If you’re a writer who mostly listens to your own counsel and it’s working for you, this post probably won’t help. In fact, turn away. I urge you to leave. There’s nothing for you here.

To everyone else, especially if you’re feeling yanked hither and yon by expectations about building platform, here’s a recap of Part I:

The impetus for this series was the realization I had been making many of my writing decisions based upon expert advice. (Where “experts” means agent, editors, marketing and publicity experts, and publishing insiders. “Decisions” often meant business-y things, such as whether to build a platform as I composed my fiction and if I did so, to what extent and where.)

In essence, I defaulted to the way I learned in the education system which, because of my medical background, was a protracted-but-enjoyable experience. However, the longer I’ve been around, the more I’ve observed that:

  • Experts in the same field seldom reach consensus, implying lack of universal truth.
  • The industry’s cumulative expectations can be unrealistic. (And that’s for the relatively privileged me. How could a single parent of small children be expected to work full time, write 1-3 books a year, tweet, keep a presence on a blog, Google+, Facebook, and do this on a sustainable basis?)
  • The publishing industry has the same cycles I witnessed in medicine when a new procedure or drug came along. For example, in the last half year I’ve witnessed this evolution of advice coming from admired and articulate publishing insiders:

To break in as a writer, you must keep a blog a minimum of three times per week. Aim for a minimum subscriber list of X.

You probably should have a blog.

Don’t keep a blog at all. They’re a waste of your time. Instead, comment on already established blogs in your genre and keep a mailing list.

Ultimately, I was growing increasingly unhappy and distrustful of my own instincts, which in turn stalled my writing.

I began to think about the quality of evidence supporting many of these opinions.

In most cases, it’s inferior to the evidence available in medicine, which as we noted in Part I, can still get it spectacularly wrong. To complicate matters further, the industry is in flux, so what little data is available to a single author might well be antiquated by the time it’s received.

How do we proceed when evidence is poor quality? When trends are disrupted by the time we know we’re in the midst of one? When the little data that’s accessible might not be specific to our situation? Is there a systematic approach to making decisions in the face of uncertainty?

It turns out one principle can be helpful in both entrepreneurship and medicine. It involves some Latiny goodness.

Primum Non Nocere

I.e. First Do No Harm. If you have a problem you aim to solve, may the treatment be ever less harmful than the malady.

  • In other words, walk into a doctor’s office with a boil on your arm, and for good reason, your expectation of treatment does not encompass cure-via-amputation.
  • Go in to talk about fixing minor acne, and you probably don’t want to leave with an antibiotic that could destroy your bone marrow — not when there’s a reasonable alternative.
  • Have lackluster sales on your last book? Don’t miss your next deadline because you’re chasing after another thousand Twitter followers.

Make sense?

What surprised and heartened me was to read about First Do No Harm in a book on entrepreneurship: Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future. (Written by Leonard A. Schlesinger, Charles F. Kiefer, and Paul B. Brown, and out through the Harvard Business Review Press.)

These steps paraphrase their approach to building a business in an era of uncertainty. Look at the familiar ideas in #1.

1. Evaluate the risks and decide the limits of what you’re willing to risk. What losses are unacceptable? What constitutes “harm?” What are your deal-breakers? Consider your limits in these categories:

  • financial investment.
  • time
  • professional reputation–If it goes badly, will you limit your opportunities down the road?
  • risks to your personal reputation (i.e. standing with your self, family, friends, community.) Note: the closer the relationship, the more critical this area, because the people most important to you will be sharing some of the other burdens.
  • opportunity costs–all the things you won’t be able to do because you’re investing in this opportunity. Some of these options will never return.

2. Within the limits of acceptable loss, take a small, concrete step towards execution of your goal.

3. You now have real-time, personal, experiential data. Re-evaluate the costs and decide if you’re still committed.

4. Repeat until you’ve achieved your goals or you reach an unacceptable loss.

A few quick points you’ll notice about the principle of First Do No Harm:

  • What constitutes “harm” is intensely personal. It will vary according to one’s original goals, values, life stage, etc. (This is why the career track which benefits another author, even if replicable, may not hold merit for you.) For some people, the greater harm may lie in not pursuing a new venture, because they’re fueled and energized by what others call detours.
  • Passion and interest provide increased tolerance to costs. This is normal, and yet another reason why one person’s actions might seem crazy to us, but commonplace to them. It also explains why we can begin a project, willing to forfeit a great deal, but as our enthusiasm wanes, negatives assume increasing significance.
  • “Harm” is a holistic concept. It doesn’t include averages. Your success in one area might not make up for trouble in another. This is an important point to consider when you’re dealing with an industry specialist, who might be focused on succeeding in one outcome to the detriment of others.
  • As the probability of harm increases, you should “pay less to play.” You’ll need to make the action steps smaller or fewer.

Ultimately, we are the deciders in our careers. If our goal is to write fiction, it’s our privilege and responsibility to actually write.

If we’re prone to discounting our instincts, and feel pressured to follow the flavor of the month, and it eats into our writing time, First Do No Harm can help. It creates a subtle reorientation. Now the burden of proof shifts. Now the onus is placed upon the one recommending anything not-writing to describe the pros and cons of their intervention accurately. In exchange for our writing time, have they made the case that we won’t be worse off?

Finally, in an era of uncertainty, it’s smart to make small experiments within predefined limits of risk. When If the not-writing measure exceeds our tolerance, we can bid it farewell without second-guessing or guilt.

That’s the theory, anyway. ;)

Have you abandoned not-writing measures because they exceeded your idea of harm? Which ones were they?

Also, I’d love feedback on whether this is helpful or too esoteric. Did reading this article give you a net benefit, or should you have written instead? Talk to me, O Unboxeders. 


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.