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, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes

Get Your Free Copy of Unleash Your Creativity

quote calligraphy under cup of lemon tea
Photo by Studio 7042 on Pexels.com

Do you think creativity is a special talent that other people have but you don’t?

Do you long to make art, but feel you’re not a creative person? Have you lost your creative flow?

Then my free e-book Unleash Your Creativity is waiting for you. I believe we’re all innately creative and I want to help you find your artistic heart.

I know how hard it can be to claim the title of artist or creator. I know you’re busy. Like me you have work, family, and social commitments demanding your time and energy. But despite all that, you feel something’s missing.

I wrote Unleash Your Creativity for you; a short guide to living a more creative life in the real world. In your free e-book you’ll find advice and exercises to guide you as you identify and start to follow your passion.

Whether you lack confidence, ideas or resources, there’s something here for you. You’ll also find more tips and ideas on this blog every week.

Get your free guide now

Click here to get your free ebook Unleash Your Creativity. Your creative life is waiting for you.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

If You Want To Be A Better Writer, Stop Writing

sometimes more writing isn’t the answer

Pascal van de Vendel on Unsplash

You’re a writer. You gave yourself permission, put your bum in the seat, and started cranking out words. They’re not perfect yet but that’s okay because you read advice articles that tell you how to do it better. You’re on your way.

Then you stumble. No matter how much advice you read and try to apply, the words don’t get any better. You’ve tried it all, and when you read your piece back you cringe. It’s dull, it’s bad, and it’s all yours.

Impostor syndrome sneaks up behind you like a cheap horror movie monster. It breathes down your neck. “I knew it. You’ve been found out, and not even the best advice can save you now. You’re no good. And you never will be.”

You stop trying.

Writing is too hard and you’re just not good enough. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or back to Facebook and Netflix.

Invisible Growth — What You Don’t Understand About Practice

When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to give up. But you need to think about the way growth happens.

I used to plant sunflower seeds every spring with my young children. They were so excited, pushing seeds into the earth and imagining sunflowers higher than their heads. They looked at the picture on the packet, and they wanted all the flowers right now.

But the seed needed time to absorb water, develop roots, and grow a stem. On the surface, nothing was happening. The kids got impatient because progress was less than they expected. Under the surface, growth was already proceeding unseen. One day the shoot popped up, apparently overnight.

Then it grew really fast.

Source Evolution Partners

This type of progress in students as described by Thomas P Seager, PhD fits with my own experiences in the garden or the classroom.

Some students (black line) show linear growth at a steady rate. Others (green line) take instruction with little apparent effect until one day it clicks, and they take off. Soon they leave the others behind, despite being slower to start.

The move to higher levels of skill is often preceded by a stage in which nothing much appears to be happening. In fact a number of sub-skills are developing. When those skills reach critical mass they combine to produce a leap forward, followed by accelerated development.

In the early days of building a skill, a following, or a plant, progress seems slow. Patience and persistence are essential.

That means you must have faith and keep going. But although creativity is endless, it needs to be replenished.

Sometimes the best way to keep going is to stop.

Just Don’t Do It

You’ve read many articles about establishing a writing habit. You might know that Stephen King writes 2000 words every single day. All the advice says sit and write daily.

I suggest you do the exact opposite. Step away from the keyboard.

Just like any other human, a writer is the sum of many parts. The healthiest writers get out of their rooms and out of their heads regularly, and those experiences enlarge their characters and inform their writing. The more they see and hear of people, and the more things they do, the bigger their repertoire of subjects, characters, and situations to write about.

If you’ve been pushing harder but not seeing results, it’s time to change your approach. Staring at the blank screen for hours isn’t working. Rewriting the same paragraph isn’t working.

You need to move on and concentrate on another part of your skill set. Writing is more than butt in chair, just as soccer is more than kicking a ball. Stop writing and you’ll write better.

Three types of not-writing can help you reach the visible growth stage faster.

Get Physical

Mens sana in corpore sano
A sound mind in a healthy body
Juvenal

MatanVizel via pixabay

The brain weighs about 2% of body mass but needs 20% of energy intake to function well. In addition, we can concentrate fully for around 90–120 minutes. After that, we need a break to maintain focus.

You need to build two types of break into your writing routine.

One is a short break after ninety minutes. Get up, stretch, move around. Look into the distance to rest your eye muscles which have been working hard to focus on the screen. Take five slow deep breaths, allowing your belly to relax. Your brain needs extra oxygen.

Drink water

Research has shown that thirst is a poor predictor of dehydration and that dehydration reduces performance. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to drink more water.

Move your body

The second type of break is regular exercise. The type of exercise doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you engage regularly, which is more likely if you enjoy it. Some activities have a social element built in, which is very good if you sit alone all day to write.

Sitting for extended periods is known to increase your risks of premature death. That alone should motivate you to get moving. Walking, running, gym work, and yoga are all beneficial. Vigorous gardening and housework are alternatives.

Get enough sleep

Insomnia is a problem for many of us that tends to increase with age. However, finding and keeping good sleep habits is essential to mental and physical health. If you have problems start your search for help here or here.

Simple measures like regular sleep and wake times, keeping your bedroom dark and the bed only for rest or sex, and writing a to-do list for the next day can all help. Cut back on the nightcap because although alcohol might help you nod off, it then causes broken sleep.

My one best tip, gleaned from personal experience and professional practice as a family physician is this;

if you wake in the night, never check the time.

Your brain immediately starts working, calculating the time you’ve been awake, the time left before the alarm goes, and so on. Turn the clock away. Do not look at your phone. Slow deep breaths can help.

It’s natural to wake during the night and it will happen more often as the years go by, so have realistic expectations. Learning to go back to sleep is the skill you need.

Whatever your health status, you can improve fitness levels and give your brain what it needs to function more effectively.

Only Connect

Staying mentally fit and well needs to be a priority. It’s certain that you will have to navigate personal or professional difficulties at some time, while continuing to meet your obligations. It’s all too easy to withdraw from people, but if you write you already spend a lot of time with your own thoughts. Balance that with positive contact.

Humans are social creatures. We all need different amounts of interaction to feel our best, but looking at the same walls every day can drag you down, especially if you live where winters are long and dark. Figure out how much social interaction you need to be energised, not depleted. Then make sure you schedule time to get it.

Combine social contact with exercise by going to the gym or taking a class. Dog walkers know that pets can be a great icebreaker.

Stay in contact with friends and family. Avoid being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter by setting a time limit on checking updates.

Sit in a cafe and listen to people talking for clues on dialogue and people’s current concerns. You might hear a character or a problem for your next piece.

Join a writers’ group and interact with people who understand the struggle. Even difficult interactions can be a source of material for your writing.

Writers are often introverts who find being in groups more or less difficult. Online connections can be as real and nurturing as real-life ones, if not more so. Don’t let extroverts mock you for not going out all the time.

Part Of The Fabric

BrainyQuote

Maybe you’re a religious person. In that case, honouring your faith will be key to your wellbeing. Even if you’re not religiousfeeding your spirit is essential to wholeness. Finding meaning, a reason to go on with life, is a matter of realising that you are part of something larger than yourself.

There’s more than one way to tap into a sense of awe and wonder that enlarges your sense of being. Prayer works for some, while contemplating the natural world or spending time with a child or pet is preferred by others. Quieting the endless chatter in your mind can be achieved by gardening or stargazing or knitting.

Concentration on a single thing is the essence of meditation. It doesn’t have to mean chanting and impossible poses. Find the thing that absorbs your attention to the exclusion of external stimulus. Do that regularly.

Feeding your spirit might come from watching the ocean, singing along at a concert, or volunteering. It can come from seeing art or listening to music, or sending a supportive message to someone who’s struggling.

Don’t underestimate the value of laughter.

We smile and laugh much less as we grow up, and who can blame us? Adult life is tough. Share a joke with your server or your partner. Watch a comedy show before bed rather than depressing news. Humour is essentially linking familiar things in an unexpected way. It’s one of the most creative activities around and it’s calorie free, so indulge.

Connecting with people has an element of looking outward and giving rather than receiving. Altruism makes us happier by focusing attention outside our selves while making a positive contribution. Even though each one of us is a tiny part of the fabric of life, we can still make a difference.

And as writers, isn’t connection and making a difference all we want?

Burn Bright, Don’t Burn Out

Nobody can be ‘on’ all the time. Balancing work, rest, and recreation is the key to a healthy life for everyone. Sometimes before we can push forward we need to stop and catch our breath a moment.

Solutions often bubble to the surface after a period of letting problems percolate unseen. While you’re occupied in another activity, your subconscious is busy figuring out the questions you’ve been stuck on.

Your body will benefit from the improved physical health that comes from being strong, well rested and well hydrated. A healthy brain is more flexible and resilient, able to think faster and process the many different things it sees and feels. And creativity is about making new connections.

Creativity is just connecting things.

Steve Jobs

Now you have more material and a better machine to work with. Come back to your screen refreshed, and get growing.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Done is Better Than Perfect: How to Move Past the Perfectionist Trap

cosmic-flower-fractal-blue_dp792
dp792 via pixabay

The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.

Sylvia Plath

They say that everyone has a novel inside them. Maybe you know someone who is hard at work on theirs. You read their comments online or chat with them at an event. They tell you they’ve been working on it for a while. “How long?” you ask. They tell you it’s been several years so far. These perfectionists have laboured over this one piece for five, seven, ten years. And they don’t know when it will be finished.

Or maybe it’s your work that has limped on forever. You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.

You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet. And so your great work sits on your hard drive and the world never sees it.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Perfectionists are often procrastinators. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.

You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.

At the heart of perfectionism is fear.

Fear of failure.

Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.

To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear. Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.

If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. Everything you really want is outside of your comfort zone.

In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking. We’ll look at how to do this next.

via BrainyQuote

Everybody sucks and nobody cares

Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.

Here are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.

  1. Everybody sucks in the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
  2. People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.

Act like a baby

Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.

They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.

They do not beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.

You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you would not have uttered a word for years.

Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.

You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.

Less is not more

While you’re slaving over one meticulously crafted blog post, searching tirelessly for exactly the right image and quote, I’m ramping up my output. One post every Friday was my first goal. Having reached that goal and with over 200 posts under my belt, now I’m aiming to post two or three articles every week. I don’t have time to agonise endlessly over a picture.

Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.

Quantity leads to quality

In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.

The results were surprising. The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were freed from the constraints of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.

Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.

The more you make, the better you get.

David-head_paclomartinezclavel
paclomartinezclavel via pixabay

Let it go

Real artists ship.
Steve Jobs

Imagine if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. How much poorer we would be! Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.

Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.

In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.

At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and let it go. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve upon.

Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing. That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the totality is what matters.

Confidence comes from improvement. You know that you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.

That is true creative freedom.

via BrainyQuote

Ready to reclaim your creativity?

This free short e-book will show you how to stop letting limiting beliefs hold you back and finally start creating the work you’ve been dreaming of. Want your creative spark back? This is the guide for you.

Get your free short e-book Unleash Your Creativity here.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

5 simple ways to jump start creativity for writers and artists

powering through the block

crayons-scribble-baby_marimari
marimari via pixabay

Sometimes the ideas won’t come. You want to paint or write but you don’t know what. You started something and now you hate it. Or maybe you’re trying to get started again after a drought or forced hiatus. Like a stalled car, you need a little push to get going.

The Two Types of Thinking That Affect Creativity

The way we think has a great impact on creativity.

Divergent thinking creates possibilities. It gathers ideas and combines them in new ways. There is more than one answer to a question. And all ideas have potential value. Divergent thinking creates options using right-brained methods; imagination, visualisation, and intuition.

Convergent thinking solves problems. It considers, weighs and discards options, narrowing them down until the right answer emerges. Convergent thinking achieves results using left-brain methods; sequencing, logic, and facts.

We need both types of thinking to achieve a result. First, come up with ideas using divergent thinking, then execute an idea using convergent thinking. A brilliant concept is nothing without the techniques to make it a reality.

Judgement can wait

But choosing which idea to work on too soon can choke off possibilities. We tend to judge ideas and discard them without fully exploring them. So it’s vital to gather all your ideas without judgement first. It’s like mining a fine diamond; they’re not lying about on the surface. After digging through a lot of worthless stuff, you spot something with potential. Then you get to work cutting and polishing.

Creativity exercises are best done quickly to outwit the inner critic. Keep moving and let yourself be imperfect.

We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.
Bob Ross

1 . Get random

Having too many choices can lead to being overwhelmed. Because you could do anything, you end up doing nothing. Research has shown that we are more satisfied with our choices when options are limited.

Try letting chance dictate your next move rather than fretting over what to do.Then you can put your energy into doing, rather than frustration that you don’t know where to start.

Turn to a page in the nearest book to hand. Count the tenth verb or noun. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a story or poem inspired by this word.

Do the same with a magazine, instead using the tenth picture as inspiration.

Go to Pixabay or Unsplash for photos. Use the first image containing a yellow object as inspiration.

2 .Brainstorming

This is a classic way to access divergent thinking. The idea is to generate quantity rather than quality. Concentrating on quantity leads your brain to think widely, past the obvious. Creativity sees new links between ideas or objects that were not connected before.

Keep asking “what else?” but do not ask “would this work?” For example, a Lego brick could be a doorstop. It doesn’t matter at this stage how effective that might be.

Most people can think of 10–15 ideas for a paperclip. See how much better you can do.

Write down as many uses as you can think of for a paper clip; a Lego brick; a small silver coin; or a teaspoon.

Pick an unusual use for an object and write a short story about it. Or draw it instead.

3 . Do the same job with fewer tools

Creativity blossoms within restriction. When we challenge our skills by limiting the available options, we have to find another way to get the job done. In other words, divergent thinking comes into play. That is the essence of creativity.

Try thinking inside the box.

Artists, paint or draw using shades of only one colour. If you usually draw in pencil, try using ink. Set a time limit.

Writers, use a random first line generator like this one to write a one-page story. Sometimes this works better writing by hand; somehow it’s less daunting than the blinking cursor.

4 . Play in a different sandbox

To create we need to see the world in a different way. When we’re comfortable in one way of seeing, it’s good to mix it up. Maximise your creative muscle by trying something new, just as you’d train different muscle groups in the gym. You will benefit by finding new solutions and skills that you can bring back to your chosen field. That could be improved memory, attention to detail, or improvisation. And it’s fun to try something new.

Make something small, in a different medium.

Doodle your favourite animal, if you write.

Write a song or poem, if you paint.

Cook a meal using a new recipe or only three ingredients from your fridge.

Look at an object in the room for one minute, then try to draw it from memory.

5 . Move

The brain requires up to 20% of the body’s energy. That energy comes from circulating blood, and getting active improves circulation. Sitting or standing in one position for extended periods also leads to stiffness and even pain. Artists and typists are prone to repetitive strain injuries from small repeated movements.

Spending long periods inside in solitary activity can have a number of negative effects, from vitamin D deficiency to low mood. We need to take care of our bodies if we want to stay healthy longer.

Go for a walk and notice the animals. One of them will become a character in your next story or painting.

Wander around a gallery, craft supplies store or even a toy shop. Surround yourself with interesting visuals to spark ideas.

Running, swimming, walking or gardening are good ways to clear the mind and occupy the body with soothing repetition. This allows ideas from your subconscious to bubble up to the surface.

Just do it

The most important thing you can do to access creativity is to make more things, no matter how small or mundane. A new recipe, story, garden, doodle, or haiku all come from looking at the world, seeing new possibility and then expressing what you see in your own way. And that’s what creating is all about.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which to keep.
Scott Adams

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

How young do you want to be today?

play is serious business

swing-child-blue_elton800
elton800 via pixabay

They say age is just a number.

You’re only as old as you feel. I don’t know about you, but on any given day that number ranges from 25 to 100. There’s an unfortunate skew towards the top end of that range.

My daughter went to a festival recently with her friend. She returned home tired, dusty, and hoarse from singing along. As she said, when your favourite singer tells you to scream, you scream.

Festivals were never my thing. But last month I went to a concert, stood in 42*C heat at the barricade alongside fans less than half my age, and sang along till I was hoarse. Yes, I could have been seated rather than in the pit, but where’s the fun in that?

In an experiment, viral video brand CUT drew a hopscotch board on the street in downtown Seattle and set up hidden cameras nearby. In ten hours, 129 people hopped, skipped and jumped down the sidewalk, while 1058 walked on. That’s just under 11% of adults who (a) took a moment to connect with their inner child and (b) took another moment to silence their inner critic and have some fun. In public.

Watch the video here. It can’t fail to make you smile.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw

Play is a serious business

We take ourselves so seriously as the years roll on. Childlike curiosity and creativity is squashed in favour of sitting still, paying attention and not messing about. We watch depressing news programmes and listen to earnest classical music and jazz that you can’t sing along with. We read prize-winning novels and worthy self-improvement. All this is good and important and adult. But it can’t be the entirety of experience.

If you wait outside a school, especially on a day where it rained at break time and children could not go outdoors, you will witness something amazing. After a day of being not-children, kids explode out of the school gates like a fizzy drink that’s been shaken and uncorked. They run, skip, call to each other, smile and laugh for no reason other than the joy of being set free.

We lose that purity of being on the way to growing up.

Grown-ups need play too

Someone (but probably not Einstein) said creativity is intelligence having fun.
In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences psychologist Howard Gardner suggested that intelligence is more than a simple IQ score. He proposed nine types of intelligence.

image by Adioma

 

It follows then, that we all find our creativity and fun in different things. I’m good with numbers but sudoku bores me rigid. It feels too much like work. Crosswords and music are much more appealing to me. Your mileage may vary, but the theory helps us understand what we enjoy and are good at – not always the same thing.

Find your fun

The thing is to find your fun, and engage in it without censoring yourself. Allow yourself to play, to be an amateur, to fail. Without these, none of us would learn to walk, to talk, to do anything well. The reward is in the doing, not the result.

Don’t worry that the person next to you is only twenty, or whether you ought to be doing it at your age. That kind of ossified thinking is a sure route to being old, whatever your number.

The serious adult world will always be there. After a good play session you can return to it energised, with a skip in your step and a smile on your face.

Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.
Michael Jordan

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Finding themes in your writing

and using them to drive creativity

shells-sand_pasja1000
pasja1000 via pixabay

I’m back on the beach again, metaphorically rather than literally. Beaches and the sea feature prominently in my writing, and I didn’t even know.

It all started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read a short story of mine and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.

That got me thinking. I’ve contributed two stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and just completed a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.

Then in my IRL poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again.

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea. Beaches and the sea inspired poems like All love in a day and blog posts like Forever summer and Flying free and many more. I realised that the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year.

Hiding in plain sight are ideas or beliefs that underpin some if not all of my work. The question is, what does the sea or beaches mean to me? And how can I use it to my advantage?

Theme in writing

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
Cliff’s notes

In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.

Conversely, a story without a theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ And a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.

Discovering your values

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. As writers hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to our selves and to our readers to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive our behaviour. We might ask ourselves questions like

  • what makes me happy
  • is my life the result of luck or choice
  • what is the strongest emotion
  • is ‘blood thicker than water’
  • are people essentially good or essentially sinful
  • are rules made to be broken

Looking a little deeper at the answers will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story. A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.

Using theme to your advantage

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected. Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular destination, even though they can’t see it.

There’s the sea again

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, endings and beginnings, awe and fear at the power of the sea, creation/birth vs. destruction/death. For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

I use my sea theme to help me with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once I have a setting. I might set the story on the beach or at sea; or use the idea of a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale. I have woven memories into beach stories.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for is another goal to work towards. This is especially good for short stories or poems with a single theme. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

New directions

I don’t want to keep writing the same story though. So periodically I have a look at my values again. They change in importance and evolve as my life does, and my art should reflect that. And that is one of my personal values.

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.
Gail Sheehy

Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.

Let theme inspire you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What can you blog about every day?

You’ll need a plan

May18 blog challenge notes
my scrappy plan for blogging in May

In May 2018 I published every day on Medium (and my personal blog 2squarewriting.) I blogged about the results here.

Then Courtney Corboy reached out to ask, how did I choose what to write about? That sparked this post.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
D. Eisenhower

You must have a plan

As the picture shows, the plan did not survive intact, but I won the battle. That’s the only thing that matters. What to write depends on what kind of writer you are, and what you hope to achieve. When I did the same challenge last year, I had less time and energy. Simply finishing was the aim. This year I wanted to test out different content, and see how publishing in publications changed the results. I was confident I could finish, because I’d done it before.

Bullet journals and spreadsheets are great, but they don’t work for me. And that’s okay. Messy can work too.

You may have a theme that informs your posts, for example self development or parenting or living with an illness. You can find a niche within these umbrellas; single parenting, self development for retirees, or life with anxiety. Even so, you might run out of steam. The trick here is to write what interests you, seen through the lens of your theme. How does a single parent navigate dating? What does the latest political event mean for a person with anxiety?

Seen through your eyes

Everything has been said, over and over. There is no such thing as originality. But it hasn’t been said by you, with your unique experience and perspective.Especially when first blogging, there’s a lot to be said for using other writing as your springboard.

You can only find your voice by using it, and imitation is a great start. Even Picasso began by copying the great masters such as Rafael. The more you write, the better your skills. Let your personality come through. By sharing we create connection. What we are comfortable to share will vary by subject and individual. Readers want and appreciate honesty.

Catch your ideas before they escape

Whenever you have a question or an idea, capture it. You won’t remember it in five minutes or a day’s time. Notebooks are great, and lots of writers love their physical notebook and pen. The notes function on your phone is practical, and more importantly, usually at hand. Even if it’s just a title, grab it. One day when you’re out of ideas, you can look at notes and a few words can spark a whole piece.

But — what do you actually write about?

Ah yes, the original question. Anything at all. I please myself. I don’t have a huge following to service, and I want to gather people who like what I write. I write fiction and poetry, and I write about writing, and about life in general, sometimes as it pertains to writing.

But what I write is not just about me once I hit publish. So it must fill a need for someone else; inform, entertain, or problem solve. (Fiction can do all three, but that’s a post for another time.)

See what’s trending on Medium or Quora, and write your own take on it.

Look at the blogs of writers you admire, and see how they address their niche. Notice how their personalities come through, how much personal stuff they share. Think about where you’d like to be on the open — closed spectrum.

Keep your eyes open when you’re away from the screen. Turn the irritation of sitting in traffic into your thoughts on public transport, or electric cars, or how hard it is to meditate in real life.

Challenge yourself to come up with ideas every day. It gets easier with practice, like every skill.

It does not have to be big. Haikus are just seventeen syllables long, and usually fewer words. In this case the image I choose is very important, and must convey more than the words while complementing them.

My non fiction pieces are often short, from three hundred to a thousand words. I edit ruthlessly. That’s another skill I’ve improved upon.

You can re-use old content. Rewrite if needed, update facts, and you’re good to go. And edit!

picjumbo_com via pixabay

The nitty-gritty

  • Gather your ideas together, at least 5–10 to prime the pump.
  • Decide if you will have themes for days or weeks. I found this helpful, in my case poetry on weekends and short stories etc. on weekdays.
  • Write out the days and dates in a list or chart, digital or analogue, whatever suits. If a month is too much, try two weeks.
  • Pencil in the pieces you already have, scattered through the time period.
  • Consider what you need to write to fill the gaps.
  • Write something every day. Start drafts even if you can’t immediately finish. As little as 150 words daily adds up, and that has worked for me.
  • Spend a few minutes thinking up new ideas. Write everything down without censoring.
  • Try to be at least a couple of days ahead. This might mean writing more when you have more time. A buffer is a wondrous thing.
  • But if you miss a day, don’t sweat it. It’s not life or death. Begin again the next day, catch up if you can.
  • Write it, edit, let it go. Done is better than perfect.
  • Concentrate on your goal and don’t worry (too much) about claps. You can only control what you do, not how it is received.
  • When someone takes the time to comment, respond. This is what we all want; for our words to reach someone. Start a conversation and reciprocateGive what you hope to get.
  • Creativity is a remix. Ideas come from living, reading, and often from connecting with others, just like this piece. You just have to notice them.
  • Write as though no-one will read it. In the beginning, that’s true for all of us. By the time they’re listening, you’ll have honed your craft and your voice. You’ll have something to say.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Maya Angelou

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Where do you write?

anywhere, or one specific somewhere?

boy writing on a rock_StockSnap
StockSnap via pixabay

Where do you like to do your writing?

Images of beautifully curated writing spaces fill Pinterest and mock less organised writers at the top of equally beautiful articles. White walls enhance carefully chosen artefacts on the table, and there is always coffee with artistic foam.

JK Rowling started Harry Potter’s journey at The Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh. Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac met at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco. Maya Angelou rented a room in a local hotel by the month. Marcel Proust wrote in bed. Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw had sheds in their gardens.

A piece by Holly Isard in AnOther magazine delved into the many idiosyncratic places chosen by writers old and new.

The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in the most fruitful manner.
Robert Creeley

Creating a ritual

A space to write can form an essential part of the ritual of writing. The mind and body is primed for the coming activity, and overcomes the inertia of getting started. This is particularly important to evade writer’s block. Like a sports or crafts person, we need to show up and do the work. By having designated space and a list of things to follow, you can avoid the empty brain syndrome of not knowing what to do next.

However, one size does not fit all. Some like music, others, white noise, others natural sounds. Some must have silence, and others like activity around them while their peers shudder at the thought and close the door.

Routine is a prison

Most of us have busy lives. In order to write every day, or capture inspiration when it strikes, we must be able to write in different places. Life is rarely ideal for more than a moment, especially if writing is something you squeeze into a packed schedule rather than your sole activity.

Knowing your ideal writing space is one thing. Learning to block out the non-ideal will free you to write elsewhere. Before my last holiday I would have said it was too hot, too distracting and uncomfortable to write at the beach. In fact, writing by hand in a small notebook and observing people was a revelation. Dialogue fragments, poem ideas, and simple journaling poured on to the pages. The background sounds of the sea are very soothing for me, which helped.

Play on

Music can be the best companion, or the worst. I find lyrics distracting, as they compete against the words I’m trying to find. Instrumental music is good, especially familiar pieces that fade into the background. You can find lots of playlists on 8tracks designed for study or writing. There is a free option with ads, or you can pay a monthly fee to avoid ads and make your own playlists.

I tried a nature noise generator and found that rain is soothing but thunder distracts me. There are over one hundred and fifty noise generators available at myNoise.net. They are grouped by activity or need, such as focus, to mask tinnitus or external noise, or for relaxation and sleep. Each soundscape has several elements that can be customised to create your perfect mix.

Not only helping you to work better, the soundscapes can also keep you company while working alone.

woman sitting on concrete pillar
Photo by Sachin A on Pexels.com

Making anywhere your best place to write

Creating a ritual and finding a dedicated space is helpful to a solid writing habit. Being able to change things up, whether that means learning to write with noise or creating your own soundscape to block it out, will broaden your options. Routine should be your servant and not your master.

In the end, it is about creating different options for the situations you find yourself in. Then you will not be reliant on your lucky mug or favourite pen. When the idea strikes, you will be ready.

blog, writing process

Creative slump? Think inside the box

fractal-box-733918_960_720
pixel1 via pixabay

Sometimes more is not better.

In the developed world choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.

It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.

FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. In 2015 Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.

Mind. Blown.

How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.

In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years. He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility.

For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.

decisions-407750_960_720
image: geralt via pixabay

If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.

Creativity blossoms where there are restrictions.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

attributed to Orson Welles

Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.

If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve.

We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.

This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going.

Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.

The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. First you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.

  • Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.
  • Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.
  • Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.
  • Paint using only shades of one colour.
  • Use random word generators, or a random first line generator, to get started. No more than ten minutes to create something using your preferred medium; words, images, music.
  • I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.

Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then she must fight her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.

Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility.

Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.