The 6 Most Important Things You Should Be Writing (But Probably Aren’t)

As the world grows more commercial, there’s an increasing tendency to label only certain of writing as valuable. People encourage others to write books nearly as a right of passage, for example, and professionals apparently aren’t professional at all unless they publish papers or articles. News headlines still capture our attention, and no one wants to be without a collection of life hacks, self-help or how-to pieces.

Yet, if you’re not writing the following important things, you’re missing out.

1. A journal

Memoirs and journals are not the same thing. A memoir is your story told with a particular angle or spin you want. You get to pick and choose which parts to include and which to toss in the trash, and you write it in hindsight. But a journal is bigger and more raw. You write in the moment without caring how things tie together and give your honest thoughts or perception of events. And so it is much better at revealing who you are. It often can help you sort out what you’re feeling and aid in decision making, and you can look back on it not only as a memory aid, but as evidence of your growth or change. Many people swear by journaling as a way to organize themselves and control stress, too.

2. Letters

Although lots of writers have focused on writing thank you notes, traditional letters are equally important. They take longer to write than digital options like email, and that’s kind of the point. Since you can’t just autocorrect or bulk delete, they show the recipient that you’re willing to slow down, to really think about what you’re putting on the paper. Everyone likes to feel remembered, and a simple letter, sent even when someone hasn’t done anything for you, conveys the message you haven’t forgotten them. Unlike digital messages, traditional letters also are something people can keep to remember a relationship even in the most remote situations. They don’t require any account keeping and physically can last for decades or even centuries.

3. Family stories

What happened when Grandpa flew with the Allies into Germany in WWII? Why did Aunt Elaine always plant morning glories? Did Dad really hide the neighbor’s combine in the grove for a laugh? You never know unless you ask, and being able to share those stories helps those you love feel more significant. Writing it all down can help you appreciate who they are as people and how they connect to you, and it leaves a legacy. Plus, their stories can help you make sense of different times, circumstances and your own current difficulties.

4. Recipes

Can you buy a cookbook in about two seconds? Sure. It might not even cost you more than $1 if you go used or digital. But meals the way your family did them, that little dash of this or that or a personal technique from your grandma–those are what make dishes taste like home and be so insanely comforting. They can’t be bought, and as with family stories, once people are gone, they can’t ever share those tastes with you again. So whether it’s jam, cinnamon bread, goat cheese frittatas  or a good old-fashioned jambalaya, write it out and pass it down.

5. A goal breakdown/schedule

People fail to achieve goals for all kinds of reasons, including a lack of good support. But much of the time, failure happens simply because people set a target without identifying the specific path they need to walk to get there. Even if they know the broad steps necessary, they do not break those steps down into scheduled task items (e.g., find an agent = send out 4 queries every Saturday between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.). Writing a goal breakdown will help you see just how easy or complex an objective is, let you gather and use resources well and get a better sense of progress so you can stay motivated.

6. A got-it-done list

You probably pay crazy attention to your to-do list. It’s there to keep you on track and productive. But a got-it-done list is meant to help you reflect on what you’ve accomplished, regardless of whether the accomplishments are what you set out to do or not. You write the list at the end of the day and use it to combat the feeling like you didn’t do enough or somehow wasted your time. It’s all about keeping your day in perspective so you can rest easy without guilt and start again fresh the next day.

All writing is important. But honing in on these half a dozen areas can help you see your life or circumstances with fresh eyes. These niches can relieve stress, strengthen relationships and ensure you take the right actions at the right time for what you want. So if all you write are cover letters or chat messages, spice it up. You might be surprised at how you feel with what comes out of your pen.

5 Practical Tips To Take the Suck Out of Writing

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Like any job, writing has it’s logistical and psychological challenges. These don’t have to ruin your experience, though. These are just a handful of tips that can make completing a draft all the easier and enjoyable.

1. Back it up and print it out.

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These days, tools like Google Docs mean you can avoid problems like lost or malfunctioning pen drives, overwritten files, etc. And many companies with this type of cloud storage sync after working offline and offer guarantees that protect you if any loss of data is the company’s fault.

But backups still can allow you to share your work with individuals who might not have access to or know how to use those tools. Many publishers and agents still ask for manuscripts attached to emails as Word documents, although this might shift to permissions-based URL linking in the future.

Printed need-only copies also can ease eye strain for beta readers or your own editorial process. Some people genuinely prefer the traditional feel of a red pen against paper as they rework. But by far the biggest reason to print out what you’ve written is software compatibility. The printed page will retain its accessibility for decades or even centuries with no need for updates and isn’t problematic in terms of particular word processing programs/platforms losing favor.

Whether you backup digitally or print out your pages, do it consistently, ideally at the end of every writing session or day.

2. Pay attention to your rhythm.

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I’m a huge advocate of scheduling out time every day to complete projects. But if you genuinely can’t focus before noon, don’t try to plunk a writing session on your calendar for 8:00 a.m. under the mistaken impression the early bird is the only one getting any worms.

3. Move.

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A well-designed workspace can give your brain a solid signal that, hey, it’s time to get crankin’ on that draft. But sitting at a desk all day takes a physical toll. Set reminders to get up and stretch or take a walk. Let yourself take some of the time you have for writing to go to a park with your laptop, or just let the new environment refresh you so you can come back to the draft with a new perspective and focus. It’s perfectly OK to use voice-to-text tools while on your treadmill, gardening or putting away your groceries.

4. Ignore the bestseller lists. 

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Bestsellers often aren’t the greatest writing–sometimes they’re just based on a particularly trendy topic, such as political analysis or revelations. What’s more, there’s a lot of controversy about how bestsellers “earn” their spots–the lists are far from accurate and actually are relatively easy to manipulate. If you really want examples of good writing you can use to improve your own approach, word of mouth is the best option. Ask people you know, both online and in person, what they would recommend. You might be surprised at what they put in front of you, and you’ll get exposure to many more styles and voices.

5. Add your personal touches to your writing session.

Maybe it’s having an ice-cold soda next to you as you type. Maybe it’s letting an app mimic the sound of a typewriter as you fly over the keys, or having your favorite fuzzy sweater on. It’s not just about being comfortable or eliminating distractions. It’s about being relaxed and getting in the mindset that you’re not going to judge yourself or what comes out onto the page anymore. Items that can remind you of the “why” behind the project, such as a photo of your family or something you want in your life, can be powerful motivators.

Got your own tip to make writing more fun or efficient? Leave it in the comments below!

5 Tips to Make Writing Any Book a Million Times Easier

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Some brilliant people on the planet, so I have heard, are able to crank out books with the same ease as sipping a latte.

I am not one of those people. I count myself lucky if I write even one short story or novel a year, largely because…well, life.

But I have developed some strategies that make writing a manuscript a bit less nightmarish–and at least for me, more efficient. These tactics might be of use to you, too.

1. Don’t get too hung up on chronology.

If you can outline your whole book and then start pounding the keys in the order you’ve set, cool. You need to have a sense of how things are going to connect and flow. But I find that as I think about a topic or idea, I don’t necessarily consider it or gain information exactly as it is laid out. My brain will wander to one chapter, then another, or I’ll be able to picture one scene vividly compared to everything else. In those moments, I write as the ideas come, even if it’s just a single paragraph, because I know I can work out transitions later. I understand that some of the writing might get tossed no matter what route I take, so I just try to keep the juices flowing. Do that for enough days and pretty soon the manuscript as a whole fills in. Just get something on the page to get your confidence up, and remember it’s okay to revise later.

2. Think in terms of blurbs and quotes.

Publishers and agents often consider a book’s “hook” when deciding whether to publish or provide representation. Tweak this concept a bit and, instead of thinking just about your one line pitch, imagine everything as if it’s been pulled out as a quote for the book jacket or in a review. What makes it gripping? Descriptive? Emotional? Does it have real poetry to it?

Now write every paragraph that way.

Yeah, tough, I know. But don’t get caught up in making it “perfect”, especially in the initial draft. You’re just trying to make sure that what you write is memorable and engaging or has a sense of point and meaning, and that it really represents your voice.

3. Format as you go.

Formatting as you go makes it tons easier to consider elements like pacing and word count. It also makes it a snap to go back and find specific elements if they need tweaking. You’ll also typically be able to pull from the draft easily to create proposals and queries, although some agents and publishers will ask that you follow specific guidelines.

4. Get feedback as early as possible.

Getting feedback early can help you determine whether the angle you’ve chosen for a chapter or the text as a whole actually works. They can help you brainstorm for parts of the text you’re still working on so you get a more well-rounded, thought-out approach and don’t waste time. They’re often essential for helping you “detach” from the writing and see alternatives you hadn’t considered.

5. Schedule yourself, but be flexible and self-kind.

I’m a big advocate for writing whenever and wherever you can. But for consistent progress, you also need to know you have a few minutes every day set aside for the writing. So put your writing on your calendar. Be serious about it. But if you’re mentally fried or just have an “off day”, adapt. Writers can always tell when you’ve forced text out, so you’ll be better off to be flexible, give yourself a break, and come back at your next scheduled time.

Writing a book can be time-intensive. But it doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth. By getting others to lend a hand and allowing yourself some wiggle room within a good plan, your draft will take shape without an absurd amount of stress.


What’s in Your Punctuation? A Lot, Apparently

Part of basic elementary school training is learning the basics of punctuation–a comma does this, a period does that. And over time, we get better at using those basics consistently so that our writing is more understandable and has better flow.

But how much of punctuation relates to voice, that mysterious thing that agents, publishers and readers talk about with such simultaneous reverence and excitement?

That’s the question Lucas Reilly explored in a recent article for Mental Floss. Reilly reported how people have used stylometric analysis, which is the process of using quirks within writing samples to identify who wrote the text, for decades. But now, a team led by Alexandra Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, applied the concept to genres and the evolution of author style over time. Could you, for example, tell a romance novel from a science fiction one, based just on the punctuation in it?

The researchers discovered that this is totally possible. They created formulas that could pinpoint authors with 72 percent accuracy, and genre at 65 percent. Not perfect, but still pretty impressive.

The researchers also noted that we’re using commas and semicolons less than we used to, and that the use of periods and quotation marks and periods has gone up. This shift might reflect the massive technological shift we’re going through. As people struggle to focus online, the emphasis is on concise writing, and people throw in plenty of quotes to try to include the authority that’s going to give their piece the credibility necessary to be heard in the noise of the Internet. (More cynically, this also might be a reflection that we are struggling to rephrase concepts in our own words.) The idea that the tools available to us might sway us to adopt writing tendencies we otherwise might not have matters. The tools we select are always within our control, but we must be aware of their influence to make more conscious choices about what to utilize.

But lets go back to those stats for a second. Each genre arguably has its own “feel”. This arguably is part of what endears readers to one type of book compared to another, and punctuation clearly is playing a huge role in providing that feeling. It’s a lot like music–hip hop doesn’t feel like classical, classical doesn’t feel like jazz. And within those, composers communicate within a set of rules in their own way–Brahms doesn’t sound like Mozart, yet they’re both “classical”. We cannot dismantle that completely, at least not all at once, because it would feel “off” to the reader who has a set of expectations about what the genre needs to be or have.

But what if we messed around with that? What if we broke away, committed more to our own style of punctuation and didn’t conform so much to the genre? The potential is there to create something entirely fresh–you know, that characteristic that agents and publishers say they are constantly looking for in manuscripts. What if, for example, a Victorian romance novel had the pointed brevity of Hemingway but maintained all the classic plot “essentials”? Wouldn’t that make it marvelously easier for writers to cross genres and not get unnecessarily labeled as one type of writer or another, to explore all kinds of storytelling instead of allowing themselves to get stuffed in a box?

And this all raises another question. Writers always influence other writers to some degree. As you might see in my posts, for instance, I use longer structures, and I’m not afraid of commas. It’s a testimony to the many hours I spent with Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Melville and a whole gaggle of others. So what if we’re holding ourselves back by immersing ourselves in a preferred category? What if we’ve read so much science fiction or whatever else that the sound and rhythm of it is too ingrained and we cannot truly speak as ourselves?

So this brings to the fore the need for writers to read a lot, and read everything. We need to understand that there is more than one sound, more than one cadence, more than one way to break ideas apart or string them together. And while all of us have to be concerned with “readability” for the audience, there is no “right” cadence, sound or method. We stay aware of that the more we expose ourselves to variety.

It’s a lot like Paul Maclean (Brad Pitt) finding his own way with his fishing rod in A River Runs Through It. Find your pace. Find your flow. It’s your own mark and secret byline, if you let it be.