Sometimes, We All Need a Good Kick in the Pants

I remember the day I first signed up to write for Magnificent Nose.

The site was relatively new at the time, so I knew I wouldn’t be offered a paycheck. But what could they offer me?

An editor. Oh, and a deadline.

Now please, don’t all sign up at once.

But in all serious, I recognized this as a promising opportunity. Because aside from regular paychecks (which are fairly few and far between for fledging writers) editors and deadlines are two of the best motivations for a struggling artist.

When you’re just starting out in your writing career, editors and deadlines (at least those that aren’t self-imposed) can be almost as hard to come by as monetary compensation. When you’re new to the writing game, editors don’t yet care about you. Why would they read your work? And why on earth would they waste time assigning you deadlines to write something they don’t want to see?

It’s a shame, really, because fledging writers often need the most encouragement. With no one to offer feedback, or demand that the work be turned in on time, many of these writers fade before finishing their first major project.

Some artists don’t like to feel boxed in with such things as editors and deadlines. They want their art to be flow freely, brought forth by spontaneous inspiration.

And if people can work that way successfully, great. But it’s never worked for me.

When I used to teach extremely reluctant writers in Phoenix, Arizona, I employed all kinds of tricks. My favorite was one taught to me by my long-suffering supervisor: Set a timer in the classroom, and order all the students to write an intro paragraph in five minutes. Set the timer a second time, and now require the students to write a first body paragraph.

Repeat the process until each kid has a finished essay. In any given class, that’s thirty essays written in less than thirty minutes.

Now, try giving these same kids a week to write an essay (along with the task of portioning out the writing time themselves). In the end, you’ll have a lot of unfinished papers. And excuses. And a good handful of essays that never got a chance at life in the first place.

And even though most of you reading this blog are not at-risk, inner city kids, you may find yourself falling into the same, negative patterns.

For would-be writers who have trouble setting (and sticking to) their own schedules, it might not be helpful to recruit another person to give a regular kick in the pants. If you can find a professional editor, do. If not, look for a family member or friend to help you out. Even if that person does nothing more than ask you, “Did you write today?” a little outside regulation can go a long way.

Recently, someone suggested that I check out Nanowrimo.org, (National Writing Month) a site which encourages writers to complete a rough draft of a novel (roughly 50,000 words) in one month. The writer I spoke to swears by this website. I don’t believe he puts too much stock in his actual one-month novel, but he felt that the encouragement to write every day helped him consistently improve his craft.

Not everyone finds Nanowrimo.org a godsend, though. When researching the website, I came upon one angry blogger who had this to say:

As for National Novel Writing Month, they seem to care more about making you feel good than about anything having remotely to do with storytelling. And you’ll excuse me if I find that just a little depressing.

Hey, I appreciate strong storytelling as much as the next gal, but sometimes a writer is better off churning out mediocre work in a short period of time, rather than taking the better part of thirty years to write that one perfect story. Sure, we all hope that one perfect story comes out eventually, but it may take a mediocre rough draft or two to get us there.

I have never attempted to participate in Nanwrimo.org myself, so I cannot officially endorse or decry it. However, if you’re the type of writer who might benefit from regular encouragement and a clear deadline, it might not hurt to check the site out. As far as I know, it’s free.

Ironically, as I bring this piece to a close, I realize I chose to write about Magnificent Nose’s tight deadlines on the one and only week so far that my deadline has been extended to Thursday. Ah, the little things we discover when we force ourselves to sit down and write…


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work. She also wear pants.

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One thought on “Sometimes, We All Need a Good Kick in the Pants

  1. You’ve put your finger on the catch-22: as a new writer struggling with learning the craft, the best motivation in the world is someone waiting at the other end of the week to see what you’ve produced and to urge you to keep going. That is a mark of respect for the writer and the work. But the only writers who seem to merit this respect are those who have already achieved some measure of success.

    The best substitute for an editor is a writing group, but trying to establish one is plagued with its own problems. Scheduling and geography, of course, constitute at least half the problem, but new writers’ self-doubts make up the rest. If you have a group of people still wondering whether they can write, whether they should write, whether anyone cares about what they have to say, whether the time spent writing is worth the time that must be taken away from other pursuits, then they may lack the commitment to themselves necessary for a functioning group. Ideally, a new writer would join a group of established writers, but all parties may feel uncomfortable with that. How is the new writer to give meaningful feedback to the more experienced ones? How can the newbie stand up against the critique of more expert writers without losing confidence?

    I went to hear Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, speak this summer at Marymount College about her process of writing this brilliant, and very structurally complex novel. She couldn’t say enough positive things about the way her writing group had helped her. I wondered if everyone there felt the same envy and longing I did at her long-standing (decades-long, I think she said) relationship with other writers whose feedback she could trust and whose friendship she relied on.

    A weekly writing group might be better than an editor. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have either.

    Anyway, great essay, Sara.

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