By: Christopher G. Fox PhD
“At the end of the day, if you’re wasting your time by not investing in yourself, you’re going to waste away—and that would be the greatest waste of all.”
How many pages do you suppose you have written in your life? As writers, we often think of the writing that “counts” — articles, blog posts, books (if we are lucky and so inclined). But I’m thinking of all of the text underneath what we consider to be writing — emails, social media posts, text messages. Depending on your lifestyle, professional choices, and overall demeanor, this “undertext” can quickly amount to tens of thousands of pages.
The Impact of Social Media
I have a simple reason for pointing this out. Last week, I once again captured a snapshot on my phone about my world and posted it on Instagram, almost without thinking. I can’t quite help myself, so I spent a bit of time and effort to make the caption and the tags just so.
There we go, another 30 words or so added to my undertext. Then I asked myself, what if I took these photos and did not post them at all? What if I simply saved them and used them as part of the raw materials for a larger-scale project?
I was less surprised by the novelty of such a trivial thought than by the mere fact that it gave me pause. I don’t like what it says about my mentality and my orientation to my own experiences. Have I have gotten all too accustomed to passing my experiences through these layers: the device in my pocket or hand, the social media channel where I post my photos, and the back and forth of likes and comments?
Of course, increasing volumes of research and commentary have pointed out that social media is designed to hook us in. Social media affects our ways of being in the world and the quality of our attention span. Here are just a few reference points for that thinking:
Six Ways Social Media Negatively Affect Your Mental Health, The Independent, January 28, 2019
Is Social Media Destroying Our Attention Spans? Psychology Today, December 14, 2018
High Tech Is Watching You, The Harvard Review, March 4, 2019
The True Cost of Social Media, Marketwatch, September 11, 2019
Avoiding and Embracing Our Big Projects
What does this have to do with writing, though? I realized the same thing goes for my writing projects, and I am taking it as a wake-up call. I want to share it with other writers, too.
There but for the grace of God go we all…And, fellow writers, may you all be more fortunate than I have been recently.
The constant feeding of undertext into all of these short-form platforms puts you at risk of eroding your attention span and your ability to concentrate on long-form projects. “Not me,” you may say. I hope that’s true for you. Nonetheless, the warning and the risk bear true.
My own confession is a bit hard to make, but I realized that I had not written anything over 20 pages in length for years. I had not written something and refrained from exposing it to whatever audience was instantly available in quite some time. Nor had I plotted out or outlined a large-scale project that my shorter pieces and undertext could feed into – in other words, my undertext has bubbled up and flooded the surface, to the point where no over text is visible.
I hope this situation resonates with fewer of my fellow writers than I surmise, but at the same time, I suspect it will speak to more than I even imagine.
Getting Honest Again
Very few writers that I speak with are fully content with their level of commitment, focus, and productivity as a writer. I am not trying to make excuses for any of us, or claim that we have somehow been hoodwinked or seduced by the big, bad forces of a networked, digital world.
Instead, I am saying let’s be honest with ourselves, and find ways to get better, wherever and however we place the bar for improvement.
Wherever you see yourself in this dynamic of undertext versus over text, there are a few things you will never regret doing to improve your writing practice.
Reclaiming Your Undertexts
1. Scale back on social media and other forms of undertext.
If you are on more than one platform, consider giving one up entirely. A while back, I gave up Facebook. Or perhaps start paring back your activity – one post a day, one every other day, once a week, whatever counts as less for you.
2. Intentionally reclaim your attention.
Become “indistractible,” as author Nir Eyal recently wrote. In Eyal’s view, you have to go beyond putting aside your phone, and replace whatever gap your phone is filling, be it loneliness, anxiety, boredom.
As writers, we have a huge advantage here in our ability to commit to a big project. We have to choose to do it.
3. Write like nobody’s liking.
Every writer I speak with faces this a little bit. We are so accustomed to getting people’s reaction on social media, or acknowledgments in replies to texts or emails, that we forget about the idea of writing for ourselves. The purpose of writing something that stays in a notebook or on our hard drives feels foreign and vaguely unsatisfying. Just stick it in a drawer, literally or figuratively.
4. Plan a bigger project — just plan it.
After my moments of realization struck me, I decided to sit with myself and create an outline for a book-length project without the pressure of actually writing it. I don’t mind the fact that for now, it is merely conceptual. I don’t have to write it tomorrow, or ever. But just exercising that muscle of future thinking helped strengthen it a bit. What helped me do this was taking away the anxiety produced by anticipating two or three years’ worth of writing. Instead, it merely reminded me that I could still at least conceptualize it. I’m not fully pulled down into my undertext yet!
5. Talk with other writers about bigger projects often.
It’s so important to find fellow writers whom you can trust and to whom you can offer your vulnerability. When I raised this topic with some of the writers in my network, and when I decided to write about it here, at first I was worried about exposing the fact I had not been working on a book. Isn’t that often the assumption, even if you haven’t explicitly said so? And then you don’t want to admit it because it seems to detract from your legitimacy as a writer. Well, when I stepped out into this particular vulnerability with others, what I heard back was relief, relief of the “I’m glad someone said this first” variety.
Learn and Keep Learning
Ultimately, look, we live in the times we live in, with the distractions we have, etc., etc. If we give ourselves space to be vulnerable about it, to accept it and move on, we can find our way through to bigger projects if that’s what we aspire to do. And that comes down to what I see as the ultimate tip for writers: learn and keep learning to be kinder and more honest every day with yourself and with others.
Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D. is a writer and communications strategist living in Los Angeles. He works with executives and subject matter experts to help them build reputations through messages, conversations, stories, and thought leadership.
His website,Syncresis®is a consultancy focused on thought leadership, patient communication, and content strategy. Its unique virtual operating model means that teams are purpose-built to the needs of a specific client and project.
He is also the creator of Kindness Communication®, which promotes the idea that the worlds we move in can be better places if we make kindness the core of how we operate.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
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Stop procrastinating today. Leave social media and finish that project. Then submit…