7 Pieces of Advice for Writers from Scott Belsky’s ‘The Messy Middle’
We’re all on a journey to share our words with the world in one way or another. I’ve pulled out some of the quotes that resonate the most with creative souls out there.
Scott Belsky is the Founder of Behance, the Chief Product Officer over at Adobe, an author, and quite a bit more. He’s a busy guy. Looking at his earliest pursuits, which are shared a lot in his book The Messy Middle, Behance was once a small startup trying to stay afloat. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s the portfolio website for artists with a strong focus on helping creative professionals find work.
The full title of Belsky’s recent book is The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture. The “bold venture” we’re talking about doesn’t need to be a business, it could be the book you’re working on. This book is about getting through the low and high points of a journey. There’s a strong focus on what this means in business and for other startups, but there’s a wealth of advice that applies to anyone.
Even more specifically, there are plenty of tips that can help writers. We’re all on a journey to share our words with the world in one way or another. I’ve pulled out some of the quotes that resonate the most with creative souls out there.
1. "Curiosity is the fuel you need to play the long game."
Short and sweet, but important! When you’re writing, you’ve got to maintain your curiosity and your eagerness to learn. Learn about new things, so eventually, you can share your experiences with them. For creative writing, stay curious to see what else your mind can come up with, and stay curious to find out what your characters will do next.
2. “Take note of your ‘insecurity work.’ When you’re anxious about your business, there is no easier quick-relief antidote than checking things.”
“I call it insecurity work—stuff that you do that has no intended outcome, does not move the ball forward in any way, and is quick enough that you can do it unconsciously multiple times a day.Insecurity work puts you at ease, but it doesn’t actually get anything done.”
Can you say… checking your stats page to see your views 10 times? Or just popping onto Instagram to check on your notifications. Whichever social media poison you have in your system the most, it counts as insecurity work. A lot of us struggle with being confident or just staying focused. These little tasks make us feel accomplished, but as Belsky says, they’re not actually moving the ball forward at all.
As writers, we’ve constantly got to keep writing about what the next hill looks like so we can get the metaphorical ball over it.
3. "Grit is having stamina."
“'Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint,’ Duckworth said in her 2013 TED talk.”
This is a quote… within a quote. Quoteception. Moving away from 2010’s jokes, I wanted to highlight this bit. You need a herculean amount of stamina to survive profession writing and editing, to finish a novel, or just to continuously improve your craft. No matter what you’re writing, you’re not a one-hit wonder, and writing means working hard for years.
I wrote for five years before making penny number one. And even when I did start making money, I was freelancing at such absurdly low rates that every penny counted a lot for me.
That’s where stamina comes in.
To give Angela Duckworth a quick byline, she quit her managerial job to teach middle school math in New York City. In the words of one of my introduction to teaching professors, “It takes a very special person to teach middle schoolers.” My professor told me this with a very slow nod and a slight smirk pulling at the corners of her lips. Back to Duckworth, she would then go on to be accepted at University of Pennsylvania’s psychology PhD program to research what made people put more effort into their work.
4. "Feel the anger. Remove yourself. Dissect the situation. Acknowledge your role. Draft your narrative. Get back in the game."
This list is broken down in more detail in the book, but ultimately, this is Belsky’s approach for how to handle problems or disappointments. He was largely looking at in the context of business, but this is highly relevant for all writers trying to publish their work. We have disappointments all the time—whether it’s not hearing a favorable response back from an agent or just getting declined from the dozenth literary journal you’ve recently submitted to.
As writers, we’ve got to let the small disappointments roll off our shoulders. They’re too frequent to overanalyze. But for bigger letdowns, having a few steps to dealing with those is helpful. Feel your anger or disappointment then move on to figuring out how you can do better next time.
5. "Email taps into our brain’s 'urge for completion'—the instinctive drive to finish an activity once we’ve started it."
“Email taps into our brain’s 'urge for completion'—the instinctive drive to finish an activity once we’ve started it. Conversely, progress often feels elusive in our most important projects because meaningful work takes a lot of time, and because the applications we use to do our most meaningful work 'hide' progress from us: In Word or Google Docs, we delete and write over the same files until we’re satisfied, and in Photoshop, we cut and paste our progress away, rarely saving earlier drafts.”
This is a productivity tip that’s chillingly relatable.
Before I worked in positions that were strictly writing and editing, I also worked a lot of jobs that were predominantly technical or administrative, but had a creative component. In those jobs, I always had an insanely overflowing email inbox. I’m sure most white collar warriors find themselves in the same endless predicament.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much time I would spend responding to things, taking care of small tasks associated with those emails, but then barely making any noteworthy progress on my bigger projects.
As a quick side note though: I don’t think anything necessarily needs to be changed in Word, Google Docs, or Photoshop. We don’t need everything to be gamified and loaded with progress bars and achievements. It can be helpful sure, and if that works for you, that’s great. However, I think there’s value in simply fostering strong discipline to keep pushing.
6. "Value the merits of slow cooking."
“Value the merits of slow cooking. Rarely do we get the chance to create something over the arc of life itself, outside of any deadline looming. This book was a slow-cooked stew sitting on a low burner for many years. But we can round out our work with a few slow-cooked projects—you just can’t forget what you’ve got on the stove. You must keep coming back to it, checking it every now and then, adding a dash of salt here, skimming off the foam there. Over the course of your life, these projects could become your greatest creations.”
This was the line in the book that made me realize I wasn’t just reading the success story of another creative turned corporate suit. I was reading a book that someone poured countless hours and years into crafting.
To date, I personally have not valued the merits of slow cooking.
Given the demands of steady content creation, I doubt many of us really do value the importance of slow cooking some of our ideas.
It’s always go, faster, quicker, better, more. That’s a fact of reality that probably isn’t changing, and Belsky acknowledges that when he acknowledges that it’s rare we get to really to work on something without a deadline looming.
7. "American writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner once said, ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’"
I feel a bit cheap giving you another instance of quoteception, but this is such a terribly important bit of advice, even if it’s a familiar one to you. Categorically, The Messy Middle is a biography. A big part of the target audience for this book is entrepreneurs and people who work at startups.
It strikes me as fascinating that in a book that has a solid focus on business, a quote that was originally strictly literary remains relevant. That’s how important this lesson is. That’s why it’s worth revisiting and reinforcing. We’ve got to kill our darlings—whether it’s a plot point, an entire story idea, or even an entire product.
There are a lot of great insights in this book, but these are the ones that jumped out at me for being the most relevant for writers. It’s not easy to survive professional writing and editing, but keeping these tips in mind can help a little bit.
One of the things I enjoyed about this book is that Belsky references the writing process frequently enough that I do believe he wrote it, or at least most of it, without the help of a ghostwriter. From the slow-cooked project talk to how he specifically thanks his family for being tolerant of him visiting weekend writing retreats, the effort he took in writing the book is noteworthy.
Why does this matter? Because a lot of people with his stature and position would simply hire a ghostwriter to do the whole thing, no questions asked. There are plenty of great ghostwriters out there, but there’s a certain authenticity that comes with hearing someone’s advice in their own words.
If you’re interested in reading Belsky’s book, you can nab a copy online. Alternatively, you check out some of his articles on Medium.