5 Tips to Become a Better Writer

Writers serious about their craft should take concrete action to advance their career

I am a Writer, by Peter DeHaanIn a recent interview an author was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done to improve as a writer?” What a great question; I so appreciated the author’s answer. Yet my mind immediately considered how I would respond.

Within seconds I knew my answer. I smiled, thinking back to how that one decision changed me as a writer, propelling me forward.

Just as quickly another idea popped into my mind. It was a good answer, too. Which one was more important? I wasn’t sure. How could I pick just one?

But then a third significant thought surfaced, followed by a fourth, and then a fifth. They were all pivotal. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Each was essential.

So I have not one answer to share, but five. My five tips to becoming a better writer are:

1) Call Yourself a Writer: It sounds corny, and it’s hard to do. But my first tip is to say, “I am a writer.” When I first did this, my lips moved, but no sound came out. After three tries my claim was just a whisper—and that was in private. It took a couple years before I could comfortably tell someone, “I am a writer.”

I occasionally teach a “Get Started” workshop at a writers conference. I often have my class say this. Their first try is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they are confident and grinning. We need to call ourselves writers in order for us to believe it.

2) Commit to Writing: Once I called myself a writer I needed to commit to it. I had to set time aside to write, not just when I was motivated or had an idea, but even when I didn’t feel like it. Once a week on Saturdays, became three times a week in the evenings, which moved to five times a week in the mornings. Now I block out significant time each day to write. It’s my schedule, like going to work—but in a way it is. Writing is my job.

3) Attend Events: Next is the need to connect with other writers. Join a writing or critique group. Attend conferences. Mentor someone else and seek a mentor. Maybe you need to mentor each other. At my first conference, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was terrifying, and my naiveté cost me a bit of embarrassment, but the conference was so worth it. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

4) Learn about Writing: With technology we have many options to learn about writing: blogs, podcasts, and webinars are usually free. Books and magazines don’t cost too much. I’ve also taken some online classes—not university types, but practical, applicable writing instruction. I started with reading blogs and the rest of these followed.

5) Seek Help: As I began to make some money with my writing—which took years, by the way—I had funds to invest in my work. I began to hire experts to help improve. Aside from an editor, for my first effort I paid a retired writing professor to help me improve my short story writing (as a prelude to novels). His input was invaluable. Since then I’ve hired developmental editors and a grammar guru. With them, I slash my learning curve and gain valuable information fast.

These are the five steps I took to become a better writer. I can’t say which one was more significant, but I will admit that without taking that first step, I would have never gotten to the next four.

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How I’ll Write My Next Book

NaNoWriMo inspired me on a new way to approach writing a book

How I’ll Write My Next BookI’ve written several books, most of which didn’t have a deadline. Though I would regularly sit down to write and methodically plod through from start to finish, I wasn’t as intentional as I could have been. I would take several months to complete my first draft of these books—and it was arduous.

Last November I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, where the goal is to write the first draft of a novel in one month. I effectively did this, but it didn’t happen as expected. (Check out my post of my first NaNoWriMo experience).

Going forward I plan to write all my books NaNoWriMo style. I’ll hunker down and crank through the first draft in one month. Here are the benefits of taking this approach.

Increased Focus: Writing a book in one month requires making it a priority. It’s not one of many things to dilute focus; it’s the one thing. This gives a hyper-intensive focus. In fact, I was so into my novel, which took place in May, that I actually thought it was spring in real life; I had to keep reminding myself that summer was not about to happen, but eight months out. That’s intense (or crazy). Regardless I had focus and finished writing that book.

Better Continuity: When writing large chunks of a book every day, it’s much easier to keep everything straight. One chapter easily moves into the next. But had time interrupted my writing it would have also caused me to lose my comprehension of the story arc. This would necessitate re-reading large sections, a too-frequent referring to my notes, and missed opportunities to produce a better read. But because I was able to stay in the writing zone, the words flowed forth with greater ease.

Faster Results: For me the difficulty in writing a book isn’t the number of words I need to write, it’s the number of days it takes. When I write a book in one month, there’s no time to bog down in the middle, yet a book that takes several months to complete will always produce a discouraging sag of motivation midway through. Taking fewer days to write a book gets me to the end faster and avoids a mid-book slump.

Sense of Accomplishment: It’s a great feeling to finish the first draft of a book. Writing with NaNoWriMo intention rewards me with that feeling of satisfaction faster. Having that great sense of accomplishment encourages me as a writer and motivates me to produce even more.

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I plan to write the first draft of my next book in a month. And I won’t even wait until November to start.

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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Do You Dream of Writing? 5 Aspiring Writer Personas to Avoid

People who say they will one day write seldom get around to it

Do You Dream of Writing? 5 Aspiring Writer Personas to AvoidWhen I tell people I am a writer I get various responses. Aside from a blank look of incomprehension or the dreaded question of “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?” they usually tell me about their own writing aspirations.

Here are five common personas:

Someday Sally: This earnest lass yearns to write, but she isn’t in a good season of life right now. Once she emerges from this crisis, this transition, this grueling job, or this financial situation, then she will start writing. Not now, but later. The problem is her next season of life will be no more conducive for writing than her present one.

Procrastinator Paul: Like Sally, Paul has plans to write. He has an idea, he’s done research, and he’s made an outline. He’s going to start next week. But next week he doesn’t. He needs to develop better characters first; he’ll start next month. Next month he realizes his plot won’t work, so he redoes that. Then it’s the holidays, which he reasons is always a bad time to start. Next week becomes next month, then next year, and he never writes one word.

False Start Fiona: This idealist just sat down and started typing. She worked hard for a couple of days, maybe even a week, but then she stalled. Things weren’t working so she gave up. Her computer holds dozens of started projects but not a single finished one.

Retirement Ray: He’s always dreamed of being a writer, but right now he is too busy with work. When he retires he’ll have time. Yeah, right. He won’t have the time then either, and besides he won’t be ready.

Romantic Rhonda: This visionary sees her finished book, flattering reviews, royalties rolling in, and an abundance of accolades. The problem is she doesn’t want to write; she merely wants to have written. She will never put in the hard work required to write a book, so she has no chance to see her fantasy unfold.

I’ve met many aspiring writers like this quintet. Maybe you identify with one or two of them. All five have visited me in the past, but I sent them packing – because I stopped dreaming of writing and just did it.

What gets in the way of you writing? What will it take to move forward?

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?

Fuel Creativity: How to Prime the Pump as a Writer

5 Tips to keep your mind sharp and creativity flowing

Fuel Creativity: How to Prime the Pump as a WriterLast week we talked about being physically healthy as a writer. We also need to stay mentally ready so that we can write when the time comes.

Here are five tips to fuel our writer’s mind:

Consume Creative Content: Mental readiness is spurred by filling our minds with the work of other creatives, be it books, movies, TV, plays, art, and nature – God is the ultimate creative, after all. However, not all content is good content. While a poorly written book or crass movie may fill our mind, it will only produce like inspiration. When we pour the best into our minds, the best will come out.

Observe Life: We need to witness what happens around us. Capture situations, both the interesting and the mundane. The first provides creative fodder and the latter gives needed filler material. See what people do. Listen to what others say and how they say it. Note the smells. Engage the remaining two senses of touch and taste whenever possible. We avoid self-absorbed narcissism and constantly immerse ourselves into life as it unfolds around us.

Ask Questions: As we consume creative content and observe life, we can expand on it by asking questions: What if? Why? How might this have happened? (Create the backstory.) Take the spark of what we observe and turn it into something grander. How could this be more interesting? What can we add to amp up the action, increase the intrigue, or magnify the wonder?

Keep a Log: Make notes and record ideas. This may be with a notebook, in a computer file, using a digital recorder, or with a smartphone app. The medium doesn’t matter; capturing the idea does. The gist for this post came as I wrote last week’s. I added the title to my “content ideas” file as soon as the inspiration hit, and then I returned to the first post. I never gave it another thought until I sat down to write this week’s piece. I opened my file and this idea beckoned me.

Sleep on It: Although I seldom go to sleep hoping to unpack a story or solve a creative dilemma, often my subconscious does just that. In the early morning I awake with some of the most creative ideas. And when this happens I can’t get to my computer fast enough. And even if a fresh idea doesn’t materialize as we sleep, being well-rested prepares us to write.

Use these five ideas to keep our writing minds sharp, fueled with ideas, and ready to write.

What ideas would you add? What works well for you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Have You Ever Used Dictation to Write?

Have You Ever Used Dictation to Write?Last week we talked about the importance of knowing how many words we write per hour. I’ve heard experienced fiction writers who say they consistently clip along at 2,000 words an hour. They write four or more books a year. This boggles my mind.

In the stratosphere of word counts, I’ve heard other writers claiming to push several thousand words per hour, which they do via dictation and speech-to-text software. In this way these folks claim to “write” 5,000 words an hour. I’m intrigued, partially as a writer but mostly as a technologist.

What they don’t say is how long they can keep this up. One person does this in bursts, which never approaches an hour, so his 5,000 words in an hour is a misleading outcome. Another admits that an hour is about all he’s good for.

They do say this requires careful prep work, but they don’t factor that time into their speed claims. It also requires cleaning up the recording since the software is only about 95 percent accurate at best. Again they also don’t factor this into their calculations. And, as with all writing, they still have the normal re-working, editing, and proofing to do. I wonder how much time they actually save.

This may work fine for writers who are also accomplished speakers, especially if they don’t require much prep work before they talk. Some people are like that; I am not. I also know that clear diction is key. That’s another strike against me. Plus my speaking style is opposite of my writing style.

In my first contract job I needed to write an hour-long presentation. Then I would have my presentation videotaped in a studio as I read from a teleprompter. The timeline was short and in an effort to streamline things, I made an outline of my talk and recorded me speaking from my outline. I paid for a transcription. Then I edited it. It required many edits. It seems I rewrote just about every sentence. It took hours. In the studio I kept stumbling over my written words. I couldn’t speak what I had written.

Though arduous, they must have liked the outcome. They asked me to do a second recording. They wanted me to write it the next morning. We would group edit it over lunch, and I would record it in the afternoon. I still made my flight that evening. In the end I spent far less time writing and editing my second talk then I spent on my first one where I tried a shortcut using dictation.

If you ever used dictation, what was your experience? Do you think you’d ever try it? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

You May Be One Blog Post Away From a Book Deal

An online friend wrote a blog post that went viral. It elicited emotion. Passionate comments spewed forth in support and opposition. Because of the firestorm his post created, a publisher offered him a book deal.

You May Be One Blog Post Away From a Book DealThis is one way blogging can result in a published book. Though we can’t plan on this occurring or even scheme to make it transpire, it could happen. Possibly.

So each time you post on your blog, do so knowing that it could result in a book deal. Maybe. Yeah, right. But it might. Don’t hold your breath. It could happen, but it probably won’t.

After all, having written 1,500 posts none of mine have ever gone viral; no publisher has ever knocked on my door waving a coveted book contract. Yet it could happen, but it probably won’t.

So aside from this one-in-a-million, perhaps one-in-a-billion, chance of this happening,  Blogging can:

Build Our Audience: Each post can expand our reach. As people appreciate what we have to say they follow us and share our words with others. Over time we grow an audience. We build our platform.

Sharpen Our Writing: With each post our writing improves, we write better or faster or with more passion. If we truly need to write a million words before we get good, then each post brings us a couple hundred words closer.

Hone Our Voice: As we write, various styles emerge. Eventually these all converge into one cohesive, consistent comportment. We have found our writing voice.

Provide Feedback: Blogging allows us to get quick feedback. We learn what elicits a reaction and what doesn’t. We realize when an idea is half-baked and when it is fully formed. Let’s handle these things with the correctable, immediacy of a blog and not the permanence of a book.

Form the Habit of Writing: By showing up to blog on a regular basis, we demonstrate to publishers we have established the discipline, the habit, to write regularly. They can expect we will do the same for our book and not let them down.

I blog for these reasons. I also blog because I have something to say and because people appreciate what I write. Yes, I do blog to move me closer to a book deal, too. It may not happen quickly, but it will happen.

Why do you blog? What steps are you taking to publish your work? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Block Out Four Hours to Write

The One Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay PapasanLast week I blogged about forming a habit to write regularly as prompted by the book The One Thing. A second idea that resonated with me from Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s book is the idea of blocking out time to focus on our one thing, in my case writing. While most people might strive to block out an hour a day to focus on their one thing, the authors advocate a four-hour time block – in the morning.

I realize this is impossible for most writers who jockey writing with work and family and life in general. Yet a couple months ago I would have said the same thing about myself. Though I would have liked to write four hours every morning it loomed as an unrealistic fantasy. But when a ghostwriting project made it absolutely necessary to spend four hours writing each weekday, I found a way to do it.

The results are amazing – not only for my writing but for other things as well.

I’ve long felt that my work as a magazine and newsletter publisher did not require forty hours a week to do. Some weeks I could prove this as correct, while on other weeks my work would absorb every minute I could give it – and insist upon more. Now that I don’t have more time to give to my work, I’m finding I can typically do it in less time. My goal is twenty hours a week. Though I’m not there yet, I am close.

Setting aside a four-hour time block to write has resulted in me being more efficient in other areas as well. I have even more incentive to say “no” to things that don’t matter. I feel so free (most of the time).

Because of the intense writing project I’m on, my four hours a day writing has become more like five or six. So once this project is over, it will be easy to scale back to only four hours a day. I would have never thought that.

What steps do you need to take to spend four hours a day on your one thing? If four hours isn’t feasible, how much is? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.