Pursue Just-in-Time Learning for Effective Education about Writing

Writers should consider just-in-time learning to round out their education

Writers should never stop learning.I work at home. My office window looks out at the bus stop. Each school day I see kids waiting to get on the bus. And each afternoon the bus returns them home. They’re mostly excited, but more so when they’re learning for the day is over.

They remind me of my time as an elementary school student, followed by middle school and then high school. Various colleges followed. First a bachelor’s degree and then a second major. Then a master’s degree was next and a PhD and then a second one. I have a lot of formal education. Fortunately, this is behind me. No more tests!

Though my formal education resides in my past, I’ve been pursuing informal education all my life. I call it just-in-time learning.

Most of my recent education about writing comes from the usual sources:

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Magazines
  • Critique groups
  • Conferences

I learn whatever I can from whoever I can whenever possible. Along the way I’m also willing to share what I know with others.

However, I’ve recently begun paying people to teach me specific things—what I need, when I need it. This is just-in-time learning at its finest. I’m custom designing my own courses based on exactly what I need to know. Paying people to teach me what I want to learn costs less than one university class. Click To Tweet

Though paying people to teach me what I want to learn has cost several hundred dollars, it’s still far less than the cost of one university class. Plus, taking a class covers many things I don’t care about or need to know at this point in my writing journey. If I take a class I must sift through the material to get to what I need to know.

My approach to just-in-time learning is so much more valuable. As you continue to work on improving as a writer, maybe just-in-time learning might work for you, too.

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. The best advice is to specialize in one area and build an author brand around it. Click To Tweet

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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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. Celebrate the mountains and don’t allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Click To Tweet

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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5 Benefits of Blogging

Generating blog posts helps writers grow in the craft of writing and publishing content

5 Benefits of BloggingI’ve been blogging since 2008 and have written over 1,600 posts for my blogs. That’s close to a half a million words and more hours than I care to admit. Why do I do it?

That’s a great question, which I periodically ask myself. One reason is that I enjoy it (most of the time). Another reason is I like to share with others, offer ideas, provide encouragement, and serve them through the gift of words. Third, my blogs are part of my platform, which every author needs.

Aside from these reasons, which are all good, I also see five key benefits of blogging. As a blogger, I…

1) Learn to Meet Deadlines: To serve our community and develop a following, bloggers need to post regularly, according to a schedule. For this blog I post every Saturday morning. Having this weekly commitment has taught me how to meet deadlines for my blogs, as well as for editors, publishers, and clients. Out of thousands of deadlines over the years, I’ve only missed a couple – and for good reasons. Having a due date spurs me to write and not let anyone down.

2) Develop a Writing Habit: Having weekly blogging commitments ensure I write regularly. While some writers bristle at the thought of writing according to a schedule, it’s made the difference for me of moving from hobbyist to professional. For this season of my life I write every day, except for a few holidays – but even then, I manage to squeeze in some writing in the early morning. Writing is how I begin my day, before I do anything else.Bloggers learn to write, edit, and publish quickly. We must or we’ll miss our deadlines. Click To Tweet

3) Produce Content Regularly: When a post is due and I don’t feel like writing, I write anyway or let my followers down. I can’t have that, so I write even when I don’t want to. Yes, it may take longer or require more effort to make it good, but having the ability to push through is a powerful tool to have.

4) Gain Production Speed: In the early days of my writing I’d agonize over an article, tweaking it endlessly over the span of weeks before submitting it. But with blogging we learn to write, edit, and publish quickly. We have to. If we sit on a post, we miss a deadline. When I do work for clients, I write, edit, proofread, and submit, usually in the same sitting. Only on large, critical projects do I tarry, and then only for one day so I can give it a fresh review before I send it off.

5) Find Work: A final benefit that I didn’t expect from blogging is obtaining writing assignments and making contacts. Prospects have seen my posts and appreciated my writing style. Having checked out my blogs they have come to me and ask if I will write for them. The answer is “yes.” Even if people don’t first see my online work, after we talk they check out my posts and articles before they hire me.

As I wrap up my ninth year of blogging, I’m amazed at where my journey has taken me and so appreciative of the results. Because of blogging I am a better and more successful writer.

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Can You Write a Novel in a Month?

Now is the time to prepare for NaNoWriMo in November

NaNoWriMo: Can You Write a Book in a Month?I’ve written nonfiction all of my adult life and recently began writing fiction for some variety. I started with short story (mostly flash fiction: under 1,000 words) because it was faster to write and easier to experiment. And if it doesn’t work, I haven’t invested too much time. Recently I received some professional feedback on my short stories.

Then I upped the word count and wrote a novella (longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.) When I outlined it – yes, I’m a planner – I expected a word count in the lower 20s. It ended up at 29,000 words. I sent it off to another editor for her professional opinion on the overall content and writing.

Though I say the first draft of my novella is done, I wonder if it is. After sending it off, I had an idea to weave in a second story arc of another character. I’ve outlined her story, too, which will give me another 12,000 to 15,000 words. Now its approaching novel length (at least for YA romance).

I’m doing all of this in preparation to write a novel. Since writers first novels are generally bad, I want to get this out of my system and move on. Besides my story idea isn’t too marketable, so it’s definitely practice.

I plan to write the first draft this November as part of NaNoWriMo, something I’ve wanted to do for the past few years but never had the time. This year will be different – I hope. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in one month.The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in one month. Click To Tweet

When working on my Novella, my low word count day was about 1,000 and my best day was 3,600 (the words really flowed, and I didn’t want to stop). Most days I was in the 1,500 to 2,000 word range, but that was only for Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. For NaNoWriMo, I need to keep up that pace seven days a week, which I could definitely do if I didn’t have to work.

The rules of NaNoWriMo allow you to prepare prior to November 1, but you can’t do any actual writing until after midnight October 31. I’ve done my prep work and am itching to start. Though I doubt I will achieve 50,000 words in a month, I do want to participate and see how far I can get.

The one possible roadblock would be if my agent finds a publisher for one of my nonfiction book ideas. Then NaNoWriMo will go on hold for another year, and I’ll spend November writing nonfiction – and I’m okay with that. After all, I’ll still be writing, and that’s what’s important.

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What I’ve Learned as a Commercial Freelance Writer

7 tips to succeed as a freelance writer and not go crazy in the process

What I’ve Learned as a Commercial Freelance WriterAs I earn more of my income as a freelance writer, I’ve learned some important lessons in the process:

Say “Yes”: At a former job, I’d quip to my sales staff: “The answer is always, ‘Yes, we can do that. Let me tell you how much it will cost.’” The same applies as a freelancer. Never turn a job down. (And if you’re not all that excited about it, quote more.) While most of my work is content marketing, I’ve also written website content, PowerPoint slides, marketing materials, case studies, whitepapers, outlines for presentations, resumes, and likely a few more things I don’t recall. Each one broadens my confidence, increases my capabilities, and enhances my marketability.

Quote with Care: I tend to underestimate how much time it will take me to do a project. Yes, I know how many words I can write per hour, but there is also research, editing, proofing, and sometimes just thinking. If I’m not careful I overlook the time to complete these other tasks, so I try to quote high. It’s much easier to give clients a discount than to ask for more.

Batching is Best: At first I tried to spread out my work, doing one item a day. Yet, this is inefficient. It’s better to batch work. For example, I owe one client two pieces a month. I write them both on the same day, back to back. The second piece always writes faster and flows better. Another client wants content every Thursday and a third client every Friday. I’m more effective if I write both on Thursday. Plus that opens up Fridays for other opportunities.

One at a Time: I learned the hard way not to bring on two clients at the same time. Neither receives my focused attention, and it’s easy to confuse projects and preferences. Instead I complete my first project for one client before I onboard a second one. It’s fair to them and keeps me sane.Only onboard one writing client at a time. It’s fair to them and keeps you sane. Click To Tweet

Know Your Capabilities: I know how fast I can write, but I’m not as aware of the amount of time it takes to edit a piece and then proof it. But the more work I do, the easier it is to home in on these. I also know the time of day when I write my best and when things take longer, as well as certain seasons to not take on new work.

Collect Fast: For one client I spent almost as much time chasing his payment as I did doing the work. Now I have a credit card on file for each client. I do the work, email it to them, and then charge their card.

End with the Beginning: Most of my work for clients is ongoing. I write content marketing or articles along a specific theme, month after month. Each time I finish one piece, I make a note for the next one, such as a title, outline, thesis statement, the end, or even the opening. Usually it’s just a one line prompt. This is when I have the best ideas, and they come quickly. This makes it easy to start the next piece when the time comes. I never want to sit down with a deadline looming and ask myself, “What should I write?”

I’ve been doing commercial freelance writing for a couple of years. This is what I’ve learned so far, and I’m sure I’ll learn more as I move forward.

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What to Do When You Hit the Wall

When our carefully constructed world of work comes crashing down, follow these steps to reconstruct it

What to Do When You Hit the WallWriters are often amazed at the amount of writing I do on a daily and weekly basis. They ask how I manage to consistently stay productive. Part of it is my stage of life, part of it is discipline, and part of it is illusion. The reality is I seldom feel like I am doing enough of the right things and that I am careening through life trying to juggle five items, while I’m only capable of three. I do this as I speed on a motorcycle…in the dark…without headlights. Then I hit a metaphoric wall, and everything stops. Okay, maybe this is a bit hyperbole, but you get the point.

Hitting the wall happens to me on occasion. This time it was a combination of over-commitment, too many deadlines, excessive optimism about my productivity, family priorities, time away from the office, and a strange sickness that required me to sleep more and robbed me of my concentration. It was like a house of cards, carefully constructed and most tenuous. My house of cards imploded. Kaboom!

Here is what I do when I hit the wall:

Pause: The first thing I do is put some things on pause. Exercise is one. Reading is another. Social media is a third. All are important, but none are essential. I can put them on hold for a few days.

Scale Back: What activities can I reduce? I don’t need to listen to as many podcasts as I do. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by what I’m not getting to, I merely pare back the quantity, unsubscribing from some and skipping episodes of others. I also curtail my TV watching and entertainment.

Eliminate: To make my writing life sustainable, I also look for things to eliminate. At one time I had five blogs, each with a different focus and strategy. A few years ago I stopped posting on two of them and just now stopped a third one.

Say “No”: I like to help people and don’t want to disappoint anyone. But I need to remind myself that sometimes declining requests is in my best interest or I’m of no help to anyone.If five things are a priority, then nothing is a priority. Click To Tweet

Reprioritize: If five things are a priority, then nothing is a priority. What is the one truly important thing in this moment? I do it and then move on.

Restore a Buffer: When new opportunities arise I try to squeeze them in. Before I know it, I’m living a life with no cushion. I need to re-establish some buffer to leave room for the unexpected – because surprises do occur.

A few months ago, I saw my wall looming. I took action to protect myself, such as scaling back the frequency of one of my newsletters, saying “no” to some new opportunities, putting one critique group on hold, and curtailing the amount of time I invested in Twitter. These were all good changes, but they were not enough. All these corrections did was delay the inevitable.

Today I am reconstructing my work and my writing life, striving for balance, sustainability, and a saner schedule. It will take time, but I will bounce back – hopefully with fewer projects and less stress.

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What It Means To Be a Writer

Writing is about focus and balance and obeying our muse

What It Means To Be a Writer

For the first time (that I recall) I don’t want to write a post for this blog today. It’s not that I don’t want to write at all; it’s that I yearn to work on something else.

This something else is a short story that has turned into a novella (a short novel). It is a YA romance, of all things. Yes, this nonfiction writer is fixated on writing a novella. I’m so into it that I’d rather work on it than do anything else. And since I have many other things that demand my attention today, this is a bit of a problem.

After I focus on this day’s critical tasks, I plan to reward myself with time to write another section. Yet I know one hour of writing will turn into more, one chapter will slide into the next, and each time I promise to write “just one more paragraph” another one will follow. This is the writer’s equivalent to reading a can’t-put-it-down, page-turner.

I call this writerphoria.

As a committed planner who outlines every long work before I type the first word, I’m mostly discovering this story as I write. Yes, I know the final scene (at least I think I do), and I am writing toward it. I also listed story beats that I click through in connect-the-dots fashion to move me closer to the finish line, but as I do my muse keeps giving me more great ideas to insert into the journey.

It’s a heady experience – and also frustrating.

My angst occurs because I’m largely winging this affair. Since I didn’t plan on this being a novella, I didn’t plan the details. I never bothered to explore my characters, to map their motivations, or even determine their last names. I just make it up as I go – and hope it doesn’t contradict something I wrote earlier. And too often it does. I worry that I’m not fixing all the prior scenes to align with the new ones I’m adding. Plus, I must get back to my story before some essential spark slips from memory and disappears forever. I write short stories in preparation to writing a novel. Click To Tweet

This all began with a simple short story, flash fiction (under one thousand words).

I started writing short stories in earnest about two years ago. This was strategic in preparation to write a novel, which I plan to start this November as part of NanNoWriMo. Though the NanNoWriMo rules tell me I can’t start the actual writing until November 1, I can prepare and plan. I know my story arc, I’ve outlined the plot, and I’ve detailed my characters and identified their motivation. I listed my beats and know the theme. I have the title. The opening and ending scenes bounce around in my head.

Though I can’t wait to start my novel in November, I have a novella to finish first – along with living the other parts of life.

Isn’t being a writer grand?

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Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t Worthwhile

The amount of time required to rework a piece is often too great, and it’s best to let it go.

Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t WorthwhileI once read the debut novel by a YA author. I was quite taken by it. I loved her humor and writing style. I wanted more, but since it was her first published novel I would need to wait.

I later learned something surprising: she had written five other novels, all unpublished. True, few novelists land a publishing deal on their first novel. Or their second or their third. I understand it typically takes four or five before they find their voice and hone their craft. I heard of another author who wrote nine novels before he sold one.

Since I don’t write novels (yet), I wondered why authors give up on their initial attempts. Just fix the flaws in their back material, and it’s good to go. However, this may be naive thinking.

I recently pulled out a short story I wrote several decades ago. It is the oldest one that I still have. I read it. The premise was good. I grabbed readers with the opening, surprised them at the end, and had an interesting arc in the between part. All it needed was a simple edit to incorporate what I now know.

It wasn’t that simple.

First, I had written it in third-person omniscient. This was fine in 1977 but not acceptable for today’s market. Publishing’s gatekeepers now deem head hopping verboten. I picked a point-of-view (POV) character, the mom, which required I rewrite all the scenes that included the dad’s, daughter’s, and boyfriend’s thoughts; this accounted for most of the story. Plus it took too many false starts to home in on the right POV character. Third-person omniscient writing is no longer acceptable. Click To Tweet

Next, my narrator’s voice was a juvenile’s, which makes sense because I was a teenager when I wrote it. I needed to update that as well. Last was the pleasant reality that I’m a much better writer now and had scores of novice errors to fix.

After several rewrites and the investment of too much time, my once unacceptable short story was now acceptable: good but not great. An editor told me as much in his rejection email when I submitted it for publication.

I suspect I spent four times the work trying to fix this old short story as I would have spent writing and polishing a new one. I should have thrown it away and focused on new material.

Now I understand why some first novels aren’t worth the effort to fix.

What is your experience trying to breathe new life in to old work? Do you have a first novel that isn’t worth fixing?

What is the Ideal Writing Process?

What works for one writer may not work for other writers and that’s okay

What is the Ideal Writing Process?Every writer has a different method of writing. I know that because many of you tell me.

  • Schedule: Some write every day (like me) and others do not.
  • Motivation: Others wait for inspiration and some sit down and write regardless of how they feel (like me).
  • Target Date: Some need a deadline to spur them on and others do not (like me – though a deadline does amp up my motivation).
  • Writing Mode: Others spew out a quick rough draft and fix it later, while some write with more intention to produce a reasonably good first draft (my goal).
  • Time of Day: Some write in the morning (like me) and others at night or random times (I occasionally do that, too).
  • Planning: Next are those who strategize before they write (like me) versus those who figure it out as they go. Many people call these two modes plotters and pantsers (writing by the seat of your pants), but I prefer the labels of outliners and discovery writers. They sound nicer.
  • Length of First Draft: Another consideration is writing long or writing short. That is, some writers write long first drafts and then edit them down. Others write shorter first drafts and then add to it. I’m neither. I have a target length in mind and aim to hit it.

The point is we all go about our writing differentlyWe all go about our writing differently. We each need to chart our own path. Click To Tweet

I write every day in the morning, even if I don’t feel like it, work to produce a good first draft from an outline (be it written or in my head), write to hit a target length, and mostly don’t need deadlines. But that doesn’t mean you have to follow my example. It simply means this is what works for me – in this season of my career. If this works for you, too, then great. But if it doesn’t, then figure out what does work and then follow it, adjusting as needed along the way.

There is no one correct way to write; we can all learn from each other’s processes. The only error is trying to force ourselves into a mold that doesn’t fit us.

What does your writing process look like? Is there anything you might want to change? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.