Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Having Talent Is Like Having Tickets to Red Rocks But No Sitter And No Transportation

By John Garvey

I love my work as a writer, but I’ve come to some painful realizations about both the craft of writing and the value of talent. Grab a stiff drink or, depending on the hour, a double espresso and hop on my carousel of disillusionment! It’ll do ya good.

Wish I Didn't Know Now What I Didn't Know Then.

                                         --Bob Seger

Writing has distressingly little to do with talent.

When it comes to writing for publication, 90% of what actually matters is mechanical. Much of it is about writing enticing query letters (for magazine writing), keyword research (for content marketing), and the finer points of AP style (for journalism). It’s about being a good listener, managing deadlines, networking and mastering umpteen self-management and communication hacks. 

Writing is about cultivating relationships. It's familiarizing yourself with the publications and target audiences you write for. It’s about following up on submissions, invoicing clients, tactfully pestering people that miss payment deadlines, and proving over and over that you're reliable.

Tip: Use the Boomerang add-on for Gmail to set reminders to yourself and you’ll never forget to follow up on another submission.

Language is more like mathematics than magic. It is a program code, for the computer called the mind, and its sequencing is not arbitrary at all.

                                                     --John Franklin

A mediocre writer with self-discipline will ultimately matter far more than a brilliant writer without it. If you want to actually get read, suck it up and learn to be methodical.

You spend 15% of your time actually writing—on a good week.

As a writer, you spend a ton of time doing research just to come up with topics. Then you have to frame topic ideas into coherent, enticing submissions. For magazine writing this can take as much time as actually drafting the article.

Outlining articles (if you outline, which by the way, you should), editing, proofreading, fact checking and using analytical tools all take a disproportionate amount of time. For instance, I plug every article I write into Hemingway App, which flags things like passive voice and modifiers, offers suggestions and uncovers blind spots every writer has. 

I also use word density tools to avoid sounding dull or stunted, and I pay attention to readability algorithms like Flesch Reading Ease. They aren’t thrilling to use, but these tools benefit the final product.

Tip: Print off your article in a font you’re unaccustomed to and do a final proofread out loud. This helps you switch gears mentally and flag mistakes we tend to overlook in our own work.

I'm still waiting on that call...

Even after you're relatively well-established, unsolicited assignments are rare. You will seldom encounter work opportunities without first doing a lot of networking and dreadfully menial stuff. I was pretty sure after my first couple articles ran in ColoradoBiz I was going to get an unsolicited offer for a lucrative staff position at Inc. Magazine. I'm still waiting.

Even clients and editors that are enthusiastic about your work will forget about you if you don't have a systematic way of maintaining contact. If you're persistent, lucky and talented, you may eventually get caught up in a current of self-propagating success. Just don't ask me what it's like—I couldn't tell you.

… Yet.

Despair not! There will be many moments of spontaneity and creativity in your writing career—relish them! Just don’t bullshit yourself about the value of talent. It is ultimately necessary but not sufficient.

John writes about clean energy/cleantech R&D, business model innovation, the Colorado hemp industry, sustainability, passive architecture and anything that's brewed, distilled or fermented. He contributes to more than a half-dozen magazines, blogs and news publications.

His slogan sums it up: Reliable, Entertaining Content.

You can read more of his portfolio at


Fred Sandal said...

We should all take note. John's portfolio is proof of his persistence in cultivating his networks and getting noticed, researching and understanding his topics and using his skills to tell engaging stories with lessons to be learned. John reminds us that with time and effort, we can find a niche and create a business from our writing. Thanks for posting!

Laura Mahal said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Fred! John, your portfolio is fabulous. One article jumped out at me and so did this line: "I'm not a runner, but I run."

I hear a similar sentiment from writers. They may express it in a different way, but essentially, they are saying: "I'm not a writer, but I write."

We who write are writers. And yes, we who have consistent work habits and stick-to-it-tiveness (I'm telling my inner copyeditor to be quiet) will one day be successful writers.

I have full confidence that you are going to "get the call" one day. In the meantime, please write the article that announces when FoCo Pub Writers is in session!

David Anderson said...

Nice words.

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