Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

Ad for the Commonplace Book

Attention: All writers.
Announcing a “must-have” item now available to stimulate thoughts and generate the flow of ideas. It’s been available for centuries, but I was only recently introduced to this fabulous item. And frankly, I can’t believe I’ve lived so long without it! Now that I’m paying attention, I find that a substantial majority of well-respected writers I’ve encountered in the last few months—modern, classical, or ancient and from all economical situations—keep/kept this item or it’s equivalent with them at all times.


Commonplace Book
The “must-have” for any writer or conscious thinker is the commonplace book—a pocket-sized (or purse-sized) notebook carried with you at all times in order to record what is uppermost on your mind at any given moment.

See if this sounds familiar: you’re driving down the road, or in the dentist’s chair, or suddenly awakened in the night with a brilliant, or at least interesting, idea, but you’ve no place to jot it down! By the time you get your hands on paper and pen, the thought has long since faded into the far recesses of your mind. Lost forever.

Don’t ya hate that?!

The commonplace book defeats the above scenario. That never has to happen again! The moment a thought hits, you whip it out, and write it down. Voile! The thought is saved from certain death. (Although, if you’re driving, I recommend taking the time to pull off the road before recording your thought.)

How To
A few things to keep in mind while getting used to your commonplace book:

  • The thought itself is important and should not be prejudged for quality.
  • The trigger and the idea it promotes don’t necessarily have to reflect one another.
  • Trust your instincts. Editing as you write may destroy the beauty of the original thought. So write it first, that way it’s safely preserved, and then hack it to pieces.

Also, among your jotted thoughts, please include thoughts from the following categories:

  • Dumb
  • Stupid
  • Obvious
  • Irrelevant

Any thoughts from the above may be, or lead to, your best ideas. In particular, obvious thoughts actually hold a fair amount of value, because they usually resonate well with the masses.

Give it a try. If you’re not in the habit already, pick up an inexpensive, small notebook the next time you’re at the store, and see if this works for you. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: It’s All About Quantity

Today’s nugget was gleaned from a literature class I am currently taking. My teacher presented the following quote from Jules Renard in class. My response is below.

“Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter how lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to puck up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they seat, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use of the paper…In literature, there are only oxen.”

There is a lot of hope in this statement. It puts our fates back in our hands and gives us the ability to proceed. We don’t have to depend on something innate, beyond our control, to determine whether we can or cannot write. It’s so obvious that I’ve never thought about it before, but it is true: anyone can compose any sentence. No magical power is required to do so.

In this statement Renard claims the key to producing great work is to produce tons of work, and then, I presume, to pick out what is best. Hopefully, if there is enough work to choose from, then some of it will be very good. And it goes without saying—but I will say it anyway—that all of that work will be great practice to improve the work as the writer goes along.

It makes me think of J.K Rowling who managed to write a story that has resonated through this decade and touched all varieties of people like no other in my lifetime. But she patiently plodded along, like an ox, and wrote for years before she ever produced the first book. She wrote thousands and thousands of words that never went into her books, carefully laying foundations, getting to know her characters, and honing her craft until she could choose the very best bits of text to go into her books.

This advice from an expert novelist and playwright has caused me to renew my dedication and keep moving forward. And hopefully some day I too, will offer the same advice to those who want to know how I did it.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: How I Craft a Book Review

If you’d like some advice about how to write a very formal and scholarly critique of a book, you won’t find it here. Please visit Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for a great article about that kind of book-reviewing. This is about the informal world of book-review blogging, and what I look for and aim to provide in a book-review.

So, to start: do you or don’t you take notes while you read? I don’t. I prefer to be absorbed into the story, and I can’t do that if I am constantly assessing whether the text or character or what-have-you is ‘jot-worthy’ or not.

I read the book, at whatever pace it demands, and then put it all–my thoughts included– on the shelf for a few days. After that I make a note of anything that still stands out to me: writing style, character development, a certain moment, a plot twist, anything. I figure if I’m still thinking about something after a few days, then it’s probably worth discussing in my review.

If nothing stands out, but I must write a review then my best bet is to go through a list of questions like this one from the Los Angeles Valley College Library and hope it gets the wheels turning in my brain.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I don’t use a template for book-reviews. I shape each article individually. But while I’m shaping, I keep a few do’s and don’t’s in mind:

Don’t:

  • Stress about a comprehensive synopsis. Readers will go to Goodreads or Amazon for that. Most books already have dozens of synopses out there. Your personal opinions and perspective is the unique thing you can offer readers.
  • Be afraid to talk about plot twists, ending, or other surprise points. But be considerate, and warn those who haven’t read the book yet to stop reading your review if you are about to give away something important.
  • Think that a negative review will damage a book’s sales. Often times a negative review breeds more curiosity. If you want to deter readers from buying than don’t mention the book at all.

Do:

  • Read the entire book before you review it! This should be obvious, but for reasons unknown, some people don’t. You cannot pass fair judgment if you haven’t considered all the evidence. And as The Bloggers’ Bulletin suggests, you could end up with a foot planted squarely in your mouth if you make a factual error.
  • Mention the book title and author’s name in the first paragraph of your review. As Scholastic points out, no one likes to dig for that.
  • Express your opinions. As your reader that’s what I want from you. But if you’re reviewing a book about Mexican food, and if–due to a traumatic childhood incident involving avocados–you have an atypical aversion to Guacamole, it would be cool if you disclose that and acknowledge that your opinion may be colored accordingly.
  • Draw your conclusions and then explain why. The ‘why’ part lends credibility to your opinions and persuades your readers. Without the ‘why’ your review is just another rant.
  • Consider the author’s purpose in writing the book. University of Northern Carolina’s online writing center offers a great example of how skewed a review can end up, if the reviewer judges solely from their expectations and ignores the author’s intentions.

I usually sum-up by recommending the book to those that might find value in it, whether it’s a very wide audience made up of anyone who’s ever ridden in a car or a smaller crowd of moto-cross-loving grandmothers of Siamese twins.

So what about you? Do you take notes when you read? Do prefer the scholarly book-critique, or the casual, opinion-laden book-review?

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: Post-Haste

The internet is full of blogs that started off well, but for whatever reason the author lost steam and abandoned the project. I believe this happens most often when the novelty wears off, and writing the blog ceases to be a source of entertainment. Totally understandable.

When the initial energy and excitement is gone, hard work is mostly all that’s left. And while there are rewards, few people are thrilled about spending 6 or more hours at the computer on a 500 word post. So what’s the trick? How do we maximize our time at the keyboard and maintain positive blogging energy?

Here’s my “best of” list from some smart people who know how to write fast:

  • Set the stage. Michelle V. Rafter says, “Write when you’re on.” She claims 5am is her freshest time of day and reserves it for writing. She ‘un-plugs’ (internet, T.V., etc.) and removes all possible distractions.
  • Focus your topic. Jim Estill starts with a list of points to cover; marinades them for a few days, gathering ideas and honing the focus of his piece; and then tosses the items that don’t fit. (BTW Jim’s article was fantastic, definitely worth your time.)
  • Answer a question. Gill E. Wagner says turning your subject into a question to answer identifies what you need and don’t need to cover.
  • Pick your format ahead of time. Alisa Bowman recommends spending your time on writing rather than format. Her article identifies 5 common blog-post formats.
  • Write first; then edit. Get everything out of your head before you make changes. Breaking up the flow of your ideas requires you to spend time collecting them again.
  • The shorter the post, the better. Internet audiences are known for their limited attention span. The blogosphere has no use for fluff and filler. Write about what’s interesting and avoid everything else.

Can you do it now? Go pound away for a solid 30 minutes, and then move on with your day already!

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: Your Story

Fellow bloggers agree: blogging about writing is great. We put into words of all the ideas that rattle around in our heads and meet and learn from successful people in the writing profession, all while practicing the craft. But as valuable as this experience is now, in a 100 years when things have changed dramatically, there will probably be little value to the things we are discussing here.

On the other hand, any kind of a record of everyday life, however mundane it may seam, may prove invaluable to posterity and future historians. So while you’re feverishly working away at your profession, don’t forget to leave a little something about yourself behind.

Three ways to keep a journal:

  • The time-honored tradition of pen and paper. For some, this is the ideal way to compose anything, and certainly the portability and convenience cannot be beat by even the smallest of laptops. A planner, a palm, or even your slightly-used pizza napkin will do in a pinch.
  • Blog. There are tons of user-friendly, free services out there now. (blogger.com, aeonity.com, wordpress.com) These services, especially Blogger, are great for allowing you to insert pictures, videos, and all kinds of stuff. Plus your mom and those that love you will love having access to you. Of course these services also allow you to control who can view your blog.
  • If you need writing prompts than you might try LDSJournal.com. This service was started with members of the LDS faith in mind (journaling and record-keeping are a big deal to them). No worries though, this service could be beneficial for anyone, and an LDS membership isn’t required.


    This site offers a question of the day to get you going, and they also have a great “all about me” section with questions about your childhood, education, vacations, and other personal history prompts.


    The down-side (or maybe the upside, depending on your view) is that security is tight, and casual, viewing-only access is not allowed. Also I have yet to figure out how to include photos and videos.

However you do it… do it! Get going and earn your immortality today.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: Demo Skills Without Upsetting Clients

Linnea Dodson addressed this problem among tech writers. Trevor Dolby touched on this problem in the editing world. I’m sure it wouldn’t take much digging to find a dozen more people wondering the same thing: As writing and editing professionals we all need a portfolio, right? So how on earth do you fill a portfolio without imposing on the confidentiality of your clients?

You can stuff books full of tributes, accolades, and honors, but how much does that really say about your ability to do a job? As mechanics of English, we need to show our prospective employers the tools in our drawers and not just the papers hanging on the walls.

Luckily Dodson and I have some decent ideas.

For tech writers she suggests the best place to go for help is home:

  • Rewrite the warning labels on your medicines or the legal fine print at the bottom of your sweepstakes ads. Put a before and after in your portfolio to show that you can decrease word-count and increase readability.
  • Write how-to’s for your appliances.
  • Include a training guide for something you do everyday. Note: while you should have a little fun with this activity, Dodson warns, “‘Juggling in 10 Easy Steps’ may not fit every company to which you apply.”

Dodson makes a point easily aimed at editors too. Why can’t they do the same thing? Perhaps their clients don’t really want their befores and afters shown off. No problem:

  • We all edit constantly. If you see something that’s already been published but could use some touching up, go for it. Just be sure to give appropriate credit where due.
  • Help out your friends and family, and with their permission, change any personal information and include befores and afters of their projects.
  • Pull out a dusty piece of your own work and give it a good re-hashing.

Get creative. Identify what you want to display, and then figure out how to do it. Unfortunately this is work you probably won’t be paid for, and it needs to be your best, but with some imagination it doesn’t have to be painful.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: Writer’s Block

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We all dread that moment. You know the one. You’re staring at the empty page or screen, painfully aware of an impending deadline, ie: a commitment to publish a blog post on a certain day every week (Oops, sorry again), but you have absolutely nothing to say. Aarg! What do you do about that?!

I’ve noticed a trend when this happens to me. There’s almost always something in the way. I’m hungry or tired or angry or stressed out. Often there’s just too many thoughts rattling around in my head.

So the first I do is address my needs. I eat or take a power nap or go for a walk to calm myself. If there’s too much going on inside my head, I take a minute and write down all the thoughts that demand attention. Once my needs are addressed, and my mind is cleared, I am almost always able to write.

Of course more often than not, I cannot meet all my needs before beginning. So in that case I turn to a few exercises to get me going:

  • If I have any great lines I want to include or points I want to make, I get those down first. For example, I wrote the last paragraph of this post right after I wrote the second paragraph of this post. Who says anything has to be written in order? I’m rarely able to think in order, so I rarely write that way.

  • I make an outline. Even if I’ve already done that. When there’s a few parts written out, I start fitting those into place and summarizing what needs to go in between. Once the in between parts are labeled and identified, it gets easier to write those parts.

  • My husband gave me a brilliant suggestion last night. He said if worse comes to worse, start writing alterations (the healthy, hungry hippo has to hijack a houseboat) or rhymes or work on some other literary trick. Write an elaborate description of an event or place. The point is to get the wheels turning in your mind. I haven’t tried this yet, but it makes sense to me. I bet it works.

  • John August suggests setting a time limit. He pledges to attempt writing for 20 minutes and then gives himself 10 minutes of freedom. I think it would be wise to use that 10 minutes of freedom to do something very non-mental. I would listen to music and stare out the window or at the ceiling for 10 minutes. I’d be ready to mentally engage after that.

  • David Hunter of The Writer’s Den suggests shuffling through discarded ideas and removing distractions like internet, phone, and TV.

  • And while reading David’s post from The Writer’s Den (don’t visit if you hate colorful language, sheesh!) I thought of another good idea: switch mediums! If you always type, try good ‘ole pen and paper for a bit, ect. Ask someone to take dictation. It might just be enough of a change to refresh.

  • Brian Clark of Copyblogger warns that writer’s block may be a sign of fear. (fear of rejection, fear of mediocrity, fear of success) He says don’t allow yourself to be your own worst enemy. Work past your fears.

  • Melissa Karnaze, also of Copyblogger actually believes a block can be a “secret weapon.” In her post she gives some great steps to reach clarity, find what it is you want to say, and most importantly, remember why you wanted to write that piece in the first place.

Well that’s it for me. Of course if none of this works, and the words still won’t come, listen inward. Maybe you shouldn’t write your story or paper. Maybe the timing is off, or your heart’s not in it. Trust your instincts. Put the thing aside. But good luck explaining that to your boss or professor! Now there’s a real problem!