When Should You Enter Writing Contests?

Participating in writing contests can offer 6 key benefits

When Should You Enter Writing Contests?I used to enter writing contests, but I haven’t done so lately. Writing contests are fun when you win, and I had a few wins early on. Interestingly, as I’ve improved as a writer, my success rate has dropped to zero. Hence I’m now less motivated. Plus, I’m now a lot busier writing other things.

Nevertheless, don’t automatically dismiss writing contests. Here are six reasons you should consider submitting content to a writing contest:

1) If Deadlines Help You Write: I always write with more intention when I have a due date. However, I’m also a disciplined writer and would be writing anyway, just perhaps not with as much purpose. However, other writers need a deadline to produce content. If submitting to a contest helps you write, then that presents a sufficient reason to do so.

2) If Your Submission Can be Repurposed: Everything I write nowadays can work in multiple situations. That way if the first contest or publication falls through, I have a second source to consider. That way none of my work is ever wasted.

3) If There is No Submission Fee: Some contests carry submission fees; others, don’t. Sometimes the fee is small; other times, not so small. I have submitted to both kinds. Going forward I will never pay to enter a contest unless it meets the next criteria.

4) If the Pay-to-Play Contest Provides Value: I understand that some contests will give you feedback on your work. I’ve never encountered those contests, but I hear they exist. Receiving professional feedback may be worth the cost of submission, even if you don’t win. But you might be better off to skip the contest and just pay someone for his or her opinion.

5) If You Want to Expand Your Bio: Being able to say you won a contest looks impressive in your author bio. However, most people have never heard of that particular writing contest so winning it carries little prestige, even to people in the industry.

6) If You Need to Learn How to Deal with Rejection: Face it. Most people who enter writing contests don’t win. It hurts to hear “No,” but it’s a reality of being a writer. Each time we hear a “no” toughens us up a bit more and prepares us to do this writing thing for the long haul. Plus, as they say in sales, “Each ‘no’ brings you one step closer to ‘yes.’”

Writing contests have value, but only pursue them if they make sense for you and your situation.

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your Writing

Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your WritingI hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.

One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.

As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.

  • The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
  • If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
  • A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
  • Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.

While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.

In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.

Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.

3 Types of Editing and Why We Need All Three

There are three types of book editing and you need a different editor for each type

3 Types of Editing and Why We Need All ThreeEvery book needs three basic types of editing, and each type of edit requires a different editor.

1) Development Edit: The developmental edit, sometimes called substantive or comprehensive edit, is the big picture stuff. Basically it asks the questions, does the book flow? Does it work? It addresses style, organization, and overall readability. For fiction this means the story arc and related elements; for nonfiction it means the central theme and supporting materials. What’s getting in the way of this? Are there roadblocks or detours? Does the writing veer off course? What sections will confuse, bore, or frustrate readers? Until the developmental edit is complete—and the needed adjustments made—it’s a waste of time, money, and effort to move on to the next two types of edits. Always do a developmental edit first.

2) Copyedit: The copy edit, sometimes called a line edit, looks at paragraph structure, sentence construction, and word choice. Don’t do this until after the developmental edit and always before hiring a proofreader.

3) Proofreading: A proofreader looks at grammar, punctuation, and typos. A proofreader scrutinizes every word, the space between them, and how they’re connected.

Editors usually specialize in one area or another. Even if they do more than one type of editing, they can’t do all three types on the same pass. So if you find one editor who will do all three, it will still require three edits, not one.

Usually you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. And finding an English major or someone who likes to read does not make for a good editor. Always find someone with editing experience. Though every editor has to at one time do his or her first edit, don’t let it be on your book.

When I read self-published books they too often fall short, and most all of the time it’s because of editing issues: no editing, poor editing, or inexperienced editing. Or they didn’t have all three types of editing. And sometimes traditionally published books suffer the same fate. Though they have been edited, it wasn’t good enough.

Don’t skimp on the editing. Your book will suffer if you do.

7 Tips to Successfully Deal With Rejection

Being a writer means developing a thick skin, which is easy to say and hard to do

7 Tips to Successfully Deal With RejectionPart of being an author is putting our work out there for other people to see. Sometimes this means sharing our writing with other writers, passing it out to family and friends, or posting it on a blog. Other times we self-publish (more on that later). But eventually most of us get to the point where we submit our work for publication.

When we click “send” to deliver that email or “submit” to complete an online form, we do so with trepidation. We hope to hear “yes” but we fear a response of “no.”

I’ve heard both. Acceptance sends our spirits soaring, filled with excitement and packed with affirmation. Rejection spirals us downward, filled with deep despair and packed with self-doubt.

I’ve been there. Every writer has.

When someone rejects our work and tells us “no,” here’s what we need to remind ourselves:

It’s Not Personal: The rejection isn’t rejecting us; it’s rejecting one piece of our work, nothing more. Though it rarely happens, if they attack us personally or make broad statements about all of our work, then we need to reject them because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

It’s One Person’s Opinion: We all have opinions and sometimes we can be wrong. The same applies to those who evaluate our work. They just might be in error. (Though hearing the same thing repeatedly may signal an opinion to consider.)

It Doesn’t Define Us: Hearing “no” to one piece of our work doesn’t apply to us as a person or as a writer. The rejection of one piece is nothing more. Our body of work is more than one item of writing, and we are more than our body of work.

It Brings Us Closer to Publication: Salespeople know that “each ‘no’ gets them one step closer to ‘yes.’” They know selling is a numbers game, so they push forward until someone says “yes.” Guess what? Submitting our writing is sales.

If it Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It: Writing is hard work. Most people want to write a book or wish they had, but few actually do. We are the few who have written. This automatically makes us part of an elite group. The fact that writing is hard actually serves to reduce the competition. That’s a good thing.

It’s Like Life: Life has its ups and downs. We need the bad times to appreciate the good. Writing is the same way. If we heard “yes” on every submission, we would fail to appreciate it. Plus when we hear “no…”

It Makes Us Strive to Do Better: While we could let rejection break us, we’re better off using it to make us stronger. We work harder to write better. We should use the noes of writing to motivate us to improve.

Rejection sucks. It truly does. When it happens we need to mourn the loss for a time and then move on. When we do this we move toward publication.

Don’t let the noes of writing stop you from hearing the yeses.

Use Photos to Fuel Your Fiction Writing

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why not use photos to inspire what you write?

Use Photos to Fuel Your Fiction WritingI’ve heard of fiction authors who tape a photo of their main character next to their computer as they write. The picture inspires their words and focuses their character description. This seems like an intriguing idea, one I never got around to doing – until this week.

Though the physical features of the characters in my novella, Ice Creamed, (soon to be a full-blown YA novel) reside in my mind, they morphed as I wrote. I realized I needed an image to anchor my vision of who they are. I needed pictures. I went online.

Though pictures of people abound on the internet, I found it difficult to locate the exact photo that fully captured what I envision my characters to look like. You see, these people have been living in my mind for a few months; they’ve become my friends as I’ve written about them, and I’ve even fallen in love with them – well, most of them. Trying to find a picture to match what is in my head and the words I have already written is hard. It might be impossible.

However, I’m going to add a secondary story arc to expand a minor character. I had no mental image of her; she was a clean slate. As I scrolled through pictures looking for one suitable for my main character, Brianna, another image popped out. That’s Rachel! I knew it immediately. It was perfect.

I knew Rachel would play volleyball and was a setter. The Rachel in my photo exudes confidence, her eyes are sharp, and she’s intense – just what you want in a setter. A nickname jumped out: “Rambo.” A fiery volleyball player named Rambo. She’s going to be so much fun to write. I can’t wait to get started.

Going forward I’m going to find pictures for all my characters before I start writing them. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words – and so much more.

Writers Must Balance Education with Experience

Wordsmiths need both knowledge and a growing word count to achieve writing success

Writers Must Balance Education with ExperienceI’ve run into writers who work in a vacuum. Committed to writing all they do is write, but they don’t study the craft. They don’t read books or magazines about writing; they don’t take classes, attend workshops, or go to conferences; they don’t participate in writing groups, have a critique partner, or use beta readers. They don’t follow blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars. I suspect these folks are more prevalent than I realize – because they write in secret, and I run into them by accident. (By the way, they aren’t reading this post, either – unless you email it to them.)

The opposite extreme are those who read extensively about writing and often quote their favorite gurus; they attend every writing related event they can afford to squeeze in, often traveling far to do so; they join online writing groups, are active in writing discussion boards, and confidently give their opinion on every piece of writing they encounter. There’s one problem: they don’t write. They’ve put writing on hold until they learn more. They have been talking about writing a book for years, but they’re not quite ready to start. They feel they need to figure out one more thing first.

The balance between these two extremes is to pair writing with learning. Yes, we need to put in the time and write, but we need to do so in an informed way. Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time.

To pursue this balance I start by writing every day. Then to inform my writing I read writing magazines, follow a few blogs, listen to (too many) podcasts, participate in critique groups, attend two writing conferences each year, and read books (though I have bought more writing books than I have read).

As a long time nonfiction writer, in the past few years I’ve delved into fiction. I started with short stories, recently completed a novella, and will start a novel in November. I’ve also done a lot of studying to prepare me to write good fiction, yet I fear that recently my education has outpaced my experience. I currently have enough writing theory stuffed into my brain to paralyze me. Instead of thinking about writing a compelling story, my preoccupation with systems and formats and conventions and expectations has bogged me down.

My solution is to sit down and write more fiction. This will restore the balance. I can’t wait.

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?

There is only one, single decree for you to obey as you write

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?If you spend any time at all learning about writing and working to improve your craft you will have heard all kinds of advice of what to do or not do. These are often presented as rules, incontrovertible requirements for us to follow. If we don’t, we will commit a cardinal sin of writing – and no serious writer wants to do that.

Unfortunately after a while we begin to hear rules that contradict one another. One person says to never do this and another tells us it’s okay or maybe even recommended. As an example of this insanity, consider some of the supposed rules I’ve heard about dialogue tags, that is, identifying the speaker:

  • Let the context indicate the speaker so you don’t need to use tags
  • Tag every piece of dialogue.
  • Avoid tags whenever possible.
  • Only use the tags of “said” and “asked.”
  • Never use “asked” for a question; use “said” instead.
  • Always write “said” and avoid all other tags.
  • You can have up to four pieces of dialogue without attribution.
  • Have no more than three pieces of dialogue without attribution.

Plus each person who advocates one of these rules pronounces it with the fervor of absoluteness. It makes my head spin.

These conflicting rules leave me in a quandary of which guru to follow. Whose advice wins? Recently one person who I respect greatly said to not use “then” in a narrative. It is implied and therefore a wasted word. Another person, who I also respect, politely responded, “I disagree,” and I’m sure he was holding back what he really thought.

Through all of this – and it took me too long to figure it out – I’ve realized there are no rules, not really. There are writing guidelines, recommendations, and best practices, but absolute rules do not exist – not really.

Every writing rule I’ve ever heard has been successfully broken by someone at some time. This means that the one rule of writing is: There are no rules.

Now don’t get carried away and disregard every piece of advice you hear on how to be a better writer. Don’t assume you can do whatever you want and get away with it.

Study writing. Learn the conventions. Navigate contradiction, and never assume anything is absolute – because it’s not. Whenever possible follow recommendations and adhere to best practices, but don’t be a slave to them either. Know expectations, and if you decide to ignore one, do so in an informed way and for the right reasons.

Now go write, and have fun.

Recommended Podcasts for Writers and Content Producers

Podcasts provide practical on-the-go instruction – and entertainment

Recommended Podcasts for Writers and Content ProducersI listen to many podcasts, between five to ten hours a week. Most cover writing or publishing, and a few (not listed here) address other areas of interest. I listen in the car, during lunch, and as I work around the house. I access all through iTunes and listen on my iPod.

I select podcasts to help me become a better writer and producer of content. Of course easy-to-listen-to hosts, as well as overall quality are also important. With so many options to pick from, I don’t want to waste my time.

Here is a list of my current, can’t-miss podcasts, in order of preference:

I also have a string of alternate shows and listen to some episodes based on the practical application of specific topics. They are all good, professional productions, but since I have limited time to listen, I must be selective:

  • On the Media considers all things media related, some of which includes writing, publishing, and books; just under an hour, weekly: www.wnyc.org/otm-podcast
  • Story Grid Podcast discusses the art of writing a book: under an hour, weekly: storygrid.simplecast.fm
  • The Portfolio Life (Jeff Goins) covers how creative people can build a portfolio of work to make a difference; up to an hour, weekly: goinswriter.com/portfolio-life
  • ProBlogger Podcast shares tips to be a successful blogger; at least weekly, varying lengths: problogger.com/podcast
  • This is Your Life with Michael Hyatt looks at intentional leadership, with references to writing, marketing, and platform building; thirty to forty-five minutes, weekly: michaelhyatt.com/thisisyourlife
  • Social Media for Authors is no longer being produced, but it does have relevant information; up to fifteen minutes: www.socialmediajustforwriters.com

This list is long and no doubt, daunting. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Pick one to check out and go from there.

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We Need to Balance Formal Education with On-The-Job Training

While a college degree in writing has value, it is not a requirement for a rewarding career

We Need to Balance Formal Education with On-The-Job TrainingLast week I talked about the appropriateness of hiring others to help us on our writing journeys. This has been a reoccurring theme in my career as a writer and my vocation as a publisher.

When it comes to written communications, I am self-educated: I am a self-taught writer, a self-taught editor, and a self-taught publisher. It’s not that I eschew formal education – I do have advanced degrees, after all – it’s just that they don’t happen to be in the field of communication.

I took one freshman writing class and one freshman literature class, both required in my engineering curriculum. That was it. I never suspected I’d end up working as a publisher, editor, and writer. Being an author was not part of my career plan.

Since I am decidedly finished with college I am left to design my own writing course, one propelled by real world needs and bathed in actual application. This pursuit is both practical and effective. It includes:

Magazines: I subscribe to magazines about writing and publishing. These periodicals arrive with predicted regularity and feed me practical advice in bite-sized chunks. I look forward to each one.

Books: I also tap books for extended focus on particular topics. Though these are helpful, I have bought more writing books then I have read. Some are boring, and for others it seems the authors are more concerned with impressing us than educating. Maybe it’s just me. Nevertheless some writing books are most helpful.

Podcasts: Listening to others discuss writing is my go-to method of learning. I consume several hours of podcasts each week, listening to them while driving, doing mindless work around the house, and during lunch. They fuel me and give perspective.

Writing Groups: Being part of a writing community is a great resource, not only for learning but also for support and encouragement.

Online Courses: I also take advantage of online learning opportunities in the form of webinars and classes. The pinpoint focus of each allows me to pick topics of immediate, practical application.

Conferences: My goal is to attend two writing conferences a year. (This year will be three.) I look for those that provide value and are within driving distance (no airfare), and local (no hotels) is ideal.

Best of all, my educational path has no tests, finals, or grades. The only studying I do is in actually applying what I’ve learned. I’m pursuing a self-directed writing education.

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?

When you want to advance as an author, the cost-effective solution is to hire outside help

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?Tip #7 in my post “10 Tips to Improve as a Writer” is to not be afraid to pay for help. As a financially frugal person this was a hard lesson for me to learn. When I entered the publishing industry in 2001, by purchasing Connections Magazine from its founder, I approached my new business with entrepreneurial zeal and no publishing knowledge.

One of the first things I did was pay an established industry consultant to point me in the right direction. At $200 an hour, I had to make every minute count. Though expensive, his advice was golden, helping me to avoid costly errors and dodge common traps. It was one of the best investments I could have made.

To save money, though, I did all the editing myself. This was a mistake. Every issue had errors. In one column I lauded my designer as a “creative genesis” instead of a “creative genius.” Another time I contrasted a shotgun to a riffle, not a rifle. Readers who knew me would laugh at my errors. To ease my embarrassment I hired an editor to do proofreading and copyediting. Though I still do all the substantive edits (macro editing, as I call it), I defer the minutia of details to someone who is able to pick out typos and knows grammar and punctuation.

Though I’ve learned much in this area and now do my own proofreading for online content, I would never print something without the seasoned eye of a professional proofreader first reviewing each word and scrutinizing every sentence.

I have also paid people to provide an assessment of some of my books. Sometimes this is to point out weakness in the work or identify writing habits I need to correct. Other times the goal is simply to answer the question, “Is this work viable?” and if not, “What do I need to do to fix it?”

Most recently I hired a former college writing professor to provide feedback on my fiction work, starting with short stories. With ease and confidence he answers questions that have perplexed me and caused my writing peers to equivocate. He confirms what I do well and shows where I can improve. His tutelage is invaluable.

Whenever I hire someone to help me with my writing, I view it as designing my own, personal writing course, one to provide direct, tangible assistance in the area where I need it most. This saves me from trial-and-error discovery of what works and what doesn’t. This keeps me from wasting time and helps me to get better faster.

Yes, nothing can replace the lessons learned when we just sit down and write, but seeking professional help when we need it, makes our time spent writing less frustrating and so much more effective.