5 Tips for Future Memoir Writers

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:

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. Be honest.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Write Well.

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.

Giving Birth (to a first draft) with Less Pain

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.

Keep Going

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.

 

 

Critique Group = Tough Love

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:

“Nice job.”

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:

Size matters.

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.

Level up

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.

Don’t Let Perfection Kill Creativity

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.

Try it.

No judgment, no expectations, no rules. Give yourself the chance to write without restrictions and see where your creativity will take you.

Tick Tock: Time to Put Procrastination to Rest

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:

Eliminate distractions

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.

Set deadlines

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.

Be accountable

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.

Reward Progress

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.

First Steps are Worth the Anguish

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.

Here’s Something Every Writer Needs: Proofreading

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.

Reading about Writing

Stop by most any bookstore and you’ll find shelf after shelf of books dedicated to the craft of writing.

There are books about writing memoir, developing memorable characters, creating suspense, and refining your writing practice. There are grammar books, agent and publisher directories, and books filled with story prompts for “reluctant writers,” “modern women,” and “bored writers.”

There are even books about writing about writing.

I’m sure many of these tomes are terrific. But, the fact is, you don’t need most of them.

The best way to become a better writer is to read. I know, every teacher you ever had and every author you ever met probably told you the same thing. That’s because it’s true. To write, you must read. Don’t restrict yourself to the genre in which you’re writing.

The more widely you read, the more you’ll learn. For example, I’ve taken participated in workshops and read books about “Setting the Scene,” but reading Marissa Meyer’s Cinder was like a master class on the topic. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, but Meyer’s young adult book, set in futuristic China, had me seeing and believing – with multiple senses – from the opening scene:

Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square.

Meyer expertly uses sensory details to quickly give the reader an idea of who Cinder is and where the story takes place.

Similarly, you can read books and articles about the importance of choosing the right Point of View for your story. Or, you can read and learn from stories that obviously wouldn’t be as powerful if the author had chosen a different POV. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a prime example. The book’s first-person perspective makes protagonist Starr’s pain more raw and relatable. The moments immediately after her friend Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer take on a horrifying intimacy as seen through Starr’s eyes:

An ear-splitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.

Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.

“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.

“No, no, no.”

Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.

The more you read, the more you’ll be able to unearth these sorts of writing lessons. Read with a writer’s eye. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to particular characters and how an author was able to keep you guessing until the very end of a book. Draw inspiration from descriptions of sensational scenery or especially villainous villains.

It’s OK to buy yourself a handful of  “How To” writing books (check my suggestions at the end of this post*), but save the majority of your book-buying cash for good literature and learn from it. Not all readers are good writers, but most every good writer I know reads.

* If you’re ready to invest in a few good writing books, here are three of my favorites:

1)         The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. – I bought this book for a college class and continue to use it 30 years later. Sentence structure, over-used words, unnecessary words, and active voice are among important reminders here.

2)         Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – I’ve lost track of how many copies of this book I’ve gifted to friends. This collection of essays is equal parts inspiration and instruction. It speaks to me. I hope it speaks to you.

3)         On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This classic reiterates fundamentals and preaches about eliminating clutter from writing. First issued in 1976, this book has been updated and continues to be a best seller – for good reason.

 

 

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Whenever writers say they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. Real life can be a real inspiration.

Blame my roots in journalism, but I love the news. I read at least one newspaper daily – a real, paper copy – and I’m forever sending myself links to news magazines and websites. I’m not reporting on the events I’m reading about, but rather I’m looking for tidbits – thought-provoking nuggets that can spawn bigger stories. When I find something that interests me, I clip it or print it out and stick it in my idea file. I’m especially drawn to crazy crime stories, but the file contains a wide variety of real-life inspiration that I thumb through from time to time:

  • Teva, the company known for its outdoor footwear, made its largest pair of sandals ever – for Shanthi, a 41-year-old arthritic elephant who lives at the National Zoo. The sandals reportedly make it easier for the 9,000-pound pachyderm to walk around.
  • A 2007 clipping details the almost unbelievable unraveling of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. As she drove, she disguised herself with a dark wig, glasses and trench coat and wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop.
  • Two Kentucky men were arrested in 2016 after they accidentally called 911 while sitting in their car, discussing plans to rob a local restaurant. The dispatcher listened to their conversation and police were able to intervene.
  • A burglar got stuck in a chimney while trying to break into a home in Huron, California, in November 2015. The man was discovered when the homeowner returned and lit the fireplace. Bad luck turned into horrible luck; the would-be thief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Will I ever write a novel about star-crossed NASA lovers? Probably not. But the intimate details of that account – the ways in which Nowak became so obsessed with “the other woman” – could well find their way into another story. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my characters butt-dials 911 and accidently confesses a crime.

Real life doesn’t have to be outrageous to be inspirational. I have journals filled with notes about people I’ve known or observed: How they dressed, wore their hair, talked, walked:

  • The high school classmate who always ate dessert first, in case she “ran out of room.”
  • The teammate whose softball uniform was so tight she confessed she had to shimmy into it while it was wet and let it dry on her body overnight.
  • The college Latin professor who carried a satchel, and wore a tight black turtleneck sweater and black leather pants to every class for a year.
  • My grandfather, who dressed in worn chambray shirts and drank one beer each summer – an Old Milwaukee to celebrate the end of haying season.

Those types of traits, those tiny details breathe life into fictional characters.

It’s not complicated. It’s real life. Observe it. Make notes about it. Use it the next time you need a little inspiration.

Combating Work-From-Home Solitude

I have been a work-from-home freelance writer/author for about 15 years. The freedom is amazing and the flexibility has allowed me to work around my kids’ never-ending school conferences, concerts and sporting events. My husband envies my 30-second commute and my friends wish they could fold a quick load of laundry during their lunch breaks.

It is a good life. It’s also a solitary life.

I have no coworkers, no office parties, no company lunches. It’s just me and, when she drags herself up to the attic, my dog Iris. It can get pretty lonely.

Sure, I could rejoin Corporate America but I’m smart enough to know that not all co-workers are good co-workers. So, instead, I turn to these tried and true tips for battling the isolation. If you’ve felt it, you should try them too:

  1. Plan Lunch Dates

When I first started working from home, I pledged to set up one lunch date per week. Pretty soon, work got busy enough that I switched my goal to a biweekly luncheon, then monthly, then – well, you get it. Priorities. Whenever you start feeling you can’t spare 60 to 90 minutes to talk with a friend about something other than work – that’s when you most need a break. Commit to a schedule. Start with two dates – for lunch or walking or coffee – each month and, if you can, build from there.

  1. Work Off Site

I’m not at my most productive when I write in a coffee shop. But sometimes it’s less about productivity and more about being around other people. Pack up your stuff and work off site for a morning or afternoon each week. Greet others in the coffee shop or library or shared office space. Before you know it, you’ll begin to know regulars and conversation will blossom. Let it.

  1. Look for Reasons to Get Out

As a writer, I can conduct many of my interviews over the phone. It’s easy. It also adds to the disconnected feelings I sometimes get. Whenever possible, I try to meet up with the subjects of my research. Researching copying costs? Drive to the store instead of looking online. Looking for a book? Spend some time at the library instead of ordering it online. At least a couple times each week, come up with a “business” reason to get out and about.

  1. Network

Join a group like Rotary or Toastmasters. By attending regular meetings, you’ll make new connections – some of whom may be potential clients and others who may, like you, be looking to build a support network. Don’t join the first club you come upon. Look for one that aligns with your interests and has members with whom you’d like to spend time.

  1. Turn on the TV or Radio

I admit it. I have the TV on in my office all the time. I rarely watch it, but the noise makes me feel like I’m not completely alone. This background “conversation” helps keep me sane. Music doesn’t have the same effect for me – I need to hear other people talking. I’m not picky about content; I’ll play shows about cooking, home décor, reruns of 1980s TV shows. My only rule is that if the show is so interesting I find myself actually watching it, I need to switch channels.

What are your tips and tricks for battling work-from-home loneliness?