Stop Feeling Like an Author Wishbone: First Do No Harm

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. 

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    I got a net benefit. That’s what I think of this article. It reinforces my resolve to work with whats bringing results I want, and to discard others things, as soon as I find them wasteful.
    I prefer blogs to tweets because I find them more engaging, and they can lead to a writing idea. Tweets take me round the internet and cost many hours.
    Christiano´s last blog post ..You must focus on now, if you want creativity

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  2. says

    Excellent assessment. Too many writers try a blanket approach instead of concentrating on their strengths and channeling energy into what works for them and what they’re comfortable with.

    Your post is an extension of a conversation I had with writer Lynn Chandler-Willis last night: why would I start a twitter account when I don’t want to spend my day formulating pithy one-liners? This is not my forte (unless one enjoys sarcasm) and my time is too tight.

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    • says

      What’s wrong with sarcasm? ;)

      I’m not trying to talk you into anything, because I’m no Twitter maven myself, but there are many ways to do Twitter. Some use it as a bullhorn, others as a way to continue a conversation, and others as a way to meet people they wouldn’t have otherwise. IF you’re at all tempted, it’s a good example of a place to make a micro-commitment and decide from a place of personal knowledge. But if you know it exceeds your idea of harm, then stick to your guns!
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Hello! (And a Vigorous Book Recommendation for Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad)

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  3. says

    This really struck me today, something that’s been nagging at the back of my mind a lot lately: “Ultimately, we are the deciders in our careers. If our goal is to write fiction, it’s our privilege and responsibility to actually write.” Too often I allow my harms to get inside my head and eat away at my confidence and my writing time. This post is great reinforcement that it’s time for my subtle reorientation.
    Julia Munroe Martin´s last blog post .."Yeah, I’d Kill Someone for 110K"

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  4. says

    Jan,
    I haven’t abandoned activities that cut into my writing time, but I have certainly cut back. I no longer believe in the blog three times a week mantra. I take a peek at my stats but I’m not obsessed. I am laser focused on my writing/revising production. My goal is to publish a book a year. If social media has to take a back seat so be it. Jan, thanks for another thoughtful, incisive post.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..NaNo Update #2

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  5. says

    Boy you hit a nerve. I read all the “advice” out there, and if I look hard enough, I can find every direction of contradicting guidance. Bottom line, as with most things, find a balance in moderation. But if we’re writing about writing and not actually writing, we may be in danger of fraud. ;)
    Julie´s last blog post ..Highlights!

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  6. says

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

    This sums up the conclusion I came to as well. I had to ask myself, is it my goal to be a professional blogger/tweeter/whatever-er? No. So it didn’t matter that I had the ability to skyrocket my social media to new heights because that isn’t what I want/need. My goal is to be a professional author–all that other stuff is just a support of the main goal, and should be treated as such.

    It’s easy to get enthusiastic about something and lose that delicate balance, especially when you’re trying to build a readership. But I also believe it’s necessary to make mistakes along the way, then readjust your approach to be more effective towards your main goal.

    So while I truly believed that blogging 3-5 times per week and tweeting at all hours, a few years ago, was an “acceptable loss” of time that could be used writing stories, I don’t believe that anymore. As my career needs change, so does my balance of efforts.

    And to answer your question, I thought this post was extremely helpful. Even though it reiterates a lot of what we already know, presenting it as only you can makes me see it in a new light, and I thank you for that.

    I also really love this quote: Don’t miss your next deadline because you’re chasing after another thousand Twitter followers.

    Good advice!
    Lydia Sharp´s last blog post ..Cheesecake Winner and a Big THANK YOU!

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    • says

      The first time I heard something like “I want to be an excellent writer, not an excellent blogger”, it was from Teresa Frohock. It was shocking to me, not only because she’d proven her worth as a blogger, but because I hadn’t heard those terms quite so starkly. But sometimes it comes down to a choice. We can’t have it all, or at least not on a sustainable basis. (Unless you’re a superhero, in which I take it back.)

      I like your approach, Lydia. My thoughts are similar.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Hello! (And a Vigorous Book Recommendation for Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad)

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  7. says

    Not too esoteric, Jan. It might be too esoteric if we weren’t whip smart author types. Julie (above) articulated my reaction: ‘find a balance in moderation’. None of the ‘expert’ suggestions are definitively good or bad but suggestions of extremes, like megadoses of vitamin C, are usually not valid. I like your core message: don’t follow fads even if recommended by ‘experts’. And, never lose sight that actual writing, as you approptiately cited, is our duty and privilege.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..Throwing (or writing) like a girl

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  8. says

    I’ll chime in with Julia and Lydia–what a jarring (in a good way) slam-dunk of a line, about us being the deciders. And I’ll agree with Alex, Lydia and others that it’s extemely helpful and relatable, and not too esoteric. I actually spent some time last weekend mulling fresh ideas for new projects–for the first time in many months. When I’ve felt like I was adrift in the past, working on something new has always anchored me. Great job with this series, EB (Esoteric Boss ;-)!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..A Gothic Identity Crisis

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  9. Carmel says

    Great post, Jan. I love your wit. WU is the only social media for writing purposes I do. And that’s just me reading – ha!

    My biggest time battle comes when I’m lured onto the internet to do research on one small fact in one small sentence, and I end up wasting an hour there! As Mr. Monk would say, (the internet) is a blessing . . . and a curse.

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      • Carmel says

        I’m glad things like that help others, but it would make me want to get on the internet even more. Just the idea makes me cringe!

        btw, I liked your comment (literally) about how not writing makes us snakey. It took me a while to realize that about myself. And that’s one of the reasons I love it here on WU.

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  10. says

    “We are the deciders” — that’s important, because it reinforces what I always say, which is that there is no such thing as “no time to write”. It’s simply an excuse. If you choose other things over writing, that is your choice. Own it. Don’t blame, don’t make excuses.

    Don’t miss deadlines. That is a way of causing harm. So, if you’re talking about “cause no harm”, it means keeping your commitments. If you have a deadline, meet it. If you’re in a class, fulfill it. If you decide it’s not what you want or what serves you, still meet that commitment, and choose a different path in the future.

    If you don’t write it, there’s nothing to market. So put the writing first. You can build the networking and marketing around the writing time — it’s not “instead of”.

    If you want to be a writer, it’s very simple.

    Write.
    Devon Ellington´s last blog post ..Fri. Nov. 16, 2012: More Writing and More Seals

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  11. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    This is a great post, and proof that in anything from creative to business endeavors that common sense ain’t so common…

    There are a great many pieces of sincere advice from very distinguished advisers I have had to toss by the wayside. The biggest one for me is to write something every day. I don’t. I mull over things an awful lot, way more than I write. However, instead of hampering my writing, I find the mulling enhances it when I sit down and actually put words on paper.

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  12. says

    You’ve written on a topic which is occupying my mind at the moment.
    I seem to end up spending far longer checking out blogs about writing than actually writing! Yes I get my word count done every day but I am beginning to think that I would be better occupied taking a book off my shelf and reading it instead of surfing, even if the blogs I choose to read are superb! The problem is getting the balance right really! As for my own blog…not sure that it’s really worth the effort…….
    Edith´s last blog post ..Lessons on Life and Writing from NaNoWriMo

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    • says

      Edith, the freeing thing about there being no One Right Way is that you get to experiment and see what works for you, or what doesn’t. And just when you figure out the correct balance, it’ll change again anyway, right? You’ll be at a different stage in terms of craft, business knowledge, and the industry will be a different place. My thought is that we might as well get comfortable with entrepreneurship and experimentation. (Said to encourage myself as much as you.)
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Hello! (And a Vigorous Book Recommendation for Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad)

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  13. Denise Willson says

    You are so right, Jan. When all is said and done, we must go with our gut. Thanks for the reminder.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  14. says

    Jan, lots of great thoughts here. Personally, I am still struggling to unify my approach to my website, Facebook, Twitter. If I am communicating to readers, what do I want to say to them that isn’t already in my books? Something to ponder, for sure!

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  15. says

    Jan, Thank you for this article. To answer your question: yes, I found it to be very helpful and timely advice (or should I say non-advice?) to all artists, not just writers and authors. Even for those who mostly listen to their own counsel: we all benefit from an occasional sanity check from another thoughtful mind.

    It may be helpful to be aware of what the current trend is, but “Ultimately, we are the deciders in our careers.” Well-said. In addition to the ever-changing, ever-evolving, and often contradicting rules of engagement and promotion, there’s the time-tested fact that one-size-fits-all just doesn’t work across the board for everyone… and that applies to more areas of life than not.

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  16. Ray Pace says

    I do Twitter, LinkedIn, and have a blog. Lately the blog hasn’t happened due to my doing nanowrimo this month. Am I worried? No.
    When I return to the blog, I’ll have something to say and notice will go out to the 400 people on the list.
    On a daily basis, there are dozens of opportunities that come in via email addressing this writing game of ours and how we can all be better if we take their advice and/or buy their products. Most get rejected quickly, not necessarily on merit but more likely due to the crowd they are running with. It makes one wonder how many are making a living as “writers” by giving advice to writers?

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      • Ray Pace says

        The pro side of LinkedIn seems to be that it’s a respectable place to hang your resume and meet with other people of same bent. You don’t see a lot of cutesy stuff there. Instead, there are actual resumes citing degrees and other accomplishments.
        The “endorsement” aspect to LinkedIn is a bit much to take seriously. I often get notices from people endorsing me for something they probably have no idea about whether I’m capable of doing. In return, the recipient of such is expected to return endorsements which again may have little basis in fact. It’s sort of a way of saying “Hi, you’re cool” in a sort of resume letter of recommendation way. It reminds me of that Gary Larson cartoon where the nerdy scientist puts a dog translator on a hound to see what all those barks mean. Every bark translates into the same word: “Hey!”

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  17. says

    Thanks Jan, as in your original part 1 post, I find the comparison to medicine illuminates this subject and shows how unreliable experts can be.

    I have gone through phases of putting time into blogging, Facebook and twitter and though I enjoyed each, I have had to let them go to focus on my writing. I also enjoy reading and commenting on blogs. I use a reader and only click on them if the title promises something unique and interesting to me. I will initially subscribe to a lot of blogs, but if they don’t offer something really valuable most of the time, I unsubscribe.

    What helps me is to stick to an organized plan for my day. If I end up with an hour in the afternoon and I’ve finished everything, I might check out twitter, facebook or blogs.

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  18. says

    Great post Jan. I especially like how you highlighted self here:
    risks to your personal reputation (i.e. standing with your self, family, friends, community.)

    Writing is a solitary gig, and if you aren’t happy with what you are doing, there’s really only one person who can change that. Particularly pertinent for me this morning, so thanks!

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  19. says

    I love the second part of this post even more than the first installment! The title to the book “Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future” actually gave me a visceral reaction – an “Oh my God, yes!” kind of reaction. I’ve been waffling emotionally about my choices, keeping an eye on what I think other people are thinking of me. It’s absolutely the uncertainty that makes me doubt myself, and the conflicting advice you get from “experts” only makes it worse. I appreciate you sharing this information and renewing the knowledge of how to develop a steady base on which to make my decisions.
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Funny Friday Photos

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  20. says

    Great post and something I really needed to read right now. It seems the more pressures I’m feeling the harder it is to choose between alternatives and with a book just out, one in copy edits and another, um, late… everything seems crucial and high priority at the moment.

    Anything to help me regain my sanity. :)
    Maureen McGowan´s last blog post ..Cage Match: Cloud Atlas The Movie

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  21. says

    Jan, thanks for the compass points. I’ve been reorienting myself this last year. I have four blogs, a Facebook account, and a Twitter account.

    I find I like the interactions on Facebook better than Twitter, so I spend about 30 minutes a day on Facebook and virtually no time on Twitter. I have some Twitter followers, but all they get from me is a pointer to something that I found interesting or useful.

    One of my blogs is related to my devotional gift book, As Grandma Says, which is the name of the blog as well.

    Ephemera Captured is my fleeting thoughts, which I update when I have something to say. That isn’t often.

    Garment of Praise is a weekly devotional this year. And I write a very short daily devotional which is password protected and open to just a few select people. The devotionals are a special writing discipline which I will re-evaluate come the first of the year.

    Your post lets me know that I must do a re-evaluation and accomplish more on my writing projects. And it gives me permission to do it on my own terms. Thank you.
    Judith Robl´s last blog post ..From My Back Porch – Part 8

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  22. says

    Thanks, Jan! Found this through @writehedgebrook’s tweet. You make some great points, though we have a different view on deadlines. :)

    I think the greatest harm is compromising what you want to say as a writer. Sometimes you have to blow the deadline to get to a deeper level of your work.

    You inspired me to write a post saying more about this (it grew too long to be a comment here!) — over at http://www.minalhajratwala.com/blog . Plus, gratuitous platform (shoe) pictures.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

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  23. says

    Late to the party, Jan, but man I loved this post. I am a healthier person when I can equip myself with mantras.

    When I struggle with depression, I have two:
    God stay with me.
    This will pass. This will pass. This will pass.

    When I am writing my shitty first drafts:
    Of course this is shitty. It’s the shitty first draft.

    And now, when I am spinning in my head about my professional goals:
    Author, do no harm.

    Thank you!
    Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Hot

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  24. says

    I’m so late to this party the lights are off and the cleaning crew has arrived, but wanted to say thanks for the post, Jan!

    Great advice, and well worth my time.

    This was my favorite line: “Don’t miss your next deadline because you’re chasing after another thousand Twitter followers,” because I have a tendency to get sucked in online and miss writing time, and have been making a concerted effort to stop doing that.

    Thanks for sharing!
    LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..A cup overflowing

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  25. says

    later than late but wait, I was doing Twitter, Linkdn, Facebook while also finishing up a blog-fest month AND writing, editing, revising, editing with taking lots of medicine due to the cold I developed from stress. So please excuse my tardiness. Catching up tonight on WU & what I found is that all of it (that so-called Platform building STUFF) can be a great way to fill in the hours around those writer’s block moments. And you make friends, sometimes fans even. People that I don’t know are watching tell me they love my videos or inspirational tweets. Yea & they love sarcasm too (or hate it, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Right? We hope.) All those tweets & peeps may even stimulate you to write about it (as commented) and inspire another fiction writing idea. Or they may just make you late. Best system I have found (for now) is what you mentioned, “Do no harm” and reevaluate your choices. Its all so complicated, because simple is not easy, like you said. I love this post and all of the comments. I needed it. Gotta go now, a tea party to attend with the mad-hatter on Facebook.
    Diana Cachey´s last blog post ..And THE WINNER IS . . .

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