Most people would tell you that Adrian can’t write, at least not by the usual definition. When he sits down to type, P’s are jumbled up with b’s. Vowels are skipped altogether. It’s been like this since Adrian was a kid. One teacher told him, “You’re no good at history. You can’t even write.”
By now, you may have realised that Adrian is dyslexic.
What you may not have realised is that Adrian is also AA Gill, renowned British food writer and cultural critic. Every Sunday, millions of readers sit down to read his incisive reviews in the Sunday Times.
How does he do it?
AA Gill e starts every article by writing it out himself, mistakes and all. Then he reads that back to a transcriptionist, who types it up for the newspaper.
And the results? Here’s AA Gill writing about his home city, London.
“In half my lifetime this city has become a homogenous, integrated, international place of choice rather than birth. Not without grit and friction, but amazingly polyglot and variegated. I travel a lot, and this must be the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere.”
AA Gill’s success isn’t just the story of one man beating the odds to pen stunning passages about London. It makes me question my whole assumptions about what it means to be a writer.
What if writing is not the act of picking up a pen and laying down sentences? What if writing is what happens before that: our minds at work, crystallising ideas and expressing them through language?
Have you ever found talking far easier than writing? Well, AA Gill’s story shows that we shouldn’t jump straight to telling ourselves ‘I am not a writer.’ Perhaps it’s just that there’s a boulder blocking the path between the contents of your mind, and the blank page in front of you.
So what do we do when we run head first into one of those boulders? AA Gill can’t just stop being dyslexic. But most of us keep pushing against the boulder, banging our heads against it. We decide that writing is just too hard. We give up.
That’s where AA Gill’s experience is useful. He doesn’t burn up energy trying to climb over the boulder or push through it. He doesn’t wait for it to vanish. He steps around it. He changes the rules of our game, so the obstacle becomes irrelevant.
I’ll share some of the biggest obstacles to writing, and the workarounds I’ve found.
The obstacle: struggling to start writing
The workaround: dictate
If you struggle to start writing, then don’t start writing. Instead, speak your thoughts.
Software: You can use a dictation program like Dragon captures your raw thoughts. The text output will definitely need editing, but it’s a start. You’ve got momentum.
Manpower: You can use a transcriptionist, as AA Gill does. It’s less expensive than you think (around $1 USD per minute), and you can just email the recording. Or you can even listen back to your recording and type it up yourself.
By the way, writing that starts out as speech is often more persuasive, because it retains that conversational feel.
The obstacle: struggling to form coherent thoughts
The workaround: shift formats
I have a dark secret. Even though I write for the web, every piece starts off as a scribble on paper. Writing straight onto the computer screen is too linear for the way my brain works (a mess of tangents). When I write on paper, it’s easy for me to define the relationship between ideas, and keep it loose until I’ve worked out what I think.
The obstacle: writing something and immediately thinking it’s terrible
The workaround: put your inner critic on hold
I covered this one in my last post. Instead of immediately critiquing what you write, tackle one task at a time. Plan, then write, then edit. This way, the editing/critical mind doesn’t trip up your writing/creative mind.
Okay, so what if you try these tactics, and you still have that voice in the back of your head telling you it’s terrible?
The power of practice.
Seth was a slight kid with a fast mouth. Back In high school, Seth’s English teacher told him: “You are the bane of my existence and it’s likely you’ll never amount to anything.”
That would be Seth Godin, author of ‘Tribes’, ‘Permission Marketing’ and seventeen other best-sellers.
In an interview with Tim Ferris, Seth shared how he got here from there. Seth’s advice: ‘write badly until it’s not bad anymore.’
Seth started writing before he was good at it. He had the stamina to persist through the period when the gap between his expectations and his abilities felt vast.
I’ve been studying writing for more than 20 years. For most of that time, I was looking for secrets. Tactics. Insights. Then I wrote my book, Life without Lanyards. All 63,000 words of it. That experience — showing up every day and churning out words — did more to improve my writing than any uni course.
If you want to get better at writing, write.
Your English teacher’s ghost
Seth Godin was lucky. He had the brassy confidence to ignore someone whose opinion he’d been taught to respect.
I wish more people had Seth Godin’s kahunas.
For most of us, when our teacher tells us we’re bad at writing, we listen. They’re the authority, right? We digest their opinion, and it becomes part of us.
It sticks around. I’ve met business owners are competent, confident operators. Yet when the subject of writing comes up and their guard is down, they’ll tell me: “I’m not a writer.”
If the conversation goes deeper, eventually an experience in high school or Uni floats to the surface. Somewhere, some teacher felt entitled to pass judgement, not on that student’s performance on one assignment, but on their entire future as a writer.
What right do these teachers have?
Where does this leave us? Once again, you hit a boulder, except this time it’s not one you can step around by shifting tactics. It’s a weight that bears down on every time you think about writing. You describe your identity using the standard handed to you by that teacher. You tell yourself, ‘I’m not a writer.’
When we define our potential in terms of our identity, we limit our range of movement. Can a rock fly? Can a non-writer write?
Is there a way around this identity we were given?
Do you have to be a ‘writer’ to write?
I didn’t learn to drive until fairly late. Exactly how late is a matter of some embarrassment, but let’s just say it was well over a decade after my peers did their first burnouts in the cul-de-sac outside Whitebridge High.
When I decided to get my licence, there was a lot to learn all at once: changing gears while staying on the road, while keeping an eye out for hazards. Whenever I ground the gears, I reminded myself: ‘Millions of people around the world have got the hang of this, so I can too’. I approached driving as a set of very simple tasks — all I had to do was put them all together.
And stakes were high: my wife was pregnant, and I wanted to drive her to the hospital.
The day of my test came. A weary old assessor sat beside me as I drove. Every few kilometres, I ground the gears. Silently, he made some marks on a form on a clipboard. Finally we pulled up back at the Motor Registry. ‘Well, I see no reason to fail you, but geez you’re rough on the gears’, he said.
That was good enough for me.
I’m still getting better at driving, and I’m grinding the gears a lot less. That’s a habit I’m aware of, so I watch what I’m doing. I know I’m never going to become a racecar champion, and I’m okay with that. All I needed to do was bring my skills to a level where I could pass the test.
I succeeded for two reasons:
- I started from zero, and built from there. I was prepared to be bad in order to get better.
- I didn’t make it personal. Learning to drive wasn’t a question of who I am. It’s a question of what needs to be done.
Writing is not some kind of mystical calling that only a few of us can ever aspire to. Writing is a set of behaviours that we can all improve on with practice and the right guidance.
Like driving, writing well means executing a whole set of tasks at the same time. You’re gathering the information to convey, while thinking about the best structure to convey that information, and maintaining a consistent tone, as well as using grammatically correct sentence structures.
When I coach people on writing skills, there’s that one phrase I hear most often: ‘I’m not a writer’. Well I wouldn’t call myself a Formula One driver, but now I know how to drive.
If you’d like coaching to find out what better writing looks like for you, let me know.
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