What to Do When You Can’t Do It All

The list of advice for writers is long, seemingly more than is humanly possible to accomplish

Advice for writers is never is short supply. Just when we regularly carve out time to write, another requirement piles on our plate and then a third and a fourth. Before long we grow overwhelmed and want to give up.

I struggled for years to find time to write on a regular basis. Just as that skill began to solidify, someone dropped a bomb on my writing world. That missive said, “You need to read as much as you write.”

Yeah, right.

Now I have to take not enough time and cut it in two.

The next bomb, the most devastating of them all, demanded I build a platform. More requirements soon piled high on my list of impossible tasks.

Here are the main ones:

Write: As a writer, we need to write every day. Or at least we must write on a regular basis. For some people that means only a few minutes a day or maybe a couple times a week.

If we claim the title of writer and aren’t writing, something’s wrong. Writing is the first requirement of being a writer.

Read: To write well, we need to be informed. This means, we must read. We need to read in our genre and outside our genre. Through reading we see what works and what doesn’t. We discover the techniques we like and the ones we don’t.

By reading widely, we cultivate our voice, develop our style, and feed our muse. Reading fuels our writing. But while the goal of spending as much time reading as writing makes for a compelling quip, it makes for better rhetoric than reality.

Still, as writers, we must read.

Build a Platform: I’ll never forget the day an agent turned me down, not because of my writing or my ideas or my ability, but over the lack of a platform. Ouch. That hurt.

It seems writing and reading were not enough. I needed to build and then grow a platform, too. How much time should I invest in platform building? One piece of advice was as much time as I spend writing.

If you’re good at math, you’re seeing the rub: 50 percent of my time writing, 50 percent reading, and 50 percent on platform. If that seems impossible, it is.

The next question is when should we start building our platform. Unfortunately, if we’re asking that question, we’re already behind.

Study: While writing is a good practice to help us improve, we improve faster if we study about writing. That doesn’t mean going back to college or enrolling in a MFA program, but it does mean taking intentional steps to improve. For me that includes reading books and magazines about writing, listening to podcasts, and taking relevant online classes. These things take time.

Network: Next we must network. We need to know other writers. We need to meet agents, editors, and publishers. It’s good to have these contacts before we need them.

Market: Last is marketing. While this mostly takes place as our book nears publication, we must also market ourselves beforehand. We need a professional writer website, an active presence on some social media platforms, and the accoutrements of being a writer, such as a headshot, business cards, an author bio, and so forth. Writers need to juggle an impossible set of expectations. Click To Tweet

Does all this seem overwhelming? It is? Does it seem impossible to give everything its due? It is.

Somehow as writers we need to juggle these expectations. We need to prioritize and squeeze things in and make sacrifices.

A few weeks ago, I ended the day with the irrational assessment that I can actually balance all these things. My satisfaction lasted for all but one day. I usually reach this place a couple times a year, which means for the other 364 days of the year, I’m pulling my hair, screaming, and crying that I just can’t do it.

And you know what. I can’t, no one can.

But as we try to negotiate this list of impossible requirements, there’s one thing we must never forget.

We must write. Everything else is secondary.

What well-intended distractions get in the way of your writing?

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. Block out significant time each day to write. Click To Tweet

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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Writers Must Balance Education with Experience

Wordsmiths need both knowledge and a growing word count to achieve writing success

Writers Must Balance Education with ExperienceI’ve run into writers who work in a vacuum. Committed to writing all they do is write, but they don’t study the craft. They don’t read books or magazines about writing; they don’t take classes, attend workshops, or go to conferences; they don’t participate in writing groups, have a critique partner, or use beta readers. They don’t follow blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars. I suspect these folks are more prevalent than I realize – because they write in secret, and I run into them by accident. (By the way, they aren’t reading this post, either – unless you email it to them.)

The opposite extreme are those who read extensively about writing and often quote their favorite gurus; they attend every writing related event they can afford to squeeze in, often traveling far to do so; they join online writing groups, are active in writing discussion boards, and confidently give their opinion on every piece of writing they encounter. There’s one problem: they don’t write. They’ve put writing on hold until they learn more. They have been talking about writing a book for years, but they’re not quite ready to start. They feel they need to figure out one more thing first.Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time. Click To Tweet

The balance between these two extremes is to pair writing with learning. Yes, we need to put in the time and write, but we need to do so in an informed way. Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time.

To pursue this balance I start by writing every day. Then to inform my writing I read writing magazines, follow a few blogs, listen to (too many) podcasts, participate in critique groups, attend two writing conferences each year, and read books (though I have bought more writing books than I have read).

As a long time nonfiction writer, in the past few years I’ve delved into fiction. I started with short stories, recently completed a novella, and will start a novel in November. I’ve also done a lot of studying to prepare me to write good fiction, yet I fear that recently my education has outpaced my experience. I currently have enough writing theory stuffed into my brain to paralyze me. Instead of thinking about writing a compelling story, my preoccupation with systems and formats and conventions and expectations has bogged me down.

My solution is to sit down and write more fiction. This will restore the balance. I can’t wait.

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.

How I Became a Better Writer

There is no single path to becoming a better writer. Instead we have a myriad of options before us. Here are some of the opportunities I encountered on my writing journey:

  • How I Became a Better WriterWrite Columns: Early on I contributed articles to a small newsletter (back when newsletters were still mailed). Having a deadline to hit each month was great preparation. It also taught me to always look for ideas and to work ahead. I did this for several years.
  • Get a Writing Job: Later I worked for a company in a seeming perpetual state of reorganization. During one such reshuffling I ended up doing tech writing. I wrote for eight hours-a-day, five days-a-week, every week. Though another restructuring soon moved me elsewhere, during this stint I learned how to write all day long.
  • Blog: Years later I jumped into blogging. What started as an experiment, moved into a hobby, and later acquired a purpose. At one time I had eight active blogs. Now I’m down to three and may whittle that down to two. (But don’t worry; this one will stay). In the past eight years I’ve published some 1,500 posts, amounting to nearly a half million words. During this time, I found my writing voice.
  • Listen to Podcasts: I don’t listen to music on my iPod; I listen to podcasts, mostly about writing. I learn about writing as a craft and as a business. I listen for several hours each week. It’s like going to school – without the tests.
  • Get Feedback: I also participate in critique groups. My friends help me improve. Yes, it’s wonderful when they like my words, but it’s even better when they point out shortcomings. They encourage me and keep me on track.
  • Study Writing: I also read magazines and books about the craft. Though I own more writing books than I’ve read, what I have read has helped me greatly.
  • Read Broadly: For too many years I read only nonfiction relating to work or faith. After a while everything I read bored me. Now I read mostly fiction, from just about any genre. As I read more widely, I can write more broadly.
  • Form Community: I spend time with other writers. Only writers understand the isolation of the work, the frustration of when words don’t work as we wish, the agony of rejection, and the joy of publication. We need a writing community to journey with us, be it online or in person.
  • Content Marketing: In pursuing freelance work, I do a lot of content marketing, which for me is much like blogging. Here I write with a purpose, have deadlines, and earn money. I think every writer – whether they admit it or not – wants to make money with their writing. I do.

These are the highlights of my writing journey, haphazard for the first three decades and more intentional in the last one. Your journey will be different.

May we all move steadily down the path of our own writing roads.

What has been a key part of your writing journey? What steps will you take this year to move down your writing road? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.What steps will you take this year to become a better writer? Click To Tweet

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.

Writers Should Meet Reader Expectations

Last week we discussed “Why Writers Should Follow the Rules of Writing.” Now we’ll focus on reader expectations.

When readers consider our writing, they have a set of expectations – whether they realize it or not. If we don’t meet their expectations, they will stop reading. If we fail miserably, they may never read anything else we write – ever again.

The first expectation of readers is interesting writing that holds their attention. Without that, nothing else matters.

Nonfiction readers expect our writing will educate, encourage, or enlighten them. There are probably other reasons, too, but these are the main ones. Our writing must be logical, carefully researched, and well organized. It can’t contain factual errors or circular logic. It needs a compelling premise and a strong conclusion. Even if a reader disagrees with what we say, they shouldn’t find fault with how we said it.

Fiction readers seek escapism, entertainment, or an emotional journey. Like nonfiction readers, they may also want to be educated, encouraged, or enlightened, but, if so, these are secondary needs. With fiction, we need to hook the reader quickly, give them a reason to keep turning pages, delight them with surprises along the way, and not leave them disappointed at the end.

Also, each fiction genre carries its own set of expectations, such as word length, writing style, point of view, target audience, and so forth. These can best be learned by reading extensively in that genre. Read the classics, as well as contemporary works. Also consider those with critical acclaim, along with bestsellers – even if experts berate the writing.

The expectation of memoir readers falls somewhere in between nonfiction and fiction, while poetry and other written art (screenplays, song lyrics, ad copy, and so forth) carry their own unique expectations. Again, study successful pieces and praised works in the particular category to discern what expectations readers may hold.

Meeting reader expectations will go a long way towards success as an author, but the key is to simply write something people enjoy reading.

Let’s Watch a Movie…to Improve Our Writing

I don’t recall who recommended Kristen Lamb’s book to me about blogging, Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer, but I am most appreciative. It’s packed full of practical information that is actually feasible for writers to implement.

Through her advice, I picked up some useful blogging tips and learned what I’m doing right.

In her opening remarks, she shares some general writing insights. As, I’ve noted before, she affirms the need for writers to be avid readers, but caught me off guard with the admonition to also “watch a lot of movies.” I think I’ve got that one covered. In fact, I sometimes think I watch too many movies.

The purpose in watching movies is to learn from the dialogue, the story’s pacing, the plot development, the stakes, and so forth. And the best part about learning from movies is we can actually “work” as we watch them with our family and friends!

After the encouragement to read and watch movies, Kristen then says that we writers need to blog and be involved in social media, hence the impetus for this book, as well as her prior one, We Are not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

Kristen offers much advice, and I have much to learn.

What Are You Reading?

In last week’s post, I pointed out the value and importance of reading in order to become a better writer.

The question then becomes, What should I read?

  • First, read in your genre. If you are writing young adult fiction, then you need to be reading young adult fiction. To write for a market that you are not reading is foolish and shortsighted; it will also likely lead to failure.
  • Next, read to inform your writing. Just as research is needed for non-fiction work, so too “research” is warranted for fiction writing. Don’t be that writer that places an object, event, or person in the wrong time, place, or situation. Informed writers avoid these traps.
  • Read outside your genre. My focus has been on non-fiction for a long time. Too long. All of the books I read are of a similar tone to what I write (biblical post-modern spiritualism is the best description I have found thus far). Frankly, I grew bored with my non-fiction reading list and even bestselling, frequently recommended books produced a resigned yawn. I needed a break. Did I stop reading? No, I took a side trip to juvenile fiction. The result has been new insights into writing and an idea for a series of fiction books. (This is in addition to the 20+ non-fiction ideas marinating in my mind.)
  • Lastly, read for fun — or perhaps this should be the place to start!

Are You Reading?

A piece of writing advice that shocked me was to spend as much time reading as writing.

That’s ridiculous. If I do that, the little time I have to write will be cut in half.

Not counting my day job, I can only carve out a couple hours a day to write, so cutting that in half in order to read more seemed counterproductive. However, after a bit of thought, I figured out a way to read more without cutting into my writing. The answer was quite simply to watch less TV.

I do my writing in the morning. When evening rolls around, I am usually too tired to write well, so I watch TV. However, I am not too tired to read. So, reading has become a regular part of my evening routine.

Although I seldom read for a couple of hours each night — which is the requisite amount if I am to read as much as I write — I am reading almost every evening. This has several benefits:

  • My time is used more productively and constructively.
  • I am exposed to ideas and thoughts that can better form and influence my own work.
  • I experience different styles and techniques, which I can follow (or avoid) in becoming better.
  • As a bonus, I am able to chip away at that stack of books awaiting my attention.

The advice to read as much as you write may be hyperbole, but the point is that just as you need to write every day, you should also read every day.