blog, writing, writing process

How To Shower a Writer With Gifts (Even If You Have No Money)

because money isn’t everything

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

 

We all have an innate desire to make a difference, to make an impact, to be seen, to be heard, to leave behind something better than what we’re brought into.

Maureen Johnson

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.

Money Money Money

You can find some free resources for writers here. But if you’re feeling generous or the occasion demands a bigger splash, try these.

  1. Essential Hardware

The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius

A new laptop or phone tops this wishlist, but a more affordable choice is external storage. Backup that work in extra paid cloud storage or an external hard drive.

Noise-cancelling headphones are a luxury, but the joy of being able to choose your own sound environment can’t be overstated.

 

  1. Specialist Software

My writing process hasn’t changed… A lot of reading, a lot of research if the subject warrants it, a lot of sticky notes and scraps of paper…

Kathe Koja

While excellent free options exist, programs such as Scrivener and of course Microsoft Word offer more sophisticated ways to organise words at varying prices. Screenwriters will appreciate something like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

  1. More Books

The more that you read, the more you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss

Any writer worth their salt has a pile of books waiting to be read, whether digital or physical (or both.) That doesn’t mean a few more wouldn’t be welcome.

Ask your writer which craft books they’d like and what genre they write in, then buy one or two best sellers from each list. Reading their competition will help them refine their own voice.

I prefer physical reference books though ebooks are a great alternative for fiction. Yes, you could give a gift voucher but there’s no thrilling parcel to unwrap.

  1. Community

Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.

Orson Scott Card

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.

  1. 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.

Amy Poehler

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.

Simone Weil

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.

  1. Time

The hardest part is making the time to write. Not finding the time to write, mind you. Making.

Carmen Agra Deedy

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.

  1. Space

No pen, no ink, no table, no room, no time, no quiet, no inclination.

James Joyce

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.

  1. Notice them in the world

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no-one did, I felt lonely.

Curtis Sittenfeld

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Acknowledgement is everything

The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.

Tom Peters

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.

Buddha

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

The Beyoncé School of Being A Masterfully Creative Artist

How to delight your audience

Beyonce Dublin 2016
Beyonce at Croke Park Dublin

 

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.

But what’s less well known is that dopamine also plays a part in avoiding negative emotions. Your brain learns from experience and steers you away from those that felt bad before.

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.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Stronger Together: How Collaboration Makes You A Better Writer

Photo by Jed Villejo on Unsplash

 

Col·lab·o·ra·tion (noun)
/kəˌlabəˈrāSH(ə)n/

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 else makes 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.

Stronger Together

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.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What’s Your Superpower?

Be your own hero

boy child clouds kid
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

 

I have a weird question for you…

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.

Stop Flogging the Horse

Most of us can instantly remember being corrected, disciplined, or criticised for some action. It still happens on a daily basis for many of us. We’re far more likely to recall events imprinted with negative emotions. The negative memories guide our future behaviour for years to come.

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

LEGO Batman, Wonder Woman, Sonic Hedgehog, and Harry Potter Gandalf toys

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.

  • Tennis backhand
  • 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
  • Remembering numbers
  • 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

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How to Share Your Writing With the World (Even If It Scares You To Death)

Who owns the story you just wrote?
boy holding a Chinese lantern by pixel 2013
pixel 2013 via pixabay

Surely the words belong to you, right?

You found an idea and arranged the words to express that idea before putting them out in the world.

You spent time and effort making sure you’re adding something new to the conversation.

You’ve chosen to share it with the world, but it’s still yours.

Except that the moment you pressed publish, you lost control.

No Strings Attached

We’re trained to be polite when giving and receiving gifts. We learn to navigate the minefield according to unwritten rules, and if someone fails to play the game right we call foul.

When you send your work into the world, you expect it to be received with polite thanks at least, and effusive gratitude at best. But you fear bad things will happen and you’ll be powerless to do anything about it.

Your work, that gift for the reader that you laboured over, gets ignored, thrown to the ground and trampled on, or taken apart until it is shredded beyond recognition. You’re angry, disappointed, and afraid to risk trying again.

You must try again and change your attitude to giving.

We’re all adults and we know that many gifts don’t hit the spot. It’s on the recipient to decide what they do with the gift, and as long as you gave in good faith that’s where your influence ends.

If you’re giving what someone might need or use, give it freely. Don’t be that person who gives money but dictates what to buy with it. Don’t be that person who gets huffy when you don’t bring out their gift every time they visit.

All you can do is put enough time and effort into making sure you’ve created your best possible work.

After that, it’s time to forget expectations and cut the strings.

Lightly Not Tightly

A busy road separates my house from the main residential area. My son, then aged nine, wanted to cross the road and cycle to his friend’s house alone. I was worried; a girl had been killed on that road shortly after we moved in. I was acutely aware of all the potential hazards. At the same time, he was growing up and wanting more independence.

I had several options at that point:

  • Keep him at home
  • Let him go but only with a parent
  • Let him go alone

Many factors played into this decision but eventually, he would have to face the world without me beside him. My job as a parent was to teach him how.

Two of the hardest parenting lessons to learn are how and when to let go.

Stories are like children. You’re responsible for keeping them safe while they develop and giving them the tools to survive. But after that, they’re on their own.

Your story belonged to you. Now you must find a way to set it free with a light heart, rather than holding on too tight. Then, like your child leaving the nest, you give your words and creativity room to grow and fulfil their purpose.

 

Screen Shot 2019-01-07 at 23.46.23
pixel2013 via pixabay

Random Acts of Connection

I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made by one person, but that’s not true. Every reading of a book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer who are making the story up together.
John Green

We write with a specific idea in mind, but that idea can spark many different connections in different minds.

Once I wrote a fictional argument between two gay men about authenticity. I received a long comment in return from a woman, married with children, who identified so strongly with one character that she was in tears reading it.

This was not the reaction I intended. But it told me that for one person at least the issues resonated, so strongly that she took the time to reply.

We write to connect. We can’t predict whether we connect or in what way, because each reader is unique. Each reader views the story through a unique lens shaped by personality and experience.

A story is different for everybody who reads it and the writer only owns the first version. The reader filters and changes your words, consciously or not. Their response has more to say about them and where they find themselves at that moment than the story itself.

The glory of a good tale is that it’s limitless & fluid; a good tale belongs to each reader in its own particular way.
Stephen King

So consider your story a child of your imagination. Make it as strong as you can. When it’s ready, send it into the world. Your story is outside your control now, and that’s as it should be.

Every child must walk its own path. Every story must make its own way.

Whether people react to your words with delight, anger, scorn, or tears, you’ve done your job. You made a connection. The outcome is not your responsibility as long as the story comes from a place of love, and a desire to share and receive something positive.

That also means that every story has the ability to change someone in ways you can’t predict. Who knows what comfort you can give to a person who can finally say, “That’s me, that’s how I feel.” If you can do that, why hesitate?

That’s the true worth of a story – the possibility of learning, wonder, and growth for writer and reader. Accept this responsibility and use your powers for good.

The world is waiting for your story.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

One Thing You Must Do Before Setting 2019 Writing Goals

planner
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com 

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.
Oprah Winfrey

As the year ends you can’t escape the notion of a new start and the pressure to commit to resolutions. Maybe you don’t call them resolutions and prefer to talk about setting goals. Or perhaps your new year is marked by assertions like I will lose weight or I will write more.

There’s a gap between here, where you are and there, where you want to be. But the size of the gap is terrifying and the amount of work needed to bridge it is too much to think about.

Unfortunately we have a strong tendency to go into denial when faced with unpalatable facts. You don’t want to know exactly how bad it is, whether that’s your weight or your productivity. That knowledge alone might stop you in your tracks.

You just hope it can be better. So you make vague, non-specific statements of intent. You’ll break them anyway, like 99% of people do.

But do you want to be just like everyone else? If you want to be in the 1% who come out ahead, don’t set your goals yet.

The Truth Hurts

What gets measured, gets managed.
Peter Drucker

You can tell yourself you’re too creative, too right-brained, bad at math, afraid of spreadsheets, or whatever. You still need to track numbers, and the most important is the number you begin at.

Losing weight is a very different prospect when you’re 100% over your ideal weight rather than 15%. The target and methods might be similar, but the application and trajectory must vary to be sure of success.

If you already write 1000 words every day, you need a different plan than if you’re struggling to write consistently at all. I will write more in the coming year is a single goal, but everyone will take their own path to it.

Before you can start to consider where you are going, you must know where you stand. How else can you map out a route?

Do The Math

I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.
Bill Gates

I resolved to start writing regularly a few years ago. My challenges included work that was physically and emotionally draining, family issues, bereavement, raising teenagers, and more. Starting from ground zero made the initial goal simple; I will write a daily journal. No other numbers or targets.

I’m still writing the journal, although not daily. Other targets have replaced it. I went from starting a blog, to posting there occasionally, then weekly. At the end of each year I look back at what I did, and that process is much easier when I have a record.

What works for me may not work for you. I am no bullet journal person and I dislike spreadsheets.  But I accept the need for data before making decisions. I want to know how far I travelled, what worked and where I fell short.

To do that I need various types of information, captured in a way that’s simple and easy to understand. In 2017 I used parallel paper and digital records whereas 2018 was paper only.

My 2019 experiment is a structured year planner plus a monthly summary in a spreadsheet. I have bigger goals which demand more detail, so I’ll get over my spreadsheet aversion and do what’s needed.

Get the right information and open your eyes to the truth of your current position before you figure out how to improve.

Choose Your Track

Items you can track include

    • Words written – day/week/month
    • Writing sessions done
    • Chapters/blog posts completed
    • Followers/ subscribers
    • Submissions made
    • Earnings
    • And more, such as views, read ratios, books you read…

Decide what is most important to you. As your writing career matures, you’ll know which metrics are worth following. If you’re new to tracking, stick to one or two numbers until you’re confident, rather than overwhelming yourself and then giving up.

Although many people swear by daily word count, a weekly or monthly target gives more flexibility. I prefer to count finished works, whether that’s a blog post or a short story. My daily writing habit is already in place and underpins my ability to finish the work.

The simplest way to record a tracked item is a note on the diary page. The easiest way to see it is to add a colour coded spot. Now you can flick through the pages and see where you missed or where you hit a streak.

Hitting a streak has power – think of the satisfaction of knowing you’ve written fifty days in a row, or posted to your blog thirty-two weeks in a row. The longer your streak, the more motivated you are to continue it.

Stay In Your Lane

The best tracking system is the one you’ll actually use. It’s exciting to buy a fancy planner with coloured pens and stickers, but if you won’t use them they’re useless. Plus you feel like a failure when you see them lying neglected on a shelf.

If you’re comfortable with spreadsheets, they can be organised to give detailed information in as many areas as you want. Many paid and free versions are available such as Excel and Google Docs. A free download for writers is offered by Alan Petersen and he also has a video showing how to use it.

Know yourself and plan around your strengths. If your system doesn’t suit, try another. If your system works keep using it, no matter how low tech it might seem to your accountant spouse or super organised friend.

Keep it really simple, and keep going.

Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The End Of The Road Is The Beginning

Before setting your writing goals for the new year, look back at last year’s numbers. If you didn’t track your progress, don’t worry. Go back and record what you did each month, whether that’s words written or posts published or something else. Get a feel for which numbers are meaningful to you.

Now, armed with some numbers, think about what you want to achieve this year.

To write 80K words by December 31st, you need to average 220 words per day or 1538 words per week. How does that compare to 2018? If you’re already exceeding this number, great. You have space for more projects, all other things being equal.

If you only managed 1000 words per month, you’ll need to plan how to fill the gap, or modify your target.

If you know you’ll be moving house, having a baby, or changing jobs, then your targets must reflect that. Life may throw these at you – and more – unexpectedly. Your writing doesn’t have to be derailed by these challenges if you have a method to take stock and adjust your trajectory.

Writing goals should be SMART but also flexible, because life happens. Events can alter the definition of achievable or realistic, so don’t be afraid to revisit your goals as time passes, not just at the end of the year.

Doing What Counts

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.
William Bruce Cameron

Especially if you love data and numbers, it’s easy to be sucked into analysis and forget that you have to do a thing before you can count it. Counting is not working.

The spreadsheet or planner won’t tell you whether you felt inspired or miserable. It can’t tell you that your words resonated with someone. It certainly can’t say whether the 100K words you wrote last year mean more than the 20K you wrote the year before.

These questions are important. They speak to a sense of achievement that isn’t quantifiable, yet determines whether you feel satisfied with your work.

Your journal is the soft counterpart to hard numbers. It’s the place where you can explore the uncounted but vital feelings that drive your life and work, and get to know yourself a little better.

Track your progress and your goals but keep it in proportion.

Remember numbers are visible and concrete, but not the whole story. Like an iceberg, the greater part of writing lies unseen below the surface, beyond the reach of spreadsheets.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes

How To Make Your Writing More Engaging

attract and keep your audience

Photo by John Price on Unsplash 

 

If you build it, he will come.
Field of Dreams

You want views, and reads, and fans for your writing. We all do. You’ve been posting for a while now, but not seeing the results you want.

You’re not too discouraged yet, but you definitely feel like there’s something missing, and if you could only find out what to change you could move forward.

Perhaps you’ve fallen into the trap of believing that if you build it, the readers will come. That depends on what you build and who you hope to attract.

Getting readers to come, stay awhile and return isn’t easy, no matter what the latest guru might say. And if they don’t come, the swamp of suck will get you.

If you can’t build and keep momentum, loss of motivation will soon follow. Like running headlong into quicksand, discouragement slows you down and pulls you under. Avoid that by making your writing more engaging, regardless of subject.

Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, 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 so 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 is one 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 = 71/100

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. The words go on and on without end, and there’s nowhere to pause.

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

It’s vital that you target your writing at the right level for your readers.

Reading age refers to 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. For comparison, the reading age of popular media is as follows.

  • 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. The writing often uses passive voice, which has a distant, formal effect. Active voice makes your writing more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page.

Modern writers dislike passive voice. (active)
Passive voice is disliked by modern writers. (passive)

Instead of a generic noun such as “writers” try using “you” and “your”.

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

Avoid this Trap

Beware of purely emotional outpourings. 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. About everything they see with no end in sight. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions for dealing with those issues.

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. Give alternatives, do your research, and avoid insulting language. There’s too much of that in any comments section already.

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. Each item on your list won’t appeal equally to everyone, but there should be a take-away of value to a broad range of people.

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, and you’ll avoid business-speak.  

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. Instead you have to do it all over 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. Whether the deadlines are external or self-imposed, they are an endless treadmill.

Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. So you have to carry on.  Slow down if you must. Keep moving.

Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. List your posts and remember when you had none. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.

Stick to your subject, at least until you have earned the trust of your readers by delivering consistently. Decide on a schedule and stick to it. 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 cannot know 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 so many self-help and advice books are bought and yet we 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 have lived the same struggle.

Recently I felt discouraged about my work. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Knowing that this dip was going to happen didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

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 one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.

Screen Shot 2018-12-13 at 13.29.41
medium

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

Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve, but it’s a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in 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 the result. It will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.

You’re good enough and you can be better.

Take both of these ideas on board and decide what you’re willing to try today. I’m rooting for us.


Got a comment or suggestion? Drop it in the box below.

blog, writing process

Writing karma: do you give as good as you get?

gift-flowers-hands_klimkin
klimkin via pixabay

Once you’ve lived a little you will find that whatever you send out into the world comes back to you in one way or another.
Slash, rock star

Hello, fellow writer. Have you written something lately? Posted it anywhere? Checked your feed for claps, votes, comments or sales? It’s something we all do. Unless we’re writing purely for our own catharsis, we want our words to be heard by an audience.

But now another question. Have you read anything lately? Did you clap, vote, comment, review, or buy?
And if not, why not?

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

Consumers, creators, commenters

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 by Zat Rana, who has 72,000 followers on Medium. This gained almost 21,000 claps in thirteen days but a mere 79 comments.

View this collection on Medium.com

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 14.38.46

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 you 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.

Your reasons are excuses

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 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, so why would you not do it?
  3. I can’t afford to buy a book.
    Buying a book new at full price is the ideal for an author, but maybe you don’t have resources. You can still buy secondhand and review, borrow from a library or a friend and review, tweet and Facebook post about it, tell your friends. You can download free books from Instafreebie 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 will not find you if you are hiding silently behind a screen. You’re a creator, not part of the herd of consumers. Act accordingly. Connect. Reciprocate.

Give as good as you get – or better

Paraphrasing Anna Sabino, sometimes you have to send ships in the hope that one day they will come in. Sometimes you need faith in yourself, faith that things will turn in your favour, if you keep working. And when prayers are answered, it’s usually because a lot of unseen groundwork was put in without a guaranteed return. Ask any ‘overnight success.’

When your success arrives, you’ll want to turn to the people who matter, your mutual support system. You can rejoice together, because the only thing that makes a well-deserved success better is people to share it with.

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

I'm a true believer in karma. You get what you give, whether it's bad or good. - Sandra Bullock

Source

 

 

 

 

 

 

View this collection on Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

blog, writing process

Remove crutch words to make your prose stronger

muscles-lineart_OpenClipart-Vectors
OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay

When editing your work you’ll find words that crop up over and over, but add no value to the prose. These are crutch words and removing them will strengthen your prose.

When speaking, crutch words give us time to think. They’re used as filler or emphasis.

Filler words in speech

• Well
• So
• Actually
• Honestly
• Really
• Definitely
• Anyway

In writing we tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They slow down or dilute what we’re trying to say. When writing dialogue, a few of these words give a natural feel. They should still be used sparingly, because written dialogue is natural speech, but polished.

A word frequency counter like this one  identifies which words appear most often in your writing. Try it with a piece of your writing from one or two years ago.

You can use the ‘find’ function in a word processor, or use a printout and red pen, editor-style. Sometimes the word can be removed. Other times the sentence will need re-writing.

Like all editing rules, this is a guideline. You don’t need to remove every one of the words on the list. You’re looking at each instance critically and making a conscious decision to keep, change or cut. Some are adverbs, which as we know must be used with care.

Overused words

• Certainly
• Probably
• Basically
• Virtually
• Slightly
• Rather
• Quite
• Very
• A bit
• Almost
• Just
• As though
• Somehow
• Seems/seemed
• Shrugged
• Smiled
• Laughed
• Looked
• Started to
• Began to

Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.

  • But
  • And

You will find that taking out a proportion of the crutch words/phrases allows your writing to speak more directly. And that is the aim of every writer.

On being asked how he created his magnificent sculpture of David, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “Simple. I cut away everything that wasn’t David.”

blog, writing process

Choosing the best

vegetable market_raggio5
raggio5 via pixabay

 

How do you choose a picture for a blog post?

We live in an age of abundance. We expect a wide range of choices in all areas of our lives, whether choosing a tomato or a house or a college course. But who has not stood in front of a supermarket shelf, tired and hungry, overwhelmed by the range of choices presented?

The ability to choose is finite, no matter the size of the choice. Following the example of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, we can cut down the number to make each day by wearing the same clothes, for example. This leaves more brainpower to spend on the hustle that is your real focus.

More is not always better

Researchers have shown that too many choices can lead to less satisfaction. They divided people into maximizers – who need to investigate all possible choices, or as many as possible
and satisficers – who make a choice that best fits their needs, then stop looking.

These two styles are incompatible when shopping. The maximizer always wants to try one more store because the perfect item is out there. The satisficer has a definite idea in mind, but will buy an item that comes close to their ideal. Perhaps you can recall a shopping trip where you are one type and your companion is the other. It can be a miserable experience.

Maximizers also tend to rely on external sources of validation. Their car meets their needs but it must also be validated by a car comparison website. In an age of internet searches and five star ratings, it has never been easier to search endlessly for the perfect deal.

Come off the fence

Finding a suitable photo for a blog post is vital. The choice on sites such as Pixabay and Unsplash is truly mind-boggling. But time is short.

The trick is to set parameters for your search, especially if you tend to be a maximizer.

  • search key words such as couple or beach
  • consider narrowing the colour choices
  • decide on a number of pages to search; these do not have to be sequential
  • go with your gut feeling; the right image may be on page one
  • have a time limit

The filters above applied to Pixabay results in 379 images spread over four pages. Searching more sites simply takes time that is better spent writing.

Not set in stone

Learning to choose effectively is a key time management skill. For writers that might be a name, a picture, or a title. In fact most of these choices are not final, yet they can derail a writing session. Pick something and move on. Don’t let maximizing hide your procrastination. Remember done is better than perfect.