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On Getting Better: How to Write in the Deep End

So…a conversation that started out with my gross negligence as a father has now become an essay on expertise. I guess I’m telling you to fake it ’til you make it.

The sentiment has been much on my mind recently, as I just finished reading No Plot, No Problem, the NaNoWriMo handbook. It’s heavy on the pep talk, and pretty unflinching in its assertion that you’re not qualified to write a good novel. It’s just Mr. Baty’s opinion that you should do it anyway.

With Exuberance

Chris calls it exuberant incompetence. He suggests you embrace the fact that it sucks and just make something fun. There’s a place for that advice (a place called November), but it’s not really what I’m talking about here.

Going back to our metaphor, Annabelle wasn’t incompetent as an underwater swimmer. She thought she was, but between the things she knew, the resources she had, and the helping hands ready to spring to her aid, she never really had a chance of failure.

My advice to you isn’t to do things you’re incompetent at, but to stretch the competence you do have and turn it into real expertise.

With Desperation

That sort of stretching is frighting. I admitted that yesterday. But as I often say, “If you’re not gripped with an abject, mortal terror, you’re not really trying.”

Honestly, it’s hard to really pursue self-improvement in any kind of casual way. If you want to make real progress, you need real motivation…and nothing can get you moving quite like a little deep-down fear.

So overcommit. Dive in deep. Sell yourself as a master when you’re really more of a student, because the people doing the buying are nothing but noobs. They won’t know the difference! Sure, you don’t know everything there is to know about the field, but if you’re remotely competent you pr0bably know much more about it than your clients do.

And let me share a secret with you:

No one knows everything there is to know about the field.

The experts are the ones who jump in and then start doing what they know (and figuring out what they need to know) instead of panicking and floundering.

I touched on that months ago when I tried to explain how to style a Google Docs template. The answer is simply, “With CSS.” But that just raises the question, “How do I do CSS?” And the answer to that one, as I said, was Google.

The same goes for programming in Python, or building a business plan, or grant writing. You don’t have to know how to do it! You have to know how to use Google, and then you have to try.

With Style (Technical Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopWhile you’re trying, while you’re researching how other people have done things, don’t be afraid to bring your competence to bear. You won’t know everything, but there will be times in any project when you wander back into familiar territory.

When that happens, seize the moment. Flex your muscles and make it yours. That will help you sell your service, stamping your own personal brand on every project, but more than that, it’ll give you a sense of ownership.

That’s important, whenever you’re stretching, because the goal is to learn to swim, right? The goal is to be able to do this, whatevergt his is, without the fear. And the only way to get there is to fold every experience along the way — success or failure — into your own portfolio.

Annabelle came out of the water howling and wailing. It wasn’t a successful submersion. It only took her moments to declare it her own, though. As soon as she cried, “That was fun!” she started imagining all the new things this experience would let her do.

So what about you? What’s holding you back? Where are you treading water? What could you gain from taking a plunge?

And if you’re already in over your head…congratulations. What has it gained you, and what has it really cost? And what are the new opportunities you’re already dreaming of?

Tell us in the comments. With the responses this series has already gotten, I’m dying to know your story.

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