blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing, writing process

How To Make Your Writing Shine

person-731148_1280
Free Photos via pixabay

You did the thing and now you have a completed first draft. You’re a writer. You have written. Congratulations are in order.

Now the hard work really begins, because you have to edit and polish your story. Getting a story out is like mining gemstones— difficult, dirty work. And what you bring to the surface is probably not a thing of beauty, yet.

But it has potential. If you can strip away the dull bits and hone the good bits, you might just have something brilliant. Here are ten ways to make your work shine.

1. Strengthen Your Storyline

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.

Maybe she finds out her husband is a spy. Maybe they’re both secret assassins but he’s her latest target. Give the story a twist, otherwise there’s nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

Sometimes what you’re writing is an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t always 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. Fix Your Pacing

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 trip 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 an 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. Make Words Count

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.

Tighten up your prose by removing crutch words.

This tool helps you find and destroy clichés.

4. Let The Reader Do Some Work

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 readers 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 while 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, skip 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. Make Dialogue Tags Pull A Double Shift

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. They combine what was done with what was said, and by whom.

“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”

The tag belongs on the same line as the dialogue. 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 who’s talking, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
 

6. Fix Your Point of View

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.

Emma Darwin discusses the use of different POV here but you must make your choice and stick to it.

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 in his POV you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which is his companion’s observation.

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. Unanswered questions make people turn the page.

7. Know The Time

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. We’re used to hearing about events that have already taken place.

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. However most writers prefer a consistent tense throughout. It’s easy to slip between present and past tenses, so careful editing is essential.

Find advice on managing tenses here.

8. Nurture Their Disbelief

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 story and 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.

Giving the protagonist 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. Go Easy On Themes

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. Looks Do Matter

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. It gives the impression that the author doesn’t care.

You care, so fix your work. This 12 step self-editing checklist covers a range of tips and resources that will help you polish your drafts.

Finally, Get to The End

The secret is not following the right path, it’s following that right path to the end. Don’t quit, my friend, until you’ve arrived.
Toni Sorenson

Unfinished works linger in the back of your brain, slowly draining your energy. You feel anxious and guilty about them.

Do whatever you need to finish. If you can’t let go, that’s a sign. Complete your piece somehow. You can’t query half a novel or publish half an article.

Work on the issues above, or trash the piece and start fresh.

Let go of perfectionism because done is better than perfect. And once it’s done, it can be edited until it’s as close to perfect as you can get.

Go to it. Your readers are waiting.

blog, creativity, productivity

There Are Two Ways To Find Creative Inspiration – Only One is Right

the moment of ignition as a match is lit
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Jack London

Can you create your best work without inspiration?

Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.

Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.

Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?

Stealing Fire

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Pablo Picasso

Creativity and inspiration are not the same. They can exist separately or together. We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be serviceable if you know what you’re doing.

Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.

Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.

It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.

The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.

Neuroscience has shown that the creative act involves higher level brain activity. Ordinary pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.

You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.

Add a spark, and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.

Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill

Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill

Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you ready and waiting.

The Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration

Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.
Twyla Tharp

Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.

In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.

The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.

Breathing Space

Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.
Agnes Martin

Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.

Some people get their breakthroughs while doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.

Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.

Everything Is Material

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.

Henry David Thoreau

If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.

Get out from your routine and search out something new. Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.

Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.

Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.

Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Examine buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.

A Marriage of Opposites

It’s a dull, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.

When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.

Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it. If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.

Go to it.

blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How To Attract More Readers For Your Great Content

if you build it right they will come – and stay

FancyCrave on Unsplash

Do you want more readers?

Of course you do. You’ve got something to say and without an audience all that effort goes unnoticed. In a world where new content is everywhere, how can you get anyone’s attention?

Sadly there are no guaranteed routes to a bigger readership. But there are some changes you can make to shift the odds in your favour.

Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse

The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, (and) then decide whether or not they will look at the copy.
John Caples

The headline is your shop window.
The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.

It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that too often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.

Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.

Sell the benefit of your piece.
Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There’s a reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.

The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.

This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.

Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/00
How to get better at writing = 78/100

Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.

How Hard Can It Be?

So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.

Hit the Wall

Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen.

We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.

Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.

The Long and the Short Of It

Pitch your writing at the right level for your readers.

Reading age describes the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. Compare the reading age of some popular media.

  • The Sun, UK tabloid 7–8 years
  • Harry Potter novels 12–13 years
  • Stephen King novels 12 years
  • Reader’s Digest 12 years

You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.

Keep It Moving

Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. These writing styles favour the passive voice. Active voice is more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page. For example,

The passive voice is disliked by modern writers.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.

Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.

Avoid The Angry Trap

Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.

I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions or insight into those issues.

Instead use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too.

Put Meat on the Bones

So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.

Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.

If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading.

Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.

Be conversational and friendly. Read it out loud to check that it flows well.

Showing Up

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.
Dwayne Johnson

After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. But instead, you have to do it again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.

Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another.

Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. Slow down if you must, but keep moving.

Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.

  Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.

You can’t predict which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.

Walk That Talk

An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.
Karl Marx

How is it that we consume so much self-help and advice, and yet remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know —  because I live the same struggle.

A few months ago I was very discouraged about my work on Medium. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Belief in the process didn’t make it any easier to deal with my disappointment.

I leaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.

The result: more fans for this one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.

I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece was a new opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else was the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.

Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve — as a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in their routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.

Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to your results. Like any change, it will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.

You’re good now — and you can be better. Learn, improve, repeat.

blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How to Improve Your Writing Dramatically in Less Than 5 Minutes

little tweaks, big results

tulips -yellow_keila-hotzel
Photo by Keila Hötzel on Unsplash

Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.
John Travolta

Everyone’s a writer these days. Whether working on your novel or captioning your latest social media image, you’re writing every day.

How do you choose your words?

Do you always use the same few words, or are you a logophile who loves playing with shades of meaning?

Although it’s difficult to count the number of words in the English language, around 170,000 words are currently in use. An adult native speaker uses 20-35,000 words (source) depending on age, education, location and so on.

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.

  1. Informal

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?

  1. Wordy

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.

  1. Archaic

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.

  1. Cliché

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.

What happened?

“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.

blog, creativity, self improvement, writing

How to Turn Negative Feedback Into a Positive Experience

men s black and white long sleeve shirt
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
Kenneth Tynan

When was the last time you got negative feedback?
You’ve probably had comments on your writing, cooking, driving, or that shirt only you like. It doesn’t feel good.

Feedback is crucial to improvement. You only know what needs to change by assessing what does or doesn’t work.

Creative work of any kind exposes you to one-star reviews, lack of engagement, negative or offensive comments. You hoped for praise but got something unpleasant instead.

Alternatively, you might be working with a mentor or in a group of your peers, and actively seeking constructive comments.

You know feedback is a good thing. But do you always want it?

Candy or Broccoli?

Writers crave good feedback. You want to hear how much readers loved your characters, plot, and description. Positive feedback (I loved this!) feels good, but like eating candy, it isn’t nourishing on its own.

But despite the supposed benefits, we’re less keen on hearing negatives. Like broccoli or high fibre cereal, we know it’s good for us but it doesn’t taste good.

Negative feedback cuts to the heart of your self-esteem. If you’re too closely identified with your work (writing is my life rather than writing is something I do) criticism of your work feels like criticism of your core self. Then you attack in self-defence — either the critic or yourself. Both options are painful.

Reviews and comments are an accepted part of life. The only way to avoid them is never showing your work.

Fighters work with a sparring partner to build their strength and skills. Ask for help from a trusted source. Each time someone points out a defect is an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Take feedback on the chin and emerge with your self-esteem intact.

There are ways to make feedback both palatable and useful, whether it was invited or not.

Here To Help

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
Norman Vincent Peale

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
It is factual. It focuses on objective measures using rational language.

Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
It is opinion given in emotive language. It may not be relevant to the work at hand. It is personal.

What does constructive critique look like?

  • Timely — ideally given soon after the event
  • Focused — limited to one or two points
  • Objective — factual, uses respectful language
  • Specific — gives examples
  • Actionable — suggests targeted remedies

 

Poor critique:
What complete rubbish. You’re useless, my ten year old could do better than this.

Good critique:
I enjoyed the story but found this hard to read. The sentences and paragraphs were very long and it looked like a solid wall of text.

Consider having one idea per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. That gives more white space on the screen, which is easier to read.

 

The first example is pure negative opinion and offers no useful insight.
The second example avoids insults and emotive language and suggests remedies.

Whether you choose to take the advice depends on the source and the quality of the suggestion. But it gives you something to work with. The new version might work better or not suit your style. Either way, you know more than before, and can make more informed choices in your next piece.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Take It On The Chin

  • Allow time for strong emotions to settle
  • Look for a kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept
  • Consider the alternatives presented
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end
  • If you decide to maintain your current position, know why
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention

Not every comment deserves a response. Sometimes you just note it and move on. Remember you are in charge of your words. You don’t have to accept all of the critiques or make all suggested changes. However, review from another source can be invaluable in showing a reader’s view, which you as the author cannot experience.

Put Up Your Guard

Endless negativity, especially if mixed with personal attack and vitriol, says more about the commenter than the work.

The internet is full of people whose comments consist only of slurs and insults. Sometimes they start by being pleasant and complementary; when you take the bait they switch to attack. Being targeted by an online and probably anonymous bully is a painful and upsetting experience. The answer is simple; don’t feed the trolls.

Don’t respond or engage in a flame war. Don’t stoop to their level.

You risk hurting your brand among observers, as a reputation is hard to build but easy to destroy. And you open yourself to a stream of negative feelings that persist long after the encounter.

You can close comments, mute, block or unfollow, depending on the platform. Often silence is the best response.

Open Your Mind

A common response to critique is to become defensive or aggressive.

I worked all night on that and you didn’t even give me any credit so what’s the point?

Well, what do you know anyway? I’ve got a postgraduate degree in X so I think I know what I’m talking about.

A good sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them outright. You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight.

It might take some time to process the emotional hit, so take a breath. Remember that you’re here to learn. Nobody is perfect. Everyone can improve.

Learn to Love The Pain

The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment.
Justin Langer

Exposing yourself to feedback more often is the best way to increase your tolerance of it.

No creative is immune to the sinking feeling when they see just how many changes they need to make to a piece. You’re allowed to feel bad about it as long as you keep the end goal in mind. Constructive critique builds the strength to do better work.

You Are Not Your Work

You put something of yourself into your creation, but please separate your sense of self from the thing you made. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. When you truly accept this, feedback is much easier to handle. Make another, a better piece using what you’ve learned.

You are not your work.

Everyone’s a Critic

Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game

Dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving useful critique isn’t easy. Like all good teaching, producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions is harder than it looks.

So try writing a good critique by swapping with someone else. There are websites where you can submit your work for review, and earn credits by doing the same for others. It’s the tough love version of karma.

Follow the golden rule; be respectful.
Sharpen your critical skills, but not at someone else’s expense. Read other reviews to learn how to phrase your suggestions if you’re unsure. Even when you have points to make, imagine how your words would feel if you were receiving them. Empathy does not prevent you from being honest.

Whether you’re dishing it out or taking it, constructive feedback is central to your improvement and eventual success. You can learn to like broccoli. And dessert always tastes better after you’ve eaten your greens.

blog, creativity, productivity, writing

How to Find Writing Success By Leaving Your Niche

time to move on

adult architecture binoculars building
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

 

You know success is out there but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.

You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Thomas Merton

The Double-Edged Sword of Focus

You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one area. This can be good and bad at the same time.

Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, all your work will be in vain.

The same can be said for your writing.

How do you know where to invest your effort?

You need to go wide and then deep.

Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.

The gold miners need to survey the whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.

Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.

For example, I wrote an article about being let down by a former friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.

Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.

  • Personal tale
  • Readers like emotional stories
  • Universal theme of betrayal
  • Conversational style — written as a letter
  • Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
  • Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
  • Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
  • Performed best on Medium

So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the best writing style to use next time.

The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where. Spread your net wide.

Want more? You’ll have to do more

Quality comes from quantity. You can’t hit the target if you don’t shoot, and the more shots you take the more hits are likely. Yes, a debut author might be nominated for the Man Booker Prize or get their first novel filmed by Steven Spielberg.

But these are unicorns, rarer than a lottery win and even less predictable. Working consistently is the best route to success.

There are two ways to approach diversifying your writing. You can explore your niche more widely, or move outside it altogether. Let’s look at that in more detail.

Challenge grows your writing muscles

Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
Neale Donald Walsch

You want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.

That means leaving the comfort zone and doing something new. Then assess your results and adjust your course. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.

Try a new fishing ground

Writing divides into three very broad categories.

  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Non-fiction

Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.

Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.

Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.

The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline and appeals to more of our senses and emotions. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.

Crossing the boundaries could look like this.

  • Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
    Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
    Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
  • Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
    Tightly plotted fiction
    Historical fiction with strong research base
  • Fiction plus poetry elements:
    Lyrical writing style
    Highly descriptive but concise style
  • Non-fiction plus poetry elements
    Descriptive travel writing
    Immersive memoir

Learn new ways to tell your story. Blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen area and play with it.

Try a different corner of your own field

If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.

Your next piece will benefit from a new approach.

Wave a flag and get noticed

This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers might still guard the doors to traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.

Enter a competition

In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition or even getting shortlisted in one can lead to new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.

In 2017 I won first place after entering the HE Bates Short Story Competition. The boost this gave my writing career and confidence continues even now.

The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.

I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio.

It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.

Competitions cover every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type. Many are free to enter so there’s no reason to pass on a chance for recognition.

Start a blog

Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s not easy to drive traffic to a blog, you can experiment with your style and start gathering fans.

If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.

Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, high quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.

Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.

Do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.

Submit to magazines

Study the websites for guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Editors need good fiction and non-fiction every month.

This article looks at non-fiction submission.

Submitting to literary magazines is covered here. This is a good way to build writing credits and a reputation.

With a Little Help From My Friends

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
African proverb

Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.

Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.

Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.

 

Groups reflect life and can be breeding grounds for negative interactions, so if you’re experiencing overbearing or overcritical personalities leave gracefully and look for another.

Try It Now

Prompt: a person finds a key in the street.

Now write about it in 500 words or less.

Non-fiction writers, write a poem of any form.

Fiction writers, write a factual piece.

Poets, write a short story.

Take the Next Step

You want to improve and get to the next level?

Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.

It’s time to get moving.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing

Why Writers Should Follow The Golden Rule

I believe in Karma. If the good is sown, the good is collected. When positive things are made, that returns well.
Yannick Noah

Are you an active writer on Medium or elsewhere?

If so, when did you last check your stats for votes, reads, comments or earnings? I guess that was today, maybe more than once already because we all like to see how we’re doing by whatever metric we prefer.

I have another question. Have you read anything lately? Did you clap, vote, comment, review, or buy?

And if not, why not?

You’re expecting to get something you didn’t give. Karma says what goes around, comes around. Karma says you get what you give.

The Silent Majority

Most people consume without creating, and they consume without responding. Around 5–10% of buyers leave reviews on Amazon overall. Even the most popular articles on Medium or Quora have a tiny percentage of comments compared to claps, and claps compared to reads.

Consider this article, which gained almost 21,000 claps in thirteen days but just 79 comments.

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 19.56.21
source
 

Since each reader can give from zero to a maximum of fifty claps, we can infer that at least 420 people read this piece, but the true figure is likely to be many more.

As good as it feels to be read, it feels great to get applause. And comments? Well, a thoughtful comment is the sweetest nectar of all. It can give validation and the dopamine hit we all crave, but it can do something even more valuable. It can start a conversation. And conversations lead to relationships.

So if there are all these positive outcomes on offer, why don’t writers engage?

Paved With Good Intentions

Excuses are lies wrapped up in reasons.
Howard Wright

There are reasons why you haven’t tended to your writer karma. Few of them stand up to closer scrutiny.

  1. I don’t have time to read.
    Stephen King said if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time and the tools to write. A good writer, one who aspires to improve, must also read widely. It takes just a few minutes to read an article on Quora or Medium, or look at your favourite writer’s website. Step away from mindless scrolling and put that time to better use.
  2. I don’t have time to respond.
    Really? It takes seconds to vote or clap. Even a brief message can make someone’s day. It would make yours, wouldn’t it?
  3. I can’t afford to buy a book.
    Buying a book new at full price is the ideal, but maybe you don’t have resources. Buy secondhand, borrow from a library or a friend and review, tweet and Facebook post about it, tell your friends. You can download free books from Prolific Works and review.
    Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads drive sales twice. First, because the algorithms favour books with more reviews. Second, because readers also favour books with reviews. In this era of almost endless choice, recommendations are even more important.
  4. Nobody’s reading my stuff so why should I bother?
    See point 2 above. Feel good by doing good. Your following is built one reader at a time, one comment and relationship at a time. The best follower is one who is invested in your work, and the numbers are only one way of measuring impact. You never know who will be your new cheerleader.
    Your tribe of like-minded readers and writers is out there, but it can’t find you if you’re hiding silently behind a screen. You’re a creator, not part of the herd of consumers. Act accordingly.Connect. Reciprocate.

Keep The Faith

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
Edith Wharton

You want to be a bright star, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes all you have is faith in yourself, faith that things will turn in your favour if you keep putting your work out there.

While you’re waiting, give what you want to see in the world. Acknowledge the impact someone’s words made on you. Be more than a silent consumer, because you’re part of the creative minority and you know how hard that road is, how lonely and unrewarding it can feel.

So don’t wait. You can improve someone’s day, right now, for free, and it only takes a minute.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing, writing process

How To Be An Authentic Writer Without Feeling Exposed

the truth doesn’t have to hurt

Photo by W A T A R I on Unsplash

Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.
May Sarton

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.

Feel The Fear

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

beach_publicdomainpictures
 

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.

Only Connect

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.


Have a comment or suggestion? Leave it below.

blog, creativity, writing

How To Be Interesting

goodbye to boring

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

I never said I wanted a ‘happy’ life but an interesting one.
Isabel Allende

Wanna know one of the biggest secrets in the world? One that millions of people will never admit?

No matter how much you deny it…

You want to be remembered, live a legacy, and have an awesome life.

You want to be remembered for the right reasons, whether that’s beauty or intellect or wit. You definitely don’t want people to sigh when they hear your name.

You’ve met people like that. They attach themselves to you at a party and talk endlessly about their pet subject. They ask a question and as soon as you stop talking they launch into a monologue.

At work, they monopolise meetings. A watercooler chat becomes another arena for them to demonstrate superiority. You know much more about their private life than you ever wanted, because they tell you.

You can’t wait to get away. And you hope that you’re not like that, but how can you be sure?

Cast the Net

An intellectual is a person who’s found one thing that’s more interesting than sex.
Aldous Huxley

Interesting people go wide with their interests and avoid convergent thinking. They’re curious about everything they encounter.

Convergent thinking is an efficient way to reach a goal, like fishing with a rod where fish have been caught before.

In contrast, divergent thinking is messy and unpredictable, like casting a net in the open sea.

Convergent thinking takes information and discards multiple options until it arrives at the correct answer.
Divergent thinking collects multiple options any of which could be the correct answer.

Single-minded focus on one object is necessary and desirable in many situations, like landing a jet or flipping a pancake. But on its own, it won’t make you an interesting person. Neither will knowledge or intelligence.

To be interesting, you really need just one thing.

One Way Leads To Many Roads

Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.
Samuel Johnson

Curiosity drives interesting people.

Interesting people apply divergent thinking to their world every day. When they encounter something new, whether a person or a philosophy, they resist the natural tendency to drop it in a box they already know.

For example, you might think gardening is boring. Yet approaching it with curiosity allows you to find common ground with the person who’s passionate about it. You’re looking for the overlap between their specific interest and your general interest in the world. So instead of politely nodding, ask open questions.

What’s the best (or worst) thing about gardening?
What’s your favourite plant that you grew yourself?
If you couldn’t garden, how would you feel?

These answers require deeper thinking and they reveal more about a person than standard small talk ever will.

Asking what someone does for a living is routine. More interesting questions might be

What do you enjoy about your work?
What do people get wrong about your profession?
How do you relax after a stressful day of (occupation)?

But asking the right question is only the first step.

One Closed and Two Open

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
Stephen Covey

Most people love to talk about themselves, so let them —  and they’ll think you are the most interesting person in the world. Ask the right questions and listen actively. That means being present and engaged, not looking around for your next networking opportunity or waiting for an opportunity to drop your brilliant insight. People will appreciate genuine interest.

We’re given two ears and one mouth. Use yours accordingly.

This isn’t to say you must never speak. Aim to listen, understand, and only then speak. If you want to show off your knowledge, enter a pub quiz or give a seminar. How do you turn those dry facts into something interesting?

Not All That Glitters is Instant Gold

When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
Walt Disney

Interesting people gather new information even if it doesn’t seem immediately useful.

Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class as a dropout student. That led him to spend time in a monastery and, much later, develop proportionally spaced fonts for the fledgling Macintosh computer.

Visual art was unrelated to his technology skills, but he combined them and revolutionised the look of computing.

Having more raw material to work with gives you more options to make interesting things. And that’s the essence of creativity.

Photo by Marnix Hogendoorn on Unsplash

Bored Isn’t Interesting

And also, a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of it being new.
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Only boring people are bored is something I heard as a child. I’d like to turn that saying on its head; interesting people are never bored.

You can find something of interest in almost anything, simply by closer observation. That single-minded focus becomes meditative when watching raindrops on a window or a bee visiting flowers. Ask yourself open questions.

What is happening here?
How can I describe this sound in words?
Where did this drop of water come from and where will it go next?

When you can find something new in the everyday, then you distance yourself from the constant dopamine hit of passing novelty. See what is in front of you, rather than always looking around for the next new thing.

Passion is Contagious

You are not wrong to be unique. You are not incorrect because you are different. You should not be sorry for being interesting.
Jessica Hagy, How to Be Interesting

One of the most wonderful connections we can have is to hear someone speak about their passion. Passion illuminates and sparks recognition in ourselves. It’s hard not to smile when you see it.

Perhaps you’ve learned to hide your passions because you’ve been met with boredom or told to shut up about it. But without passion life is stale and beige.

True attention is a gift all too rarely given these days.

Interesting people are not about hogging the limelight. They’re secure enough to let others shine, and they want to know more about other interesting souls.

If someone gives you the space to let your passion show, remember that a conversation is like tennis; serve and return. Both players can’t have the ball at the same time.

In Your Court

Interesting people are interested in things other than themselves. They’re educationally omnivorous. And so they end a lot of sentences with honest question marks.
Jessica Hagy, How to Be Interesting

The world is full of wonders, and other people are among those wonders.

  • Pay attention to everything you encounter.
  • Be curious.
  • Ask open questions.
  • Dismiss your first thought and always have a second thought.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Give people space to be brilliant, and they will want to spend more time with you.

Be interesting. The world needs you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How To Call Yourself A Writer (And Mean It)

it’s time to claim your title

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

I know a secret about you.

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.

To be a writer, you must write. And you must finish your stuff.

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.

    1. Recall what was said and who said it
    2. Write it down
    3. Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
    4. 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.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
 

What Would Super Me Do?

Beginning. Middle. End. Facts. Details. Condense. Plot. Tell it.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

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.

No Fear

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.

    1. Write stuff —  and finish it
    2. Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore
    3. Write the story of the new you
    4. 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.

Go on, you can do it. Start today.