Writing the short essay

Stuff needed for writing I recently rekindled my fascination with writing essays. Not the type that many of us wrote in high school and university, but expository and personal writing. The kind of writing produced by the likes of Orwell, Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, and countless others. Essays that tell a story, that explain an issue, that freeze a moment in time.

I’m definitely not, nor will I ever be, on or even near the level of the essayists I admire. That doesn’t matter, though. I think I still have a few stories and opinions to share.

While I wrote a lot of essays in the early years so my career, by the mid-1990s essay writing took a back seat to writing I did to pay the bills. That writing was often mechanical and was generally unfulfilling. I didn’t really practice that form of writing much in the intervening years.

In late 2014, I decided it was time to get back on the essay writing horse. Instead of jumping in and writing long, detailed essays I decided to concentrate on penning shorter ones. Essays that run anywhere from 600 to 1,200 words.

That process involves a lot of practice mixed with a liberal dash of relearning some of the techniques I employed all those years ago.

I’d like to share a few of those techniques with you.


How to mine Twitter for writing ideas

ideas Ideas. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, they’re the lifeblood of every writer. No matter how good you are at coming up with ideas, there will be times when the well is dry. You can’t, for the life of you, form a good idea for a blog post, an article, or an essay.

Why not turn to Twitter for inspiration? You can find the spark for a writing idea there.

The problem is, as someone said, Twitter’s like a fire hose. You don’t need to absorb every drop coming out of that fire hose. You just need certain drops. Let’s look at two ways to use Twitter for story ideas.


Let it lie

A woman editing a manuscript No matter what you’re writing, it generally doesn’t come out the way you want it to on your first draft. If it does, you’re either really lucky or just that damn good. If it’s the latter, you don’t need to be reading my posts …

In the heat and focus of the first draft, a certain amount of polish is always missing. In that heat and focus, it’s easy to overlook some of the shortcomings of what you’ve written. But there is one way to get around that.

Let your writing lie.

What do I mean by that? Put what you’ve written aside. Don’t think about it. Don’t stress about it. Get some distance from what you’ve written.

Put your manuscript aside for at least an hour. Longer is better. If you can, don’t look at it until the next day. That’s not always possible, especially if you’re on a deadline.

Letting your writing lie, as I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, gives you some distance from your work. Your brain will be clearer. You’ll be able to see the flaws in what you’re writing. You won’t see a jumble of words that you’ve just written.

Once you’ve gone back to your work after letting it lie for a few hours (or more), look at it was a critical eye. Read it slowly a couple of times. Read it aloud. Then, take your editing pen — whether real or virtual — to what you’ve written.

When you’re done editing, read it again both silently and out loud. Then, do another editing pass. Once you’re done that, your manuscript should be in pretty good shape.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

(A quick plug: If you haven’t already, think about subscribing to my bi-weekly email newsletter. It’s free and I won’t use your information to spam you. Promise!)

How do you know what you should write?

A restless writer As you may or may not know, over the last few months I’ve been informally coaching a handful of writers. They’ve ranged from professionals to people just starting out in their writing careers. It’s been an interesting and useful experience, for me and for them.

Recently, one of the people I’m working with asked me How do I know what I should write? By that, he meant what style or niche he should focus on. Like many writers taking their first steps, he’s feeling the tug in several directions.

A few years ago, I wrote a post in this space about four questions that can help focus your writing career. But the question that I was asked made me expand on the ideas in that post.

The advice I gave that writer revolves around (surprise, surprise!) four new questions.


Taking a look at a pair of Markdown editors for the Mac

The Markdown mark I make no bones about being a Linux user. I’m not a techie, yet Linux works for me. That said, some people make the mistake of believing that I haven’t used or been exposed to other operating systems. I have. Probably more than they have.

After moving to the bottom of the world three years ago, I had to take the dreaded day job. At one of the places where I worked, I and a majority of my colleagues were using MacBooks to do our work. While I prefer Mac OS to Windows, I didn’t see what all the fuss about MacBooks is. They’ve got nothing I haven’t seen before.

I have to admit, though, that there was some software for the MacBook that I found very useful. That included a couple of Markdown editors called Mou and MacDown.

Let’s take a quick look at them.


Using a template to plan your writing

A man writing a plan No matter what you’re writing, especially if it’s a longer piece of work, you should proceed with a plan. A plan keeps you on track. A plan keeps you focused. A plan can help you not only start your work, but finish it as well.

My preferred way to plan my writing is with an outline. But I know several writers who have strong feelings about outlines. Those feelings aren’t positive!

With that in mind, I’ve put together a simple planning template. This template is aimed at writers of non fiction. I’ve tested it with a few of the writers I coach or advise. The template worked for some of them, and it might work for you.

You can grab the template in the following formats:

As I mentioned, the structure of the template is quite simple:

Screen capture of the template

The template has placeholders for the title of what you’re working on, as well as a short description. The table contains the following columns:

  • Chapter/Section Title — I think you can figure this one out …
  • Focus — a detailed description of the subject matter or thesis of the chapter or section
  • Information to Cover — details about the specific information that’s going into the chapter or section
  • Notes — any additional information. This can include links to background information, names of screen captures/images, and the like

Don’t feel that you need to stick to that format. Feel free to play around with the template. It’s public domain, under a CC0 1.0 universal license.

The power of an hour, revisited

A stopwatch ticking down the time Until a couple of months ago, 2015 wasn’t the greatest year for writing. I didn’t have writer’s block and I wasn’t experiencing a freeze. I was under a blanket of malaise, which made writing tough.

It was tough to get started. Tough to keep up the momentum. Tough to finish anything, no matter how long or short. I did write a lot during that time, but I wasn’t always happy with the final product. Worse, a couple of important writing projects languished.

Fed up with being unable to start those projects, I decided to make a change. In fact, I decided to take my own advice for once. I rediscovered how much I can get done in an hour of writing.

The project I wanted to focus on was my recent ebook, Learning Markdown. It had been sitting in limbo since late last year and, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get moving on it.

I went back to the book’s outline and tweaked it a bit. Then, I scheduled an hour each evening to tackle all or part of a chapter. I sat in front of a keyboard, even on the day or three in which I wasn’t in the mood to write.

Within about seven days, I had a decent first draft of the book. I used the same technique with the editing process. That took about three days. Finally, I spent another couple of days incorporating the changes. I made sure the book’s cover was being created during the editing process.

Learning Markdown was published on schedule, and I was quite happy with the result.

The lesson here? As usual, it’s a simple one: take one step at a time. You may not reach your goal at record speed but you’ll get there.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

(A quick plug: If you haven’t already, think about subscribing to my bi-weekly email newsletter. It’s free and I won’t use your information to spam you. Promise!)

Losing confidence

A man slumped over his keyboard In your writing, and your ability to write. That happened to me over the last few years.

While I blog regularly and widely, most of my paid work has been in the corporate sphere. There’s not as much room for creativity or originality when doing corporate writing as some people will lead you to believe. Often, you’re pigeonholed into a niche.

Over the last few years, I lost a lot of my confidence in producing work that I considered meaningful. In this case, writing essays. Not the academic kind, but the sort I penned at the start of my career — opinion pieces and expository work.

I fell into the traps that I tell the writers I coach or advise to avoid. Traps like getting overwhelmed — not by the scope of the project but by the questions and doubts about my ability. Traps like second guessing myself and asking whether what I’m writing is worth reading.

I’ve been making a concerted effort over the last few months to regain the confidence I once had. It’s been a long road, and progress has been slow.

That’s one of the reasons I started my email newsletter last June: to work on my essay writing, to share my thoughts and my ideas and my experiences with others. It helps that I’m getting some positive feedback, too. One subscriber, for example, tweeted this:

Loved the article about ad blocking in your latest newsletter Scott (I use ad blocking all the time). Thanks!

It was a small bit of validation, but one that did a lot to shore up my confidence.

So, what can you do if you lose confidence in your abilities? Try:

Writing through the problem. Keep working, keep learning, keep refining. Your skills will improve. Just take the time to practice and look at what you’ve written with a critical (but not brutal) eye.

Putting your work out there for others to see and to read. I’m doing that with my newsletter, but you can set up a blog or just email what you’ve written to people and ask for their opinions.

Repeating the process. Don’t expect your confidence to increase overnight. It will take weeks or even months. It’s a long, slow, sometimes painful journey. The time and effort you put in, though, will help make you a better writer.

In the end, just keep writing. Keep pushing your boundaries. Keep experimenting. Keep improving. View your doubts as an impetus to improve, not as a barrier.

(A quick plug: If you haven’t already, think about subscribing to my bi-weekly email newsletter. It’s free and I won’t use your information to spam you. Promise!)

Start your own email newsletter

Reading an email newsletter on a smartphone As you may or may not know, I started a bi-weekly email newsletter a couple of months ago. Why? I had two reasons:

First, I’d been threatening to do that for a number of years and it was about time I followed through on that threat.

Second, in the first part of 2015 I’d fallen into a bit of a writing rut. I needed something to help drag me out of it. That something was, in part, the newsletter.

Whatever your reason for taking the plunge, starting an email newsletter can be beneficial. Not just for your freelance writing business but for yourself, too.

Here are some thoughts and ideas that can help you get going with an email newsletter.


How to structure longer writing

Man at a whiteboard planning something The tl;dr crowd be hanged: there is a place for longer-form writing on the web. And in print, too.

I won’t go into detail about why longer-form writing is important — that’s another blog post for another time. If you have an interesting story to tell, there’s no reason why you can’t take a bit more time, a bit more space, and a few more words to tell that story.

There are three main factors that can make or break a long piece of writing: the quality of the writing, whether or not the story you’re telling is worth reading, and its structure. They’re equally important, but structure is often the factor that many writers ignore.

Correctly structuring your makes your writing easier to read. It helps your writing flow. Here are a few tips that can help you better structure longer writing.


Writing a short ebook

ebook reader By short I mean an ebook that runs anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 words. Often, somewhere in between. Sort of what I’m trying with my Short ebook Project.

Writing a short ebook can be as challenging as writing a full-length book. You not only need to narrow your topic down, you need to write concisely. There’s no reason, though, why you can’t also write vividly and with impact.

Here are a few pointers that can help you quickly and efficiently write a short ebook.


How to say what you want to say in three paragraphs

Man typing on a laptop computer What would you do if you were told you only had three short paragraphs in which to explain something, describe something, report on something? Would you curl into a whimpering ball under your desk or would you tackle the problem head on?

I’m hoping you’d tackle the problem head on.


Why you should write morning pages

Writing A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with another writer and I casually mentioned that I’ve been writing professionally for a long time. Since 1989/1990. A lot has changed since then. I’m a different person, and a different writer, than the uncertain young man I was all those years ago.

I still have a lot to learn about the craft of writing. That said, I like to think that I know a thing or two about it as well. Over the last year or so, I’ve been informally coaching a few people who aspire to write. Most of them want to go pro at some point. The others write because they enjoy it and want to improve. Or, they need to beef up their skills for work.

The one piece of advice give all of them is to write every day. That’s the key to improving as a writer. Practice. Practice. And more practice. Then lather, rinse, and repeat.

For a few of those folks, finding time to write is a challenge. We all lead busy lives, and writing takes focus. It takes time. So I’ve been advising them write morning pages.

The idea behind morning pages is simple: first thing in the morning, sit down with pen and paper and just write. Anything. Whatever is in your head. Morning pages are a good tool for getting through a creative block. They can also be a cathartic therapy.

But morning pages are an excellent way to practice writing, too. If nothing else, writing morning pages clears cruft from brain so you can get the words that you want down on a page or on the screen.

Even though I’ve been writing professionally for a few decades, I find morning pages to be very worthwhile. I write and post something several mornings a week. The wider web sees my unvarnished thoughts, which is fine with me. You don’t have to make your morning pages public if you don’t want to, though.

It doesn’t matter how much you write — it can be 100 words or 500 words or more. It doesn’t matter how you write. You can craft your morning pages by hand in journal or on legal pad. You can write using a text editor or word processor. You can use online tools like Morning Pages or 750 Words. The key is to sit in front of your keyboard, type, and get words from brain on to screen. The goal is to write. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Doing that every day builds the discipline of writing. Having that discipline is key to 1) improving as a writer, and 2) being able to take a stab at writing professionally.

(A quick plug: If you haven’t already, think about subscribing to my bi-weekly email newsletter. It’s free and I won’t use your information to spam you. Promise!)

A thought about word count

Typing How much should I write? That’s a question people constantly ask me. And, often, they’re surprised at what I say.

I look at it in this way: if you need 1,000 words to properly present an argument or effectively make a point, then by all means use those 1,000 words. If you only need 250 words, then that’s fine too.

Don’t just listen to me. Consider these wise words:

When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.

— the late William Zinsser, from On Writing Well

There’s no hard and fast rule. Enough is enough. With practice, and the experience that comes from practice, you’ll know when to stop.

(A quick plug: If you haven’t already, think about subscribing to my bi-weekly email newsletter. It’s free and I won’t use your information to spam you. Promise!)

Analog note taking and bad handwriting

(Note: This post was first published at Notes from a Floating Life and appears here via a Creative Commons license.)

It all started with this tweet by Scott Berkun:

A tweet about bad handwriting by Scott Berkun

As much as I like jotting notes in a Moleskine or Field Notes notebook, I have to admit that I sometimes have trouble reading my own writing. I joke that the only person in the world who can read my handwriting isn’t me; it’s my wife. In fact, my handwriting is so illegible sometimes that I’ve lost important information or writing ideas because couldn’t I read what I’d jotted down.

There are people out there, including I’m sure a few of fives who read this blog, who are saying that I could have easily avoided those situations. How? By using a digital tool like Simplenote or Evernote or Google Keep. Not really. I’m not always connected, and I don’t always have a device with which to capture those ideas. Anyway, writing by hand is faster than typing on a small screen.

Luckily, I learn from my (many) mistakes. Well, most of the time. Here are three tips for taking notes with pen and paper if you have bad handwriting.


Editing others to become a better writer

edit Someone once wrote that the true student must teach in order to learn. I don’t recall where I read that, but in the 30 years since I did it’s stuck with me.

The person who wrote it was referring to martial arts. But he could also have been talking about writing. You don’t have to become a writing instructor or tutor to teach. You can do that by editing the work of another writer.

And by editing others, you can improve your own writing.


Critics and you

One person yelling at another using a megaphone While I’m not the most prolific blogger out there, I do try to put a lot of information on the web. Of course, that draws a bit of criticism from some circles from time to tim.

I have friends who tell me that once in a while when I publish a post or an article online, there are a couple of sites where I get slammed. Hard. Often by nit-picking critics, or people who just don’t agree with what I wrote.

That’s OK. Why? While the denizens of those sites are spewing their snark, I (and you and people like us) are actually doing something. We’re putting ourselves and our work out there. We’re trying to help people. We’re sharing information and stories. We might not always hit the mark, but that’s not what matters. What matters is we’re doing the work and are willing to suffer the slings and arrows of critics.

Critics like that, and I use the term critic loosely, aren’t worth your time. They’re not helping you improve. They’re, more often than not, missing the point of what you’re writing. You can safely ignore people like that.

Your work doesn’t need a million upvotes on various sites around the web to validate it. What you’re doing tries to assist rather than hinder or cut others down. Its preferable to impotently sniping from the sidelines.

As Warren Ellis recently tweeted:

F*** Your Likes And Hearts should be a mantra for anyone doing personal writing online.

Or any online writing.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

(A quick plug: If you haven’t already, think about subscribing to my bi-weekly email newsletter. It’s free and I won’t use your information to spam you. Promise!)

Exalting the mundane with your writing

A person who looks bored Back in the early 1980s, Harlan Ellison wrote a column titled “An Edge in My Voice” for L.A. Weekly. Part of Ellison’s contract with the paper was that he had full editorial freedom — I write ’em, you run ’em as Ellison said.

For the most part, the paper did just that. Until it received column in early 1983. That column was a 2,500 piece about magazine mailing labels. L.A. Weekly‘s reason for not running the column? The publisher didn’t believe anyone would want to read it. In the hands of another writer that might be true, but Ellison’s power of persuasion and invective turned that essay into something worth casting your eyes over.

Sure, there are hundreds or thousands of things you could write about that are more interesting than magazine mailing labels. I’m certain, though, more than a couple of us have an inkling to write about something mundane if only to share an experience. The key is making that mundane something a bit more interesting.

Here are a few tips that can help you do that.


On selling out

Writing The one time I was accused of selling out as a writer happened in the early 1990s. My career as a professional freelancer was starting to gain some momentum, and I sold an article to a major Canadian newspaper. My accuser, a (now former) friend, thought I should have sold that article to a smaller, more worthy (his words, not mine) publication where I’d make a few cents a word. In fact, he figured that I should have kept writing for the small magazines where I’d been cutting my teeth.

He wasn’t a writer, though he did fancy himself a creative of some stripe. He definitely didn’t understand the reality of the life of a working writer. He didn’t seem to realize that the ideas in that article, and the ones I wrote for larger publications, found a wider audience than they would have in a smaller magazine. Getting more money for those pieces was also a nice bonus.

That, in my eyes, wasn’t and isn’t selling out.

To be honest, I still wonder what selling out actually means.


Managing your writing with Simplenote

Simplenote logo No matter what I’m doing, I prefer simple tools. That goes for the tools I write with, in case you’re wondering.

Over the years, I’ve used a number of note taking and productivity tools. One that I’ve consistently come back to is Simplenote. Why? It does everything that I need it to do, and without the overhead or complexity of other tools.

I don’t just use Simplenote for taking notes. I also use it to manage my writing. Here’s a look at how I do that.


Improving as a writer

Aiming for the summit I’m regularly asked How can I become a better writer? Some of the people who ask me that are sincere — they do want to put in the work to improve. Others seem to be looking for a magic bullet, for some advice or trick or tip that will transform them them into a better writer instantly.

Writing is hard work. Improving as a writer takes a lot of work and a lot of discipline. More work and discipline than many aspiring writers seem to realize. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight or in a week or in a month. You have to be patient while on the road to becoming a better writer.

So how do you improve as a writer? Here are some of tips.


Working with the Logitech K480 keyboard

typing There are times when I want to travel light. That means leaving my laptop and Chromebook at home. Instead, I grab my tablet for when I need to work.

The problem with using a tablet to write is that it can be hard to type using the on-screen keyboard. If not difficult, then a bit slow.

I used to use a combination of a folding Bluetooth keyboard and a tablet stand. That combo was a good solution, but it was a bit cumbersome. As well, I needed a flat surface — I couldn’t have them on my knees as I typed away at a conference or on a train.

A few months ago, I came across the Logitech K480 keyboard. I’ve been using it for a couple of months and have found it to be a very useful beast. Here’s my impression of it.


Playing with titles

title I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a bit of trouble coming up with titles for my articles and blog post.

Let me clarify that: I have trouble coming up with interesting titles. What I usually come up with is serviceable, though nothing special.

Lately, though, I’ve been trying to reverse that. Mainly with what I’ve been posting to a blog chronicling my problems with the Auckland Council. It’s been interesting, and it’s been fun. Here’s what I’ve learned from doing that.


Crafting better interview questions

interview There comes a time in every writer’s life when they have to interview someone. And, believe me, asking someone questions can be difficult. Especially if you’re an introvert or if you don’t have a lot of experience doing interviews.

I’ve been fortunate that way. At journalism school, I was taught interviewing skills by Paul McLaughlin, who is widely considered to be one of the top interviewing trainers in Canada. Even so, it didn’t come easy. I had to do a lot of interviews before I was comfortable.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a way to quickly come up with effective interview questions. Here’s how I do it.


Looking at Some Thoughts About Writing

Cover of Some Thoughts About Writing As writers, there are times when we need to learn more about our craft. Then, there are times when we need to be reminded of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Writing is hard work. It can be rewarding, but it can also be frustrating and disheartening. We need the occasional affirmation, the occasional boost of confidence.

That’s Patrick Rhone’s aim in Some Thoughts About Writing. It’s a book that, like Do The Work, gives you both a shot in the arm and a swift kick to the backside.


Taking notes using Twitter

Twitter logo If you attend an event — either as a participant or if you’re covering it for your blog or a publication — chances are you’ll be taking notes. A lot of them.

You might be typing your notes in a text file or a word processor document. You might use Evernote or Simplenote to record important information.

And, if you’re like many people, you might also be live tweeting the event. I do that a lot. In fact, at a conference I attended last year I put out the second highest number of tweets (just behind the official conference Twitter account).

So why not combine your note taking with your tweeting? It can be a quick, easy, focused, and effective way to take notes at an event. Not only can those tweets be a record of what you saw and heard, they can also jog your memory.

Here’s a look at how I do it.


The web isn’t linear

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some people will say otherwise, but I think I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older. While I’m not as cranky or contentious as I used to be, there are some people, and some types of people, who frustrate me.

The people who who frustrate me are those who overthink just about everything. Who dither. Who spend too much time planning and not enough time doing.

For the last 12 months or so, I’ve been dealing with a person who fits that bill. He’s been planning a blog for that long (perhaps a bit longer) and has almost nothing to show for it. He has ideas for posts, but hasn’t written much. He’s published nothing.

Instead, he’s preoccupied with trying to figure out which of those ideas to write first. He’s focusing too heavily on how to, in his words, structure his blog.

He wants to construct a narrative. That’s fine, but constructing that narrative is hamstringing him. To be honest, I can’t see him publishing anything any time soon.

The lesson I’ve been trying to impart, unsuccessfully so far, is the web isn’t linear. At least, it doesn’t have to be.

You can publish posts on your blog in any order. There’s no guarantee people will read the posts in the order in which you publish them.

Let’s say you have a series of inter-related posts. Publish them in whatever order you feel like. Then, when they’re all published you can link between them. If you’re using WordPress, then you can use a related posts plugin that will automatically add links to similar content on your blog.

If you need to, create a post that contains links to the various parts of your series. On that page, list the posts in the order in which you imagine people reading them.

Content on the web isn’t like the content of a book. Using links, you can easily provide readers with a quick path to related posts and articles. You can publish in any order that you want, and not worry about readers losing their way.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: ngould

Pulling the plug on a blog

Plug about to be pulled A big piece of my professional puzzle came to an end on March 31, 2015. That was the day DMN Communications, the technical communication firm I co-owned, was wound up.

As part of that, the company’s blog came to an end. That blog helped establish me and my (now former) business partner as leaders in the technical communication field. But times change. People move on.

Winding up the company gave me some insight into when and why you should pull the plug on a blog.


Don’t overthink your ideas

Someone stressing about something Ideas are the lifeblood of writers everywhere. But for some writers, ideas can be a source of stress.

They worry about how good their ideas are. They worry about whether or not people will be interested in those ideas. They worry about how many eyes will look over the results of those ideas the moment they’re published.

When writers start to worry about ideas, they start to overthink them. They start trying to rework those ideas. They start second guessing all of their ideas. They wind up not writing. And, let’s be honest, not writing is worse than tackling a bad idea (or what you think is a bad idea).

Don’t overthink your writing. Don’t worry about whether people will be interested in, or like, that idea.

Throughout my career, I’ve written about what interests me. And I hoped what I wrote would interest others. It often did, and still does. Sometimes, I miss the mark.

If an idea falls flat with your audience, try to play a long game with it. It might turn out that idea was before its time. It might have an audience a year or two or three down the road.

Remember there’s more than one outlet for your work. If you can’t sell an idea to a publication or a publisher, you can turn it into a blog post or an ebook.

Don’t give up on your ideas. You never know when they’ll find a home. A few years ago, I wrote a series of weekly tech tips for an online publication. And, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I was focusing on topics that interested me. One of the editors asked me to veer away from those topics and focus on more conventional one. Why? He felt that they didn’t interest the publication’s readers. Well, a few weeks later he came back to me and offered an apology. It turns out readers were embracing my left field ideas and wanted more. It’s just that those ideas took a bit of time to gain traction.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: grietgriet

Where do you write?

Womans hands on laptop keyboard A few years ago I read an interesting post at the blog published by the folks at Contented.com. In that post, Rachel McAlpine talks about her setup for writing at the time. Her optimal writing area may surprise you: a shelf in a storeroom, with her laptop resting on a large book.

In that post, McAlpine made a very good point:

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find you can’t get cracking on a writing project. There are genuine barriers, and one of them is finding the right setup.

Over the years, my own optimal writing area changed often. So often, it was fluid.

When I lived in Canada, I write at both a desk in the basement of my house and at a table in my dining room. Both of surfaces were spartan, and both are home to laptop computer. On warmer days, I’d write on my enclosed porch.

But as I’m known for being able to sleep anywhere, I can also write just about anywhere. Sitting on a sofa, in a coffee shop, or at the library. Nowadays, I find myself writing either at the small dining room table or on the sofa in the apartment I’m currently renting in Auckland.

I find that all I need to write is a laptop, a Chromebook, or a tablet. Barring that, I use a dead-trees notebook. The only problem I run into now is noise from the (busy) street I live just off. I can get around that with an inexpensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

Some people have told me that set up sounds uncomfortable. It isn’t. In fact, I’m more relaxed that I would be at a traditional desk with an office chair. It works for me, and I get a lot of writing done.

Where do you write? And where are you most comfortable and productive? Feel free to leave a comment.

Crowdfunding and the writer

Photo of a crowd of people A few years ago, I had a lengthy and interesting email debate with a writer of my acquaintance. It all started when I pointed him to the Kickstarter campaign to start an online publication (whose name I don’t recall). He wasn’t too impressed, likening the campaign to begging. I countered, stating that this was no different from raising funds from more traditional investors.

The debate went back and forth for a while, with us never reaching a clear consensus. It did, however, get me thinking about crowdfunding and how writers could use it.

A number of writers have tried to use crowdfunding to finance their works. Some with more success than others. Here are a few of my thoughts about crowdfunding and the writer.


7 open source tools and free resources for writing

Laptop and paper notebook Note: This post was written by Jen Wike Huger. Jen’s the Content Manager for Opensource.com and is a storyteller for tech, open source, and Linux communities. You can find Jen on Twitter and at Jen.io.

There are times in many of our workdays when we must write or document something. Whether for building out the plan of a project, for the documentation of a project, or for the creation of the project itself, like an article or blog post, writing is a part of many of our daily lives regardless of industry or field.

Open source tools can be used to get writing done, and freely available resources can be used to supplement and enhance that work. As a content manager here at Opensource.com, there are seven open source tools and resources that I use everyday.


Answering questions to break through a block

Someone writing a question mark I don’t believe in writer’s block. But I do know there are times when you just can’t write. The words are in your head. But they don’t travel from your brain to your fingertips to keyboard to screen. You’re frozen.

When that happens, you get frustrated. That makes writing even more difficult. It’s easy to fall into a downward spiral of avoiding the keyboard so you don’t have to face that freeze and that frustration.

One way around that problem is to ask yourself some question. Not just ask, but answer them. Doing that can burn away the mental fog and get you back to writing.

Here are a few tips.


A few links for the end of the week

How to effectively take notes at an event

Someone writing in a notebook That event could be one you’re attending out of personal or professional interest. Or you could be covering the event for your blog or a publication.

No matter your reason for attending, you’ll have a lot of information thrown at you. Often, more than you can effectively process.

That’s where effective note taking skills come in very handy. Over the years, I’ve attended a large number of events. And I’ve developed a strategy for effectively taking notes.

Let me share that strategy with you.


A quick guide to writing short

Hand on keyboard In the early days of my professional writing career, I learned a valuable lesson: word count isn’t a suggestion. It’s a hard-and-fast rule.

Back then, the web didn’t exist. I wrote for print publications, which had a limited number of column inches. My work needed to fit into the space defined by the word count or my articles would be rejected. And as I was often a new, unknown, and untried writer I needed to write a few shorter pieces to break in to a publication. That made writing short a necessity.

Thanks to my education as a journalist, I was ahead of the game on that front. I still had a bit to learn, but I knew the mechanics of writing short.

Even now, writing short is a useful skill to have. If you can submit or publish work that’s tight, informative, and entertaining that work will be more attractive to editors.

Writing short is a skill. Like any skill, it takes time and effort to master. Here are some tips that can help you do that faster.


More Chrome apps and extensions for writers

Chrome logo I like to think that over the last three or so years I’ve proven that a Chromebook is a viable tool for the professional writer. And while I’m not a tool fetishist, I occasionally look around the Chrome web store in search of new apps and extensions that I and other writers might find useful.

While I often come up empty handed, every so often I find a gem or four.

Let’s take a look at four Chrome apps and extensions for writers.


Lifting ideas from others

lift Before you jump on me, understand this: I’m not advocating that you steal from other writers. I’ve been the victim of theft a couple of times and wouldn’t want another writer to go through that.

What is mean is use what others write as a launching point for something you write. Add your own perspective or spin or slant to an idea or story. Write something that complements the original, or provides a counterpoint to it. Pick up on a thread that the writer of the original piece left hanging or didn’t explore further.

I won’t say to do that you need a keen eye. It helps. But you do have to read carefully. You have to keep your mind open for any tangents. You have to be ready to spot and pull any threads that you see.


A short guide to quickly writing an ebook

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image17885600 Do you have an idea for a book? I bet you do. But I’m also sure that there are a number of things that get in the way of you writing that book.

If you want to write a book, publishing it yourself is the fastest and easiest way to go. That said, unless you take action, unless you start writing, it will never happen.

Sitting in front of your keyboard and typing aimlessly isn’t the way to go. You need to proceed with a plan.

Here’s a short guide that can help you quickly write an ebook. I’ve used the techniques I’m about to share to write three books, and I have another couple on the way. The techniques work. All you need to do is apply them.

Note: This information is aimed at people who are writing non fiction. It might work with fiction, too, but no guarantees.


Full time or freelance?

Decisions, decisions That is the question …

We reach a point as writers where the seed of an idea starts to sprout: Maybe I can go freelance. It’s a tempting idea, escaping the workaday world of the corporate job and hanging out your own shingle.

Or, maybe you’re a freelance writer being tempted by the lure of a corporate writing job. In either case, there are pros and cons. I’ve been on both sides of that fence and have some insight into those pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at them.


Making what you write more granular

Uploaded to www.sxc.hu for free use. What makes the eyes of many readers glaze over? I mean, besides lazy and boring writing?

Long paragraphs and passages. Ones that seem to go on and on and on.

And I’m not talking about the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) crowd. There are still people with solid attention spans. Many of them tire when they read long passages or long articles.

One way around that is to make your writing more granular. What do I mean by that? Read on to learn more.


Are you an artist or a craftsperson?

A Caucasian female's hand playing a piano That’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the years. And it’s a question for which I always have the same answer.

I consider myself a craftsman. I do believe I’m a fairly good writer who can tell an interesting story, who can explain things in a compelling and interesting way. But an artist? Definitely not. I don’t have that kind of talent. Anyway, I don’t have, and never had, any artistic pretensions — I understand that my work isn’t for the ages.

I believe in my craft and I constantly try to stretch myself. I constantly try to improve. That’s good enough for me.

How about you? Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsperson? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Photo credit: iceviking

Think visually

camera How many times have you heard people say that you need to tell a story with whatever you’re writing? Chances are, more than a couple.

While I don’t believe that everything needs to tell a story, stories can help make your writing more interesting and more relevant. But stories alone often aren’t enough.

If you want to really make your writing resonate, you need to think visually. Maybe not paint a picture, but share a photograph constructed out of words with your readers.

Here are a couple of techniques that can help you do that.


Headings are a guidepost

guidepost Whether you’re writing a few hundred words or several thousand, headings can be a good friend.

Headings help readers by offering them logical breaks. Headings give readers an an idea of what’s coming up. Headings allow readers to pick and choose what want to read — in some cases, such as 10 best posts, not everything in the post will interest them.

Headings are a guidepost for readers. But they’re also a guidepost for writers. They give you an idea of the structure of what you’re writing. They help illuminate what you want to focus on in a section of your work.

It’s worth learning how to use headings effectively. Here’s some advice.


Start with a template

writing With all of the pressures in our personal and professional lives, with all of the chaos that crops up seemingly out of nowhere, it can sometimes be an effort to get started writing. It happens to everyone — from the aspiring writer to those of us who make our livings with our keyboards.

I’m not talking about writer’s block. It’s just that sometimes, the ideas won’t flow. At other times, you get overwhelmed by what have to write — either because of the amount of information that you need to distill or because you mind has blown the complexity of the project out of proportion.

When something like that happens, you freeze. I know. I’ve been there.

But I’ve also found ways around the freeze. One technique I use is to follow a writing template.


The two-edged sword of the idea

Ideas! Ideas. As I’ve written in the past, they’re the life blood of any writer.

It’s easy to collect ideas. You can fill up your notebook or digital tool with every idea strikes you. Unless you have know imagination, you’ll easily wind up with dozens upon dozens of ideas.

In fact, a majority of the ideas that you come up with will probably never get used. Remember this person?

Doing the work

Having ideas and writing and publishing them is the difference between the dabbler and the serious writer or blogger. If you want to be a serious writer, then you need to write. You need to press the publish button.

If you have a number of ideas, the problem can be which one or ones to focus on. That can be a difficult choice to make, especially if those ideas are good. Or, if you think they’re all good.

Let me share a technique that I’ve been using with some bloggers to help them focus their ideas and get writing.


Playing the long game

The long road to success Someone once said that overnight success can take a long time.

That’s so true.

For most writers, it takes years to reach a point at which we can call ourselves successful. If you’re writing part-time, that could take even longer. If it happens at all.

Even with success — or just the faintest promise of success — being so far away, you shouldn’t give up. Instead, play the long game.

Understand that being able to make your living as a writer, to gain a modicum (or more) of recognition will take years. In the meantime, do what it takes to achieve that goal.

Write. Practice. Experiment. Learn. Solicit critiques. Amass a pile of rejections. Then repeat the process again. And again. And again.

Something will stick. It’ll take time, but something will stick. You’ll get more and more work published. You’ll see your writing in larger markets. You’ll gain a wider audience.

Just be willing to put the time and effort in. Even if you don’t become a full-time professional writer, even if you don’t become successful you’ll be doing something you enjoy and are passionate about. And that’s a lot more than most people, and many people who want to write, can say.

Photo credit: Ayla87

Why write using a tablet?

tablet Technology comes. Technology goes. But no matter what, it always becomes more and more portable. That’s especially true for the technology that writers use.

While I don’t expect many of the fives of people who read this blog to have used a luggable computer, I’m sure that everyone has used a laptop or something smaller over the years.

Very little is as portable, or flexible, as a tablet. In fact, the writing apps available for today’s tablets pack most (if not all) of the features that many writers need. Still, there are writers (and others) who wonder why anyone would want to use a tablet to write. There are a number of reasons that you might want to use a tablet to write

One reason is portability. Tablets are small enough and light enough to carry anywhere. If you travel, you know that airlines are constantly reducing the weight of your carry-on luggage. Every kilo or pound counts, and a tablet weighs far less than a laptop, an ultrabook, or a Chromebook. You can do your work, no matter how much space you have.

Another reason is convenience. Tablets don’t take as long as laptop computers to start up. And their batteries last longer than those of laptop computers. When the muse strikes or you need to take a note or record an event, you can whip out your tablet, fire it up, and quickly get to work.

Even if your main writing machine is a laptop or a desktop computer, you can easily keep your files up-to-date and consistent across your devices by synchronizing them. You only need to use a service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or ownCloud. It definitely beats emailing or shuffling files around.

I realize that writing using a tablet isn’t for everyone. There are writers who can’t adapt to the on-screen keyboard and balk at using a wireless keyboard or keyboard case. Others just aren’t fans of the relatively small screens that tablets pack. Those of us who’ve embraced tablets for writing, though, have found them to be indispensable tools.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

(A quick plug: If you’re interested in learning more about how to fit a tablet into your writing workflow, feel free to get in touch with me to learn more about my technology coaching services.)

The bane of That is

frustration That is. Two words. Six letters. But ones which leave me shaking my head whenever I see them.

Why? No, I’m not taking writing too seriously. No, I’m not merely trying to impose my stylistic will on writers everywhere. I find using That is is redundant. It makes a piece of writing wordier than it needs to be. It’s a waste of words. It’s a waste of the reader’s time.

Much of the time, when a writer uses That is, they’re stating something twice. Or, they’re trying to clarify what was written in the previous sentence or paragraph. That is acts as a bridge between the two sentences and paragraphs.

When a writer uses That is, I don’t think they’re doing their job correctly. And I definitely don’t think that an editor is doing a great job if that editor spotted it and didn’t do anything.

If the writer or editor was doing their job correctly, that repetition, that clarification wouldn’t be necessary. One example I always cite when bringing this up is from a manual I rewrote about 10 years ago. I found this in the manual:

You can search your folders for all media of a specific type. That is, you can search the folders for all images, audio files, video clips, or documents.

I rewrote it as:

You can search your folders for images, audio files, video clips, or documents.

Which reads better? I’d say the rewrite. And that’s not just my ego talking. The rewrite trimmed the passage in half and still kept its meaning. There are fewer words for the reader to wade through. It gets to the point quickly.

If you feel the urge to use That is in your writing, don’t. If you find you have used it, try to rewrite what you’ve put down. The easiest way to do that is to merge the two sentences or get rid of one of them. On the other hand, if the sentence elaborates on the previous one, then just remove the That is.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Why aren’t you doing this full time?

writing People have said that to me at various points in my writing career. I’m sure that they’ve said it to some of the fives of you who are reading this post, too.

It’s a tricky and sometimes scary question for many people who want to write for a living. Trickier and scarier still are the answers to that question.

Yes, I’ve been there. I faced that question and looked inward to find the answers. It took a while, but I wound up living my dream of writing for a living. Perhaps not quite in the way I envisaged it, but close.

You can do that too. You just need to look the question Why aren’t you doing this full time? squarely in the eye.

Let’s look at some of the answers to that question, the problems those answers raise, and some ways to overcome those problems.


Writing for free

empty-wallet That’s a contentious topic among professional writers. Many will tell you never to do it. Others will advise you to write for free only under certain circumstances.

My take? It’s up to you. You’ll have to decide whether or not writing something for free justifies not getting paid for it. Just remember that in many cases, the promised (non-monetary) rewards will probably not be worth the effort that you put in. You might gain some credits of dubious worth. But you might also gain a reputation for being willing to write for a byline rather than for pay.

I’ve been a professional writer for over 20 years, and I’ve generally refused to write for free. Why? Writing is what I do for a living. It’s how I pay my bills. And working to gain exposure doesn’t pay any of those bills. The promised exposure would have been minimal at best and wouldn’t have led to paying assignments or gigs. And none of the publications that wanted me to write for free lasted very long.

You’ll notice I wrote generally refused to write for free in the last paragraph. Yes, I’ve made some exceptions. Those exceptions were when I wanted to give back. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I wrote the occasional feature article for a community newspaper. A few years later, I wrote a newsletter and did some PR work for an environmental centre in my neighbourhood. And for the last year or so, I’ve been a regular contributor to Opensource.com.

None of that writing (aside from working with Opensource.com) drew any attention to my work or got me any writing gigs. So, what did writing for free in those cases offer? A chance to help organizations I believed in. A chance to spread the word about interesting causes. An opportunity to give back to communities from which I’d taken in the past.

Whether or not to write for free is, and always will be, a difficult and controversial decision. You’ll have to make that choice. You’ll have to live with the consequences of that choice.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: nyuszika

Three tools for automating your social media

social-media Social media can be useful for promoting your writing and, if you have one, your freelance writing business. Posting to sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Facebook can help you expand your audience and publicize your articles, books, blog posts, and services.

But posting to social media, and managing it, takes a bit of time and effort. Many people do the deed manually: they add entries to Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, and elsewhere shortly after their work is published. Depending on how many social networks you use, that gets repetitive and takes time away from research and writing.

Why not let the tools do the work for you? Let’s look at three tools that can help you automate your social media.


Do you write to get attention, or to help?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There are many, many ways to draw eyeballs to your blog. Some are good. Some aren’t. And some, to be blunt, are just downright sleazy.

Sadly, far too many (and one is too many) writers take the latter route. They’ll write click bait headlines and write (often halfheartedly) about controversial subjects. All in the hope of driving traffic to their sites and, perhaps, picking up a bit of revenue from advertising.

Doing that doesn’t raise the level of conversation or argument online. It doesn’t teach. It doesn’t really inform. It doesn’t help anyone.

Why waste your time and effort dancing for a few nickels? Why not write something that’s worthwhile? Why not write something that helps people, something that teaches them, something that inspires them?

The goal of writing isn’t just to make money. That’s a huge part of it; I’ve been earning my living through words for the last 20+ years. And while making money is my prime motivation, it’s not the only one. I want to share information, share what I’ve learned, and to tell interesting stories that some people might not otherwise hear.

How do I do that? Not by writing click bait. Not by being controversial. OK, controversy can create cash. But if you’re going to be controversial then you should be honest. You should believe what you’re writing. You should be able to back your opinions and ideas up with facts. Don’t create controversy just to annoy people or herd them to your site. If you do that, they won’t come back.

If you write, or if you want to write, be serious about it. Try not to write simply to get attention. Write to help, to instruct, to inform. That way, you’ll build an audience and help ensure your longevity as a writer.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: 0Odyssey0

Forget perfection

stress Perfection. It’s a lofty goal. But it’s also a curse.

I know of writers who agonize over the perfect title, the perfect story, the perfect sentence, the perfect phrase, the perfect word.

Some will say writers like that are dedicated to their craft, that they’re trying to be the best writers that they can be. I’m not sure that striving for perfection is admirable. Or even advisable.

No matter how hard you try, you won’t achieve perfection with your writing. You’ll keep working at an essay, a story, a poem, or a book.

You’ll keep trying to improve what you write. You’ll keep fretting over every word and sentence. You’ll keep second guessing yourself. You’ll keep trying to realize an ideal that you cannot possibly reach.

Chasing perfection slows you down. Chasing perfection paralyzes you. Chasing perfection stops you pressing the publish button. And isn’t the purpose of writing to share your work with an audience?

Forget perfection.

Instead of shooting for perfection, aim to make what you write as good as it can be. Work within the bounds of your ability. Work within the constraints of the time that you have.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t keep trying to improve as a writer. But temper that desire for improvement with the knowledge that what you’re writing won’t find an audience until you learn to say I’m done.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: protego

Don’t obsess – do it!

Obsessing It’s far too easy to sweat the small details of what you’re writing.

It’s far too easy to overthink your writing.

It’s far too easy to worry about choosing the right word, the perfect word when hammering out your first draft.

It’s far too easy to focus on the title of what you’re working on, or whether the lede or introduction is where you want it to be.

When you obsess about those details, you’re not doing what you should be doing: writing. You’re letting your idea spiral out of control, and you’re wasting time and mental and emotional energy. Time and energy that you could be pouring directly, rather than obliquely, into your work.

Don’t obsess. Write.

Get what’s in your head down now. Quickly, before you lose the moment. Build a foundation. Lay down the basic structure of what you’re writing. Then, obsess about the details.

Go back and dissect the lede or introduction. Go back and come up with the best word or phrase. Go back and concentrate on the title.

And remember that the secret to good writing is editing.

Obsessing doesn’t make you a better writer. Obsessing doesn’t help you do the work. Writing does that. Nothing else.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Alexander Egorin

Tips for rapid writing

Typing quickly There comes a time in the career of every writer when you’re looking at the wrong end of a looming deadline and don’t have anything close to being ready to send out. Or you might be working at a corporate job (either as a full-timer or as a contractor) and you’re asked to write something before the end of the day or in next couple of hours.

What do you do when that happens? Some writers will panic. Others will be frozen with fear. Others will scramble to get something, anything written. Regardless of the quality.

There’s no need to do any of that. Unless what you’ve been ask to write is several thousand words long, it’s possible to quickly write something to that deadline. And that something will be of good quality.

Curious? Then read on for some tips that can help you write quickly.


Writing is writing, no matter how you do it

Typing a draft The other day, I was mulling all I’ve seen and done in the 47 or so years I’ve been on this planet. And I came to the conclusion that I’ve seen a lot of history. Geopolitical changes, social upheavals, and the advancement of technology.

Being someone who works with, and writes about, technology I’m intrigued by the latter. While I’m not longer a tool fetishist, it’s still interesting to reflect on how the way in which we write, and in which I write, has developed and changed over the last few decades.

I went from writing by hand to using a simple Smith Corona electric typewriter. From there, I graduated to another Smith Corona electric (somehow having killed the first one), to SpeedScript on a VIC-20 computer to using a dedicated word processor. Eventually, I went all digital — various portable computers, desktops, and laptops with a tablet or two tossed in for good measure.

But there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years: the tool is not important. Tools don’t make you a better writer. They never have. They can make you a more efficient writer. But when it comes down to doing the actual work, it’s your brain. Your imagination. Your talent and skill that do the heavy lifting. No software, no device is going to do that for you.

No matter what you use to do the job, when you boil it down to the essentials writing is writing, no matter how you do it. Whether you’re writing by hand, using a typewriter or a computer or a smartphone, the act of writing is the same. You plan, you organize, you write a draft, you edit and rewrite, and finalize your work.

No matter what tools or techniques people are touting this week, no matter what you’re putting on the page, what’s important is the writing. Not the tool.

Focus on that and you’ll improve and grow as a writer.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Posting your content elsewhere

blogging Should you or shouldn’t you? That is the question.

By elsewhere, I mean on blogs run by others, on sites that publish content that’s under a Creative Commons license, on a site like LinkedIn, or even a second blog that you maintain using a service like Tumblr or Posthaven.

There are pros and cons to doing that. I think that the pros outweigh the cons, though.

The pros, in my mind, are that you can:

  • Reach a wider audience.
  • Network with other bloggers.
  • Open yourself up to future guest posting opportunities.

The cons are that you might be driving traffic away from your own blog, and that search engines might penalize you for having duplicate content on the web. There’s also a chance the duplicate content may get flagged by a plagiarism checker like Copyscape.


Getting into the habit of writing

Writing When I talk to people who aspire to write professionally, or just to write more, something that many of them have in common is an inability to start writing. It’s not writer’s block. It’s not procrastination.

It’s just that they haven’t developed the habit of writing regularly. Of sitting down in front of a keyboard or with pen and paper. Of doing the hard work of putting words on a page.

Like any habit, though, developing the writing habit isn’t easy. It doesn’t happen overnight or in the space of a few days or a few weeks. It can take months or more to develop the habit.


Why are writers so strident about getting paid?

money At least, paid decently. And on time.

Mainly because writing is work. It’s real work. It’s not easy work.

Anyone can bang out 500 words. But how many people can do that and come up with something that’s of professional quality, that can be published? Not many.

Writing well takes thought. It requires research. It involves rewriting, revising, and making changes based on feedback from clients or editors. And all of that takes time and effort.

I don’t expect writers to make thousands of dollars per article or six-figure sums for gigs. That would be nice, but it’s unrealistic.

On the other hand, I do expect writers to make more than up to $5 for a 500 to 800 word article or blog post. And if someone expects a professionally-written piece for that fee, then they’re not going to get what they expect. Not even close.

One argument that people who pay writers little or nothing is that it’s a good opportunity to get some exposure. That’s a crock and a half. If you want exposure, you can set up a blog and publish your work there. You’ll have control over your work, and you can probably make more money with ads than you would on a low-paying gig.

I’ll leave you with the words (many of them not safe for work or sensitive ears) of Harlan Ellison on this subject. As usual, Unca Harlan doesn’t hold back.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: dhester

Note taking tools: a graveyard for ideas

Writing by hand As I’ve said countless times in this space, and elsewhere, notes are essential to the serious writer. And, over the years, I’ve taken notes in a variety of ways: in physical notebooks, using plain text files, and digitally on the various mobile and smartphones and tablets that I’ve used.

A good note taking tool is a boon. When I say good, I mean a tool that’s easy to use and with which you can interact whether you’re using a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone. Two such tools are Simplenote and Evernote.

But a tool is that. Just a tool. I was reminded of the dangers of using note taking tools when I saw this tweet earlier in 2014:

Doing the work

I wonder how many of those 356 ideas that person has turned into actual blog posts. One? Two? Half a dozen? None? And what’s the chance that person will ever turn all (or even a portion) of those ideas into posts?


Going off on a tangent

C. Duiven Doing an interview can be a lot of work. Researching your interview subject, coming up with questions, and sometimes getting your subject to open up. But it can be worth it in the end, when you wind up with some great information and quotes.

Something I like about interviews is what can happen unexpectedly. I’m not (just) talking about when your interview subject lets his or her guard down and says something unexpected. I’m talking about when an answer takes you off on a tangent.

What do I mean by a tangent? A direction that an answer takes which diverges from what you were intending.


Finding your voice

talking Every writer has a voice. An individual tone or style in which they write. One that develops over years of practice and experimentation and … well, just writing.

When you start out, you might have an idea of what you want your voice to be. But, in the early stages of your career, that idea is probably more of a hazy image than something sculpted from marble.

It takes time to find your voice. Here’s some advice that can help you find, and develop, the voice you want as a writer.


Spiking your own stories

Spiking, 21st century style Once upon a time, a prominent feature of the desk of a newspaper editor was a metal spindle. It was on that spindle that editors would file copy that had been typeset or which had been rejected. Over the years, the idea behind that spindle (called a spike) took a life of its own.

Many, many writers felt the pain of having their work spiked. Spiked because it wasn’t written well enough. Spiked because it contained factual errors, or information that didn’t have quite enough to back it up. Spiked because the story would offend or anger a business or individual.

Sometimes, for some reason or the other, you’ll need to spike your own stories before publishing them, before sending them off to a magazine or site, or even before writing them.

Let’s take a closer look at the whys and whens of spiking your own stories.


A look at two online Markdown editors for writers

The Markdown mark (Note: This post, in a slightly different form, was originally published here.)

If you’ve read the posts in this space for any length of time, you know my feelings about Markdown. I use it for a majority of my work, including writing posts on all of my blogs.

There’s a lot of great software out there for working with Markdown on the desktop. But there are quite a few solid web-based Markdown editors, too. Those editors are easy to use, fast, and are accessible from anywhere where you have an internet connection.

Why use them? You might not be working on your own computer, and need to get something — the draft of an article or a blog post — written quickly. You might not use Google Drive (or a similar service), and might not want to. In that case, using a web-based Markdown editor can make sense.

Let’s take a quick peek at a pair of my favourite web-based Markdown editors.


Dealing with readers who don’t get it

Face palm Decades ago, Harlan Ellison did a public reading of short story of his that was slated to be published in a major magazine. The reaction of the audience was very favourable. They all liked it. All of them, except for one young man.

Said young man pointed out that the story sounded a lot like the myth of Prometheus and that Ellison shouldn’t have copied it. Ellison tried to explain that 1) he was familiar with the myth in question, and 2) the story was a pastiche of that myth. But the young man persisted and, eventually, caused Ellison a bit of grief with his editor at the magazine.

It’s obvious that young man just didn’t get it.

As writers, we all run into readers like that from time to time.

Readers who don’t understand an allusion. Readers over whose head a turn of phrase flies. Readers who take some things a bit too literally. Ones who don’t understand the purpose of a pastiche or an homage. Readers who pick every little nit while missing the main thrust of a story or an article.

At the risk of offending some people, I’ll be brutally honest: I find readers like that to be a bit annoying. Sometimes, more than a bit. I, and you, can’t do anything about them.

But how can writers deal with readers who don’t get it? Ignore them. Actor and writer Wil Wheaton had this to say about his critics:

I determined that the people who were really, really cruel really are a statistically insignificant number of people. And I know, just over the years from people who’ve e-mailed me at my web site and people who I’ve talked to since I started going to Star Trek conventions again in the last five years, that there are so many more people who really enjoyed everything about the show, including my performance, including the character.

Focus on the people who enjoy your work. Think about why they enjoy it. Focus on the feedback from the good critics, folks who point out the good and bad points of your writing in constructive ways.

Worrying about and trying to cater to a small percentage of people who don’t get what you’re doing is a waste of time and energy. Time and energy that’s better spent on writing and becoming a better writer. Nothing else should matter.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via Photoree

Tool fetishism and the writer

Old typewriter Once upon a time, writing was easy. All you needed was a typewriter and a ream of paper. The biggest decision you had to make was the type of machine — manual or electric — and what brand.

These days, that choices are a lot more varied. And sometimes harder to make. Do you use a desktop word processor, or a web-based tool like Google Drive? Do you use a text editor, a dedicated Markdown editor, or a collaborative writing tool? And what to use on your tablet or smartphone?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of tool fetishism — spending time trying all the tools that are out there, in the vain hope that you’ll find the perfect tool for your writing.

Guess what? The perfect tool doesn’t exist. You can jump on every bandwagon, grab at every tool. But in the end, you’re spending more time finding and trying tools than you are writing.

The tool isn’t important. It’s not the technology, it’s you. The tool doesn’t do the writing. You do. It’s a matter of your ideas. The way that you fit the words and sentences and paragraphs together. The tools only help turn all of that into something tangible.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve done a lot of your best work with the tools that you’ve been using for a long time. Sure, those tools might be a bit dated. They might lack some fancy features. They might not work offline or on a mobile device.

Stick with the writing tools that you have. Don’t be afraid to explore new ones every so often, but don’t make that an obsession. Indulging in tool fetishism can be fun, but it takes time and energy away from something important: your writing.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Fire Monkey Fish via Photoree

The danger of looking back

SONY DSC Over the last year or two, I’ve been reading and hearing what writers have had to say when they look back on their early work. The tone of their reflections is, generally, anguish.

It’s as if the writing that they did early in their careers causes them physical or psychic pain. Many of them seem to want to disown their early work. Worse, some think the quality of their writing will slide back to that of their early work.

For many writers, that’s danger of looking back. And, to be honest, I don’t understand their reactions.

What you wrote 10 years ago or five years ago or even two years ago isn’t a reflection of the writer you are today. As Stephen King said, there’s a reason it’s called juvenalia. That writing is from a time when you were learning your craft. You were making mistakes, learning from them, and then making new mistakes.

You were slowly, steadily becoming a better writer. You were developing a voice and a style.

Very little of what you wrote at the beginning of your writing career, or even when you started writing, will hold up today. I can point to maybe a half dozen articles and essays that I wrote from 1989 to 1998 that I’m still proud of.

If you feel the urge to look back at your past writing, don’t be embarrassed by it. Think of it as the stepping stones that led you to where you are today. That work was done by the writer you were, not the writer you are.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Dani Vincek

Collaborating with other writers, in real time, with EtherPad

collaborate While writers have the reputation of being solitary figures, tapping away at keyboards in small rooms, we sometimes have to collaborate with other writers. And sometimes we need to do it while an idea or document is hot.

Collaborating in real time can be tricky. You just can’t email word processor files around and hope to quickly or efficiently work together.

A number of online tools, like Google Drive and Draft make real-time collaboration easier and cheaper. I know a number of writers who have embraced those tools for working with other writers and with clients. But not every writer uses those tools, and not every writer wants to.


Holding on to your passion, and letting go when the time comes

agonizing Passion is a funny thing. It’s easy to become passionate about a subject or a style of writing or a publication that you’re working with. But the fire of that passion can also be easily dimmed or extinguished, often due to circumstances that are beyond your control.

Throughout your career, you’ll definitely find your passion waxing and waning. Holding on to that passion and nurturing it will make you a better writer. But so will letting go when the time comes.


Creating a content plan for your blog

I have a plan Just about everything goes smoother with a little planning. That’s especially true when it comes to writing. Without a plan, your writing can come across as a disjointed mess.

But planning is also important when you’re blogging. This isn’t just about planning the posts themselves, but is also about the type of content that you want you want to publish on your blog.

To do that, you need a content plan. There are any number of ways to develop a content plan. Here’s a look at how I do it.


Read-it-later tools that can help you do research

Hitting the books Doing research has changed since I started seriously writing back in the 1980s. In those days, the internet wasn’t on computers. I had to haul myself to the local library (or one at my university) and peruse books, magazines, and newspapers. I went through more pens, notebooks, and photocopies than I can remember.

These days, I don’t have leave home to do my research. Most of what I need is available online. Articles, blog posts, essays, reviews, background information, quotes, and more. One one of the best ways that I’ve found to collect that research is to use a read-it-later tool.

What’s a read-it-later tool? It’s software that grabs something that you see on the web and saves it to a repository on the web. The tool also strips out a lot of cruft — like navigation, ads, and images — from that material. Since what you save is stored on the web, you can read it in a web browser or using an app on you smartphone or tablet.

Let’s take a look at a quartet of read-it-later tools that you’ll find useful.


Turning your back catalogue into an ebook

An ebook Unless you’re just starting out as a writer, you probably have a fairly sizable back catalogue of work. Stories, articles, essays, blog posts. Piece that were published sometime in the past. Or writing that just never found a home.

Sometimes, you find that work has a consistent theme. That it could come together quite nicely as a book. With a bit of time, a bit of effort, and the right tools you can pull the elements of your back catalogue into an ebook. In fact, if you plan correctly and use your time efficiently, the entire process won’t take that long.

Let’s look at one way to turn your back catalogue into an ebook.

(Note: I’m not going to go over the tools and techniques for assembling and publishing an ebook. I plan to cover that in a future post.)


Conducting an effective email interview

microphone When I started writing all those years ago (and even before that, when I was in journalism school), there were two ways to conduct an interview: face-to-face or over the phone.

Ah, how times have changed. While you still can do interviews in person or via telephone, you have other options, too. Like using video conferencing, Skype, and email interviews. The latter are especially convenient. Not just for you, but for the person you’re interviewing.

Over the last few months, I’ve been doing quite a few email interviews as part of my work as community moderator at Opensource.com. While I’d done a number of such interviews in the past, my work for Opensource.com has given me the opportunity to refine the way in which I conduct email interviews.

Let’s take a look at how to conduct an effective email interview.


Useful offline Chromebook apps for writers

Chromebook logo Writing with a Chromebook offers you quite a bit of portability and flexibility. No matter what the naysayers might think.

A Chromebook is lighter than a notebook, and easier to type on than a tablet. You can just slip a Chromebook into your bag and use it anywhere.

One myth about Chromebooks is that you need an internet connection to use one. You don’t. – maybe you’re outside of your home office and there’s no wifi, or no free wifi, available. Maybe you’ve turned off your internet connection to escape distractions – if use Chromebook and find yourself offline, are a number of apps can use to work while you’re offline.

Let’s take a look at a few of them. Most of them are for writing your work, while a few others can help keep you organized and on track.


A few resources that can help you set your freelance writing rates

office details Not all freelancer writers make their living by writing for publications (whether in print or online). Many of us work with small and medium-sized businesses, corporate clients, and the like.

That includes me. And if there’s one problem that I share with a number of other freelancers, it’s determining how much to charge for my services. Even after … well, a lot of years as a freelancer, I still wing it when it comes to setting my rates.

At least, I used to. While I’m still no pro at setting my rates, I’ve gotten a lot better at it thanks to these resources. While not all of them are specifically for writers, these resources can help you through the fog of how to set your rates.

I hope you find them as useful as I have.

Making a bit of extra cash with reprints

magazines on the rack Unless you’re regularly pulling in thousands of dollars per article or gig, or consistently snagging six- or seven-figure book contracts, chances are you can always do with a little more cash in your pocket. Especially if you’re starting out as a writer.

I know I did in my younger, hungrier days. Let me tell you a story.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I made a very precarious living as a freelance writer and editor. I was constantly strapped for cash, and wasn’t making all that much from what I was publishing.

Then, in 1992, I wrote an opinion piece for a major Canadian newspaper. The 800 words of that article caused a bit of a stir — the reaction from readers was either outright condemnation or praise for being brave enough to call a situation as I saw it. I didn’t realize how much of a stir that piece had caused until I got phone calls from the editors of a couple of small, niche publications who asked to reprint that article.

While those reprints only pulled in an extra couple of hundred dollars (on top of the fee for the original article), those were a couple of hundred dollars that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. That money made a difference to a struggling writer.

It was then that I learned that reprints can be a lucrative source of additional income.

Since then, I’ve had a number of articles reprinted. And while I haven’t gotten rich from the reprints, they’ve made me some extra cash and expanded my markets. They can for you, too.


Fighting the paralysis

stress The paralysis that fear causes. Fear of messing up. Fear of failing. Fear of taking the wrong step, of making the wrong choice when you’re writing.

The paralysis strikes when trying out for a gig and you want to impress the folks offering the gig. Or you’ve got the gig and you want to continue to shine, to be the golden child.

In both cases, you start to second guess yourself. You start doubting you can do the job. You have a hard time starting to write. Or maybe you can’t write at all. The fear paralyzes you.

Yes, I’m speaking from experience. I’ve been hit by that paralysis more times in my career than I care to admit.

How can you get around that fear? How can you stop the paralysis before it begins? The first step is to believe in yourself and in your abilities. Unless what you’re doing involves a type of writing that you’ve never attempted before, you can do it. You’ll just need to be a bit more disciplined, a bit more focused than usual.

Understand that not everything you write will be great. Sometimes, what you write will be good. At other times, you’ll produce some workmanlike writing. It might not blow peoples’ socks off, but it will be good enough. Accept that, but remember to keep striving to make your writing the best that it can be.

Finally, talk to other writers about your concerns. Chances are that they’ve gone through what you’re experiencing. They might just be able to give you some advice and encouragement.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: wagg66

On being scrappy

persistence What sets a successful writer apart from those who struggle or who just can’t seem to get a break? Talent and ability are two factors. As are marketing and connections.

But those aren’t the main factors in the success of many writers. More often than not, their success comes down to being scrappy.

What do I mean by that? Being scrappy is about persistence. It’s about fighting and struggling and clawing to get what you want. It’s about facing disappointments and mistakes, learning from them, and continuing. It’s about learning and improving.

Being scrappy is about not giving up on your goals and dreams, no matter how far away or unrealistic they seem to be.

You might never reach your goals as a writer. But in trying to reach them, you have a great opportunity to grow and improve as a writer. And you never know what avenues and opportunities might present themselves.

Being scrappy is a big part of the puzzle of becoming a successful writer. But without an ability to write, without the ability to market yourself and your work and your services, being scrappy alone won’t bring you success.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: smswigart

Using pecha kucha to focus your writing

focus For many writers, it’s often not a matter of being able to write something. It’s having too much to write in a blog post or an article.

Why is that a problem? You might be constrained by a word count. Or, if you decide to throw everything into what you’re writing, you can wind up with a long, rambling piece that will turn off editors and which bores or confuses your readers. Neither is something that you want to do.

Focusing your writing can be difficult, especially if you have a lot of good material to use. One way that I’ve found can help you to focus your writing is to adapt the principles of pecha kucha to your work.


On being honest

Young man with his typewriter on the train tracks. While I think that I’m a good writer, I have to admit that I’m not a great one. Sure, I can tell a pretty good story. I can impart information to readers in an interesting and enjoyable way. But there’s no way that I’m going to break into the top 5% or even 10% of writers.

Guess what? I’m OK with that.

There comes a time in your life as a writer when you need to be honest. Honest about your ambitions. Honest about your abilities. Honest about where you stand in that invisible hierarchy that writers inhabit.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive to do better. That you shouldn’t try to push your boundaries as a writer. That you shouldn’t go for those higher-paying markets and assignments. You should.

But don’t be disappointed if you don’t always meet those lofty goals. You can still forge a career if you work hard and write well.

When I was in journalism school back in the late 1980s, I knew I’d never be one of those writers who’d be consistently going for the front page or the cover. I just wasn’t that driven or ambitious. Instead, I saw myself as one of the people who fill the pages of a publication around the main features.

There’s nothing wrong with that. You might not get top billing, but front page stories aren’t the only ones that are worth reading.

Imagine, if you will, a triangle. There’s only a small amount of space at the top. A lot of writers are scrambling for a place at the top. But there’s a lot more space under the apex. Space for interesting, gripping, funny, informative, and enlightening stories. Why not make that space your own?

During my career, I’ve had more than a couple of front-page articles published. Admittedly, they weren’t the lead pieces, but they featured fairly prominently on the front page or the cover of a publication.

Mostly, though, I’ve been content with filling the pages between the front and back covers. Focusing on that may not be as prestigious or as high paying as tackling the big story, but I’ve been able to derive a tidy income from that. I’d even go so far as to say I’ve probably made a better living by aiming slightly lower than if I had aimed for the cover or front page with every article or essay.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Trevor Goodwin

Censoring yourself

Censoring yourself I’m not talking about profanity or potentially offensive material. I’m talking about censoring your own thoughts and ideas. I’m talking about sanitizing your personality, and how that personality comes through in your writing.

When you do that, wind up with writing that’s bland. It’s cookie cutter. It doesn’t reflect you.

Yes, I’ve been there. While I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that reads like a icy, Arctic wind blows though it there have been times when what I’ve written wasn’t as warm or personal as it could have been.

Why? I censored myself. Either to fit my writing into what I perceived to be the mold that the editor wanted, or to try to put forward an image of myself that wasn’t a true reflection of who I am.

That was a big mistake. It cost me a couple of gigs. But, worse, it made me doubt myself as a person and as a writer. That set back my development. Probably more than I want to admit.

Over the years, I’ve counselled a number of people not to give up their day jobs to become mind readers. That advice applies here, too. Don’t assume you know exactly what an editor wants or how that editor wants you to write.

Instead, do something difficult: be yourself.

Mix the occasional turn of phrase into your work. Offer an honest opinion — make sure that it’s informed, but not snarky or grating. Use a slightly different structure for your sentences and articles. And anything else you can think of.

Obviously, you don’t want to get too avant garde or stream of consciousness. Keep it within some reasonable boundaries. Just make sure that your personality, your passion, your abilities stand out.

What’s the worst that can happen? You might lose the gig. You might be asked to rewrite a section of your work. Or, the editor might excise what you thought was a clever bit of writing from your article or essay or post. All three of those have happened to me, and I’ve learned to roll with them.

Censoring yourself, who you are as a writer, does you no favours. It weakens your writing. It makes you second guess and overthink your writing. It holds you back, from where you want to be. It holds you back from developing as a writer.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: K. Sawyer Photography via Photoree

Why the library is still an important resource for writers

library For some people, the library is a redundant institution. With the web acting as a global library, why do you need a bricks and mortar repository for books? You can argue that you can mine more diverse material, and faster, online than at the local branch of your public library.

That’s all true. Well, to a point. The library is, however, still an important resource for writers.

Here’s a look at why.


Following guidelines

guide In the days before the internet was on computers, finding markets for your writing could be a bit of a challenge. It took a bit of work, that’s for certain.

What was probably the bible for that was The Writer’s Market, an annual compendium of thousands of publications in the U.S. and around the world. Between the covers of this thick annual tome was information about who to contact and what types of work the publication wanted.

Many of the listings contained the phrase Guidelines available on request. And those guidelines were important. With any number of publications, not adhering to those guidelines got your work rejected. With extreme prejudice.

Not much has changed. Guidelines are there for a reason. And if you expect your work to appear anywhere — whether in an online publication or as a guest blog post — you need to follow those guidelines.


Writing shorter reviews

review As I’ve said in this space time and time again, good reviewing is rapidly becoming extinct. While there are some great reviewers out there, there are many more who aren’t. You wind up with lazy, shallow reviews that read like they were written while riding the bus.

Some of that can be attributed to space. Many publications, both in print and online, limit the number of words available to reviewers. But word count isn’t an excuse for a bad review.

While I prefer to write (and read) longer reviews so I can add a bit more depth, it’s possible to write a solid review in the space of 250 to 500 words. Some of the worst reviews I’ve read have been under 500 words. Then again, some of the best ones I’ve read have been in that range too. check out these capsule reviews of albums by The Byrds to see what I mean.

Yes, shorter reviews can be more than a rehash of the back cover copy of a book or a press release. Let’s take a look at how you can write a shorter review that’s both informative and effective.


What makes a good review?

review I’ve written about reviewing in this space quite a bit over the years. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that good reviewing is a dying craft. Actually, I came to that conclusion before I started blogging. Sadly, that still seems to be the case.

There are a number of reasons for that, which I might examine in a future post. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you’re serious about reviewing anything — books, movies, software, electronic devices, and more — then you need to understand what makes a good review.

Here are some of my thoughts on that subject.


It’s not the technology, it’s you

technology As writers, we’re spoiled for tools. Not just software for writing down our ideas, but for collecting information, for doing research, for taking notes.

In some ways, we have it better than writers of the past who relied on pen and paper, typewriters, and the library.

But that doesn’t make us better or even more efficient writers than they were.

The technology we use can help us. But it can also hinder us. It can be another excuse to procrastinate, to not write.

The trap that lurks within technology, no matter how simple or complex, is that it can become more than a repository information. The technology that you use can become a graveyard for ideas and for writing that might have been. Technology can become a corner into which ideas and drafts gather digital dust.

You can amass notes and ideas and thoughts and quotes. You can clip and research to your heart’s content. You can write partially-finished drafts. But who turns all of that into an article or blog post or book? Who turns all that information that meaningful to your readers?

It’s not the technology. Not by a long shot.

It’s you

Until you create something with all of what you’ve collected, until you press the Publish button, everything that you’ve gathered using the technology at your disposal is worthless. It has no meaning.

If your ideas are important to you, act on them. Pluck out the best ones, and discard the rest. Adjust your schedule to make the time to write. Do the work. Press Publish.

Writing isn’t about technology. It’s all about you. Your focus. You determination. Your skills. Your effort.

The technology doesn’t form sentences and paragraphs. It doesn’t do the editing and rewriting. It doesn’t bring the story that you’re trying to tell to life.

You do.

Technology, if used properly can help you write a bit more efficiently and a bit more quickly. But unless you get your hands dirty, that technology is useless.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Tom Davies

The importance of taking breaks

tired In the mid-1990s, I knew a writer who often took on projects that were almost too big for her to handle alone. Sometimes, it was several smaller projects at once.

To complete those projects, she’d work herself to near exhaustion. In the face of overwhelming and looming deadlines, she’d work non-stop for anywhere up to 17 hours per day. As you can expect, the quality of her writing in the last several hours of one of those days deteriorated noticeably.

After a couple of years of cajoling, she took my advice and started taking breaks during those marathon sessions. the quality of her writing increased, and she even managed to finish her projects faster.


The dangers of overthinking your writing

SONY DSC A few months ago, I met someone who was just starting out as a writer. Following the advice given to many aspiring writers, he decided to start a blog. But instead of getting down to work, he was obsessing about the details.

Details like what blogging platform to use, what themes and plugins to choose, the style of writing to adopt, whether or not to use images in his posts. And many, many other small, insignificant matters.

I told him outright that he was overthinking his blog, that he should just start writing and publishing, and worry about everything else later. To this day, though, he’s written a few fragmentary drafts and published nothing.


Opportunities, fear, failure, and taking chances

fear Every so often, unexpected thoughts and memories pop into my head. Some are funny. Some are inconsequential. Some provide fodder for my writing.

A short while back, one of those was a reflection on the good (or just plain interesting) opportunities I let slip through my fingers over the years. I joke that when I try to count those missed opportunites I quickly run out of fingers and toes. Maybe there weren’t that many, but I’ve let more than a couple slip away.

The main reason I let those opportunities slip away was fear. I let fear of failure, of looking like an idiot, of letting a client or editor down, of not being good enough control me.

In my 20/20 hindsight, I realize that was the wrong way to approach many of those situations. Fear is counter productive. Fear is a barrier to expanding skills, markets, and horizons. Caving into the fear is foolish.

When opportunities come up, you need take a chance. You need to jump in. You need to stumble, fall, and then pick yourself up. You might fail. You might not. But you need to embrace failure every so often.

How can you get around your fear? By asking yourself What’s the worst that can happen? You might write something that’s not your best work. You might never work with that client or editor again. Your ego and confidence might take a small hit. It’ll sting for a while, but it won’t kill you or your career.

Then, ask yourself What’s the best that can happen? You might write something really good. You might impress the editor or client so much that they’ll keep you in mind for future work. Your confidence, not to mention your bank balance, will get a boost.

It’s definitely worth taking a chance for the latter. The former might happen, but if it does then you need to roll with it. The life of a professional writer is one of ups and downs. Taking the bad with the good and all that.

That’s not to say you should jump at every opportunity that comes up. Many of them aren’t worth the time or effort — either because the pay is low, the client or editor is a beast to work with, or the subject matter doesn’t catch your interest. Instead, keep an eye open for interesting opportunities. Ones that appeal to your interests, your strengths, or areas into which you want to expand.

If you don’t venture, you don’t gain. You don’t improve or expand your reach. For a professional writer, that’s the first step to the end of a career.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: hotblack

Reading what you write out loud

Reading aloud In my first year of journalism school, one of my reporting instructors had an interesting way of reviewing my copy (and that of the other students in my year). Instead of reading it himself, he’d have us read it to him.

As a somewhat naive 19 year old, I thought that was just a quirk of a university-level instructor. But as the weeks passed, I realized what he was doing and why he was doing it.

I learned the value of reading what I’d written out loud. It’s a technique that’s helped improve my writing and it might be able to help improve yours, too.

Let’s take a quick look at the why and how of reading what you write out loud.


Using loglines to focus your writing

zoom No matter how experienced a writer you are, sometimes your writing takes too much of a life of its own. Your writing rambles, it lacks focus, it doesn’t lead the reader anywhere.

It’s frustrating when that happens, especially when the idea underlying that writing is sound. But how can you focus that piece of writing?

There are a number of techniques you can try to get around that problem. But one that I’ve been experimenting with lately shows a lot of promise. That technique involves writing loglines.

Curious? Then read on.


Dealing with burnout

Business man works on his laptop In 2006, I lucked into a sweet gig. It involved writing weekly articles about technology for a site affiliated with an electronics retailer. The pay was pretty good and I had quite a bit of freedom when it came to what I wrote about. On top of that, I was writing for a new and often enthusiastic audience.

As I said, a sweet gig.

But in early 2010, I gave it up (although later that year I wrote six more articles as a favour to the folks who ran the site). Why did I give up a well-paying gig?

I was burnt out. At the time not only was I writing 1,000+ word articles each week for that site, I was also doing corporate writing, writing posts for three blogs, submitting articles elsewhere, and doing the occasional presentation. Something had to give. And you can guess what that something was.

Reaching burn out is tough. It takes a toll on you physically, psychologically, and emotionally. When it hits, it hits hard.

Over the years, I’ve run up against burn out on a few occasions. Here’s how I’ve dealt with it.


Some useful online resources for writers

reference There’s more to writing than software. In fact, there are a number of other resources that writers have traditionally relied upon. Usually, those resources were in thick tomes that sat on bookshelves near our typewriters, word processors, or computers.

I’m sure that more than a few of the fives of people who read this blog have your favourite references close at hand. Well, when you’re working at home anyway.

What happens when you’re away from your reference materials and need a fact or a quip or something else to spice up your work? You turn to the internet, of course.

Let’s look at a few useful online resources for writers. While many of them are reference material of some sort, I’ve mixed in a few other resources that you can’t find offline.


On using pen and paper

Pen and paper While the days of William Faulkner sending manuscripts in a spidery longhand to his publisher are long gone, pen and paper are still good friends to just about any writer.

I know that sounds somewhat absurd in this day of laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, and smartphones but it isn’t.

As archaic as it seems, paper can be very useful. While something handwritten might not be as permanent as digital (or you can argue that it can be more permanent), paper does have its advantages.

Let’s take a look at them.


A few thoughts about The War of Art

Cover of The War of Art I’m loath to call what I do art. I just don’t have that kind of talent. And I’m sure that I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.

But I do believe in my craft and in trying to constantly hone it. It hasn’t been easy to do that over the years. For the longest time I was writing around various day jobs and contract gigs, as well as struggling with a growing mound of rejection letters. On top of that, there was a two-plus year stretch in the early 2000s in which I only had a few articles published. Not exactly the most fertile ground for someone aching to write.

Those kinds of struggles are central to the theme of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The book isn’t a how-to for writers. Instead, it’s a manifesto for anyone who puts words on a page. A reminder that writing is hard work, that there are many barriers to completing that work. That you need to persevere if you want to write (and not just be a writer).

Regardless of how and why you approach The War of Art, it’s a worthwhile read for anyone who is serious about putting words to paper.


Saying No

Saying No One word. Two letters. Two letters with so much power. But often that word is the most difficult to say. Especially for freelancers.

Saying No can mean missing out on a source of income. Saying No can mean disappointing a client or prospective client. Saying No can mean forsaking a rare opportunity or lucrative assignment. Saying No can mean burning a bridge or two.

There are times, though, when you absolutely must say no. Regardless of the consequences.

So, when should you say No? Here are a few situations:

When you have too much work on your plate. Taking on more will mean the quality of all of your work will suffer. You could miss deadlines, which will damage your reputation. No amount of extra money is worth that.

When the money isn’t very good. Writing for low pay isn’t worth your time. No matter how desperate you think you are. Before you know it, you’ll get sucked into an ever-deepening hole of low-paying gigs. And, yes, I am speaking from experience.

When the terms of the assignment aren’t good. That often means an overly controlling client. One who will try constantly change his or her mind, try to change the conditions of your contract, or try to micromanage you. Or all of the above. Not only do clients like that often pay poorly, they make writing more difficult. Again, the quality of your work will suffer.

When you don’t have the experience or the skills required to do a particular job. There’s no shame in that. You can’t know everything. And while I understand the urge to fake it, you can only do that so many times before you’re caught out. That will put a dent in your reputation. Writing, as I hope you know, is a business built on reputation.

Saying No isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, you need to do it. If only to retain a semblance of sanity in this wacky world and in this wacky profession of ours.

Photo credit: Robert Mobley

Creating a mobile writing workflow, part 2

Writing on the go In the first part of this post, I talked about getting ready to create your mobile writing workflow. That meant pulling together your hardware and software.

But that’s only part of the story. Next, you’ll need to create the actual workflow. And that’s what this post is all about.

I’ll be describing my mobile writing workflow. It might work for you, or it might not. You might be able to take bits and pieces of it, and adapt those bits and pieces to your needs.

Ready? Then let’s get started.


Taking a second look at Google Keep

Google Keep logo It’s been a little over a year since I took a look at Keep, Google’s note taking tool. I meant to give Keep another look a few months ago, but a number of things got in the way.

Since the last time Keep went under my microscope, not a whole heck of a lot has changed. It’s still a simple, easy-to-use tool.

Let’s take a closer (second) look at Keep.


Planning your ebook using sticky notes

stickies If you’re like many writers, you probably have an idea or three for a book floating around in your brain. And if you’re like many writers, you probably have a bit of a difficult time turning those ideas into a book.

No matter how golden those ideas are, until you turn them into a book they’re worthless. To get those ideas out of your head, to turn them into books, requires planning.

But where to begin? When you’re having trouble getting the ideas out of your head and shaping them into a coherent form, going analog can help. Yes, I do mean picking up a pen and paper. Or, in this case, pen and some sticky notes (what some of you call Post It Notes or stickies).

It’s an effective technique for planning any kind of writing, but it works especially well with books. I’ve seen technique in action in a book sprint or two, and have watched how it helped focus book ideas in record time.

Let’s take a quick look at this technique.