Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Stuck on what to do? Here’s a simple solution

Posted in Freelance, Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on November 12, 2010

Image: Matt Jones

Last month I blogged about the importance of being prolific in order to get good at anything.

If you want to be a successful print journalist you need to write prolifically; if radio is your bag, you must be podcasting and audiobooing like a mutha. No excuses.

I still think it’s worth emphasising because I know as a busy journalist myself, a former student, and now a lecturer in journalism, that motivating yourself to invest in getting better at something is really hard.

If you’re a full time journalist or freelancer, you’re probably tired, poor, or can’t justify the time spent on going out and shooting some photographs without the commission. If you’re a student, you’re probably hungover.

But it isn’t any of these.

What you’re actually lacking is a project: some kind of framework, an organised challenge, bounded in time. It doesn’t have to be a big project, with a deadline years down the line – in fact, aim for the opposite: something you can achieve quickly and regularly.

They can take many forms. Documentary film maker Gail Mooney describes in a recent blog post how ‘passion projects‘ help her get films made. She’s just launched a new one, and is raising money for it on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

…as my career took hold and I became busier with work, I didn’t have time for sharing or personal projects.  But for someone like me who is a dreamer, I was starting to burn out.

There have been other passion projects since these first two and my head is usually full of ideas that are rumbling around, just waiting for the right time to surface.

Author Gretchen Rubin, currently undergoing a year-long and inspiring Happiness Project, calls it a Creativity Boot-camp. She wrote a novel in a month (it was terrible, she admits, but improved her writing massively); and there’s even a cool website which encourages people to draw a comic book in just 24 hours. No planning, no thinking, just drawing.

You lower your standards. If you’re producing a page a week, or one blog post a week, or one sketch a week, you expect it to be pretty darned good, and you fret about quality. Often, however, folks achieve their best work from grinding out the product.

When I’m having trouble getting work done on a big project, my impulse sometimes is to take smaller, easier steps. Sometimes that helps, but sometimes it helps more to take bigger, more ambitious steps instead. By doing more instead of less, I get a boost of energy and focus.

And author and career coach John Williams describes how a Play Project can get you out of rut and let you practice doing the work you really love, without having to get paid for it.

The process feels completely counter-intuitive at first because it requires that you stop fretting about your ideal work or how you could ever get paid – and start doing something. If you are stuck on that very first question “What would I enjoy?” you will benefit hugely from this. At a later stage, you can create further play projects to move you towards getting paid.

If you’re a journalist, young or old, you should be taking note of this. The shift in the industry has created a unique opportunity: to do the journalism we love, and get paid for it. There is a (slowly closing) window of opportunity to turn your journalism into something which provides income and makes you happy. You can’t just leap into it – you need to work out what your passion really is first.

My projects

I first hit on the idea of “projects” over Christmas 2009, when I read a blog post of good new years resolutions. One clever guy suggested writing an ebook in a weekend as a quick hit project. Inspired, I sat down on the first weekend of 2010, and wrote Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Journalists. I started on Saturday morning, and stopped on Sunday evening. A week or so later, I put the book on sale, and people started buying it.

It never made much money, and looking back, was full of spelling mistakes – but it was a finished project. And it gave me the confidence to write Next Generation Journalist a few months later, which has been infinitely more successful.

Now I’m looking for a new passion project to keep me occupied before Christmas. It’ll be a multimedia film project of some kind – and will get me making films every single week.

Have you got a project? Or an idea for one? Share it down in the comments!