by others may be more likely to feel safe working with me. Finally, I know that neither this post nor the BLM banner will change a damn thing globally, but I still think they’re important for those who need to know where I stand.

Race

My education, like that of many educated in the US, was whitewashed. A few teachers and professors did what they could to redress the balance by assigning books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine,or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But there was only so much they could do to overcome the structural and institutional racism in which they lived and worked.

I was born in Tulsa and educated through degree level in Oklahoma, yet I knew nothing of the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921) until after I finished my PhD. We studied Oklahoma history every year in school, yet there was no meaningful discussion of what happened to the native peoples who had been force marched to the Oklahoma Territory when the US government decided to open it up to white settlers.

These are just two of the massive holes in my understanding of the specific place where I grew up, and they’re minute in comparison to the gaping holes in my understanding of what it’s like to actually navigate this world as a black or brown person.

I read a lot – it’s relatively easy to fill my gaps in historical knowledge. Filling the gaps in my understanding of how other people experience the world is much, much harder. As I’ve watched other white people reach similar conclusions to mine, I’ve been interested to see their reactions. I’ve also seen a lot of black and brown people being asked to explain their experience of the world.

On some occasions, these conversations have been productive because the white people involved recognised that they were asking someone to spend time, energy, and emotional labour on educating them. These were presented as the beginning of an ongoing discussion, while also putting in place clear boundaries around the educators’ time and energy.

Less fruitful have been the white people who fail to see their privilege in asking a black person to 1) speak for all black people and to 2) condense the ‘black experience’ into a soundbite.  

To the white people reading this: we must find a way to educate ourselves without putting black and brown people in these untenable positions – black lives are not soundbites. We don’t get to wallow in guilt or make it the responsibility of those who have been harmed by our privilege to make us feel better. If you’ve been sharing ‘all lives matter’ posts, stop. If you’ve been posting that you don’t see colour, stop. When you counter a BLM post with an ‘all lives matter’ post, you are denying the fact that racism is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. When you claim you don’t see colour, you are announcing you don’t (or choose not to) see the ways in which racism threatens the lives of black and brown people.

What do my current and future clients need to know about race and me?

You need to know that though I would never promise to get it right every time, I’m trying to learn. I’m learning to recognise and challenge structural and institutional racism. I’m learning the real race history of both of my countries (I’ve lived in the UK since 2007). I’m filling the gaps in my understanding.

LGBTQ+ rights

My education has served me better on these issues, and a lot of my scholarly work made use of gender theory, queer theory, feminist studies, and masculinities studies. That said, there’s always more to learn.

You’ve likely encountered the acronym LGBTQ before now (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer [or sometimes Questioning]). So why have I added a +? The plus is to include other nonnormative identities including, but not limited to, intersex (a person whose body isn’t clearly male or female), asexual (someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction), and pansexual (someone whose sexuality is fluid and not tied to gender).

I’m discussing LGBTQ+ rights here because sexuality and gender have been used to marginalise and discriminate against people.

First, we need to be clear that though the acronym encompasses both sexualities and genders, sexuality and gender are not the same. Broadly speaking, sexuality refers to how you experience romantic and/or sexual attraction, while gender refers to whether you identify as masculine, feminine, or nonbinary.

Western culture has tended to treat cisgender heterosexual (cishet) as the norm. What does this mean in ‘plain’ English? Cisgender = your gender matches the one assigned at birth based on your genitals; heterosexual = straight.

Many, many cishet people never question their own lived experience of either sexuality or gender, nor do they realise that other people experience life very differently to them. These people tend to assume that their cishet experience is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and any other experience is an aberrant choice. I understand it can be uncomfortable for them to realise that just as they never chose to be cishet, being gay isn’t a choice. Neither is being bi or trans or asexual … Despite their discomfort, I think people need to be challenged to understand that the world is more varied than their cishet bubble, and all those other ways of being in the world are legitimate.

We won’t have a peaceful, inclusive society until people embrace diversity. This is made painfully clear by the cishet people – all too often those with physical and/or poltical power – who react with violence (physical, institutional, and/or structural) when faced with people from the LGBTQ+ community. Discrimination against this group is wide ranging: from facing lethal force at the hands of law enforcement or individual gun owners to feeling excluded by a data collection form that assumes binary gender (i.e. that everyone is either male or female).

Both of my countries are making moves towards being more inclusive (legalising same sex marriage, for example), but we have a long, long way to go.

What do my current and future clients need to know about LGBTQ+ rights and me?

They need to know that as with race, I won’t promise to always get it right, but I’m trying. I’m learning to recognise and challenge structural and institutional discrimination. I’m also learning to recognise and challenge my own assumptions about gender and sexuality and how they influence people’s experiences of the world and others’ encounters with me.

How do you decide what to write?

Whether you’re writing a blog post or a book, you’ve likely asked yourself what you should write. It may feel like you could write about anything – after all, thanks to the internet, you can research anything you want. But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

If you’re writing for your business, instead of thinking about every topic you could write about, you need to identify what your current and future clients need to read from you.

Step 1: Feelings

I’m sure you’ve heard that people don’t buy features, they buy feelings. They choose their reading material the same way. So before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), you need to ask yourself how you want your readers to feel after they read your post or book.

When I work with clients on this, I ask them to come up with three to five words that describe how they want people to feel after any interaction with their business. These are also called your brand values or brand words.

Take some time over this step to come up with the right list of words for you. These shouldn’t change in their core message. For example, my main words are supported, empowered, fearless, determined, and nurtured. So whatever feeling I seek to inspire through a particular piece of writing is going to be either one of these or something closely related.

Once you have a list you’re happy with, write it down and post it in your writing space.

When you write something new for your business, take some time to decide which of those words (or related feelings) you’re going to concentrate on.

Step 2: Where does it fit in your business?

Once you know how you want your reader to feel after they read your new piece, you need to think about how what you’re writing fits into your business overall. You can do this by asking yourself questions like these:

  • Is what you’re writing a product in and of itself, or is it meant to pique your readers’ interest in one of your products or services?
  • Are you writing something to help your clients solve a particular problem?
  • Are you trying to teach something?
  • Are you trying to establish your expertise?
  • Are you trying to help your client get to know you and how you can help them?

Step 3: Bring the feeling and purpose together

Write the feeling you want to inspire and the purpose of your piece on a sheet of paper and brainstorm. You’ll find it easier to brainstorm on unlined paper, and you’ll be more creative if you write with brightly coloured pens or pencils.

When you brainstorm, set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and try to write continuously. Just write whatever comes to mind – you may be surprised by what comes out. Once time is up, reread what you’ve written. Underline or circle the topics you’re most excited about. Then, write your favourite at the top of a new piece of paper (keep the others for later).

Step 4: Write your statement of argument

In this step, you need to state the point of what you’re writing in one sentence. This sentence must be arguable.

For example, if you were writing an article about soup, this would not work as your statement of argument: Chicken noodle is a kind of soup.

Why wouldn’t it work? Because it’s a simple statement of fact. There’s nothing for you to explore or prove.

This would work: You should eat chicken noodle soup when you have a cold because it has been shown to have healing properties.

Unlike the statement of fact, this one gives you something to work with. You can present and evaluate the studies that have shown ingredients in chicken noodle soup to have healing properties. Also, you can address the effect of eating something that’s soothing and familiar when you’re feeling run down with a cold.

Step 5: Ask questions

Once you have your statement of argument, it’s time to write your outline. I always suggest doing this by asking questions of your statement of argument.

This method is useful because it easy to implement, and it will keep you focused on your main topic.

If you’re writing a blog post, you probably only need 3 or 4 questions. If you’re writing a book, you’ll need to start with 10 or so.

To begin with, just list the questions. So, returning to our statement about soup you could ask these questions:

  1. Are these healing properties peculiar to chicken noodle soup, or would other soups work just as well?
  2. What healing properties has it been shown to have?
  3. Why is chicken noodle soup good when you have a cold?

You’re going to answer these questions to produce your text. I prefer using questions for the outline to listing topics because humans better at answering questions than writing on topics.

After you list your questions, you need to put them in a logical order. The order for the questions I’ve listed isn’t logical. If I were to write this, I’d need to answer question 2 before question 1. Question 3, however, could come at the beginning or the end of the post. When this happens, you’ll just have to write the post and decide which placement is best.

What’s next?

All that’s left now is to write your text (by answering the questions you listed in step 5), and then polishing and publishing it.

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Why do you need to use reliable sources?

We are surrounded by information – television, radio, the internet, books, magazines, podcasts, … How do you recognise reliable sources when you see them?

As people living in this information-saturated world, we need to have ways of navigating it and deciding what to engage with and what to ignore. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers to filter out unreliable information when we choose what sources to use in our books, blogs, and articles.

What is are reliable sources?

Reliable sources are ones that you can trust. They are created by authors with actual knowledge of the topic under discussion, and they rely on facts and well-reasoned arguments to make their points rather than sensationalism or emotion.

Some examples of reliable sources include:

  • academic books and journals (these undergo a rigorous review process in which other experts weigh in on their credibility);
  • major news outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC  (professional journalists are trained to present facts in a fair and balanced way);
  • sites like MindBodyGreen (they expect their writers to be trained professionals who support their claims with credible research).

What is an unreliable source?

Unreliable sources take many forms. Some are not necessarily created to obscure the facts or fool the reader; we’ll call these benign. Meanwhile, others are created to fool the reader; we’ll call these malignant.

Benignly unreliable sources

A popular unreliable source that wasn’t created to fool anyone is Wikipedia. Much of the information on Wikipedia is true, but anyone in the world can edit a wiki entry for any reason. This simple fact makes Wikipedia suspect as a source. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should never read wikis, but you do need to be careful and use them with caution.

If you find interesting information on Wikipedia that you want to use in something you’re writing, find out where it came from. Many wiki entries list their sources; if those sources are reliable, you can use them to support your claim in whatever you’re writing. If they’re not reliable, move on.

Malignantly unreliable sources

Clickbait is an obvious example of an unreliable source that is created to fool the reader. If you click on it and use it to waste a little time, no harm has been done. However, if you use the clickbait claims in your own writing and present them as true, you risk damaging your credibility and at the very least annoying your reader.

Other malignantly unreliable sources include propaganda and those social media posts that look like news stories but aren’t. These kinds of sources rely on emotional and sensational claims to convince the reader of something.

Recognising these can be difficult. The best way is to look objectively at what claim is being made and ask yourself whether the writer is using fact and reasonable argument, or emotion to make their point.

How do you vet your sources?

If you find an article (or other source) that’s not from an obviously credible source, you need to vet it to determine whether you want to use it or not.

Who wrote it?

To do that, you should first find out who wrote it. Is there a full author bio or link to the author’s other work? Once you find out who wrote it, find out whether they’re experts in the field. What are their qualifications and relevant experience? What else have they written?

Some credible sources don’t list individual sources, so don’t be too alarmed if you can’t find the author’s name. In these cases, you need to determine what organisation produced the source and ask questions like these: Are they credible? Are they likely to have hired professionals to write for them? What else have they produced?

What kind of language does it use?

Look at the language. Is it emotive or rational? If it’s emotive, ask yourself why it is. Is it trying to persuade you of something or is it simply on an emotionally charged topic?

For example, if the piece is on the writer’s experience of losing a loved one, the language will be emotive. But, importantly, the writer won’t be trying to convince the reader of anything. This means the source is likely reliable.

When was it written?

Depending on your topic, the age of your source could be important. If you’re writing about how the Victorians responded to the introduction of anaesthesia (as I will be in my next book!), sources from the nineteenth century are valid. However, if you’re writing about how your reader can treat a medical condition, your sources should take current research into account.

Let me know if you have any questions

If you come across sources you’re not sure about, contact me; I’ll be happy to have a quick look and help you decide whether they’re credible or not. Part of my PhD training was in how to evaluate and responsibly use sources.

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