From Full of Excuses and Failing in Business to Self-Made Multi-Millionaire: How a Dead Broke Carpet Cleaner Turned It All Around Using the Power of Copywriting and Direct-Response Marketing

Why is it that we so often stubbornly resist what turns out to be the most life-changing advice about achieving business success from those who’ve been there, done that, and know a thing or two, and refuse to do the one thing that might change things for the better and get us to the point of actual traction in our business?

The thing that might transform a wheezing, sickly, underperforming business from breathing its last dying breath into a revenue-generating, full-time income-producing thing of beauty we can be proud of? A business where the number of email subscribers, new client inquiries, and yes, sales, actually increases consistently?

I’d wager fear of the unknown and the natural tendency to avoid discomfort is probably right up there at the top of the list, wouldn’t you?

The trouble is, we often let this fear and avoidance dynamic keep us stuck inside our wretched comfort zones, where dreams go to die, all the while banging our heads against a wall, expecting something to change even as we won’t, as we go on doing the same ineffective thing day in and day out to get our business to grow.

Sometimes even to the point where the business withers and dies, and we have to – gasp – go back to work for “the man.” Oh, the horror!

Granted, not everyone reading this is in that position.

But plenty of business owners are – gravitating by default to the familiar and comfortable when it comes to marketing and selling, instead of doing something that might be uncomfortable, yet will yield far greater results.

Well, listen up as I tell you a story about a dead broke carpet cleaner who was failing miserably in his business until he discovered the power of copywriting and direct response marketing, then used this knowledge to turn things around.

And turn things around he surely did, going from flat broke and on the verge of giving up, to charging $25,000 per half day for his consulting services, and hanging out with the likes of people like Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton.

Joe Polish is the guy.

As a lifelong student of marketing and copywriting, I’m always on the hunt for people in the copywriting field who are more – and I mean WAY more – knowledgeable and successful than I am, so I can soak up their wisdom and apply it to my business where it makes sense. Joe Polish is one of those people.

Polish is the Founder and President of Piranha Marketing Inc., founder of the Genius Network Mastermind, and co-founder of a highly popular free weekly podcast on iTunes called I Love Marketing. After creating mega-success in his carpet cleaning business, he went on to teach what he learned about marketing to others in that industry, then created a highly profitable marketing consulting business.

But once upon a time, before the accolades, the successes and the abundant income, he was that practically bankrupt carpet cleaner.

Joe’s Story

You can check out Joe’s full story in his own words here, but in a nutshell, when he was in his early twenties and struggling in his carpet cleaning business, as in, on the verge of bankruptcy, dead broke and living on credit cards struggling, he got invited on a weekend trip that would change the course of his life forever.

On this jet-ski trip to the lake with his buddies, Joe met and struck up a conversation with the multimillionaire real estate investor who owned the jet skis, a man he rightly assumed he could learn a thing or two from. He told the guy about his carpet cleaning business and how poorly it was doing. He shared that he was thinking about getting into another, more lucrative kind of business. He asked the multimillionaire for recommendations for what kind of business he could get into where he could make more money.

The multimillionaire asked him, “Are there people in your industry making money?”

Joe replied that yes indeed there were, and that a few of those companies were even making over a million bucks a year. But he said those companies had an advantage, because they’d been around for years, and had lots of employees and were well-established in the market, with name recognition that he couldn’t compete with as a newbie.

After listening to these and many other excuses Joe made for why he wasn’t successful, the multimillionaire said to him, “If there are other people in your industry doing well and making money and you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with your business, there’s something wrong with you.”

He told Joe he sounded like one of those people who think “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and that going into a new business wasn’t the answer. What he really needed to do was learn and apply fundamental business principles to his current business to make it work, said the multimillionaire.

In Which Our Hero Makes a Very Wise Decision

Our hero Joe takes this advice to heart, and decides he will do whatever is in his power to make his business successful, “or die trying,” as he said.

Cut to advertising and marketing. Except, instead of using traditional image-based or brand advertising, which essentially attempts to create a positive feeling or image around a product or company and build awareness of the brand – think car commercials and fancy perfume ads, for example – Joe decides to use the timeless, proven principles of direct response marketing, which have been working like gangbusters for nearly every kind of business, company and cause for over a hundred years, thank you very much. 

What exactly is direct response marketing you ask, and how does it differ from image and brand advertising?

Unlike brand advertising, which seeks to raise awareness, direct response marketing’s goal is to stimulate an immediate response or action, via print (yes, still!) or web communications. So on the web, that could mean things like getting someone to sign up for your email list, call you for an appointment, set up a free consult, reach out for more information about your products or services, or make a purchase of said products and services.

Direct response marketing works because, as Joe says, “it educates, motivates, and calls your consumers to take action.” (Unlike the Jeep commercial that leaves you full of daydreams about the rugged and adventurous life you might lead if you owned the latest version of the Grand Cherokee, but doesn’t provide a mechanism that allows you to take immediate action.)

And the thing that makes direct response marketing work its wonders? Persuasive writing – copywriting – writing meant to encourage action.

According to AWAI (American Writers and Artists Inc., where I got some fabulous copywriting training):

Unlike news or editorial writing, copywriting is all about getting the reader to take action. That action might be to purchase, opt-in, or engage with a product, service, or company.

But back to our hero . . .

Joe was determined to make his business a success and willing to try direct response marketing to get there. As a result, he went from grossing $2100 per month to grossing $12,300 per month, in just 6 short months. Within a year, he had turned his carpet-cleaning business into a six-figure business.

He began a second business teaching others in his industry the direct response marketing techniques that helped him go from dead broke to six-figure success. He eventually sold the carpet-cleaning business and now generates millions in revenue from his marketing training business.

All because he got out of his comfort zone, stopped complaining about what wasn’t working and opened himself up to something that did, and took action by applying what he learned.

But Will This Work for Me?

Now, you can do “image advertising” or a “brand awareness” campaign if you want to, there’s nothing wrong with that, but just know that it might take months and months to see any kind of traction from your efforts.

Whereas with direct response marketing & effective copywriting, you can create web copy and other communications today that get potential clients and customers reaching out to you tomorrow.

I encourage you to read Joe’s story here, where you’ll learn a lot more about what direct response marketing is and how to apply it, if you’re interested. At the end of his story, Joe shares four proven strategies for marketing your business that worked incredibly well for him and over 6300 business owners in his industry.

And before you go thinking, “But I don’t own a carpet cleaning business, those strategies won’t work for me,” or, “I’m not comfortable using ‘aggressive’ marketing tactics,” keep in mind what I said earlier: the timeless, proven principles of direct response marketing have been working like gangbusters for nearly every kind of business, company and cause for over a hundred years.

And you can adapt those principles in a non-aggressive way to your business and your marketing comfort level. (But don’t get too comfortable, mind you, because your comfort zone is where dreams go to die, and we actually want results here, right?)

Please note, I’m NOT saying you have to actually mail things to people or use the kind of direct response ads Joe talks about in his story (though that works too), but you can practice direct response marketing principles on your website.

If you click on the link above to read Joe’s story, pay special attention to what he says about the difference between marketing and selling, and his definition of what selling really is. I think you’ll find Joe’s definition of selling comforting.

The Takeaway

Over the years I’ve had several clients who don’t feel comfortable “asking for the sale,” or in some cases, even alluding to the fact they have something for sale.

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that those people make far fewer sales of their products and services than people who know they have to get comfortable with marketing and selling to be successful in business, or act in spite of their discomfort with it.

(By the way, I find it easy as pie to help other people with their marketing, but I’m not that terribly comfortable doing it for myself, despite providing marketing & PR services to my clients for over a decade. But I act in spite of my discomfort, because if there’s one thing I’m wildly passionate about, it’s having a successful business so I never, ever, E-V-E-R, have to go back to work for “the man.”)

That said, I get that Joe Polish’s style may not be right for everyone. I understand the strategies and tactics of other wildly successful marketers I’ve mentioned on this blog before, people like Dan Kennedy, Ben Settle, or John Carlton may be a little too aggressive for your taste.

I get it.


From Polish, Kennedy, Settle, Carlton and other classic marketing mentors, to brilliant marketing types like Naomi Dunford, Ashley Ambirge, Marie Forleo and others – I take what works for me, what I can adapt to my shy-ish, sensitive and creative sensibilities, and leave the rest.

No reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as I see it. Instead, I learn and adapt, learn and adapt.

At the end of the day, if solopreneurs and small business owners who are afraid to sell, or think there’s something inherently wrong or sleazy about selling – and therefore resist learning how to effectively market online – would let go of that one very detrimental mindset, they’d be a lot more successful.

And I can say this, because I had to learn this lesson myself in the early days when I was first launching what was then my generic freelance writing business. I fervently wish I hadn’t wasted a year and half and then some working my fingers to the bone doing what was comfortable but wasn’t working, and applied tried-and-true principles of copywriting and direct response marketing instead.

But better late than never, eh?

So my plea to you is, become a student of copywriting and marketing. Even if you don’t learn from me, that is A-OK my friend, but find someone whose teachings and trainings you do resonate with, and learn from them.

Because as Dan Kennedy says, copywriting is the #1 skill to master if you want to increase your income. I wouldn’t be in the business of writing copy for my clients, or helping my clients optimize and improve their current copy, if I didn’t believe that.

In my case, learning from masters like Kennedy, Polish, Settle, Carlton and other copywriting greats has given me a priceless return on my time investment, many times over.

I wish the same for you.


By the way, if you’re ready to get one-on-one strategic guidance to help you to write a magnetic website that attracts, engages & sells to your dream clients {without becoming a pro copywriter}, I’ve got something that will help.

It’s not right for everyone, but if you’re interested in the details, you can check them out here:

The Shape Up Your Website Copy to Start Making More Sales 30-Day Fast Start: A Private Writing & Marketing Mentorship


If you’re ready to transform your website copy from lackluster to luminous, so it’s more compelling and client-attractive to your target audience and generates more client inquiries and sales this might  be a good fit for you. Click on the link above for details. 


Afraid to Sell

By far, one of the most problematic things I see on websites I’m hired to review or write copy for is an unclear, confused marketing message. The web copy doesn’t resonate with the kind of clients the business owner is trying to attract, so when said client lands on the website, they spend 3-7 seconds looking around, don’t feel any connection to what they read, and leave.

And what compounds the problem in many of these cases is it’s nearly impossible for the web visitor to figure out how to actually make a purchase if they were so inclined.

Now, granted, sometimes the above scenario happens when you’re just starting out, and you don’t know what message your website needs to convey to appeal to your desired audience just yet, or when you’re still trying to figure out how all this marketing and copywriting stuff works to help you do business online successfully.

HOWEVER . . . .

Other times this website confusion (and the resulting poor sales performance) is a result of being afraid to sell, of being fearful of actually letting people know that, #1, you have something awesome for sale, woohoo!, and #2, hey, they can buy it right over here! (On the Work with Me, Products & Programs, or Services page of your website.)

And furthermore (well, don’t I just sound like my Mom when she was getting ready to read me the riot act?), many business owners, despite having an email list of potential clients and customers who might just love to buy something from them, have never actually shared with their subscribers that they have products or services available for purchase.

Bottom line, they’re afraid to sell.

You know, one of the questions I ask on the intake questionnaire I have all new clients fill out is “What are the last 5 things you’ve done to market your business or sell your products/services?” And I’ll tell you, an answer I rarely get is, “I made an offer to my email list/audience/blog readers/etc.”

If you’re not selling anything, let me ask you, are you offering anything? Are you sending an email to your list telling them you have something they can buy? If you’ve been at this online business thing for a while, and you haven’t made an offer to your list yet, my question for you is, why not?

Now, let me just say right here: I GET IT.  I was dreadfully uncomfortable coming right out and making an offer to my email list the first time I did it too, but I will tell you it gets much easier after you “break the seal” and do it the first time.

I actually wrote a blog post about this fear of marketing and selling called, They Want You to Be the One, So Stop Being Afraid to Market Yourself, which essentially says that, when someone lands on your website or signs up for your email list, they know you’re operating a business, so it’s not going to be a surprise to them when every now and then you let them know you have something they can buy.

They expect this.

And furthermore (geez, that word again), they were looking for the solution to a problem or the answer to a question when they landed on your website in the first place, and they’re hope, hope, hoping you will be the one who can help them solve the problem or answer the question.

So do not be afraid to sell.

Notice I didn’t say, don’t be uncomfortable about selling. I’ve been in the marketing/PR/copywriting/sales field my entire adult life and I still sometimes feel uncomfortable making a pitch for my services. That’s normal. I said don’t be afraid. Because at the end of the day, even if you do get rejected, you will survive. Rejection might feel crappy, but it won’t kill you.

And if anyone gives you any grief about selling, that just proves they don’t have the first clue about how real business works, and they’re not your ideal client or customer anyway. So not to worry.

So even though I’m not always comfortable selling either, I do it. And you know what I’ve noticed?

When I sent an email offering something for sale, people bought. I made sales. People participated in actual commerce, money and services changed hands, and we all lived to tell the tale.

And by the way, when you’re selling, you don’t have to behave like a carnival barker or be in your face, sleazy or aggressive about it.  You can do it subtly, the way I’m going to do it at the end of this blog post by letting you know I’ve revamped my service offerings and have a bunch of new services available.

You can do it in the P.S. of your email newsletter.

You can make a subtle mention of your promotion in your latest blog post.

Or you can send a full-fledged “sales message” (again, this can be done with subtlety) to your email list.

So please, please, if you have something awesome for sale, let your audience know about it. The sky will not fall if you do, trust me on this.

And here’s the part where I’m going to let you know about my new services. You can’t check them out right over here on my Work with Me page.

Or check out the abbreviated description of them below.

Happy Selling!


{If you’re interested in any of the services below and want to find out which one might be a good fit for you, shoot me an email and we’ll set up a 20-minute, no-obligation conversation to explore the possibilities.}

The Irresistible Web Copy VIP Package: The 3 Key Must-Have, Uber-Important, Can’t-Do-Business-Online-Without-‘Em Web Pages {+ a little extra} Every Successful Business Needs

If you’re serious about having a successful website that calls in your ideal clients and sells your programs and services, you need:

  • A compelling Home page that grabs attention and gets your right people eager to find out more about you
  • An About page that conveys your unique personality and bonafides in accessible, client-focused language
  • A Services, Work with Me, or Programs page that demonstrates your singular value and gets your ideal clients dreamily thinking, “she’s/he’s the one I want to work with”

The Irresistible Web Copy VIP Package includes: Learn more here.


The Copy Brilliance Web Copy Makeover

:: Not everyone needs their website written from scratch. You might have one particular web page that’s just not working for you – and it’s keeping you from calling in your ideal clients or making more sales.

:: In that case, I can apply my copywriter’s “let’s uncover and highlight the sales-inducing benefits in this web copy” brain to one page of your already written web copy to transform it from lackluster to luminous, so it persuasively conveys your value and appeals to your ideal clients.

:: If you already have the key must-have website pages on your site written, but you’d reallllly like some professional copywriting tweaking & fine tuning on one of those pages (or another page of your choice) to make it sparkle and shine to call in your ideal clients, the Copy Brilliance Web Copy Makeover is for you.

How it works: Learn more here.


Copywriting & Messaging Strategy 60-Minute One-on-One Intensive

Think of this like a rapid-fire website audit from a copywriting, messaging and branding perspective. We’ll work side-by-side in one 60 minute session over the phone, as we look at your website together.

You’ll walk away with at least 5-10 ideas for improving your website copy ASAP to more effectively call in and convert your ideal clients.

 This is for you if:

:: Your website copy is in pretty good shape but you want to pick a professional copywriter’s brain for ideas on polishing it up to a fine “I want to magnetize my ideal clients to me” sheen, get feedback on your messaging, or ask questions about specific elements of your copy

:: You’re just getting starting and want some DIY copywriting advice you can run with on your own to write your own copy

 How it works: Learn more here.


Strategy Consulting for Creatives

So, what you need doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories above?

No worries, my creative friend.

You can invest in a pack of strategy consulting hours to discuss any of your web marketing and copywriting conundrums. This is great for things like ongoing web marketing advice, guidance and feedback on a specific marketing campaign or bigger marketing project or initiative, help figuring out who your ideal customers are or what your unique difference in the marketplace is, and so on.

How it works: Learn more here.


The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 30: The End

Ah, here it is, Day 30 of my writing and publishing project. The final day.

So first just let me say: Ha, I did it! I did it, I did it, I did it! I published a new blog post every day for 30 straight days. Good for me.


There were a few reasons I wanted to commit to this project, a few questions I wanted the answer to.

One of those questions was, what would happen if I devoted myself to my chosen craft publicly for 30 consecutive days? How would it make me feel? How would it advance my business goals? Or would it advance them at all? And if it didn’t, would it matter?

Mostly I wanted to find out if there was some magic in pursuing one’s muse/chosen creative work/passion for 30 straight days to see where it would lead. When I started I believed something magical might happen, I believed that 30 days of writing devotion might change some things for me in BIG way, though I didn’t know exactly what that would look like by the end of the project.

I have some insights to share about all this, and share them I will, very soon.

But as I mentioned yesterday, I’m visiting my family for a few days, family I haven’t spent time with since last Christmas, and I’m leaving to drive back to the coast tomorrow. So today I’ll simply post this short update, and do a “what I learned from publishing a new blog post every day for 30 days” post in the next few days.

Stay tuned.

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 29: Change of Scenery

For me, there’s never been anything quite so useful as a change of scenery for getting off the hamster wheel of trying, trying, trying to come up with a solution to an intractable business or life challenge and coming up empty-handed.

I can be worrying something to death in my mind for days and weeks, go out of town for even a short weekend, and come back with a big a-ha or insight about how to solve the thing I was letting wear a new “I can’t figure it out” groove in my brain.

Though I’m not always wrestling with a specific problem when I leave town, I always come back with a fresh perspective and new ideas on my business and my life.

So I’m hoping it is with this short trip.

I’m visiting the family this weekend, a few hours from my home in Wilmington, NC.

It’s Saturday morning, and already I’m getting ideas for new blog posts and essays I want to write, new ways to deliver more value to current and prospective clients, and some big a-has about a new marketing campaign I want to roll out soon-ish.

Who knows? By the end of the weekend I may have figured out how to save the world, ha ha.

And since I’m here with the family, and the smell of something decadent and delicious I usually don’t allow myself to have is wafting out of the kitchen right now (Bacon? Pancakes? Eggs? Mmmm . . .), I’m going to have to say goodbye for now. :)

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 28: Some Thoughts on “Success”


It’s a loaded word.

What “success” looks like to you and what it looks like to me may very well be two totally different things.

When you’re trying to build a business using online marketing and outreach methods, as many of us are, success often becomes defined by how many email subscribers you have, how many people follow you on social media, and how many “figures” you make – weekly, monthly, yearly.

I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of spending far too much time thinking about those kind of metrics.

And sure, if you take your business seriously, you have to concern yourself with those metrics. But if you allow yourself to get beyond the numbers, beyond the day-to-day math of running a business, what does success really look like?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I fervently want to break out of the mental loop of judging myself based on the daily, weekly and monthly numbers, and often coming up feeling lacking.

Recently I was re-reading some notes I took during a Deepak Chopra 21-Day Meditation Experience back in March of this year called “Manifesting True Success.”

One of the ideas Chopra shared during the 21-day experience was “success is a living reality.” I was struck by this idea, and instantly felt better about what I was up to in the world based on that metric, which is essentially this:

Look at your priorities, and if any of them are already in your life, then you are “successful.”

My priorities are:

:: Pursuing creative expression.

:: Being of service.

:: Expressing compassion for all, unconditionally.

When I look at that list, I realize that I pursue creative expression every day, 7 days a week; I’m of service to my clients, my email subscribers and my blog readers, and offline, to my friends and family with support and kindness.

And I find ways to express compassion for others most days, though I admit I have room to grow in this area.

By the “success is a living reality” metric then, I’m successful.

So on those days when I feel like my business isn’t yet where I want it to be and I’m letting subscriber numbers and social media followers and revenue levels wrestle with my happiness and win, I remind myself that business-minded numbers are only one very small sliver in life’s full menu of metrics, and I can choose to focus on the ones that really matter instead.

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 27: Stop Giving Your Dreams a Pass

Normally I don’t speak “life coach” around here, but today I’m afraid I’m going to have to.

Of the many lessons I need to learn, one of the biggest is that it’s A-OK to put myself and my priorities first.

I don’t mean in a selfish, “the-world-revolves-around-me” kind of way. No, I mean, when reviewing my projects and tasks for the day, it’s ok to make the choice to work on my writing and other creative projects first thing in the a.m., before I start on client work and other obligations. Or to take a yoga class in the middle of the day. Or to let myself off the hook by knocking off of work by 5:00 pm occasionally.

I’m not always successful at this, but I’m trying.

Still, most days find me doing the client work first, then working on my own writing at the end of the day when, frankly, my mind is more frazzled and my energy is diffuse. And blowing off yoga. And working until 7:00 pm or beyond.

A recent email from life coach extraordinaire Susan Hyatt reminded me that this practice sends a powerful negative message to my – oh, I don’t know, inner creative, I guess – that my own projects and priorities are less important than everyone else’s.

And it’s not just the creative work that always seen to come in second, it’s also all the other little things that make life joyful rather than a constant day in, day out work slog. All the things we say we want, yet put off in favor of something more important, more pressing, more “necessary.”

According to Hyatt’s email:

If you flake on yourself on a regular basis — skipping the gym, bailing on a yoga class, not making the time to eat well, sleep well, work on your blog or your business, or get that pedicure you’ve really been looking forward to — then the message you are repeatedly hammering into your own mind is, “I am not worth it.” Along with: “Other people’s needs and dreams are more important than mine.”

Well, I declare, as we say here in the South. Ain’t it the dang truth?

From that very list above I can tell you that I’ve scheduled, then nixed, a pedicure, a yoga class, and getting 8 full hours of glorious, blissful sleep on more than one occasion in the last two weeks.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, one I’ve shared here many times before:

I knew that my dreams were as valid as I was prepared to make them.

~ Actor, Director and Author Sidney Poitier

Our dreams, even that little dream of getting a pedicure or taking a yoga class –  gasp, in the middle of the day on a weekday, if we feel like it – are as valid as we are prepared to make them.  

So let’s make our dreams valid by putting ourselves first place from time to time, shall we?

 I say this to myself as much as to anyone else.

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 26: Releasing the Fear of Failure

In Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, there are wonderful lessons and sage advice aplenty for writers and other creatives.

In the chapter, “A Short Bad Book,” Shapiro shares the story of one of her friends who wrote a prizewinning best-selling novel by telling herself she was going to write “a short, bad book.”  Anytime she talked about the book, this friend referred to it as her short, bad book. This strategy, Shapiro tells us, “released her from her fear of failure.”

Shapiro says that, as writers, “the more we have at stake, the harder it is to make the leap into writing,” and shares her own story of getting an assignment to write for The New Yorker, only to sit down each day to work on the piece and not get any actual writing done.

Instead, she imagined what the piece would look like in New Yorker font, and wondered if it would have an illustration, and what that illustration would be.  But she couldn’t write. “I was strangled by my own ego, by my petty desire for what I perceived as the literary brass ring,” she says.

Eventually she did write, of course. She put words together that made sentences, and sentences that made paragraphs, and paragraphs that made pages, and pages that made a finished article. And she was published in The New Yorker.

I find the “short, bad book” strategy really useful.

When I worked in politics, we called it “lowering expectations.” What you do before, say, a debate with other candidates or a particular primary, is lower expectations of how your candidate is going to perform, then when said candidate does pretty well against the now lowered expectations, you come out smelling like a winner.

When writing this 30 day blog post series, I wasn’t all that concerned with failure, per se, but I was at least a little worried about the quality of the daily posts. I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth to spend as much time as I usually do on blog posts – several hours – if I wanted to publish daily and take care of client work and other obligations too. What I did to psych myself up to put fingers to keyboard and just write, already, was to tell myself that I would not devote more than an hour, hour and a half, tops, to writing, uploading and formatting each day’s post.

I also told myself that most of the posts wouldn’t be much more than a “shitty first draft,” to use Anne Lamott’s wonderful phrase, with a little light editing thrown in to create a draft that was a little less shitty, and just ever so slightly more polished than a first draft, and that’s what was going to get posted to the blog each day for the duration of the project.

So, in essence, I was using the “short, bad blog post” strategy. Now truth be told, I hope they aren’t really bad, but I know they aren’t stellar either. But the point was to publish every day for 30 days come hell or high water, shitty first drafts or lightly edited second drafts or whatever the case may be.

And the “short, bad blog post” strategy got me to do the work, instead of belaboring every comma, semicolon and turn of phrase right into do-nothing writing paralysis.

So far, so good, with 4 more days to go.

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 25: Faux Time-Scarcity

I recently read one of the best articles I’ve ever found on managing your work flow while still devoting time to your other life priorities.

Reading this article was like a punch in the gut for me, because I’m one of those people who used to go around saying, “I don’t have time, I don’t have time, I.don’t.have.time!

But everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, and if folks with many more obligations than I have can run their successful businesses AND get their beloved creative projects done too, yet still find time to exercise, and socialize, and even relax occasionally, then I can too.

I’m not saying it’s not challenging, but it is possible.

And while there is no such thing as time management – you can’t “manage” time, that’s like saying you’re going to “manage” the sky or “manage” all the oxygen on earth – what you can do is manage the activities you undertake in your allotted time.

My favorite thing about this article was the effective short-cut it shared for getting yourself on track with what you say your priorities are:

Try replacing the phrase “I don’t have time” for “this isn’t a priority.” As the article points out, that’s not going to feel too good, and that’s the point. Powerful stuff.

I tried it on for size by saying to myself, “My writing isn’t a priority,” instead of “I don’t have time to write today,” and “my health isn’t a priority,” instead of “I have too many project deadlines to find time to exercise today,” and “my family isn’t a priority,” instead of “my project schedule is too packed right now to take off a couple of days to go visit the family.”

Yowsa. Saying those things did make me feel bad.  

And reading this next bit felt like a firecracker being set off in my brain:

“This shift in perspective can also help you see when you’re borrowing too much time from long-term priorities for short-term deadlines.”

Yes! I’d never thought of it that way.  But indeed, it makes so much sense – health and well-being, writing, and family time are significant long-term priorities for me, while the things on today’s to-do list, while important, are mostly short-term deadline-oriented tasks.

There’s a balance to be sure, but when I thought about it, I realized that lately I’ve been “borrowing too much time from long-term priorities for short-term deadlines.”

But with this new mindset shift in my tool kit, I aim to change that.

If you’re interested in learning more about this handy little mindset shift for yourself, check out Escaping the Time-Scarcity Trap by Janet Choi.

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 24: My Four Favorite “Rules” for Becoming a Better Writer

Two of the books I’ve read again and again over the years are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

It occurs to me that if you took the most instructive kernel of writing advice from each of these two books, you’d have all the guidance you need to succeed as a writer.

Let’s start with Anne Lamott.

After reading her book multiple times and considering what Lamott calls “the two single most helpful things I can tell you about writing,” I wrote the following on an index card and put it on my desk:

Short assignments + shitty first drafts = MAGIC.

Short assignments: Lamott tells us that to avoid the sense of overwhelm we often feel when working on a writing project, to simply write about what we can see through a one-inch picture frame. Instead of sitting down to write with the notion of a big, looming expansive project in mind, all you have to do is write about what you see through that one-inch frame at the moment, and you’ll get the writing done, and all will be fine.

She says:

Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman her will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.

~Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Shitty first drafts: As Lamott says, “All good writers writer them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”  She goes on to tell us that of all the great and talented writers she knows, not a one of them writes elegant first drafts.  She says, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

What a relief. It’s so much easier to get the work done when we know the first draft is just about getting it down, and if it’s shitty, as it no doubt will be, that’s a natural part of the process.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” she says. “You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.”

{When I decided to write and publish 30 blog posts in 30 days, for example, I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth to write a shitty first draft, a good second draft and a terrific third draft of each post I published during the project, so I committed to simply writing a shitty first draft, tweaking it a bit, and getting it up on the blog. Letting go of perfectionism this way has been challenging, excruciating really, but it’s helped me to just get the damn writing done, and that is the point.}

Stephen King’s writing advice is no less powerful, and I love it for its simplicity and its brevity.

No need for me to scribble this quote down on an index card and put it on my desk. It’s easy to remember, and always on my mind:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

~Stephen King, from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

And there you have it, my four favorite “rules” for becoming a better writer.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments below.

The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 23: The Bliss of Beginning a New Book

Barbarian Days surf book

I recently bought a new book.

A book I’d read about and heard about for weeks. I read about it in Oprah Magazine. I read a review of it in the New York Times Book Review. Then I read another piece on it, also in the New York Times, in some other section of the paper that escapes my memory at the moment. I went online and read interviews with the book’s author. So many interviews.

I worked up so much anticipation about getting my hands on this book that I was fairly salivating all the way over to Barnes & Noble last week to buy the thing.

Then when I got there, I looked in the memoir section, and it wasn’t there.  Oooooh, how disappointed I was! I mean, really disappointed. Like, curse-under-my-breath disappointed.

But then . . .

Then I remembered that because of the wacky way booksellers sometimes categorize books, the object of my intended affection might actually be located in the Sports section, of all places.

And indeed, there it was. Oh, glory!  My heart started beating rapidly as I spied a copy. I picked it up, raced to the counter to pay, and drove all the way home in a state of new-book-induced euphoria.

The book that caused this happy delirium?

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

In a previous blog post I mentioned how besotted I’ve become with surf memoirs lately, and this is, hands-down, the best one I’ve read so far.

John Lancaster writes of the book in the Washington Post:

“Elegantly written and structured, it’s a riveting adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, and a restless, searching meditation on love, friendship and family.”

That’s just one of many glowing observations made by reviewers of this wonderful book.

I’m up to page 72 and there are 447 “elegantly written and structured” pages to read, so I’ve got a couple of weeks of languorous reading pleasure ahead of me.

Ah, life is so good.  

And now I’m off to spend the rest of my Sunday afternoon reading.


Read more about Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

Get the goods on William Finnegan.