You don’t have to be everything to everyone

If you’re just starting out as a content marketer, or as a writer, it’s easy to feel like you have to do everything all at once. There’s an endless amount of information that needs to be conveyed, from an infinite set of perspectives and angles, and they’re somehow all valid or important.

It’s absolutely crucial that you find a way to work despite this. You’ll have to leave stuff out.

Science writer Carl Zimmer had some great things to say about this.

“When I was starting out, I’d try to convey everything I knew about a subject in a story, and I ended up spending days or weeks in painful contortions. There isn’t enough room in an article to present a full story. Even a book is not space enough. It’s like trying to build a ship in a bottle. You end up spending all your time squeezing down all the things you’ve learned into miniaturized story bits. And the result will be unreadable.”

Well, that sucks. So what do you do then?

“It took me a long time to learn that all that research is indeed necessary, but only to enable you to figure out the story you want to tell. That story will be a shadow of reality—a low-dimensional representation of it. But it will make sense in the format of a story. It’s hard to take this step, largely because you look at the heap of information you’ve gathered and absorbed, and you can’t bear to abandon any of it. But that’s not being a good writer. That’s being selfish. I wish someone had told me to just let go.”

This is also consistent with the storytelling advice that Emma Coats (a former Pixar screenwriter) gives:

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Don’t try to do everything all at once. It’s not possible. Instead, try to get one small thing done really well. And then do another. And then do another. Content should be modular, and it should work together as part of a broader whole.

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