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Our most interesting writing projects are the most challenging

The most memorable writing advice I received as an Ohio State undergrad was from Mr. Smith (can’t remember his first name), in freshman English 102.

I complained that the more interesting my essay, the worse my grade. The ones on typical freshman-English topics that I dashed off quickly with less thought or editing scored the As.

Mr. Smith said that the topics that bored me were the topics I was most familiar with. On the other hand, fresh ideas were new to me. I had thought about them less. I was still developing my ideas.

The boring topics were easy to structure. Three reasons why … Four benefits of . . . Five life lessons.

I’d start with an introductory paragraph on the importance of the topic and introduce the number of concepts I would present.

Then I would write a paragraph or so on each. In those days, paragraphs were longer. They started with a summary introductory sentence. Then three (or more) ideas were developed, each in its own sentence. Followed by a summary sentence to wrap it up before heading off to the next topic. (This was back in the seventies before bullets—of the writing type—had been invented.)

I’d add a little twist to connect each paragraph with the following one (another trick I learned from Mr. Smith). Perhaps a little phrase at the start of the following paragraph, such as “As an example” or “Furthermore.” Or it could be something really short, such as “Then…” It could even be repetition of a word used at the end of the preceding paragraph.

The same problem holds true today: The more exciting and novel an idea feels to me, the harder it is to write effectively about it. I keep revisiting and revising and doubting and fretting. At the same time, I can handle a simple, kind of regular idea quickly and efficiently.

That’s part of why it is so hard to write a book or to submit an article to a prestige publication.

The ideas are rich and scintillating. We ponder them, both in our waking hours and as themes in our nighttime dreams. We start writing. It’s a mess. We write some more. We even start a fresh draft. Finally we are done . . . more or less.

It is more difficult to write the novel idea that we care about more. The more it matters, the harder it is to write. The concept is so iridescently beautiful in our heads that no words in print seem to do it justice. It is harder to commit and easier to become discouraged.

The reverse happens when writing business copy for clients. The work generally proceeds at a reasonable pace and comes to a satisfactory conclusion in a reasonable amount of time.

Success results with ease not because we don’t care—we do!—but because we are not so emotionally involved. We understand the assignment and outline major points. Then we sit down and produce. We don’t expect to create breathtaking copy. We expect to meet client expectations and we do.

Between less emotional baggage and a firmer understanding of what is to be written and how it is to be structured, the typical paid business assignment is much easier than our personal projects. Thankfully.

Because if all writing was as intimidating as the big, personally meaningful projects to which we aspire, freelance writing would be exhausting.

Originally posted 4-29-16

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