This week, while our blizzard woes have evolved into a brief interlude of almost-spring, I’ve found myself swimming in chaos in my own work life. The slush goes something like this:
While I work hard on editing projects that occupy most of my work day, I confront opportunities frequently, and all of them offer something good. In fact, they all seem great in the beginning.
Some opportunities are my own “light bulb” realizations. You have a thought, and it starts a spark in your mind, which erupts into a wildfire before you know it. Here are a few of mine (as they first came to me):
“I’m going to spend less time on editing and more time on ghostwriting.”
“I’m going to start hybridizing my writing platform to write marketable fiction, and put the fiction I’m more passionate about on the back-burner while I try to make a living writing.”
“I’m going to put my work up on Wattpad and build an audience before I publish my book.”
“I’m going to submit the book I abandoned to agents, even though it’s not ready, because you never know, they might like it.”
Other opportunities are external, someone offering me something I might value but might later come to regret (or not) if I’d had time either to think about it more, or had a chance to see how the idea works out on execution. A good example I’m sure any writer can relate to: “Can you beta read my book for me? I’d really appreciate it and I’d beta read your book later.”
No doubt you’ve heard about the importance of saying “no” to conserve your precious time as a writer, but what’s often not talked about is the most difficult (and key) aspect of this, and that’s saying “no” not just to the obviously bad ideas, but to those ideas which seem great, but in fact are at best, good.
And, time being finite (extremely finite), this is of utmost importance because there are so many good ideas that, if you don’t make this distinction, then for every slot of time you are invested in good ideas, that’s time you’re not spending on great ideas.
A deeper kind of saying “no”, cutting away the good to get to greatness
As creatives who need to carve out time for our writing projects and activities which advance our fundamental goals, we cannot afford to be wasting time on ideas that are only good.
So, how can you tell the difference between a good idea and a great idea? In reality, there is no such thing as a meter that helps us determine just how “great” an idea truly is. But there are some things that will help.
1) The first and most important thing to know is that good ideas and great ideas start as good ideas, but only great ideas stand out and pass the test of time.
Take the simple example of the “aha” idea every writer stumbles on which defines the keystone of their success: “I need to sit down and write.” Now, that idea is simple, but from it stem many other ideas, all of them which also might seem great:
“I’ll just keep writing no matter what and push myself through.”
“I’ll take breaks whenever I hit a wall.”
“I’ll listen to writing podcasts and read about craft while I write and make a point of trying to practice these tips as I write.”
Now, of all these ideas, you can appreciate there is only one that’s going to endure without a doubt: you have to sit down and write. Your story is not going to write itself. No matter what you do with your time or how you spend it, if you remove the act of writing, writing will not happen and you will not have a story to publish, and you will have no career as a writer to build.
But all the other ideas are not necessarily fundamental. Why? Because they don’t necessarily stick. They might be true for a time but will change with time, or they might not be true at all but you don’t realize they’re not true until you’ve tried them out for some time.
For example, I tried writing 500 words a day, every day. I found by about 3 weeks in that I felt so frustrated and aggravated, had a hard time connecting to my story, and even at times felt ill — as Bilbo Baggins put it, I was like “butter scraped over too much bread”. It seemed a great idea when I started! “I’m going to do the Hemingway method and write all the time, and build up my resolve as a writer!” But was it a great idea? No. It broke me and, fundamentally, went against my core “WHY” behind why I write in the first place.
And that’s the second important way to tell if an idea is truly great, even if it passes the test of time:
2) Great ideas align with our personal “WHY” and advance our core motivations.
Good ideas are clever little things. They like to disguise themselves as great ideas, so that they might feed on your precious, precious time, and they don’t always have to relate directly to our writing time.
For example, around the time I started meditation, I’d started Duolingo as well, because I heard that learning a second language helps with memory, and also began playing a game called Words with Friends to increase my vocabulary. However, I soon realized that, while the intentions of these projects were good, they simply weren’t good enough. Their long-term benefits did not outweigh the time I was siphoning into them — specifically, time I could spend in the evening unwinding and relaxing. Meditation, on the other hand, completely changed how I live, think, and work. Of the three new things, I only kept one because it not only passed the test of time, it also aligned with my personal “WHY”.
We all have a “WHY” that drives us, and the process of understanding that “WHY” is itself iterative and something we will refine continually as we do the work we do. It’s because of this simple reality that we don’t just suddenly start working and spend our time on nothing but great ideas. We are in a continual process not only of improving ourselves, but understanding ourselves.
And that’s the key to the final way to discover those great ideas:
3) Great ideas can only be discovered through the act of trying good ideas
If I didn’t try Duolingo, I would never have realized that it wasn’t giving me the benefit I thought it would. If I didn’t try meditation, I wouldn’t have realized that it was going to advance my effectiveness as not just a writer, but a person as well. If I didn’t try writing 500 words every single day, there’s a good chance I might be romanticizing the idea of writing a little bit every day, wondering if writing only on the weekend is the only way to write.
The important takeaway message from this post, if any, is not to say “no” to all good ideas because you think they won’t be good, but to say “no” to actions and opportunities you’ve had a chance to explore and determine that, while good, they just aren’t great.
Now your turn! What do you think makes ideas great? What are your thoughts on the use of good ideas? What writing habits or schedules do you follow to perfect your craft?
Don’t be discouraged if you find that you have a hard time defining good ideas and great ideas. Just do what’s best for you, what best helps you become a better writer, and most importantly, always learn new reasons to say “no” as you continually refine your understanding of why you do the work you do.
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You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.