Don’t obsess – do it!

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

It’s far too easy to overthink your writing.

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

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

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

Don’t obsess. Write.

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

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

And remember that the secret to good writing is editing.

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Alexander Egorin

Tips for rapid writing

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

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

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

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

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Writing is writing, no matter how you do it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Posting your content elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting into the habit of writing

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

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

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

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Why are writers so strident about getting paid?

money At least, paid decently. And on time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: dhester

Note taking tools: a graveyard for ideas

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

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

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

Doing the work

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

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Going off on a tangent

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

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

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

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Finding your voice

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

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

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

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Spiking your own stories

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

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

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

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

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A look at two online Markdown editors for writers

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

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

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

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

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

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Dealing with readers who don’t get it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via Photoree

Tool fetishism and the writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Fire Monkey Fish via Photoree

The danger of looking back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Dani Vincek

Collaborating with other writers, in real time, with EtherPad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creating a content plan for your blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning your back catalogue into an ebook

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

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

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

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

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Conducting an effective email interview

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

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

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

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

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Useful offline Chromebook apps for writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you find them as useful as I have.

Making a bit of extra cash with reprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fighting the paralysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: wagg66

On being scrappy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: smswigart

Using pecha kucha to focus your writing

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

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

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

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On being honest

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

Guess what? I’m OK with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: Trevor Goodwin

Censoring yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, do something difficult: be yourself.

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: K. Sawyer Photography via Photoree

Why the library is still an important resource for writers

library For some people, the library is a redundant institution. With the web acting as a global library, why do you need a bricks and mortar repository for books? You can 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