I never thought I was a good writer. For the most part I was an indifferent student and at times I struggled in school. In particular, English, grammar, and writing vexed me. On the other side of the ledger was math. From an early age I knew I had a skill in math and I tended to do very well in math classes. I instantly understood what the teacher explained, never had trouble with the homework, and always aced exams without studying. I applied that same level of effort to my other subjects and the results were, shall we say, wanting. I mention this because I think certain skills are sometimes lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the right confluence of innate ability, practice and repetition, technology, insight, inspiration, happy accidents, time, and confidence to emerge.
Being a good writer starts with having a large amount of innate ability. That’s an opinion probably shared by many writers. I suppose I always had writing talent, but that talent lay dormant, untapped, and buried by my lack of experience, my lack of skill, my lack of interest, and let’s be blunt here, a lack of technology. My first inkling that I might have some writing talent came during my junior year of high school. We moved to a new city during the summer and I wasn’t happy with the change in my life. In English class we were assigned to write an essay. This wasn’t the dreaded ten page paper (more on that in a moment), but instead a far more doable one or two pager. The teacher told us to think of a subject and be prepared to discuss it the next day.
“Being a Teenager is Like November,” or some similarly maudlin title, is what I told the teacher when he stopped at my desk that next day. The teacher expressed concern that that the topic was far too vague and broad to make a cohesive paper and he worried that I would be unable to complete the assignment. Two countervailing thoughts went through my mind in that instant. First, the teacher was an authority figure and he obviously knew far more about writing and literature than I did, so perhaps his assessment was correct. But second, I really believed that I could write the essay. I knew what I wanted to say and where I wanted the piece to go. It was in my mind, or at least I thought it was, but I also lacked confidence in my abilities. I was sure about my idea but at the same time I was unsure whether I could see it through to completion. Maybe the teacher was right. Despite my lingering doubts and the teacher’s reticence, I remained resolute and insisted I could write the essay. Something deep inside my mind told me I needed to write that essay, I needed to flesh out the raw ideas that were now beginning to take hold. I held my ground and the teacher, reluctantly, gave his consent.
The essay, as the title implied, was a rather brooding affair where I compared the teen years to the darkness and chills of the approaching and impending uncertainty of winter. My thoughts were undoubtedly colored by recent events in my life, most notably my relocation to a new city. I left behind lifelong friends and was thrust into a world where I knew no one. I was convinced I wouldn’t find friends and frankly, I wasn’t interested in trying to make friends. Making matters worse was the situation with my driver’s license. I turned sixteen shortly before our move but on the advice of my mother we decided to wait until we were settled in our new home before I’d take the test to convert my learner’s permit into a proper license. No need to get a license in one state and then immediately get a license in a different state, she reasoned. Due to a series of mistakes and delays and errors, in part the result of relocating to a different state with slightly different rules of the road, I didn’t get my license until we were deep into fall, roughly five months past my sixteenth birthday. To say I was unhappy would be an understatement. That essay, undoubtedly born from numerous frustrations in my life, is long gone but if I were to find it somehow, somewhere, I have no doubt I’d cringe. I was sixteen when I wrote it and I’m sure my writing skills, reasoning, grammar, and prose at that age were raw, undeveloped, unskilled, and embryonic at best.
At the time, however, I thought I wrote a pretty good paper, but I also had many doubts about my work and abilities and I probably shrugged my shoulders and thought, “What do I know?” I would not have been surprised if I received a bad grade. Instead, the final product was well received by the teacher. I think I got an A and more so, the teacher told me he was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t think I’d be able to write it. I was pleased by the teacher’s reaction, but then again, I don’t think I was surprised. Despite my doubts and the teacher’s initial misgivings about the vagueness of the subject, I knew it would be a good paper. The basis of what I wanted to say was already in my head. It wasn’t precise, of course, just a rough idea. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d be able to cull a cohesive story from those nebulous ideas – total confidence on that front wouldn’t come for many years – but I knew I had to try. I lacked confidence in my writing because I hadn’t done much writing up until that point. But despite my doubts, an ability to craft words and explain concepts was lurking in my brain.
Two years later I was a freshman in college taking one of the core curriculum classes. A dreaded English class. And this is where the dreaded ten page paper reared its dreaded head. Worse, this dreaded ten pager was not merely a paper, it was a dreaded thesis paper. We needed to ask a question, perform research, and then write a paper answering our question. As with my high school class, the teacher gave us the assignment and told us to be prepared to present our thesis question at the next class. Without being told, I already knew I needed to keep my question simple and as if on cue, the teacher strongly implored the class to avoid the temptation of crafting a grandiose question. Our grade wasn’t dependent on coming up with a spectacularly obtuse question. We were going to be graded on how well we performed the research, how well we answered our question, and of course, how well we wrote the paper. Trying to impress the other students by devising a complicated question was likely to backfire due to the difficulty in finding suitable and sufficient research materials. Keep it simple, was the teacher’s astute advice.
Not surprisingly, much of the class ignored that advice and instead proffered impressive sounding but impossible to research thesis questions. “Did Dung Beetles Impact the Invention of the Printing Press” and “Did Greenland Ice Cause the Adoption of the Wheel in Pre-History Societies” and “How the Lack of Deodorant in the Weeks Prior to the Norman Invasion Ultimately Were instrumental in Developing Italian Opera” were typical of the inanity proposed by too many of my fellow students. Since one of the conditions of the thesis paper was to pick something that occurred prior to the start of World War I, I decided to tap my passion for automobiles. I cannot recall the specifics, but my thesis question had something to do with Henry Ford’s use of the assembly line. Simple. Easy to find. Plenty of material. I didn’t impress any of the students, but I recall the teacher breathing a sigh of relief when he heard my offering.
The teacher may have been at ease with my thesis, but I wasn’t. Today, writing ten pages is easy for me. In fact, the biggest challenge I face today is limiting my content to ten pages, but back then, when I thought about writing ten pages, I might as well been thinking about hiking across Antarctica. Difficult, time consuming, dangerous, arduous, and daunting were all words that came to mind when I thought about that Antarctic hike. Writing ten pages was even more intimidating. A big part of this was due to the level of technology of the day. I’ll cover that later in this article.
Whereas my high school teacher was worried about my topic, my college teacher was worried about my preparation. The end product was not the only component of our grade; we were supposed to show evidence of our research, our notes, and our progress as we slowly slugged our way toward a final paper. I hated doing research and worse, I hated being constrained to doing research in the method proscribed by our teacher. We were supposed to use note cards to write down key aspects of our work. In addition to handwritten notes, the cards were supposed to cite the source of the notes. That just seemed to be a waste of time to me and I didn’t follow the teacher’s method. Instead, I stockpiled library books in my room and intermittently scoured them to find material to support the propositions in my paper. Students met individually with the teacher a few times during the course and at my meetings the teacher constantly, and with increasing veracity, warned me that I wasn’t going to get a good grade because my note taking was so poor, spotty, rare, and increasingly, nonexistent.
As with the high school paper, I had a hunch that my college paper would be respectable, if not very good. I lived in mortal fear, however, of some passage in my paper being declared the work of a plagiarist. The use of footnotes for citations was rather intimidating and I remember being worried about what would happen if I failed to properly note a source, or worse, what would happen if I inadvertently neglected to cite something? Would I be kicked out of school, forever branded with the cruel epithet of plagiarist? Would I have to wear a scarlet “P” on my shirt? The level of technology of the day, handwritten notes and typewriters, added to that anxiety. The placement of footnotes was difficult and often guesswork and typing and retyping a single page over and over again to fix a small error or omission simply increased the odds of further errata.
The teacher professed his profound amazement when he read my final work. Similar to my high school teacher, he told me he didn’t think I’d be able to turn in a finished paper let alone a good paper. My preparation was that wanting and lacking. At least in his eyes. But I knew I was going to be able to complete the task. I received an A and he told me my paper was perhaps the best in the class. My confidence in my writing ability began to emerge and the following year, my sophomore year, it increased further. As part of the required core curriculum I took a literature class. My fellow commerce student buddies who already took the class told me it was difficult and frustrating and I should prepare myself to be stymied. I was apprehensive when I started the class but instead of being confused or frustrated I discovered reading poems and short stories and then writing up an analysis of the work was simple. And fun. I could make up whatever I wanted and as long as I adequately supported my opinions from the assigned material, I excelled. I got an A and this was probably the easiest class I took. Everyone else, however, seemed to struggle and flail.
Practice & Repetition
A few years after college I started a newsletter for my group of friends. The initial newsletter was spontaneous and impromptu. I simply had a couple ideas in my head, I sat down at my computer, a moment’s worth of inspiration poured out, and I fashioned it into a simple, two page newsletter. The newsletter was a semi-truthful, semi-fictional account of the activities of my friends. I put fifteen or twenty copies in the mail and was pleasantly surprised by the reaction. My friends loved it. They asked for more. Those who I ridiculed loved seeing their name in print and those I didn’t mention pestered me to make fun of them. I had an audience. I had a patron.
I decided to challenge myself and produce a newsletter every month, without fail, delay, or excuse. My nominal goal was to mercilessly mock and tease my friends, and while they actually enjoyed the abuse, I had an ulterior motive for the newsletter. Specifically, I set three goals for myself. First was the self-discipline of creating and mailing a newsletter every month. I even picked a publication date, the eighth of each month for no other reason than my birthday is on the eighth (of June). Second was to improve my technical writing ability. I figured, correctly, of course, that I would get better at writing with more and more repetitions of writing. Third was to foster my creativity. I wanted to get to a point where I could sit in front of the computer, with a blank screen in front of me and no thoughts in my head, and simply create on the spot. I figured I would be able to achieve the first two goals, but I was uncertain about the third goal. Are people born wildly creative or can creativity be learned? I didn’t know but I was going to give it a try.
For the next few years, without fail, I produced a newsletter every single month. While I think I may have missed my self-imposed deadline of the eighth by a few days once in a while, I cranked out edition after edition. Or where they issues? That was an unsettled topic during the years of the newsletter and it became one of the many themes that I developed and played with through its history. I don’t know if anyone else noticed those little bits of word play and motifs buried throughout the ongoing nonsense, but I never cared. I was able to create and twist and develop and morph and blend personality traits that my friends had and quiet often, didn’t have. I recounted actual events and I made up stories from whole cloth. I had a blast putting it together and best of all, I was able to let my mind run wild and sure enough, that third goal became a reality. To this day I retain that ability to create on the spot and oddly enough, something I did in my early and mid-twenties for no other reason than I had nothing else to do, is something I continue to utilize in my career today. That ability to create, and the confidence of my creativity, continues to pay dividends when I need to write anything from marketing pieces to routine emails to content for websites.
The newsletter ended when I became busy with graduate school, spent nearly a month in Asia, and then relocated to another city. I suppose the changes in our group of friends had something to do with the demise of the newsletter. People settled down and moved away and started families and spent more time at work and on their careers. The large gatherings which were nearly daily occurrences for years became weekly and then monthly and then occasionally and finally, rarely. This is not uncommon for groups of friends as the years elapse, but the decreasing contact with my source material meant a decreasing amount of stories. Then again, every creative pursuit has an expiration date. The only question is whether the creators know how and when to end it or whether they continue to drive it into the ground.
In graduate school, our capstone class had a guest speaker each week and we had to write a one page “diary” entry based on the speaker’s presentation. By this time, I knew I was good at writing and if I wasn’t actually good, I was confident. Supremely confident. Where many of my fellow students were worried about writing a single page once a week, I looked forward to it. I knew I’d do well. While I didn’t know what I was going to write from week to week, I knew I had a skill obtained and honed from cranking out those silly newsletters for a few years. Creativity. Our instructor told us the “diary entries” were meant to be introspective, so the more personal and the more revealing we could be, the better our grade. I went for it. I held nothing back. And I found the work easy. I aced the class and I suspect I had the highest average out of a large, auditorium size class of roughly one hundred students.
I received A’s on everything and many of my papers earned an A+. When I received a mere A I felt as if I failed. The only other time I experienced that level of performance was in – surprise surprise – a math class in high school. I set the curve in geometry and I did so by never studying. Paying attention in class and doing the homework was all I needed to do. My typical exam score was always roughly 100%. The next highest score was usually in the upper seventies. If I didn’t get a perfect score on the main test and then pick up the three or four or five extra credit points that were offered on most exams, I felt as if I failed. Getting a 98% on an exam, normally a joyous experience for most students, felt embarrassing to me and most, if not all, of my mistakes were very minor and always the result of carelessness. I was striving to excel simply for my own selfish reasons. I knew the subject cold and the only limiting factors I faced were oversight and unforced error, not lack of knowledge or understanding. Years later, that same internal competitive drive transferred from math to writing and the computer was a big part of that transfer.
My skills at writing certainly improved with ongoing work and continued refinement. That improvement was augmented by the advancement of technology. I went to college in 1985 and I am probably among the last breed of student who lugged a typewriter to college. By the time I graduated in 1989 I had converted my writing to the amazing new technology of word processing. While anecdotal, many, if not most college students of my generation were using computers by the late eighties and I suspect most students who started college in the nineties either had computers in their dorm rooms or made extensive use of their school’s computer lab. The world changed in a matter of a few short years.
I am, without a doubt, a product of technology. I would not be able to write so much as a simple, one page letter if not for the now ubiquitous computer and its myriad programs. This is in part because my handwriting is terrible but in larger part because of the way my mind works. I write in an iterative and non-linear fashion. I work and rework passages, often simultaneously in various locations throughout the piece. I jump back and forth from one paragraph to the next, from one page to the next. I constantly edit, tweak, twist, change, and adjust the words until I craft the piece the way I want it. I imagine my writing style would be infuriating to someone peering over my shoulder.
Earlier in this piece I compared writing to a task that was “difficult, time consuming, dangerous, arduous, and daunting” and that was largely due to the level of technology of the day and the way we were taught to write in the seventies and eighties. The writing process in those days was as follows: conduct research, compile an outline, write a first draft, review the draft, make edits, write a second draft, review, edit, write a third draft, review, edit, find someone to proofread, maybe write yet another draft, proofread again, and finally, after all those repetitive steps, type the document or find someone to type it for you.
I suspect many people who wrote papers this way had the same aversion to writing. I always felt as if I was spinning my wheels. Once had a passage the way I wanted it, I didn’t see the need to write it again and again and then, finally, commit it to permanence with the typewriter. As I worked and rework my writing I constantly found errors, flaws in my reasoning, or passages that could be written a bit better. Even when I got to the typing phase, I found that I was making corrections or adjustments or additions or deletions and as a result, I never thought my work born from this “difficult, time consuming, dangerous, arduous, and daunting” process was good. I presumed other students, the good students, in other words, intuitively knew what to do and probably faced very few problems or frustrations when they wrote. In reality, they probably faced the same frustrations as I did.
In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King mentioned an interviewer asking him, “How do you write?” King’s answered, rather cheekily, “One word at a time.” My technique is similar, only completely different. I write one letter at a time. I’m a terrible typist who’s been emboldened by the computer. I use only two or three fingers as I rapidly hunt and peck my way to a finished document. I throw my finger in the general direction of where I think the correct key is located…and hope for the best. I’m also an awful speller. In the days prior to the computer and word processing programs, I had to look up word after word in the dictionary and as a result I quickly lost interest in writing. More accurately, I lost interest in the laborious effort of writing.
Producing a perfect looking document is rather easy these days. Typos are fixed immediately. Sections can be moved from one location to the next in a matter of seconds. Footnotes are a snap to add. Citations are easy to edit and correct. But back in the days of longhand and typewriters, all of these tasks were time consuming and complicated. I clearly remember writing drafts longhand and after realizing a section or paragraph or sentence worked better elsewhere, wishing I had some sort of magic ability to move the ink from one page to another. Since I lacked that magic ability, I used a scissors and tape to physically move and resettle parts of the paper from one page to another. I then hoped my mother, who typed most of my high school papers for me, could figure out my manual “cut and paste” process and any accompanying notations. I suspect many other people used similar techniques.
Before word processing programs, the writer lived in fear of discovering a typo or omission anywhere in a document, but in particular towards the beginning. One error would necessitate retyping the offending page and worse, that correction might have a cascading effect as page after page would need to be retyped. For expediency, especially if time was running short, the writer would truncate the work in order to make the edits and additions to one page fit within the other typed pages. The compromise of quality for space was an unfortunate consequence of the level of technology of the time.
When I discovered the computer lab and the magic powers of Word Perfect – this was before Microsoft’s Office products existed – I initially used the computer as a turbocharged typewriter. I conducted my writing as I had been taught and only after I wrote draft after draft longhand did I type the words onto the computer. The ability to find and correct typos was a revelation and I quickly learned I could type faster simply because I didn’t worry about typos. Almost immediately I realized I didn’t have to produce a perfect handwritten document before using the computer, I could make edits and adjustments on the fly as I inputted my work. Eventually, and probably not long after I started to use computers, I jettisoned writing papers longhand and I went straight to the computer lab to do all of my work. Today, other than jotting down notes longhand so I don’t forget ideas, I use the computer to flesh out, refine, and organize those ideas. For me, the most conducive way to be creative is to sit front of a computer screen.
As odd as this may sound to some people, my aptitude in math has been a boon to my writing. Understanding this has been a great insight for me and my creative process. While I still struggle to adequately explain the use of logic to create – perhaps someday I’ll be able to write an essay that does so – I definitely can tell I use my logic skills to craft a document that flows from start to finish in a logical and readable form. I even use my logic when inventing and crafting something off-the-wall creative, which I do fairly regularly for my network of professional contacts. Writing those silly newsletters when I was in my early and mid-twenties has paid dividends for me in ways that I never imagined when I initially wrote them. One of the goals I set when I started the newsletter was to teach myself how to be creative and I think I succeeded on that front. Whether I taught myself how to be creative or whether I taught myself how to tap my native and previously inert creativity is a fair question. I suppose the answer doesn’t really matter. I am creative and I know how to harness, process, and utilize my skills.
As I write I can see a certain logic developing. Even if my process is seemingly disjointed, trust me, I begin to see patterns in otherwise random data. To me, that’s what writing is about. Finding patterns in random data. I’m channeling what already exists and presenting it in a way that is accessible for others. When the writing process is really clicking for me, I feel as if my job is not so much being a creative force as it is executing commands. I often feel as if someone or something else is working through me and I’m simply a vessel taking dictation. The story or article or book writes itself. My job is to record the proceedings, fairly and accurately, and any input I tender is limited to occasionally picking the right word or adjusting a turn of phrase. I’m merely the humble scribe, that’s all.
I think that’s the job of the writer, to simply record the abstract thoughts in his or her brain and present them in way that connects with other people. As he described in his “On Writing” book, Stephen King compared his role as a writer to that of an archeologist. An archeologist needs to use the right tools – pick ax or hammer or brush – at the right time in order to extricate a fossil from the ground with a minimum of breaks and damage. King viewed his role as a writer in a similar way. In order to extract a story, the writer needs to use the right tools – situation, characters, plot – at the right time in order to extract the story with a minimum of breaks and damage.
I send regular emails to a few hundred business professionals as a means of staying in touch, but unlike most corporate communication, my emails are wildly creative, daring, and inventive. I purposefully strive to make them memorable and they are littered with real and fictional characters ranging from Stephanie the harried admin to our hair combing intern to an algorithm that I use to decide the winner when I give something away, usually sports tickets. The algorithm, the story goes, achieved self awareness and named itself GIMMIE! I rarely have a meeting now where someone doesn’t ask me about GIMMIE! The inspiration for these characters, real and imagined, have all come from my ability and willingness to observe.
A big part of writing is observing. I watch people’s gestures and movements. I listen for vocal tics and slang. I observe the way people act and talk while in line a coffee shop. I study their body language, their use of crutch words, how often they pepper their comments with “like,” and most important of all, I let my mind revel in my ever growing list of pet peeves. Backwards baseball caps, wearing backpacks on crowded subway cars, driving slow in the left lane, and walking and texting, are but a few of the irritants I observe. Watching and listening and then allowing those observations to grow and develop and morph in your mind can be a great way to develop interesting themes, ideas, and even characters. Observing, even the mundane and prosaic parts of life, can be a great way to find inspiration.
However, nobody wants to hear from someone who is registering complaints just for the sake of registering complaints. Instead of complaining about something I find stupid – the growing use of comfort pets, for example – I have fun with other people’s inanity and I demonstrate ridiculousness by example. I like animals as much as the next person, but I don’t believe for a moment that everyone with a so-called comfort pet is in actual need of comfort. I hope my readers pick up on the ridiculous overuse of comfort pets when I complain that the airlines won’t let me bring Mr. Quills, my comfort porcupine, onto planes.
Another way I find inspiration is to constantly talk to myself. I’ve done this my entire life and it is a habit that only gets worse as I get older. The reason I talk to myself is because I am constantly working something through my brain. It might be a current event or something from work, it might be a movie or a song, it might be sports related or something from my personal life, but I am always mentally churning. Many years ago a girlfriend called me “ATB.” That stands for “Always Thinking Bill,” and she started to call me that when she realized I always had a thought in my mind. My habit actually drove her crazy because she said she couldn’t imagine having a brain that was always “on.” I don’t know if this is a learned behavior or a genetic predisposition but I do know that my thinking and rethinking of almost every facet of my life is something that has been extremely beneficial to my writing. Often when I sit down to write I have much of the writing already worked out in my head. In many cases I’ve been churning a concept or idea for years.
As described earlier in this article, I have terrible handwriting and I no longer write longhand before typing up the final document. However, I am an incessant note taker. I’ve learned to always have a pen and paper near me. I often carry a scrap of paper with me, just in case inspiration hits while I’m on the train or running errands or on my way to the golf course. Like most writers, I’ve used cocktail napkins and the backs of envelopes to jot down ideas. I’ve learned if I don’t immediately write down the transient ephemera of my mind I will quickly forget the idea and I’ll be left with the memory that I had an interesting idea, but I’ll have no memory of the actual idea! Ironically enough, sometimes ideas come so rapidly for me that I still use a pen and pad of paper when I’m sitting in front of my computer working on a document. I might not have time to jump to the appropriate section, so I jot down the idea and input it later.
The act of writing allows me to process those thoughts in my head. I get to work and rework concepts and ideas and quite often the writing process yields new insights and learning. Ironically, through this art of churning and writing I discovered that I am not a reading preferenced leaner. I am writing preferenced learner. The more I write the more I tend to learn so I suppose I should have written even more when I was younger because I didn’t figure this out until I was in my early forties.
The best way to write is to simply do it. You have to start somewhere and if you want to get good at it, you will need to practice and develop your craft. Don’t wait for someone else to give you a green light. Don’t wait for anyone to tell you know something. Declare yourself knowledgeable about a subject…but make sure you do you do your homework. You need to be prepared if you want to back up your boast.
This is precisely what I did when I wrote “Venture Capital 101,” my first “book.” In April 2003, I was upset that a business meeting did not go well. The chairman of an early stage company essentially said I knew nothing about venture capital. Largely in response to his cutting remark I decided to finish an article that had been churning in my mind for a few months. The article was about the common misconceptions about raising capital for early stage companies. I didn’t know where or how I’d use the article, but I pressed forward and wrote. I needed to write it because I needed to work out the logic and explanations and the wording simply for myself. The article quickly grew long and I figured I’d make a two part article. Then a five part. Then a ten part. And after it got long enough, it decided to make it a book and then to really challenge myself, I wove a narrative story throughout the work. I wrote this book in my iterative and nonlinear fashion and as with all of my writing, I would not have been able to write it without being aided and abetted by the computer.
When I finished the book I still didn’t know what to do with it. I simply saved it as a PDF and sent it to a few websites and a handful of people. I now refer to it as an “ebook before we had ebooks.” I was attending a lot of networking events at that time and anyone I met received a follow up email with a copy of the book. People read it, apparently enjoyed it, and forwarded to more people who in turn read it, enjoyed it, and forwarded it. I had something that was a minor viral hit years before the term “going viral” entered our lexicon. Later, I put the book up on my website as a free download and later still I started an entrepreneurial products website with a partner and we sold copies of the book. After the website ran its course, I put the book on Amazon where it continues to sell surprisingly well.
Five years after I wrote “Venture Capital 101” I was contacted by Wiley Publishing. They had an idea for a “For Dummies” book and asked if I was interested. I asked how they found me and they told me a PDF of my venture capital booked somehow made the rounds at Wiley. They thought the book was pretty good and more importantly, they were impressed that I was able to finish it. Simply completing tasks will go a long way to opening doors for a writer. The book idea they had was “LBOs For Dummies” and while I was intrigued with the idea of writing a book, I thought a book about LBOs, which means “levered buyout,” or using debt to buy a company, was too narrow a topic for a three hundred plus page book. I suggested broadening the scope to encompass the entire process of buying or selling a company and on the spot I proposed “Mergers & Acquisitions For Dummies.” I thought it was a great title. They didn’t and my idea was summarily rejected. I was a bit surprised by that, but since I was busy at the time executing M&A transactions, I didn’t dwell for long on my disappointment.
Two years later Wiley contacted me again. They had a change of heart and were now firmly interested in adding a book about mergers & acquisitions to the “For Dummies” catalog. I was delighted, of course, and I accepted the offer. I spent the summer of 2010 working with Wiley to craft an outline. This was far more complicated than I thought and took much longer than I would have imagined, but we finally devised an outline that was approved. I commenced work on “Mergers & Acquisitions For Dummies” at the beginning of September and I finished the entire book just before Christmas. Some edits, corrections, additions, and deletions to the manuscript ensued during the winter and in May 2011, the book was published.
When I walked out of that meeting in 2003, disappointed and frustrated with the result, I never imagined my anger about a bad business meeting would someday morph into a book with a major publisher. The takeaway is you never know what will lead you to something else. By doing something tangible instead of whining and complaining, I put myself in position to benefit from a very happy accident. The irony is not lost upon me: If I planned for this to happen, it never would have occurred. The other irony is the nature of publishing. I am fully aware that getting a chance to write a book was the result of a happy accident at the intersection of having some knowledge and publisher desperation. I have no doubt I got the second call from Wiley after they were stymied for ideas and told someone to sort through the reject pile. “Find the least bad idea,” I like to think someone said. “And let’s go with that.”
The logistics of writing can be a complicated affair for someone who has a full time job. Work, a daily commute, and occasional business travel can all collude to erode the writer’s most precise resource: time. The demands of family and friends, a golf habit, a gym membership, recreational reading, watching movies and TV shows, yard work, walking a dog, and all the other aspects of life can further reduce not only the availability of time, but the willingness and right frame of mind to write. Carving out the necessary time means the writer might have to make sacrifices elsewhere. Parties will be skipped, rounds of golf missed, and binge watching TV shows will be outlawed if the writer wants to properly allocate that very limited resource of time.
Writing means reprioritizing every facet of life and if writing isn’t the top priority in the writer’s life, it should be very close to the top. Except for the lucky few who already support themselves from their writing or otherwise have the means to support themselves without a full time job, finding the time to write can be a challenge. Weekends and days off should be dedicated to the craft of writing. If the writer is still fresh in the evening after a day’s work, then evenings should be utilized. If evenings don’t work, the writer should get up earlier than usual and get an hour or two of writing completed before going off to work. The key isn’t when the writer writes. The key is making writing a priority and dedicating the appropriate amounts of time to the craft of writing. Everyone is different and has different preferences and proclivities, so just because one person likes to write late at night doesn’t mean that is the right time for another person.
For me, I like to write in the morning. This is when I’m in the best frame of mind. My mind is freshest right after I wake up. It feels as if it has been “reset.” I suppose this is true for many people, although not all people. Beyond the freshness of the morning, I like knowing I have a “long runway” of time ahead of me. I don’t like having a hard stop right in front of me. I suppose this is psychological. Knowing that I have as much time as I need tends to help my creativity and my willingness to dig in and write. Firing up my writing process is far more difficult if I know I don’t have much time because I know once I get going I don’t want to stop. Those arbitrary stopping points – bedtime, errands, dinner, meetings, and so on – tend to increase the occurrence of one of the biggest hindrances for the writer: procrastination.
Procrastination has been a big issue for me and I suspect many wannabe writers face this same issue. They might plan to write after work, but when they get home they are physically tired and mentally spent after a long day at work. They might plan to spend the weekend writing but instead they procrastinate as errand after errand and issue after issue requires their immediate attention. Before the writer knows it, Sunday night has rolled around and they’ve written nothing. At say, 9:30 pm on Sunday the writer no longer has the “long runway” of two full days of time and is now faced with the arbitrary hard stop of bedtime. Moreover, thoughts of work tend to creep in, further reducing the ability to concentrate on writing. The “runway” on Sunday night is very short. For me, if I’m writing at seven or eight in the morning I mentally and psychologically perceive that I am clear for takeoff. I have nothing in front of me and whether I write for an hour or two hours or six hours or ten hours, I have the time. The writer might have an hour or two at 9:30 pm on Sunday, but the writer won’t have six or ten or more hours if getting up early to join the fray of a Monday morning commute is in the offing.
The logistics of writing are similar to the logistics of packing a car’s trunk. Suitcases, golf clubs, and other large items should go in first. Smaller items should go in only after the large items have been loaded. The same applies for writing. Make it a priority. Find the time of day that works best for you and structure your life around that time. Don’t try to fit writing into your life. Try to fit life into your writing. If you want to write, you are not going to accidentally find the time. You have to make the time.
Shortly after “Mergers & Acquisitions For Dummies” was published a friend asked me, “How did you write it?” He marveled that anyone could write three hundred plus pages and said he could never do that. I look him straight in the eye and told him the truth. “When I write,” I said, “I think that I’m the best writer in the world. No one else can do what I can do. No one comes close.” He nodded, not so much in agreement but more from a sudden realization. He fully understood what I meant. “Confidence,” he said. “Of course.”
I really do think I’m the best writer in the world. Is it true? No, of course not. But I am confident in my abilities and I’m willing to push myself. That sentiment isn’t a ploy to try to artificially build my confidence. It is what I really believe. Perhaps I’m a bit cocky, but I’m ok with that. In certain professions, I see nothing wrong with arrogance. If I ever need an operation, especially if it is a life and death matter, I want my surgeon to be the most egotistical surgeon in the world! I want my surgeon to be the only person in the world who thinks he can successfully complete the operation. The same goes with pilots. I want a cocky, arrogant, confident person flying the plane and that’s especially true if the plane has a serious problem at thirty-five thousand feet. I want my pilot to believe he’s the only one in the world who can land the plane. I do not want my surgeon or pilot to be timid, unsure, or even falsely modest. If that means politeness is also jettisoned, I’m perfectly fine with that.
While writing is not a life and death matter, nonetheless a good writer needs to have a very healthy ego in order to create something and more importantly, see it through to the end. Very few people would want to read the writings of an insecure, mousy, wimpy, hesitant writer. Readers want bold, unique, creative, powerful writers. I’d rather take chances and fail than play it safe or worse, not even try. Confidence is the writer’s watchword.
Writing is an intensely personal affair. The writer is baring perhaps the most intimate part of the body: the brain. Writing, especially good writing, means ideas and thoughts and other abstract detritus have been harvested, culled, shaped, organized, and finally presented to the entire world. This opens the writer’s emotional labors to criticism and scorn, ridicule and disparagement, and at times, threats and violence. Spoken words are the “transient ephemera” of our interactions, easily ignored and quickly forgotten. Writing has permanence and moreover, writing is the result of careful planning, thinking, and execution. Perhaps that’s why the written word has such power.
I’m a hypocrite and I fully realize that. I’m a far better teacher than I was a student. Perhaps I’m simply more discriminating than my teachers. After all, I don’t have me as a student! But, as I wrote earlier in this article, I am not a reading preferenced learner. I’m a writing preferenced learner. To date, I’ve written four business books but I don’t read business books. Other than what I’ve written, I doubt I’ve read four business books in my life. I do not learn much from other people’s business observations and ideas. I learn far more when I take the time to process my thoughts and compose them into a logical and readable form. Despite being a hypocrite who doesn’t read business books, other people tend to learn from my writing and, ironically enough, I find that incredibly gratifying.
“I’m gonna write a book,” is something I’ve heard many times from many different people. Plenty of people talk about writing but very few actually begin a project. Fewer still see a project through to the very end. Being a writer is a selfish pursuit, and perhaps that at least partially explains why many people talk about writing but very few actually attempt it. When I write I am lost in my own thoughts. I am in my own world, essentially. It is a world that I create and it can be anything I want. Far from being laborious, writing is now cathartic for me as it allows me to flesh out myriad “transient ephemera” that inhabit my mind on a near constant basis. I’ve had many people tell me that my writing seems to speak to them, as if I was writing directly to them and for them. That is a wonderful compliment and I am appreciative that my work has that kind of effect.
While I enjoy compliments – who wouldn’t? – I work and rework my writing, iteratively and non-linearly, until I get it the way I want it. I write for my own purposes and my own selfish reasons. I don’t write for others. I write for myself. I write things I want to read and the way I want to read them. I suppose this comes from being extremely frustrated throughout my school years. From grade school through college, and except for math classes, I thought we were loaded up with useless information and when we were given a test, I’d always think, “If this is what we were supposed to know, why didn’t the teacher simply give us the test ahead of time?” So today, I am no longer trying to answer someone else’s test. I am writing my own tests and completing them any way I want.
Occasionally, and all too rarely in my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter someone who gave me truly useful advice and ideas. “Forget all that other stuff, kid,” the wise old sage essentially says, “Here’s what you really need to know.” As I’ve moved though life and advanced in a professional career, I’ve tried to emulate those wise old sages who helped me. For anyone who wants to write, I implore you to trust yourself. Find your own voice. Use other writers as touchstones, but don’t copy their tone, technique, or style. Do it your way. Invent a method or a technique if you don’t like your present options. Coin words if you find the existing language lacking. Write for yourself first and foremost. Be brutally honest with yourself. Fearlessly express your thoughts and innermost ideas. Take chances and through your words, open yourself to others. And forget all that other stuff, kid…do it your way.
But most importantly, write. Just write.