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.

 

How to Deal with Other People Finding Writing Success Instead of You


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You know those social media posts.

The exuberant ones.

The ones where people announce they’ve just found an agent, met some ridiculous word count goal or had a publisher snap up their book in a six or even seven figure deal.

On the one hand, I am genuinely over the moon for the writers who are putting up those messages on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. And that’s because I empathize. I know first hand all the hours that goes into creating the manuscript, editing it and sending it out into the world feeling crazily protective and hopeful. And so I make it a point to congratulate them. They deserve every kudos, and I mean what I say in my responses.

Yet, there’s also the side of those posts that’s kind of like a punch in the gut.

With brass knuckles.

Maybe some razor blades.

And you know what? Just throw in a random bomb embedded with rusty nails and screws in there, because you know, what the heck.

There’s something about those posts, which I admittedly and ironically dream of putting up myself one day, that holds a crappy message. Something that says, “See? If you were just ‘good enough’, too, then you’d have that agent/deal/paycheck/fame. Comparatively, your writing is stinkier than the rear end of a hippo.”

Talk about a motivation killer.

But the thing is, none of those writers is saying that. They’re not trying to rub it in. They’re just genuinely so elated that they can’t contain it. And deep down, I know better. I understand that the industry is highly subjective and very much about making the right editorial connections. And I understand that even “bad” writing that’s a grammatical mess still can have a great story at its heart. So the real question is just how to bounce back from the temporary blech that seeing others’ success inspires. Because if I (or you) can just bounce back from that, you can keep writing, submitting and pursuing the writing goals you have.

So here’s what I’ve found personally works:

  • Read other types of posts. I’m not going to tell you to go on a social media fast, because that might not be realistic given your need to promote your work. But what you can do is focus on particular types of posts. Look at how many people are still drafting, querying, or just looking for advice on which writing tool is best. You might not have the deal or agent yet, but there are tons of people right where you are who can offer support and remind you that you’re not alone. Pay close attention to the posts where people share little bits of drafts–favorite lines, for example–or talk about a beautiful moment they had with writing. Those kinds of posts reveal what matters to other people and can remind you that writing is about a lot more than money or other perks.
  • Stick to a plan. If you are going about your writing inconsistently or without a plan, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t making real headway. But a plan lets you measure progress based on a specific strategy. Every time you post something, every time you send a query or take the half an hour you slotted for outlining, you can say you really did something. You are trying. You are not idle. You’re moving forward. And that’s a heck of a lot better than feeling like you have zero direction.
  • Trash your own writing. This might seem a little counterintuitive, but ripping your drafts to shreds teaches you not to get too attached, and to be open to trying new options that ultimately could make the content work significantly better. Even if you end up going with your original version, the exercise in exploration can give you a sense of progress and development that’s a huge confidence booster. You also might end up with snippets or new concepts that could lead to entirely new works later on.
  • Do something other than writing. Writers are just like other professionals in that they can attach a huge part of their identity to their work. That’s why it’s so painful to see the other “I made it” posts from others–it’s not just about having your project validated, it’s about having you validated. So if the sting is getting too sharp, go spend time in other activities or hobbies. This doesn’t mean stop writing. It just means that the writing should be balanced with other aspects of who you are. Do whatever you enjoy to remind yourself that, although writing is part of you, it doesn’t define your worth.

People who find writing success deserve to celebrate it and brag a little. This applies to you just as much as to anyone else. But since it might be a while until it’s your time to celebrate, don’t just wallow. Be proactive about staying in a positive mindset. You’ll produce better when you aren’t depressed and stressed, guaranteed.

How to Tell the Difference Between Content Mills and Legitimate Writing Sites

When you want to write articles on a regular basis, one of your most basic jobs is to figure out which platform(s) to publish or find clients with. And within this, it’s critical to be able to spot the difference between content mills and legitimate sites that can help you generate real reputation and income.

Content mills

Content mills generally have the following traits:

  • Require fast turnaround of articles, often 24 hours
  • Will quickly reassign articles that are not completed by the deadline, often without pay to the first writer
  • May send out requests in batches
  • Typically do not allow writers to know who the client is or to contact the client directly
  • Generally offer rates well below minimum wage or fair practice for the writing industry ($1-10 per 500 to 1,500 words)
  • Does not list contact information, or provides only a postal address with no email, chat support or phone number
  • Frequently provide templates for writers that prevent assignments from veering away from a predictable pattern

An easy-to-spot clue you’re working with a content mill is the initial “test” period. The mill will ask that you submit a piece of writing based on a client request, supposedly to assess your writing ability. But the mill will not pay you for this work. It is merely a way to get a free article out of you, regardless of whether the mill grants you future privileges on the site.

An example of a content mill you can explore is Demand Studios. This company, once insanely valuable, basically imploded and no longer functions.

Legitimate writing sites

Legitimate writing sites have the following characteristics:

  • Allow clients to set the deadline for their articles based on the complexity involved in the research and writing process
  • Often allow the clients to screen, contact and select writers directly based on profiles and resumes provided, rather than assigning articles to writers on the client’s behalf, OR allow pre-approved writers to select projects clients post
  • Allow clients and writers to provide feedback for each other
  • Might identify large batch projects, but do not require writers to take those projects; allow writers to do as many or as few pieces as desired
  • Allow clients and writers to interact directly
  • Might offer some kind of payment guarantee or protection along with a means of tracking hours, although arrangements might be made on a fixed-price basis
  • Pays competitively based on client budget (often $20-25 per hour or $0.10 per word)
  • Clearly lists contact and support information
  • Does not work based on templates, instead allowing clients to specify the tone and requirements for the content

Like content mills, legitimate sites might ask that you submit sample work. Unlike content mills, however, the sites often allow you to submit previously published works or portfolio samples. If they do want you to submit a test piece to make sure you can meet their specifications and processes, they will pay you for it.

A good example here is UpWork. Although this site allows freelancers from many industries to connect with employers, it’s a popular way for writers to find on-demand work.

The middle ground

Of course, some sites don’t fit neatly into these main categories. For example, Constant Content does a fantastic job of allowing writers to post whatever content they like, whenever they have time. Buyers can browse the writer’s catalog and buy whatever articles catches their eye. Writers have full control of pricing, and each piece goes through an editorial screening by Constant Content staff to ensure quality to clients. BUT it can be difficult to get a response from the editorial staff, and the cut the company takes is a hefty one at 35 percent of the article price (e.g., if you price your piece at $100, you actually only get $65).

There also are sites like Verblio. This site allows writers to pick whatever projects look good when they want. Writers also are paid for their test work. BUT the site forces writers to work their way up the pay scale. Even if you have years of experience, you have to start out on the lowest tier. And while compensation gets better, those initial tiers are below the minimum wage in many states.

In my view, these sites aren’t doing anything fishy, per se. If you sell enough work, they can be a good way to pad your income or make up for gaps in other regular jobs. They also can let you consistently practice your writing with a real professional eye and purpose–it’s more serious than an everyday blog you do for fun. But they all operate on the principle of ghostwriting. So they will do nothing to get you out of the rut, since you will not be able to get any bylines from the work and build a resume. And since sales either aren’t guaranteed or pay can be lower than what you’d otherwise get in a day job, they aren’t necessarily going to be enough to pay your rent and all your other expenses. Don’t expect them to make you financially self-sufficient or put you on a white sand beach sipping a margarita.

Final recommendations

Generally speaking, even though there certainly still are mills operating, there’s been a huge shift away from the quantity mindset among publishers and independent clients. Now, the emphasis is on quality. And if you really want to get into serious article writing offers both pay and a byline, there’s no substitute for good old fashioned querying. Traditional magazines either have sister websites or have gone online completely, and thousands of publications started out digital to begin with. So there is still a great demand for good writing. Study sites that interest you and find ones that actually allow freelance submissions, and that pay fairly. Then send tailored pitches to the publications’ editors and do the footwork necessary to establish real relationships that can yield ongoing future assignments or even a column–a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach simply will not work. You can use legitimate or middle ground content sites to earn some cash as you build your portfolio, but don’t touch mills with a ten foot pole.

How an Investment Mindset Can Make You a More Successful Writer

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If you’re like most writers, you’ve probably heard that, if you really want to be successful, then you have to write a ton of content. The story is, the more you write, the better odds you have of getting your work noticed, and the higher the likelihood you’ll sell enough to be able to afford more than a chicken at lunch.

Evergreen quality, not one-shot quantity

It’s admittedly true that a lot of editors are going to pass on your work and that a fat portfolio can set you up to take more opportunities. But this idea of quantity content is pretty similar to another idea from finance–if you just work hard and put enough money away, you’ll be set to live out your golden years worry free.

That money advice might have served your parents or grandparents just fine. But today, the world is vastly different, and the reality is that, if you want to be rich, you can’t just keep working day after day and end up with enough money. As Warren Buffett would tell you, you have to find ways to make your money work for you, and to invest in opportunities that will continue to bring you income even after you stop putting funds, time or other resources forward.

As a writer, you need to develop this same investment mindset. You should focus not on cranking out content like a mill, but rather on creating more pieces that will continue to give you returns after you’re finished. On a very basic level, this means honing in on more evergreen topics, even if they’re more niche oriented. These are the kinds of pieces that you can repost on social media networks, and that will continue to get hits on websites long after publication, yielding royalties or pay-per-view paychecks.

An investment approach to writing also means that you choose topics that are easy to repurpose or expand. For instance, suppose you select the evergreen topic of female reproductive health and choose to get specific with toxic shock syndrome. With the same information, you could get several articles that redesign your information for different audiences:

  • What Really Causes Toxic Shock Syndrome
  • Your Organic Cotton Tampon Could Make You Sick. Here’s How
  • Cup, Tampon or Pad: Which Really Is Best for Your Health?

You can make each of these pieces have a specific feel or slant with anecdotes or interviews. But looking at how many ways you can present a topic saves a ton of time in the long run, since you only have to do your basic research once. You simply have to make sure that each presentation is unique enough to stand independent of the others, and that you’re adjusting for the tone each publication is after.

Within this, think about how you can transform the content for different media. For example, could you summarize an article as a video presentation? What about turning it into a podcast or audio article? Doing this might allow you to reach people in more demographics based on specific preferences and even can make your work more accessible to those with certain disabilities.

Think about submitting your work for syndication, too. Some outlets will accept prepublished pieces under these types of agreements. This can expand your audience and get you extra cash at the same time, and all you had to do was query, not create entirely new content.

Lastly, templates are very much your friend. For instance, even though a good query letter always is customized to the editor, 85 percent of the letter can be a default that offers your hook/summary, bio and contact information. In the same way, you can design article templates that allow you to quickly fill in information when clients want a lot of content with a similar structure or format.

So ditch the idea that you have to write your fingers to the bone. That’s not necessarily true. Although you certainly can spend some time on trendy or newsy pieces if they really interest you, your main priority should be to find something to write about that will retain its value and that’s viewable in many different ways or channels. So ask yourself how many other angles there are, and create your content according to what can keep delivering for you.

 

 

Is Your Writing Really Mediocre? Here’s the Truth

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In my usual browse of article headlines on Feedly this morning, I stumbled across this gem from Hannah Giorgis in The Atlantic. Giorgis declared that much of what’s on Netflix these days is mediocre, and that we’re allowing our boredom to get the best of us when it comes to selecting what we watch.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with Giorgis–even if the content is well done, much of it relies on popular plot structures that are as worn as grandma’s 1947 couch cushions. The predictability can be a turnoff no matter how artistic the approach might be.

But of course, you have to ask, who ultimately gets to decide what “good” content is, not just in film and TV, but in all art?

In lots of cases, it’s just a few publishers or producers from a few big companies. In book publishing, for example, that means the big five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan).

Lots of writers dream of sending in a book query and getting a contract with one of the big five. There’s some prestige to it, the idea that your book was “good enough” to stand out from this enormous pack and get noticed.

The trouble is, the big five want sales. And much of what is on their list has nothing to do with how you write and everything to do with what the public happens to be buying at any particular time. They want stories that are going to yield a profit. And so when they look at manuscripts, if they don’t think it’s going to sell, they’ll pass.

Need an example? Try Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, who had publishers tell him that the books were “too positive” (heaven forbid we have some positivity as mental health concerns are on the rise), that the title was stupid and that people don’t read short story collections. He was rejected by 144 publishers, and even the 145th made him prove via signatures he had interest in the manuscript.

Sometimes, publishers flat out miss the mark about what the public is open to. 500 million copies later, Canfield’s earned the right to tell them they were about as wrong as it gets.

So here is the conundrum. We have a very small set of gatekeepers who, for all their talk of wanting something fresh, by actions prove that what they really want is to keep reproducing what seems to work from a sales standpoint. But in maintaining that model, the gatekeepers automatically ensure that the public can’t engage with good variety easily. Perhaps the public would get out of the rut and buy other stories, if the gatekeepers would only allow them into the market. It’s hard to know.

So perhaps the problem is not the mediocrity of the manuscripts that are rejected at all. Sure, there’s a lot of you-know-what that probably wouldn’t hurt anybody by staying in the bottom of a drawer or getting corrupted on a hard drive. But perhaps there glorious flowers we can’t see because we’re not truly allowed in the garden.

As a writer, I can say that the most agonizing element of this situation is that writers never really are sure whether they are the weed or the rose. Perhaps they are spectacular and have been rejected dozens of times simply because what they have written doesn’t fit the model. But perhaps, the rejections lead us to consider, the writing really is subpar and beta readers just tried to spare our feelings. It’s easy to get discouraged and confused.

My biggest fear with this system of things is that our most fragrant and rare blossoms are never cultivated. I would not be at all surprised, for instance, to see a publisher reject a modern Georgette Heyer (a romance writer critiqued as as close to Jane Austen as you can get), simply because “the writing is too archaic”. Perhaps that grossly underestimates what the public is capable of enjoying and understanding. Or perhaps, in a worse scenario, it suggests that the system has denied our experience to such a degree that we really do need some schooling on what mediocrity actually looks like.

In either case, I see independent and self-publishing as increasingly necessary. It is only through these channels that the bias of the gatekeepers can start to have less of an influence on individual and overall public choices. But alongside that, we also need systems that are going to make access to those books easier for everyone at every level. That can mean more e-readers or libraries, or it can mean more writing English programs, tutors, book clubs, etc.

But it also means reexamining what it means to be eloquent, how to recognize and reject plot tropes and how to create tension and conflict that doesn’t require an on-screen explosion or special effect. That is more complicated to build, because it butts up against other social issues and nuances, like the way we teach or even racial and income disparities.

Reading and any other art is for everyone. The minute that the critique and development of it falls into the hands of a privileged few, our ability to determine what has merit becomes incredibly diminished. But if we become more democratic, if we educate ourselves away from the gatekeepers, mediocrity will lose its grip. That, I think, is a vision that can’t turn to reality fast enough.

In the meantime, be open to practicing and improving what you do, and if you have excellent feedback from beta readers on a consistent basis, don’t give up. Find a way to get what you’ve made out there. When your sales prove you were right, hold your profits in your naysayers’ faces.

Should You Work as a Ghostwriter?

If you talk to most people who want to be writers, one of their main dreams is to have their byline become familiar to others. But thousands of writers are flying under the radar as ghostwriters. Let’s explore ghostwriting a little more in depth so you can decide whether it’s right for you.

What is a ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter is someone who writes for a client, who then publishes the writing as their own work. In lots of cases, the ideas in the writing are actually the client’s. The writer simply puts them on paper, ideally capturing the client’s own voice in the content. Sometimes ghostwriters also fix or expand existing manuscripts to make them flow and read better. Most people who hire ghostwriters do so because they don’t feel like they are good writers themselves, or because they are too busy to focus on a manuscript by themselves. A good ghostwriter can help a client gain some additional exposure and reputation.

Lots of practice

One benefit of being a ghostwriter is that you get tons of practice not just generally writing, but also in being more aware of differences in formats, dialects and tone. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about a lot of subjects and industries, and to meet plenty of interesting people with incredible information and stories. This has the capacity to shift your thinking and way of looking at problems and the world.

Pay

Ghostwriting can be lucrative, especially if you find a larger project or a few clients who want to work with you for the long haul. But most ghostwriting projects are one and done, such as a single article for an online publication. They also often do not provide any sort of royalties. So you can’t necessarily guarantee a steady income, and you will need to continue to look for clients.

On the other hand, just as with bylined work, you need to protect yourself against scams. Bad clients are out there who consistently aim to grab content without compensating authors, so make sure you have your agreement in writing, try to get references/referrals, and get a downpayment and establish payment milestones. Be aware that if you get shorted, taking legal action isn’t always an option, even if you have a clear contract-based case, as the cost of the project can be much less than the cost and time involved in a lawsuit.

Your career

When you are trying to get editors to publish your work, most of them will want to see pieces you’ve published that you can prove you authored. The trouble is, with ghostwriting, part of the deal is that you’ll stay mum about the fact your client didn’t write “their” work. So while you can say you’ve done work as a ghostwriter, it’s tricky to let editors know which specific publications or people you’ve worked with without violating this confidentiality. Subsequently, it’s incredibly difficult to build a real resume, post your work on social media, or put clips on your website.

For this reason, ghostwriting can work better for people who already have some standing as authors. If you already have a few published clips, then you can use those to earn new ghostwriting jobs. You can start out ghostwriting just for the income, too, of course, but without the bylines, you’ll likely have a difficult time landing more permanent work, such as staff writing or a column. Many writers combine ghostwriting with bylined work to get the best of both worlds.

One thing to think about related to the above is that ghostwriting clients are often considered experts in their fields. That expertise has pull when editors are considering publication. So what sometimes happens is, your client will submit your work and get accepted based in part on who they are. If you were to submit similar work independently, the editor very well might reject your content. This double standard can be ridiculously infuriating, since you know the editorial decision isn’t always based in the quality of your work by itself. No matter how well you write, no matter how well you source the text, reputation bias can work against you. So if your clients get accepted and you can’t on your own, don’t automatically assume there’s anything wrong with what you’ve put on the page.

So how do you work around this? If the venue is one you know you’d be personally interested in, then once your client has a good relationship with an editor because of your work, see if the client would be willing to recommend you to the editor. This way, the editor is going through someone they already trust.

As a last note here, be aware that some publications do have strict non-ghostwriter policies. You never want to put yourself in a position where you and your client would have to admit you violated this policy. So know what venues expect before you sign contracts, and ideally, have the client agree to be upfront in their queries/submissions that they have or plan to work with a ghostwriter. That way, they can be honest with the editor about how they know you. If the client has been published with a venue with their own writing, then just have the client tell the editor that you’ve done ghostwriting for them for other purposes. Even with a recommendation, be ready to provide some samples.

The final word

Ghostwriting can provide an income and let you learn an incredible amount as you network. But it does not give you an easy way to promote yourself and your writing experience. You might even find that editors accept your work when they think it is from someone else, and that they reject it when you offer it under your own name. Combining bylined and ghostwritten work can be a happy medium, but you can choose one path or the other depending on your goals and needs.

Is Digital or Paper Better for Writing?

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You’ve heard the stories. People like Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, Aaron Sorkin, even Marilyn Monroe–they all are said to have scrawled ideas on whatever they could, including napkins.

Some of the stories are little more than lore, but with the idea that great writers constantly write, they do raise the question about whether there is a “best” medium to for writers to use. And that generally boils down to a debate over old fashioned paper and laptops.

Pros of paper

From the scientific standpoint, we’ve learned that writing by hand actually does help people encode and recall information. There’s something about the combination of seeing the letters form, physically writing them out and writing at a pace that’s a bit slower that’s helpful. So in that sense, writing on paper might be better when you’ve got an idea you don’t want to forget, or when you’re brainstorming and are still developing characters and ideas.

It’s good for drafting, too, in the sense that it’s not quite as easy or quick to edit. The focus is more likely to stay on just getting the words out and setting up a solid framework.

And let’s not forget, just about every writer I know has kind words to say about the special feel and smell of a notebook that’s constructed or looks a certain way that brings joy. (I have several fuzzy unicorn ones at the moment, although I always have had a penchant for antique-looking leather.) Computer documents can be pretty impersonal by comparison.

Pros of digital

When it comes to speed, paper just can’t compare to typing. If you’re really in a state of flow and are hitting, let’s say, 75 words per minute, you can hit up to 4,500 words in a single hour. We should remember here that quality matters more than the word count overall and not focus too much on reaching daily quotas, but digital writing can help you be more prolific than you otherwise might be, and there will be times when you have writing deadlines and time is precious.

It’s much easier to edit the manuscript, too, since there’s no need to start from scratch to produce a clean draft. That can let you play with how you’re arranging ideas or dialogue, and it makes simultaneous submissions formatted according to many guidelines a snap.

You’ll also have other tools on the laptop that help your writing, such as the ability to set editorial reminders on your Google calendar or organize writing tasks with options like Trello.

A general rule of thumb

So in my view, paper is better for organizing your thoughts, initial drafting and making it easier to remember the ideas you’re working on. It can help you slow down and think about where you’re going with your story or other content. But when you are ready to flesh everything out, want to do serious edits quickly and feel a story just pouring out of you naturally, the keyboard can be your best friend.

Preservation matters

Regardless of which medium you pick, one essential side point is how you will preserve what you’ve written. Paper is always subject to issues like mildew or fire, yet digital files, despite sharing and encryption advantages, can be corrupted and suffer from compatibility issues over time. Always have a way to back up your work, do so frequently, and never keep your backups in the same location as your current draft.

A happy middle ground

Thanks to a range of companies that focus on text recognition and conversion software/apps, it’s easy to convert paper documents or even voice recordings to digital drafts by snapping a picture with your phone or tablet. There also are notebooks and other devices that serve as paper/digital hybrids, where the product allows you to write by hand and then upload your content.

With this in mind, I’d encourage you to explore your options. You might find that paper  works better in certain settings than others, for example, such as if you’re at the beach. Digital might make more sense elsewhere, such as if you’re collaborating with another writer. You don’t necessarily have to commit to one camp or the other. The only rule is that you find a way to write. And if that means going back to a napkin once in a while, so be it.

Which do you prefer, paper or digital? Do you find yourself using one over the other or in specific circumstances? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

 

What It Means to Show Rather Than Tell in Writing (and How to Do It)

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If writing advice had a Top 10 Hits list, “show, don’t tell” likely would rank #1 pretty dang easily. We’ve heard it a million times, we know we ought to do it, but what the bleeping hades does it MEAN?

From a technical standpoint, showing rather than telling in writing basically means you do anything and everything not to just lay out the facts. Your goal is to write something that will allow the reader to infer what is taking place or true, rather than to offer blunt narration.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example #1:

Bad: She kissed him squarely on the lips. But she was still angry. 

Good: Her lips found that beautiful meaty point of his, feeling the awkward moist warmth of his own. Her hands, however, stayed clenched. How could he possibly expect forgiveness after what he had done?

How do I know the kiss was square? Because the kiss is on the “meaty point”. I know how the kiss feels now, too. I never say I’m angry, yet clenched fists signal that all is not well.

Example #2:

Bad: Working with Janet taught me how to be brave.

Good: As I watched Janet take on impossible projects with warm coffee cup in hand, do cold call after cold call without missing a beat and laugh with investors as if millions of dollars weren’t on the line, my toes curled a little more with excitement every day. I stood taller. I talked more. And suddenly I wasn’t afraid.

Here, it’s not the activities Janet does that are particularly important. It’s the casual, calm and relaxed manner in which she does them. You get a physical response from the individual that confirms the transformation happening internally.

Now, one obvious difference between the bad and good points is that the bad points are much more succinct. This brevity has its place, and inference doesn’t have to take paragraphs, as Ernest Hemingway proves. But generally, showing means adding details so that the reader gets a mental picture, imagery around the point. So the basic rule is, paint a clear picture, but don’t make so many brush strokes that your arm gets tired.

Showing rather than telling through artful inference means that you have to pay close attention to all the learned interpersonal, social and cultural cues that run rampant, as well as your senses and feelings. You have to ask yourself what particular tones and physical gestures mean and understand that even little things–like pulling out a particular brand of mascara, for example–can have significance. And it’s important to truly know your audience well when you write, because the same cue might mean different things to different groups, which can influence how well they understand and connect to your message. Ideally, try to be as inclusive as you can, since that means more people will get the story. At the very least, consider the possible interpretations and take care to craft the “show” in a way that likely will give the least offense.

If you want to try your hand at showing rather than telling, start by rejecting your first, default option. Ask yourself

  • How can I describe the action rather than simply leaning on specific verbs?
  • What do I want the reader to know about the characters or plot from what I’m describing?
  • What biases are at the heart of the description, if any? Under what circumstances would those biases fall apart?

It’s also important to keep in mind that blunt, tell-it-like-it-is communication still works great for your outline. Summarize with no flash first and then go back to flesh out your work.

Showing rather than telling is the hallmark of good storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel or aiming to give an inspiring speech to this year’s graduates. If you want what you have to say to stand out, don’t let the technique go to waste.