More on initiative and vulnerability

Finding people to fix your typos is easy. As someone who makes part of their living from proofreading, perhaps I shouldn’t admit it; but it’s true. Seth Godin’s blog has gradually opened my eyes to the fact that spotting mistakes, amending, editing and so on is easier work than taking productive initiative.

Taking the first step, whether with a bad first draft or the first idea in a brainstorming session, makes you vulnerable. Creating, generally, makes you vulnerable. That’s why it’s comparatively rare, and that’s partly why it’s so valuable and important.

When I worked at the community newspaper Leys News, we regularly ran reader competitions and other prize-led initiatives to get both adults and children involved. The prizes varied: book tokens, theatre tickets, cash, hair accessories, meals for two and so on. But when it came to the number of entries, the nature of the prizes didn’t matter as much as the type of competition.

Structured competitions like wordsearches and colouring-in, where the boundaries were very clear and set by someone else, got a good response. But competitions requiring initiative and creativity – write us a short story, write us a poem, draw us a picture – got a tiny fraction of that response. We even offered prizes for reader letters, thinking that people would surely grab the opportunity to express their opinion and get something nice as a reward. But that too had very low uptake.

During my editorship of Leys News, I also repeatedly asked for budding reporters and photographers to receive free training and get their work published. I’m proud that I and my colleagues managed to recruit and train many of these, but it was hard work finding them in the first place. But when we printed one small advert asking for volunteer proofreaders, we got lots of responses. Two types of unpaid volunteer work, one of which gets you training and a chance to see your name in print – and yet most people went for the other one.

I’d imagine it’s the same for most newspapers; reader engagement is more likely when you put a structure in place first. And it seems to be the same for museums: participatory platforms work better with formal constraints.

Freedom to do anything at all is daunting. Being asked to do something very specific is often challenging but fun. And finding mistakes in the work of others is easy-peasy.

Of course proofreading is still necessary, important work requiring a skillset that not everbody has. It’s also work that has scary bits, including convincing clients that they should hire you for it in the first place. (I always say proofreading is like deodorant; the people who need it most don’t know they need it, and don’t see why they should have to pay for it.) But it’s still true that most of us are much more in our comfort zone when we’re proofreading than when we’re trying to create something original.

Writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant acknowledges this too, and she’s come up with a genius writing tip that works with those natural instincts. Basically, you create a schedule for yourself so that you’re not thinking “What can I write about?” any more. You’re just thinking: “Oh, it’s Thursday. Time to do a blog post about fuel economy/pastry/common garden pests.”

I like her approach. I like the idea of anything that makes creative work and initiative less scary, that works with our tendency to be daunted by unstructured possibility. Let’s face it, most of us would rather answer questions in a pub quiz than perform our poetry at a pub open-mic night. And perhaps we should be thankful for that.