Don’t Overreact to Writing Trends

Today’s hot writing advice may prove embarrassing in a few years

I still have the mimeograph handout from high school, from oh so many years ago. The title boasts “50 Substitutes for Said.”

The opening instruction says, “Both color and drama can be added to a story by using other verbs as substitutes for said.” (A poorly written sentence, by the way.) As I recall, this teacher encouraged us to never use said in our writing.

Some of the recommended alternatives for said include blustered, bantered, challenged, directed, emphasized, giggled, implored, insinuated, mimicked, philosophized, revealed, and soothed. (By the way, I keep the list for nostalgic purposes, not for reference.)

In my writing, I can’t imagine using any of these suggestions in place of said. If I did, people would laugh at me and dismiss my work.

Now the trend is to not use alternatives for said. The extreme position is to only use said, even if it’s a question. I can’t bring myself to do that. It just seems wrong to write:

“What do you mean by that?” she said.

It makes me cringe. Plus, encountering said when I expect to read asked, is a speedbump that takes me out of the scene.

Yet, some writing experts instruct writers to do just that, to only use said, even for a question.

I think this minimalist approach is an extreme view, along with being dull. I suspect this will be a short-lived writing trend that will later be dismissed as unimaginative.

Just as we now groan at writers who would write “he blustered” instead of “he said,” we will one day groan at writers who only use said. It’s lazy writing and makes for boring reading. We need to consider which writing advice makes sense for us and which to ignore. Click To Tweet

In the same way that we discern which editing suggestions we need to follow from our critique partners, we need to consider which writing advice makes sense for us and which to ignore.

As for me, I will disregard the advice to only use said.

Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter

Write short stories to master the art of fiction writing

May is short story monthMay is short story month. I share this news in advance so you can consider how you want to celebrate. You might want to spend the month reading short stories or perhaps focus on writing a few. But regardless, give short stories some consideration in the month of May. Doing so will inform your other writing, whether you write fiction or not.

I know many beginning writers who sit down to write a novel. They have a vision and enthusiasm, but not much else. They start writing but soon give up in frustration. And for the few who do finish, their story isn’t that good.

I’ve often heard that novelists write several bad novels before penning a good one. Those first books serve as training for them to learn what works and doesn’t, to find their voice, and to hone their craft. They need to figure out plot and structure and story arc and character development and dialogue and a slew of other things. And they write several practice books to get there.

Why not write several practice short stories instead?

I took that path. In fact I focused on flash fiction: short stories with fewer than one thousand words. I experimented with first person and third person, present tense and past tense. I even wrote a second-person, present-tense short story—something I’d hate doing for an entire book.

Using short stories, I fine-tuned my dialogue. I worked on intriguing titles, strong openings, and satisfying closes. I practiced “show, don’t tell” and worked on word choice.

I did all this in preparation to one day write a novel. You see, I didn’t want to waste several novels practicing. I used my short stories for that. I got feedback from critique groups, hired tutors, and studied.Writing short stories prepares us to write novels. May is short story month. Click To Tweet

Then one day I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It started out as 900 words. But I liked the premise and added to it to produce a 2,500-word short story. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to write more. I did write more, a lot more. By the time I finished my story arc I had a 28,000-word novella. But it needed more. Next I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre.

So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel.

But the story isn’t over.

Last year, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a 49,000-word sequel. Then I mapped out a series. I’m ready to start writing books three and four.

Writing short stories prepared me to write novels. And writing fiction helps me write better nonfiction and memoir.

So celebrate the short story. May is short story month. It even has its own Twitter account: @ShortStoryMonth, which often uses the hashtag #shortreads.

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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.

Develop a writing habit to avoid boring and trite phrases. Click To TweetWhile 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.

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy Button

Too many novice writers don’t invest in the craft and expect seasoned authors to give them an easy button to publication

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy ButtonI post on this blog, send out a writing newsletter, and speak at conferences because I want to give back to the writing community, to share with others what I have learned over the years. By helping others the best that I can, I help myself. As I give, I also grow as a writer.

Though I can’t help everyone who asks and my time is limited, I do give a higher priority to those who are part of my writing community, those who journey with me to become better writers and share our words with others. These are the folks who put in the hard work to improve as writers, study the craft, and learn about the industry. They are worthy of receiving help. Not everyone is.

Recently a friend asked me and some others to review her manuscript. This is a big ask, and I had misgivings. As far as I know, my friend isn’t part of a writing group, doesn’t attend writing conferences, fails to write regularly, and neglects to study writing and the industry. Instead she seeks those who have put in the hard work for help so she can skip doing the hard work herself. She’s hoping for an “easy button” to turn her rough draft into a publishable book.Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. Click To Tweet

And I’m not too excited about helping with this. I prefer to invest what time I have into writers who are putting forth effort to improve. Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. They lacked the basic tools to receive, consider, and apply my input.

They wanted an easy button, but in writing there is no easy button.

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.Listening to podcasts on writing is my go-to method of learning. Click To Tweet

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.

10 Tips to Improve as a Writer

To progress as an author requires hard work and diligent focus

10 Ways to Grow as a WriterI’ve been writing my entire adult life. In the early years my primary goal was to write faster, but for the past decade or so, my focus was on writing better. As I attended to learning the craft of writing, my writing has steadily improved. Along the way I have also begun to write with increased speed.

Here are my ten tips to improve as a writer:

  1. Write: The most essential step is to just sit down and write. Some aspiring writers put off this tip waiting until they are ready. Guess what? I doubt anyone is ever ready. Not really. So start writing. Do it on a regular basis. Take it seriously. Make your writing time sacred. When I did this, my writing blossomed.
  2. Study Writing: We must study the art and craft of writing. I read about writing, listen to writing podcasts, learn from the masters, and go to lectures. If you’re in school, take writing classes.
  3. Read Broadly: Reading informs our writing. We see what other authors do. We learn what we like and don’t like. We need to read in our genre and outside it. Read for fun, and read to learn.
  4. Watch Movies: Cinema informs my writing almost as much as reading. Movies reveal insight about plot development, effective openings, memorable endings, character development, effective dialogue, and more.
  5. Attend Conferences: Writers often complain about the cost of conferences: registration, airfare, hotel, and incidentals. I get that, but tap into local conferences to eliminate the travel and lodging expenses. Some events are even free.
  6. Participate in Groups: Join a critique group, support group, accountability group, or some collection of other writers who have a shared goal of improvement.
  7. Pay for Help: If you need help, don’t be afraid to pay for it. This may be for edits, critiques, story development, or any other area where you struggle. What if you can’t afford it? Find a way. Be creative. Swap services. One enterprising writer “paid” her editor by cleaning her house.
  8. Give to Others: Share what you can with other writers. Give to the industry and the industry will give to you.
  9. Work in the Industry: If you have the opportunity to find employment that intersects with writing or publishing in any way, grab it. This may be part time or full time; it may pay well or little (and some gigs are volunteer). But the key is to put yourself in a position to interact with other writers. You will learn from your environment; by osmosis you will grow.
  10. Write: I end my list with the same tip I began with. That’s because too many aspiring writers become so busy, so fixated, on tips 2 through 9 that they skip the writing part. They don’t have time, become too distracted, or put it off. If you’re serious about writing, never stop. Writing is the most critical step to being a writer.

Writing is the most critical step to being a writer. Duh! Click To TweetFollow these tips to become a better writer. Pick one and implement it. Then add another. Keep going until you are doing all ten. You will be amazed at the results.

Writers Need to Learn By Doing

Knowledge about writing has value only when we put it into action

Writers Need to Learn By DoingAt the risk of offending all writers who are pursuing or want to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in writing, let me share some concerns. Yes, I look at writers with MFA degrees with admiration, even through the eyes of envy. And as a person who has earned the right to hang letters of accomplishment after my name, I understand the heady allure and practical benefits of doing so. Yet I have also wondered if an MFA degree is worth the effort and the cost, both in terms of time and money.

This week in listening to one of the many writing podcasts I follow, the accomplished guest (sorry I forgot your name; I can’t even check because I don’t recall which podcast it was) put things very clearly for me. He (yes, I remember that much) said something to the effect of “Don’t waste your time on an MFA degree, where you will spend years writing one book. You’re better off spending that time writing many books.”

That makes sense, especially given that most authors have to write several novels before they pen one that’s marketable. That’s a big reason why I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this November to write my first novel. I want to get it out of my system. I need to move it from my head onto the page, inching me closer to authoring a book that is worthy. Of course if my first novel is good I won’t complain, but I’m not expecting that outcome. But by the time I finish the series (two sequels and a prequel) I hope I’m ready.

I’ve been moving toward this for a couple of years: reading fiction, receiving instruction, opening myself to critique, and writing fiction. I started with short stories. Though each of these steps is essential, the final one matters most, the actual implementation. During the practice phase, theory becomes real. When we apply head knowledge, it becomes art.We must practice: most authors write several novels before penning one that’s marketable. Click To Tweet

I often run into wannabe writers who have stuffed their heads with theory but have never bothered to apply it by actually writing. Their ideas mean little and their critiques carry questionable merit because they lack the practical experience that turns education into work that matters.

Yes, learning is critical – and writers who refuse to learn are not really writers at all – but working out that head knowledge as we write is even more critical.

Writers spend their time writing and poseurs spend their time learning.

Is Writing Your Hobby or Your Job?

I view my writing as a job. I use that term loosely. Though I derive some income directly from my writing, like most authors, I also have a day job to help pay the bills. Few authors earn enough money through their writing alone to fully support themselves and their families. The vast majority have another source of income, even though it may be writing related. Such is my case. (I’m a magazine publisher.)

Still, I think it’s critical to treat writing like a job. This means:

  • Is Writing Your Hobby or Your Job?I write every day, just like going to work. Though I don’t punch a time clock, I do have a regular time to write. When it’s time to write, I sit down, and I do it, with no procrastination and no waffling. I write.
  • I invest in my job of writing by going to conferences, two per year. This allows me to meet other writers, as well as agents and publishers. I make friends in the writing community; I network; I help others. I give and I receive.
  • I also strive to improve as a writer. This includes reading blogs, listening to podcasts, taking online courses, and reading books and magazines that relate to writing. I attend writing groups to have my work critiqued and to give input to others. I seek input every chance I get.
  • I treat writing as a business, too. I track expenses (yuck) and income (yea). Some years I make a profit, and I’m trending towards profit every year. Right now, most of that income is derived from freelance work.

I treat my writing as a job. My dream is that one day writing will be my only one.

Other people view writing as a hobby. They write when they feel like it. They write just for their family or friends, maybe even just for themselves. Sometimes they don’t even let other people read their writing. They don’t expect to ever make money from their work. But they do spend money on their hobby. They attend conferences, though it’s mostly for fun: to have an excuse to travel, hang out with other writers, or tie in a mini-vacation. They may also be part of writers groups, but it’s mostly for the social benefits. Last, the writing hobbyist often prefers to talk about writing more than to actually write.

Though I wish every writer would treat writing as their job, I know that for some it is a hobby. And that’s okay, just as long as they are honest with themselves.

Do you treat writing as a job or a hobby? Is there a third option that is halfway between the two? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Seven Steps to Deal With the Sting of Rejection

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve received very little rejection with the articles I’ve written. In fact, aside from contests I haven’t won and a few editors who never responded, I can’t recall a single time I’ve heard “No!” But that’s just for articles.

For books, my results are different. Half the time, I hear “no.” And the times when I hear “maybe,” it eventually turns into a “no.” Given my success with articles, I wasn’t prepared for a lack of success with books. Rejection stings.

The first time someone said “no” to one of my books, I went into a tailspin. It lasted several weeks. I stopped writing for three, and when I resumed, my heart wasn’t in it. It took too long for me to bounce back, to reclaim my joy for writing, and write with zeal.

Since then I’ve gotten better at dealing with rejection. Here are my thoughts:

1) Be Realistic: We will hear “no” much more often than we will hear “yes.” Accept this; it’s the reality of being a writer.

2) Be Positive: As they say in sales, each “no” gets us one step closer to “yes.” It’s a numbers game, so don’t stop too soon. Our next submission may be the one that’s accepted.

3) Listen to What Is Said: Consider why our book or proposal was rejected, but don’t make false assumptions. If they say, “This isn’t the right book for us at this time,” they’re not saying our book is bad, we can’t write, or we should quit. They’re simply saying the timing is off.

4) It’s Not a Reflection of Who We Are: Although our work is rejected, we aren’t. Reflection of our work is not rejection of us; it may not even reflect our skill as a writer. Maybe our idea wasn’t good or our type of book isn’t selling at this time. But none of this means we are a bad person.

5) It’s Just One Person’s Opinion: In my critique group I’m amazed at how many times one person doesn’t like something and the next person really does. The same is true for books. Everyone has an opinion, but that’s all it is.

6) Allow Time to Grieve: I give myself time to grouse. Sometimes I only need a few minutes, while other times I take the rest of the day. What I don’t do (anymore) is to ignore the pain; I acknowledge it – but only for a time.

7) Start Again: Then it’s back to writing as usual – even if I don’t feel like it. That’s what the pros do; that’s what I’ll do.

Rejection stings, but it’s not the end.

When Your Writing Group Fails

I’m a big advocate of writing critique groups. My group has moved me forward as a writer and improved the quality of my work. And everyone who attends regularly has improved, too. We encourage one another, celebrate our victories, and never have to struggle alone. Plus, they’re a great group to hang out with.

However, I recently received an email from someone who wasn’t so excited about his critique group. To summarize his chief concerns: many people weren’t taking their writing seriously, he only respected the comments of a few attendees, and he feared his writing would get worse if he kept on going. It’s been a year since he last went. I used to go to that group and understand his frustration.

A few days later I talked with another writer who dropped out of that same group for similar reasons. However, unlike my friend who emailed me, she joined a different group; it is functioning at a higher level and meeting her needs. She’s glad she made the switch.

Not all writing groups are the same. Aside from pursuing different goals, they can function at different levels. If you tried a group and dropped out frustrated, don’t give up on them, but look for a different one. If you can’t find one, start your own.

Are you part of a writing group? What’s your experience with writing groups?