Professional writers inevitably find themselves in social situations with non-writers, when the topic of discussion turns to careers and someone innocently asks the group: “What do you really want to be doing?”
It’s a conversation-starter that the well-intentioned party guest thinks will be a fun question to prompt people to share their passions and dreams. The careers they’d like to have — if only …
I reply bluntly. I can’t help myself.
“What I currently do.”
Such a buzzkill.
The misery-loves-company train does not want to bond with the person who actually knows how to make money as freelance writer.
I knew I wanted to be a writer before I was aware I wanted to be a professional writer.
It was the first activity I was drawn to and, all these years later, it’s still my first priority.
But most people write in some capacity, and for many, being a professional writer seems like a made-up job. A career that happens magically. Or by accident.
A one-in-a-million scenario where a piece of your writing happens to gain popularity. You know, desperate aspirations of “going viral.”
When, in fact, the exact opposite is true if you want to become a freelance writer.
There’s no sorcery. No coincidence or random luck. No inspirational quotes for writers that hold up in practice.
For professional writers, every choice needs to be painstakingly intentional.
(When you get a chance to read it, you might also like this article: What Is Writer’s Block?)
Professional writers don’t treasure creative ideas
It’s part of our nature to create. We want to build. We want to innovate. It’s fun and it makes us feel alive. We’re creators.
That doesn’t mean our writing habits always help us meet our goals.
Because we talk. We’re also talkers. And often, the more we talk, the less we accomplish.
Not always, but when someone is preoccupied with talking about a great creative idea, they tend to neglect nurturing, developing, and executing the idea over time.
That’s why creative concepts, alone, bore me. They don’t necessarily make you a successful writer at work.
Show me the strategy and storyselling.
For a professional writer, strategy activates creativity
Disciplined Creativity gives your content ideas the care and conditions they need to mature.
Time to be frenetic.
Time to be focused.
Space to take action.
Space to take a break.
Balance leads to progress.
When professional writers are consumed with their work, they swiftly recognize what causes mental blocks.
You need the discipline to finish a writing assignment on time and the confidence to swiftly start brainstorming your next blog post ideas with the same high level of creative energy.
That takes practice.
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Success pillars for professional writers
I’ve been using the term Disciplined Creativity for the past several years, but I haven’t explicitly described what it means … until now.
What does Disciplined Creativity look like for professional writers with marketing ethics?
Below is a brief, 10-part manifesto on the Disciplined Creativity it takes to work like a pro.
1. Commit to your own production schedule
The First Rule of Disciplined Creativity is follow-through.
A professional writer’s ability to follow-through with their responsibilities rests on taming their wild side and committing to excellence.
Since creative work often doesn’t “look like work,” it’s essential to follow your own production schedule.
That way, it doesn’t matter if your routine doesn’t look like work to anyone else. You know you’re doing what you set out to do, whether it’s creating a content marketing strategy, finishing an assignment for a client, or developing your own writing project for your website.
Serious writers don’t make excuses that inconvenience someone else or disappoint their audiences.
2. Professional writers juggle multiple writing projects
This section is about how professional writers gain momentum.
Even though your follow-through skills require focus, if you only take on one creative project at a time, what happens if you feel stuck?
You get frustrated and, dare I say it, get writer’s block.
But if you outline multiple topics for different business blogging projects, one will typically stand out as The Most Easy to Write About. Start there.
It might not always be the first assignment you need to finish for your production schedule I mentioned above, but you can use that topic to warm up your brain and then transition to your pressing deadline.
3. Establish routines
Our creative processes aren’t independent from the rest of our lives, so our other routines, as mundane as they may sometimes seem, can have a direct impact on our creativity.
Think of the old adage:
How you do anything is how you do everything.
So, what does a professional writer nurture in the rest of their life?
- Set aside special time in the morning to enjoy your favorite beverage.
- Start a meditation practice.
- Try new, meaningful activities — not just top priorities.
You don’t have to run around in Panic Mode, constantly drained and stressed out, in order to get things done.
When you choose another way — and stick with it — you deepen your self-discipline and your ability to create on command.
4. Accept that professional writers break their routines
This one is for you if you thought I got a little too idealistic just now.
Life is messy.
We all want to optimize the conditions that contribute to our productivity, but those pure intentions don’t guarantee that our daily routines run smoothly.
So, instead of berating yourself on days you don’t exercise, write that first draft, or develop new online business ideas, accept that unexpected situations and challenges are part of the creative process.
For a professional writer, simply taking breaks is part of the creative process.
5. Find the easy way to get back on track
After your routine gets derailed, you might naturally feel overwhelmed by tasks that appear to be piling up on your to-do list.
There’s no one correct order in which you have to do things, and you don’t have to wait for “perfect” conditions to start a task that is important to you, such as learning how to create digital products.
Review your schedule for the rest of the day and the rest of the week, and then ask yourself:
What can I realistically accomplish?
Not some huge goal that you’ll likely not meet. A significant milestone that you can complete and do well.
Then adjust your schedule accordingly for the day and for the week, until you naturally get back to your preferred routine.
6. Professional writers give themselves extra time
For me, creative work always takes longer than I think it will.
If you don’t leave enough time to embrace your enthusiasm and curiosity, you might miss your deadline, which gives the impression that you practice Flaky Creativity rather than Disciplined Creativity.
You need space to explore tangentially related topics, but many anecdotes you love often don’t have a proper place in your final draft (more on that in a bit).
Leave plenty of time anyway to perform the research that makes your writing voice more robust and nuanced.
7. Set small, satisfying goals
Do you want to know the secret that gets Brilliance to pour out of you in one writing session?
Don’t expect Brilliance to pour out of you in one writing session.
Dedicating an entire day to writing, or even half a day, might seem like what a “real writer” does, but real, professional writers have the same messy lives as everyone else.
Even though you want to leave enough time to indulge your creativity — and be disciplined enough to meet deadlines — that doesn’t always mean scheduling extended periods of writing time.
Exhausting yourself is the quickest way to unsustainable creativity, and if you can’t maintain your creative output over time, you’re a poor candidate for a steady writing career.
You might need a few long writing sessions during a project, but Disciplined Creativity is the result of consistent, focused work.
Plan shorter writing sessions to meet small, satisfying goals daily. Then, if that Brilliance doesn’t all pour out of you perfectly at once, you don’t feel intense pressure to write better content.
You know you’ve left enough time to make more progress during your next block of writing time.
8. Professional writers prioritize editing
Great writers are great editors, and to become a great editor, you have to learn to recognize ideas that serve you more than they serve your audience.
Those areas of your text need to be revised or removed.
To hone this skill, editing can’t be an afterthought, a “quick pass” through your writing.
Even if you learn how to write a good blog post, you still have to leave enough time for creative content editing, which is a separate activity for a professional writer.
9. Raise your standards
Copy editing and proofreading your text before you consider it complete are obvious editorial steps, but you also need to become the Editor-in-Chief of your writing career.
To grow and evolve, analyze your recently finished work and make notes about how you can improve in the future.
You only benefit from consistent creative endeavors if you learn from them to reach your goal of making a living online.
At the end of every month, you can plan to give yourself this type of critical review, as if you are your own client.
10. A professional writer lets go of feeling 100% right
Whether it’s your creative process or your final draft, you’re never going to feel 100% certain that you got it right. That doesn’t mean you got it wrong.
“Final” is an illusion.
You strengthen your Discipline and Creativity with every new project you take on. You keep building your writing portfolio, little by little, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
It’s not glamorous.
It’s not easy.
But professional writers who succeed turn their creative ideas into paid work — and transcend all ideas of magic, accidents, and luck.
It’s actually practical.
Looking for a community of professional writers?
The written word drives the web. It always has, and it always will.
Even if you’re working with audio or video, the right words are still what make the difference.
- Words drive engagement.
- Content drives customer experience.
- Copywriting drives sales, growth, and profit.
And if you want to master the art of using words to drive business results, you’ve come to the perfect place — Copyblogger has been helping accelerate the careers of writers just like you since 2006.
“If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”
In the classic book Ogilvy on Advertising, legendary copywriter David Ogilvy recounts a conversation with his colleague William Maynard, creative director at Ted Bates & Company.
Maynard shared this observation about the writers he had worked with during his career:
“Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.”
And then Ogilvy famously added:
“If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”
He would know. Ogilvy was responsible for some of the most creative and innovative advertisements of the “golden age” of advertising.
So when we talk about being a poet and a killer inside Copyblogger Academy, what does that mean?
It’s simple. We’re talking about a person who is both creative and strategic.
Too much content produced in the name of digital marketing is viewed as simply a means to an end, and that’s why it fails.
And yet, no one is interested in paying you to express yourself unless it also meets business objectives.
The best copywriters and content marketing professionals understand how to combine poetry with purpose — and that’s a large part of our ongoing training with Copyblogger Academy members.
When creative writing is employed strategically, with the aid of illuminating data and powerful technology, your capacity for meaningful impact and personal success skyrocket.
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>> Find out more about joining us here.
Reader Comments (8)
Sam P says
This is some really sage advice! I’m considering a career in copywriting and the advice elsewhere has either been confusing or they were baiting and barely any information.
I’ve taken some notes to work on now and appreciate this! Thank you.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Right on — thanks for sharing, Sam!
Thanks for the great tips! I, too, always knew I wanted to be a writer, and for a long time, I resisted the idea of applying discipline to my writing, aside from the discipline to sit down and write. Working as a professional content marketer has really made me throw that approach to writing out the window.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Something definitely has to shift when writing is your job. A fun job, but still a job. 🙂
Might tattoo this on my arm “If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.” Thank you for this article, it’s been so helpful, I feel like you’ve illuminated some of the things I most struggle with, discipline mostly.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Haha, glad you dig it!
Stevee A says
Thanks always for all the great tips.
I thought discipline was my problem, until I can’t seem to get a hold of the ideas I thought I had when I felt discipline was my issue. How do I approach my creativity? Is it a creative issue or is it still a discipline problem?
Thanks Stef, always looking forward to your contents.
Stefanie Flaxman says
It could be a matter of coming up with practical creative ideas that you can actually follow through on. 🤔
Creative brainstorming is fun, but we’re often left with wild concepts that we can’t act on for one reason or another.
I’d try narrowing down your creative ideas to the ones that you can break down into manageable steps that lead you to a final outcome.
For instance, a business owner could start with blog post topics within their realm of expertise to get practice writing. If they started with a topic outside of their expertise, it’d be more difficult to write an article — and more likely they’d put off doing that work.
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