August 17, 2020 Opinions & insights
Suzanne Moore

Braving the blank page: advice and inspiration for new writers

An author shares lessons and quick exercises on how to build courage and share your expertise through writing and creativity.

In my role as an editor and writer at Red Canary, I get to collaborate with people who are experts in technical domains: threat intelligence, detection engineering, incident response, digital forensics, and other highly focused areas of cybersecurity. Many of them are new to writing and don’t think of themselves as creative. But it turns out, they are! And guess what? You are too.

Being creative is nothing more than looking for patterns, making connections, and turning an idea or feeling into something tangible. That quality can manifest in anyone—whether you’re developing a piece of software, writing a story or educational article, contributing to an open source project, playing music, or analyzing a stream of endpoint data to detect something that “seems off.”

When it’s working right, there’s a flow you can’t quite describe.

 

Just as today’s world has blurred the lines between “introverts” and “extroverts,” we’ve started to break down similar barriers between “technical people” and “creative people.” Part of my job is helping Red Canary’s team of “security nerds” (as we affectionately refer to them) and other subject matter experts actualize their great ideas, and helping new writers face the blank page. I’ve seen people who think they are the “worst writer ever” produce some of Red Canary’s strongest content.

It’s not a matter of learning spelling, grammar, or composition. That’s what editors are for. It’s a matter of having something to say and summoning the courage to sit down, put words on the page, and share them with others.

Even with decades of writing under my belt, I know how challenging it can be to brave the blank page. I decided to put these tips together to help new writers navigate the deep and stormy waters of WORDS. Because the good news is: you can learn to write. And—perhaps more importantly—you can learn to be brave.

Here are some tips based on lessons I’ve learned writing over the years, including some I’m still learning and practicing every day.

1: Get to know your inner critic.

Did you know that every would-be creator has an inner critic? It’s a voice of criticism and self-judgment that desperately urges us to stop. Mine is named Gertrude. Anytime I sit down to write, Gertrude appears with furrowed brows, pursed lips, and judgy eyes. Well, that’s not very interesting, she says with contempt. You’re not very good at this. Why are you wasting your time? She looks a lot like Ms. Finster.

Miss Finster

No matter what your inner critic looks like, I’m certain you have one. We’re all full of doubt, no matter who we are, how much we’ve practiced, and how “talented” our peers think we are. The question isn’t: “Do you have an inner voice that keeps you down?” The question is: Which voice will you listen to? Will you listen to the bellowing critical voice that tells you you’re not as good as everyone else, or the one that shakily whispers (usually in the shower): You’re amazing and you can do anything.

Confidence is like a muscle. You have to work on it to strengthen it. Each time you sit down and write, you’re arm-wrestling your inner critic into submission. You’ll never silence your inner critic completely—not after a month of practice or a decade or a lifetime. But once you understand how to recognize its voice, you can consciously make the decision not to listen to it, and work on strengthening that other voice instead.

Try this: Practice your rebuttals.

Julia Cameron shares a great exercise called “blurts and rebuttals” in her book “The Artist’s Way,” which I highly recommend.

  • Take out a notebook or a piece of paper and write 10 times in a row: “I am a brilliant and prolific writer.”
  • Listen for your critic to show up; it won’t take long. As you hear the critic’s voice blurt out judgments, write down the things it says on another piece of paper.
  • When you’re done, examine the critic’s arguments and write rebuttals. For example, my inner critic piped up with: Brilliant? That’s a bit much. You’re good but you’re not smart enough to be brilliant. My rebuttal is “I am smart and have brilliant creative ideas.”
  • Regularly read your rebuttals as affirmations. This will help you build confidence in the specific areas where your inner critic is holding you back.

2: Choose progress over perfection.

You know in job interviews when they ask “What’s your greatest weakness?” I always loved the answer “perfectionism” because it’s clearly just a strength in disguise. It means you have extremely high standards, you push to make things better, and you won’t settle until it’s juuuuuust right. Perfectionism is actually good, right?

Wrong. It turns out, perfectionism is just a fancy disguise for self-doubt. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but many times in the past, if my work isn’t just right, I’ll give up on it instead of showing it to anyone. And once you start thinking like that, it’s pretty easy to ask yourself: Why bother doing this at all? It’s never going to be as good as everyone else’s. Perfectionism can easily spiral into a recurring inability to work, write, and create. My inner critic loves it when this happens! Gertrude gets to go to town. You’re lazy, you’re a procrastinator, you’re not disciplined or talented enough to ever be a real writer.

But none of those things are true. The truth is simply: I am afraid.

No matter how many ways I look at it, failure to create always boils down to fear. Perfectionism is fear. Procrastination is fear. Resistance, doubt, the inner critic, all of it. It’s easy to be so afraid of doing it wrong, saying something dumb, and looking like a failure that you just opt out of playing. You sit on the sidelines, hide in the shadows, and let someone else take the lead.

In many ways, I’m writing this blog not just to help other new writers, but to remind myself. The fear never goes away. Hopefully it gets easier when you take the first step and admit you have a problem, like with alcoholism or addiction. “Hi, my name is Suzanne, and I’m a big old ‘fraidy cat.” (HI, SUZANNE!)

Try this: Write for five minutes daily.

FIVE MINUTES. That’s it! You can write in a journal, do a writing prompt, or chip away at a blog you’ve been thinking about. Set a timer and do the minutes, the same way you’d do crunches to strengthen your abs. What difference can five minutes make? It’s the difference between showing up and opting out, the difference between progress and avoidance. As you get more comfortable with writing and facing the blank page, those five minutes are likely to grow into 10 minutes, 20, 30 or more. Strive for consistency while you build the habit, and go from there.

3: Let go and have fun.

One of my favorite blog posts at Red Canary began as an angry rant from our head of security operations. Literally, the Google doc for his first draft was titled “ANGRY RANT.” It was three pages of a long, meandering rampage about all the things people in information security do that they shouldn’t, things that pissed him off and he wanted to change.

Joe was not a “writer” in the traditional sense. His blog post had zero structure and plenty of misspellings, incomplete sentences, and run-ons. But Joe was a writer because of one very important truth: he had something to say, and he took the time to put words down on a page. Joe had seen enough of the information security industry to know there were things happening that were infuriating. He was moved to action by a desire to speak out and change them. It took some work and collaboration to turn his “rant” into a cohesive article with key points and a creative structure, but he trusted me (his editor) enough to do that. He got the words down and that was what mattered.

Try this: Get a post-it and write “I’ll fix it later.”

Put the post-it on your computer when you sit down to write. Whenever your critic starts to pipe up and urges you to stop writing, keep your fingers moving. The post-it is a tangible reminder that there will be time for editing later. Your job for a first draft (especially as a new writer) is not to write beautifully; it’s simply to write.

4: Start by writing what you know.

One of the biggest questions we get from new writers is “What should I write about?” That’s a tough question for our editorial team to answer. Our content strategy has always been built around letting Canaries and others in InfoSec write what they’re passionate about and interested in. But asking a new writer “What do YOU want to write about?” doesn’t help spark much inspiration.

The Red Canary blog really took off when we started encouraging our analysts to write about what they knew best: analyzing and operationalizing endpoint data in Carbon Black Response. At first it seemed strange to many of them, writing about the things they did day after day in their jobs. It can be difficult for many of us to step back and think of ourselves as “experts”—even if we’ve devoted countless hours to mastering a skill—or to realize how our experiences might be interesting and valuable to others. If our critic is loud, we will deflect praise and think, “I’m no expert, that other person knows way more than me!”

Others can benefit immensely from the lessons you’ve learned throughout your career, your life, or even your mastery of a hobby. We’re all on a learning journey, and as Matt Graeber put it on our last Atomic Friday, “We’re all perpetual noobs.” You have knowledge in your head that can help someone who is right now struggling with the thing you figured out earlier. But you can only help them if you share what you’ve learned.

Try this: Pretend you’re writing to yourself three or five years ago.

Writing to your past self will not only give you a starting point, it will build your confidence by helping you realize how much you actually know. It also makes your reader a tangible person. Tell them what you wish you had known then! You just might catapult someone else’s career or give them a wonderful “aha!” moment. (Editor’s sidenote: We love this rocker’s podcast on what she’d go back and tell her younger self about being brave.)

5: Measure what matters.

Okay, this one is really hard. It’s also really important. You might write an article that gets a ton of “likes” or “clicks” because of a catchy formulaic headline or a passing trend. Something else you write might miss a broad audience, but positively change the course of one person’s life. Which would you rather write?

It’s very tempting to count “likes” and look for external validation that your work is good. But vanity metrics won’t help you make real progress. You can’t control how your writing or creative work will land, and making something just to hit a shallow goal and feel validated is missing the point. Write in order to share what you want and need to share. Think of one person you’re writing it for, one person it could help, educate, inspire, or entertain. Then write it, release control over what others might think and feel, and write something else.

We’ve all heard the cliche about dropping a stone into a pond and seeing it ripple outward. What if instead of looking for ripples, we think about the stone itself? You’ll never know the depths it might reach. What matters is that you threw it in.

Try this: Compare yourself to one person: you, yesterday.

You can’t compare your early, shaky beginnings to the finished pieces others have spent years honing. The only comparison you can make is to your past self. Are you showing up consistently? Are you producing? Are you learning? If the answer is yes, then you’re on your path. And if the answer is no (which it often will be), you can try again tomorrow.

“Never compare your insides with everyone else’s outsides.” —Anne Lamott

6: Collaborate with someone you trust.

The importance of having a creative partner or tribe cannot be overstated. Make sure it’s someone you trust and who understands what you are trying to do with your work. And aim to find the sweet spot of sharing: not too soon, not too late.

What is “too soon”? When you first start writing out an idea, you’ll be super excited! Take a little time to think through it, flesh it out, and explore different possibilities. Poke at it like a steak you’re cooking, to test its firmness. This is an extremely vulnerable time and if you share your rough early writing with the wrong person, it could be hijacked. You want to make sure you’ve explored enough of the idea on your own so you can protect your original vision and intention.

What is sharing “too late”? Waiting until you think it’s perfect. It can be scary to share a piece of work when it’s not really “done.” You look at the thing you made and know it can be better, but you can’t figure out how. Your inner critic will leap to point out all the flaws. Your draft will not be nearly as “good” as what you envisioned.

This is the sweet spot for sharing. It’s the fork in the road, the point when you choose progress instead of perfection. Collaborating with another person or a community you trust can open up something brand new in your work.

Try this: Start talking about writing.

You’ll start meeting writers all over the place! It’s like when you’re thinking of buying a Jeep and you suddenly see them on every street. This is how you begin to form your tribe and find other writers you can connect with and learn from. If you’re not QUITE ready to start talking, start by reading and listening to build your “virtual tribe.” Check out the Beautiful Writers podcast or read a book on writing like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King.

Let’s collaborate!

If you made it this far in the article, guess what? There’s a writer in you that REALLY wants to come out!

Our editorial team is always on the lookout for new contributors. If you have an idea for an article, video, discussion, or resource that could help those who work in information security, or one that could inspire others to get into the field and help them build their skills, please let us know! Email us at community@redcanary.com. We’d love to help you bring your idea to life and share your voice with our community.

If you stumbled upon this blog because you want to write but know nothing about information security, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m passionate about connecting with other writers and creators to discuss the lessons we all learn on our creative adventures.

Together, we can silence Gertrude once and for all.

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