Rank #1: Ep 166: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 1): Start with the Right Mindset
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
Rank #2: Ep 143: If You Want to Be a Writer, Keep Showing Up
And that’s why we’re writing, isn’t it? To serve whole stacks of our words to others?
There are other reasons to write, including personal reasons, like keeping a private journal to explore our inner lives. That practice can lead to a healthier psyche, increased gratitude, and improved health.
But those of us who are writing for publication of some kind—even if only on social media—have some desire to serve an audience. To have readers.
We want to inform, persuade, encourage, or entertain, right?
Keep Flipping Pancakes
So here’s the deal. You’ve got to keep flipping pancakes. Every Saturday morning, you have to pull out the griddle, stir up the batter, and make more.
And you know I’m using this as an analogy, of course, though by all means, make actual pancakes any time you wish. If you make any for me, I’ll take gluten-free, dairy-free with real maple syrup, please.
But back to our writing.
Once you write the first poem or the first essay or the first book or the first Instagram post—or the next poem or the next essay or the next book or the next Instagram post—keep going.
Pick a sustainable pace and keep writing, keep editing, keep finishing, keep shipping them out however they're shipped.
If it means you need to click publish in WordPress so your article goes live once a week, do it.
If it means you make the finishing touches on your essay and send it out via Submittable, send it.
When you’re consistent—when you keep showing up—you reap layers of benefits.
Be Consistent for Readers
First, you show your audience you’re serious about this. You’re in it for the long haul.
You'll still evolve—it doesn’t mean you’ll produce exactly the same content for decades. But you are saying, “Hey, I’m not a one-hit wonder."
Consistency tells the world, “This who I am. This is my personality, my tone, my approach, my worldview. And you can turn to me for X.” Then write X, whether that’s political satire or romance novels. It can be driven by topic, like frugal shopping or high-end travel, or it can be driven by platforms, like podcasts and vlogging.
Show up and prove to the world this is what you offer. By writing and shipping consistently, you’re saying, “I'm going to show up with content that persuades you, encourages you, makes you laugh, or solves your problem. You can turn to me for that. You can count on me. I’ll be here. I’ll walk alongside you, reader."
Now, plenty of readers will pop over to your blog or your Facebook page and just take away one little morsel of information and never visit you again. That’s okay. But you will have faithful readers. Those are the people you’re showing up for. Whether it’s two, twenty, two hundred, or two hundred thousand, keep showing up for them.
Be Consistent for Yourself
Interestingly, showing up for others ends up being a gift to yourself. When you write for others, you reinforce not only for them but also for yourself: this is who I am, and this is what I offer and want to keep offering.
When you stick with your commitment to show up consistently, you prove to yourself you can do this. You can follow through. You can make pancake after pancake. You get small win after small win, and those add up to become their own big win.
Consistency is how we practice our craft and improve. And you’ll have the confidence to undertake bigger projects because you know you were faithful to follow through with the smaller ones.
Keep a growth mindset. Move toward mastery. Improve and experiment and improve even more. When you’re consistent,
Mar 13 2018
Rank #3: Ep 148: Increase Writing Quality by Both Filling and Stilling Your Mind
Hours of Filling the Mind
As I rolled down the freeway, I listened to hours and hours of podcasts, filling my mind with interviews, ideas, tips, and strategies related to writing and publishing, creativity and productivity, social media and marketing.
That continuous input felt like taking back-to-back sessions at a conference or classes at college. Hungry to learn, I gorged on the steady diet of nourishing information.
Hours of Stilling the Mind
When I arrived at my destination, I turned off the podcast player.
My brain grew still.
That’s naturally what happened at the end of my long journey. But of course that’s exactly what I needed next. After filling my mind, I needed to still my mind.
I needed to build in space and time to process and ponder the content I had taken in. I needed time to decide which ideas I could “own” for myself and integrate into my life and work. How could I test them out without some degree of stillness?
Hours of Input Need Hours of Silence
My outing was my Grand Gesture, if you recall from the last episode. I was near a beach. I made a commitment to walk every day, at least an hour. Sometimes two.
As I walked, all that input from hours of listening and learning tumbled around in my mind, mixing with whatever I’d dropped in there over the years.
Waves spilled against sand and lulled me into a relaxed state of trust in the directions my mind meandered. Freed from overthinking and overanalyzing, I solved a few sticky issues and casually outlined a few projects. I gained excitement and vision for the year ahead.
Fill + Still = Breakthroughs
While I have a lifetime of input floating around inside me, I believe in the importance of continuing to fill myself with more. I’m a lifelong learner, I guess. I want to keep my mind sharp.
But I also see the value—the necessity—of following the filling with a stilling my mind, giving it space to make connections and arrive at breakthroughs.
We have those a-ha moments while walking, showering, folding laundry, washing dishes. When we aren’t actively problem-solving, our minds are still enough to wander, think, make connections. This is a valuable state for a writer in need of breakthrough for a sticking point in a project.
After a period of filling the mind, take time to quiet the noise. Turn down the volume, whether literal or figurative. Give the brain some down time. In the stillness of those quieter, less mentally demanding times, we figure it out:
I just realized how my heroine will escape the trap!
Ah! I know the third stanza in the poem—I can hear it in my head.
For that essay, I’ll allude to a line in a play and write a section on how it resonates with our society.
Our rested state allows us to arrive at clarity and vision.
Filling and Stilling, We Write Unique
With your insight, you can put the idea together in a way that only you can. That’s why you and I could both write about the same topic or respond to the same prompt and your final product would be completely different from mine.
Not only are our styles different, but we’ve filled our minds with different content.
You read this book while I read that. You came across a quote in your travels and I found one in a letter my mom wrote to her best friend when she was in college. You pored over medical research, while I had a conversation at a party thrown by a friend.
We have it all inside, ready to increase the clarity and quality of our writing.
Know When (and How) to Fill
One time I came across a quote attributed to Anne Lamott: “Sometimes you’re not blocked; you’re empty.” When you feel empty, dry, lacking inspiration, spend some time filling your mind.
Read great books
Listen to great books
Apr 17 2018
Rank #4: Ep 163: How to Write When You Work Full Time
This person wants to know:
How to write when you work full time?
That’s a tough one. It’s hard to have any kind of hobby or side hustle when you work full-time. When you put in the hours at work and come home exhausted, how can you possibly devote your depleted brain and energy to a creative project?
Don’t Ignore the Ache
I stayed home to raise our four children and we chose to home educate, so while I didn’t work full-time in a traditional sense, I had my hands full most hours of the day. Writing was extremely challenging during those years.
My dream was to have an entire day at my disposal, no interruptions, no diapers to change, no activities to organize. But that wasn’t the overall lifestyle we’d chosen. I thought if I couldn’t have the day to write—and if, in fact, my reality felt like I had NO time to write—why bother?
But I couldn’t ignore the ache. I ached to write.
Some days I felt hopeless. Some days I felt sorry for myself and didn’t bother even trying. Most days I wanted that all-or-nothing writing life.
So a lot of days I didn’t write. After all, I didn’t feel like I had the energy; or if I started, I’d only be interrupted. Why try?
But that ache wore on.
Address the Ache
I couldn’t go on like that. I had to address the ache. I suspect that’s where a lot of writers are—maybe the person who sent in this idea for a podcast.
You’re feeling the ache, that soul-ulcer chewing away at your creative impulse. You’re losing hope.
How do you write when you work full time?
Assuming you can’t quit, I hope you’re feeling something else rise up in you—something louder and stronger than the ache.
It’s a voice, a determination within. A resolve.
You have something inside of you that must be voiced.
A barbaric yawp you’re ready to sound over the roofs of the world.
I. Must. Write.
You must write.
Yes, there’s writing in you, ready for the page. You can’t wait any longer.
There’s a writer in you, ready to yawp, and you know it. You can’t wait for the perfect conditions. You can’t wait until you inherit some distant relative’s fortune so you can quit your job.
No more waiting.
You must sound your yawp over the roofs of the world.
You must write.
Look for slivers of time and the occasional chunk of time here or there. Settle for less than the dream of a cabin in the woods. Whatever you can, grab it and write a few lines.
Where Will You Write?
Let me tell you a story.
Joseph Michael developed a Scrivener training course while he was working full time at another job. Scrivener is writing software, also an app, that many authors use because with it, you can manage longer, larger, more complex projects more easily than you can using Word or Google docs.
But Scrivener is a little confusing to most newbies; at least it was for me. So I grabbed his training course years ago when it was on sale and started watching, hoping to avoid bumbling around, losing important pieces of projects. I felt frustrated because I didn’t understand the system, so I walked through his short training lectures and made sense of Scrivener.
Years later, because of the success of his Scrivener course, Joseph Michael came out with some additional training on how to build courses—a course about courses. I didn’t buy the course about courses, but I signed up for a free introductory webinar, where he told how he recorded that early version of the Scrivener course.
He said he’d drive to work. On his lunch break, he’d head to the parking garage and record some of the Scrivener lessons—right there in the front seat of his car, wedged behind the steering wheel. In short sessions, hidden away in the parking garage of his workplace,
Jul 31 2018
Rank #5: Ep 215: For Writers Who Struggle with Structure…a Remedy
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.
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:
- sales pages
- how-to projects
- analysis essays or articles
- books (organize chapters under the past, present, and future sections and/or organize a given chapter with that structure)
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:
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)
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)
- letter to the editor
- blog post
- 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.
- Are Outlines a Writer’s Greatest Gift…or Curse? (Ep 214)
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Nov 06 2019
Rank #6: Ep 167: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 2): 3 Simple Tweaks You Can Try Today
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"
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
Rank #7: Ep 213: How to Hook and Hold Your Readers
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
- Hemingway App
- Emily P. Freeman’s “How to Find (and Become) a Good Listener”
- James Clear’s Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: an Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (affiliate link)
- Three Pillars to Your Best Writing Life series
- A Writer’s Guide to ROI series
- Next-Level Writer series
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
Sep 19 2019
Rank #8: Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself
Even though I wasn't all that interested in Goldberg’s frequent references to Zen Buddhism, I liked her basic approach: "When I teach a class,” she says, “I want the students to be 'writing down the bones,' the essential, awake speech of their minds."1
When I tuned into to my own inner voice and wrote down that "awake speech" of my mind, I began to know myself better. And the better I knew myself, the better and more interesting my writing became.
But when I look back, I realize the practice of self-reflection started even earlier, in high school.
Write to Discover
One afternoon when I was about 14 years old, I was glancing through books on writing at my local library and noticed a title: Write to Discover Yourself, by Ruth Vaughn. I looked both ways and plucked it from the shelf, running my fingers over the green cover with a fuchsia Gerbera daisy poking out of a pencil cup. It seemed a little wacky, but . . .
Writers have a lot to discover, but a way to write true and fresh no matter the project is to start by discovering oneself. I knew that instinctively, even then, and felt affirmed by this title.
I desperately wanted to understand myself, to unearth who I was meant to become. And, I wanted to write.
I took the book home and retreated to my room where I followed instructions to “portrait” the important people in my life, exploring memories, capturing life.
I sat on the hardwood floor of my bedroom and composed a word-portrait of my father, struggling to express the way his resonant voice, rising from deep within his barrel chest, could build and fill—even shake—the house. Or was it just me, shaking?
Page after page, the author encouraged me to continue being specific, to use concrete details and metaphor. I poured out stories from my little world.
Digging into yourself requires a depth of honesty that is painful, the author said, but imperative. She quoted a professor who said a writer “is the person with his skin off.”
oThat's how I began to decipher my life. On the pages of a journal, I wrote with my skin off—bare, vulnerable. I tapped into the "awake speech" of my mind, burning through to what Goldberg calls "first thoughts" in order to write down the bones, the hard truths, the core of what and who I had been and was becoming.2
The idea of first thoughts made so much sense to me, because I wanted to express my truest self but I knew I was mostly living in layers of thought, edited thoughts. Goldberg explains:
"First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash."3
So I used her idea of freewriting when I was in college—timed writing without stopping—hoping to once more get to the bones of thought, experience, memory, feeling; to gain clarity on faded and forgotten memories.
As I practiced this private outpouring of words and deeply personal reflections—first with the help of that stumbled-upon writing book and later with guidance from author Natalie Goldberg—I peeled back layers to stare at my heart and soul. I began, through practice—through pain—the lifelong process of finding myself.
Methods for Using Writing to Discover Yourself
Since then I've found other resources that encourage a similar practice, like Proprioceptive Writing, Expressive Writing, and Julia Cameron's Morning Pages. I encourage you to look into these various methods and learn more.
Whatever approach you try, seek to know yourself better and find insight and freedom by tapping into memory,
Jan 08 2019
Rank #9: Ep 139: Tips on Self Editing from The Artful Edit
Editing anyone's writing in this way calls for objectivity while shepherding both the author and his words. Actually, it requires the same thing when self-editing: objectivity.
Bell says this:
We are loath to put an objective ear to our subjective selves. But to edit is to listen, above all; to hear past the emotional filters that distort the sound of our all too human words; and to then make choices rather than judgments. As we read our writing, how can we learn to hear ourselves better? (2)
We gain time and objectivity to shepherd our own words by listening. But how can we hear past the "emotional filters" she mentions? How can we "learn to hear ourselves better"?
Thankfully, Bell offers some suggestions.
To hear with greater objectivity, try to create some distance from the draft. Figure out how to make it sound less familiar. Here are some of Bell's recommendations:
Leave your WIP at desk. Don't sneak pages into a bag or peek at it on your phone. At the end of a writing session, walk away and don't look at it until you return for your next session.
Resist continual re-reading and revising. Many writers obsessively pore over their previous work as they write instead of pushing past the existing words with a promise to deal with edits later. Resist re-reading the previous session's output and you'll force the story to progress. If you ignore the words on the screen (or printouts) you can simply write whatever's next.
Write longhand. When you forgo the screen and write by hand, you can't so easily go back and delete, insert, or move sections around. Instead, you just keep the pen moving to get the whole thing out, start to finish. It creates distance and helps us pour it all out at once without fussing over each little segment.
Set it aside. Create emotional distance from the work by building in a substantial break from the time you finish the draft and the time you return to begin editing.
Change the font or size. It's such a simple trick and so easy to do with our current technology. Get a fresh look at your words by simply changing the font from Times New Roman to Georgia or from Arial to Garamond. Then pump it up from 12 point to 14. Changing the way it looks changes the way you see the words you so faithfully churned out the first time. Chances are, you'll notice typos, missing words, repetition, and unneeded punctuation you overlooked before.
Send it. Yeah, go ahead and publish the thing somewhere, on a blog or social media. Send it to a beta reader and ask for input. That's when it gets real. Knowing we have a reader on the other end forces us to run our words through a different filter, think differently about it, and get it ready for prime time.
By far the best way to learn to listen and "hear ourselves better" is to actually...hear ourselves. Read your work aloud. I know you will be loath to do this, to borrow a phrase from Bell—no one seems to like the sound of his own voice. But try it.
Read it aloud.
Read it to a friend.
Read it to your dog.
Read it in public.
Record yourself and play it back.
If you need some distance from your own voice, have someone else read it aloud to you.
Or, if you want to go high-tech, most computers have some way of reading text to you.
In the book, Susan Bell quotes Samuel Butler, who is reflecting on Molière reading aloud his plays to his housemaid:
If Molière ever did read to her, it was because the mere act of reading aloud put his work before him in a new light and,
Feb 13 2018
Rank #10: Ep 138: Beware of These 5 Ways Curiosity Can Ruin Your Writing
But curiosity can also send us off willy-nilly with no plan or accountability, distracting us from deadlines and keeping us from wrapping up projects. In fact, every once in awhile, curiosity ruins my writing. And if you’re not careful, it can ruin yours, too.
Here are five ways curiosity can ruin our writing.
1. Too Curious about our Environment
Interruptions and distractions can throw us off, but outside distractions alone aren’t always to blame. Sometimes what threatens my productivity or the depth of my ideas isn’t the distraction so much as my curiosity about the distraction.
Let’s say the phone rings. Someone else answers the phone, so I don’t have to lift a finger from the keyboard. And yet, a minute later, curiosity kicks in and I’m distracted from my work:
"Wait, who called? Is it a reminder call from the doctor? Will I have to make an appointment somewhere?”
Or we’re listening to music in the cafe or the coworking space or we have our own headphones on and start to think, "I wonder who wrote that song? What’s that line?"
The notification dings on the phone. Curiosity is behind that knee-jerk response: “Should I check who sent that, or can it wait?” Or, “Isn’t that my Words with Friends notification?”
So it’s not only the distractions that distract—it’s our curiosity about the distractions that can disrupt a writing session.
Try asking a question out loud about the writing project to distract from the distraction and bring yourself back to the work. It reminds the brain where to direct its attention, like: “What would make this section stronger?” or “What am I trying to say here about the topic?” Redirect your curiosity about the environment over to re-engage with the work.
2. Too Curious about the Next New Program or System
Have you found yourself curious about systems? This is like Shiny Object Syndrome.
It’s when you’re curious to try a new organizational tool, word processing program, or productivity app, and you spend a few hours researching it, downloading it, messing around to understand how it works. Then you spend another hour moving all your information over.
You're kind of slow using it at first because you’re still adapting, and just when you gain some momentum, you hear about another system and find yourself drawn to give it a try. And you go through the process all over again.
All the while, you could have been writing.
Productivity experts will tell you this about those alluring systems: The best system is the one you already use. Pick one. Commit. And resist anything that’s interrupting your writing.
Don’t worry if Trello’s color scheme isn’t your favorite or Evernote’s tagging system feels a bit cumbersome or Scrivener looks a lot cooler than Google Drive. If Google Drive is working well, stick with that. Curb your curiosity next time someone entices you to try something else.
3. Too Curious During the Research Stage
Curiosity is a friend to the research process…to a point.
Driven by insatiable curiosity, we research and research and research for a short story, novel, article, or essay, and we follow interesting tidbits that branch out to more and more interesting tidbits. In reality, if we stepped back and took a look at our notes, we might see we already have what we need to get busy writing the story to meet the deadline.
Our curiosity about the subject matter can drive us deep into rabbit holes, digging up interesting but unnecessary information instead of using what we have to get going on the project.
Sometimes we’re overwhelmed by the project—maybe a little afraid to get started writing it—and we let research serve as a crutch and an excuse not to do the wor...
Feb 06 2018
Rank #11: Ep 146: Your Writing Life Beginnings
I included some of the people involved in the process—people who encouraged me and people who created a challenge for me, even when they didn’t mean to.
And I did my best to convey some of those memories and reflections through scenes.
Your Writing Life Beginnings
Now it’s your turn.
I encourage you to think back to your writing life beginnings.
When did you first find yourself drawn to writing? When did you first imagine being a writer? What held you back? Who held you back? What happened next?
Do you remember a moment, an interaction, a scene from your life that formed you and your view of yourself as a writer, for better or for worse?
What happened to reinforce or change that perception?
When did you first tiptoe in—or, heck, when did you dive full force into—the writing life?
Preserve Your Story
Take time to remember.
Write it down.
And when you face discouragement—when you question your purpose or your identity as a writer—you’ll have this pivotal story to look back on: your story of your writing life beginnings.
You’ll remember the moments you pushed through and the people who shaped you.
You’ll feel strengthened to recall the first words you shared with the world or the first pieces that were published.
Maybe your story will begin all the way back in grade school and the first picture book you read over and over and hid under your pillow hoping the story would drift into your dreams at night.
Maybe you’ll recreate the day someone read a poem you wrote on blue construction paper and decorated with glitter—you’ll describe how their eyes lit up and they looked down at you, the young hopeful, sensitive poet, and they said, “That’s so beautiful.” And you knew. In that moment, you knew this is what you wanted in life: to be a poet.
Maybe you’ll describe the time your words were brushed aside. You slammed shut your notebook and snapped your pencil in two. Your swore you would never write another story. Two decades passed before you ventured back into the world of words, and you’ll share about your first writing attempt after that bitter episode years earlier—you’ll recall a sentence you wrote on the back of an envelope, while you rode a bus on the commute into the city. You’ll remember each word of that sentence, and how you shoved the envelope in your pocket, flushed with hope, and finally felt free to write again.
When you capture those moments, you’ll realize this writing dream—this drive to put pen to paper—is no surprise, not really. You’ll grin when you understand that your love of literature traces back…wayyyy back.
When the Going Gets Tough
It’s worth it to invest a few minutes in preserving this part of your history.
It’s worth it, because you can return to it when the going gets tough.
And the going will get tough.
Writing is hard. Editing is hard. Publishing is hard—sometimes brutal. You’ll have bad days, when you question it all and want to give up.
Go back to this. Go back to your writing life beginnings. Write it down. Read it. Remember.
Remember how you wanted it—fought for it—and resolved to make words integral to your life.
Then go back to the keyboard or the notebook or whatever you write with, and begin again. Because when you remember your writing roots, you’ll know in your gut or your heart or your spirit, that this is who you are.
My Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt 1
My Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt 2
All podcast episodes
* * *
You can subscribe with iTunes. If you subscribe, rate, and leave a review, you'll help others discover this content and grow as a writer. You should be able to search for and find “Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach” in any podcast player.
Apr 03 2018
Rank #12: Ep 214: Are Outlines a Writer’s Greatest Gift…or Curse?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Fast Company article quoted in article, “Proof That Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative“
- Fast Company article, “How Constraints Force Your Brain to Be More Creative“
- A Writer’s Guide to ROI series
- Next-Level Writer series
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
- (note: photos sourced through Stencil and Pixabay; running shoe photo by the author)
Subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
- 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
Rank #13: Ep 159: Ways to Rebrand Yourself as a Writer – Slow Transition
You have options for how to go about it.
Ways to Rebrand: Trial Run
We’ve already discussed starting with a trial run, which often leads to integrating the new brand with the existing brand.
During the trial run, you have time to experiment before fully committing yourself—in fact, you could still back out and return to your existing brand if you don’t like how it sounds and feels, and you can’t imagine this focus for the next few years.
Ways to Rebrand: Integrate
But at some point, let’s say you decide to move forward and follow through. When you decide to keep the old and add in the new, that’s a way to rebrand by integration. Instead of completely changing, you actually absorb and expand.
Ways to Rebrand: Slow Transition
Now we’re diving into total change—the true pivot. When you leave it all behind, you can do it right away—suddenly—or you can transition over time. When you take your time rebranding, I think of that as a slow transition.
If you’re the type to pull a Band-Aid off in millimeter increments, stretching out the process over several minutes of tiny tugs instead of ripping it off all at once, this might be a good fit for you.
It might also be for you if you know your readers hate surprises—and you hate pulling the rug out from under them.
Time to Adjust
The slow transition eases your readers into this new you. And it gives them time to adjust to the idea that you’re changing—that eventually you’ll discontinue their favorite articles, posts, and tweets (or whatever) that you’re known for. They get a taste of what’s coming before the full shift takes place.
With the slow transition, readers have time to prepare, to find other writers offering similar content or styles, to adjust to the idea of life without your signature words and tone. As you slowly shift from the old brand to the new—when it’s clear what’s happening—you might even recommend to your readers other writers and authors who are similar to you and your style.
Personal Rebranding: First, Integrate, Then...
I’ve mentioned before that my website content was much less focused in the past. I wrote random stories about family and faith and eventually food. When I added food, those articles integrated with the existing brand, so readers never really felt a shocking jolt.
I continued with that kind of content for years on my personal website. In addition, I served on the editorial team of two online organizations.
I taught composition and creative writing and coached speech once a week to high school students.
I led writing workshops.
I wrote another book.
I became a writing coach.
A friend and mentor nudged me to focus my website on that and that alone. If I did that, it meant my core me—my core brand—would have to change. It meant I’d have to rebrand.
I was nervous. I hate making people upset. And I definitely hate pulling the rug out from under someone.
Shifting to Slow Transition
So I did it in stages, in a slow transition.
My tagline “Ann Kroeker, Writer” shifted first to “Ann Kroeker: Writing Coach, Editor, Friend.” About a year later, I dropped “Editor” and “Friend,” which my son thought was hysterical because it implied I wasn’t a friend anymore.
My brand became, simply: Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.
It was a slow process, but I rebranded.
Rebranding Aftermath: Readers Decide to Stay, Linger, or Leave
And all those readers who followed me because I posted recipes on Friday witnessed the slow change.
Instead of waking up one Friday and finding me basically gone—suddenly become a writing coach—wondering what in the world happened, they could see the content shifting. I even said as much at one point—I let them know I was stepping into my role of writing coach not just on the side but online.
Jul 03 2018
Rank #14: How to Be a Better Writer: Boost All 7 Traits of Great Writing
I’m glad to be back after an unexpected and lengthy break when I needed to care for a relative during a complicated emergency. I’m sorry I didn’t have a way to let you know in the midst of it, but it looks like things are slowing down and stabilizing. I’m back in business—able to encourage and support you and your writing again.
Before my break, we were discussing how to be a better writer. I focused on small, quick wins to help you improve your writing right away with tips and tweaks. If you implement them, you will see a difference in your writing right away.
But I realized I want you to see how all writing advice fits into the bigger picture of how we arrive at great writing, so I wanted to share with you the 6+1 Traits. Boost all seven traits, and you will be a better writer.
6 + 1 Traits of Great Writing
The 6+1 Traits, developed by Education Northwest and promoted by the National Education Association, provides K-12 educators a way to teach and evaluate student writing.
I used these categories with high school students and found that whatever their projects—essays, term papers, and creative writing projects like poetry and short stories—the seven traits gave me a way to instruct and provide input. And the traits gave them a way to think through how to make any given piece clear and strong.
Not Just for Kids: Use the 6+1 Traits for Your Own Projects
While it may be geared for training young writers, the categories are useful for all ages and all levels of writing experience. Whether you're writing a blog post, a social media update, or a book—fiction or nonfiction—the 6+1 Traits serve as useful reminders and guides for all stages of the writing process, from idea and developmental stages down to the final proofread.
I love that they don’t focus disproportionately on conventions—usage, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. It includes that as one of the traits, but only one of the key characteristics of writing.
By exploring each trait instead of fixating on one or two, we don’t neglect areas that need attention. In fact, examining all the traits, we identify strengths and weakness not only in a given project but also in ourselves as a writer.
They help us move toward excellence.
What are the traits?
The “+ 1” trait is Appearance. Appearance is optional because it doesn’t relate to the writing itself—it’s about how we present our writing.
Ideas form the core of our writing.
When developing your project and later when you’re editing, start with the idea. To be crystal clear on it, express the big idea succinctly—in a sentence—and then read your piece in light of the idea.
In nonfiction, is your writing clear and focused on that idea or are you veering off into the weeds? Do your main points and examples offer convincing support? If your idea isn’t clear to you, your idea won't come across clearly to the reader.
In fiction, ensure your short story or novel idea is strong and clear: Does your plot work? Your character arc? How about theme?
When you clarify and solidify your idea, you can turn to the second trait: Organization.
You can start thinking organizationally about how to present your idea starting with the title and subtitle (or headline, depending on what you’re writing). And then your introduction with a thesis. Will you create subheadings to chunk your ideas and present them logically?
In fiction, you organize the piece starting with the title, subtitle, and the opening scene and the hook. You move through, scene by scene, organizing your story in a way that best fits, whether chronologically or using flashbacks. You decide how to structure and which POV will you take.
As you experiment with organizational options, you’ll have to decide which choices best order the ideas or plot so the reader tracks with the piece all the way to the...
Oct 05 2018
Rank #15: Ep 125: No Time to Write? Do This Every Day
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.
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
Rank #16: Ep 131: Reverse Engineer Your Editorial Calendar
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.
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
Rank #17: Ep 152: 20 Generous (and Easy!) Ways to Encourage a Writer Today
And if you're an author trying to get a book into the hands of readers, you appreciate each and every person who buys your book and reads your book. You’re moved and humbled by readers who tell others about your book, or give your book as a gift, or leave a positive review, or show up at your book launch and book signings.
You're probably already doing a lot of that for other writers. But I know that when my life gets busy, the pile of books I mean to read and review sits untouched while I scramble to finish my own projects. I fail to send off a timely note to encourage a friend who's just released her book. I delay recommending it on Goodreads.
Help Writers Find New Readers
I forget, that, like each and every one of us, I can help a writer push into new groups of people—my groups of people—to find readers he might not be able to connect with on his own.
No matter how many followers we have on any platform, no matter how many subscribers we have on our email distribution lists, we can make a difference in another writer's life by helping share their projects with the people who know us.
Collecting Ideas That Truly Help
After attending a writing festival in April, I left inspired to do more—to be a better literary citizen. I poked around online, gathered ideas from people who have been on launch teams, and asked other authors who have benefited from the support of readers: What did those readers do? And what truly helped?
I collected this input to make a list of action steps I can take to support and serve fellow writers. Then I converted it to a checklist so I can do at least one of these things each week.
Busy Readers Can Encourage Writers
I'm sharing it with you not to generate any guilt or put any pressure on you...only to share what I've collected and offer a reminder that it doesn't take much to make a difference. Most of these ideas would take no more than five minutes, especially if we were in that space anyway.
If we're poking around on Goodreads, for example, it wouldn't take much to recommend a book to someone we think would enjoy it. If we're in a library doing research, we could take a couple of minutes to fill in a request that they acquire a friend's book.
I assembled this list for myself, but I hope the ideas leave you inspired to join me in spreading goodwill and good words for our fellow writers everywhere we go.
20 Generous (and Easy!) Ways to Encourage a Writer Today
I’ll share the ideas with additional thoughts right here and now in more detail. If one stands out to you—take note and take action (get your copy of the whole collection using the form below):
Sign up for a writer's newsletter (and read it!). If something they send strikes a chord, hit reply and let them know.
Buy books. Stop by a brick and mortar store if you can—many of us encourage support of independent bookstores whenever possible. But don’t limit yourself. Buy the book anywhere, new, and it’ll boost sales. If a store doesn’t have it in stock, ask them to order a copy. You’ll get the copy you want, and the book will get on their radar.
Preorder a book that's about to be released, which helps in many ways, such as showing the publisher sales numbers in advance and maybe even pushing the book to rank high in some bestseller algorithms.
Feature a writer on your website. Interview or write about someone on your blog. Link to the writer’s website to send traffic her way and introduce her to your own readers. If this writer is also an author, send people to places her books are for sale.
Rate and review on Amazon. Write an honest, positive review (many stars are helpful, too). Keep in mind a thorough, thoughtful review helps potential readers decide if the book is right for them,
May 15 2018
Rank #18: Ep 191: Write to Discover Your Voice
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.
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
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
Rank #19: Ep 183: Write to Discover Your Top Themes & Topics
On the spot I had to decide my preferences: do I want ongoing content about this topic or that? Do I want them to send information about technology, politics, economics? Food, fitness, travel, entertainment?
Select Your Top Themes and Topics
I’ve had to do this several times over the years, with apps like Flipboard and most news outlets. I created my own categories for Twitter lists and Feedly subscriptions that groups the content by general topic.
The act of choosing—of being forced to choose—helps me make decisions. I must discern what I care to know more about and what’s less interesting to me.
Narrow Your Top Themes and Topics
Once the articles start flowing into one of these apps, filling my feed with content related to the areas I clicked on, I’ll often realize, “Oh, wait. Wait. I guess I don’t want to know that much about weight training or Broadway shows.” So I update my preferences, usually eliminating a category.
Before long, I not only realize I’m bored by topics I thought I’d like, I also begin to see topics I’m deeply interested in. When I stop everything to read an article and share it on social media, for example, or talk about it a lot at the dinner table, that’s a clue. I pay attention to my intensifying interest, as it's a strong indication it might be one of my top themes or topics.
We can figure out our interests in other ways, however.
What do you already know a lot about? Obviously, it’s been a topic of interest already.
What books do you check out at the library? That indicates you want to dig deeper and know more.
What outings do you invest time or money in? Do you often visit an art museum, movie theater, car show, live concert, lecture, conference, or state park? Our calendars and credit cards can point us toward our top interests.
Do you steer conversations toward a particular topic? Do you seek others who join you in an animated, energizing discussion? Take note. That’s probably a top theme or topic for you.
Where does your curiosity consistently carry you? You don’t have to be an expert to start digging into a topic that captivates you. Explore it.
When you begin to identify these top areas of interest, pick up on clues to narrow your focus. This will help you discover the kind of writing you can pursue.
Confirm Your Top Themes and Topics by Writing
To confirm which of these top themes and topics you want to write about—and the ones you want to be known for—start writing about them.
read an article that riles you up? Write a response and submit it as an op-ed piece.
read an article that skims the surface of what you know to be true? Write a deeper and better-researched piece and submit it to a relevant publication or work it into a book.
read a short story that touches on themes you care about? Write something that grapples with the same theme using a different plot or cover the same theme in a different genre. Maybe you read a short story but you can explore it in a poem.
read a poem that stirs you with its subject matter or theme? Weave your own images or story into a form poem different from what you read, so you explore the same topic in a new way. Or you could switch genres and write an essay in response to the poem.
Whether you write nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, write to discover topics that captivate you, energize you, and hold your attention.
Your Personal Themes and Topics
The “subscription model” I talked about at the beginning where you identify top themes and topics will reveal a lot. But it leaves out something critical: personal history.
What do you obsess about from your past? What episode or memory do you return to in your writing to explore all over again? Discover that and you’ll further refine your top themes and topics, and kind of fold these obsessions into your top ...
Jan 30 2019
Rank #20: Ep 147: You and Your Writing Deserve the Grand Gesture
(And to walk on the beach.)
’Twas a big investment of time and resources. ’Twas a grand gesture.
Grand Gestures for Deep Work
Some big writing projects I wanted to dig into continually sank to the bottom of the jumbly piles of obligations and domestic duties. I’d try to set aside time for the ideas, the words, the keyboard, but they struggled to gain traction when I could only dedicate a few minutes here and there. I decided to find focus—and sunshine—elsewhere.
This approach to plunging into deep work by making major investments of time, money, or space, are what Cal Newport calls “Grand Gestures.”
Rowling’s Grand Gesture
In his book Deep Work, Newport offers a few examples of people who have made grand gestures, including J.K. Rowling. When she was working on the final book in the Harry Potter series, she faced everyday interruptions that broke the creative concentration needed to pull together all the threads of the story and finish strong.
So she decided to step away from home, where the doorbell would ring and the dogs would bark. She checked into a room in the five star Balmoral Hotel at $1,000 a night. Newport notes that she didn’t intend to continue writing there more than a night, but she accomplished so much, she kept going back and ended up finishing the book there.
The Boost in Importance
The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy. (122-123)
Let me assure you I wasn’t staying in anything close to the Balmoral Hotel for my Grand Gesture, but it was certainly a radical change from my normal environment and required a significant investment of effort.
My tasks did indeed take on greater importance, and I sat on the balcony with my laptop and tapped out the ideas and words that got my projects either significantly under way or completed.
And I walked on the beach.
In the sun.
Less “Grand” Gestures Are Still Grand
Now, there have been eras of my life where an outing that radical simply would not have been possible. Just out of college, I didn’t have nearly enough money for such an adventure. When my kids were little, no way could I have taken off that many days and driven that far away. Truly, it would have been nothing but a dream—a dream deferred.
Back then, though, I made smaller grand gestures. That sounds like an oxymoron, but though they were small, they felt grand. I would escape to the library on a Saturday and stay all day, tapping out chapters in a book or articles for magazines, stepping out only to eat a little lunch I packed.
Or in good weather, I might head to a local park and work at a picnic table, enjoying the atmosphere, penning poetry or a blog post. Sure, I’d love to have escaped to a more inspiring locale, but I settled for a less grand alternative—it got me away from my distracting dining room table. With some creativity, I still managed to gain focus and get ‘er done.
It’s Worth It
The goal, I believe, is to find ways to convince yourself that this project you’re working on is worth it. It’s worth the time. It’s worth the effort. Even a less dramatic “grand” gesture tells the brain to stop procrastinating and do the work.
Creative Grand Gestures
One of my clients drove her RV to a beautiful campground and stayed the weekend to finish three chapters in her book. She nailed it. All three chapters, complete.
My friend and coauthor Charity Singleton Craig booked a room for several days at a state park lodge to complete some of her projects. She got it all done.
Apr 10 2018