Have you ever ridden the London tube?
“Mind the Gap” is what you hear over the loudspeaker every time the Tube stops and the doors open. The ‘gap’ is the space between the train and the platform. The phrase has become iconic and it has taken up residence in my head this month. I’ve been thinking about this question:
When was the last time you had to write a message or newsletter article or blog post and had all the information you needed to get it done? I mean every last detail.
I’m always harping on about the importance of details. (See pretty much every post I’ve ever written.) But here, I’m going to suggest you start writing that draft if you have at least one or two of the details you think you need. Why? Because if you wait until you have everything, you’ll never get it written.
Just ask me.
I’ve been thinking about this post for two weeks now and only this morning did I actually try to put a sentence together. It just felt so unformed in my head that I didn’t know where to start. I had the title, Mind the Gap, and then tacked on that “Don’t”. But that was it.
It all started when Beth told our class of product marketers her story of getting started in corporate writing and being told to just stick in bracket placeholders for the details she didn’t have. [like this]
It’s a trick most professional business writers learn early in their careers but those of us who thrive on procrastination conveniently forget it. It’s so much more fun to use the excuse of not having every scrap of information at the ready to put off drafting. But of course, if you wait until everything is perfect, it will never get done. (Again, see every post I’ve ever written.)
Mise en place
In cooking, you’re told to get all the ingredients measured and ready to use before you start the recipe. That’s how they do it on cooking shows. Each tablespoon of oil or crush of pepper sits patiently on the counter in cute little glass bowls. Then the chef looks at the camera and simply picks up each little bowl and pours the contents into the pan.
I cook a lot. I rarely have all my ingredients ready and I make a total mess in the kitchen. In fact, often I’ll start cooking and midway through realize I don’t have that rice flour or that I’ve run out of tumeric, or the lettuce I was going to use has rotted in the back of my fridge.
I am good at adjusting in moments like these because it happens often. I am very comfortable winging it. In fact, I have admitted that I am incapable of following a recipe to the letter so I don’t worry about not having everything on the list. I trust that I can figure out a substitution (thank you, Internet). Also, I like to adapt recipes to my own tastes. For instance, I can’t eat garlic. So when I cook at home, I skip it. But I have to find something else to replace the flavor.
I’d like to think that in some sense, this is how I write too. I may not have all the ingredients, but I trust that I will be able to adapt my story as necessary using the information and tools I do have.
My “creative confidence” makes me believe I am clever enough–or smart enough to ask the right people–to help me finish what I start. This doesn’t work for everything.
Take this test:
Which of these creations require having every little bit in place before you can start?
- Progress report
- Abstract art piece
- Sourdough bread
- Fixing a flat tire
- Leading a business meeting
- Pasta with broccoli, lemon and parmesan
Here are my answers:
- Chase down your subject matter experts (i.e., the people who haven’t responded to your emails with the numbers you need) and plead your case. In a pinch, you can tell people this document is Part I and you’ll get Part II to them soon.
- Abstract art means using whatever is at hand. (At least for me it does.)
- You really do need the ingredients ready to go for this bread.
- Never done it. You tell me.
- Not only do you need all the ingredients, but you have to tiptoe around the kitchen while it’s cooking.
- Business meetings should be about sharing information. If you have it all already, then why are we meeting?
- Definitely adjustable. I’ve made this with no broccoli and sometimes, without lemon or cheese.
When in Doubt
Just start writing. This is the best advice I can give in almost any situation. Thanks to Sonke Ahrens, I say “writing is thinking” about 12 times a day and I truly believe it. It’s not until you start writing and thinking that you even know the exact details you need. [need good ending line here]