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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Should Writers Focus On One Niche?

The easiest way to build your author brand is to consistently publish the same type of content

Should Writers Focus On One Niche? by Peter DeHaanI remember when I started taking writing seriously. I moved from simply writing to being a writer. The shift was huge.

I had so much to learn about the industry (and I still do). Of the many surprises I encountered as I learned about writing was the importance of focusing on one niche. I didn’t like that. Don’t tie me down to writing one thing; I need variety. Yet the advice I received said to pick nonfiction or fiction or memoir. Just one. Then narrow the focus even more. If fiction, which genre? If nonfiction, what slice?

The thought that I had to pick one, and only one area, parallelized me. First, it sounded boring. Second, what if I picked wrong? Yikes! Though once I established myself in that one area, I might have an opportunity to branch out. But the idea still sounded too restrictive for too long.

Another person suggested I try all three options and whichever one sold first, that would be my niche. Though that made sense, it seemed I’d waste a lot of time and effort.

I went back to agonizing between nonfiction, fiction, and memoir. (Yes, memoir is technically nonfiction, but it contains elements of fiction writing, so it’s really a both-and pursuit.)

A third person opined that memoirs were selling, so I pursued that. I later learned this person was in error, or I had heard wrong. Writers can only sell their memoirs if they are famous, infamous, or suffered through the mother of all tragedies. As a regular guy with a normal life, I had none of these. Though I’ve written a few memoirs, none have sold.

I next moved to nonfiction and wrote a couple more books in this category. I also pitched several other nonfiction book ideas, but nada.

Between waiting for publishers to decide on my nonfiction books and book ideas, I dabbled in fiction, the remaining area not yet explored. First I wrote short stories and then wrote a couple novels, too. Interestingly, I receive better feedback on my short stories and novels than on my nonfiction and memoirs.

In this way, I ended up writing in all three areas, and I’m waiting to see which one pops first. When it does, the wise career move will be focusing on that as my niche. But my interests are too eclectic to do that. I’ll probably end up pursuing multiple paths simultaneously. I’ll have to, or I will surely get bored.

By the way, besides memoir, nonfiction, and fiction books, I also write for publications and am a commercial freelance writer, in addition to blogging. I like the variety; I need the variety. It keeps me from getting bored.

Yes, the best advice is to specialize in one area and build our author brand around that. But that’s not me. Don’t force me into a corner.

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Your Turn: What Do You Like (or Not Like) About Facebook?

Being the world’s largest social media platform doesn’t necessarily make Facebook better

UR Turn, Help me finish ths post by sharing...Last month I mentioned that Twitter is my preferred social media platform and the one I use the most. Though I’ve been on Facebook longer, I don’t find it as useful. In fact I find Facebook frustrating.

Aside from frequent changes that affect how things work is the reality that only a fraction of the people who like my page ever see the things I post. I suppose Facebook does this to motivate me to pay them to “boost” my post. Instead they’re motivating me to connect with people elsewhere.

Making the most out of Facebook is on my to-do list, but right now it’s far down that list. Maybe someday I’ll get to it—or maybe not.

Even so, I’d be honored if you’d like or follow my author page on Facebook.

Your Turn: In the comment section below link to your Facebook page or share your experience with Facebook.

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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.

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.

Your Turn: What Do You Like (or Not Like) About Twitter?

The social media site Twitter is becoming the go-to platform for many

UR Turn, Help me finish ths post by sharing...I’m on several social media sites, but the one that I use the most and am the least confused by is Twitter. I’ve grown a following, tweet and retweet regularly, and engage a bit with my followers.

Twitter is the one social media site where I’m enjoying some traction. Once a day I spend time to schedule most of my tweets for the next day, but I also tweet some things on the fly. And on most days I invest a few minutes to interact with followers and find more interesting people to follow.

I view Twitter a lot like broadcasting. Though only a fraction of my potential audience will see what I tweet, the possibility exists for anyone of them to read my tweets if they’re looking at the right time (quite unlike Facebook). I think that’s why I’m growing fond of Twitter.

If you follow me on Twitter, I will follow you back.

Your Turn: In the comment section below link to your Twitter account or leave your Twitter handle.

What do you like or not like about Twitter?

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A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for Writers

What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for WritersOn December 26, 2016 my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:

  • Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
  • Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
  • Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
  • Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
  • Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
  • Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
  • Mental health advocate
  • Script doctor

All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.

Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:

  • Hook
  • Sister Act
  • Lethal Weapon 3
  • Last Action Hero
  • The River Wild
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Coyote Ugly
  • My Girl 2
  • Outbreak
  • Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
  • Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
  • Milk Money
  • Love Affair
  • Made in America

I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).

Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:

  1. Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
  2. Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
  3. Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
  4. Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?

We need a realistic view of our history to plan a reasonable vision for our future

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?My wife sometimes says I view things as though my glass is only half-full, that I’m pessimistic. I counter that I’m simply being a realist, but the truth is I’m not sure who’s right. Perhaps a bit of reality resides in both perspectives. So it is in viewing my past year as a writer.

As such, I share two perspectives:

Best Year Ever:

  • After years of talk, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. What a great experience.
  • I wrote two novels, the second one in about three weeks. (I’m still editing them both.)
  • My work as a commercial freelance writer really took off this year, with more clients, more work, and more income—all new records.
  • I grew my Twitter followers from 2,400 to 11,500, surpassing my year-end goal of 10,000. I’m enjoying good connections and engagement there.
  • I took LinkedIn seriously and made 100 posts to a growing audience of 2,300, which more than doubled in 2016.

Epic Fail:

  • I didn’t publish a book this year.
  • I didn’t win any writing contests.
  • I wasn’t published in any anthologies.
  • I didn’t accomplish my number one goal for 2016. (Which is now my number one goal for 2017.)
  • Work/life balance continues to elude me. (It’s even harder to achieve when you work at home.)

I could reasonably adopt either of these two perspectives as my primary view of 2016. While it’s easy to dwell on disappointments, missed goals, and wasted opportunities, a better outlook is to focus on what went great this year. Though I might need to reread this post to remind myself, I can truly say that 2016 was my best year ever, and I look forward to 2017 being even better.

As you review 2016, I encourage you to celebrate the mountains and not allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Though everyone is at a different place as a writer, no one had a flawless year and everyone has something to celebrate. Focus on these things as you move into 2017.

May it be your best year ever.

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Top Ten Posts about Writing for 2016

Read the ten most popular writing posts on Byline for the past year

As we turn the calendar from 2016 to 2017, we mark the passing of another year and with it another fifty-two weeks of blog posts here at “Byline,” where we discuss growing as a writer.

Here are the top ten posts on Byline for 2016.

  1. What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?
  2. 3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Be an Aspiring Writer
  3. How to Always Know What to Write
  4. 10 Tips to Improve as a Writer
  5. What to Do When You Hit the Wall
  6. What Are Your Writing Goals This Year?
  7. Why Writers Need to Develop Their Writing Style
  8. Do You Dream of Writing? 5 Aspiring Writer Personas to Avoid
  9. 6 Writing Tips to Quickly Pick-up Where You Left Off and Not Waste Time
  10. May is Short Story Month

Thank you for stopping by this past year. You helped show that these posts are your favorites.

May you have an amazing 2017.

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