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 arfue 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Plan your writing, the analog way

Uploaded to www.sxc.hu for free use. Writing without a plan is, to put it bluntly, a bad move. You might think that you’re writing fluidly and can adapt to any problems you encounter, but for the most part you’re deluding yourself.

Without a plan, you’ll get lost when things go pear shaped. Without a plan, you might find yourself writing page after page in a work that doesn’t seem to want to (or be able to) end. You wind up with a pile of words that don’t work as well as they need to.

There are any number of tools and techniques that you can use to plan your writing. But have you ever thought about planning your writing the analog way? Yes, by that I mean using venerable pen and paper.

While it’s definitely not for everyone, going analog can help you simply and effectively plan anything that you intend to write.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to plan your writing using pen and paper.

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How to become an idea factory

Ideas! Ideas. As I’ve written in this space in the past, ideas are the life blood of any writer. We need to constantly come up with ideas to do our work or to have a stock of ideas that we can tackle during those leaner times when the ideas don’t flow.

I’m often surprised at the number of writers who have a difficult time coming up with and developing ideas. I admit that generating ideas can be challenging. But it’s not impossible, and shouldn’t be a struggle.

With the right practice, you can become an idea factory. Here’s how I do it.

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Music for writing

music We all write in very different ways. We all have different styles of working, and different rituals around our work.

Something that many writers have in common is that they listen to music while working. Why? A variety of reasons that include blocking out distractions, to focus, or to give them a little inspiration while pounding the keys.

Of course, what music you choose to write by will be your choice. And it might be different, or very different, from what other writers listen to.

Here’s a look at what I listen to while writing.

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Getting back into the writing game after a long break

Jump start your writing career Sometimes, life throws you a curve ball. Sometimes, the universe puts obstacles in your path. Sometimes, you get sidetracked. All of that can nudge or push you away from writing, no matter how much you want to write.

Sometimes that enforced break lasts longer than you expected. Months, if not years, longer.

I know a number of people who were on their way to having promising careers as writers. But for whatever reason they got sidetracked for several years — by life, by family, or by a day job. Recently, a couple of those people approached me asking for advice about how best to get back into the writing game.

Here’s some of the advice I gave them. If you’ve been out of the writing game for a while, this advice can help you too.

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Version control for the non-geek, with Dropbox

Dropbox Ever write a sentence or a paragraph (or more), then delete it from a document? Then later realize that you shouldn’t have done that?

Me, too.

Getting back what you deleted is where version control (also called revision tracking) comes in handy. It saves previous versions of your writing. So, if you delete something from a revision, you can dip into your cache of older versions and pull out what you deleted.

Not all writing software has a version control feature. And, to be honest, version control can be a techie tool (hence the title of this post). If you use Dropbox to store and synchronize your writing files, you can take advantage of the service’s easy-to use version control function.

In this post, I’m going to show you how to use the version control feature in Dropbox’s web-based application.

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What does it mean to be a professional writer?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA One assumption that I make about the fives of you who read this blog is that you many of you make your living with your keyboard. And that many of the rest of you want to turn pro at some point in the near future.

But what does it mean to be a professional writer? Years ago, someone told me that if you get paid for something that you wrote, you’re a professional. That’s definitely one aspect of it. But it’s not the only one.

Let’s look at some of the factors that I think make a writer a professional.

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Reading to learn

Reading I can’t think of any writer who doesn’t read. For many writers I know or who have met, a love of reading is what steered them into the writing life.

Think about why you read. Chances are, you do it for pleasure. Or, you do it for research. Probably both.

But do you read to learn to become a better writer?

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Looking for ideas in some slightly different places

ideas Ideas. They’re the life blood of every writer. While ideas are everywhere, sometimes your usual sources of them can run dry. Or those sources can turn up more dud ideas than usable ones.

How can you freshen up your ideas, or find new and slightly different ones? By looking further afield. If you’re willing to do a bit of leg work, you’ll discover a wealth of sources for ideas.

Let’s take a look at a few of them.

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Writing drafts (and more) with Writebox

Writebox logo If you’re like me and jump around between devices when writing, you know how frustrating it can be shift between tools when editing a file. It’s not that I can’t do that kind of switching (it’s fairly easy), it’s just that I don’t want to do it all the time.

Enter Writebox. It’s an online, distraction-free text editor that I’ve discussed in this space in the past. While I’ve used Writebox on and off over the last couple of years, it’s recently become a more prominent part of my writing toolkit.

Writebox is perfect for banging out drafts of blog posts and articles. And you can use it to write more than drafts.

Let’s take a look at what Writebox can do.

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The power of persistence

An image of man with books If there’s any trait that defines a successful freelance writer (or someone who wants to write), it’s persistence.

Persistence keeps you going as you struggle to find your voice as a writer.

Persistence keeps you going when you’re amassing a tidy collection of rejection slips.

Persistence keeps you going when no one else but you believes in your dreams or your abilities as a writer.

While persistence takes a lot of effort and discipline, it can also bring rewards. One of those rewards is improvement as a writer. If you write with purpose and look at your writing with a critical eye, then you’ll get better. Your articles, blog posts, and stories will improve. You’ll be able to write faster and better. And you may even sell more of your writing.

Another reward is a new market in which to sell your work. Back in the late 1990s, I stumbled upon a technology magazine that I knew I could write for. The magazine was flexible when it came to topics and the pay wasn’t too bad either. I duly sent a query, which was rejected. I tried again. Same result. In the end, it took five queries over the space of two years to get the editors of that publication to give me a chance. When they did, I wound up writing 35+ articles for them over a nine year period. I could have given up after the first couple of rejections, but I wanted to write for that publication. And I finally did.

Remember, though, that persistence without purpose will lead you nowhere. Don’t turn a blind eye to your weaknesses or failings. Address them. Your writing will become better and will become more attractive to publishers and editors.

How has persistence as a writer benefited you? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.

Photo credit: Mykola Velychko

Dealing with a (writing) dead end

dead end Dead ends. We run into them when writing. Often, those dead ends appear as if out of nowhere. They stop us in our tracks, and make us waste mental and emotional energy trying to escape them.

What do I mean by dead end? A writing project that falls flat. A section or a path of inquiry that doesn’t lead anywhere. The inability to finish a piece of work.

That can be frustrating, especially if you’ve invested a lot of mental and emotional energy into something you’re writing. While we can thrash away at a piece of writing that just doesn’t work, we usually can’t escape those dead ends. But you sometimes reach a point at which you need to cut your losses.

So, what can you do to deal with a dead end? You have two choices.

The first choice, which is the hardest one, is to abandon what you’re trying to write. Completely. It’s the digital equivalent of tossing crumpled sheets of typewriter paper into a wastebasket. It may seem like you’re admitting defeat, but sometimes you need to know when to quit.

The second option is to abandon the project, but to hold on to what you’ve written. Who knows, you might be able to use some or all of it later. But remember that not everything is worth keeping. You might wind up with a digital pile of writing that you’ll never look at again, let alone use. If you do go this route, remember to do a periodic purge to get rid of whatever you’re not going to wind up using.

How do you deal with a writing dead end? Share your techniques by leaving a comment.

Photo credit: jules10622

Some more thoughts about SEO

SEO Over the years, I’ve been accused of hating SEO. And a few months ago, I published a post on SEO that annoyed more than a couple of people.

But let’s clear the air a bit. Hate is a strong word. My feelings towards SEO lie in the realm of dislike more than anywhere else. Those feelings always have and probably always will.

So what is it about SEO that I’m not keen on? First off, too many bloggers focus too heavily on it. Second, the heavy-handed way in which many bloggers approach SEO. In both cases, I get the impression that they believe SEO is the be all, end all. But neither approach results in content that keeps readers coming back to a blog.

Let me explain in a bit more detail.

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On writing part time

balancing Writing is hard work. But that work becomes harder when you’re trying to balance writing with a day job, family and friends, and the other interests and obstacles in your life.

I know this all too well. During my freelancing career, a large chunk of my work was done in the evenings and on weekends. And since moving overseas in 2012, I’ve had to take the dreaded day job. So I understand all too well the demands on a part-time freelancer. Balancing writing with the rest of your life can be tough. But it is possible.

Here’s some advice for anyone who’s struggling to write part time.

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Getting involved or staying detached?

From a distance When you write non fiction, you often need to be involved with other people. Interviewing subjects, spending time with them to get a deep glimpse of how they live or work. Or even going in deep with a group to gain their trust and to better grasp what they’re trying to achieve.

But when you do that, there’s always the chance that you might get too close to your subject. You might get in just a bit too deeply.

Journalists are always counselled not to get too close to their subjects or sources. Doing that can taint their objectivity. But can and should you get involved? Or should you always remain detached?

Staying detached helps you keep your distance. It gives you perspective and allows you to look at a situation or person objectively. Or, at least, as objectively as is possible.

On the other hand, getting involved can result in stronger, more vivid, more personal writing. Your emotions and thoughts are on the page, and provide a lens into what you’re writing about. With those emotions and thoughts in play, you can also pull the emotions and thought out of others. Perhaps even more effectively than if you were to watch from the sidelines.

In either case, though, you need to let others speak. Putting yourself on the page is fine, but remember that story isn’t about you. It doesn’t revolve around you. You need to use what they say or write to bolster your own arguments and conclusions. Those provide the building blocks of the story you’re trying to tell.

Do you get involved or stay detached? And how does that affect the quality and impact of what you write. Share your experiences by leaving a comment.

Photo credit: keyseeker

Crafting transitions and segues

flow Good writing flows. That flow goes beyond sentences smoothly fitting together. It also involves gracefully shifting from one paragraph or section to another.

You want a glide, not a jump. The key to making that glide is to write a good transition or segue.

There are a number of ways that you can use to craft a good transition or segue. It’s worth your time to learn a few of them — not every transition or segue works with every writing situation.

Let’s take a look at three of my favourite techniques for crafting transitions and segues.

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Going APE

Cover of APE I don’t have to tell you how much publishing has changed since the advent of the personal computer. In the last decade, that change has been massive. Now, it’s easier than ever to bypass traditional publishers and put your own books on the market.

It takes more than a good idea and a well-written book to translate into sales, though. You need to become an Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur. And that’s the thrust of APE by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch. It’s a must-read book for any budding or experienced self publisher.

Let’s take a closer look at APE and what it holds for you.

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Using Workflowy to organize your writing

Get organized! What’s one factor that marks a successful (or, at least, an effective) writer? Simple: organization.

Organizing yourself and your writing makes your work a lot easier. Being organized gives you a clearer view of what you need to do and when you need to do it.

Believe me, I know how difficult it can be to get and stay organized. It’s worth the time and effort.

There are any number of tools that can help you get organized. Pen and paper, a calendar, a to-do list.

My tool of choice for organizing my writing is Workflowy. A while back, I wrote a post explaining how to use Workflowy as an outliner. It’s also a great tool for organizing my writing.

Here’s how I use Workflowy to do that. In this post I’ll be focusing on how I use Workflowy to organize blog posts, but you can apply this information to any kind of writing.

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A pair of simple Android text editors for writing

Typing Sometimes, you don’t need a complex tool to take a note, to jot down a thought, or to hammer out a draft.

For any of those tasks, plain text is often the best solution. Why plain text and not another format? Plain text lets you focus on writing and not let anything else get in your way.

If you use an Android-powered device, you have quite a few choices when it comes to plain text editors. Let’s look at a pair of Android text editors that I’ve recently encountered, a duo which let you quickly and easily take notes or write a draft (or more).

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A few thoughts about writing for mobile

mobile How quickly things change. It seems like only yesterday that folks in our wacky profession were struggling to make the move from writing for print to writing for the web. Now, we’re making another shift: to mobile.

Mobile can seem like a vast, undiscovered, scary country. You not only have consider how your content will appear on screens ranging from small mobile phones to larger tablets, but also how that content will flow on screens of those sizes. And a bit more than that, too.

I’ve read that writing mobile content can be twice as difficult as writing for other mediums. It can be challenging, but writing for mobile isn’t impossible. Here are a few thoughts on that subject.

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Getting ready for a (document) review

A businessman thinking over his papers If you’ve ever worked in a corporate environment, either as a contractor or a full-time employee, then you’ve probably been through at least one document review. And you probably know how painful the whole document review process can be.

Regardless of what you’re writing — whether it’s documentation, marketing or communications copy, or policy and procedures — a review is important. Make that important. Not only does it give people with specialized knowledge a chance to help you improve what you’re writing, but sign offs are usually mandatory before a document can go out.

As I said, a document review can be a painful process. It can be hard to pin down people to do the review. And they might let the review slide. Often, doing something like that isn’t the highest priority on their lists.

Here’s some advice that can help you prepare for a document review and make the review process quicker, easier, and smoother.

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What is good writing?

Writing, the old school wayThat’s a question I get asked quite a bit. And one that I comes to mind more often than I care to admit.

It’s an interesting question, and one to which the answer isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem.

Why? Because what one person considers good writing might not mesh with the opinion of another person. Having said that, all good writing shares similar traits.

In this post, I take a broad look at what good writing is: the elements of what makes something worth reading, regardless of the genre or style of writing.

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Tips for doing telephone interviews

phone_interview These days, writers have a number of options for doing interviews. Email, instant messaging, using an online tool like MeetingBurner, and more. But sometimes the old fashioned telephone interview is the easiest and best way to go. Both for you and the person you’re interviewing.

But not matter how you do your telephone interviews — using a landline or a mobile, or a technology like Skype or a Google+ Hangout — there are a few things that you can do to make the interview go smoother and to get more out of it.

Here are a few tips for doing telephone interviews.

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Favourite posts from 2013: writing

One of my favourite tweets from the last year was posted by Amber Naslund:

You know what will improve your content? Better writing.

And she’s right. While you don’t need to be stylist to write well, there’s always more to learn about this craft we call writing. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years and I’m still learning!

Let’s take a look at some of my favourite posts on this subject from the last year.

Asking why?

why? A few years ago, I read a very interesting blog post titled “Think Like a Five-Year Old”. The thrust of the post was that we all really need to ask that one annoying yet probing question that all children ask: why?

This is especially true for writers. We have to constantly question information we receive. We have to constantly try to dig deeper to get more information or a better quote or an interesting angle on a subject.

And the best way to do that is to ask why? Asking that question forces someone to stop and think. It forces them to move away from the pat answer, or the answer they’d been spouting without thinking, and to actually consider what they’re saying.

If everything aligns properly, the person you’re talking to will pause to think and give you a better, more detailed answer. That’s not always the case, though. There have been times when I’ve asked why? and the reply has been either an empty stare or a mumbled, evasive answer.

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Social media and the writer

Social media I can’t think of many writers who aren’t using, if not embracing, social media — services like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, App.net, Linkedin and more. But there are still a number who are still on the sidelines, wondering what social media can do for them and how they can contribute or use social media to help further their careers and to promote themselves.

Judging whether or not social media is for you isn’t up to me. You have to make that choice for yourself. But there are a few questions that you should answer if you’re thinking about making the jump into the world of social media world, or if you plan to get more involved in that world.

Let’s take a look at those questions.

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A look at a few writing tools that work with Dropbox

Dropbox If there’s one thing I hate doing, it’s shuffling my writing files around. Even if I’m being careful, there’s too much danger of me grabbing the wrong file or accidentally deleting the right one.

Which is why I find Dropbox to be an indispensable tool. It allows me get access to my files wherever I am and with whatever computer or device that I’m using.

What’s more, there are a number of writing tools available that you can use with Dropbox. In many cases, you don’t need to download anything to your computer or device. You can work directly from Dropbox directly from the web.

Curious? Then let’s take a look at few of my favourites.

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Learning from journalism

newspapers Journalism gets a bad rap these days. It always has, but in our era the criticism leveled against the Fourth Estate seems particularly intense.

But writers of all stripes — essayists, technical and corporate writers, bloggers, even fiction writers — can learn quite a bit from the realm of journalism. And I’m not saying that just because I’m a journalism school graduate.

Many of the skills that journalists bring to bear (or, at least, should bring to bear) to do their jobs are relevant to most forms of writing. In fact, there are a number of parallels and overlaps between journalism and other forms of writing.

Curious? Then let’s take a look.

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Learning the discipline of writing

Writing with purpose Writing is about more than tapping out words and sentences.

Writing is about more than editing, revising, and rewriting.

Writing is about more than grammar and spelling, about more than learning the rules, about knowing the structure and mechanics of writing.

Writing, at its core, is about discipline. The discipline to sit down in front of a keyboard or with a notebook and pen in hand, and work with a purpose.

Not just writing when you feel like it. Not just when you’re inspired. Writing. Every. Single. Day.

I know that can be hard. I’ve run into many of the same obstacles that you have. But if you truly want to write, and if you truly want to improve as a writer, you need to put that desire into practice. To do that, you need to carve out a space in time every day to write. Regardless of what’s blocking your path.

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Reading, writing, and writers

Little Einstein Twelve You are what you read.

That sounds like an elitist thing to say, but far too often it’s true. And for writers, there’s more truth in that statement than for most.

If want to write, and if you want to write well, you need to read. Everything you can get your hands on — books, newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, short stories, novels, and more. Not just material that’s in your writing niche, either. You need to read broadly.

You also need to read critically. You need to be able to recognize good writing. You need to be able to recognize writing that strikes a chord with you, and why it strikes that chord. You need to recognize writing that beautifully tells a story or conveys an idea.

You can learn a lot about writing by reading. Like what? How to:

  • Structure your work
  • Develop characters
  • Build an argument
  • Write tightly while conveying meaning and depth

You can get all of that, and more, from a good book or article or blog post or story.

But what about writing that’s not so good? I’ve never known a good writer who subsisted or thrived on reading bad writing. I’ve never known one who’s gotten better by reading inferior work. Having said that, critically reading mediocre writing can teach you a lot. It can teach you what not to do when you put fingers to keyboard.

But it’s not all negative. Years ago, I talked to a translator who told me that she enjoyed reading mass-market novels in the foreign languages she worked in. Why? They gave her an insight into how those languages were used in everyday life, and the ways in which those languages were changing with the times.

There’s no reason you can’t do the same in your native tongue. Writing that isn’t of top quality can teach you how to write in a more colloquial, more relaxed tone.

There’s no escaping one fact, though: if you want to write then you have to read. Period. It’s that simple. It’s time and effort that will pay dividends. Maybe not immediately, but it will given time.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Paul Moore

Focus on writing first

typing Don’t worry about formatting. Don’t worry about making your article or blog post or document look pretty. Don’t worry about bold, italics, hyperlinks, placing an image, and all that.

Focus on the words. Focus on getting the words down in the the way you want or need to get them down.

Put your energy into building your argument, into telling your story, into writing realistic dialogue, into making that description a bit more visual.

Polish your writing. Smooth out the rough edges. Once you’ve done that, and only then, think about adding visual adornment to your work.

The formatting isn’t important. Words are. And adding that formatting while you’re writing just gets in the way. It slows you down and breaks your flow.

There’s only one time when I don’t follow that advice: when I’m writing in Markdown. Why? Markdown uses keyboard symbols to denote formatting. Writing with Markdown doesn’t break my flow. When I’m done, I can convert Markdown to a word processor format if necessary and send the manuscript off to an editor. Formatting doesn’t get in my way. It’s a seamless part of my writing flow.

No matter what you’re writing, always put words first. Worry about everything else later.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Joseph Robertson via Photoree

How to quickly write a better title or headline

A headline Titles and headlines. Whether for an article, some corporate writing or a blog post, they’re something every writer needs to come up with. Not occasionally, but always.

A good title or headline can draw in more readers and keep bringing them back. So coming up with one can be as important as penning what comes below that title or headline.

Doing that sounds simple. Often, it isn’t. There are times when it’s not immediately obvious what that text should be. And, at least in my experience, you often need to come up with a title or headline while staring down the barrel of a loaded deadline.

The easiest way that I’ve found to quickly write a better title or headline is to brainstorm ideas on my own. It’s a very effective technique, and I can usually come up with something that’s better than just usable very quickly.

Let’s take a look at how I do that.

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Don’t be a slave to the squiggly line

Womans hands on laptop keyboard You know the one I mean. That annoying little red or orange line. The one that suddenly appears when spelling or grammar checker in your word processor or editor doesn’t like a word or a phrase.

That squiggly line can be dangerous. It can put a dent in your flow and your productivity. It can batter your confidence.

The squiggly line slows you down. It makes you feel guilty about having a misspelled word on the page. It coerces you into stopping and fixing the error (or the perceived error).

Don’t let it do that. Just write. When you’re done, edit your work. Use a spelling checker if you must.

Anyway, the squiggly line doesn’t always know what it’s talking about. It might not know a word, or a variation on the spelling of that word — I can’t tell you how many times it thought my last name was misspelled! And it definitely doesn’t take into account your personal writing style. Don’t let the squiggly line homogenize your writing to make it conform to some rigid rule or the other.

Don’t let the squiggly line enslave you. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have any power over you.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Tom Davison

Dealing with disappointment and frustration

disappointment We all feel them every so often. The causes are many and varied.

Maybe you didn’t get that writing assignment. Maybe that book proposal got no response. Maybe what you thought was killer blog post didn’t get the reaction you expected. Maybe you aren’t making headway on that article, post, or book that you’re passionate about.

Like life in general, writing is full of disappointments and frustrations. How you deal with them marks whether or not you succeed (or just endure) as a writer.

Here’s some advice for dealing with disappointment and frustration. And, yes, that advice comes from my experience and my (many) disappointments and frustrations as a writer.

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Don’t worry about writing something bad

The girl looks in a window of a compartment We all do it once in a while. We write something that we consider bad. Something that doesn’t quite work. Something that’s not up to the level of quality that we’re used to producing, and that our readers are used to seeing.

When that happens, don’t worry. Chances are it’s a blip. An aberration. A once off.

Think about all the writers, artists, and musicians whose work you enjoy. Have they ever put a bad word, brush stroke, or note out there? Most definitely. Some of that was made public. Some of it wasn’t.

Like them, you’re human. You’re fallible. But you’re also capable of good (or better) work. If you write something bad, it doesn’t diminish you or your other work. In fact, it’s a good opportunity to learn. Analyze, don’t agonize. Try to understand what went wrong and improve.

If your mistakes are made public, that’s OK. You’ll get your share of detractors and maybe even insults. But you’ll also receive some valid criticism and support. Ignore the former. Embrace the latter.

I’ll leave you with these words, written by Jason Rehmus:

It won’t harm you because it doesn’t have power over you.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Yuriy Poznukhov

A look at some Linux tools for writers

Tux, the Linux mascot If there’s one thing in the tech world that’s misunderstood, it’s Linux. Linux is perceived as the realm of the uber geek. Of the hardcore techie. Of the programmer or system administrator.

No ordinary computer can come to grips with a Linux distribution, let alone use it effectively and productively.

And if you believe that, I have a dozen wonders of the world to sell you at a bargain price.

You don’t need to be technically inclined to use Linux. And you can use it to write. Without, by the way, turning to the command line. There are any number of solid Linux tools for writers. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

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Other ways of promoting yourself and your work online

megaphone Promoting yourself, your business, and your work online can be tough. It’s hard to know where to start and where not to do the deed. On top of that, it can be hard to walk that fine line between promotion and bragging.

No matter how difficult it can be, self promotion is essential for the freelance writer. It’s one of the ways we generate business and income, especially when we’re starting out.

These days, it is a bit easier to get our names and work out there. Using your website and blog, or social media — and by that I mean services like Twitter, App.net, LinkedIn, and Facebook — are the most popular ways to do that. Sometimes, though, those aren’t enough.

Let’s take a look at a few other ways to promote yourself and your work online.

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Avoiding the contingency mindset in corporate writing

pile of information If you’ve ever done any corporate writing, either as a full timer or as a contractor, you know that you often wind up with something that was written by committee. Or, at the very least, with a lot of input. Some of that input is useful. But much of it is unnecessary or unneeded.

One issue or concern (to use the terms corporate types throw around) that regularly crops up is that any piece of writing must meet needs of everyone. Whether or not the document is intended for everyone.

When I hear that, I immediately see people falling into the contingency mindset: trying put everything into a document and hoping that all readers will be happy. Instead of getting that perfect document, one which will solve all problems, they wind up with a lengthy, long-winded piece that misses all the targets at which it’s aimed.

If you do any sort of corporate writing — whether internal communication, training, or technical writing — you need to avoid contingency mindset. Here’s some advice on how to do just that.

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Stepping back to gain a bit of perspective

Perspective It’s easy to get caught up in what you’re writing. It becomes your focus. You invest a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of passion, and a lot of yourself into your work. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s a blog post, article, or a book. In some ways the line between what you’re writing and you can become blurred.

Because of that, we can miss things. We can overlook things. We can gloss over the not-so-good and focus only on the good parts of what we’re writing. Sometimes, we can convince ourselves that a bad piece of writing is actually pretty good.

In a perfect world, we’d have another set of eyes scrutinize what we’ve written — tools like Google Drive and Draft are great for that. Sadly, it’s not a perfect world. You might not know anyone who can, or who has the time, to read over what you’ve written.

While I advocate pressing the Publish button as soon as possible, I do so with a caveat or two. And one of those is to take a short break. To step back and look at what you’ve written with some level of objectivity.

That’s not easy. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, we can become personally entwined with what we write. We’re sometimes willing to tolerate a few minor flaws in a solid, cohesive whole. Or worse …

Optimally, you should step away from something you’ve written for a day. That lets your mind clear and lets you establish some distance. If you can’t do that, then step back for an hour or two.

When you return to what you’ve written, read it carefully. It’s easy to gloss over something you’ve looked at for hours or days. Focus. Read every sentence, every word slowly and deliberately. Beyond typos, look for things like:

  • Weak turns of phrase
  • Bad transitions
  • Jumps in logic
  • Poorly-formed arguments

Don’t stop and fix them. Just make a note of the problems and keep reading. Once you’ve done a careful reading, make the changes. Then, repeat the process. You might find one or more smaller issues, or you might find nothing too glaring. From there, you should be ready to publish or send your work to an editor.

Stepping back to gain a bit of perspective can take a little extra time. It’s time well spent. It’s time that will make your writing stronger.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: coopgreg

Writing with Markdown on Windows with MarkdownPad

MarkdownPad logo If you know me, you know that I don’t do Windows. The operating system, I mean. At least, not on any of my personal computers or devices. I work exclusively on Linux, Chrome OS, and Android.

But as a consultant, I sometimes have to work at a client site. Those clients invariably use Windows. While I grudgingly use the stock set of software those clients install on their workstations, I also try to sneak Markdown into the office wherever possible.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to MarkdownPad by its developer Evan Wondrasek. I took a peek at it then, and found it to be software with considerable potential. Then, because I don’t use Windows, MarkdownPad fell off my radar.

Recently, though, I was looking for a Markdown editor for Windows and became reacquainted with MarkdownPad. I’ve been using it at a client site for a few months now, and found that it’s really fulfilled the potential I saw in it.

MarkdownPad is a solid Markdown editor for the Windows desktop. So much so, that I bought a copy of the Pro version (which has several features that aren’t available in the free version). And, yes, I’ll be looking at the Pro version in this post.

Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Markdown Pro.

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Updating an ebook

A book Recently, I did that with two of mine. The first one was a minor update, while the second involved a major overhaul of that book. The interesting thing was that in both cases, the updates weren’t as arduous as I thought they’d be.

Luckily, it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to update an ebook than it is a dead-trees tome. Depending on the size of the update, you can have the new edition of your book on sale within a week or two.

I’d like to walk you through the process I used to prepare the second edition of Google Drive for Writers, which I think can be useful to you.

Ready? Then let’s begin.

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Writers and collaboration

collaboration Writing has been stuck in this terrible, romantic format of the lone writer. Writing is a social process. How many times have you heard people say I was commissioned to write a book or I wanted to write a book but never did? But if you shut people in a room for a week with seven other people with the same interests, they have a ball and they write a book.
Adam Hyde, founder of the FLOSS Manuals project

All of us write alone. But for some of us, there comes a time when we find the need to work on a writing project with someone else. Or several someones else.

Collaboration isn’t easy. But it can reap a number of benefits. You can get work out to market faster. You have someone or someones to whom you’re accountable, and that can help you do the work. Or you could just work with interesting people who will expand your writing horizons.

Regardless of why you collaborate, you need to remember that it can be exciting and useful. But it can also be difficult and frustrating.

Here’s some advice to help make a collaborative project run a bit more smoothly.

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Writing as you speak

conversation Good writing is all about communication. Communicating thoughts. Communicating ideas. Communicating stories. Those thoughts, ideas, and stories need to register and resonate with your readers.

There are any number of ways to do that. One of the most effective ways is to write as you speak. But simply typing out a stream of words isn’t enough. When speaking, as with writing, you need to carefully choose and arrange and edit your words.

Curious? Then read on.

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Don’t be afraid of longer-form writing

Longer form writing Most writers I know tend to stick to shorter-form writing. And by that I mean pieces 1,000 words and under. Short articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, and the like.

Most of them, though, rarely (if ever) tackle longer pieces. Not just books, but longer essays and articles. Some of them are happy to crank out work a few hundred words in length. Others just don’t know where or how to begin writing something longer.

Longer-form writing isn’t as difficult as some writers believe it to be. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s not impossible.

Let’s look at a few strategies that I use when I tackle a longer piece of writing.

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On getting your hands dirty

Children's hands soiled with paints on a white background You’ve probably heard the old maxim write what you know.

I don’t really follow that piece of advice much. Let’s face it: if I only wrote about what I know then I’d either run out of material quickly or churn out dull work. Or both.

When it comes to writing about what you don’t know, research will only get you so far. There are times when you have to dive in. When you have to get your hands dirty.

You have to write what you experience.

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Thoughts about effective digital note taking

Taking notes, the digital way Even though sales of paper notebooks still seem to be brisk, I’m sure that more than a couple of writers out there take notes digitally.

I know I do.

Digital note taking has a lot going for it. It’s:

  • Convenient — you can create and access your notes anywhere, using a computer or a mobile device.
  • Easy — since you can already use a keyboard and a mouse, you don’t need any new skills to do it.
  • Flexible — you can include more than text in your notes.
  • Paperless — you don’t have to worry about losing a notebook or spilling coffee on your notes.

And while digital note taking is a lot like doing the deed the analog way, there are a few pieces of advice that I like the share with people who are moving their note taking to the digital realm.

Interested in learning more? Then read on.

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The power of a pause

Silence Silence.

In the world of the spoken word, silence can be deafening. It’s often considered a no-no. On the radio, for example, silence (also called dead air) is a sin. In fact, the only thing worse is using curse words.

So why pause? To give readers a short rest. To give them a moment to think. To give them some time to absorb a fact or an image or an idea. To allow them to reflect before carrying on.

That pause can be the difference between confusion and engagement, the difference between boredom and an ah ha! moment.

If you’re working on a script for, say, a presentation or for radio then adding that pause is easy. Just leave space or a note for a couple or three seconds of silence then move on.

When it comes to writing prose, however, it can be difficult to translate a pause into words. To be honest, I’ve only found one way to effectively add a pause to what I’ve written.

So what is that technique? I use a one-sentence paragraph as a cue to the reader. That paragraph reads something like Take a moment to consider/think about/digest that.

It’s simple, but it can be effective. You’re not rushing a reader along. You’re not making them fill their brains with even more information. You’re giving them leave to take a moment.

So, how do you represent a pause in your writing? Share your techniques by leaving a comment.

Writing opinion pieces

Opinions ... Opinions. We all have them. And if you can write persuasively, you can sway people to your opinion. Or, at least, get them to consider your position or point of view.

But writing an opinion piece isn’t just a matter of blindly putting your thoughts and ideas on the page or screen. An effective opinion piece, especially a shorter one, is difficult to write. But it’s not impossible.

For me, there are three keys to writing an effective opinion piece:

  • Research
  • Structure
  • Focus

Let’s look at them and how they fit together.

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Breaking through the freeze by writing in point form

typing There are times when you just can’t write. It’s not writer’s block, but something just as bad. The words are in your head but they come out … well, not in the way that you want them to.

That’s been happening with me lately, with my latest ebook project. I’m engaged in the subject, have a solid outline, and the ideas are in my head. But when I try to type them out, no amount of rewriting or editing brings the words together in the way that I want them to.

While trying to overcome this obstacle, I rediscovered a technique that worked for me in the past: writing in point form. Doing that gets the ideas and words out of my head and about 85% of the way to where I want them to be.

Let me share this technique with you.

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A thought about word count

Counting words How much should I write? That’s a question I constantly hear. And there’s no simple answer to that question.

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.

There’s no hard and fast rule. Enough is enough, and with practice and experience you’ll know when to stop.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: jdurham

A pair of useful Android apps for writers

Android In what seems to be my never-ending quest to take my writing as mobile as I can, I’m constantly looking at new tools and new apps. Not obsessively, but frequently enough that I always find something new and shiny that catches my eye.

Lately, my wandering eye has been looking at a number of writing apps for my Nexus 7 tablet. While Android doesn’t have the breadth of writing apps that are available for Apple’s devices (yes, I’m a tad jealous), there are a number of good Android apps for writing. And a few of them are even better than just good.

Two which fall into that category, and that have recently stood out for me, are Draft and LightPaper. Let’s take a look at them.

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Using Permamarks as a writing or blogging tool

bookmarks Research. It gives our writing depth. It gives our writing character. It gives our writing that little bit extra which compels an editor to buy our work or compels a reader to keep reading.

The nature of research has changed considerably in the last 20-odd years. Time was you’d do research in a library surrounded by stacks of books or periodicals, or flashing through microfiche. And you’d be taking notes using pen and paper.

Nowadays, most research is done online. And a lot of that research involves collecting links. Links related to something you’re writing or something you plan to write.

Organizing links has gotten easier. You can use a variety of tools to do that, like Evernote or Simplenote, or a dedicated bookmarking app like Pinboard or Delicious.

But if you really want a bit of power and flexibility to the links you collect, you’ll want to check out Permamarks. It does more than allow you to collect page after page of links. You can use Permamarks to group and focus your research.

Let’s take a closer look at it.

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Press the Publish button

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There comes a time when you have to do just that. To release your work into the wild. To let the world see and read it. To, in the words of Seth Godin, ship. Something. Anything.

Far too many writers don’t do that. Or, at least, they don’t do it when they should.

They obsess about trying to make their articles and poems and stories and books and blog posts perfect. They work and rework. They edit, rewrite, cut, and pad. They agonize over the right word or the right image. By the time they’re done, if they ever are, the time for their work has often passed.

You never know how good or bad your writing is, about whether it’s being read or not, until you press the Publish button.

Aim to make your writing as good as it can be. Don’t strive for perfection. You’ll never reach that goal. Instead, ship something. Learn from the praise and from the criticisms. Use the experience to make your next piece of work stronger and more polished. Use the experience to become a better writer.

Photo credit: mzacha

Not everything you write will be great

agonizing Or even above average.

In fact, what you write might just be good or good enough. It won’t be to your usual standards.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Even the best writers stumble every so often.

Accept that every so often you’ll produce something that doesn’t meet your expectations. Try to figure out why what you wrote turned out the way it turned out. Were you under time constraints? Did your enthusiasm wane? Weren’t you engaged with the subject matter? Were you tired?

Just don’t agonize over a less-than-stellar piece of writing. Instead, learn and improve. Keep writing with intent.

I’ll point you to a blog post by Jason Rehmus (which inspired this post). In that post, Rehmus wrote:

It won’t harm you because it doesn’t have power over you.

That sums it up for me. Don’t let something you write gain power over you. Once that starts to happen, you’ll fall into a downward spiral which you’ll have trouble recovering from.

More thoughts about practice

practice Since writing my last post on this subject, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about practice. What it is, what it means, and what it’s meant to do for you.

Practice is a time to push yourself. It’s a time to try new things and to stretch yourself. As someone once said to me about martial arts, practice is the time when you can feel free to look like an idiot and not worry about it. Practice is the time to experiment and learn.

As I mentioned in my previous post, practice is when you get to try out new styles of writing, when you get to try new ways of describing or structuring what you’re writing. It’s a safe environment in which to work and to experiment. And, more importantly, to learn.

Not everything you try in a practice session will work. You shouldn’t expect it to. Most of what you try will end up in the wastebasket.

But you will quickly learn new techniques and approaches and variations that will work. From there, you can apply what you’ve learned to your actual writing — what you’re tapping out for publication or mass consumption.

Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to do just that. I’ve been experimenting with shorter-form blogging. While I can write tightly, I’ve been wanting to try to keep my blog posts under 500 words. That’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. But each day, I’ve set aside 30 minutes to try to do just that. My practice consisted of trying to boil down a post to its essentials and focus on the key argument. The latter was easy. The former … well, it took a lot of work and careful thinking and editing. But I’ve been consistently writing posts that range in length from 200 to 400 words. In case you’re wondering, this post weighs in at 353 words.

Practice is essential for writers. Not just to keep our existing skills sharp, but to learn new ones. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth making the effort.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Stuart Jessop

Sketchnoting and the writer

Sketchnote_Handbook-Cover While sitting in a session at a conference a couple of years ago, I noticed someone in the row in front of me taking notes. On the surface, there was nothing earthshaking about that. Everyone at a conference takes notes.

But it was the way in which he was taking notes that intrigued me. His notes were a combination of words and drawings. And he wasn’t trying to frantically take down every word the speaker was uttering.

After the session, I approached that person and politely quizzed him about what he had been doing. While we didn’t have much time to chat — like me, he was scheduled to give a talk in a few minutes — he did outline what he had been doing.

He called his notes sketchnotes, and gave me a (very) short explanation of how they worked. I was intrigued, but didn’t follow up until last year. That’s when The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde was published. It’s a visual guide (like a giant sketchnote, actually) to creating sketchnotes, and one that writers will find useful.

Let’s take a look at the book, and using sketchnotes in general.

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What tool should I use to write?

My dream writing machine Someone asked me that question recently, and was shocked by my reply. That reply? Whatever works for you and whatever you’re most comfortable with.

If you’re comfortable with Word or LibreOffice Writer on your desktop, then use it. Use ByWord on your iPad or Light Paper on your Android-powered device. Use Google Drive, Typerighter.com, TextDrop, or Draft on the web. Use a text editor if that’s what works for you.

The tool doesn’t matter. What matters is your ability to put words and paragraphs together in a coherent, interesting, lively, and compelling way. The tool you use can help make it easier to work with those words, but they don’t do the work. You do.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

The benefits of writing it down

Write it down I’m not just talking about ideas, notes, or general research. I mean write down all or some of what your working on. On paper.

It might seem that using the analog method is a bit of a waste, what with all the digital tools at our disposal. But writing things down can be quite beneficial. I feel the same way about works in progress.

Interested? Then read on.

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How much detail is enough?

clutter Sometimes, I think asking that question is like asking how long is a piece of string?

The simple answer is just enough. The actual answer is a lot more complicated than that.

How much detail you should include in what you’re writing depends on:

  • Your audience.
  • How the detail fits in with what you’re writing.
  • The word count you have to work with.
  • The medium for which you’re writing.

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Thoughts about not writing

Relaxing In person and on the web, I continually urge anyone who writes or who wants to write to do the deed. To sit in front of a keyboard (or with pen and paper) and churn out good words. Every day. Without fail.

Writing everyday, no matter how little or how much you do, gets you into the discipline of writing. Of putting words on the screen.

Sometimes, though, it’s OK not to write. Yes, you read that correctly. Sometimes you need to take a short break from writing, or a style of writing.

Curious? Then keep reading.

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Write everything as if writing for the web

pen When I was in journalism school (and that was more than half a lifetime ago), the instructors constantly chivvied me and my classmates to write tight. That meant packing the most information into the least amount of space. It wasn’t easy, but when you did it, the result was like magic.

There’s a lesson there for all non fiction writers. The key to being effective — no matter what type of non fiction you write — is to keep what you’re writing short, to the point, and easy to read.

That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Let me share some of my techniques for doing that.

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Writing with Draft

Typing a draft Writers these days are quite lucky. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to online writing tools. Some of those tools are great, others are just OK. The rest … well, their quality varies.

There have been a couple or three web-based writing tools that have really impressed me, but there hasn’t been one that’s ticked all the boxes for me. Typerighter.com comes very close to ticking those boxes, but there are a few features missing.

Recently, though, I stumbled upon Draft. It’s as close to my vision of a perfect online writing tool as I’ve found.

Curious? Then read on.

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Some advice for naming your files

names What’s in a name?

A lot, especially if you don’t choose the right one for your files. I’m not just talking about choosing names for characters or choosing titles. I’m talking about something a little more fundamental.

In my book Google Drive for Writers, I discuss giving the directories that you save your writing into descriptive names. That makes it a lot easier to organize and find your work.

But what about your writing itself? Those word processor and text files, into which you tap your words? You’d be surprised, but many writers (and others) don’t give their work descriptive and worthwhile names.

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Becoming a writer

writing Recently, someone asked me How do I become a writer? A loaded question if I ever heard one …

I had to shatter a few of that person’s illusions about writing. To be honest, I don’t think you can become a writer. Instead, you want to write. And learning to write well is a long, hard path. There’s no magic incantation. There’s no miraculous shortcut. If you want to write, you’re in for a lot of hard work.

The keys to writing are simple. But, then again, they aren’t. Let’s look at the bare minimum of what I think you need to do to learn to write well — either as a solid amateur or a good professional.

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Why don’t more writers author books?

typewriter - keys A couple of years ago (before I’d published my first ebooks and before I stopped drinking), a friend and I had a very wide-ranging discussion over a couple of pints of Tiger beer. During that conversation, said friend — who isn’t a writer of any stripe — asked why I hadn’t considered writing a book.

It wasn’t as if that thought hadn’t crossed my mind. In fact, over the years I’d pumped out more than a couple of book proposals. I was a bridesmaid on a couple of occasions, but at that time had yet to snag that elusive contract.

Since that conversation, a lot of sand has flowed through the hourglass. Even with three ebooks under my belt (and a few more to come), my friend’s question still has me thinking. And one question comes to mind:

Why don’t more writers author books?

Many of us have deep knowledge of:

  • One or more subject and the ability and desire to learn more
  • Writing in general

The market seems to be there, and if you can find the right niche then you have some potential for success. And to be successful, the book doesn’t necessarily need to focus on writing.

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Applying limits to your writing

limits Sometimes, your writing can get out of hand. Maybe you’re bedeviled by deadlines and can’t get going. Or maybe you’re writing something, like an article or an essay or a short story or a book, and you just can’t stop writing. It just goes on and on and on. I think we’ve all been in one of those situations at some time or another.

There are any number of ways around those problems. One solution that I’ve found to be particularly effective is to apply limits to your writing.

What do I mean by applying limits? Deliberately imposing constraints on what you’re writing. Those limits can take any number of forms. I usually apply three limits to my writing. Interested in find out more? Then read on.

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It’s not the tool, it’s you

Typewriter A few years ago, I interviewed Adam Hyde, the founder of the FLOSS Manuals project (a project to create free documentation for free software). During that interview, Adam used a term that stuck with me: tool fetishism.

You see a lot of tool fetishism everywhere: in technical communication, in productivity circles, and even in the writing world. Everyone is looking at and for more and better tools to help them write.

Tools can be great things. They can help you write faster and more efficiently. They can help you cut out the middleman (so to speak) and enable you to publish your work. They can help check your spelling and grammar. They can even make collaborating with other writers easier.

But the tools that you use — word processors, text editors, mobile apps, and web-based applications — are only tools. They’re an extension of you, nothing more.

Tools don’t make you a better writer. Tools don’t assemble and arrange your words and sentences and paragraphs. Tools don’t come up with compelling arguments, riveting plot lines, witty dialogue, or clever turns of phrase.

How good or bad your writing is lies with you and you alone. To paraphrase Edward Tufte, if your words aren’t truthful then all the finest tools aren’t going to help you write better. And you shouldn’t expect them to.

Photo credit: gregparis

Some (slightly) different advice for writers

learning While I’m not the most prolific of presenters, I do enjoy getting out in front of an audience to share ideas and to (I hope) teach something new. I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the stress (well, sometimes …). I enjoy the opportunities that presenting gives me to teach and, also, to learn.

Once a presentation is done, I’m very critical of my performance. Sometimes a little too critical, as it turns out. Analyzing what happened during a presentation helps me find flaws in my game and helps me to tweak or improve how I do things. It’s all part of the learning process.

So, what have I learned? Quite a bit, as it turns out. And what I’ve learned doesn’t just apply to presenting. It also applies to writing.

Curious? Then read on.

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Situational knowledge and the writer

research Knowledge. It’s one of those things that’s indispensable for a writer. In fact, without a certain amount of knowledge we can’t do our jobs properly.

But how much knowledge is enough? Or too much? Or too little? I’ve been thinking about that on and off for the last little while. In my case, the right amount of knowledge will vary from gig to gig and assignment to assignment.

What I find useful is gaining situational knowledge. Intrigued? Well, read on.

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Get it as good as you can get it

Businessman looking over paperwork with confused expression A while back, a friend of mine (who’s been wanting me to get back on the language learning horse for a while) forwarded me an interesting blog post. It’s from popular blog on language learning, and the post in question examines the paralysis that comes from demanding perfection from one’s self when studying a language.

Admittedly, I have no interest in the subject matter of that blog. But the post intrigued me. Why? The thrust of that blog post also applies to writing. Just about every writer of any stripe who I know takes pride in their work. They want what they write — whether it’s an article, a blog post, documentation, marketing material, or a short story — to be as good as it can possibly be. Maybe a little bit more.

They’re aiming for perfection.

Some people see perfection as a laudable goal. I don’t. The problem is that perfection can be a mind killer. Perfection is a trap. Perfection isn’t a something that you really should aspire to.

Why?

You’ll never achieve it.

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How long or how short?

Words, words, words Word count. It’s something that all writers have to deal with. Sometimes, word count is very cut and dry. You’re given a fixed number of words to write and you have to stick to that number. At other times, you have a bit more flexibility.

As I’ve written elsewhere, you should make what you write as long as it needs to be. If you need 250 words to make your point, then use 250. If you need 3,000 words, then what you write should be 3,000 words long.

Recently, though, I read an interesting post at the New York Review of Books blog. It’s a post that got me thinking, once again, about the subject of word count. This passage in particular struck me:

A regular reader of The Guardian online, I often find its featured articles tiresomely long and rambling. You scroll down, imagining the piece almost over, and instead it goes on, and on. There should have been some warning at the beginning telling you how many words lie ahead. So, no sooner does the Internet give us oceans of space than we realize that length was never just a problem of column inches.

While I still believe that you should use as many words as you think are necessary, when using those words you should also respect the time available to your readers.

No matter how long a piece of writing is — whether it’s a few hundred or a few thousand words long — you should never ramble. Never go off on tangents that lead nowhere.

Instead, keep your writing tight. How?

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Break longer passages up with headings.
  • Use, but don’t overuse bullets.

And remember to edit. Editing isn’t just a way to cut out unneeded words. It’s more than the secret to good writing. Editing is also a powerful tool for focusing your writing.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: spiroll

Four distraction-free writing apps for Chrome

typing When writing, there are times when you need to escape distractions. Distractions like notifications, social media, games, and more. Things you need to push off to the side or make invisible while you try to write.

Full-screen editors, which I’ve discussed here and here, are a great way of dodging those distractions. They let you focus on writing and nothing else. All it takes is the right editor and

While I still use a distraction-free editor on my desktop, I’m now more and more moving away from editors on the desktop to ones in my web browser. And not just on the web itself, either.

Chrome and, by extension, Chromium (or even a Chromebook) are two web browsers that enable you to write without distractions within a browser tab or window. There are a number of great apps for Chrome that not only let you write, but write without distractions. I’ve looked at some of them in this space before, but they’re worth repeating.

Let’s look at four distraction-free writing applications for Chrome.

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A few thoughts about writing online

writing online These days, you can’t escape it. Whether you’re writing for the web edition of a publication or posting your own thoughts to a blog, putting your words online is a must for most writers.

But I’ve noticed that the way in which some writers approach putting their words on the web can differ greatly. Some just do it. Others obsess about certain aspects of writing online that aren’t that important.

With this post, I’m tossing a few of my ideas about this subject into the winds of the internet. Those ideas might find fertile soil and take root or they might just blow away and never be seen again.

So, in no particular order …

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A review of Writing for the Web

Writing for the Web These days, people in our wacky profession can’t escape writing for the online world. Whether you contribute to web-based publications, run your own blog, or are a freelancer or full-time employee doing corporate work, writing for the web has become an essential skill.

While online writing shares a number of similarities with writing for print, it also has more than a few nuances that you need to learn. That’s where Writing for the Web by Lynda Felder comes in. It’s easily one of the best books that I’ve read on the subject.

Writing for the Web is a thin book, weighing in at 181 pages. But those pages pack a lot of practical information. Whether you’re new to writing online or someone with more than just a little experience, you’ll learn something from this book.

Let’s take a closer look at Writing for Web.

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Finish that tough writing task by breaking it into smaller chunks

confused We all run into a task like that. It could be anything — a blog post, an article, a chapter. Something that just won’t let you make any headway. And that can be a problem, especially if you’re on a deadline.

What’s more frustrating is that sometimes time-honored techniques like freewriting and mind mapping just don’t help. What can help, though, is breaking your writing task into smaller chunks.

Let’s look at one way of doing that.

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Letting others tell the story

In narrative pieces, whether fiction or non fiction, your voice is going to come through. And, especially with non fiction, you can get involved. Having said that, it can get boring or just repetitive if yours is the only voice that your readers hear.

Several years ago, I read a history of Josef Stalin and his inner circle. One of my favourite stories from that book involved the head of Cheka (a precursor to the KGB). He was asked to give a long speech at a Party Congress, but didn’t want to speak for the hour or two he was allocated. So when his turn came he approached the podium and said something along these lines (sorry, it’s been a while, and I no longer have that book so I can’t give you the exact quote):

A prime duty of a good checkist is to know when to keep quiet.

Then, he left the stage.

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Writers and practice

Practice No matter what your level of skill or experience, as a writer you need to practice.

It’s that simple.

Practice keeps you sharp. It can help improve your flow and technique. It can help you learn something new. At least, that’s the idea.

But just banging out words in the same old (and sometimes tired) way isn’t the best approach. Instead, you need to focus on deliberate practice.

But how do you do that? Let me share something that’s worked for me. (more…)

Using Simplenote for more than just taking notes

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve returned to the embrace of Simplenote. It’s more than adequate for my note taking needs. As its name says, Simplenote is simple. It’s easy to use.

But why just limit yourself to taking notes? You can use Simplenote for more than just taking notes and collecting information. It’s a useful tool for working on drafts of articles, blog posts, or whatever you might be writing.

Let’s take a look at how to use Simplenote for more than just taking notes.

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Writing and flow

flow Flow. It’s something that I find interesting. In productivity circles, flow seems to sometimes be given an almost mystical status. I keep reading about achieving flow or flow being a state that you enter into.

But for me, flow doesn’t have any mystical qualities. It’s what happens when I can work smoothly and when no superfluous keystrokes get in my way.

As with judo, flow is a matter of maximum efficiency with minimum effort. Nothing less, nothing more.

Flow is a useful state for writers to enter. It allows you to get more done, faster and with less stress. But how do you get into a state of flow? It’s easy and its not. I try to break flow into four steps. Let’s take a look at those steps.

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A few links for the end of the week

Reusing your blog posts in your book

This isn’t a new idea, but it is one that I’ve been exploring recently. That’s mainly been with my third ebook, Google Drive for Writers. It’s also something that I’m doing with another ebook I’m working on.

The beauty of reusing your blog posts in your books is that you have a store of ready-made content which can save you a lot of time and effort, and which can get your book to market faster.

Unlike some people, I haven’t been basing all of my books on the content of any of my blogs. But I have learned a thing or three about reusing the content of a blog in a book

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A review of Microstyle

The cover of Microstyle We live in a world that, in many ways, has become shorter. Shorter messages. Shorter interactions. Shorter attention spans. And the popularity of services like Twitter encourage brevity, for better or for worse.

As a writer of any stripe, you need to adapt to this change. And that’s idea underlying the book Microstyle by Christopher Johnson. The book is packed with solid advice on how to write compactly while still passing along useful information.

Let’s take a closer look at Microstyle.

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Writing in Chrome with WordFlow

WordFlow logo One of the tools I use quite a bit for writing is the Google Chrome web browser. Yes, you read that correctly. A web browser is one of my main writing tools. And not just to access web-based applications like Typerighter.com, TextDrop, or Google Drive.

Thanks to a myriad of apps and extensions for Chrome, I have a choice of some great writing tools. Many of them suit my main way of writing — with plain text and Markdown.

One app that I recently crossed my gaze is WordFlow. Let’s take a look at it.

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