Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?
Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.
Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.
No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.
Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.
That’s That, That’s All
Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words. Jeff Lindsay
“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.
This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.
This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.
The sentence is more direct if you reword it.
She told me to wash this dirty plate.
Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.
The Thing Is…
I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. Vladimir Nabokov
What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing” is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him. Find a better way to express your idea.
The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.
We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.
Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.
What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.
What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.
Parts Of Possession
Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional. Liz Vassey
This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.
It’s not that big of a problem or
It’s not such a big problem or
It’s not a big problem
Which sounds better to you?
The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.
The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?
The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or
The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.
Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.
I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or This is Achmael Blein III.
The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.
The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.
Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.
What Was Going On?
No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.” Merilyn Simonds
Writers often use the word “was” paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.
“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”
Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.
Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.
For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.
“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”
Of This and That and Other Things
Four small words – that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”
Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.
Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.
They say write what you know.
Be authentic and write from the heart. But what if that’s too painful? What if, like many writers, you’re afraid to be exposed by your words?
It happened to me. I wrote a story that I was afraid to publish.
Not because it was risqué or difficult. It was honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.
As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Something sneaked past my filters and on to the page. I wrote it for a competition, but missed the deadline while I agonised over whether to let it go.
How could I be prepared to send this off to be judged by strangers, but hesitate to post it on my own media?
The difference was anonymity.
The story was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible to me.
Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?
I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to write them with my own blood.
Was I right to hesitate?
All Eyes On You
Have you ever heard the expression: Walk a mile in my shoes, and then judge me? And write your own books. Ann Rule
You know how it feels when you’re anxious or shy. You feel as if everyone is looking at you and worse, judging you harshly. But that’s not true. Everyone is as consumed by thoughts about themselves as you are.
This is known as the spotlight effect. You hide because of the erroneous belief that everyone is watching. They’re not.
Remember that as the author you know everything about your story. You know where you found events and people that appear in it. Nothing is disguised. But the reader doesn’t have that inside knowledge. As long as you change details, especially about real people, the reader’s unlikely to draw the conclusions you fear.
You have to trust your story, and your judgement, and move forward despite anxiety.
One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.
Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. They told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.
The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that speaks more eloquently than any words could.
And it is the drop of your blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the connection true.
Channel real emotion into honest writing.
If you’re writing memoir, events can be portrayed as they happened, letting the reader experience them with you.
If you’re writing fiction, you need to get emotion on the page without revealing your source material. Change names and places. Combine elements of real people into a new character. Writers have the power to immortalise or demonise friends and enemies — but a libel suit or worse, an angry relative is best avoided.
When you write betrayal, for example, think back to when someone let you down. Allow yourself to experience it again and jot down the first words that occur to you. The first words are the true ones, before your brain has time to filter and censor.
How would your character express those feelings? The circumstances are different, but the emotion is familiar.
You don’t know how it feels to hide during an alien invasion. Or maybe you have been that person, frightened of being discovered or left behind. In any case you do know something similar; fear, despair, anger, hope. That’s what you write.
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. Paul Gallico
I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. In sharing experiences and lessons learned, we connect. We give people the chance to recognise themselves on the page, and feel less alone.
Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.
When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.
Someone needs to read your words and recognise themselves within them.
If you’re a creative, you’ll face a lot of rejection. Your pitch, query, design or article will be politely turned down, or worse, ignored altogether. You’re hardwired to remember the negative more than the positive. But you go on because nobody has a perfect hit rate, right?
You try again, and again.
One day, another rejection is the final straw. You’ve been slaving away to make your work the best it can be, and you just can’t take any more. You stop working.
Each no makes you feel like an egg dropped on the floor. And this time, you shatter so badly that you can’t put yourself back together again. You know mindless distractions don’t help, but you numb the feelings with food or alcohol or endless scrolling anyway.
What are you going to do now?
Never Too Big To Fail
The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. Beyoncé Knowles
Nobody succeeds all the time. When we see the hits, it’s easy to forget all the misses. And we never see all the pieces that didn’t make it into the public eye.
You are not your work.
You’ve put time and effort and maybe a part of yourself into your work, but it isn’t you. A rejection of your work doesn’t pass judgement on you as a person or your overall skill as a creative.
Separate your work from your self-esteem and reframe the loss. Maybe the piece wasn’t a good fit, or it was the fifth similar piece that month, or it was overlooked. None of that has anything to do with you. Remember opinion is subjective and what’s wrong for one person is just right for another.
Have a mourning period if you need it and then move on to action.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. Henry Ford
The quality of the piece is something that is entirely within your control. Feedback on rejected work is uncommon but take it if offered. It’s time to review and rework your piece.
Could it be better? The answer is almost always yes. Look at it with new eyes, or pretend it belongs to someone else. When in doubt, cut the beginning. It might work better without it, or with a new opening.
Learn to self-edit ruthlessly and polish your work to show its best features. When you believe it can’t be improved further, you’re ready for the next step.
A New Home
Have you had a failure or rejection? You could get bitter. That’s one way to deal with it. Or…you could just get BETTER. What do you think? Destiny Booze
Take your shiny piece and resubmit elsewhere. If you want to be published in a journal, you have to contend with a very low acceptance rate.
Let’s say your journal of choice publishes four pieces by new writers four times a year. Only sixteen of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of pieces they receive will make it. The same goes for contests.
The odds are against you so you’ll have to play more games to increase your chance of winning. A tiny proportion of players become winners, but that doesn’t mean that the rest have no merit.
Alternatively, bypass the gatekeepers completely. You have the freedom to publish whatever you choose on sites such as Medium, Wattpad, or your own blog.
Believe in your work and search for a better home.
So you sent your story out to do battle elsewhere, or maybe you concluded it wasn’t in fact good enough. Your next step is to regroup and renew.
Look around for the next opportunity — a contest or publication. Use prompts. Or indulge and write something just for yourself. Make something new and make it great. Setting a deadline forces completion.
A portfolio of completed pieces boosts your confidence and drives improvement in your skills. No words are wasted whether they are made public or not.
Do you keep an ideas file? If not, start one. Capture them all in one place, whether digital like Evernote or the notes function on your phone, or an old-school notebook. When you don’t know what to write, pick an idea and write without judgement.
Don’t be derailed by perfectionism. Your inner editor will whisper, “That last piece bombed, what makes you think this will do any better?” Ignore it. Your job is simply to write.
Spew out a messy first draft and keep going till you reach the end. You can’t edit an empty page.
Your ability to adapt to failure, and navigate your way out of it, absolutely 100 percent makes you who you are. Viola Davis
What’s the real meaning of rejection?
It means you succeeded in facing the world. You took a chance on your own abilities and risked the pain of failure. Rejection is a lesson. It asks, “How much do you want this success, and what price are you prepared to pay?”
There’s no shame in giving up a dream, as long as you don’t give up on dreaming altogether. There’s no shame in failure, as long as you use it to fuel your work.
Every five or ten rejections, reward yourself for effort. It’s painful and you deserve to ease that pain, even if you accept it’s necessary for your growth. We all know the Beatles, Ernest Hemingway, and JK Rowling faced rejection before they found success. But it’s still hard when it happens to you.
Nobody bats a thousand. But winners keep swinging until they hit that home run, and then they keep going. Athletes who didn’t make the winners’ podium carry on eating clean and logging training hours so they can beat their personal best and win next time.
To make rejection work for you,
Reframe the loss
Review and rework it
Regroup and renew your efforts
Reward your bravery
Rejection is unavoidable, but you can work through it. Success is waiting, so keep writing.
A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success. Bo Bennett
You want to share your secret and at the same time you’ll never tell. What would people say? How would they think about you after they learn the truth?
Well guess what? I carry the same burden, and since you can’t talk about it openly I will.
You’re a writer. There, I said it.
Are you already blushing and stuttering, denying what you know is true? Maybe feeling a bit angry at being exposed? Then read on, because you need to fix this immediately.
But Are You Though?
If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it. Michael Jordan
Most writers realise their calling when still young, though some come to it later. Hobbies and interests come and go but those of childhood have a tendency to remain, even if they’re driven underground by adult responsibilities.
Some avid readers remain just that, while others start making up their own stories. You might not have written a word for years, yet the idea nags at you. You keep a journal or scribble bits of poetry when you feel sad. You read novels and think you could do as well if not better.
These moments can be the beginning of a writing career if you go from thought to action. Dreaming gets you nowhere, you must act. Talking about it, thinking about it, or planning it isn’t enough.
A chef doesn’t serve a raw pie. A surgeon doesn’t down tools halfway through closing a wound. And a writer finishes what she starts, no matter how hard it is.
Stephen King said that if you’ve paid a bill with money earned from writing, then you can call yourself a writer. That’s true for a professional, but we all have different goals and money is only one of them.
A writer has an itch, a compulsion, a need to express themselves in words. That’s you, and you want to know how to own it.
Not in Public
Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. Robert Heinlein
So you want to call yourself a writer, but something is holding you back. Perhaps you remember being dismissed or ridiculed by someone whose opinion mattered — a parent, teacher or friend. They told you writing poetry was banal and writing romance was pathetic wish-fulfilment.
They told you your words were no good, and by extension, you were no good. The resulting shame caused you to bury writing where nobody could find it and use it against you.
Things are different now. You’re grown, and nobody can tell you what to do. These wounds run deep but you can heal them without therapy.
Recall what was said and who said it
Write it down
Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
Burn or tear up the letter
Anyone can write, just as anyone can cook. But not everyone can do it well. Maybe you think you’re not good enough because you’re not Neil Gaiman or Stephen Covey yet.
You must practise. Write a thousand words, then ten thousand more. Make writing a central part of your life so that it becomes familiar. Lose your fear of the thing you love and get good.
No Words to Say
Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Neil Gaiman
Imagine this scene. You’re at a social gathering and someone you know asks, “So I hear that you write, what are you working on?” They smile encouragingly. What do you do?
Flight — you get away as soon as possible without answering
Fight — you deny it or make some self-deprecating remark
Freeze — you’re terrified and unable to speak
You’re a writer and words are your tools. It’s time to use them.
You need two stories; one for you and one for your work.
Picture yourself as a confident writer. If that’s too difficult, create an alter ego (why do you think authors use pen names? Just for anonymity?) A superhero writer who looks like you but acts like she was born to do this.
Now ask yourself WWSMD? What would Super Me do?
She’d face her questioner and smile. Then she’d say something like, “That’s so kind of you to ask. I’m working on some short stories/ editing my novel/ working on my blog.”
When the follow-up questions come, she’s ready with the address of her blog and an elevator pitch for her book. She isn’t ashamed of who she is. But she isn’t her work either; it’s part of her life, not her whole being.
So use your skills and write those stories. Write the description of you as you are now, making the best of your position. A single sentence should do. Then write the next part, where you answer deeper questions. Be vague; say it’s at an early stage, or in editing, or that you plan to find an agent in the future.
If someone is asking personal questions like how much money you’ve made, don’t get angry or embarrassed. Find words that you can say with a smile, then change the subject.
“When I make my first million, I’ll let you know!”
Writing an elevator pitch is a great exercise for any novelist and forces you to condense your story into its essentials. Try it, and you’ll find it easier to write queries, blurbs, and synopses.
Do not put yourself down by saying that your writing isn’t serious, or that you’re no good. Nobody wants to hear that. Don’t apologise. Avoid any opinion, just stick to the objective facts.
I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear. Rosa Parks
Fear is at the heart of our troubles.
We don’t tell the truth about our work and ourselves because we fear an imaginary outcome. As writers, we’re blessed and cursed with well-developed imaginations, full of monsters and disaster.
It’s never as bad as you think it will be. Practise in low-risk settings first. Try out your routine on a trusted friend, in the same way Chris Rock tests his routine in small clubs before going on tour. Tweak and adjust until you feel happy with it.
As you get more confident, expand your arena. Last year my online writing group produced an anthology of short stories. Each writer was tasked with getting people to be part of the street team who would be early reviewers. Did I want to approach people and ask for something? Hell no.
After I calmed down, I wrote a short Facebook post that started with, “As some of you may know, I am a writer.” Writing it down was much less scary than speaking it out loud. Two surprising things happened.
First, lots of people agreed to be part of the launch, not always the ones I expected.
And second, I introduced myself to my social network as a writer, and the sky did not fall. In fact, it became much easier to say it in person.
Claiming your title as a writer is simple.
Write stuff — and finish it
Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore
Write the story of the new you
Practice makes perfect
Soon you won’t need an alter ego because you will become Super Me, proud writer and not afraid to say it.
Christmas may be a distant memory, but there’s no wrong time to give a gift. And there are always birthdays, anniversaries, and random Thursdays to celebrate. If you want to treat a writer in your life, or even if the writer is you, here are some generous gift ideas that go beyond another fancy notebook.
No serious writer would turn down a ticket for a conference or writing retreat. Local options can be affordable, and if you want to push the boat out there are luxury options in beautiful places both at home and abroad.
These events are opportunities to meet other writers and network with people in the publishing world. Some people find agents and editors, but time to concentrate on writing and talk with like-minded others is the big draw.
Welcome to the Club
Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.
A subscription is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider Writer’s Digest, Writing Magazine, The New York Review of Books, among many others. Websites, print, and digital magazines cover every corner of the writing universe and offer contests, publication opportunities, and advice.
Not Available in Stores
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Gift giving is fraught with social and individual expectation. We make many judgements when it comes to selecting a gift and measuring its success.
If we’re less well off, we feel that we can’t give what we don’t have. And if we’re well off, we can resent spending money we worked hard for. All these negative feelings sour both giving and receiving.
How about taking money out of the equation altogether?
Tangible gifts are welcome of course, but what humans crave is often something both simpler and more complex. You and I both want the same thing; we want to matter. We want to be heard and appreciated in some way. Here are some options for generous gifts for writers that don’t cost a penny.
The hardest part is making the time to write. Not finding the time to write, mind you. Making.
If you share a busy life with a writer, chances are they struggle finding enough time to write. Look at your schedules and figure out a slot that works for both of you. Put it in the planner and stick to it. And be prepared to take on the work that needs doing to make it happen, whether that’s taking over bathtime or walking the dog.
No pen, no ink, no table, no room, no time, no quiet, no inclination.
Maybe you don’t have room for a Pinterest-worthy writer’s study overflowing with books and a vintage typewriter. A corner of the spare bedroom or living room might have to do. Respect that space. Keep yours and the kids’ stuff off the table when it’s writing time.
Your writer needs space in time to attend a retreat or conference. Again this might mean you have to take up the slack in domestic chores. If you’re the writer, return the favour by trading chores and fun another time so you both get away. This works well for friends with children who need watching.
Notice them in the world
I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no-one did, I felt lonely.
Buying a book? There’s a card for that, but interaction is priceless. Engage with your writer’s work in public. Write a positive review or comment, rate or clap their pieces, like their Facebook page, and sign up for their email list.
Amplify their voice
Every human being is trying to say something to others. Trying to cry out I am alive, notice me! Speak to me! Conform that I am important, that I matter!! Marion D. Hanks
Writers and creatives are often introverts who hate to be too visible, even as they want their work to be noticed. You can help by engaging with them on social media. Follow them, retweet them, talk about their work online and in person. We’re bombarded with so much information and choice that personal recommendation means more than ever.
Acknowledgement is everything
The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.
We say it’s the thought that counts but it’s more than a cliche. The most important gift of all is acceptance. The person who describes themselves as a writer does so after much soul-searching and doubt. Allowing them to claim that identity, without mockery or dismissiveness, is a precious gift.
Enthusiasm and genuine curiosity in asking about their work will be remembered and appreciated long after the conversation is over.
Give A Little More
We all have the ability to make someone’s life better. If you have plenty of resources, or your donor does, appreciate your good fortune and choose something to move your work forward. But the intangibles, the things which are free but rarely given, are even more valuable.
Award gifts to yourself, to others, and remember what goes around comes around. Build good writing karma and give at least as good as you get.
Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.
In 2016 I went to see Beyonce in Dublin. It was one of the best lessons in pleasing your audience that I’ve ever been given.
We may inhabit the same planet, but Beyonce lives in a different universe. She flew in from London that day after watching Serena Williams win her seventh Wimbledon title. Then she performed at Croke Park in front of 75,000 fans.
Her show was an amazing spectacle. There were lasers and dancers on water. There was fire and fireworks. There was the feeling that comes from being part of a huge crowd, all of whom are focused on enjoying the same thing; a global superstar.
Yet her show wasn’t what I expected.
The Hero’s Promise
When you connect with your heroes through their work, you have certain expectations. When those expectations are met, you’re satisfied. If they’re not met, you’re disappointed.
Your feelings about that experience shape your future choices. If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or attended a concert by someone you admire, you know how that plays out.
“That was amazing, can’t wait for the next one!” Or “It was all right.” Or “What a waste of time, next time don’t bother.”
All these responses are mediated by dopamine.
Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain. It lights up the pleasure centres when we do something that feels good, and prompts us to repeat the behaviour.
Our brains have evolved to reward us when we engage in behaviour that improves our survival, such as drinking water, eating, and procreation. Nowadays we also seek dopamine hits elsewhere, in activities like shopping and gambling. For our brains, it’s all the same thing; if it feels good do it, then seek it out and do it again.
When you get what you expected, you get a dopamine hit. But it’s much larger when you encounter the unexpected. That’s why novelty is so important in life. That’s why gambling machines pay out unpredictably. Gamblers are hooked by a small win, and play on compulsively in search of the biggest win and the ultimate dopamine rush.
Why does that matter and what does it have to do with a pop concert?
No Rest For The Best
Beyonce is a global phenomenon. She could have milked the adoring crowd, played a few of her many wonderful old hits and forced a smile. She didn’t do that.
Instead of resting on her laurels, she raised her game.
She gave us more. More dancing, more costume changes, more new material. More dopamine hits.
We were dazzled by a smile that looked genuine and a gorgeous show that was underpinned by tons of hard work. She gave us her best and lived by her work ethic.
Her ethic says create a wonder, send it out into the world, then create another. Her ethic pays attention to the tiniest detail that 99.9% of consumers miss, but delights the 0.1% who notice. Her ethic says, “My audience turned out for me, and I am sure as hell turning up for them.” This is a creative philosophy we can all get behind.
Delight Is Tough
The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it. Pearl S Buck
Building a body of work is hard. You have to keep going through stress and doubt and blocks. You have to go to your audience, shout for their attention, and then continue to deliver to keep their attention. Isn’t it tempting to rush through and cut corners? To say that will do and send it out anyway? That’s a mistake. While you absolutely must ship your work and avoid the perfectionist trap, it’s even more essential to maintain your standards. And to grow as a creator, you must push your limits and raise your standards over time. When you under-deliver, you risk turning people away from your future offerings. They won’t necessarily give you a second chance unless they’re one of your true fans – or feeling generous. When you over-deliver, casual observers eventually become fans who will amplify your message by sharing it with enthusiasm. The better you get, and the more you surprise even yourself with the quality of your output, the more pleasure you’ll have in your work. Put care into the details, and someone else will notice and smile. One of the joys of a good set of headphones is hearing all the intricacies that artists put into their music. Even though none of it can be heard on the radio or at concert volume, it’s there if you look for it. So to create delight, do more than is expected. Add extra information and references to blog posts. Layer meaning in every name in your fantasy world. Use the language of flowers in the bouquet given to your romance character. Don’t take attention for granted because novelty really does wear off. Try to find that extra 5% when you can, because it amplifies the whole experience for those who see it. The unexpected brings us joy. We’re wired for it.
Give us your best – plus a little extra we didn’t predict, to keep us coming back for more.
Comment or question? Drop it below and let’s talk.
Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?
Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.
Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.
All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.
It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.
You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.
The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.
Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.
If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.
Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?
We struggled. Every one of us.
The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?
We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.
One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.
I had to find another way, fast.
Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start
Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration. Wayne Dyer
Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.
In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.
A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.
For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.
I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.
We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.
I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.
I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.
There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.
A Different Playing Field
You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:
You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.
1. Nice Try But No Cigar
You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.
Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.
Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. Newt Gingrich
Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.
2. The Lies You Tell
Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.
Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.
You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.
You can have excuses, or you can have results.
You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.
Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.
Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.
Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.
Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.
How Much Do You Want It?
Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe. Sumner Redstone
Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?
Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.
The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.
And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.
Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.
So you want to write a short story or maybe even a novel. Your idea is ready, you have an outline, and you’re raring to go. Or you’ve finished a piece and you’re wondering if it’s good enough to release into the world.
You don’t want the editor or agent to pass on it because of errors you could and should have fixed before submission.
You also don’t want to give your reader any reason to put down your manuscript or click away from the page.
Just because you’ve read published work that wasn’t that good doesn’t mean your work should be sub par.
Here are ten common writing errors new writers make and how to correct them.
1. Weak Concepts Don’t Fly
What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.
Sometimes you’re writing an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves. The characters are changed in some way by the events.
Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.
2. Poor Pacing is a Drag
Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.
Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the journey to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
Too much action without actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.
To correct these try the following.
Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.
Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.
3. Overwriting Weighs a Story Down
Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.
Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov
Telling robs significant moments of their power.
When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.
Describe his actions so we can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky, ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.
Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, jump to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.
Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.
5. Dialogue Tag Troubles
Dialogue tags are a frequent source of errors new writers make.
Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.
There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.
You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags.
“Is this okay?” She held out the report. He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”
Notice that the tag is on the same line as the dialogue it belongs to. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.
If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.
6. Point of View Problems
Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first person typical of modern YA novels. For example:
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.
My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.
Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else. Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.
This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which his companion can observe.
It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing. As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing.
7. What Time Is It?
Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.
Past tense remains the most familiar choice.
Tense is not the same as POV. You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.
Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.
Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately and with care. Be certain of your choice before you start. Rewriting a whole work is tedious and careful editing would be even more essential than usual.
It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. Mark Twain
Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.
You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.
Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the storyand their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.
This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events. Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.
Having the protagonist get exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.
Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.
9. It’s All Too Much
Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.
It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.
Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.
Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.
Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.
10. Not Looking Good
Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.
Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors, giving the impression that the author doesn’t care.
1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something. “he wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”
2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy. “he faces charges of collaboration”
What comes to mind when you think about working in groups?
Collaboration can have both positive and negative associations depending on who you work with and for what result.
Writing is a solitary act. You close the curtains and lock the doors before exposing your inner thoughts and desires. Then comes the agonising process of deciding how much to show and how much to tuck away safely out of sight.
You set limits on displaying your truth, much like the spectrum covering those who walk around a changing room proudly naked and those who withdraw into a closed cubicle — or go home and keep their secrets.
Collaboration can feel like sharing that cubicle with a stranger, for a long time. The thought of inviting more people inside is even worse.
In the gym, people often work with one or two others or in bigger groups to achieve their aims.
Can that work for writers too?
All By Myself
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. Helen Keller
Working alone is great because you can please yourself. And working alone is bad because you can please yourself. Who will call you out and make sure you show up if you don’t? Nobody will. You’ll simply make excuses and move the finishing line to tomorrow, sometime, never.
Promises to ourselves are much easier to break than promises made to others. That’s why we’re advised to make our resolutions public so other people can support us when we waver.
Working with someone elsemakes you accountable.
If you’ve agreed to meet up, write something, or complete an exercise, it’s harder to let yourself off the hook and disappoint your writing partner(s). In a small group you’re more visible and under greater social pressure to finish the task.
This alone can mean the difference between moving forward and spinning your wheels without any progress. An external deadline is a great motivator. In fact, for some people, it’s the only pressure that moves them from thinking to doing.
You know how hard it can be to start writing, and it’s even harder to finish. Self-imposed deadlines can work, but even the most disciplined person sometimes runs out of steam.
Then a scheduled meeting or submission date comes into its own because you don’t want to let someone down. Your self-image as an honest, reliable, trustworthy person depends on delivering.
So you focus and produce something. Perhaps it isn’t the perfectly polished jewel of work that you dreamed of, but that only ever existed in your head. Deadlines force completion.
Collaboration means accountability. Accountability means getting things done as promised. What does that mean for writers?
One Plus One Equals One
Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act. Tom Clancy
Presumably, Clancy was talking about fiction. If a novel represents one person’s vision, how can more than one person write a novel?
One example is the successful crime author Nicci French, made up of husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. They chose the female name combination because their first novel had a female narrator.
They talk here about how they make shared writing work. Strict rules are essential — for example, each must accept the other’s edits, preventing a constant back and forth that would be exhausting and result in no book at all.
Writing pairs remain the exception in fiction. If you’re compatible with another writer in terms of personality and style, you could attempt it as long as you agree on the ground rules from the beginning. Each of you will bring different skills and knowledge to the work.
But there are many pitfalls in trying to create a cohesive story with more than one writer. Is there a place for multiple authors in one book?
The Sum Of The Parts
The fun for me in collaboration is… working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven. Lin-Manuel Miranda
A short story anthology gathers a number of pieces into a single volume, with or without a unifying theme. Each writer works as an individual but is included by group membership or success in a contest.
The editing process is a collaboration aimed at polishing your work so it conforms to external standards. If you haven’t published anything before, working with an editor will teach you how to present your writing and save you time and effort the next time.
Writing groups offer support while requiring you to produce work regularly. I’ve found my real-life and online groups invaluable. They’ve challenged me to write in different styles, to a theme and deadline, and most importantly to engage regularly with other writers.
Sharing tips and problems improves all our work. And my stories have now been published in four anthologies, with more planned this year. Collaboration means opportunity.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is just you and a blank page at its simplest, but that isn’t the whole story. Collaboration makes you a better writer. It brings accountability, opportunity, and productivity into the picture.
Combine all three with your hard-won words, and you’ll go far.
Have a comment or suggestion? Drop it below and start a conversation.
How special do you feel right now? Over seven billion people on this planet, and there’s nobody quite like you.
But unique isn’t always enough, is it?
You feel ordinary, nondescript, forgettable. Even though you’re trying hard to be more, make a difference, stand out somehow, it’s not working. You feel like a failure because the gap between where you are and where you want to be is so great.
So what do you do about it? Let’s start with what definitely won’t work.
Feedback Doesn’t Work
You’re realistic about what you can achieve.
Your goals are SMART. You write, but you’re not JK Rowling. You sing, but you’re not Beyonce. You play soccer, but you’re not Lionel Messi.
You take stock of your skillset and work on your weaknesses. You take on board the lessons of constructive critique.
Playing only by these rules traps you in a limiting cycle of assessment and remediation.
Can you recall being praised for doing something really well? How long ago was that?Yet being rewarded for doing something well makes it more likely that you will do it again.
Positive reinforcement works, whether we are learning to tango or training a dog to fetch a ball. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behaviour. Each time you do something that brings you closer to the desired standard in any way, you get a reward.
Rewards are tangible like money, or intangible like time or praise. Praise is one of the most potent rewards of all because it’s rare, and winning genuine praise from a person you respect is a great motivator.
Positive reinforcement rewards effort, not just the final result. Reaching a standard involves repeated effort that moves closer to the target, and rewarding the work done motivates you to keep trying even when the goal is still some way off. That’s crucial when undertaking a lengthy project or course of study.
Bad To Be Good
Some skills come easy. And we are conditioned to believe that if they come easy, they aren’t as valuable as those that are hard won. The teacher doesn’t praise your descriptive prose, she focuses on your weak grammar. The parent ignores your accurate scale model of the Death Star but focuses on your low grade in maths.
Over time your confidence in the things that you can do with ease, the things you enjoy, is eroded. You’re trained to discount your talents in favour of endless remedial work on things that are valued more. You’re forever failing. How does that feel?
Time to reset your approach and accentuate the positive.
The Humility Trap
Some people have a hard time identifying anything they’re good at. They feel uncomfortable even thinking about it. This usually relates to a time when they showed skill and were reprimanded for it.
Perhaps you were told to stop showing off, to be humble and modest, not to rub it in people’s faces. You remember how it felt to be slapped down for thinking you were better than the next person when you were probably worse.
Your discomfort is rooted in shame, a deep and pervasive human emotion. Shame is corrosive. Shame bypasses the behaviour and sticks to the person, leaving a sense of wrongness that’s hard to describe but easy to take on board.
Negative value judgements by important figures can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem.
You learned to keep your head down because the tall poppy standing above the others gets cut down. Even heroes of popular culture are revered one day and vilified the next.
These comments are expressions of envy. Building strong self-esteem helps you shrug off the hateful comments. They hurt, but you move past them because you know what you’re here to do.
Performing a task successfully gives us a sense of being in control and achieving a goal. The more often we do this the greater our feeling of self-efficacy. It follows that performing tasks we enjoy and are good at increases confidence.
Achieving mastery of a task is one of the best ways to increase self-efficacy. It promotes a positive attitude to change, and willingness to engage with challenges that serve us well in every area of life.
You have the right to be good.
Every Facet Shines
An elite practitioner spends many hours working on their weaker areas. But they also work on their strengths, the things they are good at. To be elite is to grow in all areas, not just one or two. Exercising skills makes us happier, more attractive to others, and more confident.
People who possess confidence without arrogance and believe in their own abilities are happier than those who have low self-esteem. The belief that you can change and improve your own life is built on setting goals and reaching them. This confidence supports all areas of life, as long as you have a growth mindset. That is, you believe that you can learn and change throughout life; your skills are not fixed in stone.
A person with a growth mindset isn’t limited by where they are currently because they know they can learn new things. They acknowledge their skills, and then they amplify those skills. They value their talents, therefore they work on them and use them, which makes them happier and more likely to repeat the behaviour.
A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals. Larry Bird
Focus On The Right Things
What’s your superpower?
It’s the thing that comes easier to you than others. You don’t know how you do it, you just do. You learn and improve quickly, even if you struggle with other things. It might be part of a bigger skillset or stand alone.
Packing a suitcase
Playing a new song by ear after hearing it once
Knowing all your sports team’s stats for the last five years
Sense of direction
Affinity for animals
Making a meal from leftovers
You might not need or use these exact skills every day, but when you do they bring a smile to your face. You did it and you did it well. Why not smile and feel good about yourself more often?
Own Your Power
Think of your superpower.
What do you find easy and enjoyable? What makes you smile?
You’re going to do more of that. Take your sports knowledge to the pub trivia team. Get out your guitar and play along with the radio. Read that story you wrote last year and enjoy the descriptions you got just right. Bake a pie because you’re a dab hand at it, take it to work for coffee break. Buy a book of Sudoku or download a game to your phone and play to the end. Instead of buying a card for your friend, paint a tiny canvas instead.
Why do this? Because you can.
Doing a thing well is its own reward. If you do something really well, in a way no-one else can, money may follow. If money were the only measure of success, the rich would be happier in proportion to their wealth. We all know that money is important but not the whole story.
Focus on how you feel about yourself and avoid the trap of more money, less happy.
We’re not here to blend into the background. We’re here for a short time, and our only purpose is to make the best use of that time.
I want to marvel at your ability to compose rude poems on the spot or drink a yard of ale without spilling a drop. I want to see your beautiful calligraphy or hear you sing Happy Birthday in four languages. Then I want to see you smile and feel good. Isn’t that better?
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. Marianne Williamson