How to Tap into Your Inner Compost

miracle-squashI was turning my compost pile the other day (something I do far too infrequently), when out rolled a little present – a tiny acorn squash about the size of a baseball!

I had to smile. Out of the scraps and neglect, this little gourd thrived and graced me with its totally unexpected existence.

Writing is like that sometimes. We toss excess ideas and research into a heap in the corner of our minds and forget they exist. We’re off on another writing adventure, too busy to care.

If we’re lucky and patient, the seeds in the debris sprout and grow into something we can harvest later.

Sometimes I’m a lazy writer (although not as lazy as I am a gardener). I don’t mind working hard at the writing, but I like to have ideas floating around within easy reach. I repurpose much of my writing – adapt something I’ve written to a different audience or use some of the research in a different way.

Yet, like all writers, I will hit that desert where all creativity dries up. Sustenance is absent at every turn.

In desperation, I’ll dig deep, turning over the detritus of my former efforts. More often than not, I’ll find those ideas I abandoned so long ago have matured. They anchor some of my favorite work.

How do we harvest these serendipitous ideas?

  • Don’t panic! In the throes of creative abandonment and faced with a deadline, we often start jabbing around at everything. Don’t put your intellectual pitchfork through that innocent idea.
  • Go gently through that waste. Quietly, gently turn over the ideas you worked on before. Read through old work. Revisit ideas you’ve tucked away in notebooks, on your mobile device, or in piles of scrap paper. I keep a personal journal where I jot down my strange ideas or observations.
  • Keep the compost together. Compost cooks best in a confined space. Try to keep any ideas you write down in one area. I know this is hard. I’m constantly finding scribbled bits of paper all over the house, my office, and even my car. This makes harvesting those ideas that much harder.
  • Only take what is ripe. Like Venus birthed from the sea and my little acorn squash nestled in old coffee grounds, the best ideas are the ones that present themselves full blown. Don’t try to force ideas that are still developing.
  • Feed the pile. Compost constantly needs more scraps — and the right type of material — to work itself into great soil. Don’t forget to write down that crazy idea you had or the funny conversation you eavesdropped on. Create those directions for a robot that doesn’t exist yet. You will be surprised how bountiful those things can be when you need them most.
  • Leave it alone. Good gardeners turn their compost regularly to prevent seeds from sprouting. We’ve got a different purpose. We want those little seeds to grow. Contribute to the pile then walk away. Let nature take its course.

Someday soon I’ll have that little squash for dinner, but not yet. For now, enthroned on my kitchen counter, it reminds me how miraculous compost can be.


What I Meant Was…

“I don’t think this grade is fair,” the student complained, pushing the essay toward me.

“Let’s see; you make a statement there that you don’t explain. Here, you put in a statement that has no connection with anything else you’re talking about. This statement makes no sense to me at all.”

“Yeah, but what I meant was…”

This is a conversation I’ve had with students more than I’d like to admit. They have a hard time putting themselves in their readers’ shoes and adequately explaining their thoughts.

This isn’t limited to the classroom. Many people post things on social media and get slammed because what they wrote is misinterpreted.

In the business world, when people don’t understand written information, it can get very costly, especially when it comes to customer relations.  A customer who feels ignored or offended won’t come back and won’t recommend that business to anyone else.

So, how do we make sure the reader knows exactly what we mean?

  1. Remember the reader can’t see or hear us. Unlike face-to-face communication, there are no facial expressions, body movements, or changes in voice tone to reinforce what we say. There are only the words before the readers. (This is why, unless you are very good, you should avoid sarcasm and irony.)
  2. Readers are not psychic. Readers can’t look into our brains for background information. If we know our audience, we can get an idea of what they may already know. However, it’s a good idea to err on the side of giving a little bit more information than not providing enough.
  3. Use precise words. The greatest thing about the English language is that it has the richest vocabulary in the world. Each word’s connotation (or “flavor”) can evoke in the reader just the response we want.
  4. Don’t throw in words that don’t do any work. I’m all in favor of cutting the “draggers” out of copy. Words and phrases people think sound “smart” actually drag readers away from seeing what we really mean. Business people hate wasting time sifting through unnecessary syllables to get to the meat of the idea. (Read some government “officialese” sometime to understand what to avoid.)
  5. Logically connect the ideas. When we don’t clearly, logically connect our ideas in our writing, it messes with readers’ comprehension. We want to be like tour guides and lead the readers through our ideas, so they can “ooh” and “ahh” at our brilliance.
  6. Don’t wait until the third page to put in the important stuff. As a journalist, I had to answer the four Ws in the first paragraph. Not all writing needs that, but we can’t leave the reader waiting too long for a clue to what we’re writing about. Chances are they won’t get that far in. I’m not saying we should shove everything at them at once, but we do need to give them a taste or idea of what’s coming to keep them interested.
  7. Have someone read it as a test. If the work is important, someone who can critique it for understanding and clarity is priceless. Now, we may not need to do this for Facebook posts, but for things like business reports, letters, and school papers, it is essential.
  8. Read it out loud! I tell this to everyone I know. I’m sure people think reading something out loud is goofy and unnecessary. Hey! I thought so, too. What I found (once I got over the initial awkwardness) was that I caught many, many mistakes when things didn’t sound right. If it doesn’t sound right, it needs to be rewritten until it does.

Making our thoughts clear through writing isn’t always easy, but it’s not rocket science either. We always have to remember what we need to do to make sure the reader, without any doubt, gets what we mean.

Writing Goals Makes Them Real

With all the convenience of electronic media, including the ability to record ideas on our “smart phones,” will writing survive?
I have no doubt it will. Writing is more than just a way to record information. The act of writing helps make ideas concrete.
Think about it. When you get ready to go grocery shopping, you make a list of what you need or what is on sale. It is written down. What happens when you go shopping without that list? If you’re like me, you end up buying a whole bunch of stuff you really don’t need and not buying the things you do need.
I’m a “lister.” I have pads of paper all over the house where I list things I need to buy and things I need to do. I jot down ideas I’d like to explore later. I exist on the edge of chaos, so lists are my best hope for keeping my life organized.
But writing is so much moreastronaut. It can take the ghost of idea and force a person to give it substance. Think about when you were a kid and you had to write an essay about what you wanted to be when you grew up. “I want to be an astronaut” is a great statement, but writing it down in essay form forces us to think about why that is what we want to be and how we could go about getting there.
It is no fluke that people who write down their goals (with steps to get there and deadlines to meet) are more successful. Writing them down prevents them from being pushed aside by other ideas and lost forever.
Ashley Feinstein’s Forbes article, “Why You Should Be Writing Down Your Goals,” does a great job of showing how putting goals in writing makes them concrete. By having them right there in front of you and breaking them down into manageable steps, you give yourself a path to follow.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, once written down, these ideas or goals are immutable. That’s what erasers and delete keys are for. Writing stuff helps us to decide if it fits in, where steps should go in the process, and whether it is what we really want to do.
Talking about ideas and goals is important, but it isn’t until we write them down that we make them real.