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Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach

Updated 9 days ago

Rank #185 in Books category

Arts
Education
Books
Self-Improvement
Read more

Learn from writing coach Ann Kroeker how to achieve your writing goals (and have fun!) by being more curious, creative, and productive.

Read more

Learn from writing coach Ann Kroeker how to achieve your writing goals (and have fun!) by being more curious, creative, and productive.

iTunes Ratings

63 Ratings
Average Ratings
54
3
2
3
1

One of my favorites

By Dair B. - Jul 18 2018
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Efficient, insightful, and inspiring!

Thanks!

By @shaunaletellier - May 29 2017
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Practical, entertaining, and brief. Ann writes and speaks as a lovely example of all she teaches.

iTunes Ratings

63 Ratings
Average Ratings
54
3
2
3
1

One of my favorites

By Dair B. - Jul 18 2018
Read more
Efficient, insightful, and inspiring!

Thanks!

By @shaunaletellier - May 29 2017
Read more
Practical, entertaining, and brief. Ann writes and speaks as a lovely example of all she teaches.
Cover image of Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach

Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach

Latest release on Jan 17, 2020

Read more

Learn from writing coach Ann Kroeker how to achieve your writing goals (and have fun!) by being more curious, creative, and productive.

Rank #1: Ep 179: Time to Schedule Your Writing Life Tune-up

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Tis the season for many things. One thing that doesn't roll off the tongue as jolly as a line in a carol is a writing life tune-up. Yes, tis the perfect time for writing life maintenance.

It sounds so boring, I can't believe I'm sending you off for two weeks with this message. Then again, I'm convinced if more of us would take the time to develop a simple system that supports our whole writing life, we'd stay on track and meet more of our goals and make new discoveries and find new outlets for our work—in part because we aren't scrambling at the last minute to meet a deadline.

So it's time to schedule your writing life tune-up.
Your Writing Life Tune-up
Your writing life as a whole includes both you, the writer, and your work. In a few days, we'll tumble into the new year with big goals, plans, intentions, and resolutions.

But before all that, at the close of this year, a writing life tune-up looks at what you as a writer need for success, then turns to your projects, so you can determine how to set yourself up to nail deadlines and build your body of work. Doesn't that sound like a worthy, satisfying activity—even if it's boring?

A writing life tune-up isn't sexy, but it's effective.

I'll be spending time on a tune-up for myself in the days ahead. Why not join me?

I'll be looking back at several areas to see what worked well last year and what I'd like to see in the year ahead. I'll be examining things like:

Professional Development
Writing Habits and Systems
Writing Deadlines
Editorial Calendar

Professional Development
What did I do last year for professional development?

Three writing conferences
Subscribed to multiple podcasts that offer writing-related content
Attended several webinars led by industry leaders
Read books about writing
Read other books, fiction and nonfiction
Read articles and blog posts with relevant content

Some activities you might consider to advance as a writer that aren't on my list could be working with a mentor or coach and joining a writing group or author mastermind.
Writing space and tools
Our writing life evaluation can include practical elements such as rearranging our writing space. Does my current desk suit my needs? Are there tools that made life easier—did others waste time with complicated steps? Is your current writing chair a good fit? Mine is, but the arm rests need a little duct tape repair. Did you try a standing desk and find it helpful? How well did a writing notebook serve you?
Evaluate effectiveness
Make a list of equipment, outings, activities, and input from in the past year related to all of these writing life details.

What worked and what didn't work?
What helped you improve as a writer and what wasn't worth the investment of time, money, and logistics?
What gave you energy and what sucked energy from you?
Also, what from your work and life gave energy to others?

As I review last year's activities, I'll determine what helped me level-up as a writer. Then I can make better decisions for the year ahead, scrapping anything that wastes my time and resources and continuing what offered the support I need.
Plan it out
I like to get a big-picture view of how I want to invest in myself and my space so I can include it when mapping out any given week or month.

When, for example, do I intend to listen to a podcast or watch a webinar? I don't want to steal time from a writing session, for example, to read an article about queries. And yet I want to read about queries. When will I do that?

I know, I know. It's a boring process, but this tune-up keeps me from scrambling and squandering time. Because left to my own devices, I totally squander my time.
Writing Habits and Systems
James Clear and many others advocate a Kaizen philosophy of improvement claim that tiny goals set us up for success; just a one percent improvement adds up over time. We can decide what small steps we can make that will mov...

Dec 19 2018

12mins

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Rank #2: Ep 131: Reverse Engineer Your Editorial Calendar

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Not long ago, I presented to you the concept of a writing pipeline. The stages are:

Research
Ideas
Drafts
Final Edits
Shipped
Archive (or Portfolio)

A project enters the pipeline when it’s an idea, germinating and growing in the idea folder. It’s a more formal project when it hits the draft stage.

Each stage of development takes time, and you’ll see your writing life take off when you identify and schedule each stage.

Use an editorial calendar, and you'll line up your projects—and each stage of each project—churning out content more reliably, meeting deadlines and reaching goals.
How Long Will It Take?
When you first begin using an editorial calendar, however, it can be hard to know when to work on the various stages of a given project. It’s difficult to map it out when you don’t know how long things take and you’re not sure what you need to do in each stage.

To figure it out, reverse engineer the process.

Start with the end and work your way back.

If you’d like, you can use an individual Project Planning Worksheet for this that has a simple grid. In hopes of simplifying the process and motivating you to take action, I’ve made a planning sheet available for you to download.
You won’t have to use these forever, but they can be great while discovering stages, time frames, and projected due dates for each stage.
Case Study: Blog Post
Let’s say I want to publish a blog post at my website on January 19. And I’m going to write about finding creative writing spaces to do our work. Or maybe it’ll be about creatively finding writing spaces. Either way. that’s what I’ll use as my working title: “Creative Writing Spaces."
Start at the End
The first step will be to write down the working title—“Creative Writing Spaces”—and the end date, or pub date: January 19.

On the downloadable sheet, I include a space for notes, as well, in case you want to record an extra thought for later.
The Questions
While moving through the Project Planning Worksheet, I’ll ask:

“What’s the stage before this?”
“What needs to happen so it’s ready for this stage?”
“How long will that take?”

The answers to these three questions will point you to the next stage and deadline.
Discover the Stage Before Published
In this case, I’ll start the questioning. I’ll ask:

What’s the stage before this?

The answer? “Creative Writing Spaces” needs to be prepped in WordPress.

What needs to happen so it’s ready for this stage?

I’ll need the text and have to add some code and a photo. Add some tags.

How long will it take?

About an hour. And let’s say I’ll prep it the day before.

I'll write on my worksheet—or I could write it directly on my editorial calendar and skip the worksheet—Prepped: January 18.

Under "Notes," I could write down one hour or remind myself to refer to a blog post workflow. Anything to help me easily follow through.
What's the Stage Before Prepped?
As I continue working through my Project Planning Worksheet I ask:

What’s the stage before this?

This article needs to have been edited and proofread and in its final version before it can be prepped.

What needs to happen so it’s ready for this stage?

I need to have written the draft and allowed some time to edit and proofread.

How long will that take?

Let’s say I like to leave at least a day between the finished draft and final edits. That puts the work at January 16.

I write on my worksheet—or directly on my editorial calendar—the finished article needs to be edited and proofread: January 16
What's the Stage Before Edited and Proofread?
What’s the stage before this?

That became clear in my last answer: I need to have written it.

What needs to happen so it’s ready for this stage?

I need to find time to write this article and do the work. I need to write.

How long will that take?

Even though I’m fairly efficient if I sit down and write nonstop,

Dec 12 2017

8mins

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Rank #3: Ep 177: [Interview] Alison Hodgson on Boiling a Story Down to Its Essence, One-Star Reviews, and Perseverance

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Back in October 2018, I interviewed three authors who served on the speaking team at Breathe Christian Writers Conference. We discussed all things writing, like their writing challenges, their writing process, and their advice for writers. All for you.

I’ve mixed in with my standard short solo episodes an interview with Shawn Smucker and another with Patrice Gopo.

Today, I bring you the last of the three from that conference: a conversation with Alison Hodgson, author of The Pug List. I sprang this on her at the last minute, asking if I could interview her during the last hour on the last day of the conference.

We slipped into a room and discussed such topics as boiling a story down to its essence, seeing work come to fruition, managing a pug’s Instagram account, surviving one-star reviews, and much more. Enjoy getting to know Alison Hodgson.
Alison Hodgson is the author of The Pug List: A Ridiculous Dog, a Family Who Lost Everything, and How They All Found Their Way Home. She is a Moth StorySLAM winner and a regular contributor to the design website Houzz.com. Her writing has been featured in Woman’s Day magazine, on Forbes.com, Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, and the Religion News Service, and her essays have been published in a variety of anthologies. Alison lives in Michigan with her husband, their children, and three good dogs. alisonhodgson.com
Resources:

Website: alisonhodgson.com 
Facebook: @alisonhodgsonauthor
Instagram: @alisonhodgsonbooks/ and (more prominently) @therealpugoliver
Twitter: @HodgsonAlison
The Pug List: A Ridiculous Little Dog, a Family Who Lost Everything, and How They All Found Their Way Home (Amazon affiliate link)
A clip from Alison's MOTH story
The Barbara Pym Society, a website highlighting information related to an author Alison mentions
Shawn Smucker interview
Patrice Gopo interview
Ann's Patreon account
All podcast episodes

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
Have you grabbed the free mini-course?
Make Your Sentences Sing:
7 Sentence Openers to Add Music to Your Prose
Go to annkroeker.com/sentenceopeners to learn more and to enroll for free. If it looks interesting, you can dive right in.

Dec 04 2018

55mins

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Rank #4: Ep 191: Write to Discover Your Voice

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[Ep 191]
You know within a few notes if you're listening to the Beatles or the Bee Gees, James Taylor or Justin Timberlake, Sting or Cher.

Why?

Well, it’s their voice. You recognize their voice.

In literature, it may not seem as obvious, since we aren’t usually hearing the author’s voice when we read their work. And yet, I’ll bet you could read a few lines of someone’s work and tell me if it's:

William Faulkner or Wendell Berry
Barbara Kingsolver or Stephen King
Tom Wolfe or Virginia Woolf

Why?

Once again, it’s their voice. You recognize their voice.

You’d know if you were reading something by Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Ann Voskamp or...Ann Kroeker.

Even if you didn’t know them before, if I put passages from Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott side by side, you’d be able to detect a difference. A big difference.

Some of it would be due the content. Some of it would be due to stylistic choices each of them makes, like word choice, sentence length, literary devices, allusions. Each writer brings to their work different memories, opinions, and passions. That and more plays into the words we write and the way we write them.

Somehow it all comes together into something we label “voice.”
What Is Voice?
Agents and publishers say they’re looking for a unique voice, a new voice, a fresh voice, a genuine voice, a voice that rings true.

We writers want to have a voice like that. We want to know we’ve found our voice and we want to deliver our work in that one-of-a-kind voice that connects with readers and stands out in a crowded market. We’re all trying to land on that special “something.”

What is this mysterious thing called “voice”?

The answer is often vague and subjective, sometimes as unhelpful as “I know it when I see it.”

This answer—and it’s not uncommon—leaves writers anxious and unsure of themselves. They get self-conscious and start to question, “Is this my voice? Or did I sound more ‘me’ in the last project?”

And if they continue to squirm as they work, worried they sound like someone else or like anyone else, they’re at risk of losing the authentic voice that may already be pouring out of them naturally.
Definition of Voice
I poked around in books and online and discovered that a few people venture a definition of voice.

Education Northwest, the organization that developed the 6+1 Traits, describe voice as “the heart and soul of the writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath.”1 A reader, they say, should identify something individual, something unique from “all other writers.”2

Okay, sounds good. That’s what we’re aiming for: individual, unique, a little heart and soul and, if possible, wit.

But how does the writer find that? How does the writer pull that off? How do we know our paragraphs aren’t pulsing with copycat wit? And how can we get some of that magic?
Develop an Ear for Voice
While it’s hard to be objective about the individuality of our own writing voice, it’s easier to listen for voice in others. In Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes a time he assigned autobiographical writing to his students and as he read their work, he paid attention to what held his attention.

Over time, he identified those sections, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and fragments as writing that “felt real.”3

He said, “[I]t had a kind of resonance, it somehow rang true.”4 He sensed power in their words. This power, he decided, was voice.

“On some days,” he writes, “these passages jumped out at me very clearly: it’s as though I could hear a gear being engaged and disengaged.”5
Voice Is Power
Elbow began to recognize feelings these writers exuded in some of these sections—anything from happiness to self-pity. And yet he found it difficult to nail down a clear explanation or source of the power these writers conveyed or an objective definition of voice.6

He did, however, develop an ear for voice over time.

Mar 26 2019

13mins

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Rank #5: Ep 132: This Is the Year to Tackle That Complicated, Unfamiliar New Writing Project

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This fall, I traveled to New York City for the first time.

I’d been concerned about how to navigate the city; I'd never before been there. I didn’t know what to expect, and wasn't sure how things work. Should we take taxis? The subway? Uber?

I was nervous. A little scared, honestly, because everything was so unknown and unfamiliar.

But I went.

I said “yes” to the trip, did a little reading and research, and finally, I decided to trust that my traveling companion and I were smart enough to figure it out.

Once we were there, we found our way using Google Maps in "walking" mode. We turned the wrong way a few times—actually, every time—but we'd revise our path, turn down a different street, and you know what? We arrived at our destinations—even if it meant we took the long way a few times.

And we laughed a lot at how our first few steps were almost always in the wrong direction, but we eventually figured it out. We even hopped on the subway to visit some sights with no problem.

Once I familiarized myself with the unfamiliar, my concern shifted to confidence. My fear dissipated as we figured it out.
Dive In
If you've never written a long literary essay—or something bigger, like a novel or a nonfiction book—you might be concerned about all the details involved in the process. It's unfamiliar, so you might feel nervous, intimidated—even a little scared.

Writers who dread the learning curve and fear failure might put it off indefinitely and never even try to tackle that essay or book.

The best way to familiarize yourself with anything is to do a little research up front, and then...take a deep breath and dive in.

Drive to the city and find your way around. Open up Google Docs or Microsoft Word and start making an outline or writing the first chapter.

As you begin, you’ll start to see what you understand and don’t understand; what you have and don’t have. You’ll poke around and find answers to your questions.
Figure It Out as You Go
This is the year to tackle that complicated, unfamiliar new writing project.

Start writing your story and eventually you’ll figure out how to set up a filing system that works well for your content. Start writing your essay and you’ll discover something you need to research.

Sure, you might get turned around at first, not having much of a plan. You might have to regroup or revise something after the fact. But there’s very little that can’t be reworked and reorganized, often with less effort than you thought.

If you've been putting off a project that feels foreign and you're unsure how to tackle it, start writing it. Figure it out as you go.

And I suspect—I hope—you'll find the unfamiliar will grow familiar faster than you imagined.
Fear Stops Us from Starting
I released a course this week, and if you’re curious about it, you can go to annkroeker.com/courses and it should take you to the page for my school. The course is called:

The Organized Writer: Tap into the Power of an Editorial Calendar.

I’d love for you to take a look at the description because if you’re in a state of overwhelm and fear regarding a big project that you have no idea how to create, I want you to know…I can relate. I know how you feel.

It took forever for me to start making this video-driven course. There was too much unfamiliar to navigate—I had to record several kinds of video requiring several kinds of video editing, all of which was new to me. I was using new equipment and new software.

I was so intimidated by it, for ages I didn’t even start; for months, I resisted. I put off even playing around with things, dreading the learning curve.

Then, one weekend, I decided to trust that I was smart enough to figure it out, and if I ran up against something that confused me, I knew I could get answers along the way.

So I took a deep breath and dove in. I bumbled through some of the setup in the main software, but most aspects of it were simple and intuitive; a confusing...

Dec 21 2017

6mins

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Rank #6: Ep 166: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 1): Start with the Right Mindset

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Last week, we started to explore a fear that haunts many writers, which is the fear that they aren’t good enough.

Or they think they aren’t enough. I hope you've explored the root of this fear and other fears that hold you back as a writer. I hope you're ready to move past the fears.

Instead of worrying, wondering, or fearing you aren’t good enough to write, you’re going to do something about it. You’re going to be a better writer.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to introduce, review, and practice some things we can do to improve, so that we’re getting better all the time.

Ernest Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” In other words, we'll always be growing and changing as writers. When we have a beginner's mindset—when we see ourselves as an apprentice—we can continue to learn. Even those who feel confident in their writing skills can discover room for growth. We are all apprentices capable of becoming better writers.
Believe You Can Change
It sounds so simple, but any writer can get trapped in the belief they are stuck where they are in a kind of personal stasis—they assume their writing skills and ability are finite and unchangeable.
The beginner’s fixed mindset
This fixed mindset can haunt the insecure writer who feels he is trapped in mediocrity, unable to evolve and improve. He believes he'll never be good enough to submit his work to a journal or agent.

He believes he wasn’t born with that gift of writing, so there’s only so far he can go. He settles into the space he feels he’s allowed to occupy and sort of gives up.
The experienced writer’s fixed mindset
The thing is, this static mentality—this fixed mindset—can also plague the more experienced writer who’s found some degree of success. He settles into a comfort zone, seeing that he can consistently turn out material at about the same level of quality and readers continue to respond with enthusiasm.

Why change? Why grow? "Why fix what ain't broke?" he thinks. So he writes without stretching himself, satisfied with how his writing life has unfolded and where it’s taken him. He sees no need to grow beyond this.
Both writers, stuck
I'm glad for those who have reached goals and arrived at some level of success. Congratulations. But I confess...I hope to encourage those writers to believe they, too, can get even better and write even more challenging and captivating projects, whatever they may be.

So wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, I’m going to try to change your mind and your mindset.

If you feel you weren’t born with the writing gene and you believe have no hope of improving, I’m telling you, it’s time to learn about—and even test—the growth mindset.

If you’ve built publishing credits and produced an impressive portfolio of work—if you’ve sold books and hit bestseller lists—you, too, can improve. You’ve been received well, but you can be an even better writer.

Because we all can.

None of us is stuck or static.
Embrace the Growth Mindset
If you’ve been told only some people are natural born writers who emerged into the world with some kind of supernatural artistic gifts, that’s a fixed mindset, and the fixed mindset causes us to slam a door that was actually standing wide open to us.

This belief is supported by plenty of outliers we can point to—people for whom writing does seem easy, whose work astounds.

But writing skills can be learned and writers—even so-called natural-born writers, if they exist—are not locked into one level of greatness. None of us needs to feel stuck, yet many of us cling to the fixed mindset. “Oh, that’s not for me. I'm not a great writer. I can’t do that.”
Everything Is "Figureoutable"
The growth mindset reflects reality.

Someone with a growth mindset says everything is "figureoutable." Marie Forleo uses this word—this phrase—in her videos and attributes it to her mother. It’s a fun and freeing attitude toward life and work.

Aug 21 2018

9mins

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Rank #7: Ep 125: No Time to Write? Do This Every Day

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Last time we talked about how lack of time is a universal frustration for people who want to write. And I offered a solution that could kickstart your writing and prove to yourself it can be done—you can write even when you think you have no time at all.

In this episode, you’re going to see how a simple practice will help you enjoy some quick wins. This, too, will prove to yourself that you can write even when it seems you have no time to spare.
Daily Paragraph
Every day, write a paragraph.

That’s it. Write one paragraph for your work-in-progress every night.

You might argue that word count works better. If it does, great. Write that many words. And make sure they add up to at least one paragraph. If you can't reach your target word count, won't it be great if you have one complete paragraph done? You can always write more.

You might argue that you need to sit at your computer for a set amount of time. Great. Sit there. But while you’re sitting there for that set amount of time, write one paragraph. Yes, while you're sitting there. Because you could also sit there and do nothing or sneak a peek at Instagram.

And I want you to write one paragraph.

Why a paragraph?

Because it is a discrete block of writing. It can stand alone while contributing to the whole. It has its own mini beginning, middle, and end. If you write a full paragraph, you’re going to feel like you completed an idea—a subtopic of the larger piece or a scene of the larger story—because that's exactly what a paragraph is: one fully developed idea.

You don’t get a pass if you write blog posts and the paragraphs are one sentence long or if you write fiction and you write one line of dialogue that has to stand on its own. If that's what your work-in-progress needs next, write a scene. This technically may take several “paragraphs” before you’re done, but it will satisfy that need to arrive at completion so your brain realizes you're making progress.
How to Do It
Open a Word document, Google doc, Evernote note, spiral notebook. It doesn't matter what you use—just open something you can write in.

If you didn't get a block of time yet to kickstart the project, on the first night, map out an article or story. Mind map or outline or make a little list of what your ideas are and what you might like to say. That’s the only night you won’t write an official paragraph, but you’re thinking about all the paragraphs you’re going to write, so that’s legit.

Next night, write one paragraph. It doesn't necessarily have to be sequential. If you’re struggling to figure out an introduction, write any paragraph, address any point, dive into any scene.

Next night, look at the plan, read the paragraph from the night before, add anything you think of to that paragraph and write another. This might be another point or some other part of the article. On this night, you may have to start putting these paragraphs more or less in the right location on the page if you’re writing out of sequence.

But you’re writing. You didn’t think you had the time, but look how one paragraph after another grows into something substantial.

Of course I’ve been talking about writing these paragraphs in the evening, but if you're a morning person of course, write then. Or you could write during a lunch break. In other words, just swap out evening for the time of day that works best for you.
Don't Overthink the Paragraph
A paragraph may seem like a lot if you haven't written much for a while, but just write any old thought. Don't get all worked up about its artistic merit.

Do this enough nights in a row, and before you know it, you’ll have most of a poem, article, essay, or book chapter done.

You can save the introduction and conclusion for last, after you’ve fully developed your piece, paragraph by paragraph, idea by idea. You might need to move things around. But you've got words to work with. Finally. After all this time.
Every Draft Is a Success

Oct 31 2017

6mins

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Rank #8: Ep 213: How to Hook and Hold Your Readers

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[Ep 213]

If you didn’t click to read this first sentence, I failed.

If we want to hook readers and hold their attention so they read all the way to the end, we have to generate an intriguing title or headline.

Lure Readers with Your Title

Books, chapters, articles, essays, poems: they all need names or titles that invite the reader to stop skimming and scrolling and think, “Hm. I wonder what this is about?” or “Oh, wow, I need this information.”

I opened up Feedly when I was preparing this article and stopped on an article at The Write Practice titled “How to Find the Core Message of Your Writing” because it was clear and seemed relevant to the kinds of things I like to read.

But I also stopped on an article by Emily P. Freeman: “How to Find (and Become) A Good Listener.” That sounded useful to help me as a coach and to help me improve relationships with family and friends.

Or consider James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. The main title intrigues me with that word “atomic” connected to “habits.” His subtitle is “An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.” Then he includes a tagline that clarifies it further: “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” That sounds like a doable approach to the topic of habits, doesn’t it? He hooked me with his title and subtitle combo.

We have to entice our readers to click on the link or open the book by capturing that first concept in a few words that hint at or outright reveal the subject, topic, theme, or problem we’ll address in the piece.

Hook Your Readers with Attention Grabbers

Let’s say you nailed it—you lured in your readers with the headline.

Now it’s time to hook them—to grab them by the throat, as novelists often say. Bring on the attention grabber: it’s that first line or two that will keep them reading.

When I taught composition to high school students, I’d offer attention-grabber ideas like:

  • a startling statistic
  • a quote
  • a question
  • an intriguing statement or claim
  • a story (e.g., an anecdote that stands alone, a personal story, or someone else’s story)

That article about finding the core message of your writing starts, “Why do you write?”—a question any writer will instinctively answer, at least in his head.

So the author, Joe Bunting, has probably hooked us. Our mind is engaged with the question. It’s a good attention-grabber.

Emily P. Freeman’s article on finding and becoming a good listener has an epigraph—a quote from Dr. Larry Crabb about listening to each other—followed by the beginning of the actual article. She starts with a story:

It’s 2012, and there’s a stack of brochures in the little room I type in. I keep staring over at them, rereading their invitation, “To know more about you: If you would like to be informed of upcoming events…”

I reach over, and I turn the plastic holder to face the wall. I cannot keep reading that same brochure over and over again.

What’s going to happen? Why is this brochure featured so prominently in this story? Is she going to take action? Is it going to change her? What does this brochure have to do with listening?

You can see how stories are great for hooking readers—they’re great attention-grabbers. They awaken curiosity and open a loop that we must close. We want to know what happens and how it ends.

So Emily has hooked me.

You, too, can use stories. And here’s a bonus tip—if you start far enough into a situation, the action of a story engages and hooks the reader, but you can leave it hanging so that you complete the story in the conclusion. That provides closure that satisfies and gratifies the reader. It feels like you’ve come full circle.

But for them to get to the end, you’ve got to hold him.

First you hook them, then you hold them.

Hold Your Reader’s Attention

To hold the reader isn’t easy. We’re battling for his or her attention, and we all know the long list of distractions that can pull a reader away at any moment.

Here are some tips.

Avoid Superfluous Content and Phrasing

Don’t slow down the reader with unnecessary information or stiff writing with complicated sentences. You can write beautifully, but those beautiful words need to add to the story or ideas and not simply pad the project.

Keep your reader moving down the page.

Study Hemingway’s Choices

When Hemingway typed on his typewriter, he didn’t have ways to add bold or bigger fonts—that would come later, with the publisher. But he made choices that affected sentence and paragraph length.

In a sense it affected layout without relying on a graphic designer. By writing tight and breaking up paragraphs, he naturally left more white space. This helps the reader move forward because she’s not intimidated by a big block of text.

Short Sentences

Short sentences free the reader from maintaining close attention, so in this age of distraction you’re making it easier for her to follow the storyline or take in the information when you offer it in smaller chunks.

For those drawn to classic novels, this can be frustrating. We want to emulate our heroes who write in a leisurely style of pre-television/pre-Internet/pre-social-media eras.

But we don’t live in those eras. We have television, we have Internet, we have social media. Play with variations to see if you can write the way you want while still holding your readers’ attention.

Once you’re known for a style and tone, you may get by with longer, cumulative, compound-complex sentences because your fans already love to sit with your words and soak them in.

But if you’re just starting out or you’re trying to move into new audiences and reach out into the world, you’ll have better luck hooking and holding readers if you write tight, focused sentences that lead the reader easily through the text to get to the point.

If you use the Hemingway App, where you paste in some of your content to be analyzed, the app will flag the long sentence. I recommend you heed that warning and rework that sentence.

Short Paragraphs

Today’s online reader responds well to short paragraphs.

This doesn’t mean every line needs to stand on its own, but pay attention to how you yourself read when you’re online. See how you feel when you hit a big block of text. Do you resist? Scroll past it? Click away?

Sometimes we feel like we don’t have time to dig into it when it’s one big chunk.

That same content could be divided into smaller chunks, however, and when we encounter the same material divided up, we breeze right through it without stopping—never questioning if we have time to commit.

So online, especially, give your ideas space to breathe on the page.

In print, I think you can get by writing standard paragraphs because someone who picks up a book is already committed to spending time with the material.

Even when reading physical books, however, I find myself appreciating authors who deliver their ideas or stories efficiently. Every detail needs to earn the right to be there, moving the story forward or effectively illustrating a point.

Hook and Hold Your Readers with Easy Navigation

We have a lot of tools at our disposal these days to assist us that don’t rely exclusively on our words. Those of us who publish our own work as articles and blog posts have layout and design options to help us hook and hold our readers.

Use Subheadings

Use subheadings to label sections so your reader can easily skim through and decide if the information will be interesting or relevant to her. Subheadings are a tool in that way. A gift.

In fact, inserting subheadings can help writers find focus, organization, and flow as they draft.

Use Lists and Bullet Points

You’ll also hold your reader longer if he can glance down and see a list is coming, so use numbered lists and bullet points online and in nonfiction projects like books and articles.

Use Visuals

Writers these days need to understand the importance of how visuals and images enhance how the reader interacts with our words.

The power of images is that they:

  • break up blocks of text
  • illustrate points and add context or interest to the written words
  • can be photos (that you have permission to use) or images (like pull quotes on a color background)
  • allow people to create an interesting pin on Pinterest, which lets your article live in perpetuity in a search engine, so people can find your content for a long, long time

Think like a magazine editor when you’re putting your project together. Ask what kind of image would help here. What will best fit? Play with sizing and placement.

If you can afford it, hire a graphic designer to do it for you or have the designer create templates you can use that fit your color and style theme and save you time down the road.

Hold Your Readers with Content

We can pull out all the stops with professionally designed images and bullet points, but if the content doesn’t deliver, who cares?

Solve the Problem

If we promise to solve a problem in the headline and dance around it without offering a solution, our reader’s going to lose interest and trust. Resist the urge to craft a clickable headline that you aren’t able to address in the content of your project.

Open Up

Readers often turn to writers when the writer is an authority on a topic or an expert, but vulnerability will build trust and offers a different kind of ethos and a different kind of hook and hold.

When we open up about our own struggles, readers feel a connection—they’re curious to find out how we resolve our problem or deal with our challenges.

If they struggle with the same problems and challenges, they may not care all that much about how we ourselves solve it, but they’ll be searching for solutions they can apply to their own lives. So they read on.

Your Ideas in Your Voice

Inject your creative, original ideas to add meat and depth to a topic. Make connections others haven’t made and express it in your unique voice to offer value to your reader.

That keeps me reading when I’m trying to figure something out or I want to learn something new. Whether they’re using a lively, entertaining style or a thorough, thoughtful, pensive tone, I’ll stick with the writer who gives me what I’m looking for. They’ll hold me as a reader.

This is where your curious, creative, productive writer-self can bring it home. You’ve got great ideas—share them in your unique voice in ways that readers appreciate.

Do I Want to Read On?

It’s a simple question to ask. I sometimes forget to ask it:

Does this sentence make me want to read the next sentence?

Does one idea lead to the next? Does this paragraph make me want to read the next one?

If the answer is no, the reader may abandon ship. They may click away.

When self-editing, I need to remember this so I can liven up my prose and slice away the parts that drag down the text, to keep my readers engaged.

You can do that, too. Next time you’re writing—well, next time you’re editing—ask yourself, Does this sentence make me want to read the next one? Because if you don’t want to read on, your reader won’t want to, either.

Grab Your Reader and Don’t Let Go

I saw a cartoon the other day that showed a courtroom, and a witness on the stand is pointing to a man, the defendant, shouting, “Yes, that’s him! That’s the author of the book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go!”

We want to be that author, guilty as charged. Yes, we want to write books, screenplays, short stories, and articles that grab our readers and won’t let them go. So hook your readers at the very start, hold them throughout your piece, and deliver the goods all the way to the end.

Resources

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Sep 19 2019

13mins

Play

Rank #9: Ep 141: Writers Help the World Begin to See

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Photographer Walker Evans said, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."

Pay attention to this world. Learn something. And then, I might add, give it away. Before you die. Because life is short and there’s so much to say.
Stare
We writers join the photographers and fine artists and children as the watchers, staring at the world around us, noticing what others brush past or ignore.

We’re the ones who see and take note. We pry, listen, eavesdrop. We press in and push out, serving as a conduit of whatever truth we’ve taken in.
Share
Whatever you learn, whatever you know, whatever you see and hear, write it. Share it. Pass it on.

You have stories to tell that only you can tell because you were the one who was there—you were the one who took time to notice and see what others missed.

We stare a long time and sometimes stand up, walk to another location to gain a different perspective, and stare even longer—this time from that other angle.

Capture it. Verify, as much as possible. And bear witness with honesty and humility.

We play with words as we tell the truth. We may speak truth others can’t articulate on their own, or we speak truth others can’t bring themselves to utter. We often speak the truth others can't quite wrap their minds around, but when they see it, read it, hear it, they’ll “get it.”

All because we stopped to stare. All because we were willing to share.
The Unexpected in the Everyday
Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren, authors of Street Photography Now, respond in part to the Walker Evans quote, as they describe the work of street photographers in terms that sound something like the work of writers. They say:
Street photographers elevate the commonplace and familiar into something mythical and even heroic. They thrive on the unexpected, seeing the street as a theatre of endless possibilities, the cast list never fixed until the shutter is pressed. They stare, they pry, they listen and they eavesdrop, and in doing so they hold up a mirror to the kind of societies we are making for ourselves. At a time when fewer and fewer of the images we see are honest representations of real life, their work is more vital than ever. (excerpted in The Telegraph)
We writers can do the same kind of work as the street photographers. When we do, we elevate the commonplace and familiar into something bigger, even “mythical” or “heroic.” We, too, thrive on the unexpected in the everyday. Our work, too, is more vital than ever.
Make Much of What Others Pass By
Dinty Moore of Brevity Magazine tweeted a quote from Steven Church, who said: "I think our obligation as essayists is to make too much of things that other people wouldn’t make much of."

Essayists, poets, novelists, memoirists: look around. In the commonplace, familiar world we inhabit, we see the bigger themes, the more profound truths, the window into what our world is becoming. We do this, in part, by noting what some small piece of it has become. We make much of things others pass right by.

Every writer can learn from the street photographers.

We can learn to stare. Pry. Eavesdrop.

Take it all in. Use every sense. Take it all in and get it all down, even if you don’t write about it until a week later, a month later, a year later. But don’t wait too long.
Help the World Begin to See
In the play Our Town, the character Emily is speaking to her loved ones when she says, "I love you all, everything. - I cant look at everything hard enough.” Her monologue models attention to detail and inspires every theatergoer, every writer—every human being—to do the same.

She cries out to her family to look at each other. She realizes too late how fast life goes, how we don’t have time—or take time—to look at one another.

"All that was going on in life and we never noticed,” she says.

She takes one last look as she says goodbye to the world—to the town,

Feb 27 2018

6mins

Play

Rank #10: Ep 124: No Time to Write? A Simple Solution to Kickstart Your Work

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I hear it all the time.

It doesn't seem to matter what stage of life we're in or what part of the world we're from. Regardless of age or gender or personality type, everyone says it: "I want to write, but I don’t have the time."
Time Management Systems Only Part of the Solution
You might think the only solution is to quit your job or hire a nanny. More likely, you’ve given up. Well, I guess that’s where you’re finding yourself if you’re someone who wants to write but doesn’t because of time…or lack of it.

I don’t think you have to quit your job or hire a nanny. I also don’t think you have to give up.

I could offer project management and time management solutions to help you eliminate some things from your schedule, plan your days efficiently, streamline your processes, and make the most of your time.

And we could discuss distraction and motivation and nemesis and Resistance and procrastination. Because chances are, more than one thing is keeping you from writing, not just lack of time.
It Can Be Done: You Can Write
I want you to prove to yourself it can be done—you can write even when you think you have no time at all.

Here’s a simple solution that's worked for me. In the next article I’ll share another. You can try one or the other, or both together for even more momentum. This first solution is especially powerful if it’s been a while since you’ve written.
Kickstart Your Writing with a Time Block
I urge you to kickstart your writing with a block of time devoted to nothing else but your words.

If your schedule is insane, this may seem like a counterintuitive suggestion or a contradiction—“If I don’t have time to write, how will I find a block of time to write?"

Have you taken a vacation in the past year or two? It could be a one-day escape to a nearby tourist attraction, a weekend retreat, or a week-long getaway. You made it happen, didn’t you? So you know it’s a hassle to step away from life and work, but it can be done. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to set aside the time and make it happen.

Same with this writing block. If you want it, you’ll find a way. And like a vacation, it’s not a regular thing. Just one block of time.

I want you to love yourself and your writing enough to say, “I’m doing it. I’m making this happen. I’ve waited long enough—it’s time to kickstart my writing."

Can you find a block of time? Can you escape the busyness that’s been holding you back? Can you leave it behind for an afternoon, a day, a weekend, or longer, so you can write for an extended time and make a dent in your work-in-progress—or the work that hasn’t even begun?
How Long?
You don’t have to go far, and you don’t have to be gone long to make a difference. Remember, this is a kickstart, not a completion—you don’t have to write the entire novel or finish the complete essay. You just dedicate a block of time to writing to give it a strong start or build out its bones.

Surely you can find an afternoon and evening? Or a full Saturday?
Where?
For a week or weekend getaway, you could head to a nearby retreat center or a local bed and breakfast or a campground cabin. If you only carved out a day or an afternoon, head to the library or see if a local co-working space offers an inexpensive day pass.

Depending on your project, you might want to find a location that doesn't offer Wi-Fi. Without that distraction, you’ll get more words out. Just make notes in brackets directly in the text to remind you to look up details later. You can tackle that research some day when you have just a few minutes between appointments. Kickstarting your project means you need to set down words, lots of words, so don’t get distracted confirming the street name in your home town. Just write.
Keep the Writing Pipeline Flowing
You’ll make the most of this time by setting up your writing pipeline if you haven’t done that already. I introduced the writing pipeline in episode 114.

Oct 24 2017

7mins

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Rank #11: Ep 188: Write to Discover What You Really Want to Say

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[Ep 188]

In this series, you’ve discovered more about yourself through writing—you may have begun to heal emotional wounds. The act of writing has helped you find the courage to continue to write. Through writing, you’ve articulated your reason for doing the work. And you’ve identified your top themes and topics. Most recently, you’ve written to discover your ideal reader.

Today, you’ll see how the act of writing—the process of writing any given project—can lead us to discover what we really want to say.
Discovery Writing to Unearth Ideas
Before we begin to outline or research, we can use writing to probe what is on our mind—to unearth what we want to say. An effective tool for this—and I’ve talked about it before—is freewriting.

I was introduced to the practice of freewriting in college, thanks to a book that was newly released at the time and used in two of my creative writing courses: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg.

Her invitation to freewrite—to set a timer for, say, ten minutes and write, pen to paper, without stopping—gave me a way to shimmy past my stifling editor-mind to what Goldberg calls “first thoughts.”1

Those first thoughts unleashed in me the memories, stories, images, and ideas that I hadn’t yet reached when I sat down to write using an outline. Over time, the practice generally led to my discovering what I really wanted to say in my next project—which, at the time, was usually a poem.
Freewriting While Composing the Draft
I still use freewriting as a tool to unstick my thoughts—often before even launching a new project. But freewriting can be also used while my writing is in-progress.

I can be busy writing a paragraph—sometimes even when I’m following an outline I’ve developed—and pause to go deeper with freewriting.

Priscilla Long agrees with this balance of writing into an essay form or structure while occasionally stepping away to further explore ideas and thoughts through freewriting. She refers to freewriting as “discovery writing” in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, where she says this:
[W]riting into a structure should be done in tandem with “discovery writing,” that is, writing to learn what you have to say, writing to work out your thoughts, writing to find out what your antagonist thinks (by writing from her point of view in your notebook, even though in the finished story you are never going to be in her point of view).2
In other words, when we need clarity, Long recommends we stop in the midst of writing to an outline or “template” and spend a few minutes freewriting. This avoids shallow treatment of our topic or story. Instead, we respect our mind’s hesitation and take time to discover what we really want to say.

After freewriting, we gain insight and turn back to the draft, adjusting our ideas as needed.
Determine and Draft Your Project’s Big Idea
Let’s say that you’ve spent a few minutes freewriting to determine what to write about. You’ve thought about it, you’ve researched, you’ve outlined. You have a good solid concept for this project.

When you’re ready to embark on the first words of your next project, determine and draft your project’s Big Idea.

What’s this piece about? What’s the focus? What’s the driving theme?
Articulating Your Working Thesis
Writing this out is a kind of discovery writing all its own—you’re trying to articulate a thesis.

Remember the thesis? Back in high school and college you were probably trained to express it as one sentence—a statement that is, in fact, arguable. A thesis can be used in fiction, nonfiction, and some poetry; it encapsulate what your project is about.

The thesis statement expresses the Big Idea of your project in that one sentence. You set out to explore and support this statement throughout the piece.

Your thesis establishes strong focus for the project from the start. A working thesis is flexible, though. The further you get into your research and writing,

Mar 05 2019

15mins

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Rank #12: Ep 190: [Interview] Author & Literary Agent Jeff Herman

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Today I’m chatting with author and literary agent Jeff Herman.

Jeff’s literary agency has ushered nearly one thousand books into print. He’s the coauthor of the acclaimed Write the Perfect Book Proposal and is often featured as an expert in print and broadcast media.

Jeff provides insider insight that will give you hope that it’s possible to see your words in print.

When you get a chance, check out his resource: Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 28th edition.

Here's a taste of what he passed along today:
"The first myth is that just because you’re in New York or the vicinity of New York you have a crucial advantage over someone from Indiana or Alaska. It’s really not true. The walls that publishing creates obstruct everyone equally. It’s not a matter of geography. It’s just a matter of access."
"Now, of course, with digital communications, which to a great extent has displaced hard copy and to a certain extent has even displaced telephones and in person communications, I think that has done a lot to equalize the playing field."
"The rules are not really true. They’re really preferences. The walls are porous, if that’s the right word. These walls are not metal plated; it’s more like Swiss cheese. And it’s a big illusion that you can’t get through these walls. The illusion is very useful for agents and editors. It works for us. But it doesn’t work for you, the writer, and ultimately it doesn’t work for the editors or agents because it does in effect lock out a lot of good people. But that’s why we need to be very tenacious and not let the agents or the editors individually or collectively tell you that you are not publishable. Because they don’t know. They think they know—they may know what’s right for them—but nobody can speak for the industry as a whole."
"What I enjoy is working with the writer to make them as good as they can be and helping them to achieve their goals. I like to see the results of our good work together. I like to see that the book gets acquired by a publisher, that it gets published, and that it sells copies, and all the benefits that accrue to the author. I really feel then that I’m serving a purpose by helping the client and the publisher and the reader get all these beneficial results. And that’s what I see as the dream situation where we’re all working together as a well-oiled machine."
Jeff Herman is the author of Write the Perfect Book Proposal and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 28th edition.
Resources:

Website: jeffherman.com
Publisher's Marketplace (Jeff mentioned the subscription you can get through them)
Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 28th Edition (affiliate link)
Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why (Third Edition) (affiliate link)
Jennifer Dukes Lee interview
Alison Hodgson interview
Shawn Smucker interview
Patrice Gopo interview
Ann's Patreon account
All podcast episodes

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Mar 19 2019

52mins

Play

Rank #13: Ep 133: How to Decide What to Write Next (Introduction to What Do I Write Next series)

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Every day, a writer wakes up and asks, “What do I write next?”

And the answer varies from writer to writer—even your own answer may change from week to week. Sometimes it’ll be obvious what to write next. When you’re approaching a looming deadline and that article or chapter must be completed, the decision is made for you. You sit down and work on that.

But other days you have flexibility. You can write anything you want. How do you choose? Can we be sure the next thing we write is the right thing to write, or the best thing? Do we need to be sure?

I don’t think there’s an absolute right or wrong answer. You choose. But you usually choose based on something, whether consciously or subconsciously. And if you make the choice based on something that rings true with your values and supports where you’re at in your journey, you can feel good about your decision.
Ways to Decide
The next few weeks, we’ll go through various ways you can decide, so you’ll feel a little more confident moving forward on whatever you do write next.
Write Something That Moves You Toward Your Goals
When you’re trying to decide what to write next, you may already have clear goals in mind. You want to submit poetry to literary journals in hopes of being published this year, or you want to put together a book proposal and send it to an agent this fall.

Knowing your goals can help you start with the end in mind and work your way back so that you know what to write today and the next day. For you, the question “What do I write next?” will be easily answered by those goals—your next thing to write will be whatever moves you closer to that goal.

But you may not be that clear about your goals. You may not know where you want to be in a year or what you want to do even in the next month or so.

Or you’re re-evaluating your goals.

Or you just want to write.

That’s okay. You don’t have to overthink it or get uptight about your decision.

But if you want to give it some thought, I’m going to toss out various filters or motivations that might help you begin to think about your next writing project and make a decision.

This list will serve as an overview, and then in the weeks ahead, I'll go into more detail on some of them.

So…How do I decide what I write next?
Write Something That Increases your Skills
One way to decide what to write next is to take stock of your skills and experience. Do you need to work on something? You could pick a project based on its ability to help you hone the craft and develop yourself as a writer.
Write Something You Can Finish and Ship Fast
If you’re working on a long-term project and have been for years, you may realize you’re not going to get any real feedback on it for several more months and you won’t know what readers think for months or even a year after that. An occasional shorter project lets you enjoy quick turnaround and a sense of completion. This could be something as immediate as a social media update or as formal as a poem sent to a literary magazine.
Write What’s Next in Sequence
If you’re writing a blog article series, write the post that explains the next step or stage. If you’re writing a novel, tackle the next scene. Your short story will need the next beat. A poem grows with the next line leading to the next stanza. An article will expand with another paragraph or section. The sequential approach can be a logical way to decide what to write next.
Write Something for Validation
You may want to write something in hopes of a magazine acceptance. You’ll get that feeling of being chosen. “Hey, they picked me! They picked my article! Someone other than my spouse and mom says my writing is worth publishing.” After that, you may have readers responding and enjoy another layer of objective outside affirmation and validation. Though we should be careful not to rely on the trends and whims of the market to help us feel good about our writing,

Jan 04 2018

10mins

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Rank #14: Ep 123: This Is How to Write Real Copy for Real People

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A lot of my clients are preparing nonfiction book proposals to send out to agents and publishers. One of the sections they have to think through is their primary audience or target reader. We have to identify who this book is intended to impact.

It’s a must for any writing project, big or small. We must know our audience to use the best language to connect with them.

To understand what they already know about our topic—and what they need to know.

To build a relationship with them and continue to connect with them over time.

If we don’t know precisely who are primary audience is, we’re capable of generalizing and writing in a distant, unfriendly, unnatural voice.
Identifying Your Ideal Reader
But who is this unseen reader? Who's clicking on the article you publish at your website? Who reads your tweets? Who subscribes to your newsletter? Who will read your future book?

It’s enough to make your head spin, trying to identify your ideal customer, your target audience, your target reader, your avatar.

People advising writers are using terminology like this, and it’s helpful because they're pushing us to go specific. For example, they won’t necessarily let you settle for simple demographics like, “My ideal reader is a 30-something mom with young children.” Instead, they insist on a more detailed persona, something more like this:
My ideal reader is Cara, a 32-year-old mother of three kids—a second-grader, first-grader, and preschooler. Cara does yoga in the morning, then feeds the kids homemade muffins before loading them into her Honda minivan to drop the older two off at the private elementary school. She then swings through Starbucks with the preschooler, who is dropped off three days a week at the church-based program at 9:00.
And it goes on.

You figure out what she does when she’s alone, and the problems she encounters, and the questions she has throughout a day.

This approach helps a writer—especially the nonfiction writer—come up with articles and content that can address or completely solve this avatar’s problems and answer her questions, one after another.

It’s sort of a creative writing exercise to write a character sketch of this fictional person, fleshing it out with enough detail to make him or her completely real to you as a writer.
Does the Fictional Persona Help You Write?
But for a lot of writers, fictionalizing the person you’re writing for never quite works. Instead of forging a confident tone and close connection, it all feels sort of contrived.

Even if you can go out in the neighborhood and see a person who fits that description, or you can find that kind of person online in a Facebook group asking questions you imagined your avatar asking, it’s still sort of distanced and fabricated. Maybe even a little forced.
For Real Copy, You Need Real People
I like an approach Chase Reeves described in an episode of The Fizzle Show podcast.

The Fizzle team was talking about writing copy and how hard it can be unless—unless—Chase says, "you know exactly who you’re writing to and what you need to tell them.”

Creating a fake persona or avatar is a step in the right direction in that you’re trying to speak to a specific person, but he takes it to a super-practical level.

Here’s Chase’s trick. He opens up Gmail and starts writing an actual email to an actual person he knows really well in his life—someone who fits the type of person he’s hoping to reach with his content.

It’s often his dad. So he opens an email, types in his dad’s email address, taps out a subject line, and prepares to communicate directly with his dad, a real person he knows really well.

As Chase is preparing to write the subject line, he wonders, What would surprise Dad? What would interest him? What would be the take that would make him curious?

He’s talking to one specific person—one real person he knows really well.
Writing Comes Easy When You Write for Friends and Family

Oct 17 2017

7mins

Play

Rank #15: Ep 140: Listen for the Music – More Self-Editing Tips from ‘The Artful Edit’

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In her book The Artful Edit, Susan Bell says editing “involves a deep, long meditation within which the editor or self-editor listens to every last sound the prose before him makes, then separates the music from the noise" (5).

We talked last time about the need to listen—we even explored ways to do so. Now we’re taking it to a more intense level involving "a deep, long meditation," as Bell emphasizes the need to listen to "every last sound the prose" before us makes.

This takes time. Attention. Focus. We're making decisions based on what we hear, listening with a discerning ear, to separate the music from the noise.

Listen for the music.

Eliminate the noise.
The Noise
Let’s start with the noise. I suspect most of us would agree we writers don’t want to add to the noise of the world, nor do we want to simply make noise with our words. No need to sound like a clanging cymbal unless that’s adding pizzazz or punctuation to drive home a point.

So we must recognize when a passage isn’t pulling its weight. Have you read something that feels like it’s sagging, long-winded, or slow? Yeah, that’s probably a sign it ought to be examined more closely and tightened or even eliminated.

Susan Bell says in a later chapter, “Develop your editor’s eye to see where your words slouch.” Though she’s switched from listening to seeing, I suspect avid readers who have grown to love the sound of words can see or sense a slouchy passage, especially when reading aloud. We may be able to spot it on the page, too, if the paragraph is packed with long sentences, too much detail, or lack of clarity or focus.

You’ve probably hit a sluggish, slouchy passage if you realize you’re speed-reading to rush through a section or you caught your mind wandering. Your text probably needs attention if you're reading and re-reading a passage because it didn’t click the first time.
Mego
And heaven forbid if your eyes glaze over.

The late Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of The Washington Post, coined a term for a bad story: “mego.” A story that bored him was “mego," M-E-G-O, the acronym for “my eyes glaze over.” 

If you’re reading and your eyes are glazing over, flag that section. Come back and tighten it, condense it, or if it isn’t necessary, simply delete it. Slouchy words and passages will tire or bore your reader. You’ll risk mego.

Minimize mego. Maximize music.
Making Music
So let’s talk about the music. Bell advises, "you can rhythmically hold on to [your reader] by controlling the musical measure of your prose" (119). A balance of sentence length is a simple fix, but it’s not a science. I can’t tell you to add three compound-complex sentences followed by a short sentence for the perfect combination.

I like to think we’ll know music when we hear it.

It’s the sound of the sentences flowing from one to the other. It’s the word choices that roll off the tongue with ease. It’s the idea that engages the mind without having to read it twice and the scene that unfolds naturally so the reader practically steps into it.

The flow of the passage serves the story or the idea. The music serves the message.

Author Mary Caponegro says:
I’d always write out loud. When I got that opening, I would repeat it out loud, over and over and over…because it was so important to me that the sonic qualities were intact in every single line. A lot of my self-editing would be preoccupied with trying to maintain the standard in my head of musicality. (171)
She seems to enter that long, deep meditation Bell describes to listen to every last sound the prose makes. She’s intent on making music, first. Above all.
Beige or Purple Prose
When crafting lyrical prose—or trying to—writers are tempted to go too far and often produce "purple prose," a term for passages that have grown too flowery, elaborate, excessive, or ornate. They're overwritten and overwrought. Out of the blue, a series of adjectives plucked from a thesaurus line up to modify a pe...

Feb 20 2018

9mins

Play

Rank #16: Ep 176: What Do You Know to Be True?

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Last time, I talked about the power of lists to get us writing about all kinds of things. Lists trick us into writing.

In her famous TED talk, spoken word poet Sarah Kay invites the audience to make a list. She asks them to think of three things they know to be true. They can be about anything, she says, “technology, entertainment, design, your family, what you had for breakfast. The only rule is don’t think too hard.”1

Try it. Today. Right now. Even if you’ve done this before, think of three things you know to be true, about anything.

Don’t think too hard.
Write Your Truths
(I'll pause so you can grab a pen and paper to jot down your three things...go ahead, I'll be here...)

Ready...Set...Go.

(Here, I pause again as you write out your three things you know to be true...)

Okay, here are three things I know to be true.

Trader Joe’s Butternut Squash Ravioli is worth the 45-minute roundtrip drive.
If you buy things used, you won’t feel quite so bad when they break.
Books make excellent companions.

Each of those could be expanded and developed into a miniature memoir. Because the tiny truths you and I express as proverbial-style statements flow out of life experience.

We could tell each other stories. We could tell about how we concluded the ravioli was worth the drive, how the broken item wasn’t quite such a loss, how the books held us close when we needed companionship.

We form these tiny truths in the unfolding of our daily lives, so we could reconstruct a scene that led to deeper understanding; we could bring to life a vignette that solidifies a belief.
What do you know to be true?
Sarah Kay says she often tricks the teenagers she works with into writing poetry by using lists because “Everyone can write lists.” The first list she always assigns is “10 Things I Know to Be True.”2

Later today—or now, if you have time—expand your list. Add seven more to make ten things you know to be true.

If you find your thoughts flowing, beliefs spilling out, one after another, keep going. Make a longer list. Keep adding to the list more and more things you know to be true, reaching deeper and deeper into your wins and losses, your heartaches and joys, your embarrassment, your pain.
Expand on Your Truth
Pluck a single bullet point—a single truth—from your list of what you know to be true.

Let it be your next writing prompt.

Say more about your truth.

Set a timer for 15 minutes and freewrite about that truth. Remember the events that led to this conclusion. Include the back story. Identify the moment of insight. Reflect on its impact.

Voila. You've composed your micro-memoir, your tiny truth fleshed out.

Maybe it’s for you.

Maybe it’s to share.

You can use it to form the themes of your work, whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.

These can be adapted and sort of masked to become a scene in fiction; or, they can be polished and developed into a personal essay.

If one truth alone doesn’t seem to have enough meat to serve up to the world, weave together several to become a longer piece—a collage, a list poem, a winding, free-flowing piece that combines to become a whole.
Sarah Kay's Spoken-Word Truths
Sarah Kay appeared to develop her list of things she knows to be true (or a list quite like it) into a spoken-word poem called “If I should have a daughter.”3

She moves artfully through one truth after another: truths she would one day pass on to this potential offspring; or, perhaps, truths Sarah may be reminding herself to hold onto in the meantime.

Or both.

You could assemble yours into a poem, as well, weaving them into lines, into stanzas, into a free-flowing free-verse poem that moves from one truth to another eventually threading together by theme and thesis.
Micro-Memoir or #TinyTruth
Yours may be best presented as a kind of micro-memoir. As you construct the scene or scenes from your life that led to your truth,

Nov 29 2018

9mins

Play

Rank #17: Ep 192: (Re)Write to Discover How to Improve Your Drafts

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[Ep 192]
“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory1

First Drafts Reveal What You Want to Say
We’ve already covered the power of writing to discover what we want to say. We can do that with freewriting to discover our initial ideas, writing in our journals or as a warmup exercise when we first sit down to work.

We can also use freewriting to bang out our initial draft. This is especially powerful if we’re doing short-form work and pour out the entire story or article in one sitting.

If we prefer, however, we can sit down after we think, plan, plot, and outline, and version one may emerge more smoothly, flowing from one idea to the next with logic and fluency.

Your personality may feel more comfortable with one approach or the other; there’s no right or wrong. The goal is to get that first draft out so you have material to work with.

Once the draft is complete, the real work begins.

It’s time to refine that draft, through rewriting, revision, and editing.
Rewrite and Revise to Improve Your Drafts
As Ernest Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”2

Editing is how we arrive at our finalized message, our finished work. Because as freeing and freewheeling as we may be when writing the draft, the project needs this next discovery phase. We need to clarify our ideas and clean up our messes. We may need to tweak and tighten.

On the other hand, if the curse of knowledge causes us to write too lean, we might need to elaborate on an idea we’ve skipped over or ignored or we may need to expand a section that needs clarity.
Questions to Consider
To revise, we must begin with the same basic instructions a high school or college student receives in composition class: know the topic, audience, and purpose of your piece.

Read with those three things in mind to be sure you’re staying on topic, providing appropriate content for that particular reader, and achieving the intended purpose (such as to persuade, entertain, or inform). For example, you can cut paragraphs where you’ve veered off topic and add information if your audience would need background information.

Author Mary Karr offers a less formal approach to editing and revising:
“All the while, I question. Is this really crucial? Are you writing this part to pose as cool or smart?
For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing.”3
Stephen King, too, reads his drafts with certain questions in mind. In On Writing, he explains:
Underneath, however, I'm asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme?... What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader's mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.4

How to Rewrite and Revise to Improve Your Drafts
You’ll find various methods for rewriting and revising your drafts. Writers approach their work in all kinds of ways.

Some can’t move forward before they’ve refined the latest section.

Others basically freewrite and deal with the word-vomit that splatters onto the page by returning later and cleaning up the mess with next-level editing.
1. Revise and Refine Along the Way
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says Kurt Vonnegut micromanaged his drafts so that his completed work each day was crisp and clean:
Kurt Vonnegut...rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them. The result was days when he might only manage a page or two of finished copy (and the wastebasket would be full of crumpled, rejected page seventy-ones and seventy-twos), but when the manuscript was finished, the book was finished, by gum. You could set it in type.5

Apr 02 2019

14mins

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Rank #18: Ep 167: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 2): 3 Simple Tweaks You Can Try Today

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Last week I talked about the mindset that believes growth is possible—that you are neither stuck at your current level nor have you arrived at mastery. With that mindset, you can begin to evolve and improve.

Today I recommend three simple writing tweaks that will keep your readers interested and engaged.
1. Use Active, Vivid Verbs
Propel your story or idea forward with active, vivid verbs. Don’t fret about your word choices as you write your draft, but in the editing stage, especially, look for places you can swap a flat, lifeless verb for one that keeps the reader alert and engaged.

A few examples of flat, lifeless verbs:

“is" and other forms of “to be” (am, are, was, were, be, being, been, will be, and so on)
“go” or “went"
“have” or “had"
“made"
"do"

When you begin to identify words like these, that slow down your work, you’ll see opportunity. In fact, once you start fishing for verbs that energize your writing for the reader, you, as the author, may begin to dream up new ways of expressing an idea or scene.

Let’s say a writer describes a troubling situation in her kitchen. She writes, “The Instant Pot made such weird sounds, I worried I’d missed a step with the lid position or the settings.”

By simply choosing a more vivid verb than “made” ("The Instant Pot made such weird sounds…”), she may find her creativity kicks in and the whole scene picks up. Like this:

“The Instant Pot fizzed and spit as the silver peg jiggled and wobbled. Did I miss a detail in the instruction book? Should I turn the lid one notch tighter or pick a setting lower than ‘ultra'?"

The scene expanded and changed in tone. By playing with the verbs, the sentence practically came alive.

This simple tweak can produce stronger writing in all genres. I recommend you turn to active, vivid verbs whenever possible and play around with options.
2. In General, Avoid “There was”
Consider this common sentence structure: "There was a jogger who outran a terrier that nipped at her heels."

Because "There was" includes a form of "to be," I could have lumped this suggestion under the discussion of flat, lifeless verbs. Instead, I want to address this on its own.
>> “There was” Fills in for Unknown Subject
Sometimes we use “there are” when we aren’t sure who or what the actor or subject is. Newspapers rely on this when reporting on a situation with limited information. “Last night there was a robbery at the gas station on the corner of 5th and Main.”

Perhaps the reporter turned to “there was" because police hadn’t said anything about the perpetrator. If so, the reporter didn’t have enough information to write something like, “Two men wearing clown masks robbed the gas station on the corner of 5th and Main.” To make the deadline for the morning paper, the reporter gave readers what he had and they at least know a robbery allegedly took place on the corner of 5th and Main.
>> “There was” Can Hide an Identity
A writer might rely on “there was,” “there are,” or “there is” when they want to avoid casting blame or when it doesn’t really matter who did the action.

For example, a mom might write in an email, “I’m going to miss the meeting. There was a flood in our house from an overflowing toilet.” She chose “there was” on purpose to avoid pointing fingers at the particular child who flushed an entire roll of toilet paper and clogged the toilet to overflowing.

As you can see, you may find this construction handy and use it for various reasons. But in general, I recommend you avoid using it because it often can so easily be rearranged to create a much more interesting alternative.
>> Alternatives to “There was”
I can rearrange the example and play with variations.

"There was a jogger who outran a terrier that nipped at her heels" can quite simply become: “A jogger outran a terrier that nipped at her heels.”

Already, launching with "A jogger" instead of “There was” animates the scene one notch more than the or...

Aug 28 2018

9mins

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Rank #19: Ep 210: Cultivate Curiosity for Your Best Writing Life, Pillar One

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[210]

Dani Shapiro writes, “When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity” (213, Still Writing).

As she notes this connection between wisdom and curiosity, she continues, “They turn away from the minutiae of their lives—and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They are drawn toward what they don’t understand. They enjoy surprise” (213).

I love how she connects surprise and curiosity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes that same connection, as you’ll see shortly.

But before we get to that, let me establish my own connection: that curiosity is one of three pillars of your best writing life…along with creativity and productivity.

Curious Writers Bring More to Their Work

As curiosity becomes a daily practice, our writing will benefit, because curiosity serves as a driving force to producing captivating content and developing a writer who has things to say.

Nourish curiosity and you’ll have a lively imagination drawing from a vast and ever-expanding library of ideas. Each day, even the smallest flash of wonder fans the flame of creativity.

If we agree with Dani Shapiro that curious people focus on the world around them with a desire to explore the unfamiliar—drawn toward what they don’t understand—we gather clues for how we, too, can cultivate curiosity to live out our best writing life.

If you’ve lost your sense of wonder and dampened curiosity, don’t worry. You can recapture it, funneling into your work a newfound delight in the world around you, in yourself, and in others.

If you happen to be by nature a curious lifelong learner, lucky you! Continue to explore new ways to cultivate it further to become even more curious and pour what you discover into your writing projects.

Develop Curiosity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Creativity writes:

“[T]he first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interests, that is, the allocation of attention to things for their own sake…. Creative individuals are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown. And because there is no end to the unknown, their delight also is endless.” (346, Creativity)

Did you hear his suggestions?

  • Allocate “attention to things for their own sake.”
  • “Delight in the strange and unknown.”

It’s similar to what Dani Shapiro was saying: even the old in age are young at heart as they “explore the unfamiliar” and let themselves be “drawn toward what they don’t understand.”

Curious people learn something new every day.

Search, Capture, Ask

My mom moved from the American Midwest to a coastal town in the South and became captivated by the flora and fauna of the area.

She bought a telephoto lens so she could capture photos of the birds that seem so exotic to her. She grew up and lived most of her life with mourning doves, cardinals, robins, starlings, swallows, and red-winged blackbirds.

Now she’s delighting in what are, for her, “strange and unknown” species. She’s “exploring the unfamiliar” as she snaps photos and looks up in a guidebook the names of birds that turn out to be wood storks, ibises, great blue herons, green herons, and anhingas.

She shares them with her Facebook followers posting one photo after another along with thoughtful captions further modeling this curiosity that comes so naturally to her.

My mom is by nature curious and developed it as a journalist, rooting out stories everywhere she goes.

But you don’t need to be a trained journalist to ask the questions popping into your head and to search for answers:

  • borrow binoculars—or a telephoto lens—to study a bird
  • ask a parent about her first crush
  • wonder about the etymology of a word—and look it up
  • dig into a time in history you know little about
  • consider why a person made one choice instead of another
  • ask that about yourself, as well—why did you make one choice instead of another?

Cultivate Curiosity with Daily Surprise

Mihaly offers a three-fold path to start cultivating curiosity that I’d like to suggest for you.

It involves surprise.

  1. Be surprised
  2. Surprise others
  3. Document your surprise (347, Creativity)

1. Be Surprised

His first tip for anyone pursuing a more curious life is to “try to be surprised by something every day” (347). He lists mundane, everyday ways to do so, like noticing an unusual car in the parking lot and ordering a new item on the menu.

A note to us all: this increased attentiveness will require us to look up from our phones now and then and engage our senses.

Igniting those senses, we may notice the ingredients in the new dish we’re served or admire the gleaming chrome on the car whose make and model we never noticed before. We might turn onto a side road to stop and admire the Harvest Moon. We could snap a photo of the dragonfly perched on the tip of a blade of grass.

Ask questions that come up during these encounters. What spice am I smelling and tasting? Why does the moon seem so huge? What do dragonflies eat? Satisfy your curiosity with a search for answers, and here your phone might actually come in handy.

And when some questions seem unanswerable, live in the mystery. That, too, is part of the curious writer’s life.

All of this information enters into us and we draw from it as we think, make connections, and write.

Surprise in Writers

Robert Frost said in an interview with The Paris Review, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Even an organized writer who sets out with an outline or a plot mapped out brings energy to the page when he finds himself surprised as he writes.

I think we know it as readers. What a pleasure to enjoy an article, book, or poem written by someone who seems to be full of wonder and delight and surprise. A curious writer, surprised by life, brings that to his work.

You can be that writer.

Driven by inquisitiveness, curious writers experiment, even play. They’re unwilling to take things for granted or take things at face value. Curious writers test new techniques and try different genres. Curious writers embrace new vocabulary and employ fresh metaphors.

In their writing and in life, curious writers embrace a-ha moments. They hold life up to the light.

2. Surprise Others

How else can we practice a healthy curiosity? Csikszentmihalyi next advises us to “try to surprise at least one person every day.” Again, his ideas are simple, not wild: say something no one expects or invite someone to join you on an outing to a new location or event. (347)

What will happen? How will they react?

Years ago, one of my daughters handed me a wrapped gift and presented it almost shaking with excitement.

It wasn’t Mother’s Day or my birthday, so I asked, “What’s this for?”

She said the book we’d been reading together at the time, The Essential 55, had pointed out that the best time to give a gift is when no one expects it because you know they did it because they wanted to and not out of obligation because it was your birthday or Christmas (55, The Essential 55).

I was blown away by her random act of love. And whenever I drink that tea, I think of her and feel gratitude for her surprise all these years later.

Follow through with your own spark of an idea to surprise someone and see how that ignites a corresponding delight in you at the exact same moment.

3. Document Your Surprise

Csikszentmihalyi’s last suggestion for a surprise-centered approach to curiosity is to “write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others.”

Like a scientist keeping notes on an experiment, document your day’s surprises—and review those notes periodically to search for “a pattern of interest emerging…one that may indicate some domain that would repay exploring in depth.” (347, Creativity)

Most writers know what interests them, but you may discover something new in your surprise-driven days—some new topic or passion that can focus your next writing project. Or maybe it will inform your writing life as a whole.

Homework for Life™

Our curiosity looks outside ourselves much of the time, to note the surprise in someone else or to answer a question about something we’ve observed. But we can be curious about ourselves and our own lives, as well.

In his TEDx Talk, on his podcast, and at his blog, storyteller Matthew Dicks invites every person, not just writers, to document their “most story-like moment from the day” for what he calls Homework for Life™. He takes five minutes at the end of each day and thinks back: What made this day different from all the rest? (Matthew Dicks, Homework for Life | TEDxBerkshires)

Learn straight from Matthew himself in his TEDx Talk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7p329Z8MD0

The idea is very simple. He writes a sentence or two—sometimes just a string of words—that will bring back a memory from the day: the moment he chose to document. He says you develop a storytelling lens when you note the small discoveries, the daily surprises, those meaningful moments you don’t want to lose. (Homework for Life™ TEDxBerkshires)

When you start collecting stories with Homework for Life™, the days stop running into each other, as if nothing is new—because every day holds something new.

His call is similar to Mihaly’s: take note of the surprises, the reactions, the lessons learned, the interactions that stand out. It’s a way to be curious about yourself, as you set aside tons of content for future projects.

Do this simple assignment and each day becomes more precious, more curious.

Trust the First Pillar for Your Best Writing Life: Cultivate Curiosity

I hope you learn to trust the first pillar for your best writing life and start cultivating curiosity.

Expand your everyday perspective to expand as a person, dabbling in new experiences and enjoying new sensations. Try a new sport. Visit a shop you’ve never been in. Mix things up: If your favorite place is the hardware store, visit a yarn shop; if you’re most comfortable at a library, head to an art gallery.

What did you see, feel, smell, and hear?

If you neglect the world around you and suppress the desire to explore the unfamiliar, what will you bring to the page? If you ignore what you don’t understand, turning away, how will you grow?

Nurture curiosity, and your writing will flow with fresh ideas and insights linked to new observations and connections you make. You’ll find yourself open to ideas, considering alternative points of view. You may feel surprise, delight, even wonder.

Learn something new every day. Surprise yourself and others. And document the stories that make any given day different from all the rest.

Because when you’re a writer cultivating curiosity about your day, your life, your moments, you’re a writer rich in material, insights, and stories.

Resources

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

____________________

Is your writing life all it can be?

Let this book act as your personal coach, to explore the writing life you already have and the writing life you wish for, and close the gap between the two.

“A genial marriage of practice and theory. For writers new and seasoned. This book is a winner.

—Phil Gulley, author of Front Porch Tales

Aug 06 2019

13mins

Play

Rank #20: Ep 214: Are Outlines a Writer’s Greatest Gift…or Curse?

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[Ep 214]

Back in July I bought a Garmin watch that tracks steps and heart rate. More importantly, it offers training plans for beginning and intermediate runners. I clicked on a beginner’s plan because I hadn’t run regularly for years, and started following the instructions each day.

Now, I tend to wing things in general. More often than not, I jump in and make decisions on the fly with just about everything. I like freedom and hate being fenced in or forced to do things. Too much structure and I’m ready to bust out the walls.

But for some reason, I responded well to the structure of this training program. If it told me to do intervals, I’d head down the road and run intervals. If it said to run hills, I found the hilliest hills in the mostly flat city where I live.

I enjoyed the choices within the parameters of the plan. I could choose where to run and I could choose to skip a stage of the plan. But I loved how the plan organized my workouts so I don’t have to stand at the end of my driveway trying to figure out what to do each day, inventing from scratch.

So while my personality might be the type to look at structure as a curse, I think it might be…a gift.

A Writer’s Gift

Outlines are to a writer what a Garmin training plan is to a runner: a gift, not a curse.

During the years when I taught composition to high school students, the most naturally creative students resisted outlines. They hated the idea of slamming structure into what could be an organic process of discovery. And I sympathized with them—that’s how I tend to feel.

So some of them they respectfully requested that they try it their way. But because I was teaching composition, I had to teach outlines. And because this was a group of compliant homeschoolers, they did it my way.

Even the student who participated in NaNoWriMo every year as a pantser—flying by the seat of her pants as she completed a novel in the month of November with very little structure—even she agreed to outline for the big research paper assigned for the second semester.

When they finished researching and their outlines shifted based on new information they gleaned, they sorted their 3×5 cards into the outline and even the biggest doubters who thought outlining was annoying and a curse found it was a brilliant time-saver. With ease and speed and efficiency, they wrote organized drafts that reflected a logical structure and flow.

Even my NaNoWriMo student conceded that the outline-approach worked. She said in the future she would likely drop the step of taking notes on 3×5 cards, but the outline would be part of her writing life—at least for academic papers.

While I don’t spend as much time discussing the art of fiction, I’ve seen plenty of general outlines that a novelist could use to give a general form and remind the writer of key elements and beats to hit along the way.

We don’t have to use outlines, but they can provide a starting point. They offer structure and support as we brainstorm and produce our first draft. And they help us write faster than ever.

Isn’t that a gift?

Impromptu Outlines

My son participates In a speech and debate club where I serve as a parent-volunteer. Another mom teaches various speaking principles and the past few weeks we’ve reviewed how to outline a platform speech.

But she also presents a series of outlines to the students that they can use in their impromptu speeches.

Impromptu speeches are not planned in advance. The competitor enters a room, selects a piece of paper listing two topics, and in two minutes, plans a five-minute speech based on one of the two topics.

You can imagine how the student’s mind reacts to this pressure. It can go blank. It can spin off in a million directions.

We empower our club members by giving them these outlines—these gifts.

Students sit down with the scratch paper available, and write out an outline. Then they add their main ideas and examples, develop a quick thesis to serve as their big idea, and think up an engaging opener they can refer back to at the end. They they take a mental picture of that paper.

Then they stand in front of their judges and deliver a speech. More often than not, practicing the use of outlines allows even novice students to produce thoughtful, organizing impromptu speeches that impress adults who can’t imagine producing something coherent in two minutes of prep time.

Outlines for Writing

The outlines like those we use for impromptu can be used for any communication, any speech, and I think for any writing.

They create organization and structure when you have no idea where to start. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down to draft a new piece. Just pick an outline that would suit the topic and let that create parameters. Plug in your own creative choices and you’ll end up with an article or chapter or essay that’s completely yours.

Plus, you’ll likely save time by producing a respectable draft that needs far less editing or reorganization.

Outline: Past-Present-Future

One of the outlines that can work well for a lot of projects is the “Past-Present-Future” outline.

It’s pretty obvious how you’d use this as a basic structure when planning an article, book, essay—maybe even a poem.

The past-present-future can reflect a personal journey, drive an analysis of cultural change, or form the structure of a company’s About page on their website.

Past-present-future can be a simple format to use when collecting marketing testimonials:

Before using a product—in the past—my life was like X, then I started using a product and now my life is like Y. As I continue to use this product, I can only imagine how much more it will help my life and eventually it will be like Z!

So you see how past-present-future can organize a lot of different projects and serve as a gift to the writer.

Past-Present-Future Experiment

I could have constructed this article as past-present-future by telling about my personal resistance to outlining as a writer in the past.

I was like the NaNoWriMo girl who had better results when I was winging it, even though it was a slow, disorganized approach. I wasted a lot of time and a lot of words by flopping ideas on the page and sorting them out.

Then I saw how effective they were with the students and began to experiment with using outlines in my own writing life. At first they felt constraining; I resisted and often abandoned my outline after going to the trouble of inventing one.

But over time I saw the flexibility of starting with a broad format, like past-present-future, and how I could find plenty of options within that structure to be creative. These days, I use them regularly.

As I continue to produce work, I believe the constraints serve me better than I imagined, so I intend to continue using them. They allow me to corral my pinging thoughts and plug ideas into a form at a zippier pace. Rather than restraining me, the structure of outlines actually serves me as a gift.

Relying more often on outlines, I hope to continue to produce more in less time and increase my body of work.

After all, the clock is ticking. Why waste it staring at a blank page? In the past, I might have sat for many minutes pondering what to write and how to tackle it. Now and in the future, I can, instead, pull up one of many outlines and if I have my idea, I can start—and finish—in record time.

See how past-present-future could have served as a form for this very article?

Constraints Lead to Creativity

It’s often said at writing and creative conferences that constraints lead to greater creativity.

We see that among poets who are famously constrained by space and form. And yet the restrictions placed on them often result in fascinating choices they might not have arrived at if they had total freedom.

In a Fast Company article, Belle Beth Cooper wrote:

Constraints can seem like the last thing you’d want for a creative project, but they’re actually beneficial when it comes to doing good work. If you’ve ever faced the common writer’s hurdle of the blank page, you’ll know what it’s like to be paralyzed by innumerable opportunities. What restrictions do is take away some of the choices available to us, and with them, the paralysis of choice that stops us from getting started.1

Outlines Serve Writers

I still believe in the power of freewriting to unlock and unblock many writers. But if you’re working on a project and feel frozen, unsure how to start or finish—paralyzed by limitless choices—try an outline.

By limiting at least some of the choices—in this case, restraining the form and structure of your piece—you free your creative mind to play within that space. You may find that the ideas you present, the examples you find, the stories you tell, and the words you select are more vibrant and engaging than if you wrote with no plan at all.

The outlines don’t need to be full of Roman numerals, A-B-Cs, and i, ii, iii’s, either. In broad strokes, like past-present-future, they can offer form to how you present your thoughts.

If you’ve never used outlines or you hated them in your past, looking at them as a curse, I urge you to try them again. Both now—and in the future—they may be your greatest gift.

Resources

Subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Footnotes

  1. Cooper, Belle Beth. “Proof That Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 2 May 2017, www.fastcompany.com/3027379/the-psychology-of-limitations-how-and-why-constraints-can-make-you-more-creative. (accessed 10 Oct 2019)

Oct 10 2019

10mins

Play

Build Your Platform: To Be More Findable, Find Your People

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[Ep 219]

Whether you’re interested in increasing blog readership or building a freelance writing business—and especially if you’re pursuing traditional publishing—you’ll want to connect with readers.

You’ll want to reach people who are interested in your stories and ideas and appreciate how you present those ideas as a writer, in your unique style, tone, and personality.

That’s the basic idea of platform. In fact, I define it like this: platform is all the ways you, as your author brand, reach and retain ideal readers.

Platform Size Affects Opportunities

Jane Friedman says in her book The Business of Being a Writer:

[T]he size of your platform will affect how easy it is for you to earn money or bring opportunities to your door. Editors, businesses, organizations, and other potential benefactors will be more likely to consider you if they’ve heard of you, seen evidence of your work in the market, or otherwise become familiar with you through online or offline interactions. 1

On a proposal, you list the number of Twitter and Instagram followers you have and the size of the audience at your last speaking engagement. You want those numbers to be substantial, even impressive. The bigger the platform, the better, in terms of being able to bring opportunities to your door.

But it’s more than numbers; in fact, numbers mean nothing if your readers aren’t feeling a sense of kinship with you as a writer or a sense of connection with your prose.

So, as you build a platform, remember each number you present to a publisher represents a human being. The metrics you present are people—people interested in what you have to say and how you say it.

Building a Far-Reaching Platform Through Social Media

Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, your social media presence is not in and of itself your platform. You have a range of options available to reach and retain readers.

And yet…

And yet social media offers powerful publishing and distribution tools in the palms of our hands—available for free! It levels the playing field, allowing a homeschooling farmer’s wife who lives in the middle of nowhere to engage with readers in the same spaces as major book publishers and magazines.

With the click of a button, our words can reach the ends of the earth! Isn’t that amazing? We can leverage these apps to connect with readers and raise visibility as a writer worldwide, building a meaningful, substantial, far-reaching platform over time.

The Best Platform-Building Efforts Call for Real Human Interaction

Connecting with readers doesn’t require marketing savvy or publicity know-how (though that can help). Many of the most effective platform-building efforts simply call for honest, real human interaction: a pleasant email; an earnest comment responding to someone’s article; a card mailed to someone we meet at a conference; a retweet with an encouraging note.

Find simple ways to engage with readers, then expand and experiment over time, because, as Jane says:

If you’re committed to pursuing a career primarily focused on book publication, then you’ll be faced with the challenge of staying competitive, current, and discoverable in a shifting digital landscape; of having the right tools to be effective and in touch with your readers; and of developing strong partnerships to help you market and promote your work.2

Community Support

There’s another opportunity to increase our reach as we build our platform, and that’s through online communities. Because so many of these groups and organizations are online, connecting with these readers overlaps with social media efforts.

These online communities can look different. Some are paid membership sites and others, loose collections of friends around a theme or activity. Whatever shape or format they take, the healthy outlets serve as an excellent way to connect with writers and readers. These communities offer mutual support and celebration for every new success.

They share genuine encouragement and enthusiasm—and many members practice tangible acts of literary citizenship, such as visiting links to articles that members have posted or purchasing and promoting books on release day when a member has finally been able to see her book available to the general public.

Find Your People, Find Your Party

I remember when online communities started to emerge. In the ones I encountered, I discovered peers…even friends. Alongside the blogging boom of the early and mid-2000s (would that be the mid-oughts?), communities like The High Calling and Tweetspeak began to fill the gap, for me.

“I think I found my people,” I remember telling my husband. “They’re online.”3

As I described in the book On Being a Writer, it felt like one big party, for writers.4 We shared each other’s work, supported each other, cheered each other on. When a writer among us found success and gained popularity, we celebrated his or her success. The new readers and followers who arrived because of that author merged into our conversation, broadening the relationships and expanding the community.

More of these writers published books, and being friends of the authors, we bought their books, read their books, talked up their books. It’s like we rose together.

A Community’s Rising Tide

The Internet evolved, as it does, and I’ve witnessed writing communities emerge in social media spaces like Twitter’s #writingcommunity and in Facebook groups like Kirsten Oliphant’s Create If Writing.

I’ve seen organizations like Redbud Writers Guild, hope*writers, Five-Minute Friday, and Tweetspeak Poetry encourage similar connections—they’re comprised of kindred spirits gathering online to learn from each other and support one another.

The phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” suggests that when the economy is strong, everyone benefits. But I feel that participating in these communities—choosing to be generous, active literary citizens—we contribute to a rising tide in the online writing world that lifts us all.

The Magic of Networks

In his book Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins advises:

“Thriving Artists do not succeed in a vacuum. They put themselves in the right places and avail themselves of the opportunities there. They don’t try to create just anywhere—that would be foolish. After all, not all places are created equal, so Thriving Artists go where the magic is.”5

Jeff’s advice is to “join a scene.” This may mean moving to a city known for its creative effervescence, but at the very least it means “you have to build a network.”6

“Without a network,” Jeff writes, “creative work does not succeed. Exposure to the right networks can accelerate your success like few things can…Great work does not come about through a single stroke of genius, but by the continual effort of a community. When the right people advocate for your work, your success becomes more likely.”7

The magic, he’s saying, is in these networks—these communities—advocating for your work and accelerating your success.

And I would note that some of that community—and therefore some of the magic—is online.

To Be More Findable, Find Your People

Our communities can amplify our message as peers, colleagues, and friends read and respond to the latest release of a blog post, or a magazine article, or a poem that’s been published in a literary journal. It’s one way to get the word out about our work—through communities of writers celebrating one another.

Jeff quotes Austin Kleon: “In order to be found, you have to be findable.”8

Jeff continues, “You must put your work in front of the people who will react to it…before art can have an impact, it must first have an audience.”9

You yourself want to findable, you want to put your work in front of people and have an audience. That can happen at least in part through your network—your community.

Contribute to the Community

But first, how about you serve as someone else’s audience?

Find someone else and celebrate his or her work. Share it with others. Amplify that writer’s message with no expectations that the favor will be returned.

That’s what friends do for one another, and if you want a real community and a network that means more than a string of LinkedIn connections, it’s a small gift to someone else looking for the same kind of support you’re hoping to build.

Explore what’s available in the realm of virtual communities: what you can give and what you can gain.

We’re in This Together

After all, we’re in this together. When we support each other, we rise together.

Find your kindred spirits—your people—and you’ll automatically be more findable.

You’ll be on your way to reaching readers, and you’ll begin to build your platform while helping others build theirs.

Resources

Subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Footnotes

  1. Friedman, Jane. The Business of Being a Writer. The University of Chicago Press, 2018. (p. 176)
  2. Ibid. (pp. 51-52)
  3. Kroeker, Anne, and Charity Singleton Craig. On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts. T.S. Poetry Press, 2014. (p. 103)
  4. Ibid.
  5. Goins, Jeff. Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age. Thomas Nelson, 2018. (p. 93)
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid. (pp. 93, 94)
  8. Ibid. (p. 124)
  9. Ibid.

Jan 17 2020

10mins

Play

Ep 218: Do writers really need to do *all the things* for a successful career?

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[Ep 218]

Do we really need to do all the things to be a writer these days? Are all those extra activities and tasks required for a successful career?

Do we really need to vlog and launch social media campaigns on five different platforms? Are we required to blog and guest post? And is it true we have to be prepared to step on a stage and speak?

Emily Dickinson’s Focused Writing Life

Why can’t we model our writing life after Emily Dickinson, who wrote poetry, including one that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” She felt free to write in isolation without worrying about all the things.

Emily Dickinson never bothered with an Instagram account. Emily Dickinson never vlogged. If Emily Dickinson had pursued all those non-writing tasks, she might not have had enough time to craft her masterpieces.

Emily Dickinson focused solely on writing. Why can’t we?

Of course we can, my friend. Of course we can stay secluded, never leave the house, and focus on writing without messing with other activities.

I’ll admit, as an introvert, it sounds kind of nice. And to be honest, many days I myself am secluded and never leave the house!

But even Emily Dickinson maintained correspondence with friends, family, and publishing professionals. Even in her isolation—even as she penned hundreds of poems—one could say she “networked,” as she connected with people who read and, in some cases, published her work.

Some of All the Things

If we want to pursue traditional publishing today, if we want to be discovered and read by people, if we want to avoid obscurity and move toward a more professional writing life, well, we’ll want to consider pursuing at least some of all the things.

Some activities like speaking will take us out of the house, but what’s fascinating about the 2020s is we live in a day and age where we can do a lot of the things without even leaving the house:

  • social media updates
  • videos
  • guest posts
  • blogging
  • admin work
  • correspondence

We can do a lot of that right where we’re sitting.

So, yes, we lose writing time to pursue those tasks and activities, but at least they can be done from home.

High-Value, Reader-Connecting, Platform-Building Activities

We can reach a wide audience if we’re willing to experiment, learn new skills, and connect with people using tools and technology that Emily Dickinson could not have fathomed.

These efforts position you for a more successful career as people who would never have met you otherwise now recognize you and read your work. Over time, these efforts can lead to decision-makers recognizing you and offering to publish your work.

Some of these ideas could be considered platform-building efforts, but they’re also simply great ways to connect with readers—which is kind of the same thing, and a healthier way of framing it.

High-value, reader-connecting, platform-building activities include:

1. Get a Website Up and Running

Every writer needs a home base—a website under your control where you send people. I recommend a self-hosted blog if at all possible, so you have more control and so you can even sell things someday. But self-hosted blogs require you to pay for hosting, so this may not be financially feasible at first.

Keep It Simple

Whether it’s a free or self-hosted website, the look can be super-basic at first—or forever. For inspiration, check out James Clear’s website. As of the time of this writing, this New York Times bestselling author has a simple, clean site without any bells or whistles. He doesn’t have a logo or even a special font for his name. At jamesclear.com, It’s all about the content.

Control Information About You

Having a website means you have a hub for all your other content and communication. There, you can control at least some of the information about you that exists on the web. So write an “about” page that aligns with your writing and author brand, and you’re on your way to being known for whatever it is you want to be known for.

2. Publish Content Regularly

Publish content on a regular basis at your website—twice a week, once a week, even only once/month is still regular. This starts to train search engines that yours is an active website known for a particular topic. In fact, if your content goes live at the same time on the same day like clockwork, most search engines will begin to swing by and see what’s new. A few human beings may do the same.

Run Your Own Media Company

Call this activity blogging if you like, since you’ll probably be using a blogging functionality on your website to publish, but I like to reframe it and simply think of this as publishing articles at your own website.

That way you don’t have to think of yourself as a blogger, per se; you’re a writer publishing quality articles (and perhaps other kinds of content, as well). It’s like you run your own media company, and you’re in charge: you get to choose what’s published (and when).

Focus Article Topics Based on Keywords and Phrases

As you write, think about keywords and key phrases associated with your primary subject area. Make a list and one at a time, those can be the focus of your articles. This helps search engines connect your name and website to those topics and ideas.

If you want to be more savvy about it, look into SEO, or search engine optimization, and follow what experts say. The basic idea is that over time, as you publish ongoing content that reinforces your themes and topics, you may eventually come up in relevant searches.

Share What You’ve Written for Others to Enjoy

Finally, be sure to let people know about the pieces you’ve published by sending out a note on social media—it’s what magazines and publishers do. Don’t be shy. People who follow you would hate to miss some great content you’ve created, so tell them where to find it.

3. Build an Email List

List-building is another high-value, reader-connecting activity for writers. Build an email list and treat those people as your VIPs. They did, after all, invite you into their inbox.

Start List-Building ASAP with an Enticing Opt-in Offer

This activity may not seem urgent, but it’s wise. List-building is one of those things everyone wishes they started earlier.

To build the list more rapidly, you could offer readers a gift they receive if they fill out a form. The idea is to offer visitors something related to the main topics you write about (and something that addresses an issue they need help with) so they trade their email for that “freebie.”

To give you an idea from my own offerings, look in my sidebar. You’ll see a free mini-course called “Make Your Sentences Sing: 7 Sentence Openers to Add Music to Your Prose.” People sign up and gain access to a free video course; in exchange, their name is added to my email management service, ConvertKit.

Create Something as Alluring as the Offers That Enticed You

I’m sure you’ve signed up for plenty of these goodies on other people’s websites. What enticed you to make that trade? Could you create something of your own that offers the same allure?

What problem could you solve or tool could you provide that’s valuable enough to entice someone to make that exchange? Maybe it’s a free email course or a novella. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet they can alter and update with information that transforms some area of their life or work.

Stay Connected with Your Subscribers

When they’re subscribed, stay connected by sending ongoing email correspondence (call these newsletters, if you like, but they can be quite simple and sent as basic emails in terms of design—after all, these people just want to hear from you).

Start building a list as soon as you can to create a marketing asset. One day, when you pitch agents, that list will be one of the first things they flip to on your book proposal. They’ll want to see how many people have invited you into their email inbox—people you can email about a book release in the year ahead.

4. Speak at Events

If you’re a nonfiction writer, speaking at events on the topics you want to be known for helps listeners view you as an expert or influencer. If you write fiction—short stories or novels—you could do readings at writing conferences.

Many writers cringe at the thought of speaking on any stage, though. So I understand if this sounds like torture. Emily Dickinson would have wilted, I suspect, given that she eventually never left her house.

Start Small

If this is you, start really small:

  • ask a book club to invite you in for a short reading and Q&A
  • propose a presentation at your local library
  • ask to be a breakout speaker at a small workshop or local writing event

Stand Apart

When you can position yourself as a speaker, you stand apart as a writer. You’re viewed differently. Plus, it forces you to hone your ideas in order to present them from a stage.

Build Your List

Speaking engagements are a great place to build your email list because those people already know they want to hear more from you. So when you’re there, be sure to pass around a clipboard and have everyone write down their email address granting you permission to send them information.

You could send speaking notes or your slide presentations if you have one…or that fabulous opt-in freebie that’s available at your website.

5. Experiment with Video

Like speaking, appearing on video can feel unnerving for a person most comfortable behind a keyboard. But if you’re willing to take the risk, this is a high-value activity because the percentage of writers bold enough to publish videos is small.

Experiment and Improve

And the sooner you start producing video—even simple, low-budget clips—the better and more comfortable you’ll get with the whole process, from what you’ll say to where you’ll stand and the equipment you’ll use.

Use Equipment You Already Have

And when I say “equipment,” this could simply be your phone. Heavens, video quality on most smartphones will give you a great place to start. You’ll figure out the best window to sit in front of and more importantly, the kind of content that will make a difference in people’s lives.

Or turn the camera away from your face and spotlight other things. I’ve shared video to my Instagram story that shows my computer screen or the view from my office window.

Repurpose Video Content into Written Form

Plus, a bonus tip is that all the ideas you share on video can be converted to written format later. You’ll get a free article out of it for your website!

6. Be Social

Even if you’re as shy and retiring as Emily Dickinson, you can be social from the privacy of your own home using social media.

Publishing and Distribution Tools in the Palm of Your Hand

I think of these platforms as simple but powerful publishing and distribution tools that sit in the palm of my hand and make my content instantly available to the world with the click of a button.

Microblogging

My Instagram feed is full of images of books, papers, and writing utensils, and I use the captions to offer additional coaching input. Some people call this microblogging. It’s another way I can help people and stay true to my brand.

Use a platform like Twitter and you don’t have to incorporate video or images at all—just words. The brevity required to squeeze content into 280 characters offers great writing practice and a fun way to connect with new people. I also share links to the work I’ve published elsewhere.

Syndicate Content

Honestly, you could publish flash fiction or a brief article directly onto Facebook, if you wanted to, because it allows more words. Or you could publish a short piece you’ve already made live at your website—almost as if you’re syndicating your content.

Be Social and Support Others

While you’re in those spaces, visit others and encourage them. Read and like their pieces. Leave a comment. Share their work. Curate great writing you find online by sharing an excerpt and linking out to their articles.

That’s part of being social on social media, and it’s a high-value activity that is part of all the things that lead to a successful career in today’s publishing world.

Conclusion

In that Emily Dickinson poem—the one that starts “I’m Nobody!”—she invited readers to join her as a fellow Nobody and ended that poem poking fun at platform-building efforts of her day:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Emily’s right: it would be dreary to tell one’s name the livelong June. That would feel as unappealing as a bog.

The Fear of Self-Promotion

I’ve talked with a lot of people wary of these tasks associated with our writing lives today. They view platform-building and social media activities as me-focused and fear they’ll be expected to toot their own horns and seek the spotlight the livelong June.

Stay Others-Focused

I wish those who resist all these things could see them as I do: opportunities to share our truth, if only slant, and bring to light—our friends.

Others-focused, we can retweet and like and share the posts and projects and poems of our colleagues and peers and friends.

We may have stepped into social media, launched a website, and built an email list with a successful writing career in mind. But before long, I hope we realize the potential of supporting others and having fun.

Pursuing all the things can be about helping all the writers, and a successful career can be simply a natural byproduct.

Serve and Support Readers

At the core remains our primary motivation: to use words to serve and support readers, whether solving their problems, lifting them up, or making them laugh.

So in all these things, I see possibility. One might even say I dwell in possibility.

Anyway, if only wrote quietly, privately, reclusively, without experimenting with new ventures, venues, and media, I might never have met…you.

Resources

Jan 10 2020

16mins

Play

Ep 217: How to Gather Momentum When Your Writing’s at a Standstill

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[Ep 217]

I don’t know much about science, but I’m pretty sure Newton’s First Law goes like this: an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.1

Okay, I looked it up for accuracy. And I believe it applies not just to physics, but to my writing life, as well.

Over the holiday season, I myself did not come to rest, as I was busy baking, cooking, cleaning, wrapping gifts, hosting family. However, this focus on festivities brought my writing to a standstill.

My projects stalled out. I felt stuck. Inertia set in so that even after the tree returned to the attic and the lights came down, my creative efforts went nowhere. Something inside resisted my efforts to start writing again.

Until today, my writing had not budged.

Writing at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

If I want to get my writing in motion and gather momentum, I have to take action.

And I thought I might not be the only one facing inertia and hoping for momentum in the new year, so here are some strategies to rev up the engines and get our words moving again.

1. Start reading, no matter what

Commit to reading, no matter what. I didn’t write much in December, but I did read.

I listened to an audiobook while driving and exercising. I read short pieces while in between other tasks. That input kept me thinking and gathering ideas and images.

I recommend reading anything that catches your eye: poems, short stories, clever tweets, the side of the cereal box.

And as you read, take notes. Sentences that sing? Write them out. Style that inspires? Study and learn. Ideas that lead to deeper thoughts? Capture them in a notebook.

These concepts may connect to other tidbits tumbling inside of you. At some point, creativity begins to flow—words, in motion, pour onto the page, as enough material converges and convinces you that it’s time to express it in your own words.

2. Start writing, no matter what

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour2

It sounds so basic, so obvious, but our writing will remain at rest until we start writing. The act of writing is the force needed to get our writing in motion.

Freewriting can help, setting that timer and writing for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes without stopping, even if you write, “I don’t know what to write about” ten times in a row.

Eventually, hopefully, our brains will get bored and pluck an image or idea from our mental storage vaults—perhaps something gleaned from reading—and at the end of a session, we’ll end up with a few promising sentences.

Even if we don’t, when we start writing, no matter what, we train our brains and hands to work together so they remember how to put words down on the page.

3. Set a deadline and meet it, no matter what

Is someone waiting for a project you’ve promised? Are you committed to turning in your work on a certain date? Lucky you! External deadlines spur us on, so let that force you to the computer or notebook so that you absolutely must slam out words and turn in your project on time.

Many of us work for ourselves, in essence, publishing on our websites and on social media. No editor awaits our submission. Though we may have readers wondering why we’ve fallen silent, we don’t have external motivation. We may need to trick ourselves into meeting a deadline.

Editorial calendars can help with this. Set a hard deadline. Tell a group of people when something is going to be released.

Then make it happen, no matter what. That can get our writing in motion.

4. Trust in revision

Maybe you’re putting off a project despite the deadline for fear of writing badly. This fear keeps us from writing anything at all.

When you recognize that as the reason your writing is at rest, trust the revision process.

Susan Sontag said, “I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.”3

Write a lot and trust that in the mix you’ll have a few elements worth keeping. Sift through the mess of words you’ve spilled out during a freewriting session or in a flurry to meet a deadline. You’ll find treasures. They may need polishing, but you can build on them.

Then follow Sontag’s advice: “Throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.”3

You needed words to work with in revision. Write badly so you can revise well. But write, no matter what. Keep writing. You’ll find what is alive.

For a writer, that’s how we feel when we get words in motion and gather creative momentum—we feel alive.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. “Newton’s First Law of Motion.” The Physics Classroom, www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law.
  2. Temple, Emily. “’My Pencils Outlast Their Erasers’: Great Writers on the Art of Revision.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 Jan. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/my-pencils-outlast-their-erasers-great-writers-on-the-art-of-revision/267011/.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

Jan 01 2020

6mins

Play

Ep 216: An Easy Structure for Your Chaotic Work in Progress

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You’ve researched your topic, taken copious notes, created a mind map, made lists, but you haven’t settled on the best way to organize all of your material. You aren’t sure how to structure your chaotic work in progress.

Perhaps you’ve tried the ready-made outlines I’ve proposed—past-present-future, and problem-solution or problem-solution-benefits—but those didn’t fit this project. 

Well, here’s another: zoom in or zoom out.

Could that work?

The Zoom In/Zoom Out Outline

This ready-made outline is pretty straightforward. You pick a starting point for your topic and from there, you zoom in or out.

If you start big and broad, you can progressively zoom in on the topic so the analysis or story ends with a narrow, focused perspective or impact. 

If you start at a smaller point, you gradually zoom out to offer a broader application or conclusion.

Example: Zoom In

Let’s say you want to analyze an issue that concerns you—an opinion piece about civility.

You can start at a high level, offering a broad analysis of how the nation is shifting its behavior and language so that cultural norms related to civility have shifted—your stance is that the United States as a whole is losing something important as it moves away from civility as an unspoken value. You cite studies and quote experts.

Then you zoom in to make observations at the local level based on a recent news event that happened in your city. You quote law enforcement or religious leaders who claim they’ve seen a change over the past decade in how people treat one another at public events and gatherings.

Finally, you zoom in to challenge readers to consider the degree to which they themselves have changed and if their behavior and speech reflects the level of civility they’d like to see in themselves and others.

Example: Zoom Out

Of course, this structure is easily reversed. You can start small and zoom out.

You may have seen the TED Talk “For more wonder, rewild the world.” In this talk, George Monbiot explains “trophic cascades.” A trophic cascade, he says, is “an ecological process that starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way to the bottom.”

You can see how this subject matter lends itself to a zoom structure, especially the classic example he uses to illustrate his point. I’m thinking of it as zooming out.

He talks about how wolves had been absent from Yellowstone National Park for over 70 years. During that time, herds of deer built up because they lacked a predator, and they grew to increasingly large numbers and grazed down much of the native vegetation.

Then a few wolves were introduced to the park. Monbiot begins his structure here, I think, as he starts with the wolves. After establishing context, he directs our attention to those few wolves as a narrow, focused starting point.

The wolves killed some of the deer, of course, but they also changed the behavior of the herds so that they grazed in new locations, allowing vegetation to mature in valleys that then “regenerated.” Monbiot zooms out and describes the changes: trees grew, birds returned, beavers increased and built dams where more species could grow.

Monbiot keeps going with his presentation, citing one change after another that led to more and more areas of the park transforming. He zoomed out, eventually zooming out far enough to consider the rivers, claiming they changed course due to these impacts.

Starting small, with those few wolves, he zooms out all the way to the rivers, so we can celebrate the rejuvenated, rewilded national park.

Try This Outline On Your Work in Progress

Whichever direction you zoom, this structure offers a simple way to experiment with your content: You can start big and zoom in, or start small and zoom out—macro to micro, or micro to macro.

You could zoom in by following the path of a decision or policy put into place by a government or company and show how it trickled down to impact a family or individual.

You could zoom out by describing how a random act of kindness ended up becoming a societal-level movement or how a single word of encouragement transformed a person who went on to change the world. 

Use the zoom in/zoom out ready-made outline to structure an example that illustrates one of the key points in a chapter or to structure the chapter itself. It could work to organize an entire book or a single blog post.

Whichever direction you go, in or out, this gives you an easy way to organize your material and structure your work in progress. Not everything fits this outline, but try it. See if the pieces of your project fall into place.

Resources

Subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Dec 05 2019

6mins

Play

Ep 215: For Writers Who Struggle with Structure…a Remedy

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Organization is a challenge for writers. You may have strong ideas, feel confident with grammar, and write in a fun style.

But putting it all together in a structure that makes sense? That can be hard.

There’s no one perfect way to structure most projects. You have options.

Some people find this liberating. They enjoy exploring countless options and settle naturally into an order that makes sense for their content.

Other writers find this overwhelming. They’d like to be told, “If you’re writing THIS, you always use THAT structure.”

Without structure, those writers get stuck.

Structure Brings Order and Clarity

In fact, I’ve met with writers who have been stuck for weeks, months…occasionally for years. All because they didn’t know how to structure their project.

Without structure, they didn’t know how to order and organize their ideas, so writing itself felt confusing. They simply shoved it aside, unclear what to do next.

Structure brings order and clarity to the writer.

And structure brings order and clarity to the reader.

Structure for Poets

Some writing offers built-in structure.

If you’re a poet, for example, you can turn to form poetry to find structure built into the assignment. So many kinds of poems follow a form or a pattern, like a sestina, sonnet, and a rondelet. They each come with rules, rhythms, and rhyme schemes. While challenging, these limits offer structure that a poet who works in free verse lacks.

Structure for Novelists

Novelists can turn to structure that works well for fiction, such as the hero’s journey. The author doesn’t have to include the obligatory scenes, but many genres work well when the author hits those beats, moments, or scenes a reader has come to expect.

Structure for Nonfiction Writers

Nonfiction writers may face the blank page with no idea where to start. Or they spit out their ideas with no clue how to arrange them to create an order that flows well for the reader.

Writers who compose essays, articles, books know they have a problem to solve: they need structure.

And they may struggle with structure due to lack of resources. Maybe no one has pointed out to them structure options. Or maybe they struggle to remain objective with their own material to see how it would best flow.

They may have tried methods they’ve learned over the years and those have gotten them only so far.

Mind Maps Don’t Automatically Lead to Structure

For instance, maybe they tried a mind map. And that helped them spit out the main ideas they want to cover in their book. But all those circles spread out like a web on the paper don’t themselves reveal a solid structure—they just reveal a number of possible starting points and all their subpoints. So the mind map may have served to pull out of the writer content ideas, but the map itself didn’t result in a clear structure.

Traditional Outlines Don’t Automatically Lead to Structure

The writer of nonfiction may have reverted to the I, II, III, and A, B, C format they remembered from their youth, with those Roman numerals leading the eye down the page with indented A, B, C items underneath. Under those lines came the numbers 1, 2, 3, then lowercase a, b, c, followed by the little “i’s” with one “i” then two “ii’s” and “iii’s” that created those miniature Roman numerals, leading up to “iv’s” and “v’s.”

The poor writer may spend more time fretting over those little “i’s” than they do crafting content. So knowing how to type up a list with Roman numerals again doesn’t in and of itself reveal a structure.

Even organized, sequential-types who love to line up papers and numbers and files and books on shelves can create a perfectly reasonable classic outline, yet find themselves unsure if that’s formed an effective structure for their writing project.

Try Ready-Made Outlines to Structure Your Next Project

How can writers who struggle to organize their ideas find a structure that works?

I propose they try “ready-made” outlines.

I’m calling these big, broad outlines “ready-made outlines” because they serve as templates to try out with your content. They offer a broad, big-picture, flexible structure that can be applied to projects of all sizes and types, as you group your ideas under the overall headings.

Ready-made outlines serve the writer by providing her with multiple structures to test out in order to find one that best suits the material.

As I said last time, my source for these ready-made outlines is the speech and debate club I’m part of. We use these to help impromptu speakers have a place to start.

Past-Present-Future Outline

The first one I introduced to you was the past-present-future outline. It’s just one ready-made outline to try out on all kinds of projects.

For example, a past-present-future outline could work as structure for:

  • testimonials
  • sales pages
  • memoir
  • how-to projects
  • op-eds
  • analysis essays or articles
  • books (organize chapters under the past, present, and future sections and/or organize a given chapter with that structure)

Problem-Solution Outline

This week’s ready-made outline is Problem-Solution or Problem-Solution-Benefit.

You can see how straightforward it is, and how handy it can be for certain writing projects.

I gave it a try with this very article. If you look back, you can see my general flow.

Introduction: If you were try try this outline, you’d start with an introduction that would include some kind of hook.

For this piece, I just talked about the challenge of structure for writers.

Problem: Next, you’d introduce the problem.

Pretty quickly I transitioned to introducing the writer’s problem of structure—or lack thereof. You can see from my attempt here that a problem you’re writing about doesn’t have to be a giant societal-level problem. It can be a small frustration of any kind.

When you think about your audience, and you imagine their struggles, frustrations, and challenges, that’s the problem—that’s your starting point with this ready-made outline.

Articulate the problem. Speak their language. Get your audience nodding, “Yes. That IS my problem.”

Solution: Then, you introduce a solution (or solutions).

You may have one proven solution to one specific problem, and the writing will be narrow and focused. Or you may offer multiple solutions to a complex problem, and your writing will be more involved.

Conclusion: Follow that with a conclusion, and you’re done.

You’re done, that is, unless you want to touch on benefits of implementing the solution. I mean, the obvious benefit is that the problem is solved. But your readers may appreciate a window into what their life would look like and what they’d feel like if they implemented that solution, so the additional “benefits” section could serve them well.

That’s it in a nutshell. That’s how you can test the Problem-Solution or Problem-Solution-Benefit outline.

Problem-Solution Example: Article Structure

Let’s say you contribute content to a website that focuses on organization. Perhaps you’ll write an article that addresses the problem of training young children to understand and begin joining in the process of sorting, folding, and putting away laundry. Laundry can be an overwhelming problem that parents face, and you’ll offer several possible solutions.

Well, there’s your structure to test out:

  • Intro
  • Problem
  • Solution(s)
  • Conclusion

OR

  • Intro
  • Problem
  • Solution(s)
  • Benefits
  • Conclusion

If you add the benefits, you might find research showing the self-esteem rises exponentially in children who contribute to meaningful household chores and your family grows close by working together.

But often the benefits are self-evident—like your family has clean, folded laundry each week. In that case, you can leave that element off the outline.

Let’s look at another writing project.

Problem-Solution Example: Letter to the Editor (or Op-Ed) Structure

If you’re troubled by a local issue and want to write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece, the Problem-Solution ready-made outline could work well for organizing your thoughts with a structure that readers find easy to follow.

  • Hook (a sentence or two to hook the reader)
  • Problem
  • Solution(s)
  • Conclusion

Again, you could add in benefits if you have the space and if it feel it adds value to the message. But you can leave it off if the benefits are obvious or if they could be summarized in the conclusion.

Problem-Solution Example: Nonfiction Book Structure

Maybe you’re writing a book about communication in the workplace. You could try out the problem-solution ready-made outline to see if the content fits.

Problem(s): First you analyze some of the biggest communication problems people face in the workplace.

Solution(s): Most of the book will probably focus on the solutions to those problems.

Benefit(s): If the solutions don’t already make clear the benefits gained beyond solving the problem, a book could bring this up chapter by chapter or in a section toward the end of the book.

Perhaps you have a multi-step process that can work for every communication challenge: “Seven Steps to Clear Communication in the Workplace.” After the early chapters introduce the problems, the next several chapters could each tackle a step of this process.

Or maybe you have different communication solutions for different communication problems. In that case, you could address each separately, one per chapter, presenting both the problems and solutions specific to emails, team meetings, reports, newsletters, and one-on-one mentoring conversations. Each chapter could take on a type of communication.

Either way, you would still be turning to the problem-solution outline.

Applications for Problem-Solution Outline

Longer projects will offer more layers of analysis and more examples to support claims, but you can see how this ready-made outline can be used with a variety of writing projects. I think it could work for:

  • testimonials (past-present-future is one structure for testimonials, but problem-solution is another option for someone to explain they had a problem and this product or service was the perfect solution to that problem)
  • sales pages (again, problem-solution is a really basic approach that helps you organize your thoughts and explain what you offer)
  • op-ed
  • letter to the editor
  • blog post
  • essay
  • book (overall structure and micro-level within a given chapter could follow problem-solution structure)

Problem-Solution Outline for Essay Structure

While the Problem-Solution (or Problem-Solution-Benefit) structure may seem best suited to prescriptive-type content, I think this can also be a wonderful way to enter into personal essays.

Question (“Problem”) Launches Inquiry

If an essayist starts with a question, or inquiry, that invites the essayist to follow that question (aka “problem”) into the piece. Keep this creative openness to see where the question leads.

Let’s say the essayist wonders something or poses a question. If he thinks of that more or less as a problem and writes toward that, continuing to question that, he may be seeking an answer to that question, or deeper insight into that observation, or maybe even an epiphany.

Answer (“Solution”) Revealed Through Inquiry

By keeping that overall structure in mind, the essayist can explore the problem from various angles in hopes of experiencing breakthrough in understanding without forcing the matter.

That’s a more subtle, nuanced variation of the Problem-Solution approach, but if you creatively press into a question, you’re likely seeking some kind of solution.

Problem-Solution Example: Memoir

A memoir that focuses on an era of a person’s life might loosely follow this structure, by showing the problem this person faced and how complicated life got until they encountered, finally, some kind of solution.

And this solution may not be a tidy one, so you can think broadly about the idea of “solution.”

The memoir possibly rolls into a kind of benefits segment. Again, none of these words need to appear anywhere in the text—it’s just a way for you mentally to group information or scenes in search of a possible structure to test on your own content. To try it out, you drop scenes into these three big categories or sections of the memoir: problem, solution, benefit.

Maybe the problem is that a memoirist struggles to trust a parent, so the scenes establish this and lead ultimately to a scene or a moment when this shifted. The writer gained insight into this parent, and that ignited compassion or openness and the relationship grew.

Or perhaps the opposite happened—the parent had a deep mental illness and the problem was that the memoirist kept making herself vulnerable only to be hurt again and again. And the solution came when she realized sometimes even a parent is so deeply scarred and struggling that a trusting relationship isn’t possible. So the memoirist finds new ways to protect herself while trying to relate to the parent and finds trust in other relationships.

Is the Problem-Solution Outline the Structure for Your Next Project?

So many kinds of writing address a problem of some kind, it’s worth giving this ready-made outline a try.

And keep in mind you don’t have to use the actual words “problem” and “solution” to apply this structure to your next writing project. If you prefer a more subtle approach, you can use different words—synonyms—to imply a similar structure.

Try it out and see if this is the solution you’re looking for. For writers who struggle with structure, the Problem-Solution or the Problem-Solution-Benefits ready-made outline may be the remedy you’re looking for.

Resources

Subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Nov 06 2019

15mins

Play

Ep 214: Are Outlines a Writer’s Greatest Gift…or Curse?

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[Ep 214]

Back in July I bought a Garmin watch that tracks steps and heart rate. More importantly, it offers training plans for beginning and intermediate runners. I clicked on a beginner’s plan because I hadn’t run regularly for years, and started following the instructions each day.

Now, I tend to wing things in general. More often than not, I jump in and make decisions on the fly with just about everything. I like freedom and hate being fenced in or forced to do things. Too much structure and I’m ready to bust out the walls.

But for some reason, I responded well to the structure of this training program. If it told me to do intervals, I’d head down the road and run intervals. If it said to run hills, I found the hilliest hills in the mostly flat city where I live.

I enjoyed the choices within the parameters of the plan. I could choose where to run and I could choose to skip a stage of the plan. But I loved how the plan organized my workouts so I don’t have to stand at the end of my driveway trying to figure out what to do each day, inventing from scratch.

So while my personality might be the type to look at structure as a curse, I think it might be…a gift.

A Writer’s Gift

Outlines are to a writer what a Garmin training plan is to a runner: a gift, not a curse.

During the years when I taught composition to high school students, the most naturally creative students resisted outlines. They hated the idea of slamming structure into what could be an organic process of discovery. And I sympathized with them—that’s how I tend to feel.

So some of them they respectfully requested that they try it their way. But because I was teaching composition, I had to teach outlines. And because this was a group of compliant homeschoolers, they did it my way.

Even the student who participated in NaNoWriMo every year as a pantser—flying by the seat of her pants as she completed a novel in the month of November with very little structure—even she agreed to outline for the big research paper assigned for the second semester.

When they finished researching and their outlines shifted based on new information they gleaned, they sorted their 3×5 cards into the outline and even the biggest doubters who thought outlining was annoying and a curse found it was a brilliant time-saver. With ease and speed and efficiency, they wrote organized drafts that reflected a logical structure and flow.

Even my NaNoWriMo student conceded that the outline-approach worked. She said in the future she would likely drop the step of taking notes on 3×5 cards, but the outline would be part of her writing life—at least for academic papers.

While I don’t spend as much time discussing the art of fiction, I’ve seen plenty of general outlines that a novelist could use to give a general form and remind the writer of key elements and beats to hit along the way.

We don’t have to use outlines, but they can provide a starting point. They offer structure and support as we brainstorm and produce our first draft. And they help us write faster than ever.

Isn’t that a gift?

Impromptu Outlines

My son participates In a speech and debate club where I serve as a parent-volunteer. Another mom teaches various speaking principles and the past few weeks we’ve reviewed how to outline a platform speech.

But she also presents a series of outlines to the students that they can use in their impromptu speeches.

Impromptu speeches are not planned in advance. The competitor enters a room, selects a piece of paper listing two topics, and in two minutes, plans a five-minute speech based on one of the two topics.

You can imagine how the student’s mind reacts to this pressure. It can go blank. It can spin off in a million directions.

We empower our club members by giving them these outlines—these gifts.

Students sit down with the scratch paper available, and write out an outline. Then they add their main ideas and examples, develop a quick thesis to serve as their big idea, and think up an engaging opener they can refer back to at the end. They they take a mental picture of that paper.

Then they stand in front of their judges and deliver a speech. More often than not, practicing the use of outlines allows even novice students to produce thoughtful, organizing impromptu speeches that impress adults who can’t imagine producing something coherent in two minutes of prep time.

Outlines for Writing

The outlines like those we use for impromptu can be used for any communication, any speech, and I think for any writing.

They create organization and structure when you have no idea where to start. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down to draft a new piece. Just pick an outline that would suit the topic and let that create parameters. Plug in your own creative choices and you’ll end up with an article or chapter or essay that’s completely yours.

Plus, you’ll likely save time by producing a respectable draft that needs far less editing or reorganization.

Outline: Past-Present-Future

One of the outlines that can work well for a lot of projects is the “Past-Present-Future” outline.

It’s pretty obvious how you’d use this as a basic structure when planning an article, book, essay—maybe even a poem.

The past-present-future can reflect a personal journey, drive an analysis of cultural change, or form the structure of a company’s About page on their website.

Past-present-future can be a simple format to use when collecting marketing testimonials:

Before using a product—in the past—my life was like X, then I started using a product and now my life is like Y. As I continue to use this product, I can only imagine how much more it will help my life and eventually it will be like Z!

So you see how past-present-future can organize a lot of different projects and serve as a gift to the writer.

Past-Present-Future Experiment

I could have constructed this article as past-present-future by telling about my personal resistance to outlining as a writer in the past.

I was like the NaNoWriMo girl who had better results when I was winging it, even though it was a slow, disorganized approach. I wasted a lot of time and a lot of words by flopping ideas on the page and sorting them out.

Then I saw how effective they were with the students and began to experiment with using outlines in my own writing life. At first they felt constraining; I resisted and often abandoned my outline after going to the trouble of inventing one.

But over time I saw the flexibility of starting with a broad format, like past-present-future, and how I could find plenty of options within that structure to be creative. These days, I use them regularly.

As I continue to produce work, I believe the constraints serve me better than I imagined, so I intend to continue using them. They allow me to corral my pinging thoughts and plug ideas into a form at a zippier pace. Rather than restraining me, the structure of outlines actually serves me as a gift.

Relying more often on outlines, I hope to continue to produce more in less time and increase my body of work.

After all, the clock is ticking. Why waste it staring at a blank page? In the past, I might have sat for many minutes pondering what to write and how to tackle it. Now and in the future, I can, instead, pull up one of many outlines and if I have my idea, I can start—and finish—in record time.

See how past-present-future could have served as a form for this very article?

Constraints Lead to Creativity

It’s often said at writing and creative conferences that constraints lead to greater creativity.

We see that among poets who are famously constrained by space and form. And yet the restrictions placed on them often result in fascinating choices they might not have arrived at if they had total freedom.

In a Fast Company article, Belle Beth Cooper wrote:

Constraints can seem like the last thing you’d want for a creative project, but they’re actually beneficial when it comes to doing good work. If you’ve ever faced the common writer’s hurdle of the blank page, you’ll know what it’s like to be paralyzed by innumerable opportunities. What restrictions do is take away some of the choices available to us, and with them, the paralysis of choice that stops us from getting started.1

Outlines Serve Writers

I still believe in the power of freewriting to unlock and unblock many writers. But if you’re working on a project and feel frozen, unsure how to start or finish—paralyzed by limitless choices—try an outline.

By limiting at least some of the choices—in this case, restraining the form and structure of your piece—you free your creative mind to play within that space. You may find that the ideas you present, the examples you find, the stories you tell, and the words you select are more vibrant and engaging than if you wrote with no plan at all.

The outlines don’t need to be full of Roman numerals, A-B-Cs, and i, ii, iii’s, either. In broad strokes, like past-present-future, they can offer form to how you present your thoughts.

If you’ve never used outlines or you hated them in your past, looking at them as a curse, I urge you to try them again. Both now—and in the future—they may be your greatest gift.

Resources

Subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Footnotes

  1. Cooper, Belle Beth. “Proof That Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 2 May 2017, www.fastcompany.com/3027379/the-psychology-of-limitations-how-and-why-constraints-can-make-you-more-creative. (accessed 10 Oct 2019)

Oct 10 2019

10mins

Play

Ep 213: How to Hook and Hold Your Readers

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[Ep 213]

If you didn’t click to read this first sentence, I failed.

If we want to hook readers and hold their attention so they read all the way to the end, we have to generate an intriguing title or headline.

Lure Readers with Your Title

Books, chapters, articles, essays, poems: they all need names or titles that invite the reader to stop skimming and scrolling and think, “Hm. I wonder what this is about?” or “Oh, wow, I need this information.”

I opened up Feedly when I was preparing this article and stopped on an article at The Write Practice titled “How to Find the Core Message of Your Writing” because it was clear and seemed relevant to the kinds of things I like to read.

But I also stopped on an article by Emily P. Freeman: “How to Find (and Become) A Good Listener.” That sounded useful to help me as a coach and to help me improve relationships with family and friends.

Or consider James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. The main title intrigues me with that word “atomic” connected to “habits.” His subtitle is “An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.” Then he includes a tagline that clarifies it further: “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” That sounds like a doable approach to the topic of habits, doesn’t it? He hooked me with his title and subtitle combo.

We have to entice our readers to click on the link or open the book by capturing that first concept in a few words that hint at or outright reveal the subject, topic, theme, or problem we’ll address in the piece.

Hook Your Readers with Attention Grabbers

Let’s say you nailed it—you lured in your readers with the headline.

Now it’s time to hook them—to grab them by the throat, as novelists often say. Bring on the attention grabber: it’s that first line or two that will keep them reading.

When I taught composition to high school students, I’d offer attention-grabber ideas like:

  • a startling statistic
  • a quote
  • a question
  • an intriguing statement or claim
  • a story (e.g., an anecdote that stands alone, a personal story, or someone else’s story)

That article about finding the core message of your writing starts, “Why do you write?”—a question any writer will instinctively answer, at least in his head.

So the author, Joe Bunting, has probably hooked us. Our mind is engaged with the question. It’s a good attention-grabber.

Emily P. Freeman’s article on finding and becoming a good listener has an epigraph—a quote from Dr. Larry Crabb about listening to each other—followed by the beginning of the actual article. She starts with a story:

It’s 2012, and there’s a stack of brochures in the little room I type in. I keep staring over at them, rereading their invitation, “To know more about you: If you would like to be informed of upcoming events…”

I reach over, and I turn the plastic holder to face the wall. I cannot keep reading that same brochure over and over again.

What’s going to happen? Why is this brochure featured so prominently in this story? Is she going to take action? Is it going to change her? What does this brochure have to do with listening?

You can see how stories are great for hooking readers—they’re great attention-grabbers. They awaken curiosity and open a loop that we must close. We want to know what happens and how it ends.

So Emily has hooked me.

You, too, can use stories. And here’s a bonus tip—if you start far enough into a situation, the action of a story engages and hooks the reader, but you can leave it hanging so that you complete the story in the conclusion. That provides closure that satisfies and gratifies the reader. It feels like you’ve come full circle.

But for them to get to the end, you’ve got to hold him.

First you hook them, then you hold them.

Hold Your Reader’s Attention

To hold the reader isn’t easy. We’re battling for his or her attention, and we all know the long list of distractions that can pull a reader away at any moment.

Here are some tips.

Avoid Superfluous Content and Phrasing

Don’t slow down the reader with unnecessary information or stiff writing with complicated sentences. You can write beautifully, but those beautiful words need to add to the story or ideas and not simply pad the project.

Keep your reader moving down the page.

Study Hemingway’s Choices

When Hemingway typed on his typewriter, he didn’t have ways to add bold or bigger fonts—that would come later, with the publisher. But he made choices that affected sentence and paragraph length.

In a sense it affected layout without relying on a graphic designer. By writing tight and breaking up paragraphs, he naturally left more white space. This helps the reader move forward because she’s not intimidated by a big block of text.

Short Sentences

Short sentences free the reader from maintaining close attention, so in this age of distraction you’re making it easier for her to follow the storyline or take in the information when you offer it in smaller chunks.

For those drawn to classic novels, this can be frustrating. We want to emulate our heroes who write in a leisurely style of pre-television/pre-Internet/pre-social-media eras.

But we don’t live in those eras. We have television, we have Internet, we have social media. Play with variations to see if you can write the way you want while still holding your readers’ attention.

Once you’re known for a style and tone, you may get by with longer, cumulative, compound-complex sentences because your fans already love to sit with your words and soak them in.

But if you’re just starting out or you’re trying to move into new audiences and reach out into the world, you’ll have better luck hooking and holding readers if you write tight, focused sentences that lead the reader easily through the text to get to the point.

If you use the Hemingway App, where you paste in some of your content to be analyzed, the app will flag the long sentence. I recommend you heed that warning and rework that sentence.

Short Paragraphs

Today’s online reader responds well to short paragraphs.

This doesn’t mean every line needs to stand on its own, but pay attention to how you yourself read when you’re online. See how you feel when you hit a big block of text. Do you resist? Scroll past it? Click away?

Sometimes we feel like we don’t have time to dig into it when it’s one big chunk.

That same content could be divided into smaller chunks, however, and when we encounter the same material divided up, we breeze right through it without stopping—never questioning if we have time to commit.

So online, especially, give your ideas space to breathe on the page.

In print, I think you can get by writing standard paragraphs because someone who picks up a book is already committed to spending time with the material.

Even when reading physical books, however, I find myself appreciating authors who deliver their ideas or stories efficiently. Every detail needs to earn the right to be there, moving the story forward or effectively illustrating a point.

Hook and Hold Your Readers with Easy Navigation

We have a lot of tools at our disposal these days to assist us that don’t rely exclusively on our words. Those of us who publish our own work as articles and blog posts have layout and design options to help us hook and hold our readers.

Use Subheadings

Use subheadings to label sections so your reader can easily skim through and decide if the information will be interesting or relevant to her. Subheadings are a tool in that way. A gift.

In fact, inserting subheadings can help writers find focus, organization, and flow as they draft.

Use Lists and Bullet Points

You’ll also hold your reader longer if he can glance down and see a list is coming, so use numbered lists and bullet points online and in nonfiction projects like books and articles.

Use Visuals

Writers these days need to understand the importance of how visuals and images enhance how the reader interacts with our words.

The power of images is that they:

  • break up blocks of text
  • illustrate points and add context or interest to the written words
  • can be photos (that you have permission to use) or images (like pull quotes on a color background)
  • allow people to create an interesting pin on Pinterest, which lets your article live in perpetuity in a search engine, so people can find your content for a long, long time

Think like a magazine editor when you’re putting your project together. Ask what kind of image would help here. What will best fit? Play with sizing and placement.

If you can afford it, hire a graphic designer to do it for you or have the designer create templates you can use that fit your color and style theme and save you time down the road.

Hold Your Readers with Content

We can pull out all the stops with professionally designed images and bullet points, but if the content doesn’t deliver, who cares?

Solve the Problem

If we promise to solve a problem in the headline and dance around it without offering a solution, our reader’s going to lose interest and trust. Resist the urge to craft a clickable headline that you aren’t able to address in the content of your project.

Open Up

Readers often turn to writers when the writer is an authority on a topic or an expert, but vulnerability will build trust and offers a different kind of ethos and a different kind of hook and hold.

When we open up about our own struggles, readers feel a connection—they’re curious to find out how we resolve our problem or deal with our challenges.

If they struggle with the same problems and challenges, they may not care all that much about how we ourselves solve it, but they’ll be searching for solutions they can apply to their own lives. So they read on.

Your Ideas in Your Voice

Inject your creative, original ideas to add meat and depth to a topic. Make connections others haven’t made and express it in your unique voice to offer value to your reader.

That keeps me reading when I’m trying to figure something out or I want to learn something new. Whether they’re using a lively, entertaining style or a thorough, thoughtful, pensive tone, I’ll stick with the writer who gives me what I’m looking for. They’ll hold me as a reader.

This is where your curious, creative, productive writer-self can bring it home. You’ve got great ideas—share them in your unique voice in ways that readers appreciate.

Do I Want to Read On?

It’s a simple question to ask. I sometimes forget to ask it:

Does this sentence make me want to read the next sentence?

Does one idea lead to the next? Does this paragraph make me want to read the next one?

If the answer is no, the reader may abandon ship. They may click away.

When self-editing, I need to remember this so I can liven up my prose and slice away the parts that drag down the text, to keep my readers engaged.

You can do that, too. Next time you’re writing—well, next time you’re editing—ask yourself, Does this sentence make me want to read the next one? Because if you don’t want to read on, your reader won’t want to, either.

Grab Your Reader and Don’t Let Go

I saw a cartoon the other day that showed a courtroom, and a witness on the stand is pointing to a man, the defendant, shouting, “Yes, that’s him! That’s the author of the book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go!”

We want to be that author, guilty as charged. Yes, we want to write books, screenplays, short stories, and articles that grab our readers and won’t let them go. So hook your readers at the very start, hold them throughout your piece, and deliver the goods all the way to the end.

Resources

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Sep 19 2019

13mins

Play

Ep 212: Productive Writers Build Their Body of Work – Pillar Three

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[Ep 212]

For about four years, I didn’t do much to get healthy or stay healthy. I’d talk about getting in shape but wouldn’t actually do anything. I’d wake up and think about it, then roll over and go back to sleep.

It’s no surprise, of course, that the idea of exercising—the thought of it—didn’t strengthen a single muscle in my body. The desire to be healthy, no matter how intense, didn’t actually make me healthy.

I had to take action.

Finally, about a year ago, I decided to do something. I started by jogging, plodding slowly through the neighborhood on a route so short I called it the wimpy route.

But that’s how it began. To start improving my health, I took action. It was humbling to start so small, but I got out there and ran—I mean, plodded—the wimpy route over and over.

And wouldn’t you know, action produced results.

Over time, I ran a tiny bit faster and farther and grew a tiny bit stronger and healthier. By continuing to take action, I continued to see results.

Productive Writers Take Action

If we want to be writers, we can’t just talk about writing and wish our projects into existence. The idea of writing—the thought of it—won’t get a single sentence of an article, blog post, poem, or short story composed. The desire to be a writer won’t actually make you a writer.

You have to decide to do something.

You have to take action.

That’s how it begins, no matter how humble or wimpy it may seem to you.

Productive Writers Write

In the beginning, it doesn’t have to be much. Just as I didn’t expect to be running a half-marathon distance when I first started plodding around the wimpy route, we don’t have to complete a 200-page novel in our first efforts to sit at our computers and write.

We can tap out a few sentences; maybe a paragraph or two. With those humble beginnings, it begins. And over time it adds up.

That’s the foundation of a productive writer.

A productive writer writes.

Productivity Doesn’t Mean Assembly-Line Production

Productivity doesn’t mean we have to spit out poems like candy from a vending machine or roll out blog articles like cars on an assembly line with repetition and precision. After all, that can lead to a loss of creativity and originality.

What productivity does mean is we have to start and complete projects instead of falling down rabbit holes of research for weeks on end or avoiding the work out of fear or perfectionism.

Productive writers finally step away from the search engines and library books and throw some of their discoveries onto the page to sort it out and produce a final project.

Productive writers overcome perfectionism and fear by sitting down and tapping out their thoughts to create a rough draft, no matter how rough.

Priscilla Long, author of The Portable Writer’s Mentor, writes, “In the end what matters to the ambitious dreamer is a steady and even rather plodding stream of work.”1 It’s fine, she says, if much of the output is “rough, awkward, contrived, and arguably awful.”2

That’s part of becoming a productive writer. You regularly produce a “plodding stream of work” no matter how “arguably awful” it emerges. Through the act of writing, you’re discovering your voice, your style, your preferred genre, your message.

You’re figuring out how to write and what to write every time you write. It’s building a kind of creative strength in you, as you overcome Resistance and do the work.

Productive Writers Finish

Eventually, after establishing a system of producing words and rough drafts, productive writers will develop a habit of finishing what they start.

So often, writers start project after project in bursts of creative inspiration but struggle to see even one of them through to completion.

Not everything we produce will be publishable, but we have to start and finish projects to build our body of work.

Productive Writers Set Up Systems

To be effective at starting and finishing, we have to commit to some kind of writing practice. For now, think of that writing practice as a system.

James Clear talks about the power of systems in this video. In it, he says, “We do not rise to the level of our goals; we fall to the level of our systems.”3

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXd6jeDElWM

By establishing routines and systems that lock in habits, and by setting up schedules with built-in deadlines, we can regularly start and finish projects, building our body of work.

As Clear said, goals aren’t bad; the goal expresses what we want to achieve. In his book Atomic Habits, he writes, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”4

So we develop a plan for how to get to the goal.

To complete that plan, we set up a system.

The system establishes a writing habit that leads to achieving our goals.

That’s how we’ll pull off our writing day by day.

That’s how we’ll be productive and see project after project all the way to the finish line.

That’s how we’ll build our body of work.

One Way or Another, Productive Writers Build Their Body of Work

Your system may include designing an editorial calendar, breaking down a project into a series of steps, tasks, and actions, then scheduling those each day. When you wake up, you know what to do: you write the segment you determined in advance was needed to complete, to stay on schedule and finish on time.

Your system may involve tracking words to complete a set word count or page count that you’ve calculated to complete a project in a particular time frame. Many writers use this basic idea to be productive, waking early to compose a given number of words or pages for their work in progress.

Not everyone finds motivation in the quantity of words and pages they produce. Another system is to set an alarm or timer and stay in your chair for a set amount of time each day. You can have your writing to-do list in front of you to work through.

On some days, you might write 2,000 words, and on other days you might only complete a paragraph. But you’re in the chair, committed, as part of your system.

Productive Writers Honor the Way they Like to Write

Some writers prefer to write their drafts by hand and type them up in Google Docs or Scrivener at the end of a writing session or at the end of the week.

The act of handwriting taps into a different part of their brain than the typing does.

The act of typing ignites a level of writer-editor that solves problems during the process.

This is a kind of system and approach that honors the way you like to write and work and think.

Verbal processors may prefer to speak a draft, recording it in their voice recorder app and having it transcribed. The transcription becomes their draft that they edit in a future work session.

Productive Writers Create Motivating Environments

Ideal circumstances aren’t always possible, but when they are (and to the extent they are), a writer will benefit from creating a motivating environment.

This may include solitude and silence. Or maybe it will involve music.

Hopefully it will involve a dedicated space so you create an environment conducive to deep work, to use Cal Newport’s phrase5, or to enter a “flow” state, to borrow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of an ideal creativity state.6

Or it may call for the ambient sounds of a coffee shop.

Experiment to discover what works for you and what doesn’t.

And if you can’t build an outstanding setup in the perfect environment, don’t use that excuse not to write.

Because productive writers write even when their circumstances are messy and perfect and when their time is short. They get creative and clever in how they use available time and awkward situations to write.

I’ve written in my car, at the library, in hospital waiting rooms where I wore noise-canceling headphones. We can not only tap into creativity to infuse our work with novel, original ideas, but we can also use creativity to solve problems related to getting work done.

Be creative to create an environment conducive to work.

Productive Writers Have Fun

All this talk of productivity sounds like work. Where’s the fun? Where’s the play?

It helps to lower the stakes at times. In fact, productive writers may become even more productive when they make the work fun and pleasant—even delightful.

I find writing itself to be a delightful activity, so some of my fun happens in the creative writing process. But we can insert creativity breaks. I have a yo-yo on my desk. When I hit a tough spot and need to think, I can stand up and get that thing spinning up and down for a few minutes.

Productive Personas

I heard Todd Herman interviewed on the DIY MFA podcast. He talked about taking on a kind of persona to solve problems and power through a project.

As I understood the concept, maybe you’d pick one of your favorite authors and channel that person’s creativity as if it’s your own to do more than you would on your own.

Or you can have a power hat or shirt and pull that on, imagining it’s the gear that produces New York Times bestselling authors.

Or perhaps you have an office area and entering that zone is like entering a powerful space filled with creative energy and it’s there that you’re unstoppable.

It’s a fun idea. In a week, I’m moving my office into a recently emptied bedroom and I’m going to try Herman’s technique.7

Productive Writers Start Where They Are

You may look at your writing life and feel like I did when I rolled over in bed instead of taking action to get healthy.

It doesn’t matter where you are now. Just take action to get started.

You may be slow at first, plodding along, producing only tiny paragraphs—maybe just a line or two.

But no matter how small the results, you’ll make progress. So don’t be afraid or ashamed of humble beginnings and simple restarts, because that’s how it begins.

To be a productive writer, you’ll take action. And your action will produce results.

By continuing to take action, following systems that work for you, you’ll continue to see results and build your body of work over time.

Resources

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Footnotes

  1. Long, Priscilla. The Writer’s Portable Mentor: a Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. Wallingford Press, 2010. Print. (312)
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead – James Clear.” YouTube, EntreLeadership, 21 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXd6jeDElWM. Accessed 5 Sept. 2019.
  4. Clear, James. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: an Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery, an Imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018. Print. (23)
  5. Cal Newport wrote the book Deep Work, in which he elaborated on the concept and how to make space for deep work in our lives.
  6. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is widely known for his concept of Flow. He’s written books and articles on this idea, and taught on the topic for decades.
  7. I listened to this podcast episode and summarized from memory; what I called a “persona” he called an “alter ego” in the interview: “The Alter Ego Effect — Interview With Todd Herman.” DIY MFA, 26 Aug. 2019, diymfa.com/podcast/episode-267-todd-herman. Accessed 5 Sept. 2019.

Aug 27 2019

12mins

Play

Ep 211: Be More Creative to Enjoy Your Best Writing Life: Pillar Two

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[Ep 211]

Creativity as a pillar of the writing life? It’s a no-brainer. Creativity and writing go together like pencil and paper.

Writers practice creativity each and every day.

But when we think about creative writing and a creative writer, our minds may turn toward MFA programs. After all, that’s where you study creative writing.

I hate the potential implication—that other kinds of writing are not creative.

Who’s a Creative Writer?

Creative writing instructors and programs offer teaching and training that nudge students toward an approach—a mindset and practice—different from that of writers who focus more on, say, blogging or marketing. Certainly MFA students gain skills that prepare them for a rewarding, challenging writing life—one that matches their goals to write and produce literary work.

But I believe those who write corporate brochures and articles about succulents are also creative writers, even if they didn’t graduate with an MFA or land their work in respected literary journals. Bloggers and copywriters can also practice a rewarding, challenging creative writing life that matches their goals.

When you write, you’re creating.

If you write, you create.

Thus, creativity is a pillar of the writing life.

On the flip side, all writers—even published authors who have completed MFA programs—are capable of producing somewhat stagnant, occasionally derivative, work.

We don’t want that.

So how can any writer—all writers—practice creativity? How can we be more creative to enjoy our best writing lives?

Entire books have been written about the topic, so I can’t tackle everything. But here are a few thoughts to get us started.

What Is Creativity?

First, it might help to establish a definition of creativity, but that’s harder than you might think.

Researchers and experts and writers have been trying to pin it down, and no one seems to agree. I haven’t located one single definition (unless we would turn to Merriam-Webster). What I’ve spotted are words and phrases tossed around that we can consider:

Whether these words reflect the process of creating or the finished product itself—that is, the thing created—they give us a hint of what it means to be creative: what it means to create.

Learning from Other Creatives

I’ve written before of how we can learn from the greats, studying writers we admire, even copying passages to learn techniques. We may find inspiration in their creative process and integrate elements into our own space and our own routines.

But why limit ourselves to learning from other writers? We may work in the world of words, but we can learn from other domains:

  • Writers can learn from the creativity of scientists to continually ask questions, experiment, dig deeper, analyze, draw conclusions, and try again.
  • Writers can learn from visual artists how color, form, and texture engage the senses and drive decisions.
  • Writers can learn from actors how working with the constraints of the stage and the script, we can make numerous choices that affect a performance and its effect on the audience.

Julia Cameron’s Artist Dates encourage outings to step out of our writing hovels and step into other spaces, whether a museum or yarn shop, an antique emporium or international grocery store.

From this new set of sensations and input, we build a network of possible connections, with one idea linking to another and another to form a new, novel concept that sidesteps the standard, mainstream mindset to discover original thoughts all our own as we become more creative.

Creative Inspiration

We not only learn from these other domains, we also amass new images and sensory experiences we can drop into our projects, deepening or expanding what we might have pulled together all on our own.

Like a stage designer pokes around at furniture, door frames, and props available from previous productions or a costume designer opens closets to see what materials and dresses could be modified for a new show, we poke around places we might not otherwise visit and scratch and sniff for inspiration.

Sometimes we may consciously do so, making a deliberate choice to add an element that runs through our work in progress as inspired by a color scheme we saw in film. Or we might include a quote from another author that helps the reader see our subject matter from another angle.

Other times, we may be influenced in ways that become embedded in us so deeply we don’t realize how it’s affected the words we’ve committed to the page.

One tip is to keep a writing notebook or journal documenting some of what has filtered into our minds, but sometimes we don’t think to record a minor event or detail that ends up being a formative, even foundational, experience.

Sometimes we realize the impact later. Sometimes we can’t see it; it’s become part of us in the way nutrients from the food we eat assimilates with our bodies, with our cells. We can’t say a particular carrot improved our health, but it’s in us. It did indeed contribute.

In the same way, we can’t point to a particular shell we held in our palm and say that is what inspired a scene in a novel where our heroine clutched an earring or a bead in her hand and found hope. Yet it’s in us, that shell, filling us with hidden creative inspiration.

The Creative Person

By learning from others and exposing ourselves to new concepts and sensations, we continue to bring ourselves to the work.

But that self is continually transformed, filled with more than ever to add depth and texture to what spills onto the page.

Ideas and stories flow out of a particular human being with her experiences, exposure to ideas, opinions, and worldview. The more we explore and discover, the more we bring to our projects.

That’s why we seek creative inspiration, and that’s why we write. We have something to say in a certain way—in a way only we can say it.

Twyla Tharp writes, in The Creative Habit:

Each of us is hard-wired a certain way. And that hard-wiring insinuates itself into our work. That’s not a bad thing. Actually, it’s what the world expects from you. We want our artists to take the mundane materials of our lives, run it through their imaginations, and surprise us.2

She goes on to list various personalities we might relate to—stereotypes like loners or romantics—and assures us that if we are any of these kinds of people, “that quality will shine through in your work.”3

Add to Your Library of Ideas

We bring ourselves to the work, and run the mundane materials of life run through our own imaginations—our own very self—and in that way, who we are shows up in what we create.

So let’s fill ourselves with novel, original thoughts to create our own novel, original thoughts. When we add to the giant library of ideas in our minds, in our hearts, and stir it all into the mixture of personal experience and memory, worldview and opinion, we offer something no one else has ever created—something no one else is capable of creating.

Only you. Your way. With your creative self sharing from your creative input, you surprise readers…and yourself.

Creative Writers Produce Creative Writing

When we are more creative as a person and a writer, we will achieve our writing goals. And the creative process itself—even before arriving at the final product—can satisfy us in the midst of creating.

All of these activities help us be more creative so we can enjoy our best writing life.

Resources

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Footnotes

  1. Definitions and traits of creativity are found in articles, books, and lectures. I have found them in sources such as Creativity, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and in an article by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. “The Latest Way to Understand Creativity.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 10 Aug. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201908/the-latest-way-understand-creativity, accessed 20 Aug. 2019. I selected some sample words that seemed particularly relevant to writers, all of which are found on the list found in the Psychology Today article cited here.
  2. Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Simon & Schuster, New York: 2003 (40)
  3. Ibid.

Aug 22 2019

9mins

Play

Ep 210: Cultivate Curiosity for Your Best Writing Life, Pillar One

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[210]

Dani Shapiro writes, “When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity” (213, Still Writing).

As she notes this connection between wisdom and curiosity, she continues, “They turn away from the minutiae of their lives—and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They are drawn toward what they don’t understand. They enjoy surprise” (213).

I love how she connects surprise and curiosity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes that same connection, as you’ll see shortly.

But before we get to that, let me establish my own connection: that curiosity is one of three pillars of your best writing life…along with creativity and productivity.

Curious Writers Bring More to Their Work

As curiosity becomes a daily practice, our writing will benefit, because curiosity serves as a driving force to producing captivating content and developing a writer who has things to say.

Nourish curiosity and you’ll have a lively imagination drawing from a vast and ever-expanding library of ideas. Each day, even the smallest flash of wonder fans the flame of creativity.

If we agree with Dani Shapiro that curious people focus on the world around them with a desire to explore the unfamiliar—drawn toward what they don’t understand—we gather clues for how we, too, can cultivate curiosity to live out our best writing life.

If you’ve lost your sense of wonder and dampened curiosity, don’t worry. You can recapture it, funneling into your work a newfound delight in the world around you, in yourself, and in others.

If you happen to be by nature a curious lifelong learner, lucky you! Continue to explore new ways to cultivate it further to become even more curious and pour what you discover into your writing projects.

Develop Curiosity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Creativity writes:

“[T]he first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interests, that is, the allocation of attention to things for their own sake…. Creative individuals are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown. And because there is no end to the unknown, their delight also is endless.” (346, Creativity)

Did you hear his suggestions?

  • Allocate “attention to things for their own sake.”
  • “Delight in the strange and unknown.”

It’s similar to what Dani Shapiro was saying: even the old in age are young at heart as they “explore the unfamiliar” and let themselves be “drawn toward what they don’t understand.”

Curious people learn something new every day.

Search, Capture, Ask

My mom moved from the American Midwest to a coastal town in the South and became captivated by the flora and fauna of the area.

She bought a telephoto lens so she could capture photos of the birds that seem so exotic to her. She grew up and lived most of her life with mourning doves, cardinals, robins, starlings, swallows, and red-winged blackbirds.

Now she’s delighting in what are, for her, “strange and unknown” species. She’s “exploring the unfamiliar” as she snaps photos and looks up in a guidebook the names of birds that turn out to be wood storks, ibises, great blue herons, green herons, and anhingas.

She shares them with her Facebook followers posting one photo after another along with thoughtful captions further modeling this curiosity that comes so naturally to her.

My mom is by nature curious and developed it as a journalist, rooting out stories everywhere she goes.

But you don’t need to be a trained journalist to ask the questions popping into your head and to search for answers:

  • borrow binoculars—or a telephoto lens—to study a bird
  • ask a parent about her first crush
  • wonder about the etymology of a word—and look it up
  • dig into a time in history you know little about
  • consider why a person made one choice instead of another
  • ask that about yourself, as well—why did you make one choice instead of another?

Cultivate Curiosity with Daily Surprise

Mihaly offers a three-fold path to start cultivating curiosity that I’d like to suggest for you.

It involves surprise.

  1. Be surprised
  2. Surprise others
  3. Document your surprise (347, Creativity)

1. Be Surprised

His first tip for anyone pursuing a more curious life is to “try to be surprised by something every day” (347). He lists mundane, everyday ways to do so, like noticing an unusual car in the parking lot and ordering a new item on the menu.

A note to us all: this increased attentiveness will require us to look up from our phones now and then and engage our senses.

Igniting those senses, we may notice the ingredients in the new dish we’re served or admire the gleaming chrome on the car whose make and model we never noticed before. We might turn onto a side road to stop and admire the Harvest Moon. We could snap a photo of the dragonfly perched on the tip of a blade of grass.

Ask questions that come up during these encounters. What spice am I smelling and tasting? Why does the moon seem so huge? What do dragonflies eat? Satisfy your curiosity with a search for answers, and here your phone might actually come in handy.

And when some questions seem unanswerable, live in the mystery. That, too, is part of the curious writer’s life.

All of this information enters into us and we draw from it as we think, make connections, and write.

Surprise in Writers

Robert Frost said in an interview with The Paris Review, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Even an organized writer who sets out with an outline or a plot mapped out brings energy to the page when he finds himself surprised as he writes.

I think we know it as readers. What a pleasure to enjoy an article, book, or poem written by someone who seems to be full of wonder and delight and surprise. A curious writer, surprised by life, brings that to his work.

You can be that writer.

Driven by inquisitiveness, curious writers experiment, even play. They’re unwilling to take things for granted or take things at face value. Curious writers test new techniques and try different genres. Curious writers embrace new vocabulary and employ fresh metaphors.

In their writing and in life, curious writers embrace a-ha moments. They hold life up to the light.

2. Surprise Others

How else can we practice a healthy curiosity? Csikszentmihalyi next advises us to “try to surprise at least one person every day.” Again, his ideas are simple, not wild: say something no one expects or invite someone to join you on an outing to a new location or event. (347)

What will happen? How will they react?

Years ago, one of my daughters handed me a wrapped gift and presented it almost shaking with excitement.

It wasn’t Mother’s Day or my birthday, so I asked, “What’s this for?”

She said the book we’d been reading together at the time, The Essential 55, had pointed out that the best time to give a gift is when no one expects it because you know they did it because they wanted to and not out of obligation because it was your birthday or Christmas (55, The Essential 55).

I was blown away by her random act of love. And whenever I drink that tea, I think of her and feel gratitude for her surprise all these years later.

Follow through with your own spark of an idea to surprise someone and see how that ignites a corresponding delight in you at the exact same moment.

3. Document Your Surprise

Csikszentmihalyi’s last suggestion for a surprise-centered approach to curiosity is to “write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others.”

Like a scientist keeping notes on an experiment, document your day’s surprises—and review those notes periodically to search for “a pattern of interest emerging…one that may indicate some domain that would repay exploring in depth.” (347, Creativity)

Most writers know what interests them, but you may discover something new in your surprise-driven days—some new topic or passion that can focus your next writing project. Or maybe it will inform your writing life as a whole.

Homework for Life™

Our curiosity looks outside ourselves much of the time, to note the surprise in someone else or to answer a question about something we’ve observed. But we can be curious about ourselves and our own lives, as well.

In his TEDx Talk, on his podcast, and at his blog, storyteller Matthew Dicks invites every person, not just writers, to document their “most story-like moment from the day” for what he calls Homework for Life™. He takes five minutes at the end of each day and thinks back: What made this day different from all the rest? (Matthew Dicks, Homework for Life | TEDxBerkshires)

Learn straight from Matthew himself in his TEDx Talk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7p329Z8MD0

The idea is very simple. He writes a sentence or two—sometimes just a string of words—that will bring back a memory from the day: the moment he chose to document. He says you develop a storytelling lens when you note the small discoveries, the daily surprises, those meaningful moments you don’t want to lose. (Homework for Life™ TEDxBerkshires)

When you start collecting stories with Homework for Life™, the days stop running into each other, as if nothing is new—because every day holds something new.

His call is similar to Mihaly’s: take note of the surprises, the reactions, the lessons learned, the interactions that stand out. It’s a way to be curious about yourself, as you set aside tons of content for future projects.

Do this simple assignment and each day becomes more precious, more curious.

Trust the First Pillar for Your Best Writing Life: Cultivate Curiosity

I hope you learn to trust the first pillar for your best writing life and start cultivating curiosity.

Expand your everyday perspective to expand as a person, dabbling in new experiences and enjoying new sensations. Try a new sport. Visit a shop you’ve never been in. Mix things up: If your favorite place is the hardware store, visit a yarn shop; if you’re most comfortable at a library, head to an art gallery.

What did you see, feel, smell, and hear?

If you neglect the world around you and suppress the desire to explore the unfamiliar, what will you bring to the page? If you ignore what you don’t understand, turning away, how will you grow?

Nurture curiosity, and your writing will flow with fresh ideas and insights linked to new observations and connections you make. You’ll find yourself open to ideas, considering alternative points of view. You may feel surprise, delight, even wonder.

Learn something new every day. Surprise yourself and others. And document the stories that make any given day different from all the rest.

Because when you’re a writer cultivating curiosity about your day, your life, your moments, you’re a writer rich in material, insights, and stories.

Resources

You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

____________________

Is your writing life all it can be?

Let this book act as your personal coach, to explore the writing life you already have and the writing life you wish for, and close the gap between the two.

“A genial marriage of practice and theory. For writers new and seasoned. This book is a winner.

—Phil Gulley, author of Front Porch Tales

Aug 06 2019

13mins

Play

Ep 209: Curiosity, Creativity, Productivity: Three Pillars to Building Your Best Writing Life

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[Ep 209]
Each week I claim that writers are discovering ways to reach their writing goals—and have fun—by being more curious, creative, and productive.

And each week you may be thinking, “Really?”

Yes, I really do believe these three traits or these three values can drive you forward to achieve your goals—and have fun along the way. They are values I myself take to heart and encourage my clients to explore and embrace, because curiosity, creativity, and productivity—together—have the potential to transform both you and your writing.

Today’s overview will give you a high-level look, and in the weeks ahead we’ll drill down into each one, to look at their core. By taking a closer look, you’ll see how developing these traits as a part of everyday life and as part of your writing practice, you’ll position yourself to become the writer you want to be.
Pillar One: Curiosity in the Writing Life
Why curiosity on its own? Why not tuck that under the umbrella of creativity?

Curiosity drives us to discover, to wonder, to think “What if?”

Could there be a more energizing trait for a writer?

Writers of fiction turn to the “what if” prompt to ignite their imagination. Curiosity propels stories forward for the reader as they wonder what’s next. Curiosity gets characters into trouble and then curiosity helps them solve problems to get out of trouble.

Poets, too, benefit from curiosity as a driving force. As the poet asks questions, she looks more closely at anything from a fish to a father. Curiosity calls us to slow down, consider, put the pieces together in a way that the rest of the world, speeding along without a pause, rarely has time to mess with—and curious poets put words to what they’ve pieced together.

Writers of nonfiction who let curiosity guide them will break free from rephrasing the same old points over and over. A curious writer will dig deeper, probe into subject matter, research topics to find the freshest, most accurate answers.
Writers who value and practice this as a part of their daily lives will likely have more fun along the way, delighting in both big wonders and small, grieving over deep injustice, seeking truth and revealing it.

In the next episode, we’ll look in more detail about how to develop curiosity as a writer and practice it regularly. Let’s look briefly at the next pillar of the writing life: creativity.
Pillar Two: Creativity in the Writing Life
You can enroll in an MFA program to earn a degree in what? Creative writing.

Whatever focus you select—fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction—creativity is the core concept of the program because creativity is core to a writer.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone disagree with the belief that creativity is key to great writing, and yet I’ve read pieces that could use an injection of creativity. Aren’t we seeking to create something new rather than regurgitate something old and stale in a style that sounds like it could have been written by anyone?

Embedded in the idea of creativity is not only that the ideas are creative—they’re fresh, novel, compelling, engaging—but also that we are indeed creating things. We can’t make something out of nothing, but we can mold into existence a passage, a poem, a project from ideas formed out of words. In that sense, writers are creators.

Practicing the craft of writing builds our confidence in wielding the tools at our disposal, but we can practice creativity in other areas of life in a way that enriches us as people. That, in turn, feeds into our work.
Be more creative as a person, and you’ll move closer to becoming a more creative writer—and thus achieving your writing goals.

And the creative process itself—even before arriving at the final product—satisfies the person in the midst of creating. So you really can’t lose if you prioritize this value.
Pillar Three: Productivity in the Life of a Writer
If we want to be writers,

Jul 30 2019

8mins

Play

Ep 208: Children’s Book Author Sharon Stohler’s Path to Self-Publishing

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[Ep 208]
Today I’m chatting with Sharon Stohler, author of the nonfiction children’s biography Affectionately Yours: The Devoted Life of Abigail Adams, a charming and inspiring picture book released in June 2019.

As you’ll learn in the interview, Sharon and I met years ago when we both started home educating our very small children, so we’ve known each other for decades. I was privy to her idea for this book years ago when she shared it with me as a friend. Later, we worked together when she brought me on for more official coaching.

Sharon’s path to publishing was long and required vision, flexibility, patience, and perseverance. Pursuing traditional publishing revealed insights that led her to eventually land on self-publishing Affectionately Yours. And anyone who has poked around at self-publishing or pulled it off knows to do it well you undertake a long list of new steps and stages.

She did it. She pulled it off.
I hope you find her story instructive and motivating.

Though the process was long and complicated, time-consuming and expensive, she said that the moment she held that book in her hands, it was all worth it.
Sharon Stohler has a B.S. in Early Childhood Education from the University of Delaware and a Masters of Education from West Chester University. She has taught children ages four through 12 in private, public, and homeschool classrooms. Sharon currently teaches 3rd grade in a hybrid homeschool classroom and often finds herself delighted by her students and their brilliant minds. Aside from her own family room, she feels most at home in a library. She and her adventurous husband live in Indianapolis, where they cater to the needs of their Siamese cat, Gigi. They have three grown children.
Resources

Sharon Stohler's website
Affectionately Yours: The Devoted Life of Abigail Adams (affiliate link)
Tiny Boat, collaborative publisher and illustrator Daron Benson
Children's Book Authors and Illustrators Facebook page
Bigger Dot, printer for Affectionately Yours
Tara Lazar's sample children's book layout & dummy construction
John Adams biography by David McCullough (softcover edition, affiliate link)
All podcast interviews
All podcast episodes

Jul 23 2019

50mins

Play

Ep 207: How to Sort and Stack Your Ideas and Tasks to Transform as a Writer and Person

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[Ep 207]
On my drive to Minneapolis to serve on the faculty of Northwestern Christian Writers Conference, I listened to podcasts: one after another, back-to-back.

I welcomed that stream of input filling my mind with ideas, strategies, and solutions that I can apply to my writing life.

But it’s easy to listen and then forget what I heard. What a waste if I devote hours to listening but never remember or apply what the experts recommend!

Life is short. I want to learn and grow and transform—I want to become wiser and more discerning. I’m committed to implementing those ideas!
Sort and Stack
So first I capture the information. Later, you know what I do?

I sort and stack it.

I’ve done this for years without having a name or phrase to put with it, but author Robin Jones Gunn said it in her keynote address: we must learn to sort and stack.

Sort and stack.
Sort and Stack Conference Notes
Sometimes conference attendees report that by the end of the weekend they feel like they’ve been drinking from a fire hose. They’re blasted with so much new information in session after session, they feel hit with input and ideas and vocabulary and concepts they've never heard before.

It’s overwhelming.

It would be easy to set aside the notes from those sessions and return to status quo when they arrive home.

But life is short. Those attendees came to learn and grow and transform, so I hope they’re committed to implementing those ideas.
Avoid the Overwhelm
Hopefully they scribbled down copious notes, captured them someplace—to sort and then stack them into logical, usable groups.

My breakout session offered probably 30 ideas, maybe more, of ways people can put some heart, soul, and a little laughter into social media. Another session may have offered 20 or 50 more ideas. Soon, the writers will have filled a notebook.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. We don’t have to do it all, and we don’t have to do it all right away.

But we don't want to lose those ideas.

The conference attendees don’t have to implement every idea the day they get home from the conference, and I don’t have to implement every idea I heard on the drive home in those podcasts I listened to.

We want to sort out what to do when so we try things out in an order that makes sense.
Create a Master Stack
If we successfully capture the information, we can create a master list and continue to work through it, sorting and stacking over time.

We can convert our notes from the master list or “stack” into more lists, labeled however we wish:

Research
Try next month
Archive

As you sort notes from your master list into these sub-stacks, you can label them in many ways. Use the nomenclature from the organization, time-management, or productivity systems that make sense to you.

Again, think of each new list as another stack. Move notes to one stack or another, sorting as you go.
Sort and Stack Based on ROI
The Writer's Guide to ROI series helps with sorting and stacking. By thinking through return on investment of any given idea, I can comb through the stack of ideas I collected from my podcast marathon and sort them based on values and goals and efficient use of time.

Then I can sort them into new stacks or categories to figure out how and when to implement them. This moves me closer to action I’ll take—specifically the very next step.
What’s the Next Action?
Long ago I read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, which explains his productivity methodology. He recommends a Next Action list formed by asking, “What’s the next step?”

For a long time I stuck a Post-It on my computer monitor with that on it: “What’s the next step?” Asking that helped me sort all the possible actions I could take and zero in on the very next one to do. The rest could remain on the Next Actions stack.

I learned to phrase each item with a verb so the task or action would be expressed as a specific,

Jul 16 2019

8mins

Play

Ep 206: A Writer’s Guide to ROI (Part 4)

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[Ep 206]
Several years ago I watched a free training presented by Chalene Johnson, where she explained how to start with one piece of content and then use it in several forms for various outlets. With this efficient and productive approach, she gets the most mileage out of a single piece of content.

It’s a clever, creative way to improve ROI.
Chalene Johnson’s Content Creation System
Chalene is comfortable on video, so she starts with a live video as the primary content form. She decides what she’ll speak on and has several points to cover, and I don’t think she scripts it in advance. She probably writes out bullet points to keep her on track and speaks from those.

At the time of the training she recommended Facebook Live, but since then I’ve seen her and others do live video on multiple platforms at the same time. That might be like Facebook Live and Instagram Live or IGTV and maybe Periscope, too. With one live broadcast, she instantly reaches people in multiple places all at once.

Afterwards, that video is saved.

And that’s the beauty of her system. She can repurpose that saved video into multiple formats.

For example, she can:

edit the video recording into segments to publish on YouTube
use the audio from that recorded livestream to create a podcast episode
have the audio transcribed and use that written version as the draft of an article or two to publish at her website
pull quotes and video excerpts to use on Twitter
create infographics and quote posts to pin on Pinterest
design quote images for her Instagram feed

I don’t think she mentioned it, but she could create slide decks to publish on LinkedIN SlideShare and use the recorded video as part of a program or course.

One piece of content turns into gobs of material for all kinds of purposes and platforms. The impact she can have with just one focused creative idea and effort blew me away.

That’s a savvy use of one’s time and a remarkable return on investment.
Creative Content Repurposing for Writers
Maybe one day I’ll start with live broadcasts like Chalene Johnson, but that’s not who I am or where I’m at. Inspired by her training, I started to think about my own strengths:

What one piece of content could be my starting point?

What could I create to serve at least double-duty if not triple- or quadruple-duty to have the biggest impact possible?

How can I take the principle behind Chalene’s training and adapt it for where I’m at as a writer to increase my ROI?
Start with Written Content: Big to Small
As a writer, an obvious starting point for me was written content.

That’s what I did.

Podcast: I ended up scripting my podcast episodes, so those are offered in audio form for those who subscribe to the podcast.
Blog Article: The script is available as an article for those who prefer reading it at my website.
Newsletter: Since it’s relatively short, I include that same content in my weekly newsletter, so people don’t have to go to my website or listen to the podcast to learn from my ideas.
Instagram Quote: For the Instagram feed, I create a quote post with a brief excerpt from the article—enough so that people don’t have to go to the original piece in order to gain a valuable insight, in case they want to stay in Instagram rather than click away to my website.
Instagram Image: To mix things up, I often take a photo that relates to the ideas, such as the image of a book I refer to in the article, and publish that in my feed.
Instagram Story: Sharing the post from my Instagram feed in my Story draws a few people who are focusing more on that element of Instagram.
Facebook: I repurpose one of the excerpts from Instagram into a post on my Facebook page, and that links back to the original article on my website.
Pinterest: I create at least one or two pins for Pinterest.
Twitter: I tweet a variety of links to the article on Twitter, using quotes and images to mix things up.

Jul 09 2019

9mins

Play

Ep 205: A Writer’s Guide to ROI (Part 3)

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[Ep 205]
In the Next-Level Writer series, we talked about plans and goals.

When we set out with a goal and make a plan to methodically move toward that goal, we see what it takes. We understand the investment involved.

That’s when we measure the ROI of a particular task or activity using not only our deepest values, which we looked at in Part 2 of A Writer’s Guide to ROI, but also our goals.
Weigh Your Goals
Let’s say your goal is to complete the manuscript of a novel by the end of summer, but on a whim you commit to a one-month daily photography challenge on social media.

The challenge is a lot of fun and provides a creative boost as you break away from your work-in-progress to edit and post an image.

Is that creative boost worth it?

The challenge starts to distract you from your writing goal as you invest more time in photography than in writing the novel.

You have to decide.

Do you change your goals and your alter your plan to accommodate an activity?

Consider your ROI.
You Can Change Course for Greater ROI
If the photography challenge keeps you from meeting that end-of-summer goal, should you continue with the challenge and change your deadline, or focus entirely on the writing?

As you pour creative energy into the photography, you may have less available to invest in the writing.

But you might gain so many new followers, it’s worth it, because you might never have met them if you hadn’t the challenge.

What’s the greater ROI?

Consider your goals. What’s more important? What’s needed first?

That will help you determine the best investment of your time, creative energy, and personal resources.
Measure Your ROI
You can measure the return on investment based on what you’d like to see.

In part one in A Writer’s Guide to ROI, Crystal Paine decided activities were worth her time if they made her money or brought in more people or helped her serve her audience better.

You could try other measurements:

Income
Word count
Email signups
Visitors to your website
Readers of a particular article
Engagement and likes on a social media update
New followers or friends on social media
Sales of a book or product
Downloads of a free item
Downloads of a podcast episode
Completing a work-in-progress
Relationships with people in the industry (agents, editors, publishers, other writers)

You can see from this list how specific activities lead to certain measurements.

There are other elements that are so important but much harder to measure, like emotional returns. It’s hard to track those, but you can try. Track them daily using a scale of 1 to 10 to determine where you’re at each day or at the completion of each activity.

You can decide how you feel or what you’ve gained in such areas as:

Self-improvement
Confidence
Happiness or joy
Creative satisfaction
Emotional energy
Improved writing skills
Growth

Is It Worth It for Me?
Is it worth it for me to post on social media at my current rate or more often?

Is it worth it to produce a weekly podcast?

Is it worth it to send out an email newsletter?

Is it worth it to quietly work on books that won’t be available for over a year, maybe two?

For me, the answer is yes. Yes to all of that and more.

When I calculate my ROI—which is ultimately based on my goals and values—the time I spend on the writing and writing-related activities brings in new relationships as I

help more people,
gain new opportunities to speak and write, and
develop ideas I can use in other ways.

I’m having fun along the way, and I satisfy my curiosity by exploring new questions that arise and new topics of interest.
Is It Worth It for You?
I could continue to list the results I gain—the returns on my investment—but the big question is this:

Is it worth it for you?

How about your writing projects and your writing-related activities you’re committed to...

Jul 02 2019

5mins

Play

Ep 204: A Writer’s Guide to ROI (Part 2)

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[Ep 204]
My son participates in value debate. The competitors take either the affirmative or negative stance on a resolution and argue for or against it based on a value. The judge determines which side best upholds their value.

I’ve served as a judge for these debates many times, and the more I listen to these clashes, the more I’ve come to realize we make decisions based on personal values all the time in our everyday lives.

Just as an example, I’ve talked with the kids about this, and let’s say they’ve gotten an invitation to a quiet gathering with close friends where they’ll just hang out and chat. But then they receive another invitation on the very same night to a fun activity, like a concert, with people they don’t know as well.

How do they choose?

They can decide based on what they value more: time with close friends doing something quiet or a chance to attend a concert. Which is the higher value at that time in their lives?

Personal values form the core of our decisions and are critical to determining our ROI.
A Writer’s Values
As writers, we could take on countless tasks and sign up for numerous activities, all of which bring various results.

So we bring in the idea of our return on investment, or ROI. If we invest something of ourselves—time, money, resources, energy—what are we getting back from it? What’s the result—the return—on that investment?

Our values are behind it all, at the core of our choices. Whether we realize it or not, we inevitably return to our values to determine our ROI.

Does any given activity and the investment it requires fit with what we value most?
Know Your Values
We all have deep-seated values, whether we’re aware of them or not and whether we’ve ever identified them or articulated them or not.

They may be high-level, ethical values—like not hurting someone else in your pursuits.

Or they may be smaller, personal values, like carving out time each day to exercise.

In part one of A Writer’s Guide to ROI, I shared how Crystal Paine determined if her time devoted to a task or activity was worth it. For her, the time invested must result in money and helping people—that’s how she knows it’s worth devoting time to a project or task. She’s come to value that as a business owner.
What Are Your Values as a Writer?
As you see, one of her values is helping people.

You may share that value. As a writer, you may long to help people with your ideas and solutions.

You may have other values, as well. You may value the satisfaction of producing something creative or taking the risk to delve into a personal struggle so you can share it with others so they might find hope.

You may value storytelling as an art form and strive to write beautiful narratives.

You may value poetry and commit to daily practice regardless of whether your final versions end up in a literary magazine.

Knowing your values helps determine the ROI of an activity.
When Values Are Revealed
But sometimes your personal values may not be easy to identify. You may not have articulated them.

Our values have a way of revealing themselves as we take action.

You get to a certain level of success or achievement and realize, wait, this isn’t what you thought it was going to require or feel like.

This isn’t aligning with your values.

This isn’t what you want.
Jeff Goins’ Story
This happened to Jeff Goins.

For years as a blogger, Jeff created content about writing, publishing, and creativity. Over time, he decided to build this part-time pursuit into a business, and it grew. He hired employees and farmed out some of the articles he used to write to other freelancers.

But he was stressed out with the work of managing it all. He reached out to Seth Godin, who reminded Jeff that he didn’t have to do this—he didn’t have to build a business. But if he wanted to build a business, he had to commit to that work.

Jeff then reached out to business coach Casey Graham,

Jun 25 2019

7mins

Play

Ep 203: A Writer’s Guide to ROI (Part 1)

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[Ep 203]
If you’re like me, you do a lot of writing and writing-related activities essentially for free. You craft social media content, articles for a blog, and guest posts as part of your plan.

We do these kinds of activities to educate, entertain, and inform. We hope to solve problems for readers, connect with them, share our ideas, and build bridges.

At the same time, we may be trying to gain visibility as a writer or increase reach into new audiences to help even more people. We might create a freebie to add subscribers to our email list or write articles on spec to beef up our author bio with stronger social proof.

We write books that may take years to complete before we even begin to search for an agent or publisher—again, we’re essentially writing for free long before the first reader plops down a credit card.

It’s a lot of work.

Is it worth it?

How do you determine if it’s worth it?
What’s the Return on Investment
As host Anne Watson interviewed Crystal Paine for The Declare Conference Podcast, they discussed whether it’s worth it to create “lead magnets” for every blog post.

Crystal advised listeners to look at the time involved in making them and the results you’re getting. “I’m always looking at what is the return on my investment of time.”1

Anne asked, “How are you filtering what you think is the best place for you to spend your time?”

Crystal responded:
The ROI. One hundred percent the ROI. That is what I focus on. So how much time is this going to take me and how much money is this going to make me or how many new people is this going to bring in. And that might sound super selfish or something but that’s what I have to do, because I have a very limited amount of time that I can focus on every day….2
She continued:
Mostly I focus on how do I serve my own audience well, and what are the few things that we’re going to change this year that I feel are going to serve my audience best. And that’s really my heart with everything that I do...I just really focus on providing content for my audience, serving my audience, building relationships with my audience, and trying to become better as a person by reading good books and sharpening my writing, critiquing myself on video and on podcasts and just constantly learning and growing as a person and I think that trickles down into everything you do.3 {beginning around the 24:00 mark}
Is it worth it to publish a blog post twice a week and post on Instagram daily? Is it worth it to work for a year on a book that doesn’t have a publisher? Is it worth it for you to submit an article to a magazine where you may not be paid?

Only you can answer those questions, based on how you measure your ROI.

What are you getting for the resources you’re investing?
Crystal Paine’s ROI
As you saw, Crystal Paine is running her ROI through her personal values and goals for her business. She asks:

How much time is this going to take me?

Then she revealed the returns that matter to her:

How much money is this going to make?
How many people is this going to bring in?
How is this content serving my audience?
How is this activity helping me build relationships with my audience?
How is this activity helping me become a better person?

Regarding that last point, you may recall Crystal listed activities like reading good books, sharpening her writing and speaking skills, and learning and growing as a person. She said, “I think that trickles down into everything you do.”4

So investing time in reading a book has a good ROI if it helps her grow as a person or writer.
ROI Is Personal
ROI in business relates more to investments bringing monetary results or company growth. But you may calculate the ROI in a more personal way, as Crystal does when considering books she might read next or the few podcasts that she listens to.

Listening, reading, creating—it all takes time, so she’s determined for herself what makes it worth her...

Jun 18 2019

7mins

Play

Ep 202: Enjoy Creative Freedom with the Modular Approach to Writing

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[Ep 202]
When my kids were little they didn’t really like the LEGO sets that require you to put the bricks together a certain way to create a specific thing, like a Death Star. They preferred giant quantities of individual bricks so they could snap them together and build whatever they wanted.

And this is the brilliance of LEGO: its modular approach. The sets are super cool, but as long as you have bricks of any shape or color, you have the elements you need to build. Click them together to try out one way before breaking them apart to connect them in a new configuration to see if you like that result better.
Modular Approach to Writing
This modular approach to building is an approach I suggest you apply to writing—especially if you’re finding it hard to begin a project or you’re stuck in the middle of one.

Or maybe your brain doesn’t think in a linear or sequential way. If so, this solution helps you develop your draft without having to commit to an orderly process at first.
Write Discrete Units—Your Bricks
Each "brick" of writing is a unit that will comprise the bigger project. This unit could be a scene for fiction; a paragraph for an essay or article; a stanza or even just a line for a poem; or a subsection of a chapter for a nonfiction book.

Once you know what project you’re working on, write what comes to mind. If you’re working on a novel, write a scene. If you don’t know what to follow it with, don’t worry. Write another scene knowing it doesn’t have to connect with the one you just wrote--at least, not right now. You can fill in the missing pieces later. Right now, write what you can write.

Just as you’d toss some LEGO bricks on the floor to start building a castle, these scenes are the blocks you’ll use to build your story. Each one you write is a discrete element you’ll use to construct the final draft.

Same with an essay or the chapter of a nonfiction book. Write an analogy that supports one of your contentions. Add your thoughts related to a quote you’re planning to use. Compose a personal story that relates to the theme.

All of those serve as standalone segments, sections, or blocks related to that project that can be moved around at any point.
Build Your Draft
When you’ve written enough that you can see the project taking shape, lay out all the blocks of text you wrote by printing them and cutting apart each segment.

Or, you can rearrange them on the computer screen by cutting and pasting, moving them up and down to insert in various ways.

Digital saves paper and ink, but in this building stage, many writers prefer working with physical pieces of paper. They like to spread out their paragraphs or stanzas or scenes on a table or on the floor so they can see it forming.

Try it first in one order, shuffling a paragraph or stanza up or down.

Read it through. How does it sound? Would it work better in another order?

Keep reordering segments and reading through the new version, then dismantle it and try another combination to figure out what works best.

Brick by brick, you can piece together your work-in-progress; block by block you build your draft.
Write the Missing Pieces
At some point, you’ll land on a combination with potential. You can see it coming together in front of you; if you read it aloud, you’ll hear it making sense. It may be missing a section needed for context, continuity, or logic, or it may need additional phrases to clarify an idea, but it’s taking shape.

This development phase is the perfect time to discover what’s needed and simply write another brick, another chunk of writing, and insert it into your creation.

If your short story needs a flashback scene, write it now.

If your poem lost its rhythm, write another line.

If your essay leaps to a conclusion, write another paragraph to include supporting evidence.

Add what’s missing and you’re almost done.
Final Stages
You’re so close to the final product,

Jun 11 2019

6mins

Play

Ep 201: Next-Level Writer – Have You Emerged at the Next Level?

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[Ep 201]
In the first episode of this series, I described a hypothetical character in a hypothetical game—a little dragon that gains power or abilities after playing the game for a while. This dragon demonstrated what it means to level up in a video game.

Depending on the rules of this hypothetical game, the dragon might gather certain tokens, interact with key players, or conquer a small castle, and by completing the tasks and achieving the goals, he gains enough experience and skills to level up.

And leveling up transforms him and empowers him with bigger flames, broader wings, better aim. As he emerges at the next level, he then plays in that evolved state with more powerful skills to gain even more experience and level up yet again!

You are that dragon.
Where Are You Now?
You’ve been at this writing game, so to speak, for a while, working the plan you made to level up.

For the past few weeks, you’ve awakened each morning with more intention about your writing. You’ve implemented your plan intentionally, faithfully, relentlessly. You’ve broken down goals into smaller goals and tasks, scheduled the work, completed tasks, and made progress. You’ve evaluated how things are going and adjusted the plan as needed.

It’s been about a month. After this purposeful effort, where are you now?

Have you leveled up to where you thought you’d be?
Did you exceed your goal?
Did you fall short but realize you’re closer than you were before?

You Leveled Up
Let’s start with leveling up. Did you level up to where you thought you’d be in a month? Did you achieve your goal?

If so, congratulations! This is why you made a plan and set out with goals that you’ve chipped away at, one after another, with grit and determination. Look back to see where you’ve been compared with where you are now, and celebrate.You, my friend, are on fire!
You Exceeded Your Goal
Some people double-down on areas showing promise or take advantage of an opportunity that arises. In doing so, they exceed their goal.

Is that you? Did you level up beyond what you expected? If so, wow! Make that a double-congratulations! Roll with that momentum and keep doing what works. Lock in your routine, because it’s working for you. At this pace, you may level up again before you know it!
You Fell Short of Your Goal
It’s possible you got blown off track and fell short of your goal. You wouldn't describe your current state as having leveled up.

If that’s where you find yourself, take heart. You can press restart and try again. I know you can, because I’ve been there and pressed that button myself. You can always start again.
Celebrate Progress
And yet, you don’t have to return to square one. If you consider where you were with where you are now, you’ll see that you’ve made progress. Even if you’ve inched forward, you’re closer to the next level than you were when you started!

That’s progress! Be glad you set off with that original plan and celebrate that progress. Then decide if you want to revise the plan before you relaunch.
You've Grown as a Writer
At all levels of achievement, you’ve changed as a writer—you’ve gained experience and grown—all because you made a plan to level up and faithfully did the work.

You wrote, polished, and shipped out content. You surged forward with a big effort to complete something challenging. You followed through with daily tasks in a constant drip that added up over time. You realized what didn’t work for you and felt energized by what did.
Questions for the Next-Level Writer
When you first started this next-level writer process, you set one-month and three-month goals. As you head toward that third month, ask those same questions along the way to determine where you are now:

Have you leveled up to where you thought you’d be?
Did you exceed your goal?
Did you fall short but realize you’re closer than you were before?

At the three-month mark, my friend,

Jun 04 2019

8mins

Play

Ep 200: Next-Level Writer – Relentlessly Execute Your Plan to Level Up

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[Ep 200]
Unless a fairy godmother shows up and sprinkles fairy dust all over your laptop to magically boost you to the next level—without any effort on your part—you’ll have to commit to your plan and follow through.
Relentless Implementation
Shane Melaugh of the ActiveGrowth podcast said in a recent webinar we must “relentlessly implement” or “relentlessly execute” to level up. It’s the only way we evolve and mature into the writers we need to be in order to produce the work we want to produce to reach the readers we want to reach.

This podcast itself is an example of my own relentless implementation, although “faithful" implementation might be a better way to phrase it. I did leave some unavoidable gaps here and there due to some caregiving chaos, but the majority of time, for five years, I’ve faithfully, relentlessly, sent out weekly content.

I don’t have any superpowers; I just keep showing up, week after week, year after year, and here we are at episode 200.

That faithful, relentless commitment allowed me to level up.
If Growth Is Slow, Don't Give Up
But it can be slow going. In fact, for any of us, our growth can be imperceptible—so much so, we may be tempted to give up before we realize our full potential. You may stop before you gain traction and experience real growth.

When I started the podcast in 2014, I treated it as an experiment. And things didn’t take off right away. I was releasing episodes weekly, so eight episodes would be two months of output. If I’d stopped after the eighth episode, I would have missed the fruit of my labor. And I could have easily ended the experiment.

But I was having fun and I wanted to keep going, even if it wasn’t a success by measurable standards.

Thankfully I stuck with it. I figured out the best length and frequency to release episodes, and I decided what I really wanted to offer through the podcast. Even in the midst of a crazy time of life, I kept up with it.
While I’m not showing actual numbers on this graph, I do want you to see the growth over time. Between 2014 and 2017 you see gradual growth. The first month a few people listened to find out what I was up to—friends and family and few followers on social media.

The month after that, it dips down. That may have been during one of my chaotic caregiving seasons, but even if you look at the third month, it barely rises to where I was when I launched. Basically, in three months of effort, I saw no growth.

The fourth month rose a little. The fifth month barely rose above the fourth.

Not until the sixth month did this podcast finally see a bump. It took six months before I saw any substantial growth.
Keep Implementing the Plan
I didn’t have a fairy godmother sprinkle fairy dust on my microphone, not even at the sixth month. I never showed up on the Apple Podcast New & Noteworthy page where people often get a boost. I just kept creating another episode and sharing it with people on social media, faithfully—relentlessly—implementing my plan.

It took time, but the good news is if you look at the long-term growth, you do see a gradual increase.

Prior to the podcast, my plan involved creating content for my website and social media. When I introduced the podcast to my plan and it leveled up, my exposure as a coach and writer rose with it.
Benefits of Sticking with the Plan
Thanks to podcasting, I:

developed audio recording and editing skills
wrote regularly to script and share my content
shared that content not only in audio form but in written format as well
gained confidence as a presenter
landed speaking opportunities
connected with new writers who “met” me through the podcast
stayed current on industry trends to pass that information along to listeners
introduced you to authors and publishers through interviews
read more books on writing than I normally would to share that wisdom in various episodes
had fun

Yes, I had fun.

May 28 2019

7mins

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One of my favorites

By Dair B. - Jul 18 2018
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Efficient, insightful, and inspiring!

Thanks!

By @shaunaletellier - May 29 2017
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Practical, entertaining, and brief. Ann writes and speaks as a lovely example of all she teaches.