Tips for getting your mind off a thorny writing problem

Some nasty looking thorns

It happens to all of us. We’re making progress writing something, then we hit a wall. No matter what we can’t break through that wall. We can’t escape that corner we’ve written ourselves into.

Facing a thorny writing problem can be worse than dealing with writer’s block. Because you can feel that a resolution is in sight, that thorny problem be more frustrating. It can make you want to toss your computer out the window.

To overcome that problem, you need to get your mind off it. Here are some tips that can help you do that.

(more…)

Choosing the right paper notebook

A notebook and a pencil

While taking digital notes with tools like Evernote, Simplenote, and Google Keep has its advantages, for many writers the good old fashioned paper notebook is a must.

Why? If you’re on the go, or even if you’re not, it’s faster and easier to jot down and idea or quote with a notebook and a pen than it is with a smartphone or tablet.

What paper notebook you use is a personal choice. I’ve met writers whose favourites, and the reasons for choosing those favourites, don’t mesh with mine. There’s nothing wrong with that — I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to anything.

Here’s some advice to help you if you’re struggling to find the right paper notebook.

(more…)

Taking a quick look at How to Write Short

Cover of How to Write Short Even though longer-form writing is making something of a resurgence, it’s still important to know how to write tightly. That’s regardless of whether you’re writing online or offline.

Learning to write short takes work. It can be difficult if you don’t have a good teacher or a good guide. How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark tries to be that guide. And it succeeds.

It’s a useful book that can help you come to grips with condensing your message without losing any of its impact. Let’s take a closer look at it.

(more…)

My writing setup, 2016 edition

A manual typewriter and some notebooks

While I don’t indulge in (much) tool fetishism, every so often I re-evaluate the tools that I use to write, and the ones I use to plan and organize my writing.

The tools I’ve been using over the last couple of years have been fairly stable, but at the end of 2015 I decided to pare down the number of tools that I use.

What hasn’t changed

I still spread my writing across a laptop, a Chromebook, and a tablet.

On the laptop, I do most of my writing in a text editor called Atom. Atom was created for software developers, but it also has some useful plugins for writers (which I looked at elsewhere). When I need to use a word processor, I still turn to LibreOffice Writer, and I format and publish ebooks using LyX and Sigil.

On my tablet, I write blog posts (and more) with Writebox. When I need to process words, I turn to Google Drive.

What has changed

Those changes have come mainly with what I use on my Chromebook. I do about half my writing on that device.

Much of the writing I do on my Chromebook is with Writer. Writer is a distraction-free online editor that has a number of useful features — including the ability to export files to Dropbox or Google Drive and an mode that lets me work offline. I’ll be looking at Writer in a bit more detail in a future post. As with my tablet, I turn to Google Drive when I need to process words on the Chromebook.

On all my hardware, I take notes exclusively with Simplenote. It’s easy to use, supports Markdown, and has a decent mobile app. I do all my planning with Workflowy.

My writing setup is simple. It provides me with a consistent experience across all of the devices that I use. I don’t expect it to change in the near future.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Changing (writing) careers

A man typing on a laptop computer

One of the great things about making your living with words is that there are so many kinds of writing that you can do. There’s a niche for just about everyone. Some niches, obviously, pay more than others but there are multiple options for you to carve out a career as a writer.

But what do you do when you’ve been writing for a living for a while and need a change? Consider changing writing careers. Changing writing careers isn’t something many of us do very often. But if that time comes, you can make a change. It’s not always easy. It’s definitely risky. It will take time and work. The risk and effort can be worth it.

(more…)

A quick thought about personal writing

A manual typewriter

We all have stories to tell. Not just stories about others, but stories about ourselves. Things we’ve seen, things we’ve done, things good and bad that have happened to us.

Writing those personal stories can be difficult. Not only do those stories expose our inner thoughts and feelings, we can never be sure that anyone wants to read them. Even if you are confident of your personal writing, there might not be a market for it.

At its best, personal writing is an opportunity to share an experience from your unique perspective. Personal writing can teach. It can enlighten. It can entertain. It can spread a smile.

At its worst, personal writing is self indulgent. It’s self pitying, and we learn more than we want or need to about the writer.

It’s inevitable that you become a component in personal writing (it is personal after all), but you don’t need to be the primary focus. You’re there to provide the lens, to provide the filter, to provide the perspective. Share what you’ve seen or done, rather than making you seeing or doing those things the centre of the story.

You don’t need to fade into the background. Not always, anyway. Provide your thoughts, your opinions, your feelings, your reactions. Don’t get up on a soapbox and preach or proselytize.

What about sharing your writing with the wider world? There are more than a couple of publications out there that accept personal writing. It’s been a while since I’ve tried to submit to any, so I can’t point you in any direction. But personal writing can be hit and miss — what you think is a great story might not be a fit for a print or online magazine.

That can be demoralizing. Yes, I am speaking from experience. There are alternatives. You can create your own market. That’s one of the reasons I started a newsletter: to share personal writing that couldn’t find another home. You can follow that lead, or you can start a blog or collect your personal writing into an ebook. The options are there. Why not use them?

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Collaborating on a writing project with Dropbox Paper

Two children working together on laptops

Writing is often seen as a solitary occupation. We’ve all heard the age-old stories of lone writers, ensconced in a drafty garret, hunched over a keyboard. There is some truth to that.

But it’s not uncommon for two or more writers to work together on a project. That could be in a corporate setting, or writers working on an article or a book or a series of blog posts.

When those writers are working in different locations, it’s a challenge to track drafts and who’s doing what. Exchanging files via email just doesn’t cut it. Luckily, there are a number of solid tools out there for collaborating online.

In late 2015, the folks at Dropbox (the file storage and syncing service) introduced Paper, a real-time collaborative tool. While it’s aimed at businesses, you can use Paper to collaborate on writing projects.

Let’s take a look at it.

(more…)

Beating back the demon of perfectionism

Perfect? No!

Over the last year or two, I’ve been informally coaching a few writers. In that time, I’ve also talked to a number of people who are starting to write seriously or who really want to write.

A common theme among most of them is perfectionism. They never finish or publish anything because the demon of perfectionism continually rears its ugly, scary head. Each person tells a similar story: they start writing something — a blog post, an essay, an article, a book — but are stopped in their tracks because what they write doesn’t match the vision in their heads. What they write isn’t perfect the first time out.

Perfectionism kills writing. Perfection isn’t possible when writing (or with anything else). To achieve your goals as a writer, to actually get to done, you need to beat back the demon of perfectionism.

Here’s some advice that can help you do that.

(more…)

When not to use headings

A document with no headings

Headings can be useful when you’re writing non fiction. They provide logical breaks, they separate thoughts, they act as a guidepost.

Sometimes, though, headings get in they way. They disrupt the narrative flow of what you’re writing.

Sometimes, it’s better not to use headings. When? Let’s look at a few cases.

(more…)

How to write about a place

Aerial shot of a public square in Slovakia

Whether you’re penning fiction or non fiction, there will come a time when you’ll need to describe a physical location. It could be a street, a building, a park, a field. Any tangible place.

When writing about a place, your words take a snapshot of that place at a moment in time. That moment is unique because it’s from your own perspective. Your words convey the wonder and emotions you felt at that moment.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. When writing about a place, you need to balance brevity with detail. You need to evoke enough of that place to allow readers to form a picture of it in their minds. At the same time, you need to keep them interested.

Here are a few techniques that I use when writing about a place in my non fiction.

(more…)

Favourite posts from 2015: a mix

These are a posts that don’t fit comfortably into any one category. But I think they’re worth another read.

Favourite posts from 2015: opinions and inspiration

Writers, by definition, can be an opinionated bunch. But we can also inspire our fellow writers and those who aspire to write professionally. I try to combine both. Whether or not I succeed is up to you to decide.

Here are some posts from the last year that express my opinions about writing, which try to inspire others, and even try to do both.

Favourite posts from 2015: blogging

A good chunk of my written work is focused on my blogs. Even if you’ve been blogging for a while, there’s always more that you can learn. Yes, that includes me!

Let’s take a look back at some of my favourite posts about blogging from 2015.

Favourite posts from 2015: writing

Writing. That’s what we do, isn’t it? No matter how experienced you are, there’s always something more to learn.

This year, I learned a few things and shared them in this space. Let’s take a look at some of my favourite posts about writing from 2015.

Favourite posts from 2015: technology

Writing has come a long way from the days of the typewriter, pen, paper, and telephone. There’s a lot of technology out there that can help you work more efficiently.

Let’s take a look at some of the technology I’ve covered in this space over the last year.

Favourite posts from 2015

Another year is winding down. And, as is my custom, I’m taking time off over the holiday season to rest, recharge, and plan.

To fill the gap over the next little while, I’ll be posting roundups of my favourite posts from the last year. I hope you enjoy reading (or re-reading) them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

See you in 2016!

How to write effective listicles

A list I have something of a like/dislike relationship with listicles. They’re a great way to quickly create fun and useful blog posts. On the other hand, listicles provide some bloggers with an excuse to write shoddy posts that are a simple and cheap attempt at grabbing eyeballs.

If done well, a listicle can be useful to readers and draw traffic to your blog. The problem is, though, that many listicles aren’t done well.

What does it take to write effective listicles? Here are my thoughts on the subject.

(more…)

On what’s important when writing online

A woman writing on a netbook I get asked a lot of questions about writing. I’m happy to answer those question, and I try to answer them as honestly as I can. Sometimes, the people I’m talking to hear things they don’t expect or want to hear.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been asked quite a few questions about blogging and writing online. The folks who’ve asked me those questions have been shocked when I told them I don’t care about SEO, about so-called optimal lengths of blog posts, about having a huge audience, about any of that crap.

One or three of them have castigated me for ignoring the potential for larger amounts of traffic on my blog. They’ve pooh-poohed me for not writing more clickbait or optimized content (their words, not mine).

When you’re writing online, none of that’s important. All of that’s low on my hierarchy of online needs.

So what is important? Creating meaningful connections with your readers. Engaging them with interesting writing and captivating stories. Sharing helpful information with those readers. I’m more concerned with having depth rather than breadth.

Sure, I could use every fancy technique (and a few underhanded ones) to draw eyes to my blogs. There’s no guarantee, though, that those strategies will work. There’s no guarantee that they’ll increase the number of people coming to (and staying on) my blogs. There’s no guarantee that those folks will come back.

Building an audience isn’t about packing blog posts with keywords. It isn’t about latching on to the newest trends. It isn’t about fretting over analytics or page views or search engine rankings. It isn’t about hitting a prescribed word count, even when the subject doesn’t warrant it.

Building an audience is about good writing. It’s about sharing information that readers can use. It’s about telling fascinating, compelling stories. It’s about being honest and open. It’s about helping helping people and giving them a reason to keep coming back.

If your writing is good, if it’s honest, if it offers information and insight then people will keep coming back to read it. And that’s what’s important when writing online.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

On the value of keeping your writing simple

A Royal manual typewriter

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

— Ernest Hemingway

Over the years, I’ve known more than a couple of writers who, especially at start of their careers, gave into the urge to show off their technique. To show how clever they were. To show how erudite they were. To show that they were, in fact, real writers.

What those writers wound up with was page after page of long, convoluted, turgid passages. Passages that readers found hard to follow. Passages that could have been half their length but which also could have been far more readable and enjoyable.

Simple isn’t a four-letter word, but some writers treat it like one. They believe that keeping your writing simple is tantamount to dumbing it down. That you can’t effectively convey thoughts or ideas or emotions unless you use lesser-known words, unless you write longer sentences and paragraphs.

They’re wrong.

Simple writing can be as powerful and beautiful as more complex, literary prose.

(more…)

How to deal with low-balling clients

A wallet, clamped shut We all want something (well, many things) for as little money as possible. Most of our resources are limited, and we want to stretch our dollars — or whatever unit of currency you use — as far as possible.

This is especially true when it comes to writing. I’m sure you’ve seen gigs for amounts that if they weren’t serious they’d be laughable. The sad fact is that there are any number of potential clients for your services who will try as hard as they can to low ball you.

They figure that there are a number of writers, many of whom are just starting out or who need the gig, and that they can get the work they want for the lowest price possible. They can get work that’s cheap or that’s good. Not both.

Over the years, I’ve dealt with a few clients and prospects who’ve tried to low ball me. Here’s some advice that can help you when this happens to you.

(more…)

Advice for doing face-to-face interviews

A hand holding a small digital recorder I do a number of interviews as part of my various writing gigs. Over the last several years, I’ve done most of those interviews over email. That allows the person I’m interviewing to take their time and not be under too much pressure when answering my questions.

To be honest, I miss doing face-to-face interviews. They’re more flexible, spontaneous, and unpredictable than email interviews. You never know tangents will appear when talking to someone face to face.

Here are some tips that can help you do better face-to-face interviews.

(more…)

Don’t ignore the smaller stories

A typewriter, once the main way of telling a written storyNo matter what some of us say, writers are an ambitious bunch. Many of us want to write bigger stories. Stories that will bring us wider fame, enhance our reputations, grab the cover or front page, and (we hope) pay us more money.

Not all of us will succeed at going after those bigger, splashier stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

When I was in journalism school, I realized that I wouldn’t be chasing the front page or the cover. I wasn’t (and am still not) that driven or ambitious. I also realized that the space after the cover or front page needed to be filled. There were, and are, opportunities to do that with smaller stories.

What do I mean by smaller stories? Here’s an example: let’s say a hacker breaks into a bank’s systems and steals the credit card information of thousands of customers. That’s the big story. The smaller story would be contacting a few of the people whose information was stolen and sharing how their lives were affected by the theft.

Not all small stories complement bigger ones. There are thousands or more small, standalone stories out there. Stories that humanize the news. Stories that bring an issue into perspective. Stories that might not have wide appeal, but which will interest a group of readers. Stories that educate or enlighten.

During my brief foray into community journalism, I wasn’t interested in local politics or the latest scandal. Instead, I was more interested in the area small business that was bucking a trend or offering something new. I was more interested in the plight individual residents of the community as a result of moves by city hall or large businesses in the area. I was more interested in the achievements of the locals.

To me, those were (and are) the stories that need to be told. Those are stories which, as writers, I don’t think we should ignore. They might not have the wider impact of bigger stories, but they were ones that readers could often relate to a personal level.

The smaller story can also be a springboard to snagging the larger stories that a number of writers covet. By covering smaller stories, you can gain experience writing. You develop a sense of story. You make contacts. All of that can lead to you gaining the confidence and experience to try to tackle a bigger story.

Don’t ignore those smaller stories. You never know where they might take you.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Taking notes with nvALT

Someone sitting in front of their Mac taking notes by hand (Note: This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, at Notes From a Floating Life. It appears here via a Creative Commons license.)

After I moved overseas three years ago, I had to take the dreaded day job. For about a year or so at one such job, I used a MacBook Pro at the office. While prefer Mac OS to Windows, I really don’t see what all the fuss about MacBooks (and Macs in general) is. They don’t have anything I hadn’t seen before, and they have more than a few annoyances.

That said, there is some nice software available for the MacBook. One tool that I came to depend on was nvALT. It’s a note taking tool that’s based on the popular note taking app Notational Velocity.

nvALT brings much-needed minimalism and simplicity to taking notes. You write your notes in plain text. It’s quick and easy to use, and is quite flexible.

(more…)

Why longer-form writing still matters

A book, with its pages opened like a fan I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the tl;dr crowd be hanged. There is a place for longer-form writing on the web. And in print, too.

There are many people (far too many, in my opinion) who only want quick hits of information. Headlines. Listicles. Summaries. There’s more to reading, and understanding, than small chunks of information.

That’s where longer-form writing — writing that runs 2,000 or 3,000 or more words — comes in. Here’s why I think it still matters.

Longer-form writing lets you tell a story. Not just a snapshot, but a fuller, more complete story. You can tell that story from its logical beginning and tie in any background that’s needed.

Longer-form writing offers depth. This ties in with being able to tell a story. You can go into more detail with a longer piece. You can bring in conflicting view points. You can not just present the bigger picture, but look at the smaller pictures that make up that big picture.

Longer-form writing promotes analysis. Very little in this world is cut and dry. Very little is black and white. There are twists and turns. There are gray areas. By properly analyzing a story or an issue, you can bring some clarity to that story or issue.

Longer-form writing can last. It might not be for the ages, but a more in-depth article or essay or interview has a longer shelf life than the quick hit of information I mentioned at the start of this post. Readers can come back to a longer piece of writing — one which tells a story, offers analysis, and goes into more depth — to learn, to understand, and to enjoy.

What about readers with short attention spans? I constantly hear arguments about some peoples’ attention spans are growing shorter and shorter. And how some people won’t consider reading anything longer than a few paragraphs.

If you choose to write longer piece, remember that you’re not writing for them. Ignore that audience. Instead, tell the best story that you can with the number of words you need to use.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Defining success

Children celebrating a success Success as a writer means different things to different people. For some folks, success is wrapped up in fame and fortune — bestselling books, big advances, lots of royalties. For others, it’s the ability to get steady work and make a decent (or better) living.

I’m in the latter camp. While I wouldn’t turn down a big book contract, I know one doesn’t land in the lap of many of us who smith words professionally. Most of us take what work we can get, write what we can, and earn whatever we can. Sounds like a 9-to-5 job, but one where we’re doing something we actually love and enjoy.

I often compare writing to acting. Not all of us will be stars. We’re more like character actors. While the big names get the big roles (and the big pay packets), their careers may stall or eventually peter out. Good character actors, on the other hand, have a steady stream of work. They’re chameleons. They’re always needed. Many of them have longer careers than their more famous counterparts.

Even when I was in journalism school, I knew that I wouldn’t be the person who went after covers or front pages or the big stories. I just wasn’t ambitious or competitive enough. But behind those front pages and covers, around those big stories is a lot of space. Space for smaller, interesting stories. Stories that might not otherwise be told.

That’s my domain. One I’m happy to inhabit. And being able to inhabit that domain as a writer is my definition of success. I can write, learn, grow, and tell a variety of stories. I can pay my bills and provide for my family with my keyboard.

I hope to be doing that for as long as I can write.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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

Analog note taking and bad handwriting

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

It all started with this tweet by Scott Berkun:

A tweet about bad handwriting by Scott Berkun

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

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

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

(more…)

Paying now, or paying later

Photo of a wallet being squeezed by a C-clamp Back in the early 2000s, someone contacted me out of the blue inquiring about my writing services. The person I talked to needed a lot of content written for his company’s website — copy for various pages, articles, and the like. It was a fair-sized job, and he wanted (in his words) professional quality writing.

When I quoted my rate for that kind of job (which was reasonable), he balked. His response was one I’d heard many times before: I can hire someone who’ll charge a third of that! I suggested he do so and then rang off.

About six weeks later, he called me back. Seems the writer he hired for a third of my rate botched the job. The writing was of very low quality and a subsequent rewrite didn’t help matters. He asked if I was available, to which I replied No. I did mention that I knew a writer who could do the job. And I warned him that she charged more than I did.

(more…)

What to do with writing that doesn’t have a home

The tools of the trade We all have writing, or writing ideas, like that. Articles or essays that are a bit too left field for most publications. Stories that are a bit too niche even for niche publications.

The writing might be good, but you just can’t get it in front of an audience. I understand how frustrating that can be, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career.

If you believe in what you wrote, if you believe in an idea there’s no reason to abandon it. Instead, create your own market. Find the right niche, find the right audience, then deliver your writing directly to that audience or niche.

How? There are three quick and easy ways to do that.

(more…)

A quick look at writing and publishing books with Leanpub

An old printing press Self publishing an ebook is, essentially, a big do-it-yourself (DIY) project. Like any DIY project, there are numerous ways to approach the job. There are various services and pieces of software that you can take advantage of, ranging from the easy to use to the techie.

Usually, I create my ebooks using two pieces of software: LyX (for PDFs) and Sigil (for EPUB). Then, I convert the EPUB to a format that readers can load on to a Kindle. And, no, the process isn’t as convoluted as it seems.

That said, I’m always interested in different ways of publishing an ebook. Last year, I came across a service called Leanpub. I used it to write and publish my book Learning Markdown. That worked out quite well.

Let’s take a closer look at Leanpub.

(more…)

How to build confidence and improve as a writer

A person writing with confidence As I’ve mentioned a few times in this space, I’ve been informally coaching a few writers over the last few months. It’s been an interesting experience — for me and, I hope, for the people I’m coaching.

A couple of those writers are just starting out. They’re not sure they want to go pro, but they definitely want to improve their writing chops. The problem is they don’t have much, if any, confidence in their writing. While their work is rough around the edges, it shows promise.

No matter what I tell them, that lack of confidence is holding them back. They seem to believe that if they’re not good writers now, they never will be. I’ve been trying every trick I know to break down that barrier, with little luck.

Recently, I tried taking a different tack. That appears to be working. Here’s what I’ve been teaching those two folks about how to build their confidence and improve as writers.

(more…)

Getting back on track

Railroad tracks My writing, and my efforts to write, suffered for a good chunk of 2015. I got knocked off track and for the longest time was unable to write what I wanted or needed to write. Even banging out blog posts was a chore.

There was no one cause. Part of it was a sudden loss of confidence in my abilities and my ideas. Part of it was a general sense of malaise that came about because of some events in my personal life. Regardless, I wasn’t doing much writing.

That needed to change. Quickly. Here’s how I got back on track.

(more…)

Tech writing and journalism: yes, there are parallels

An old typewriter And intersections, too.

Whenever I’ve said that, people (mainly in the world of journalism) have looked at me in disbelief. But it’s true. If you’re a technical writer, you’ve probably seen those parallels and intersections yourself without realizing that they were there.

How to I know? I come from the world of journalism. But I also spent a lot of years in the trenches as a technical writer. My professional life once lay in those parallels and intersections.

(more…)

Writing the short essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

How to mine Twitter for writing ideas

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

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

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

(more…)

Let it lie

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

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

Let your writing lie.

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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

How do you know what you should write?

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

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

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

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

(more…)

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a quick look at them.

(more…)

Using a template to plan your writing

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

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

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

You can grab the template in the following formats:

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

Screen capture of the template

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

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

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

The power of an hour, revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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

Losing confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start your own email newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

How to structure longer writing

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Writing a short ebook

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

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

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

(more…)

How to say what you want to say in 3 paragraphs

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

I’m hoping you’d tackle the problem head on. If so, keep reading and I’ll explain who to say what you want, and need, to say in three paragraphs.

(more…)

Why you should write morning pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A thought about word count

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

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

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

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

— the late William Zinsser, from On Writing Well

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

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

Analog note taking and bad handwriting

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

It all started with this tweet by Scott Berkun:

A tweet about bad handwriting by Scott Berkun

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

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

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

(more…)

Editing others to become a better writer

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

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

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

(more…)

Critics and you

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

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

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

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

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

As Warren Ellis recently tweeted:

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

Or any online writing.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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

Exalting the mundane with your writing

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

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

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

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

(more…)

On selling out

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Managing your writing with Simplenote

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

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

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

(more…)

Improving as a writer

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

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

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

(more…)

Working with the Logitech K480 keyboard

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Playing with titles

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

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

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

(more…)

Crafting better interview questions

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

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

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

(more…)

Looking at Some Thoughts About Writing

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

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

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

(more…)

Taking notes using Twitter

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

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

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

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

Here’s a look at how I do it.

(more…)

The web isn’t linear

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

One type of person who frustrates me is one who overthinks just about everything. Who dithers. Who spends too much time planning and not enough time doing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Photo credit: ngould

Pulling the plug on a blog

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

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

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

(more…)

Don’t overthink your ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Photo credit: grietgriet

Where do you write?

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

In that post, McAlpine made a very good point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowdfunding and the writer

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

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

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

(more…)

7 open source tools and free resources for writing

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


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

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

(more…)

Answering questions to break through a block

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

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

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

Here are a few tips.

(more…)

A few links for the end of the week

How to effectively take notes at an event

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

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

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

Let me share that strategy with you.

(more…)

A quick guide to writing short

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

More Chrome apps and extensions for writers

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

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

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

(more…)

Lifting ideas from others

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

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

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

(more…)

A short guide to quickly writing an ebook

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Full time or freelance?

Decisions, decisions That is the question …

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

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

Let’s take a look at them.

(more…)

Making what you write more granular

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Are you an artist or a craftsperson?

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

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

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

Photo credit: iceviking

Think visually

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Headings are a guidepost

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Start with a template

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

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

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

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

(more…)

The two-edged sword of the idea

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

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

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

Doing the work

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

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

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

(more…)

Playing the long game

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

That’s so true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Ayla87

Why write using a tablet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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

The bane of That is

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rewrote it as:

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Why aren’t you doing this full time?

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Writing for free

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Photo credit: nyuszika

Three tools for automating your social media

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

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

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

(more…)

Do you write to get attention, or to help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Photo credit: 0Odyssey0

Forget perfection

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

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

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

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

You’ll keep trying to improve what you write.

You’ll keep fretting over every word and sentence.

You’ll keep second guessing yourself.

You’ll keep trying to realize an ideal that you cannot possibly reach.

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

Forget perfection.

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

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Photo credit: protego

Don’t obsess – do it!

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

It’s far too easy to overthink your writing.

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

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

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

Don’t obsess. Write.

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

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

And remember that the secret to good writing is editing.

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

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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.

(more…)

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? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

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?

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

Spiking your own stories

Spiking, 21st century style Once upon a time, a prominent feature on 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 quite back the story 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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

Photo credit: Dani Vincek