Your Turn: What’s the Best Writing Advice You’ve Ever Received?

Sharing writing tips with other writers helps the whole writing community

UR Turn, Help me finish ths post by sharing...I spend a lot of time learning about writing. I read blogs, listen to podcasts, attend conferences, scrutinize magazines, and study books. Though I will never finish growing as a writer, I have learned so much. In fact everything I know about writing came from one of these five sources.

In considering it all, the one thing that helped me the most was the simple adage to write every day.

This advice to write every day, however isn’t absolute, it’s a principle to write regularly. It means to have a schedule and stick with it. It reminds us to write on the days we don’t feel like it or have other things we’d rather do.

It was a big stretch for me just to move to five days a week, which later became six, and eventually seven. Now I’m working on scaling back to six days so I can have one day off each week from writing. It’s a hard adjustment for me to make. I’m still not there.

Yet the principle to write every day has made the difference for me and my writing.

Your Turn: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Please share it with other readers in the comment section below.

Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?

Some writers discover as they write while others plan their journey before they start

Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?In writing, as in life, people tend to follow two modes: pantsing and plotting.

On one side are the pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants. I prefer the label of “discovery writers.” They don’t know where their words will take them. Writing reveals an adventure as they watch their plot unfold, learn about their characters, and sometimes paint themselves into a corner with no way out.

In contrast stand the plotters who map out their writing journey before they write one word. But I don’t like that name because it sounds too much like plodder. I prefer the alternate labels of outliners or planners. These folks know their story arc, strategize the various scenes (or at least chapters), define their characters, and have the end in sight before they type their first word. (NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, allows writers to do this sort of preplanning, though actual writing may not begin before November 1.)

The May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest had some great articles about pantsing versus plotting. And many writing podcasters weigh in on the pantsing versus plotting debate. Writers who like to plan may benefit from the snowflake method; writers who forgo planning, need no instruction. Also see my post “Should You Use an Outline?

While each side of the debate holds firm opinions, neither is the method that will work for everyone. Each writer must determine which style works best for him or herself; there is no one right answer.

If you’re unsure which you are, look at how you live life for clues. Do you plan things out or wing it? The answer likely reveals your preferred writing mode. Though you can test out the opposite method, don’t let someone talk you into trying to be what you are not.

My default is to plan in detail, both for life and for writing. (I am, however, more open to detours when I write.) For trips I make lists, verify details, do research, make maps, note addresses and phone numbers, make reservations, pack carefully, and set timetables. Planning calms me; it provides the structure I need to enjoy my vacation. Encountering the unexpected is unpleasant.

Yet within this framework I allow for flexibility to relish the journey and explore as I go. Some of my most enjoyable memories are within those moments of discovery. Yet without my planning I would have never been confronted by those spontaneous, serendipitous delights.

Others are the opposite. They would forgo a vacation if they had to prepare for it as much as I.

So it is with pantsers and plotters. Know which one you are, and learn when you can deviate. This will provide you with the most enjoyable writing experience and the most satisfying results.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? What is your experience when you have tried the opposite approach?

How to Be a Healthy Writer

8 tips to staying physically fit while spending hours at the keyboard

How to Be a Healthy WriterI’m not a medical doctor, and I don’t play one on TV. But I have complied a list of what it takes to be a healthy writer. Some I’ve learned through research, others through experience, and a couple by common sense.

The main thing is that as writers we need to not only care for our minds, but also our bodies:

Rest Your Wrists: Many years ago I did a stint as a tech writer, going from typing sporadically throughout the day to keyboarding for forty hours a week. Soon my wrists grew tender, and I lost much of my grip. In lieu of carpal tunnel surgery my doctor prescribed wrist exercises and avoiding typing on the weekends. That got me through it. Now, at the first hint of discomfort, I relax my wrists for a bit and resume the exercises. Some hardcore writers have added dictation into their mix to spare their wrists and reduce their need to type.

Comfort Your Back: My back used to bother me from time to time, so I invest in a quality chair, one fully adjustable and with lumbar support. It only takes a few minutes sitting in a bad chair to bring about discomfort. (I also use an inversion table for a few minutes every day, which I think is essential for me.)

Many people advocate a standing desk (and even a walking desk). But my back bothers me after just a few minutes of standing, so I can’t consider that. As a result, I have no problem spending a couple hundred dollars on a quality chair.

Two related issues are monitor placement and desk height. Sometimes raising or lowering the level of either one helps a great deal.

Guard Your Eyes: Staring at a computer screen for eight to ten hours a day causes fatigue. Proper lighting is key. I’ve tried indirect lighting without success, so adequate direct lighting is essential. Also important is monitor placement to eliminate glare.

Take Frequent Breaks: I take a break about once an hour, while some advocate writing for no more than thirty-minute stretches. My break may be a trip to the bathroom, a meal, or a walk to the library. Or it could be as simple as a walk around my chair or some quick stretches. The point is to not log long writing sessions without breaks.

Relax Your Shoulders: Years ago I hurt my shoulder as I pushed myself to paint our house during a weeklong vacation. The damage became permanent and some level of pain is always present. Using a mouse exacerbates this situation, so I am presently learning to mouse with my left hand (the muscle memory has been a bear to overcome).

Also during intense writing sessions both of my shoulders can tighten up. I do exercises to relax them.

Stay Hydrated: As with anything drink plenty of water. I don’t do coffee or tea and soft drinks are out. Water is my go-to beverage.

Sleep Well: Being well rested is vital. It’s also an ongoing struggle for me, but not for a lack of trying. As an alternative I sometimes take a power nap to help keep my mind focused and add energy for the rest of the day.

Exercise Daily: I have a moderate exercise routine that I do each day. It serves as one of my morning breaks.

What steps to you take to be a healthy writer? Are there changes you need to make? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

4 Tips to Deal with Writer Envy

Writers need to guard against making unhealthy comparisons to other authors

4 Tips to Deal with Weriter EnvyAs writers we read the work of others, we look at their books, and we notice their successes. Though this happens in any profession, writing is a more public endeavor, so making comparisons is harder to avoid. Yet we should strive to sidestep assessing our work in the light of others.

Two dangers lurk when we make comparisons. Too often we look at another writer and deem ourselves as less than. Occasionally we do the opposite and puff ourselves up. Both are unhealthy conclusions, but let’s focus on the first one because most writers struggle with it. I call it writer envy. Here are four prescriptions to overcome it.

1) There is Only One You: Though our writing isn’t like (fill in the name of any famous author), remember that no one writes as we do. No one can write like you as good as you can. Just as Stephen King is the best at writing like Stephen King, you are the best at writing like you, and I am the best at writing like me. There are no others.

2) Strive to Improve: Have the mindset that every writer can grow as a wordsmith. That goes for the beginner as well as the mega-bestseller, and it goes for you and for me. As long as we pursue steady development, our writing today will be better than our writing from yesterday, and our writing tomorrow will be better than our writing today. That puts things in perspective and reduces the urge to compare.

3) Don’t Copy: One reason to read widely is to learn how to improve, but we never want to imitate other authors. Though copying another writer flatters him or her, it does nothing to enhance our writing ability (remember tip #1).

4) Help Others: There are always people we can help. Usually they are a step or two behind us, but they can also be at our level or even a couple steps ahead. That’s why I have this blog and post something, that is hopefully helpful, every week. I also occasionally give presentations on writing. I used to worry when a more advanced writer would listen in. But I eventually realized they have an attitude for continuous learning (refer to #2) and hope to pick-up something from my words. I hope so, too. As a benefit, teaching something is the best way to learn it, so by helping others, we help ourselves.

Writer envy can overwhelm us or we can choose to improve despite what we see others doing. May we all be writers who move forward without so much as a glance at our fellow writers.

How do you deal with writer envy? What steps do you take to keep it in check? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

6 Writing Tips to Quickly Pick-up Where You Left Off and Not Waste Time

How authors can resume writing without losing time or momentum

6 Writing Tips to Quickly Pick-up Where You Left Off and Not Waste TimeWhen I started writing, it always took me several writing sessions to finish anything.

I fell into a bad habit. When I would resume writing (even after taking a short break) I would re-read everything I had written so far, editing along the way. Then I felt ready to write more. The problem was this warm-up ritual could take thirty minutes to an hour. That didn’t leave much time to add more words.

Here are six ideas to keep us from wasting time when we resume writing:

1) Stop in the Middle: Though it seems tidy to finish a section and then stop writing, this makes it harder to pick up the flow later. Instead stop in the middle of the action or thought, such as “Smoke billowed from the window.” or “I fell into a bad habit.” In both cases the next sentence will proceed with ease. Although it takes discipline, sometimes I even stop mid-sentence, as in “Jeffy’s eyes grew…” or “The second point is…” This leaves no doubt what words come next.

2) Get a Running Start: When not knowing the next words, back up a sentence or two (a paragraph at the most) and re-read it. This provides a running start to jump back into our writing. Even if the words that come next aren’t good ones, at least we are writing and moving forward. This beats staring at the monitor with growing frustration as each second ticks by.

3) Talk It Through: Another tip when we’re stuck is to write “What I want to say is…” and then finish the sentence. This often gives immediate clarity and helps words flow.

4) Begin the Next Part: Though we psychologically want to stop at the end of a section or chapter, resist that impulse, no matter how satisfying. Start the next part, even if it’s just a sentence or two. Bonus points if you stop in midsentence.

5) End With a Transition: In fiction we call this a cliffhanger, and in nonfiction it is preselling the next point. In either case, ending with a transitional sentence prepares us to write the next one.

6) Plan What to Write Next: Before we end our writing session, we can outline the next section, jot down talking points, or even write a key sentence. In fiction we can write one line of punchy dialogue or note a plot twist. In nonfiction we can lay down a pithy soundbite or profound callout. Sometimes I write the last line of the next section. Then when I resume working, I merely write towards that ending.

These six tips help me to pick up my writing were I left off without wasting time or losing momentum. I hope they help you to do the same.

Which tips do you like best? What ideas do you have to add? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How to Always Know What to Write

By following these four simple steps writers should always be ready to write

How to Always Know What to WriteA common complaint among writers is not knowing what to write. With a dearth of ideas they procrastinate, wasting time at the keyboard or even failing to sit down. They wait for inspiration or need a looming deadline to motivate them. And this is seldom the situation to produce our best work.

By knowing what to write next, we can avoid not writing when we intend to write. Here are four tips:

1) Don’t Trust Your Memory: I used to think I could remember my great ideas. Sometimes I did; usually I didn’t. For a while I deluded myself into thinking the good ideas would come back. I don’t think they did. I’ve lost many a blog post this way but no more. Now I document my ideas.

Once I envisioned a novel. I had a theme, an arc, a chapter outline, the characters, pivotal dialogue, and plot twists. It was so clear, so compelling, that I thought I would remember it forever. I was wrong. After a few distractions over a couple of weeks I forgot everything except a vague concept and the opening line: “George was dead.” And so was the novel. Instead I should have made notes along the way.

2) Keep a List: Since I no longer rely on my memory to keep my ideas alive, I have a running list. Actually I have multiple lists: one for blog posts, another for short stories, one for each content marketing client, and another one for book ideas. These lists have a mixture of ideas, concepts, titles, talking points, or an outline. As an item on my book list takes shape over time, I’ll pull it off the list and give it its own file.

With these resources at my ready, I always have something to write.

3) Do It Right Away: It amazes me how fleeting an idea can be, especially if two or more hit me at once. Write down ideas on your list as soon as they come to you; don’t delay. My list is on my computer, and if I can’t access my computer when the idea comes to me, I note it on my smart phone, leave a voicemail message, scribble a note, or repeat the idea until I can document it.

Often ideas will come to me when I am working on something else. For example, the four points of this post came to me a couple weeks ago when writing a different one.  I jotted them down and will have them for later. And a title and outline for a future post just came to me now.

4) Know Your Key Idea Times: When I finish one piece it is often the best time to make notes for the next one. I have finished writing, but my mind is still in a creative mode. That’s when new ideas often come. The shower is another idea-generating place for me, as is going for a walk or doing any mindless activity. By being especially alert to these key moments, I am looking for ideas and primed to capture them.

However, these are all backup systems for me. Often when I sit down to write, I ask myself, “What do you feel like writing today?” Usually a fresh thought will hit me within seconds, and then I write. If nothing comes to mind I pull up my idea list and pick one of the items there.

Either way I am able to immediately write when it is time to do so.

How do you organize your writing ideas? What tips can you add to this list? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What Writers Do When Inspiration Hits

Learn to capitalize on creative vision whenever and wherever it occurs

Last week we talked about why we shouldn’t wait for inspiration in order to write. But that doesn’t mean we always work in the absence of creative vision. Sometimes inspiration hits and promises to propel our words forward. When this happens, we must make every effort to capitalize on it.

What Writers Do When Inspiration HitsUnder the spell of inspiration we write faster, our words flow freer, and those resulting words need less editing. Creative inspiration is a glorious thing. We must tap into it and usher it to our computer screen or writing notebook.

It took me too long to figure this out, but there are two keys to capitalize on the power of inspiration:

Write Immediately: When a vision of what to write falls upon me, I set about capturing it as soon as possible. If it’s at all feasible I start writing right away. I go to my computer and begin typing. If my computer isn’t accessible, I scribble out my message longhand, hoping I can read my writing later.

This has occurred in the middle of the night or early morning when I long for one more hour of sleep. I get up and write; I can always take a nap later – when I’m not inspired. This also happens when I work around the house or do yard work. I’ve even been zapped with clarity for one piece while working on another one. I stop the first and write the second.

Sometimes I’m purposefully mulling an idea in my mind. Suddenly my thoughts converge, and the text pops out. I must capture it before it leaves, which can happen just as suddenly. I record the most compelling parts first, be it the title, the opening, or the end. Maybe an outline spews forth. I can always fill in the rest later.

Make Notes: Sometimes it’s not possible to start writing immediately. The spark of an idea may happen while driving down the road, sitting through church, or during dinner. I capture what I can at the time. I may jot a note, send myself a quick email, or call my voicemail.

Other times recording an idea is more challenging, such as during my morning shower – my prime spot for creativity. I keep repeating the salient parts as I cut my morning ritual short in hopes of capturing my ideas before they vanish.

Though these two tips seem obvious enough, it took me too long to realize them. I wrongly assumed I could remember my ideas, that when it came time to write I would recall them. This seldom happened. I lost too many good ideas. Or if I could remember the gist of a thought, its execution became an arduous effort, all because the inspiration was gone.

As writers we don’t need to wait for inspiration, but when it does show up, we shouldn’t make it wait for us.

How do you deal with inspiration? What is your method for capturing ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How to Use Input From Others to Sharpen Our Writing

Last week we looked at using writing tools and aids. Today we consider tapping human input to improve our work. While this is a great way to advance as a writer, a bit of caution is also in order.

When we read books, we notice what other authors do and may adopt their writing idiosyncrasies, including bad habits. We emulate them because we think it will make our work better, but this is often to our detriment. Here’s why. First, we should recognize that what we see could be a mistake. Alternately, their publisher and editor may tolerate things that other publishers and editors won’t. Or maybe, because of their success, they are given more leeway than we will be afforded. Just because someone else does something, doesn’t mean we should.

Next are beta-readers and critique groups. While these can be very helpful, they can also be dangerous. If we implement every suggestion offered, we risk producing work that meanders. When me make changes to meet every suggestion, the end result is not always better. We need to evaluate their ideas and implement only what makes sense. When I give feedback to writers, I like to preface my comments with, “Remember, this is just one person’s opinion.”

Last are teachers and paid experts. When I invest money to take a class or obtain feedback, I assume everything I am told is correct. Usually it is, but occasionally some of what teachers teach is wrong. This is hard for me to accept. I put educators and paid gurus on a pedestal, and I assume they are infallible. Unfortunately, I’ve picked up some wrong lessons by accepting every lesson without hesitation.

We can learn much from others – and we should – but we do need to be careful what we pick up. Discerning what advice to follow and what input to disregard is essential. Grab what is good, discard what is suspect, and learn to know the difference.

Do Writing Aids Help or Hurt?

When I first started writing, I was delighted to learn about a nifty book called a Thesaurus, which suggested new words to replace ones I grew tired of using. However, I assumed each of their suggestions would work in every situation. I didn’t know I had to understand the meaning of these words and determine which one, if any, fit my particular need. Instead I picked the words that sounded cool. As you can imagine, I made some very poor choices before I realized the right way to use a Thesaurus.

Similarly, when I started using spell check, each time it warned me I might be using the wrong word, I assumed the program was smarter than I, so I always used their suggested replacement. As the result, I interjected errors into my work because I didn’t understand how the program worked and wasn’t discerning about its recommendations.

Autocorrect can also get us in trouble. Never assume the change made is correct; always verify. We see this most often, sometimes humorously, in text messages, but it can also happen in our more important writing, too.

Likewise, other writing tools and aids carry with them inherent risks when misused.

There are two prerequisites to use writing tools wisely. First, we need to understand the purpose of the resource and how to properly apply it. Second, we need a firm grounding in the basics of writing in order to discern if the suggestion is correct for each particular situation.

If we fail to do so, our writing fails to be its best.

Our Writing Must Follow Expected Conventions

I recently read a short story by a young author. I enjoyed her plot, her imagination, and her use of words. One thing I didn’t like was missing apostrophes in all her contractions. Each time I encountered a contraction sans apostrophe it took me out of her story. These reoccurring speed bumps reduced my enjoyment of her work.

I’m not sure why she did this, especially since most programs will auto-correct missing apostrophes whenever possible. Even my smart phone does that.

As a college student it’s hard to believe she didn’t understand the use of apostrophes. Was she being sloppy? Didn’t she care? Was this a rebellious act, trying to make some point? I have no idea.

What I do know is that writing entails following certain conventions. If we want others to best understand our work, we must adhere to expected standards for sentence structure, paragraph use, upper and lower case, spelling, and, yes, punctuation.

New writers too often struggle in understanding the basic conventions of standard punctuation. Commas and quotes are common sources of confusion. While mastering the full intricacies of proper punctuation – over which there can be occasional debate – requires effort and time, there’s no excuse for not following the basics. Writers who assume punctuation doesn’t matter are shortsighted, more likely, lazy.

As writers, we want others to understand our words and not dismiss our work. This requires we follow expected writing conventions, whether we agree with them or not. This includes proper punctuation.

What punctuation errors frustrate you? What writing conventions do you struggle with?