Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

The one time I was accused of selling out as a writer happened in the early 1990s. My career as a professional freelancer was starting to pick up, and I sold an article to a major Canadian newspaper.

My accuser, a (now former) friend, thought I should have sold that article to a smaller, more worthy (his words, not mine) publication where I'd make a few cents a word. He figured that I should have kept writing for the small publications where I'd been cutting my teeth as a working writer.

That former friend (in case you're wondering, this incident wasn't what put him in the former category) wasn't a writer. He definitely didn't understand the reality of the life of a working writer. He didn't seem to realize that the ideas in that article, and the other articles I wrote for larger publications, found a wider audience than they would have in a smaller magazine.

That, in my eyes, wasn't and isn't selling out.

To this day, I still wonder what selling out actually means.

Sometimes, accusing someone of selling out is a misguided attempt to shame them. To make them feel guilty about doing work that's commercial. In some writing (and other) circles, even today, there's a stigma attached to writing for mass-market publications or undertaking corporate writing work. As if you're abandoning art for money.

That's a silly idea. Most of us who toil behind a keyboard aren't artists. Many of us don't aspire to be artists. We write for a living. To pay our bills, to feed ourselves and our families, to pay the rent or the mortgage. That means taking work that pays.

Is crafting a well-written article, essay, report, script, or whitepaper (and making decent money doing it) selling out? I don't think so. If you're doing any of that, chances are you're using your skills to come up with the best work that you can.

Writing for money isn't selling out. You don't have to be paid a pittance writing for a small journal when you can earn more for the same piece from a larger-circulation publication. There's nothing wrong with being paid what you're worth — whether by a print magazine, an online publication, or a company.

I don't believe it's selling out if you write to the best of your ability, if you explore markets and clients of all types. No matter what kind of writing you do, remember that you're making your living at your keyboard. Sure, it might not be the kind of work you expected to do when you started your career, but as long as you're doing the work to the best of your ability there's no reason to be ashamed of what you write.

Anyway, as someone once told me: Unless you buy in, you can't sell out.

We live at a moment in time in which everything we do, everything we put out in public must succeed the instant it appears. If not, it's an abject failure. It's not worth anyone's time.

That's the unfortunate narrative that seems to have weaved its way into the fabric of the online world.

Far too many interesting and promising projects have been abandoned because they didn't succeed from moment one, because they weren't an instant hit.

Sadly, there's no room today for something that needs time to find an audience. There's no room for experimenting in public.

It shouldn't be that way.

Experiments are essential. And not just in science. No matter what you're doing, experiments give you the leeway to try something new. They offer an outlet to test an idea or a concept. They help you learn what works and what doesn't.

In many ways, Buckminster Fuller's philosophy has influenced not just my thinking but my approach to life. I view my life as an experiment — definitely not as grand as Fuller's drive to discover what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity but an experiment nonetheless.

Take, for example, my weekly letter. In the grander scheme of the newsletter world, it's hardly a blip. But for me, it was (and is) a big step. Even though I've been writing professionally for almost 30 years, I still lack some confidence in my abilities. That lack of confidence makes me wary of putting some of my writing, especially my more personal work, out there.

Over the last several months, I've lost a couple or three subscribers (which I expected to), but I gained more. More importantly, I know that what I've written has touched a few of the fives of people who read that letter. For me, that's more important than have a wider base of readers who might not be engaged.

I don't see why you can't perform your experiments in public. Doing that offers a lot of transparency into what you're doing. Admittedly, you'll have to endure a number of slings and arrows while experimenting. No matter what you say, those slings and arrows will sting. They will hurt. You need to find a way to go past all that.

What others say shouldn't stop you from experimenting. What you come up with might not change the world, but it could make your little portion of the world better. If nothing else, experimenting will help you grow. It will help make you a better person, even in just a small way.

I grew up during the tail end of the Cold War. An era when tensions between east and west, the Americans and the Soviets, were high. An era when both sides had enough nuclear firepower to wipe out the world several times pointed at each other.

Those were fearful times, growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud (as Queen sang). You had to live your life, though — when one side or the other pushed that red button (at least, I imagined it to be red) there would be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

One measure of those tensions was the Doomsday Clock, which appeared (and still does) on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Back in 1984, the clock was at three minutes to midnight. I was a 17 year old high schooler then, and was worried that the world was about to be consumed by atomic fire.

Recently, I wandered over to the Doomsday Clock website. What I read there unnerved me. It seems that we're at the two minutes to midnight mark. According to the site, the:

[M]ajor threats — nuclear weapons and climate change — were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger.

We never learn, do we?

Ever second or third person these days seems to call themselves a writer. Or a something slash writer. For whatever reason, that seems to generate a lot of doubt in the minds of some people.

Those are the people who don't believe that you're a real writer (whatever that means). And they're not afraid to try to call you out. They do that by saying something like Oh, really? Well, what have you written? Those words are usually spoken in an accusing or disbelieving tone.

Yes, several people have said that to me. And in that tone. I have a stock answer for them:

Quite a bit, actually. I've written over 600 published articles, thousands of blog posts, and dozens of essays. I've published five ebooks, with a couple of more on the way. On top of that, I've written millions of words of documentation and marketing and training material.

Saying that usually shuts the doubters down. Sometimes, it just pisses them off even more.

But maybe you don't have as much experience as I do. Maybe you're just getting started as a writer. What can you do? The easiest thing to do is list your achievements, no matter their size. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • I've written x blog posts that have been read by y people
  • To be honest, I haven't written much but my work as been published in/a ...
  • In my day job, I've written x. On the side, I've published x articles/y blog posts

If the doubters still scoff, let them. Ignore them and their negativity. Just keep writing. Keep improving. Let the doubters doubt while you're actually working towards your goals as a writer.

A woman typing on a typewriter

A sad fact of the modern world is that people are always looking for something newer, something shinier, something more exciting. OK, this has been the case for decades but nowadays it seems to have become a lot worse.

I don't think that's always a good thing.

Why? I've found that most of those newer, shinier, more exciting things are just flash in the pan. They add nothing and do nothing.

One way to go against the grain as a blogger or writer is to be boring. No, I don't mean writing in a dull, didactic, style filled with big words and long, passive sentences. What I mean is don't be afraid to tackle topics that have been tackled before.

Here are a few thoughts on how to do just that.


It may not come out in these missives I send your way every so often, but I've been writing professionally for a long time. Since 1989/1990. I still find that hard to believe ...

While I still have a lot to learn about this craft we call writing, I like to think that I know a thing or two about it as well. A few years ago, I informally coached a few people who aspired to write. Some of them wanted to turn pro one day. Some wrote (and still do) because they enjoyed it and wanted to improve.

There's one piece of advice that I kept giving them: write every day. I sounded like a record that keeps skipping, but that's the key to improving as a writer. Practice. Practice. And more practice.

For a few of those folks, finding time to write was (and sometimes still is) a challenge. To help them tackle that challenge, I advised them to write morning pages.

The idea behind morning pages is simple: first thing, or thenabouts. in the morning you sit down with pen and paper and just writer. Morning pages are a solid tool for getting through a creative block, or just a cathartic therapy.

But morning pages are an excellent way to practice writing, too. If nothing else, writing morning pages clears cruft from brain so you can get the words that you want down on a page or on the screen. Because, as Mike Baron has said many times over the years:

Every would-be writer has a million words of sh*t clogging up his system. You have to get it out before you get to the good stuff.

Your morning pages are your own. You don't have to make your morning pages public unless you want to.

It doesn't matter how much you write — it can be 100 words or 500 words or more. It doesn't matter how you write. You can craft your morning pages by hand in journal or on legal pad. You can write using a text editor or word processor. You can use a dedicated online tool like 750 Words. The key is to sit down and get words from your brain on to paper or a screen. The goal is to write. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Doing that builds the discipline of writing. Having that discipline is key component to 1) improving as a writer, and 2) being able to take a stab at writing professionally.

Someone writing in a notebook Photo by fotografierende from Pexels

It doesn't exist.

It never will.

I'd love to see a world in which no one is hungry. A world where everyone has a roof over their heads. Where everyone is healthy.

I'd love to see a world in which anyone needs to worry about being killed because they're from a different place, of a different community, or of a different ideology. A world in which what you have to offer is more important than where you're from or who you vote for or how much money you have.

I'd love to see a world in which we didn't have to worry about petty, paranoid co-workers waiting to undermine us at every turn. Where the disabled aren't stared at and shunned, but accepted and encouraged.

That world can never exist. But there's no reason why we can't make this world better. It all starts with everyone making a small gesture.

Cities have been on my mind a lot lately. Having been a city dweller all my life, I like to think I understand the good and the bad of these large environments we cram ourselves into.

Thoughts have been poking towards the front of my brain. Questions, too. Questions like:

  • Is the city as we know it sustainable?
  • How can we make cities more liveable?
  • Is the idea of the smart, connected city a good one?
  • What options do we have going forward?

I'm no urban theorist. I'm definitely not a utopian. But those questions, those thoughts ricocheting through my brain just won't go away. I'm devoting quite a bit of mental energy to those questions and thoughts. I'm hoping to muse more coherently, more completely, and in an informed way about the city in 2020, maybe in my newsletter or in a short ebook.

A view of Toronto, the city in which I grew up Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels

We all come to them at least once in our lives. With some people, it's several times.

So much hangs in the balance when choosing the path to take at those crossroads. Taking that path could change everything, or it could change nothing.

Right now, I'm seeing a crossroads coming clearly into view. I don't know when I'll reach them. I don't know what path I'll need to take. I don't even know whether taking that path will make much of a difference in my life.

Interesting times ...

A crossroads somewhere in Italy Image by Yakir from Pixabay

What do a cheeseburger with no toppings, a piece of new lumber, and some of my writing have in common? They lack fancy touches. They're fairly simple. They're not adorned with any frills.

My writing style has been described as simple. In some cases, simple was used in the pejorative. I've taken heat the lack of frills in my writing and for not adding many (if any) literary technique to the mix.

Yes, my writing is simple. And you know what? I like it that way.

Let me explain.

My writing is all non fiction — articles, essays, documentation, communication, and the like. What I write doesn't lend itself to heavy literary adornment.

Why? It just gets in the reader's way. It disrupts the flow of writing and reading.

On top of that, it can be hard to get fancy when you're staring down the barrel of a loaded deadline. With certain things you're writing you just need to cut to the chase. Nothing fancy, just say Here it is, and here's what it can do/benefit you.


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