6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing

 

I want to get better as a writer. Most other writers I know have that goal, too. They feel obligated to improve, not just because there’s a better chance they’ll make more money, but also because they want to show everybody else just how rich the craft can be.

By far the best thing you can do to get better at writing is just to practice. But there are other easy ways to improve your ability to write well, too.

  1. Read

The more you read, the more you get exposed to different writing worlds, voices and vocabulary. You also get more general information, which helps you make decisions about what to include or exclude in the world you craft.

One sneaky trick here is to include a lot of reviews and comments in your reading. These will give you invaluable insights about what readers thought worked and didn’t work in the given content. You can avoid their mistakes and incorporate tricks writers used well with your own unique spin. As a bonus, familiarizing yourself with reviews and comments–which can be harsh, I’m not going to lie–can help you develop a thicker skin so that, when people say something about your own work, you have a better understanding that it truly isn’t personal. That keeps your confidence high so you can continue to write your best.

2. Subscribe

Your options here are far-reaching–podcasts, word-of-of-the-day texts or emails, and masterclass videos on Youtube or other sites are just some of the ways you can educate yourself and hear what other writers think and do. The best thing about subscriptions is that, once you’re signed up, everything comes to you directly with no extra research effort. All you have to do is come up with a system to keep the incoming episodes or other materials organized for later.

3. Make to-do lists

It’s OK if you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer and like spontaneity in your day. But writing any kind of to-do list teaches you to prioritize what’s important to you and to see the chronology of time better. That can help you hone in on what writing tasks deserve your time for the day so you stay out of the weeds. It can transfer over into general, loose outlining, as well.

4. Set boundaries

No, I’m not talking about telling your family to scram while you work on a draft, although doing that in a kind way certainly isn’t going to hurt. I’m talking about knowing when to stop researching, drafting or tweaking. At some point, more information just isn’t relevant, the draft is too long and all your editing is just making the work different, not better. So whether it’s saying that you’ll only Google medieval swords for an hour or that you’ll create a more digestible series if your book crosses 100,000 words, create your rules and stick to them.

5. Cross platforms

No, you don’t have to be a Twitter star or podcaster or do a million interviews. But a little fun on different platforms can get you more comfortable accepting your identity as a writer. You have to promote yourself and your work in more venues and really have to own it. Platform crossing also teaches you to present your writing in lots of ways and gives you the opportunity to interact with different audiences. You also can have opportunities to share your insights, and teaching is one of the best ways to confirm for yourself whether you really are sure of what works for you and what your philosophies behind writing are.

6. Let go

I’m a firm believer that good things can come from hanging on to unfinished drafts or ideas. The reality, however, is that you don’t need to hang on to everything. Some concepts really are *cough*….yeah. Some days, you just know it’s not right. So let those words go. Identify what really energizes you and ditch what doesn’t. Remind yourself that crossing out words, paragraphs or entire paragraphs is normal, and that it’s necessary to get an end product that’s engaging, lean and true to who you are at your best.

Writers are always growing and improving. But this isn’t just something that happens only because we get older and get more experience that can shape our content. It’s also because we make a conscious choice to grow and improve. Decide right now that you’re going to take action, and then let your ideas lead you wherever they might.

5 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Writing Instantly

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If you want to improve your writing, then the best way to do it–by far–is to just write, and to do it a lot. There’s no magic quick fix for honing your own style and becoming comfortable with the entire process. But there are some habits and strategies that can make a dramatic improvement in just minutes.

1. Say the words.

Yes, you have to go back and clean things up. But part of what makes writing work is that it feels conversational and relatable. Reading your writing aloud or verbalizing as a part of outlining process helps you find your flow. If you’re tripping all over yourself in a spot, then you probably can say it in a simpler way or find alternatives that fit the rhythm of the writing better.

2. Download a tool.

My favorite here is Grammarly, but there are increasingly sophisticated options. Some even are starting to utilize AI to generate content and predictive analysis to make suggestions. The key here is to remember that the software is not the boss. It is simply a second pair of eyes, your Editor-in-a-Pinch. YOU still have to be smarter than the technology and think about how the suggestions/changes will influence the reader’s experience. But they can help you notice areas that need clarity or correction very quickly. They also can get you to think more out of the box and feel OK about chucking what doesn’t work.

3. Psych yourself up.

As a writer, your job isn’t just to tell the story (e.g., Fact A, Fact B, Fact C). That’s boring as hades. What makes it engaging is empathy. Readers have to feel something for the work to be memorable and have an influence on their thinking or behavior.

Conveying feelings in your writing happens more naturally if you’re feeling those emotions as you work. In this way, it’s every bit of performance art as acting or singing. It can be exhausting if you truly embrace and put everything into it. To get yourself in the right mindset for a scene, do anything that gets you in the mood you need to convey. Listening to music tracks is an easily accessible option I use all the time. But you also can go for a walk, go somewhere new, drink your favorite drink, play a video game or even sort your stuff. The only rules are that whatever you do has to be 1) easy to stop and pivot from 2) safe for you and others.

4. Pay attention to your body and environment.

I’m not talking so much about general self-care, although things like enough sleep and choosing healthy foods definitely influence your brainpower. I’m talking about your natural rhythm during the day. For example, most of us slump during the afternoon, and I find that I write more words per hour in the morning before everyone is up and it’s quiet. Try to figure out when you do your best writing and then make sure that you’re scheduling in those windows. Take care of the more routine jobs for your writing that you can do pretty automatically, such as backing up your files, when you know you’re not going to be at your creative best.

5. Conduct a poll.

Whether you need to know which ending scenario people like better or just want to see which phrasing people prefer, a poll is a super fast and efficient way to get feedback. Social media platforms make it easy to connect with others for this purpose. When all is said and done, you’ll be left with a draft that’s easier to understand and gets a better response from your target audience. It also can help make you more aware of your shortcomings or biases so that they don’t find their way into your work in the future.

Most great writers admit that improving at the craft is something that never stops. Like them, you should seek to get better and learn more about writing over your entire career. But sometimes simple changes can make a huge, immediate difference in the quality or quantity of your work (or both). Give these strategies a try, and then let me know in the comments if they’ve helped you along.

 

Why You Should (and Shouldn’t) Use Chapter Titles in Your Books

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Every fiction book has a title. That’s a given. But chapters? That’s messier.

The case against chapter titles…

Most fiction books I’ve read don’t use chapter titles. They use numbers. More specifically, writers generally put those numbers on the page as digits (e.g., 29), rather than writing out the words (e.g., twenty-nine). But every writer is a little individual about it.

Some readers like that chapter titles can give a sneak peek at what’s ahead in the next section of the book. But personally, I find that chapter titles usually give away too much, which ruins my anticipation. If an author only uses the chapter number, then I have clear start-stop points in the book, but the author hasn’t given anything away, and I still have a better sense of mystery and excitement.

From a technical perspective, chapters are meant only to break your book into smaller sections. And it can become hard to know where to draw the line with section labels. Paragraphs or pages, for example, are small sections, too, but you don’t title those. You just assume the reader will flow from one to the next and use the line break / indenting to understand your organization. So in this sense, I see chapter numbers as much simpler and less invasive.

…and the case in favor

But chapter titles have their benefits. They force you, as a writer, to have a clear sense of what the content in that section does or is about. If you outline before you write, then you can stay better focused so you don’t get into the weeds too much. You know exactly what purpose the text has for the reader. And if you place titles after drafting, then it still can help you see what to put in or cut. There’s also a fantastic creative challenge that can improve your writing overall. Instead of one title to come up with, you could have dozens. Many readers appreciate all this extra flavor and effort.

Chapter titles also can create a sense of unity through a book. Some readers need to see or how the chapters are related, because those associations help them make better sense of the book as a whole. And if you use a chapter title that includes something the reader is familiar with or that provides a good curiosity gap, then you can create some empathy to connect better and create intrigue without giving too much away. It’s possible to set the mood right away so that your reader more easily can settle in, imagine the world or scene, and feel invested.

In the end, the reader is most important

Ultimately, chapter titles are always forward-oriented. So if you’re going to use them, they need to give clear clues about the journey the reader is going to take, and they need to do it in a way that’s not distracting. If you don’t want to use them, though, then you don’t have to. There are all kinds of other writing strategies and techniques you can use to create anticipation (e.g., a classic cliffhanger chapter ending), help one section flow to the next, or offer clues. But in either case, think about your reader, both in terms of what they expect–some genres use chapter titles more often than others, for example–and what they personally are going to need. Create a truly immersive experience, and make conscious decisions at every step about how to present your story in a positive way that they’ll respond to.

Do Modern Writers Lean Too Much on Blunt Shock Value?

Catching your readers off guard once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It can make your story seem more novel (pun intended) so that people are motivated to go all the way to the last page. But then I stumbled across this Tweet:

The tweet got me thinking about how writers are approaching fiction writing in general. Like Chris, I’ve been getting the impression that there’s a lot of emphasis on the “traits” or technical elements that go into a draft, like making characters more compelling. But you can have all of those elements and still have a book be less than incredible if your actual writing is subpar.

But what makes it stand out?

For me, great writing is poetic, not in the sense of being flowery or verbose, but in the sense of having incredibly beautiful imagery, rhythm and metaphor that stirs deep feelings of empathy. You absolutely can have your own style here. But readers get the sense from your connotations and phrasing and analogies, from hints and implications between the lines, that the character has some real experience with life. It’s truthful and relatable in an incredibly deep way.

From my perspective, much of modern writing lacks this poetry. It is incredibly sharp and blunt, designed to drop the jaw and not waste time. Perhaps that is because there has been so much of an emphasis on pacing and driving the plot. Perhaps that makes us afraid of what will happen if readers are allowed a moment to think beyond the pages into the psychological or other realities those pages contain. Or perhaps it is the reader who is already so overwhelmed that all they want is an “easy” beach read, to be entertained instead of forced to keep thinking and feeling. Or perhaps we are all so conditioned to the dramatic, to explosions and fire defining “action”, to technology forcing us to want immediate gratification and response, that we think bluntness is the only way to communicate.

This bluntness can be problematic in any genre, but I think it’s especially visible in horror/thriller. The stories aren’t just more gruesome. They also quickly throw out events that are so unexpected that I cannot help but feel like seams are showing, like it was clearly the writer’s intent to shock. And because I see the intent, I am not shocked. I’m disappointed and distracted from the story.

The solution isn’t easy. It’s to focus on yourself. It’s to be so comfortable with who you are that you don’t censure, that you no longer worry about what anyone else is going to think as you pull from everything you know and have been through. You must listen to your own instinct and capture it in a way that makes purpose clear. You can do this listening even if you choose to change scenes or character traits, and it’s not about what you say, but how. Do it well, and your voice will never be lost, no matter how many revisions you go through.

4 Unusual Tips to Make Your Writing Go Faster

I’m a firm believer that writing should take the time it takes and shouldn’t be forced. After all, sometimes life happens. We all have times when we feel like crap or are overwhelmed. In those times, it’s difficult to focus in a way that makes the result feel natural and pleasant to the reader.

But deadlines in life also happen, and there’s something to be said for balancing exceptional quality and high output. To make the most of your time and create even more content that could earn you fans or income, try these tips:

1. Verbalize.

Take a few minutes before you start writing to talk through what you want to say. You can use voice dictation software to take notes for you as you go. The process of talking through your idea for a second will help you mentally solidify your key points. Highlight those in your software recording or whip out a bulleted outline. Knowing what your key points are will ensure you don’t get into the weeds when you write, and that you have a logical, organized flow through the work.

2. Turn off editing options.

Tools like Grammarly or Word’s spell and grammar check can be pretty powerful, and they’re available at a crazy level. But if you use them during the actual drafting, the appearance of all those suggestions and red underlines can interrupt your flow, interfere with your natural voice, stress you out, and slow you down. There’s also no point in cleaning the draft until you’ve gone through and made sure that you actually want to keep everything that’s there. Turn your tools on at the end of the writing instead.

3. Skip the details.

Yes, you might be writing something super technical or that needs depth. But try to start with just the main concepts or steps for the bulk of the piece with the assumption that people 1) don’t have a ton of time, and 2) might not be at your level of expertise. There are probably always some points you could include, but the ones you must include probably are fewer than you initially think. Once you have the musts, then go back and consider what details actually would improve the value of what you have. Editors absolutely will tell you if something is missing, confusing, or needs to be fleshed out, and they’re experts at deciding which points out of them all are most important to expand.

4. Imagine it’s a journal.

Writers often get concerned with how others are going to judge them for what they’ve written and let that color what goes onto the page. They lose an enormous amount of time wondering what is right or acceptable.

To combat this, think of whatever you are writing more like a journal that nobody would see. Everything is safe and private. Forget that you’re going to hit publish or submit the piece, and just hone in on whether the work reflects you and is what you intended it to be. Then go back and think about how to improve areas like relatability, connotation or the number of people in your audience (e.g., gender pronouns). Writing groups, online services, beta readers,  friends and family members all can offer feedback to make sure that you’ve considered different points of view or realities. Once you have a draft to use as a template or core, you always can modify it deliberately to fit any publication you like.

Quality always should be at the front of your mind when you’re writing. Nevertheless, there’s no reason to settle for poor efficiency. Use these tips to trim some of the fat and start getting more headlines or titles to your readers.

Why Standup Comedians Are the Best Writing Teachers Ever

For a while now, I’ve been indulging in standup comedy online during my teeny bits of free time. (Netflix specials are fun, as are the late night shows.) If you’re a writer who doesn’t do the same, I highly encourage you to start.

First, good standup inevitably gets you in a better mood. And I’m convinced that you do your best writing when you are relaxed and happy. Even if you choose to write on a darker theme, there’s a clarity and ease that comes from approaching the theme without stress and worry.

But beyond helping you let go of your troubles for a while, standup comedians are also some of the best storytellers in the world. They have perfected the art of making tales engaging yet brief, and they understand the art of delivering their communication in ways that are easy to understand.

What really makes their efforts work, in my opinion, is that standup comedians are so beautifully aware of social constructs and expectations. They find dozens of instances in everyday life when people have challenged those constructs or gotten into sticky situations with them. Then they use the audience’s understanding of those violations or expectations to connect and get laughs. Through this process, they also relate the stories in a honest, often almost crude way. Their analogies or metaphors have a sense of poetry and rhythm, but they also can be so out of the box that those in the audience are happy that what the comedian is saying is novel. Those who listen appreciate that the comedian takes the risk of putting what is or could be considered taboo all out front in the open.

So it’s not that standup comedians are funny. It’s that they understand more deeply why something is funny. And if you start dissecting that a little bit as a writer, you start to see how people really work within the immediate culture. All of the biases and ways individuals and groups interact and influence each other are laid bare. And once that happens, it’s much easier not only to imagine viable situational plots, but also to establish characterizations based on expected behaviors and how characters adhere to or violate those norms. And on some level, you also gain a sense of how to balance kernels of truth against what others might see as offensive.

So next time you find yourself bashing your head against writer’s block, step back for a moment. Pop some popcorn. Go find a comedy show that appeals to your sense of humor. Take some relief in watching a great storyteller on their feet. Think about all the buttons they are hitting and understand that those strikes are part of an intentional, carefully scripted strategy, rather than the result of a spontaneous bit of luck and personality. And from there, it’s just a matter of choosing which buttons to line up for a story all your own.

The Burning Question: How Far Would You Go to Save Your Writing?

 

Firefighters rescued the survivors

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I come across intriguing and surprising things on social media just about every day. Today’s prize? This gem from the BBC:

Now, as you’ll see if you click on the link above and read the article, this piece is a few years old. But it showed up again on Twitter with just one question posed to writers–would you do what this guy did to save your writing?

Responses in the thread were mixed. But the majority of people had a common point. Why would you ever need to run into a burning building when there are tools like Google Drive that make it so insanely easy to back up drafts?

Dissenters gave two main rationales, the first of which was their choice of tool. The assumption is that writing will happen on technology like a laptop, but this isn’t always the case. Many writers prefer to draft on regular, old-fashioned paper, for example, while others use options like typewriters. In these cases, it’s the experience of the process that makes the difference.

Secondly, some writers mentioned that their writing needed plenty of revision away–that is, they simply didn’t have enough faith in what they’d produced to say they’d take a real risk for it.

Now, if you just think your work sucks and don’t care to save it, well, okay. That’s your choice. But I’d be quick to remind you that more than one writer has been shocked at their own success.

via GIPHY

And if you believe in yourself or at least have hope that someday you’ll have a draft others will care about as much as you do, then you have an obligation to figure out how you will create a backup for your work, whether that’s photocopies, to-self email attachments or the cloud. This is first and foremost because you need to respect both your life and the life of anyone who would try to rescue you in the emergency. But strictly from the standpoint of the craft, once a manuscript is lost, it’s usually lost forever.

 

via GIPHY

You owe it to your readers, be it current or those imagined for the future, to ensure that the worlds, characters and situations you envision will last beyond a lifetime.

So although the method is entirely up to you, just do everybody a favor.

Back that sh-t up.

 

Not “Just” a Writer

Recently, I had a friend of mine tell me how lucky I am that I am just a freelance writer.

Yes, she said “just.”

Although my friend meant well in context, I couldn’t help but be a little miffed by her comment, because I’ve heard it many, many times before. At the heart of the sentiment is always the idea that somehow, freelance writers are not serious professionals, that we are simply clickety-clacking away on laptops while sipping expensive coffee in some corner shop somewhere, totally relaxed and content.

The reality of being “just” a freelance writer is that we work hard–and I would dare to say, even harder–than those in more traditional jobs. We have no guarantee of having work the next day most of the time, so we are constantly anxious, constantly searching for the next project that could tide us over until we have to search yet again. It’s not unusual to spend just as much time looking for work as we do actually writing, and even when we find workable projects, the pay isn’t always ideal. So, often, we have to work more hours to make ends meet.

What’s more, being our own bosses isn’t all sunshine and roses. Sure, we can set our own schedules and such for the most part, and that’s great, but there’s no one to catch us. If we get overwhelmed or something goes wrong, we are the ones who have to figure the problem out, no matter how tired or frustrated we are. We spend a lot of time doing administrative work that we cannot bill for, such as handling invoices, updating spreadsheets and tracking tax information. Some of this can be automated, but not all of it can.

In short, the typical freelance writer’s day is very flexible, but as is true for just about everyone who owns their own businesses, it ends up being very long. A lot of the time, we don’t “clock out” after eight hours of work the way “normal” people do, simply because the administrative work and need to look for the next project is in addition to the standard work week that results in pay. Even when we do everything right, we still have the normal demands of household chores and family to handle once the pen is down or the computer is off.

Even if all this didn’t bother me, I’d still be a little upset by being called “just” a freelance writer, because this inevitably cheapens my craft. It perpetuates the idea that, even as major corporations around the world rely on writers to produce their website, general correspondence, marketing and other documentation, our work is not worth a decent, living wage. It implies that companies can push writers to the side, essentially discriminating in ways that would never fly with other workers. If writers do not fight this discrimination, the worth of what they do will always be in question and they will always struggle.

Why You Need to Grasp Plagiarism

Part of the joy of being a writer is being able to come up with something original, new and fresh. After all, it is this creativity and uniqueness that keeps content interesting enough for people to pick up or click on and which is the backbone of developing a loyal readership.

I am strongly implying here that true writing involves much more than putting words to paper. Anyone with basic grammar skills and vocabulary can do that. Being a real wordsmith means that each time you pick up a pencil or sit down at your keyboard, what flows out comes from your own mind and heart. Sure, you can grab data if you need to–that’s the heart of research writing–but the concepts in the work and the way you express them aren’t anyone else’s. If the ideas, words and sentence structure you put onto a page or into an electronic file are largely someone else’s and you don’t give them proper credit, you aren’t writing. You’re stealing. More specifically, you’re plagiarizing.

Plagiarism Defined

According to United States copyright laws, plagiarism at the most basic level means you are stealing intellectual property, passing it off as your own. People usually think this involves only copying directly or almost word for word, but this is only half the definition. Ideas count as intellectual property, so even if you are putting something into your own words, if you don’t cite your source, you are plagiarizing.

Importantly, if you are stating common facts, such as the fact people have 10 fingers, you don’t need to cite a source, and you aren’t plagiarizing. When facts come from specific research, though, giving credit is necessary.

It’s not that bad to do, right?

Um, wrong. When you put your byline to what someone else has done, you are taking the credit for their work, robbing him of the chance for proper recognition. In some cases, taking that credit also prevents him from getting the monetary compensation he deserves. You also can look at if from your own personal standpoint: If people discover you’ve plagiarized, you lose credibility as an author. Lowered or no credibility translates to people not hiring you or accepting your manuscript submissions. That means no income. No income equals the inability to do basic stuff like buy groceries and pay your rent.

Then of course there’s the legal stuff. If the original writer figures out that you’ve stolen his intellectual property, they can sue you for copyright violation. You might have to go to court and pay significant fines if this happens.

Preventing the Problem

Two little keys will help you avoid plagiarism. The first is to learn these beautiful words: “According to…” You also should know phrases like, “As reported by,” “[Name of author] stated that,” “In their [year] work, [title], [original authors] claimed that” and “A [year] study by [authors] found that…” Use these phrases whenever you’re summarizing concepts and ideas, such as entire paragraphs or entire articles, books and websites. Secondly, if you want to point out very specific parts of a work and feel the original authors said it best, the way to avoid plagiarizing is simply to use quotation marks around whatever they wrote.

More Information

A great online resource about plagiarism is plagiarism.org. This site gives an in-depth, layman’s-style definition of plagiarism and contains useful tools, questions and even a plagiarism checker option (account and service payment required). Another great site is from the University of Indiana Writing Tutorial Services. This site provides excellent examples of what is and is not acceptable when relying on someone else’s work to create new content.

Spotting Bad Writing Clients

In an ideal world, every client a writer has would be the most perfect, honest, well-paying person on the planet. To borrow from the Horton Hears a Who film, they would all be ponies who eats rainbows and poop butterflies.

Ah, welcome to the REAL writing world, kid.

First, let me say that most clients are pretty good. They might not always respond to your emails as promptly as you’d like, and an occasional payment might be late, but they give you clear expectations, sign contracts and compensate you for what you do. Others are more of the Voldemort type, however. They lurk passively in the background, quietly planning, scheming, drawing more and more people to their projects, until BAM! They show their evil faces, laughing as they betray your trust, wave their wands and pay only in despair. These Cients-Who-Should-Be-Ashamed are the ones to watch out for, and after a while, they’re pretty recognizable.

1. The pay rate is low.

Decent clients understand that writers have bills to pay. They also understand that much of what writers earn is pretax and goes to pay overhead expenses. These professionals are more than willing to pay their contracted writers a liveable, at-least-minimum wage. Some, bless them, even are willing to pay a percentage upfront or provide a bonus. If a client is offering just a few dollars, he likely either doesn’t understand what writers need to get by, or he doesn’t truly value the writing craft. In either case, it’s not a good situation.

2. They don’t want to sign a contract.

Some beginning writers are loathe to insist on a contract for their project, because they don’t want to come off as arrogant. Bad clients use this to their advantage. They say that a contract isn’t necessary, because they can be trusted. The truth is, bad clients try to avoid contracts simply because it makes it easier to get out of payment if sued. A good client will have no problem signing a contract because they know it guarantees you’ll do the work you promised. They might provide you with a version they’d like you to use because of their company’s policies, perhaps, but the use of the document is never an issue.

3. They don’t provide full contact information.

Some bad clients purposely withhold contact information, providing only a basic phone number or email address. They might say this is for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, but no legitimate business keeps their location secret. They withhold this information because it makes it easier to go AWOL when they don’t pay–in many states, a physical address of the client is necessary to serve legal notices, and file complaints, so starting work before you know where to get in touch is asking for trouble.

4. They postpone payments without prior notice.

Life happens. Miscommunications aren’t always possible to prevent. That said, the occasional payment postponement isn’t anything to squirt your pen ink over, especially if you’ve worked with the client before and he doesn’t have a history of payment problems. The problem is when they don’t follow through with the alternate arrangements they make. They say they’ll pay Tuesday. They apologize Wednesday and say they’ll get to it Friday, which comes and goes. They don’t offer a really good reason for the repeated delays, but they always make another promise. Don’t stand for this, because it sets a precedent that you’ll be tolerant of lateness and that you are not in true control of your business. Be upfront about the fact late fees will happen, let them know the next steps for collections (e.g., certified demand letter from an attorney, lawsuit, etc.) and give a precise schedule — to the hour — of when those steps will take place.