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.

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.

 

Don’t Be Possessive About Writing Rules

When I was in grade school I learned that to make a word possessive you simply added ’s to the end of it. That was easy. Oh, and there was one exception. If the word already ended in s, you simply added the apostrophe. Okay, I got it.

Then, when my kids were in high school, they corrected me. The rule had changed. The new convention was to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, regardless if the word ended in s or not. I struggled for years to retrain myself; it just looked so wrong.

Later, I worked on a book that needed to follow the requirements found in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian, sometimes called Turabian for short. While maintaining the rule to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, including words ending in s, Turabian gave two exceptions: Jesus and Moses. This means it was correct to write “Jesus’ disciples.” Not only did this look cleaner, but I liked the idea of giving Jesus special consideration.

Now, I learn that according to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, the exception for Jesus and Moses no longer applies. This means that “Jesus’s disciples” is now correct.

Of course there are still other special cases relating to making a word possessive. It’s enough to make my head spin. But then, grammar always did have that effect on me.

From this, we can learn three things:

Not Everyone Agrees: Not all “experts” agree on the rules of writing. If they all did, there would only be one style guide to follow. Instead we have many. To further complicate things, many publishers have their own peculiar deviations from the various style guides. For myself, I attempt to follow The Chicago Manual of Style, as it works in most situations, most of the time. I think it may be the closest we have to having a standard writing guide.

Rules Change: Over time writing rules, expectations, and standards change. Some of the things we learned in grade school, high school, and college no longer apply. And the greater the distance we have from our formal education, the increased likelihood some of the rules we once learned are now wrong.

We Need to Change, Too: As the rules change, we need to change how we write. To resist these changes keeps us mired in the past, fixated on the old ways of doing things. Others will view us as out of touch writers, and they will dismiss our writing as antiquated. Ignorance is no excuse.

As writers, we always need to be learning, and we need to be ready to change. The acceptance of our work depends on it.

What changes do you struggle with? What steps do you take to be aware of changes? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. The goal is to write the first draft of a novel (or at least the first 50,000 words of a novel) during the month of November.

The rules are simple:

  • Any type of fiction, in any language, counts.
  • Advance planning and preparation is acceptable.
  • Actual writing may not start prior to November 1 and must end by midnight November 30 (local time).
  • No prior written material may be used.

Though no prizes are awarded, everyone who completes the 50,000-word goal is a winner. Started in 1999, the fifteen-year-old event draws more writers each year, with over 400,000 participating last year. A tremendous online community and support group surrounds NaNoWriMo, providing comradery, encouragement, and resources.

Though I’m not a novelist, I’m drawn to NaNoWriMo and hope to participate one year. If you’ve not already prepared for NaNoWriMo, it’s likely too late (though not impossible) to take part this year, but you can follow along this year and plan for next year.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Do you think you might try next year?

The Breathe Writers Conference

Last weekend I was at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference. It was my fifth year attending and my third as a speaker. (I shared tips on getting started as a writer and how to use WordPress.)

Breathe is simply the finest writers conference I’ve ever attended. And this year it was the biggest one yet and, in my opinion, the best ever.

Breathe is full of inspiring presentations, informative workshops, networking opportunities, helpful people, nurturing situations, and great food. Aside from all this, the best part for me is talking with people. Some I meet for the first time, others I reconnect with each year, and many who I communicate with throughout the year but only see at the conference. Each year my list of friends who I see at Breathe grows.

At Breathe, we’re able to celebrate finished books, agents procured, book deals, and published books. More importantly, however, is those who don’t realize such grand results are not reduced or left languishing but are encouraged to persist.

Writing is a lofty calling and Breathe is a valuable resource to help us become what we yearn to become. Breathe is my “can’t miss” writers conference each year, and I hope you’ll make it yours.

Next year’s conference is October 9-10 in Grand Rapids Michigan.

What did you like about Breathe? What other writers conferences have you attended?

Seven Tips to Find a Mentor

A friend recently asked how to find a writing mentor.

Yeah, I’d like one, too!

One of my graduate classes was on mentoring, albeit focused on Millennials and spirituality. The principles I learned, however, apply to any type of mentoring, for most any age.

The reality is that good mentors are hard to find. The best-qualified ones don’t usually have time to mentor, whereas the people with time often have less to offer. Expertise and availability usually exist in inverse proportion.

Instead of just waiting for someone to offer to mentor you, here are seven ideas:

  1. Look at Existing Relationships: If you have a connection with an author you respect, ask if he or she is willing to consider being your mentor. But don’t make this person feel obligated; provide the space for him or her to say “no.”
  2. Form New Relationships: Network with other writers and see what develops. However, don’t approach this with an agenda; if you do, you will fail. Instead, seek to help others, give to others, encourage others, and support others. You may catch the attention of a potential mentor who will approach you. And even if that doesn’t happen you will learn, grow, and feel good about yourself in the process.
  3. Be Patient and Pray: Yes, I said to pray that someone will offer to mentor you. I could have said “wait and hope,” but prayer is so much more effective and may be your best option.
  4. Consider Peer Mentoring: You can seek a peer mentoring relationship, where two writers help each other. There is strength in traveling the writing path with a friend. If one of you falls down, the other can pick you up.
  5. Offer to be a Mentor: Often when we give to others, what we receive back is more valuable.
  6. Use Books: Books allow mentoring at a distance, be it over space or time. Of course, the information is one-way and more general, but this may be the only way to receive guidance from a famous author.
  7. Respect the Process: If you find a mentor, honor his or her commitment to you: prepare for each meeting, take diligent notes, follow through on every suggestion, be easy to work with, and seek tangible ways to give back. Also, always arrive early and never cancel.

If you have a mentor, how did it happen? If you don’t have a mentor, what are your thoughts on finding one?

Does Grammar Trip Up Your Writing?

Grammar is my weakness. It seems I switched schools at the wrong time and missed foundational instruction. I never did catch up, struggling with it to this day. As such, Grammarly, the online grammar checker, has intrigued me.

Finally, I made time to check it out. According to the site, “Grammarly is an automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach. Correct up to ten times more mistakes than popular word processors.”

The process is simple: copy and paste text into their text box (or upload a file) and click “smart review.” Grammarly goes to work on your text, checking more issues than I knew existed. Even though my work passed the grammar checker in my word processor, Grammarly found many more potential errors.

I pasted last week’s 190-word post into Grammarly, which showed me eleven possible errors. Ten related to contractions and personal pronouns, which I deem acceptable for bloging. The eleventh item was a misplaced comma. Comma placement, by the way, haunts me.

A longer 3,000-word short story contained 117 “issues” in the following categories:

  • Pronoun agreement
  • Use of adjectives and adverbs
  • Comparing two or more things
  • Faulty parallelism
  • Confusing modifiers
  • Verb form use
  • Conditional sentences
  • Punctuation within a sentence
  • Sentence structure
  • Wordiness
  • Passive voice use
  • Spelling
  • Commonly confused words
  • Writing style
  • Vocabulary use

That was on the “general” setting; the “casual” option presented a less confounding list of forty-six issues. It does take a while to wade through each item, and, frankly, some of the explanations are beyond my understanding, while others are more basic, being easy to comprehend and fix.

After playing around with it, I know Grammarly will definitely improve my writing. But will I take the time to actually use it?

What do you think? Give Grammarly a test drive and post your comments here.

Tribe Writers: Online Writing Course

Last year I took an online writing course from Jeff Goins. It’s called Tribe Writers. It was the most significant thing I did all year to grow as a writer.

I enjoyed it so much, I took the class again to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. Then I took it a third time.

Now Jeff is ready to start another class. Signup begins today, November 6. If you want to grow as a writer, I encourage you to check it out. You’ll improve your writing, learn how to build your platform, make new friends in the writing community, and more.

The class has four modules: 1) Honing Your Voice, 2) Establishing a Platform, 3) Expanding Your Reach, and 4) Getting Published.

Each module has several lessons, many short writing assignments, a slew of recorded interviews and teachings, and unlimited networking opportunities with other students. The class is designed to last eight weeks, but you can work on it at your own pace.

I hope you’ll check out Tribe Writers – I’m glad I did.

[This is an affiliate link. I only recommend what I use, and I’m sold on this course.]

What Are You Doing in November?

November is National Novel Writing Month, “NaNoWriMo” for short.

NaNoWriMo encourages writers to crank out the first draft of a novel in the month of November, a mere 30 days. This starts in less than two weeks.

(Don’t complain about not having enough advance warning, because I mentioned this eleven and a half months ago. That’s almost a year to prepare.)

Actually, the advance warning was for myself. Even though I’m not a novelist, I hoped to take part this year; I planned to; I wanted to. But more pressing things will prevent me from the experience. Maybe next year.

However, all is not lost. I can still take part, albeit on a lesser scale. Check out part of an email message I received this week:

“In November 2013, Grammarly will throw its hat into the ring [for NaNoWriMo] – but with a twist. We plan to organize the largest group of authors to ever collaborate on a novel; we’re calling the project #GrammoWriMo, and we’ve published a blog entry here to provide additional information on participation.”

I told them I’m in. Prehaps I’ll have an opportunity to collaborate on a novel. Maybe I’ll take part in NaNoWriMo after all. Well sort of.

Care to join me?

Online Writing Course: Finding Your Audience

Over the past few months, I’ve taken a writing course from my new online friend Jeff Goins. It’s the most significant thing I’ve done this year (perhaps ever) to grow as a writer. And with as many things I’ve done, that’s saying a lot.

I was part of the inaugural class and now Jeff is ready to start a second one. I encourage you to consider it. There are four modules, each with several lessons, many short assignments, a slew of recorded interviews and teachings, and unlimited opportunities to network with the class on-line.

It’s called Tribe Writers and there’s a special rate if you sign up by Monday, December 17. If you missed the deadline, submit your name and email and you will receive notice of when the next class starts.

If this sounds like a sales pitch, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m that excited about this online course..

Because of this class, I have a new self-published e-book coming out in a few weeks, A Faith Manifesto — and I have Jeff to thank for it.

[This is an affiliate link. I only recommend what I use, and I’m sold on this course.]