2016 annual review

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So… here we come, to the end of 2016.

I turned 30 this year, so it feels a little like I’ve rounded a corner.

I can’t help but think about what a wild ride the last 10 years have been.

It hasn’t been easy getting here, but as of now, I am very happy with the small life that I have built for myself.

After struggling for so many years, I’m deeply grateful to have found a vocation (photography) that I want to spend a long time doing. I’m thankful to be living on my own in a lovely apartment; to be the parent of two crazy cats; to be financially stable; to have so much freedom in so many aspects of my life; to be surrounded by so many people I love.

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One of my two crazy cats…

But I still have a long way to go, and there are still a lot of things I haven’t learned.

Hence this annual review.

I’m borrowing this idea from James Clear, who writes an annual review every year asking himself three questions:

1. What went well this year?
2. What didn’t go so well this year?
3. What am I working toward?

I’m going to do the same thing, plus a little bit more.

But before I go on, there’s something else I want to say.

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Sunrise in San Francisco, February 2016

We all want to live a good life, but what is a good life?

I spend a lot of time thinking about this question.

I’d be lying if I say that I have it all figured out, but after having spent so much time thinking about it, here’s my little conclusion:

Gratitude.

A simple but powerful notion.

Be grateful for the life you have NOW, and you can be the happiest person on Earth.

Be incapable of gratitude, and you will find it hard to find happiness no matter where you go, what you achieve, who you meet.

I’d rather be a happy nobody than a depressed billionaire anytime.

Once you can learn to be happy about the place you are at right now, you can then begin to craft a sweet life that you love with the other lego blocks of life – good relationships, good health, financial well-being, having a career that you enjoy, etc.

Yes, those things are important, but remember, they mean NOTHING if you are intrinsically unhappy.

So, with gratitude as my foundation, let’s go through my 2016, and let’s look towards 2017 together!


What went well this year?


Work

This year I found representation with an international photographer’s agency. That means they help to promote me and help me get big jobs with potential big clients such as NIKE, HBO, Coca Cola, etc. It’s a new thing for me and a big milestone!

And… my first photography assignment of 2017 is going to be for The New York Times. I. Can’t. Wait. It’s been a huge dream of mine to shoot for them. Will write about how this happened in a separate blog post!


Travel

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A year on the road!

I visited three continents and almost twenty cities this year, from San Francisco to L.A. to Copenhagen to Budapest to Tokyo to everywhere in between. Sometimes for work, sometimes for fun.

Travel is never wasted; everywhere you go there is a lesson to pick up. Looking forward to the places 2017 will bring me to!

Here’s where I stepped foot on in 2016 – San Francisco, Portland, L.A., Copenhagen, Dubrovnik, Split, Budapest, Prague, Munich, Taipei, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Hokkaido.


Money

I had a rude awakening about money early this year. I’d had a couple of years of nonstop working, but in January this year I realized I hadn’t managed to save much at all. So I decided to start getting better at this whole… financial thing.

I became obsessed with this topic. I scoured the internet for articles. I read countless personal finance books. My efforts finally took me to Mr Money Mustache. His writings and his life story helped to transform my mindset towards money. Not exaggerating.

Over the last year I have managed to save more money than I have ever saved over my entire life (true story). My mindset towards money has also changed drastically. I look forward to achieving financial freedom in less than 10 years.

I’ll write more on this topic in future posts (it’s a HUGE topic, and one of my favorites too), but it’s enough to say that I’m really glad this happened to me in 2016.

PS: I’m still a work-in-progress because traveling is still one of my biggest expenses, and I LOVE to travel…


Writing

One of the happiest things that happened to me this year was getting back to writing again. I had been writing sporadically on and off on my personal journal, and I’d had many false starts with having a public blog, and things had always fallen through. Ask my friends. They know my failures the best.

But I have begun writing consistently for this blog and it’s been wonderful. Truly wonderful. What used to plague me – major writer’s block – doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore, because now I am writing for a different reason – to genuinely help other people. It has become easy to write because now I am just sharing everything I know honestly, no holds barred.

It’s a wonderfully liberating feeling.

And the best thing? When I receive positive feedback from people who read this blog, or when people very honestly share their struggles and their life stories with me.

Never estimate the power of human connection, even if it’s electronic 😉


Giving back

This year my friend Cynthea and I got together to start A Simple Day, a collective that hopes to spread happiness through the idea of simple living. But soon we will team up with our formidable friend Daniel to create something we are going to call the Happy Collective. What is it going to be about? You’ll find out soon…!


What didn’t go so well this year?


Loss

This year my aunt passed away unexpectedly from sleep apnea related complications. Our beloved, lovely friend Cheese from Taiwan also passed away from cancer earlier this year. It made me think about death. Actually, even on good days I think about death a little too much. I have a deep, deep attachment towards life, and yet have a morbid fascination for death. Which leads me to…


Spirituality

Spirituality was a big part of my life in 2015 and helped me through some bad times. But 2016 was a good year, so when things are good, you don’t think about praying. You don’t think about God quite as much. It’s a complicated issue. And of course, the less you pray the less you want to pray. But as I mentioned earlier, I have been struggling with the idea of loss and death (not just my own, but also that of my loved ones). In the next year I definitely want to go back to reconnecting spiritually again, in order for me to come to terms with this fear.


Health & fitness

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This year I fell sick quite a bit. I also had a health scare where I had to be hospitalized and go through an endoscopy and a colonoscopy procedure. Thankfully things turned out fine in the end! And I have always wanted to experience staying overnight in a hospital, so that was (a little) fun…

Exercise-wise, I started running last year, which continued to 2016, but tapered off towards the end. I would have squash sessions with my friends sometimes, but exercise wasn’t a very big part of my life.

I also didn’t have the best diet.


What am I working toward?

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I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I have come up with a few themes that will guide me in 2017. These are the things my life needs right now in order for me to live an even sweeter, more joyful and more balanced life.

The “actions to take” are not exhaustive but are top priorities. They are there to help me create actual change in my life.


1. Health is wealth

Nothing is more important than health. I love life, so I want to live longer and live better. In 2017 I’m going to focus on my health.

Actions to take:
(a) Drink vegetable juice for breakfast every morning;
(b) cut out red meat from my diet;
(c) establish a weekly exercise routine and stick to it;
(d) meditate daily.


2. Less is better

In other words, focus on only the essential in all aspects of my life. I want to keep asking myself: What is truly important? What should I keep in my life? What should I throw out? What is the one thing I can do right now – rather than many things – to advance my career, improve my relationships, become healthier? In 2017 it must be all about subtracting rather than adding.

Actions to take:
(a) Continue to declutter my home and wardrobe until I am left with what is essential;
(b) wean myself off social media.


3. Be useful to others

This year I found much meaning and purpose and joy in sharing what I have learned with others. Next year I want to continue to do the same and create more value for other people.

Actions to take:
(a) Continue to grow and update this blog and send out my newsletter once a week;
(b) write and publish a book that can help others.


4. Do what scares me

There are a few things that really scare me. So next year I want to try doing them. Even typing them out scares me, especially the half-marathon. Yikes. I will try my best!

Actions to take:
(a) Hike across Shodoshima (120km);
(b) attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat;
(c) run a half-marathon by end of 2017.


Happiness Principles

As a way to conclude this post, here are some of my Happiness Principles that help me to live a happy life. They also help me to remember what life is truly all about, and on bad days they even help me to feel better. I hope they help you too!

Gratitude.
Live in the present.
The past doesn’t exist.
The future doesn’t exist.
Only now exists.
Now is eternal.
Create a life you truly love (not a life that you pretend to love).
Try new things.
Get closer to the things you like.
Create.
Be balanced.
Sing in the shower.
Have faith in miracles.
Experience nature.
Accept life as it is.
Savour life.
Have less.
Give more.
Save more money.
Help other people.
Be comfortable with yourself.
Be kind to yourself.
Be imperfect.
It’s okay to be sad or to have a bad day sometimes.
Don’t try so hard to be happy.
Stop struggling.
Be effortless.

Have a great 2017 and may you experience true happiness, peace and joy in your life!

(I’d love to hear from you if you also did an annual review. Drop me a comment below!)

Do you have 1,000 true fans?

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I’m a huge fan of this singer-songwriter guy from Hong Kong called Chet Lam.

As an independent singer-songwriter, he has never signed to a huge record label. You probably haven’t heard of him. He’s not world-famous. He doesn’t have millions of fans. Yet for many years now – since 2003 – he has been able to make a living from making music for a very small, niche market – the Chinese-language independent music industry in Asia.

Over the last 13 years of his career, he has released 15 albums, performed at countless sold-out live shows, released DVDs of his concerts, written books, acted in plays. He has even released his very own cookbook.

I buy almost all of the stuff that he releases.

I’m subscribed to his mailing list, his Facebook fan page, his Instagram, and every time he releases a new album or a new book, I buy it. Almost without question.

I’m what they call a true fan – a fan who laps up everything he does. Repeatedly. (Lesson number 1: You can sell to true fans over and over again.) And since he’s independent, every dollar I spend goes directly to him.

You see, we always think we need millions (or hundreds of thousands) of fans to make it as a creator. We don’t. What we need are thousands of die-hard fans who are willing to buy the things we put out – whether it’s an album or a book or a print or a t-shirt.

There is a name for this little phenomenon – the 1,000 True Fans theory.

Over the last decade Chet Lam has managed to build a tribe of true fans who genuinely adore him, who buy his every product, go to his every concert, read his every book, support every one of his (inevitably successful) crowdfunding campaigns. This tribe of true fans cannot be bought, like how one can easily buy fake likes on social media these days. To be effective, this tribe must be carefully cultivated.

Throughout his career, Chet Lam has kept his fans updated with news of his latest projects. The medium evolves constantly – it used to be a blog that he updated with some regularity, now it’s updates on his social media accounts like Instagram and Facebook. We move along with him through life. We watch him as he grows through his various projects. As fans we feel invested, engaged. So when he has a new project, we genuinely want to support him.

Yes, it might be called the 1,000 True Fans theory, but you can have 1,000 fans, or 500 fans, or 25,000 fans, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the number. It’s about having genuinely engaged and interested fans.

They are the ones who can help you make a living as a creator.

So, do you have 1,000 true fans?

To ask a more important question: How are you going to cultivate your own 1,000 true fans?

“Do you make enough money to survive?”

In my long journey to escape this whole giant rat race, I have been asked this question multiple times.

When I was running my cafe, people – random strangers – would come up to me and ask bluntly, “So are you able to make money doing this?” (The honest answer? No.)

Later on, I’d had to deal with the skepticism of my family and friends about the inherent financial instability of my decision to find my own way in this world.

Meeting up with friends from school was painful sometimes. At that time they were all fresh university graduates and had all just secured comfortable jobs paying them $3,000 – $5,000 a month. They would openly and excitedly exchange their salary figures, but would look at me quizzically and ask, “So… are you doing okay? Surviving?”

It was a good time in their lives and I was truly happy for them, and it really wasn’t their fault at all that they would ask me something like that – they were just concerned about me.

Most people have this idea that freelancers cannot earn much money and don’t have much job security. When I was starting out, that was certainly true – I really was barely scraping by. For YEARS. To add on to everything was the interminable uncertainty, unlike my friends, who could look forward to their promotions and their bonuses.

But having come a little further along the journey, I want to dispel the misconception that freelancers cannot earn good money.


Fear, lots and lots of fear

Many people desperately want to quit their jobs and start their own small businesses or become a successful freelancer (just look around you).

They want the perks that come with the freelance life. The freedom. Not having to wake up to go to the office every day. Not having to answer to a boss or to have to do things that suck the joy out of their soul.

But they don’t want the sacrifices and the pain and the uncertainty that come with actually quitting their jobs to do their own thing.

Mostly, they are mortally afraid – of not having their salary automatically transferred to their bank accounts every month; of not making enough money to feed themselves.

Fear sucks.


Two truths

Truth number 1: Freelancers can make good money.

Truth number 2: Full-time employees are often underpaid.

I have a very talented friend working at an art studio who earns $1,800 a month. And another friend who’s a full-time designer who earns less than $2,500 a month, even though she’s an amazing designer.

That’s not cool.

They are clearly underpaid (for their talents). If they could just venture out to do their own thing, they might be able to earn more, and have more creative freedom at that.


Step into a world of possibilities

I want to show you a year-by-year highlight of how much money I have made since I quit university to pursue my own path.

I’m doing this to show you real figures that a real freelancer makes (and can potentially make), so that you are no longer in the dark about the financial possibilities of working for yourself.

It takes patience, lots and lots of hard work, and some creative thinking (and very thick skin – by that I mean a slight disregard for what society thinks of you). It can take years before you even start seeing any returns. And then it might take years for things to start getting stable.

But it’s all worth it.

No pain, no gain.


A rundown

2007 – A year after I quit university, I started running my cafe. Startup capital was borrowed from my parents (I’d like to acknowledge how blessed I am to have parents who were crazy enough to support me in whatever I wanted to do). Every month I paid myself about $300 in living expenses. This went on for about two years. In that time I barely went out (I spent most of my time working in my cafe) so I didn’t need that much money.

2009 – After my cafe closed, I decided to give a 9-5 job a try. I got a job at a local arts organisation. My take home pay was about $1,500/month. This went on for six months, then I quit.

June 2009 – I’d had my taste of a regular job, and I hated it. It confirmed my gut feeling: I’m not cut out to work for someone else. It was at this point that I steeled my resolve to make a living working for myself doing what I love. I didn’t know yet what that was; all I knew was that I didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to create my own path, even if I didn’t have a roadmap. During this time I began trying to become a freelance writer (since, after some serious thinking, it was a skill I had and something I thought I’d enjoy doing). I started writing for free for a few publications. I survived on the money I’d saved from my job at the arts organisation.

2010 – Throughout 2010 I probably earned not more than $1,000 from all my freelance writing assignments. I realised at this point that freelance writing pays peanuts. I took on a translation project that paid somewhat better at $100 per article. It was a difficult time.

2011 – I began teaching tuition. I worked quite hard and had quite a few students so I began earning about $1,500/month. I didn’t really enjoy it but it helped me to survive while I continued finding my own way as a freelance creative. At this stage I was winding down on my freelance writing (although there wasn’t much to wind down haha) and trying to figure out my next step. Going back to a 9-5 job was definitely not an option for me.

2012 – I started part-time hosting a radio show. It paid a few hundred dollars a month. I was still teaching tuition to survive at this point, so I was earning about $1,500-$1,800 a month. Early 2012, I decided I would try to become a freelance photographer (something I’d always wanted to pursue but hadn’t dared to, since it felt like an impossible goal), since I’d failed to gain any traction in freelance writing. I started doing my personal photo project Creative People + Projects and began telling everyone I knew that I was now “a photographer”. Began shooting free and low-paying photography jobs for all sorts of different people.

April 2013 – After about a year of shooting, directly because of my photo project Creative People + Projects, I got my first 4-figure ($5,000) photography job and another 4-figure job ($3,500 to shoot a magazine cover) within a month. I consider these two jobs together as my first big break. The income I earned from them gave me the confidence (and the financial buffer) to keep persisting. I also started doing editorial (magazine) work that paid a few hundred dollars a shoot after I decided to ask.

April 2014 – This was a huge milestone for me: I got my first 5-figure photography job. I was jumping with joy when the job was confirmed. It was a commercial shoot for a private bank’s publication that paid about $13,000 for 3 half-day shoots.

June 2014 – From this point onwards, I began getting a steady stream of photography jobs. Most of them were 4-figure and 5-figure commercial jobs. I continued to shoot editorial work at the same time.

July 2015 – Another milestone: I got paid $20,000 to shoot an advertising billboard. 2 days’ work.

Dec 2016 – I recently got represented by a photo agency who will now help promote me and help me get bigger commercial/advertising jobs. It’s been 3 years since photography became financially viable for me, allowing me to pursue it full time; 10 years since I quit university to pursue my own path in life. In between, 7 years of self-doubting, uncertainty, searching, failing. In the last 3 years as a photographer I haven’t stopped working.


Some questions

The most important question in your mind – how does a freelancer get 4-figure and 5-figure jobs?

The grossly simplified answer – by working with corporations who have money. Companies are all about the bottom line. If you can help them earn money, they tend to pay well. So think of how your skills can help a company or a brand earn money.

Creativity is a much-needed skill in today’s society because it helps a company stand out from the noise. Example: If you are good at miniature food styling, you could have been hired by Singapore Airlines to consult for this brilliant advertisement that features… miniature food:

For photography, since it is so tied up with the commercial needs of companies and organisations (almost every brand in the world needs photography to tells its story), it becomes something that is highly valued.

If you want to be pragmatic, find a skill that the market needs (this is very important if you want a lucrative career as a freelancer) and that you enjoy, and become good at it, then use it to help companies earn money. Example: Aaron Nieh, a designer from Taiwan, is so good at what he does that he practically designs the album covers of every singer in Taiwan with good taste – his design helps them to sell their CDs; even the Taiwanese government engaged him to do design work for them. (In future articles I will write about how to attract the attention of companies and brands. According to Cal Newport, one way is to be so good they can’t ignore you.)

Still, generally, all kinds of freelance work has the potential to give you more income than if you were working a normal job (unless you have climbed to the upper levels of the corporate ladder, then that’s a different story).

Can a freelancer have consistent income?

There are always going to be ups and downs. Some months you earn more, some months you earn less. But at the end of the day, if you can get big jobs, the bigger jobs can make up for the bad days.

Does freelance work ever become stable?

Yes and no. There is no inherent stability in being a freelancer. One day you might be busy fending off potential clients, another day you might be sitting at home refreshing your email, hoping for a job request. And that’s okay. That’s a truth you need to live with if you want the other (good) parts of this life. To counter this, learn to save as much of your income as you can for rainy days (an important lesson that I learned that will be the topic for a future post).

Do you need to be the best in your field to earn a good living as a freelancer?

No. Is anyone really the best in their field? There’s always someone better. I definitely don’t think that I’m the best in my field, but I think I’m good enough. I have also built relationships over the years, giving me access to a network of opportunities. These people in my network think of me when they want to hire a photographer. That’s how I get many of my jobs.

At which point does one consider oneself a “successful” freelancer?

When there is more or less a constant stream of work; when you have more job requests than you can take up; when you need to reject jobs.

Is freelancing a good path for everyone to pursue?

The honest answer is… no. Or at least it can be much more challenging for people who have dependents and who have to support their family. Or if they already have a massive college debt to pay off. Having said that, nothing is impossible in this world. If this is what you want, nothing should stop you (or at least give yourself the chance to have a go at it before throwing in the towel).

The economy is really bad now. Should I still pursue my dream of being a freelancer?

Any time is an okay time to pursue your dream. It’s not about the economy. The economy will go up and down. But you can control how little you need. The less you need, the less you can afford to earn. That gives you some buffer to experiment with your life (especially if you are still young right now). So go and try. If you die tomorrow, would you regret the life you didn’t dare to live?

In closing

This was a long, slightly unnerving post to write. I’m a little nervous about putting it all out there like this, but I have learned that, if one wants to share effectively, honesty / total transparency is always the best policy.

I also wrote this to encourage the many people I know – including many of my friends – who want to quit the rat race and live life on their own terms. I hope this gave you a view of the possibilities of a freelance career and a strong push to pursue the life you want.

As always, I hope this article proved helpful and encouraging to you!

Got any more questions? Feel free to ask in the comment section below.

What I learned from doing something consistently for a year

For a period of about a year, I wrote a weekly column for Lianhe Zaobao, a national Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore. My article appeared every Thursday, like clockwork.

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My very first column. I wish I had a better picture of it.

I wrote about… anything. My topics ranged from photography, traveling, swimming, reading… to music, meditation, loss (death), etc.

The newspaper had a huge audience (as of August 2016, their circulation is about 180,000), and the other columnists were all older, experienced writers, so it was both incredibly pressurizing, and also a great opportunity and platform.

My column started in March 2013. I wrote close to 40 articles in total over the next year. At that time I was about 27 and not quite yet a photographer. Nobody really knew who I was and I hadn’t really been published anywhere before.

Now here are some lessons I learned from the experience:

(1) The fact that an established national newspaper would let a young nobody write a weekly column for it suggests that… anyone can break into any inner circle, no matter how seemingly impenetrable. So young nobodies take heart.

(2) If you let a big organization or company or brand know you exist, you would have given your chances of being “discovered” a big boost. I first wrote to the newspaper floating the idea of me writing a column for them in 2009 (I just checked my email archives). The editor replied me a week later, saying we could meet up for a chat, but I never heard from them again until three years later.

(3) Try to sell yourself in some way, even if you’re a young nobody. When I wrote to them in 2009, apart from being the founder/owner of a cafe that had received some media attention, I had only written some articles on my blog and been published in some small, independent publications. Since this was all I had, I used them to sell myself. Any small achievements can be part of your portfolio, if (and only if) they are relevant.

(4) It can take awhile for things to happen. About three years passed since my first email before I heard from the paper again. I think a columnist had just ended his run, so there was now an opportunity for a new columnist to come on board. In those three years, I had managed to write a lot more and was by then hosting a radio programme for a national radio station. I was still a nobody, but a much more experienced nobody.

(5) Writing a weekly column was fun at first but soon it became quite frustrating, since I had to write a high-quality article once a week while I was trying to break into the photography industry. It was challenging. I never learned to accumulate my articles so I could give myself some lead time. This is something to note the next time I write a newspaper column again.

(6) Being committed to something like this made me work hard. I’m a lazy person by nature, but being a columnist for a national newspaper gave me enough pressure to actually deliver. Week after week. It FORCED me to work because I was already (very publicly) committed. It’s a rather sado-masochistic way to “get things done”, but it works.

(7) There is therefore a beauty in commitments like this. Take Casey Neistat, who uploaded a short vlog of his life every day for two years. His popularity exploded over those two years and he grew his Youtube subscribers to more than 5.8 million. He recently sold his company to CNN for $25 million.

(8) Most of us will never be Casey Neistat, but as you can see, doing something consistently over a period of time not only allows you to become better at what you do, you also get to bring your audience along with you on the ride. That audience will only grow in number over time.

(9) Know when to stop. Once a commitment/project stops being enjoyable, and after you have learned most of what you can from it, stop. Move on to something different that can allow you to grow in new ways.

So now…

This is my something different.

I will be publishing articles here once a week, every Thursday.

Thanks for joining me on this ride. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go together from here.

Write a comment below to tell me a little about yourself and your journey.

Let’s keep moving forward together!

How to write better: A short guide for non-writers

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American writer Jack Kerouac in 1959

…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

When I was about 17, I found the Jack Kerouac novel “On the Road” on the shelf of a second-hand bookstore. I was young, restless, in need of adventure. The book title appealed to me. On the road. How wonderful!

The book turned out to be a fictionalized version of Kerouac’s journey across America with his beer-chugging, pot-smoking, poetry-writing hippie friends.

I fell feverishly in love with Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks. Because of Kerouac I was also introduced to the powerful, charged poetry of Allen Ginsberg, also a core member of the Beat Generation.

How much I wanted to be like them – to drink & smoke pot & rebel against the establishment & cross America in a rundown truck.

But more importantly, I wanted to write like them.

For a while I even learned to punctuate like Ginsberg (and that meant replacing “and” with “&” in all my sentences). I also dreamed of traveling to India, because that was where Ginsberg wrote his famed Indian Journals (I still haven’t been there, but I will one day).

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz… – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

It was only many years later that I realized – it was a good thing I’d fallen in love with these writers, and then later with writing itself.

Because that was the beginning of my training to becoming a better writer.

Since then writing has become one of the most important skills I possess.

Even as a photographer, writing has remained an important part of my work. In my photo project Creative People + Projects, I accompany my photographs and portraits with my writing. Without my writing I don’t think I would have been able to fulfill what I wanted to achieve with the project.

And I can only now share with you all that I’ve learned because I learned how to write well early on.

At this point, I just want to throw it out there: Writing isn’t for everyone. If this isn’t a topic that interests you, feel free to skip this article. But if you are a creative or a creative entrepreneur who wants to sharpen your writing skills (or you have a faint intuition that writing is somehow a good skill to possess), then read on.

I’m not saying I’m an expert at writing, but I have learned a thing or two about writing over the last ten years, and I’m happy to share these lessons with you.

*

Write for what?

Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t want to be novelists or poets. You are probably reading my blog because you are interested in living life on your own terms or becoming a successful freelancer or a creative entrepreneur.

You want to learn to write better, but the purpose isn’t to indulge in your very private artistic passions. You want to write better so you can market yourself better, get more jobs, earn more money.

Examples: Maybe you are an aspiring photographer looking to add writing as another dimension to your work. Maybe you are looking to improve the writing of your “about” page on your website. Maybe you want to send a convincing sales email to a potential client. Maybe you want to spruce up your bio on your resume.

In other words, marketing.

I understand that “marketing” can sound like a dirty word to creatives, but all “marketing” does is to let potential clients or customers understand what is so awesome about you that they must hire you / buy from you. Which is super awesome!

And we’re lucky because we have the Internet. The Internet has liberated us, broken down all walls. Singer-songwriters don’t need to get signed to labels anymore – they have Youtube. Photographers can chalk up thousands of followers on Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms and directly attract the attention of photo editors and photo buyers who are also themselves on the very same platforms. Writers can start publishing their own blogs in ten minutes. Or start writing immediately on websites like Medium.

If you learn to write, you get to tell your own stories in your own words and sculpt the public’s (and your potential clients’) imagination and perception of you.

If you can’t write well, you can of course hire someone to do it for you. But who knows you better than you?

So start making use of the Internet to write and market yourself.

Let people know that you exist. Doing good work in a quiet corner of the universe isn’t going to bring you far enough anymore.

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Everyone can learn to write well, even if they think they can’t

I understand that writing can be a difficult thing for many people to do. When people think of writing, they think of this thing that only some particularly talented people can do.

That’s not true.

And we are not asking you to write like Shakespeare.

Without further bullshit, let’s get to some actionable steps on how to become a better writer (even if you don’t normally write):

(1) You suck at writing. Start writing anyway.

Most people think they are bad writers. They are ashamed of what they write about, or they think their writing reflects badly on them. Write anyway.

The act of writing itself exercises your writing muscles.

It’s just like how the more you run, the better you get at running.

Write and write and write. Slowly and surely you will get better.

(2) Use simple words.

There is this misconception that good writing is made up of flowery language. That can’t be further from the truth.

There are probably as many definitions of good writing as there are people, so I cannot define good writing for you here.

But for our purposes of writing to market ourselves, to write well is to bring our points across successfully.

To do that, you don’t need a huge vocabulary.

Chances are, you know enough English words to write an entire book without searching up the dictionary.

Use the words you already know to bring your point across. Some of the best writing in the world are made up of simple vocabulary and short sentences (check out Raymond Carver’s works to know what I mean).

(3) Economy is beauty.

Ruthlessly edit your writing. Cut out the fluff.

James Althucher famously said, “Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph.”

I think he’s trying to say that sometimes less is better.

You can ramble on and on, but it isn’t going to make your writing better if your audience doesn’t get your message.

Take out all the flowery descriptions and all the unnecessary stories. Strip your writing down until you are left with what you really want to say. You will be amazed at how effective your writing can be if you do that.

(Unless you are writing poetry, then ramble all you want. It’s your poem, not mine!)

(4) Tell the truth or speak from your own experience.

We often think it’s difficult to write because we have no idea where to start, or we think we have no material. Well, start from the truth. Your life is your material (that’s why it’s so important to live an interesting life!). Be honest. Be brutally honest if you can, and be real. No one has tolerance for fakery and hypocrisy these days. Don’t pretend to have an opinion if you don’t have one (and if you do have an opinion, don’t be afraid to share it even if it’s an unpopular one).

(5) Read.

I don’t think it’s quite possible to become a better writer if you don’t read. But don’t just read any writer. Read good books. You can Google for reading lists and book recommendations online. People on the Internet have read through thousands and thousands of books and come up with must-read lists for you – make use of them! You also don’t have to read only books. There are a ton of good writing online. If you are lost and don’t know where to start, follow my reading recommendations in the Resources section below. If you read all of my recommended books/links you will almost certainly become a better writer.

(6) Imitate your favorite writer(s).

Find a writer you like. No, if you can, find a writer you LOVE, and imitate the hell out of him or her. The truth is, we all want to write like our favorite writers. Find that writer whose sentences make your heart skip a beat. When you write, pretend you are that writer. Put yourself in his or her head. After some time, you will slowly find your stride and develop your own style.

(7) Write for an audience.

If you do this, you have the chance to receive feedback for your writing. Even if you don’t, knowing that people are reading will make you put in more effort into your writing. Intentional practice works wonders. Even though blogs are deemed to be pretty old-fashioned these days, start one and make your friends and family read it. Who knows, maybe in time you might even attract an audience.

(8) Write like how you talk.

The best way to start writing is to write like how you talk. Try it. It will liberate you from all your worries of not having a “personal style” and will get you to actually start… writing, which of course is the most important thing you need to do if you want to improve your writing.

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So there you have it.

Simple, actionable advice for non-writers. Practice them. You might not become the next Ernest Hemingway if you follow the above advice, but you will most likely become a much better writer.

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Resources

Here are some resources that will help with your writing. I love all of the following writers and I’ve selected them because they all write powerfully and beautifully, and share a certain effective economy of style.

Books on writing:
On Writing – Stephen King
Bird by Bird – Anne Lammott
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Blogs:
Zen Habits
The Minimalists
Derek Sivers
James Altucher
Ryan Holiday

Writers:
Ernest Hemingway
Raymond Carver
Haruki Murakami

Good luck with your writing, and drop me a note if you want to open a conversation about this subject.

To end off…

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway


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