A mashup of Brainstorming and Writing Prompts, I find that list making can help even the most reluctant writer generate new and unexpected ideas. This is a fun activity to do by yourself, tackling a prompt or two per day, perhaps. Or, if you’re leading a class, here’s how it works:
Decide how much time you want to dedicate to list making. I’ll often devote 20 to 30 minutes at the beginning or end of a class. You may, instead, decide to use one prompt per day as a writing warm up. I introduce the activity by explaining that I will read prompts one at a time and give students five minutes to respond to each one. Some prompts are silly, while others are quite thoughtful. Students are not expected to write full sentences. No one cares about grammar, punctuation or spelling. This is about idea generation only. Oh, and there are two very important rules:
No one judges anyone else’s work.
I encourage students to make the lists in their writing notebooks so they can revisit these ideas or prompts from time to time.
This activity works well with high school and college students. With minor adjustments, it could be used with any age level. You may find certain prompts are better suited to your students; pick and choose which you use. Better yet, develop your own prompts.
So, let’s get started making some lists
What are THREE things people would be surprised to learn about you?
If/when you become a parent, what FIVE things do you vow never to do or say?
Who are the THREE people from history (living or dead) that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you ask?
If you could only speak FIFTEEN words for the rest of your life, what would those words be?
If you had THREE wishes, what would they be? (No, you cannot ask for more wishes.)
Write a list of TWENTY things that make you happy.
Which FIVE celebrities would you like to invite to a party? Why?
If you could only eat THREE foods for the rest of your life, what would they be? Why?
What TEN places would you most like to visit?
You have been named ruler of the world. What FIVE changes will you make first?
Emergency evacuation. You must leave your home within the next few minutes. Which FIVE possessions do you take with you?
What are THREE lies you’ve told recently?
What are your FOUR favorite things to do with your family?
What are your FOUR least favorite things to do with your family?
Some words just roll on the tongue. What are your TEN favorite words to say?
What are your FIVE biggest pet peeves?
You are adrift at sea – no land in sight. What THREE people do you want in your boat? Why?
What are your top FIVE life goals?
Imagine you’ve just been given a litter of FIVE adorable puppies. What names do you give them?
What are TEN words you hope no one ever uses to describe you?
When you’re done with your list-making activity, you may find some students are dying to share their lists. That’s fine. Just don’t force anyone to share anything they don’t want to – otherwise they’ll begin to edit their brainstorming.
Encourage students to think about ways in which some of these prompts lend themselves to future writing. Words that are fun to say, for example, might find their way into a poem. Or, thinking about least favorite family activities could turn into a funny short story.
It’s inevitable. I meet someone new – at the gym, the supermarket, on the sidelines at a soccer match – and they ask what I do. I tell them I’m a writer and they say:
“I’ve been thinking about writing a book.”
Then they launch into the details of their personal fall from grace or triumph over adversity. All memoir-worthy, indeed. The problem is getting the words down on paper. It’s not easy.
When friends – or students – ask how they might go about recording their own stories, I offer these tips:
Ask Yourself: Memoir or Autobiography?
It’s important to know the difference between these two important types of nonfiction. At the most basic level, an autobiography tells the story of a person’s life, typically starting from birth. It includes dates, places, explains how you’re related to others in the book, and is told in chronological order. Memoirs, on the other hand, often focus on a specific time or major event in the writer’s life: battling back from injury, overcoming drug addiction, searching for and finding birth parents.
In his book Palimpsest, Gore Vidal wrote: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”
Search for the Right Stories.
The trick to writing a great memoir is to focus on only the best stories. You don’t have to – and you shouldn’t – try to tell about all your life’s most amazing experiences. Hone in on a few, perhaps linked by a common theme: childhood, survival, independence. I encourage students to start with the stories about their lives that they like to share at parties. Make a list of 20 or more life experiences, from your favorite birthday gift or your first kiss to the time you almost got away with something. Once the list is made, narrow it down. Identify the funniest or symbolic or harrowing memories. They’re your memories, so it’s virtually impossible to choose wrong.
When you pick a story with which to start, spend some time recalling details: Who else was there? What was I like at that time? What did I look like? How did I dress? Was I shy? Curious? Cocky? Then, start writing. The editing and polishing can come later.
There is virtually no way you’ll be able to retell a story with 100 percent accuracy. Conversations will have been forgotten, details such as what you were wearing or what you were eating will be foggy. That’s OK. Tell your story as honestly as you can. Recreate dialogue to the best of your ability.
Be aware that your story may offend or hurt others. If you’re worried your family members or friends mentioned in your memoir will be upset, consider changing names to protect those people. You may want to show your story to these people ahead of time – not necessarily to get their approval, but rather to let them know what you’re writing. Don’t write as a way to get revenge. Be as fair and balanced as possible.
Know your Audience.
A memoir written solely for family and friends can be structured differently than one you hope to have commercially published for worldwide distribution. Figure out exactly who you’re writing for.
If you’re aiming for a broad audience, you need to consider how to tell your story so that it’s both understandable and interesting to people you’ve never met. These readers won’t stick with the story because they know you from church or they went to school with you. You’re going to need to hook them and, as with any good book, hold their interest as your story progresses.
Jaw-droppingly beautiful tales will have readers nodding off – if those stories aren’t well written. Plot out scenes and chapters. Use sensory detail. Make sure dialogue is realistic and helps move the story forward. Write, then edit. Rewrite, then edit again.
If you’re not sure what good writing should look like, read. Memoirs by Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Elie Wiesel, Jeannette Walls and others will provide a great starting point. Read essay- and book-length memoirs. When you finish each work, ask yourself what made the writing stand out.
Every person has a story. Memoir writing is a great way to share those stories. Start writing.
My writer friends are creative people. When we meet over coffee, talk often turns to story ideas and characters they’re creating. Then, someone inevitably says something to the effect of, “I just can’t get through my first draft.”
There’s an excellent reason for that: First drafts are really, really hard. I gave birth without drugs, and I can tell you that process was less painful than birthing almost any first draft I’ve ever written.
Writing is not for the faint of heart.
Still, if you want to conquer your next first draft, I encourage you to try these tips. The process still won’t be pain-free, but I’m hopeful these bits of wisdom will help you push through:
Be Honest with Yourself
Can you crank out pages of spectacular fiction in a busy coffee shop – or do you need complete silence at a clean and organized desk to be able to write anything? I once met a very prolific romance writer who was most productive when she wore blackout glasses while sitting at her computer; she said taking away visual distractions allowed her to focus completely on her stories.
Figure out when and where you are most productive. Are you an early morning person? Is your creativity at its highest after an evening jog? Assess your working habits and preferences and try to rearrange your schedule so you can write during these prime creative times.
Set a Timeline
If you have a deadline, figure out how much time you have between now and then to complete your project. If you work really late on Mondays and Wednesdays and you know you can’t write then, you’ll subtract those days. Can you spend 30 minutes per day writing? Or would it work better for you to write three hours per day twice each week?
If you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one – and hold yourself accountable. Join a critique group. Knowing that you need to bring new projects to biweekly or monthly meeting will help you keep moving forward with your writing projects
Just Jump In
If a lawyer has cases to research or a contractor has tile to set, they typically just roll up their sleeves and do the work. It’s work and it needs to be done, so they do it.
Why don’t writers think that way? When a writer has work to do, he might:
Make sculptures out of paper clips
Sort through old emails
Clean the bathroom
Finish some online shopping
Reorganize his closet
Almost anything but writing
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The hardest thing about writing is getting started. Set a time and a date that you’re going to sit and start your project – and be there. Start writing, whether at a computer or longhand in a notebook. Put down words – any words. It’s likely you’ll find that once you start, you won’t want to stop.
Stop Expecting Perfection
First drafts are all about discovering what’s happening, meeting characters, and figuring out where they’re going.
First drafts are not about producing perfect prose or dazzling dialogue. If you’re writing along and a brilliant line pops into your head, for god’s sake, write it down. But for the most part you must remember that the first draft is going to be ugly. That’s OK, because simply having words on paper gives you something to polish and improve in subsequent drafts.
I live by author Anne Lamott’s words: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
Write All The Way Through
For me, the easiest way to get through a first draft, is to sit down and write the whole thing in one sitting. I call this the “pre-first draft.”
I’m not talking about writing a 400-page novel in one sitting. What I’m suggesting is that you sit down and write what your story is going to be. Start at the beginning and don’t get up until you finish.
So many people – myself included – have started really promising stories that were never finished. That’s because we didn’t know where those stories were going.
Before you allow yourself to thoroughly develop characters and set up premises that you’re emotionally attached to, you must know where the story is going. Sure, you might later change your mind, but characters who don’t have a path are going to wander and readers will get bored – and so will writers.
Give yourself 30 minutes or an hour and just write down what your story is going to be. Taking the time to do this prewriting, will make your first draft (and subsequent drafts) easier to write.
See It Before You Write It
If you know your story is going to take place in a high-end department store, begin by visualizing it. As you open the doors, what do they look like? Are they heavy and polished? Are aisles wide or narrow? What do shoppers look like? What are they wearing? What does the store smell like?
Picture the setting through your viewpoint character’s eyes. Make notes about the sights, sounds and smells. Imagine how your character will act in this place. Is she confident? Uncomfortable?
Fill your mind with the scene you want to write. Once you’ve allowed your character to wander through the scene in your head, pick up your pen and start writing.
The first draft is just the beginning. Once it’s finished there will be rewriting and revising. Perhaps subplots will need to be added or characters will need to be fleshed out or eliminated. I don’t show anyone my first drafts, but I keep them all because I like to see the transformation my characters and stories go through. That sort of progress motivates me.
I find it’s best to write a draft and then let it simmer for a bit before I begin polishing. Time away from the project allows me to think about it without actually writing. It gives my brain a break so that, when I start again, I am able to look at it through fresh eyes.
Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that, when he completes a first draft, it lets it sit for about six weeks. During this time, he works on other projects. After the six weeks are up, he re-reads the manuscript and writes draft number two. King sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their input when he begins work on his third draft.
Yes, first drafts are difficult but they’re not impossible. Do the work and soon you’ll realize the joy of a complete and polished story.
When I first started out as a writer, I often turned to my mom for critiques. She’d pore over my short stories, essays and newspaper articles, each time proclaiming the same thing:
She provided no comments about incongruent thoughts, poorly developed characters or dangling participles. She didn’t question the way I wrote dialogue, nor did she circle overused words. I love my mother, but she did me no favors.
In the years since, I’ve been part of several critique groups. Some were feel-good affairs; we shared our work and encouraged each other to write more and submit more. We talked about the stress of deadlines and applauded each other’s ideas. It was all butterflies, happiness and cupcakes (not sure why, but we always ate cupcakes).
Other critique groups produced anxiety-filled, sweat-inducing sessions filled with honest assessments. We read each other’s work, scribbled notes, and pointed out deficiencies. Fellow writers offered comments that felt like gut punches: “Your protagonist is flat.” “Your story really begins in the middle of page 8.” “Your conflict is too weak.” It was awful and wonderful, all at the same time. These were the critique groups that truly improved my writing.
Receiving feedback is crucial if you want to grow as an artist. Similarly, giving feedback helps fortify your thoughts about what makes a story work.
Online critique groups can be beneficial but, for me, in-person critique groups are far superior. When I know my group is meeting on a weekly or bi-weekly or monthly basis, I work hard to pull together writing to share. These are people I know personally and I don’t want to disappoint them by not showing up or – even worse – showing up but not being prepared.
If an in-person critique group sounds intriguing, use these tips to find or assemble one that’s both supportive and productive:
You want a group that’s small enough for everyone to get a chance to share, but large enough that members have something ready for critique on a regular basis. In my opinion, a group with six to eight members is ideal. If you have 10 or more writers, you’ll begin to have problems finding a place to meet or a time that works with everyone’s schedules.
General or genre?
I know many writers who love their mixed-genre critique groups. Romance writers talk about storytelling techniques they learn from mystery writers, and thriller writers are terrific mentors when you need to add suspense to a scene. For me, though, I’ve always preferred a genre-specific critique group. Perhaps this is because I write for children, which is admittedly very different from adult literature or, it may be because I like to talk market trends with others who study my genre. Whether you mix genres or stick with writers of a specific ilk, you’re bound to learn lots if you go into the process with an open mind.
Groups are generally most productive when their members have similar levels of experience. If a complete newbie joins a group of published writers, she’s likely to feel overwhelmed and, perhaps, inadequate. Conversely, a published author who connects with a group of new writers, will likely find herself in the role of “teacher.” Sharing knowledge is great, but if that experienced writer isn’t getting the feedback she desires, she’ll likely quit.
Ask about Structure
It’s fine if writers want to get together once a month to talk about the struggles of writing and the great books they’ve been reading. But if you’re looking for the kind of constructive criticism that will improve your writing, you need to be discerning when it comes to choosing a critique group. Rule No. 1: Members need to critique each other’s writing.
Ask if groups you’re considering joining have a set structure for their sessions. How often do they meet? For how long? How many members bring work for evaluation each session? Do they read work out loud? If a group organizer can’t answer these questions, there’s a good chance that group is run pretty loosely.
Know exactly what you’re looking for. Can you realistically commit to a group that meets for two hours each week? Is a group that only meets once a month enough to keep you on task? How much time do you have for reading and commenting on other writers’ work?
No Such Thing as Critique Group Monogamy
It is perfectly acceptable to belong to multiple critique groups. Perhaps you want to start with a critique group that leans toward the social side of things. Then, as you gain confidence, you may add another group that’s focused on your genre or plotting or character building. Different writers bring different knowledge and experience to the table – be open to learning from them all.
It’s also important to be willing to move on when you outgrow a group. Or, perhaps, you’ve landed in a group of writers with whom you’ve never really connected; it’s OK to admit it didn’t work out. Keep looking until you find a group of fellow writers that pushes you to the next level of your craft.
Can’t find it? Build it
Finding the perfect group isn’t easy. Bookstores, libraries and writers’ associations can point you in the direction of potential critique groups. But established groups often are at capacity and not accepting new members.
Remember, online critique groups are a great option for a lot of writers. A quick internet search should turn up lots of options. Do your due diligence. Many of these tips regarding in-person groups apply to online groups as well.
Feedback is good. Constructive criticism will improve your writing in ways you can’t even imagine. Take the leap.
I’ve been in a creativity drought these past few weeks. I’ve spent hours just sitting and staring at my computer but words wouldn’t come. I have read, hopeful that proximity to great literature would motivate my own muse. I’ve tinkered with old drafts and attended author events. Through it all, the creative juices have failed to flow.
Until I tried painting.
Let’s get this straight: I am a writer – not a visual artist. But, when an illustrator friend invited me to a mini art session at her house, I jumped at the opportunity. Why not? I thought. I’m not accomplishing anything else.
Seating us at easels, my friend distributed paper and brushes. We would do something called intuitive painting. She handed us cups of water and tubes of watercolor paints. Nothing about this felt intuitive. In fact, the whole thing felt very Age of Aquarius to me, but I did as I was told.
Our illustrator friend provided little in terms of instruction. She would play some music but there should be no talking. Other than that, she simply urged us to paint what we were feeling or thinking – no planning. There was to be no right or wrong, no judging.
I sighed deeply and, after some initial difficulties trying to figure out how to use these fancy, adult watercolors, I put brush to paper. I created waves of blue and green, yellow and orange. I painted thin lines and fat, opaque sections and transparent. I was still painting when our self-appointed leader stopped us for a quick check in. How were we doing? How were we feeling?
Somehow, we’d been painting for well over an hour, yet it seemed like we’d only just begun. I was no Claude Monet, but my page was blooming with color. I had entered into this process with zero expectations, yet somehow I was creating and having fun. I was feeling pretty proud of myself.
When I returned home from our painting party, I picked up my laptop and started typing. I was focused on maintaining this No Stress, No Judgment mindset. And something strange happened: Words came. I typed scene after scene, page after page. I had stopped trying to be the next Harper Lee or William Faulkner. By giving myself the freedom to simply write, I’d allowed myself space to experiment and make mistakes.
Perfection can kill creativity.
I know this from teaching, as well as from my personal writing experience. It’s why I’ve never graded students’ first drafts. Yes, I want to see that they’ve done the work, but those raw words aren’t ready to be assessed. Early drafts are about getting the story down on paper; fixating on grammar, description, or punctuation too early in the process can get in the way of the actual storytelling process. Trust me on this. I have a drawer full of “perfect” first chapters that have gone nowhere because I focused on improving what I had before I allowed myself to figure out where my story was headed.
Unfortunately, most of us set such unreal expectations for ourselves, that we don’t allow ourselves to take risks or fail. It’s a lesson I was reminded of by my intuitive painting experience.
A few years ago, I had the great honor of hearing author Judy Blume speak. She talked about writing her stories on a manual typewriter. As the audience groaned, she continued by explaining that when you type, you don’t stop to Spellcheck or use the online thesaurus. There’s no copying a sentence from one paragraph so you can paste it somewhere else. You don’t get caught up in making the first paragraph absolutely perfect – so perfect that the second, third and fourth paragraphs can’t possibly measure up.
With a typewriter, you simply type the story – beginning to end. When you’re finished – and only when you’re finished – you start reviewing your stack of pages. You know there are typos and overused words and entire pages of dialogue that need to be cut or reworked. But you don’t fix any of that until you have the whole story on paper, beginning to end. Allowing yourself to make mistakes during this drafting process, she reminded us, will free your creativity.
To those who say they have a good idea of where their stories are headed, I say, “Bravo.” You still need to write it down. It’s so much easier to react to and begin reworking a story that’s been written down than it is to mold an idea that’s still running wild in your mind.
Do I always allow myself the luxury of a no-expectations first draft? No. That’s reality. Sometimes I’m in a time crunch and sometimes I fall into bad habits. But when I do allow myself to fail – with the promise of time to refine later – I almost always produce sharper, more creative and brighter copy. More importantly, I produce completed stories or essays or articles. No surprise here: Judy Blume knows what she’s talking about.
No judgment, no expectations, no rules. Give yourself the chance to write without restrictions and see where your creativity will take you.
Want to know how to tell if I have a deadline approaching? Check my bathroom. The shinier it is, the harder I’m working to avoid the inevitable.
Avoidance-by-cleaning became my modus operandi when I was in college. Over the years I’ve scrubbed more sinks, washed more mirrors and scoured more bathtubs than a fleet of Merry Maids. It’s my special routine for procrastinating. I’ve also learned it’s become one of my go-to activities when I need to think.
Deadlines to meet and I’m taking time out to think? You bet. Honestly, one of my main reasons for procrastinating is that I’m not exactly sure how to tackle the project that lies before me. Whether I’m struggling with wording or I’m having problems connecting two theories or I can’t figure out how to conclude a chapter, cleaning gives me the time to think. Oddly, this bathroom cleaning routine has helped me paddle through the procrastination pond and meet – or beat – my deadlines.
Unfortunately, not all procrastinators are so lucky. When I was teaching high school, I often asked students what kept them from getting their work done. I’d ask them to go to the white board and write down what they were most likely to do when they should have been finishing homework or wrapping up a big project. Because they were teenagers, their answers most often revolved around technology: Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, X-box, texting. A few also admitted to baking or playing with a pet. Whatever their answer, it was helpful for students to recognize their go-to distractions – the activities they turned to when they should have been doing important tasks.
Most of us do it to some extent. We dawdle until there’s too little time left to do the work. Anxiety sets in. Deadlines whiz by. We swear we’ll never wait until the last minute again, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s so easy to get caught up in this never-ending cycle: Procrastinate. Panic. Procrastinate. Panic.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Acknowledge you have a problem (acknowledgement is always the first step). Then follow these tips to get the work done:
If cat videos are your downfall, don’t allow yourself to watch YouTube until you’ve accomplished a certain amount of work. Instagram addict? Turn off your phone. Go through the process I did with my students and identify what you’re most likely to do when you should be finishing homework or wrapping up a big project. Then do what you can to remove the distraction, at least temporarily.
Break it down
I’m most likely to procrastinate when a project is overwhelming – perhaps it’s multifaceted or especially complicated. Breaking the assignment into smaller, more manageable portions will allow you to chip away at the work in a relatively pain-free fashion.
Don’t just think about divvying up the work; make a plan and write it down. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells this story: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
The next time you’re faced with what seems like an insurmountable task, break it down and conquer it paragraph by paragraph, or chart by chart, or budget report by budget report.
Once you’ve divided the work up, set a deadline for each chunk. If you’ve got seven days to write a report, set a realistic timeline for accomplishing the task in six days, so you give yourself an extra day for proofreading and formatting. Again, the key here is to write down your plan – that makes it more concrete.
Ask for help
If you’re not sure how to handle some aspect of your project, get assistance. Don’t understand your company’s internal style guide? Ask a colleague. Do your Excel skills need sharpening? Watch a tutorial. Would background or history on your project make moving forward easier? Read past annual reports or old strings of emails.
Fretting about what you don’t know, will not get work done. Take action – and quickly – to fill in knowledge gaps.
The first time I ran a marathon, I announced my plan nine months prior to the race. I told my family, my friends, people at the gym, total strangers. I knew if I made my intentions public, these people would continue to ask me how my training was going. I couldn’t possible tell them I’d given up. They would, without knowing it, keep me on track.
Do the same thing with your project: Tell a colleague or a friend what you’re doing. Ask them to check in and hold you accountable.
I’m not suggesting you throw yourself a party every time you take a step toward finishing your project, but a little reward may help keep you going. Buy yourself a fancy chocolate bar and allow yourself a bite each time you meet one of your break-it-down objectives. Take time out for a yoga class or a walk through the neighborhood. Draw a smiley face on your deadline checklist next to your freshly accomplished goal. Stop for a moment to celebrate your forward motion.
These rewards feel great and, long term, may lead to what University of Houston Professor Robert Eisenberger calls “learned industriousness.” By creating a cycle of work-reward-work-reward, you’re training yourself to work harder and smarter in the future.
Following these tips isn’t a surefire guarantee that you’ll never again put off work. But they may help you manage your work and time in a way that makes future projects less stressful. Channel your inner Golda Meir who once said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.” Tick Tock. Time to take control of your time.
I went to the gym today. I know, that’s not a big deal – except it is.
I used to work out religiously. I’ve run nine marathons, competed in sprint-distance triathlons and taught aerobics for years. Then, I got hurt. The injury forced me to cut out workouts for a while. A while became months, then a year, then two years. Oh, I could have gone back to the gym after four to six weeks, but I didn’t. By then my routine was broken and my mind was filled with excuses:
What if they’ve switched up the class routine or music?
What if new people have joined and my work out buddies like them better?
I can’t do a hard workout today because I don’t want to be stiff and sore before this weekend’s trip.
Better not swim today, I don’t want “goggle eyes” in my afternoon meeting.
What if I re-injure myself?
I had been googling class times for weeks, always coming up with a reason that I couldn’t make it to a spin class or yoga session. But today I did it. Finally. And it wasn’t awful.
So, why am I sharing this exercise saga on a blog devoted to writers? Because it’s all pretty much the same.
Writers who get out of the routine of writing often face the same sort of anxiety when they try to get back to it. Instead of a weight room packed with muscle-bound humans, writers face blank pages and blinking cursors. For those who haven’t written in a while, the anxiety can be very real:
What will I write about?
What if the words won’t come?
What if my writing isn’t any good?
Those worries can fester and multiply until, well, it’s easier to run errands or clean the bathroom – pretty much anything but write. Put off starting for a day and pretty soon you will have delayed a week, then a month, then six months.
Haven’t written since high school or college? Yes, writing may feel awkward when you begin again. Sentences may be forced, ideas may be stale. Keep at it. Like a first day back in the gym, the first day writing again is just that – a first day, a first step. Stick with it. Start with 10 minutes every other day. As writing becomes more natural, you’ll be able to stretch yourself to 20- or 30-minute sessions.
Every time I’ve ever stopped exercising for a while, I’ve sworn I’ll never do it again – getting back into shape, getting back to a routine is so hard. It’s the same with writing. But it’s worth it.
So, tune out the negative self-talk that’s keeping you from starting whatever you’ve been meaning to start: running, yoga, writing, painting, learning a language. Taking the first step is never easy, but without it, change is impossible.
“So, you’re just writing now?” My lunch companion’s question was innocent enough. After all, she knew that I’d just quit a part-time gig teaching writing at a public high school.
I swallowed hard and calmly said, “Yes.” While conversation moved onto holiday plans and my daughter’s college applications, my mind kept coming back to her words: Just writing.
Why hadn’t I jumped onto the table, flailed my arms about, and shouted what I truly meant to say: Yes! I’m writing – and so, so much more!
I am certain that my friend was in no way belittling what I do, but I’ve heard it before. People have this weird – almost romantic – perception that writers spend their days curled up in comfy chairs, sipping tea, and waiting for inspiration. Not exactly.
The working writers I know are equal parts wordsmith and hustler. They work days, nights and weekends. Even when they’re not working, they’re working – scouting for ideas, looking for connections, polishing sentences until they’re bright and shiny.
Think writers just write? Think again. These are just some of the behind-the-scenes tasks writers tackle on a regular basis:
I have notebooks in my car, my purse, on my nightstand, in the den – all for the purpose of capturing ideas.
Ideas are born everywhere and they’re slippery little fellows, so you must act quickly when you sense one. Inspiration for articles, books, characters, settings and plots can come from anywhere: A conversation overheard in a coffee shop, an episode of a 1970s television sit-com, the way rain bounces off the window sill.
Creating a backlog of ideas is an important part of writing. Of course, not every idea becomes a story, but without ideas a writer would have nowhere to start.
Research varies, depending upon what kind of writing you’re doing. Writing a book about the United States’ first African-American astronaut? You’ll soon find yourself up to your eyeballs in old news clippings, scientific journals, and official NASA documents.
Writing a fictional short story about a young girl living in London in the 1840s? You’ll need to research popular girls’ names and clothing of the era. You will have to learn how people got around the city, which neighborhoods existed, what the political and social climates were like, what the economy was like. Even when creating fiction, research is necessary in order to create a realistic storyline and believable characters. Imagine that your young English girl loves hearing the chimes of Big Ben, but alert readers know that couldn’t be because the landmark wasn’t completed until 1859. Those readers are going to begin to question everything about your story. A lack of research makes for an untrustworthy author.
Once enough research has been done and you know where you’re headed with your story or article, you can begin writing. Production varies greatly from day to day and writer to writer. In his autobiography, American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote that when he was finishing Following The Equator in 1897, he was writing an average of 1,800 words per day. In an interview published in 2002 in The Paris Review, English novelist Ian McEwan said his daily production was considerably lower, at around 600 words per day. If you land somewhere in between these literature legends and are able to write 1,200 words per day, it will take you 75 days to complete a 90,000-word manuscript, IF you don’t get stuck or frustrated or sidetracked. And that’s just the first draft.
Even Stephen King, who has published 56 novels, writes three separate drafts. In his book On Writing, he explains that he writes a first draft, then lets it sit for a month or more while he works on other projects. After a four- to six-week brain break, he rereads his manuscript, paying close attention to theme, character development and plot holes. He then writes draft number two. Kings sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their feedback to create his third draft.
Three drafts is just the beginning for many novelists. Perhaps it’s not the entire manuscript that needs rewriting, but rather a chapter or two that require eight, nine or more revisions – it’s not unheard of. Even if you’re not working on a book-length project, the process of polishing your work is both crucial and time consuming.
Once your manuscript is ready, it’s time to figure out how to get it published. Writers spend hours reading trade publications and doing online research to find agents who might be attracted to their work. Are these agents accepting new clients? What kinds of manuscripts are they looking for? How do they want work submitted? Some writers are lucky and connect with the very first agent they query. Others must go through the process over and over, until they land with an agent who believes in their work. And, even then, there will likely be more notes and more revisions before the manuscript can be sent off to editors.
While waiting to hear from publishers, most writers dig in on their next projects – another book, magazine articles, business writing to cover the bills. Those clients don’t often just present themselves. Writers must contact publications and corporations in search of paying work. The pitching never ends.
Websites lend legitimacy to a writer’s career and body of work. Maintaining and keeping those websites up to date takes time. There are blog posts to write, reader emails to answer, client proposals to address. Now, more than ever, writers must also engage on social media – connecting with readers, fellow writers, agents and publishers. It all takes time.
Many writers supplement their income and boost their profile by speaking to community or school groups, doing readings at bookstores, or teaching classes at colleges or through writers’ conferences. I find that sharing my love of writing feeds my soul and makes me more energized, more proud of the work I do. Of course, those speaking engagements don’t schedule themselves. Writers must work with schools and conference leadership to find the best fits for their talents. And, of course, a day away teaching means you probably won’t reach your writing goal for the day, which means your first draft or revision will take even longer to complete. Tradeoffs are part of the game.
Even when it looks like a writer is relaxing with a good book, she’s working. Reading widely is some of the most important work a writer can do. It’s important to sample the classics, know what’s new and hot, and understand the most popular works in your genre. I try to read my way through the National Book Award finalists and Michael L. Printz honor books each year. Sure, I enjoy this task, but I also recognize that well-read writers are better, stronger writers.
So, yes, I am just writing right now.
I am crawling into my comfy chair to sip tea, send out a query, edit a chapter, research legal defenses for my law-breaking protagonist, update my website, answer reader emails and plan a workshop – all before I begin the actual task of writing for the day.
You’ve written something – a novel, an email, an essay – and it’s important. Really important. So, before you hit send, I beg you: Proofread like your life (or job) depends on it. Everyone makes mistakes. Unless you’re a reporter working on deadline, chances are you have the few extra minutes necessary to proofread and edit before your mistakes become public – and embarrassing.
My first job was as a newspaper copy editor. By the time stories got to me, they’d already been edited, so I was providing a final proofread. I caught lots of mistakes. I single-handedly stopped the newspaper from printing articles about “cork prices” (corn, corn, corn) and “barbecuing children” (make that chicken, please). I am sure I missed mistakes too, but none were as big and bad as these infamous proofreading fails:
Chalmers Roberts, who documented the history of the Washington Post, wrote about a headline the paper printed in 1940 on the first page of its early edition: FDR IN BED WITH COED. The President was actually in bed with a cold. The newspaper reportedly caught the mistake partway through the printing process and destroyed the offending copies before they were distributed.
In 2012, The (Centralia, Ill.) Morning Sentinel published this correction: “Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s band mate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums. The Sentinel regrets the error.”
Banner Travel Agency bought a $230 ad in its local Yellow Pages to promote its exotic vacations. Instead, thanks to a lack of proofreading, the ad touted “erotic” travel. In 1988, the Travel Agency successfully sued Pacific Bell for $10 million.
To ensure that your next email, tweet or blog post doesn’t contain the kind of error that makes it go viral for all the wrong reasons, follow these important steps:
1) Spellcheck. It’s a good first step, but it’s only a first step. Spellcheck doesn’t know whether names are correctly spelled and it doesn’t know if you’ve used the correct word. Use it, but don’t rely entirely on it.
2) Print it. Somehow mistakes you didn’t see on your computer or phone screen become glaringly obvious when they’re printed out. Take the time. Don’t just glance over the copy, really proofread it, line by line.
3) Read it out loud. Sure, you may sound loony if you share work space, but you’ll be amazed how many mistakes jump out at you when you hear them as well as see them. Reading aloud is also great for catching punctuation problems and words you’ve repeated over and over.
4) Get a second set of eyes on it. After you’ve done your first few read-throughs, ask a trusted colleague or friend to proofread your document, too. You know what the text is supposed to say. Someone who is not so familiar with it may find mistakes you’ve overlooked.
5) Double check names of people and places. You may spell Pflugerville or Skaneateles correctly the first time, but make sure those spellings don’t morph on the second or third mentions. When I worked for a newspaper in Iowa, Terry Branstad was governor. Within a single news article (pre-copyediting) I saw him referred to as “Brandstad,” “Branstand” and “Brandstand” – and his name isn’t even particularly difficult. Check, then double check.
6) Proofread everything. Reviewing body copy is important, but so are headlines, subheads, and captions. A mistake in the copy in an annual report is a sin; a mistake in a 72-point headline could be career-ending. And, just because your company always adds the same boilerplate template to the end of every news release doesn’t mean it’s error-free. Proofread it all.
7) Do the math. Anytime your work includes numbers, make sure they add up. If you say you’re going to offer “5 Quick Tips,” make sure there really are five tips. If you’re reporting on budgets or percentages, check and recheck your math.
8) Look at the big picture. If your copy is part of a newspaper, newsletter or website, make sure the layout doesn’t create a mistake. Do articles continue on the pages they really say they continue on? Do links work? Even if everything in your copy is perfect, consider whether its placement is at all odd. A newsletter article about witches, for example, may make people shudder if it’s placed under a photo of your city council.
9) Walk away. Often deadlines don’t allow you to delay proofreading but, if you have the luxury of a little extra time, take advantage of it. If you finish a document a day early, wait to proofread until the next morning. Fresh eyes are more likely to detect errors. Even if you only have an hour to spare, get up from your desk and walk around. Clear your head before you dig back in to begin proofing. Time away really does make a difference.
10) Remember: Proofreading and editing are not the same. Proofreading catches typos, spelling errors and missing punctuation. Editing is more in-depth, focusing on content, structure, clarity and flow. Most writing will benefit from both.
If you’re a notoriously bad speller or you don’t know a colon from an ellipsis, hire a professional proofreader, editor or writer to do the work. The money you’ll spend is an investment in making sure you and your business are portrayed in the best possible light.
Some clients are clueless – at least when it comes to communication. And there’s a good chance you’re one of them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re a small business owner or nonprofit manager or politician and you’ve got five minutes to spare, I can teach you what you need to know to make your communication efforts more effective.
It all starts with S-M-C-R, a straight-forward model that describes how information is distributed. This timeless model can be applied to all forms of communication, from emails to TV commercials. Learning it can help guide all your future communication decisions. Write it down. Remember it:
Source – The creator of the message.
Message – The actual content or idea for the communication.
Channel – The medium through which the message is being sent.
Receiver – The person or group who receives the message.
The next time you think about web content or direct mail copy you need to have written, run it through this model. You can start the process by writing the letters S-M-C-R across the top of a sheet of paper. Then jot down what you know about your project beneath each of the letters. “S” is typically the easiest place to start; you have a message, so that makes you the source.
Next, it’s important to take a step back and figure out what you want to accomplish with the communication piece you’re having created. Do you want to:
Educate about a trend or issue?
Introduce a new product or service?
Announce an event or promotion?
Attract new customers?
There’s a good chance that you want your email, brochure, or news release to accomplish several things – and that’s OK. Just try to limit yourself to two intended outcomes and then prioritize them so you’re certain your messaging does what it’s supposed to do.
Settling on an intended outcome can be the toughest part of the process. It’s OK to take a day or two to think about this before you proceed with their project. If you don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve with their new communication piece, it’s impossible to produce something that’s effective. The important take-away here is that a single communication piece cannot communicate everything to everyone. Focus is key.
Once you know what you want to accomplish with your new communication piece, you can begin to think about the “R” or receiver. If you run a nail salon and want to reward loyal customers with a coupon, your “R” is your current customer base. If you run a nonprofit that’s offering afterschool tutoring for middle school students, your “R” is likely the parents of middle schoolers. If you run an insurance company and you need to justify your request for a rate increase, your message must be targeted toward government regulators. Identifying your primary receiver will ensure your communication stays focused.
Next up, it’s time to focus on the “M” or message. What do you need to tell the receiver? It’s not important for you to come up with a polished and complete message – that’s what you’ll hire a communications professional to do. You simple need to capsulize the message in a sentence or two so that you’re prepared to tell the writer exactly what you want.
The last step in this process is to be sure you’re using the best “C” or channel to get the message to the intended receiver. Think through the pros and cons of various channels, from free news releases and web copy to paid radio spots and social media. Be realistic. Having great web copy is important but, if your goal is to attract new customers, how likely is it that they’ll just happen upon your site? It’s possible to share the same messages with the same intended receivers via two or more channels. Be open to guidance from the communications professional with whom you’re working.
Does knowing about the S-C-M-R model make you a bonafide communications pro? No, but it does better equip you to ask the right questions and make the right decisions. And it’s a sure step toward making sure you won’t be “clueless” again.