The most intimidating aspect of writing isn’t that other people will read what has been written, or whether or not the piece will be “good enough” (as nebulous a concept as that is), or that it will flow naturally and evocatively—the most intimidating part of writing is actually writing. Similarly to how an artist may feel anxiety while standing before a blank canvas, the feeling of choice paralysis is very real, and is often the biggest stumbling block when it comes to putting a piece together.

I know many people who want to create, who want to send their voice out into the world, but who are caught up with the formatting and how the final piece will be presented. Some go so far as to worry about margins and header styles even before they’ve written a single word of content. Whenever I hear about their struggles, I’m reminded of a story I once heard at a sales seminar.

A CEO of a telemarketing company was talking about how they find successful talent. “Nobody wants to be a telemarketer,” she opened with, “most people don’t last six months. And even if they say they want to be a telemarketer, a lot of people struggle. All sales jobs work the same way: many people struggle with the basics, no matter how enthusiastic they think they are.” She looked at the assembled, most of whom either came from a sales background or were starting their entry into that world.

“When someone gets hired in my company, I put them in front of a phone and they get a list of products and a list of prospects. No training, no hand-holding. These aren’t great leads, and I’m not expecting them to get any big-ticket sales. What I do expect them to do is make calls. Pick up the phone, dial a number, repeat. The ones who can do that day in and day out get training; those are the people we start to invest in. The ones who can’t? They rarely make it through a full shift. Why would I train someone who can’t do the basic job they’re hired for?

“There are a million reasons—excuses—someone can have for not picking up that phone and dialing, and I’ve heard them all. In sales, the people who are truly successful are the ones who don’t hang themselves up with excuses. The successful ones go out and sell, day in and day out, whether their situation is ideal or far from it.”

My experience with sales reps certainly matches with her sentiments—for some, there is always an excuse for why they didn’t make calls, why they didn’t go out and meet new clients. For others—the ones who constantly and consistently make their goals and bring home large commission checks—they make things work even if the stars aren’t aligned and circumstances aren’t ideal.

The truth is, writing works the same way.

There are an uncountable number of excuses for why someone can’t or won’t write: they didn’t sleep well, they have something else going on, they need the right title, they can’t decide how the page numbers should look, lunch didn’t agree with them, they aren’t feeling inspired, and so forth. The reality is, none of that matters.

Advice I find myself giving to other writers is “you can’t edit what isn’t there,” and my hope is to convey the idea that all the extra parts of writing—and yes, editing and formatting and the like are critical elements of the creation process—don’t matter if you don’t have words on the page. Much like the CEO with her junior employees, you can’t polish (or in her case, train) something that doesn’t exist. In her business it’s the willingness to make calls. For a writer, it’s the willingness to get words on the page.

Years ago I came across an advice column penned by a well-published author, and while I may have referenced it elsewhere on this blog, I think it’s valuable enough to repeat here.

Q: What do you do when you aren’t inspired to write?

A: I remember that I’m not paid to be inspired, I’m paid to write.

Succinct and pithy, isn’t it?

Staring at a blank page, representing endless worlds of possibilities, can be a terrifying experience. Most of us may have felt this when asked to write an essay for school or draft a business proposal at work. For a writer, it could be argued that the anxiety of starting a new project is the most agonizing part of the art. It may not be particularly fun to deal with editors, publishers, marketers, the internet ecosystem, and the like, but none of those instill the same kind of dread that staring at a blank page does.

Is there an easy remedy? If so, I haven’t found it, and I don’t think anyone else has either. What helps me at least is the belief that what I have to say is important, that it matters, and that it can help others. I’m the only one who can tell my story my way, and if I don’t tell it, nobody else will.

I hope that feeling helps you too.

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