Ten Ways to Build Writing Confidence

Happy Friday, everyone!

In previous posts, you may remember me mentioning the importance of creation before you can even begin to contemplate editing. Sounds obvious, right? Maybe even easy? A second glance, however – or a second sit-down at the desk to stare at a blank page – reveals that often, it’s the exact opposite. In today’s post I want to take a little detour from our usual fare of editing and the like to talk about writing.

First, let’s get a misconception out of the way – there’s no ‘magic cure’. There will be days where the words just don’t flow, and everyone has them. There’s no hard science that will instantly make everyone prolific. Much of it boils down to practice, experience, and discipline. Yet there are some factors that you can influence in order to make practicing – and thus discipline – come more easily, and lead to experience. Many of these will overlap with those I’ve mentioned in ‘When Editing Is Bad’.

  1. Give your writing – and yourself – due respect. Recognize that this effort is just as important as any other pursuit. Often we become inhibited by thoughts such as “I’m not good at this, so why should I bother?” or “But this has already been talked about.”. They’re often grounded in falsehood and sabotage you before you even begin. Own what you’re doing.
  2. Following on from the above, build an environment that will best cultivate this fledgling habit. This could include setting aside a particular time/day, setting deadlines or goals if they help you or removing them if they don’t, finding a dedicated space in which the writing happens, noise levels, and so on. You may find that this is a work-in-progress in of itself, or that it varies depending on what you’re working on.
  3. Find a support network. There are an unbelievable amount of writers out there and just as many readers, but instead of finding this daunting, know that there are a nearly equal number of groups where you can share your writing and get feedback and encouragement. Likewise, enlist the help of friends and family for additional encouragement (I promise you, I get more encouraging remarks than sneers when I say I’m a writer). No one does this alone, and feedback will be crucial to your improvement.
  4. Find a method that works best for you. You could be a plan-it-out-to-the-last-detail writer, with oodles of notes and bullet-pointed frameworks, or you could be a “I’m going to start in the middle and see what happens” sort. You could prefer writing by hand or by typing or by dictating and transcribing. Everyone works differently and no method is better than another.
  5. Gather what external resources you need for the particular work. If you need to write webcopy for a client, make sure you know what they want; if you’re contracted to write an article on growing tomatoes, read up on tomato-growing; if you’re writing a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 1800s, do your research; if you’re experimenting with ghazals as a poetic form, study lots of ghazals; if you’re writing the next best sci-fi novel, watch a bunch of sci-fi movies or spend an hour or two on Pinterest to get inspired.
  6. Practice. Scribble thoughts in a notebook or on post-its as you go about your day. Keep GoogleDocs open. Write down all your thoughts at the end of the day. Journal. Whatever works best for you. The idea is that the more accustomed you grow to physically articulating your thoughts and seeing them there on the page, the more normal the action will become for you.
  7. Read widely. The truth of the matter is that, if nothing else, reading widely will show you what’s possible.
  8. Try not to pigeonhole yourself – or be too strict – in the beginning. Started a romance novel that ended up wanting to be a mystery? Got halfway through your essay and ended up changing your own viewpoint? What was supposed to be mere tangential evidence in your thesis becomes the thing you’re actually interested in? It happens! The important bit is that you wrote.
  9. Try not to get too caught up in making it perfect the first go round. Editing can come later. Just get it out for now.
  10. You cannot make everyone happy. There are going to be people who love your work, and others who can’t stand it. Building up a thick skin is part of being a writer. The most important thing is, as Philip Pullman says, to write to please yourself. Write the novel, or poem, or critical article, or biography – whatever it may be – for you.

I know not everyone is aiming to make writing into a fullblown career. Some folks just want to be more confident when it comes time to write up that quarterly report for the boss, or feel pretty good about their college entrance essay. All of these are valid reasons to improve one’s writing skills – humans are social creatures that, introvert or extrovert though we may be, need communication in order to feel fulfilled. Writing is just one of those ways, and it opens so many doors.

In a year, you’d wish you’d started today.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

When Editing is Bad

Happy Friday, everyone!

As all you poets are no doubt aware, tomorrow begins 2017’s Poem-a-Day April! As it says on the box, the goal is to write a poem a day for the entirety of April, which  – even as a poet who’s semi-successfully managed it a couple of times – I have to admit is pretty daunting. Not only am I writing this in solidarity and as a salute, but also as a chance to point out when editing can sometimes be a hindrance.

If you’re not a perfectionist, in a way I envy you. The fact of the matter is that sometimes – no matter what you’re writing – you can become preoccupied with making your first draft perfect on the first try. This can lead to a lot of false starts, over-writing, a sudden block partway through, or worse – never starting. If this happens enough it can even have longer-lasting effects on your overall confidence. All of these are killer if you have deadlines of any kind.

So say it with me: “It’s okay if it’s not perfect on the first try. Or the second, or the third, or…”

Say this, too: “What matters is that there’s something on the page. I can work with that ‘something’. I can’t work with ‘nothing’.”

Always keep those two things in mind, because I promise, you will get stuck otherwise. It happens to folks who have just started writing, and to folks who have been writing professionally their whole lives. You will get stuck on worrying whether you’ve got the right word, that you’ll forget all the others you were going to write after it. You’ll take a break to figure out the right metaphor or a good name, and you’ll get distracted for the next two days. You’ll pause to fact-check and end up down the rabbit-hole of the Internet.

Here are a few tactics to help you curb the tendency to become distracted by editing:

  1. Know there’s something you’re going to have to go back and change or check? Put in a placeholder or highlight it. One method I’ve heard of is the ‘ELEPHANT’ method, where if you can’t think of a word right then and there, just type ‘ELEPHANT’ and keep going – when you’re done drafting, you can search for all instances of ‘ELEPHANT’ and replace them when your mind is clearer. This helps you keep your flow.
  2. Set realistic deadlines if they help you, or remove them if they don’t. If you do choose to have deadlines, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet them. For example, you can start with something small like ‘write a poem before you have your second cup of coffee’ – it’s a deadline with a built-in reward. The idea is that when your brain grows accustomed to achieving small goals, it’s in a better position to achieve slightly larger goals, and so on.
  3. A friend of mine hand-writes her work and covers her prior lines with a sheet of paper to stop herself looking back and thus getting distracted by editing. You can feasibly do this with window-resizing on a computer, too.
  4. Devote specific times to writing, and specific times to editing, e.g. – ‘during the week I’ll write, but Saturdays I’ll edit’, or ‘I’m not going to look at these poems again until May, when Poem-a-Day April is over’. Knowing you’ve allotted time in advance can help put your mind at ease, as it’s no longer worried about missing the opportunity and feels bolstered by your organization skills.
  5. Remind yourself that beyond a simple spelling/grammar check, you can always leave the editing to – guess who! – your editor. That’s why this tag-team exists in the first place! Knowing someone else has your back can be instrumental to your process.

Although editing is still part of the creative process – and some would argue that it’s the most rewarding part – they are different modes of thinking and sometimes jostle for elbow room, to the detriment of each other. The fact remains that you cannot edit what isn’t there, therefore you should prioritize creation in the initial stages.

What are some of the hurdles you’ve encountered? Any other tactics for overcoming them that you’ve found useful?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

P.S. – Good luck, poets! I’ll be writing alongside you this season.

How to Become a More Concise Writer

Happy Friday, everyone!

I’m privileged to work with many different types of writing these days – I’ll be working on a novel one day, a thesis the next, then a poem, then vocational curriculum.  The list goes on. One of the things they all have in common, though, is often a need for brevity.

You’ve got your audience’s attention – great! But you have to keep that attention. There’s debate over the average attention span and whether it’s shortening due to the rise of digital technology, but the point remains that you only have so much time to get your message across, even if your reader has settled down and is in for the long haul to listen to whatever you have to tell them. Brevity is still a virtue and it is one of the main areas a good editor will look for.

Here’s some easy ways for you to check the concision of your writing yourself!

  1.  Read it aloud. Yes, you may feel silly at first, but reading your writing aloud will not only help identify awkward phrasing, but you’re more likely to notice when you’re being too wordy or have a ‘pet word’.
  2. When rereading your work, ask yourself as often as possible whether there’s a shorter way to say what you mean, or whether this sentence actually presents any new information. Be ruthless.
  3. Punctuation, conjunctions, and transitions not only help the flow of your writing, but allow you more flexibility in communicating your ideas. For example, instead of needing two fully-fleshed-out sentences a simple comma and conjunction tag-team may eliminate the need for five or six words or repeats of important terms.
  4. For some, character/word/page/time limits help. Those of you familiar with the ‘elevator pitch’ know this. If you impose a limit on yourself, your brain is likely to rise to the challenge and pare down what you want to say in order to fit that limit. It helps you determine what’s really important for the reader to know.
  5. Consider your audience and what they will actually want to hear. One of my pet peeves, for example, is a blog post containing a recipe I’m interested in, but which also contains two pages of context about the weather that day. While some may find this charming, I just want the recipe.
  6. Make a bullet-pointed list of your talking points. I use this strategy with non-fiction often, and you can use it before you write (e.g. – planning an essay) or when you’re editing and possibly rewriting. A similar tactic is after writing something once, cover it up and try to rewrite from memory – the stronger phrasings and main points will stick in your mind and you’ll be able to weed out the weaker.
  7. Avoid too many irrelevant anecdotes, ‘weasel words‘, unnecessary qualifiers (‘very tired’ versus ‘exhausted’), and the passive voice wherever possible.

Now, you may be thinking, “But Taegan, I’m writing a novel / thesis / non-fiction book about X; my reader wants to know as much as I can tell them on my subject.”

Yes, absolutely. Longer works do tend to be more lenient in the brevity department. However, here’s my rule of thumb: every word on that page needs to earn its keep, otherwise it is taking up valuable space where I could be talking about something new. It’s a similar concept to the Chinese proverb of ‘If the first words fail, ten thousand will then not avail’, in that if you let yourself ramble, your message weakens. Always choose quality over quantity.

Brevity will benefit: your pacing, the organization of your ideas, your meaning, the strength of your writing, and ultimately your readers.

Remember to use this advice in moderation, since you don’t want to obscure your meaning by cutting too much. For this reason, I often recommend writing all your thoughts out first and cutting back afterward.

Finally, also remember that this advice applies to all types of writing, from fiction to job postings to resumes to research articles to…

I’ll stop. Good luck, and remember you can always ask me if you have questions!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Apples to Oranges – a Glossary

Happy Friday, everyone!

Like with any profession, you soon discover that there’s more to it than meets the eye. Editing is no different. As you grow more familiar with using an editor you will likely notice that not all editing is the same – nor is it charged at the same rate. To help you come to grips with the types of editing that are out there and which will best suit your needs, read on!

The following are listed in approximate order of the editor’s level of involvement with re-writing the text in any way, from the shallow end to the deep end. It’s not all the types that are out there, but the most common. Note that sometimes these definitions will vary depending on who you talk to and the level of expertise required by the text, and sometimes the terms may be used interchangeably. Additionally, each type of editing has optimum points at which it should occur in the process. Always remember to ask your editor what you’re getting.

Manuscript evaluation – while not an editorial service, strictly-speaking, it’s worth mentioning because you may encounter it and it may be all you need. A manuscript evaluator will provide a read-through of your text and then provide you with an in-depth critique (what’s working and what isn’t, and how it can be improved); they do not, however, go into depth or make marks on your text. Those spelling errors will stay where they are.

Proofreading – the most basic of editorial services, and probably the one you’ve heard in everyday use. Many folks think that this goes into more depth than it actually does. Proofreading will check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other little things like format and any style issues (did you use a different font size accidentally, for example). Sometimes a proofreader will also do small edits for clarity or concision, but nothing beyond that.

Copyediting – the most commonly-used phrase to describe editing of any nature, and as such please be cautious. Some folks use it to describe what is actually proofreading or what is actually developmental editing, but the reality is that it’s somewhere in between. You’ll get a good proofread, but a copyeditor will also look at overall manuscript flow, consistency, and other broader issues. They may also do some fact-checking, though you should probably look for an editor who specializes in this aspect.

Line-editing – it’s common see this term used interchangeably with developmental editing. However, it can also denote a creative copyeditor, in the sense that while a copyeditor will look for technical errors, a line-editor will look for creative flaws or weaknesses such as pacing, strength of imagery, or voice-appropriateness. As you may have guessed, they go line-by-line (which isn’t to say that other types of editors do not). You’ll often see line-editing in conjunction with fiction.

Developmental Editing – as the name suggests, very in-depth editing. Developmental editors may work with a text that’s already finished, but it’s more common to find that they are there from the start of the text and help the writer see it through to fruition. They specialize in significant textual overhauls – structure shifts, reorganization of ideas, and other in-depth editing that takes place alongside codyediting/proofreading (though a second editor may be involved afterward to do this). However, if the developmental editor has to do any significant amount of writing they then tread into the territory of ghostwriting. You’ll often see developmental editing in conjunction with non-fiction, particularly academia.

Notice that the majority of these involve the editor working with texts that have already been created. Generally-speaking, if you’re looking for someone to help you create the text initially or completely rewrite it for you for one reason or another, the terms you’re going to encounter will likely have the word ‘writing’ or ‘writer’ in there somewhere. That’s a discussion for another day.

Once you know what you want, it’s easier to find it and ask for it. I hope this helps! Remember, you can always ask me if you’re uncertain.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

 

Five Habits That Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional

Happy Friday, everyone!

I was talking to a friend yesterday about our writing habits – which of them are beneficial and which are not. While our discussion mainly revolved around our overall writing process, it made me think about the smaller habits I see in clients whose work I’m familiar with, and my own. Old habits die hard, goes the adage – and why? Because so often we don’t realize they’re there and though our well-intentioned friend the auto-checker tries its best, it frequently doesn’t catch them.

You’d be forgiven, after scanning the list below with bated breath, to not see a problem with many of them – what you may not realize is that these habits make your work sound dated, look unprofessional, and feel clunky, which are the absolute last things you want! Often it is the littlest of things that makes a reader question the authority of the writer, and even stop reading altogether. The more you can avoid these tell-tale signs of an unpracticed writer, the better.

  1. Capitalizing keywords unironically. (Not to be confused with typing in all caps.) Capital letters should only be used in specific instances – titles, proper nouns, and the beginning of sentences being the three main areas. No doubt you’ve seen them used as a stylistic choice, such as to make a webpage appear uniform (look at any of the button labels on most websites you regularly use) or as a tongue-in-cheek way to pretend something is more serious than it actually is (see if you can spot it in this post of mine). You’ll also see legal documents capitalizing important terms. However, too often I see the old habit of using them for emphasis in everyday writing, as though this technique were interchangeable with italics or bolding. It’s not. Don’t do it, folks – not only is it old-fashioned, untidy, and incorrect, but it smacks of poor marketing and is a sure-fire way to make your reader wonder if you’re trying to sell them something.
  2. A double space after every sentence. This is another common one. Instead of hitting that space bar once at the end of the sentence and starting another, it’s hit twice. While not incorrect, strictly-speaking, it can get distracting and is a clear indicator of the generation in which you learned to type (or the age of the person who taught you). Why? The practice of using the double-space after the end of a sentence began as a typesetter’s bad habit back in the advent of the printing press, which was originally straightened-out once conventions were developed during its rise to power. However, the reason you yourself may be guilty of this habit is whether you were introduced to typing via someone who regularly used a typewriter, wherein they may have found difficulty determining where a sentence ended due to the machine’s limitations; a double-space was used so that you could more easily tell that sentence was over. Thanks to modern computing, we don’t generally have that problem. Get rid of that second space.
  3. Bunny-ears. You may see them written doubly or singly, and you may know them by a less endearing name, but they’re there. Of course, there’s a time and a place for using quotation or speech marks – the problem arises when you use them too liberally and when it’s not really necessary. When that happens, when I’m reading all I can hear is an older person trying to be cool with the kids. On a more practical note, though, consider this: speech or quote marks are often used in this context to show that you’re quoting someone else, or that the sentiment or thought contained therein isn’t really yours. It’s a distancing tactic. Fine – sometimes it’s appropriate to do that. But when every other thought that you’re expressing carries this sign of uncertainty, I begin to doubt your confidence in what you’re saying. Not to mention it’s going to get confusing when you’re actually quoting someone or writing dialogue.
  4. Dated phrasings, particularly references to technological advancement that’s already happened. As an example, take one of my pet peeves: ‘In today’s world’. If you’re about to write about something that’s occurring now, just write it without introduction. We automatically assume it’s happening in the present without you needing to tell us. If you do, it makes you sound like you’re preaching from decades back. This is of course slightly different from archaisms – words and phrases that we don’t use anymore, such as ‘pray tell’ for ‘what is it?’.  If you’re uncertain whether you’re using a dated phrase, ask yourself if the sentence will still make sense without it, or if it’s stating the obvious. This involves understanding your intended audience.
  5. Multiple exclamation points, question marks, or over-use of ellipses. Conversely, this can also denote an immature writer. There is no reason to use more than one exclamation point or question mark. No excuses. Adding more will not make it more. Most of us rarely stray into that habit – more often I see the incorrect or over-use of the ellipsis (‘…’). More than a comma or dash, an ellipsis is used to slow the reader down. You may remember being introduced to it in school as a technique to create suspense. The problem lies…when you use it…too much… Then I don’t know…what you’re trying to lead me into thinking, or even…what you mean…sometimes…or even if you know… (You see what I mean?) It’s melodramatic, cluttering, and like too many bunny-ears leads me to think you’re not confident enough in what you’re saying.

Not sure about usage? Spotting these in your own work not your strong suit? That’s what your editor is for! Additionally, as you’ve noticed a lot of these have to do with punctuation; I’m aiming to explore each of the punctuation marks in their own ‘spotlight’ posts to help you get a better grip on them. Stay tuned.

What are some bad habits you can’t seem to shake? What are some of your pet writing or typing peeves?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Auto-Checkers versus an Editor

Happy Friday, everyone!

I’ve been giving some thought to a common habit that others have pointed out to me: a reliance on automatic editing software, such as Word or GoogleDocs’ spellchecker,  or sites like Grammarly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m in no way condemning their use – that would be purposelessly elitist – and in fact, it’s remarkable what they can catch and they grow in sophistication as time goes on. They’re built on algorithms designed to catch specific errors in spelling, grammar, format, and – lately – concision and other weaknesses, and other software out there can, additionally, check for plagiarism and citation issues. Often, they’ll even correct the error for you without you having to break your flow, and many sites now have even a basic version built-in. It’s great to not have to know the spelling of every single word you’ll potentially use, and for those of us who are creative writers, the ability to add our own unique spellings to a personalized dictionary is a godsend.

“So Taegan, why can’t I just use Grammarly and be done with it?”

“What’s wrong with Word’s spellchecker?”

Well, until we reach the singularity, the fact is that auto-checkers will not catch everything. All algorithms have their limits, and are only as strong – and flexible – as we create them to be. For example, a sentence can read as correct to the auto-checker but does, in fact, contain an error, even if that error is no more than a poor stylistic choice. Here’s an easy one – ‘I had too coffees today.’ – where the ‘too/two’ (homophone) mix-up is obvious to us, but neither WordPress, Google Docs, nor Word picked up on it. Also consider how strange the following looks: ‘the Weather today Is beautiful.’ Not marked as incorrect, but it sure looks untidy to you and I.

The level of sophistication required to learn and check all the nuances of the written word equivalent to the human brain and eye requires more memory and programmer-power than most software can realistically maintain for the average consumer; frankly, for most of us we only need a limited percentage of the auto-checker’s power. That’s one part of it.

However, there’s a second, less obvious reason: it’s a great way to exercise your brain! The more practice you get with reading over your own work and recognizing your pet problems (and pet words), the better you’ll be at catching them. It’s always nice to learn more, isn’t it? Of course, not everyone has the time to do that. That’s where your editor comes in – your second pair of eyes. By all means run an auto-checker of your choice (please do – it’ll save your editor a headache!), but don’t necessarily trust it with your life or your promotion. They’re no match for a well-trained human.

Food for thought on a beautiful start to what’s hopefully going to be a beautiful, productive weekend. Enjoy it, everyone!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

PS – My plan is to post on Fridays, to give you things to think about and work on over the weekend. Let me know how it works for you!